Whither Cortex

In my NSNorth 2013 talk, An Educated Guess (which was recorded on video but as of yet has not been published) I gave a demonstration of a programming tool called Cortex and made the rookie mistake of saying it would be on Github “soon.” Seeing as July 2014 is well past “soon,” I thought I’d explain a bit about Cortex and what has happened since the first demonstration.

Cortex is a framework and environment for application programs to autonomously exchange objects without having to know about each other. This means, a Calendar application can ask the Cortex system for objects with a Calendar type and receive a collection of objects with dates. These Calendar objects come from other Cortex-aware applications on the system, like a Movies app, or a restaurant webpage, or a meeting scheduler. The Calendar application knows absolutely nothing about these other applications, all it knows is it wants Calendar objects.

Cortex can be thought of a little bit like Copy and Paste. With Copy and Paste, the user explicitly copies a selected object (like a selection of text, or an image from a drawing application) and then explicitly pastes what they’ve copied into another application (like an email application). In between the copy and paste is the Pasteboard. Cortex is a lot like the Pasteboard, except the user doesn’t explicitly copy or paste anything. Applications themselves either submit objects or request objects.

This, of course, results in quite a lot of objects in the system, so Cortex also has a method of weighing the objects by relevance so nobody is overwhelmed. Applications can also provide their own ways of massaging the objects in the system to create new objects (for example, a “Romantic Date” plugin might lookup objects of the Movie Showing type and the Restaurant type, and return objects of the Romantic Date type to inquiring applications).

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it was largely inspired by part of a Bret Victor paper with lots of other bits mixed in from my research for the NSNorth talk (especially Bush’s Memex and Engelbart’s NLS)).

This is the sort of system I’ve alluded to before on my website (for example, in Two Apps at the Same Time and The Programming Environment is the Programming Language, among others).

Although the system I demonstrated at NSNorth was largely a technical demo, it was nonetheless pretty fully featured and to my delight, was exceptionally well-received by those in the audience. For the rest of the conference, I was approached by many excited developers eager to jump in and get their feet wet. Even those who were skeptical were at least willing to acknowledge, despite its shortcomings, the basic premise of applications sharing data autonomously is a worthwhile endeavour.

And so here I am over a year later with Cortex still locked away in a private repository. I wish I could say I’ve been working on it all this time and it’s ten times more amazing than what I’d originally demoed but that’s just not true. Cortex is largely unchanged and untouched since its original showing last year.

On the plane ride home from NSNorth, I wrote out a to-do list of what needed to be done before I’d feel comfortable releasing Cortex into the wild:

  1. Writing a plugin architecture. The current plan is to have the plugins be normal cocoa plugins which will be run by an XPC process. That way if they crash they won’t bring down the main part of the system. This will mean the generation of objects is done asynchronously, so care will have to be taken here.

  2. A story for debugging Cortex plugins. It’s going to be really tricky to debug these things, and if it’s too hard then people just aren’t going to develop them. So it has to be easy to visualize what’s going on and easy to modify them. This might mean not using straight compiled bundles but instead using something more dynamic. I have to evaluate what that would mean for people distributing their own plugins, if this means they’d always have to be released in source form.

  3. How are Cortex plugins installed? The current thought is to allow for an install message to be sent over the normal cortex protocol (currently http) and either send the plugin that way (from a hosting application) or cause Cortex itself to then download and install the plugin from the web.

    How would it handle uninstalls? How would it handle malicious plugins? It seems like the user is going to have to grant permission for these things.

  4. Relatedly, should there be a permissions system for which apps can get/submit which objects for the system. Maybe we want to do just “read and or write” permissions per application.

The most important issue then, and today, is #2. How are you going to make a Cortex component (something that can create or massage objects) without losing your mind? Applications are hard to make, but they’re even harder to make when we can’t see our data. Since Cortex revolves around data, in order to make anything useful with it, programmers need to be able to see that data. Programmers are smart, but we’re also great at coping with things, with juuuust squeaking by with the smallest amount of functionality. A programmer will build-run-kill-change-repeat an application a thousand times before stopping and taking the time to write a tool to help visualize.

I do no want to promote this kind of development style with Cortex and until I can find a good solution (or be convinced otherwise) I don’t think Cortex would do anything but languish in public. If this sounds like an interesting problem to you, please do get in touch.

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