Tag Archives: musings

informal musings

©rappy birthday to the ©opyright alliance

Bill Patry was withering in his critique of the Copyright Alliance’s efforts to define itself as one of the big kids. For example,

Leaving aside the painfully juvenile use of © in voi©e, the math used by the Alliance challenges even the math used by the IIPA in its annual country “piracy” reports.

That is pretty funny, and you should probably go over there & read Bill Patry’s scathing comments instead of my own overheated meanderings. If you’re staying here, you should know that basically the Copyright Alliance is an organization designed to give voice to copyright-holders, the “11 million Americans whose livelihoods depend on the principle of copyright.” Not just give voice, but “one voice”, as their new ad campaign says.

In the few minutes I had today between efforts to get various air conditioners running (thank you, East Coast heatwave), I spared a few of my non-melted brain cells to this organization and its ad campaign. “One Voice.” Probably not an original observation, but one voice for copyright holders — or even those who profit from copyrights — is utterly impossible. There are just too damn many of us and our personal financial interests in copyrights are far too diverse for us to have remotely any ability to speak with “one voice” on copyright. Every creator is representing reality to some extent, but every aspect of reality that they represent also has its own interest. Photographers’ interests are in opposition with those of their subjects and the creators of their subjects and of course those who commissioned their works. Everybody is in opposition with those who seek to represent the same slice of reality

The copyright industry, in fact, has shot itself in the foot. By expanding copyrights ever further, they have in a sense radically democratized copyright ownership. We all now have copyrights in every chicken pot. Instead of a limited monopoly granted only to a few for a short time — a compromise most of us could roll with in order to keep those few doing what they did — now copyright is something that each of us has over all kinds of stuff, and something that each of us interfaces with multiple times on a daily basis. Thus with everybody holding and using multiple copyrights simultaneously we all have the potential to interfere equally with one another. It’s like mutually assured destruction, and so it’s no surprise that some folks are going to advocate for copyright disarmament.

My brain cells really are melting into one another — the similes just keep on coming. I am also reminded of the Libertarian Heinlein myth that an armed society is a polite one — the “wisdom” goes that if everybody has a gun, then everyone has an interest in being polite to everyone else. So too must have gone the wisdom with copyright at some point — if we all have copyrights then we will all be interested in respecting them, we can all live together in the best of all possible copyright maximalist worlds. But the Heinlein armed society is a myth because people may not act in their own self-interest, or their definition of self-interest may not correspond with your definition of their (or your) self-interest, or their self-interest may be benefited by disproportionate harm to others’ self-interest, or they just may not be able to act in a way that makes reciprocity function smoothly … well one could go on for a while but it’s like Dick Cheney shooting birds in a blind — too easy to be sportsmanlike. Anyway just as the Heinlein armed society is a myth, so too is the universal copyright / copyright-respecting society. Everyone can probably find someone to agree with them about how copyrights should be defined, respected, used, and so on, but the differences in opinion mount so quickly it’s hard to imagine a large group of individuals sustaining “one voice” for any significant amount of time.

So there you have it. Heat-addled ruminations on the decline and fall of the copyright industry and its lobbying arm. I’m spinning off into ecological models now, with the copyright industry outgrowing its ecology in the absence of natural predators, so I think I’m going to go splash some cool water on my face & lie down in the shade.

my own googlegängers

I hadn’t previously heard the word “googlegängers”, which the American Dialect Society deemed “most creative” word last year. But I love the concept, which Stephanie Rosenbloom explored in the NYT today. Apparently lots of people follow the lives and careers of people with the same names as themselves.

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the missing voices in the sex scandals

My partner and i were discussing today the massive downloads of her music file that spitzer’s partner-in-sex-scandal had (“Kristen” aka Ashley Dupre). Her MP3s increased in price from 13c to 98c, and had over 200,000 downloads by Thursday March 13. (MSNBC 3/14)

We were happy for her, but wondered if the other women over the years that he’s paid for sex felt a bit of resentment that THEY didn’t get this attention. Or, maybe they felt relieved — safely closeted, perhaps.

Anyway, I’d like to hear from these other women. What do they think about the sex scandal? How do they feel about their work? What I’d really like to see is an anthology of writings from the women in these scandals over the years: the ones who’ve sued later on, or gotten big bucks for a Playboy spread, or used it to launch a career. And let’s hear from the women who’ve been paid for sex by politicians, whether or not they got embroiled in a sex scandal, but got no benefit from it.

electronic provenance

I was checking out Tor’s new wallpapers and thinking about the uses of provenance in the art world. Tor is a science fiction publisher, and they’ve been doing one of those Publisher Experiments with the new digital world. (In fact, Tor released this week Farthing by Jo Walton for free — this was an amazing alternate history book. If you can still get the copy, do it! I already had my print-and-ink copy but was delighted to have an electronic one as well.)

Tor’s model is to release something on their website, and then take it off. No DRM on the released wallpapers or the PDF of the book so far as I know (don’t take my word on that: I didn’t test it out or go looking for testimonials; I just took a bare look at the file format & basic ability to do what I wanted, namely, copy-and-paste). But they make a big deal out of “get it this week, because this it’ll be gone”.

Of course, for the desperate or enterprising fan, they will still be able to get it, somewhere, on the Internet, or from some fan or was a bit more on the ball. But it got me thinking (as I often do, anyway) about this kind of model of distribution. Tor is using the carrot approach to bringing traffic to their website and to their writers and artists, as opposed to the stick approach. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the fabulous & tech-savvy Nielsen Hayden’s were responsible in part for this approach.) They Might Be Giants has done this sort of thing for a while, too, and other artists as well.

Signed-and-numbered prints or casts of works of art are a slightly different take on creating scarcity. Rather than time-limited, the works are quantity-limited. FaceBook just happened on this calculus too: my partner and I were recently amused to see FaceBook hawking icons of flowers and chocolates and what-not for a dollar apiece, noting that they are limited! Only a hundred thousand available! I guess in a network of millions a hundred thousand is limited. And there’s no question that FaceBook would be pretty darn happy if a hundred thousand people pony up a buck apiece for an icon of a chocolate. Hell, even if only a tiny fraction do it, it’s spam economics: Practically free for FaceBook to offer it, so any income generated is 99.999% pure profit.

Tor, or any artist or group trying to create scarcity, could easily do this too, and you’d never need DRM: Electronically number each copy, and maintain a provenance database. That’s the simple version. You could also do something fancier, like provide a unique hash of the original download data trail, for instance. Whatever you did, the point is to make the copies unique in some fashion, and to “officially” verify and/or track the unique copies. Sure people would copy the items, but without proving provenance, you wouldn’t have the original. The knock-offs are every bit as good as the original, except to the collectors and fans — who would be driven by the strange economics of fannish obsession to acquire originals. Or maybe even multiple originals.

In theory the general market for commercial software — which is typically licensed with their “unique” serial numbers — could operate this way, but MS Word just doesn’t have collectability. Functionality is ever the enemy of collectability.1 Or in the case of MS Word, semi-functionality. Games could build this in, I imagine. Maybe they have!

While this idea is wholly my derivation and assemblage of the constituent components ™, ©, etc., I’m sure it has probably been independently invented and may even be out there in other publisher or artist or musician experiments somewhere. If any readers know of such a distribution, I’d be delighted to hear about it in comments or email.

1 – Spellcheck suggests that “collectibility” is probably more correct, but that just irks me. Collectibles is fine, but the attraction of collectibles should be collectAbility.

could we use spy satellites for something USEFUL, please?

Satellite photos reveal the depredations of illegal loggers in Mexican forests, particularly in the winter home of the migratory monarch butterflies.

Is there any reason at all that we cannot have real-time monitoring of the freakin’ environment to ensure that wide-scale clearcutting, burning, stripmining, and other land and sea uses do not happen? It seems like a much more useful use of the already-existing satellite spy technologies. Instead of trying to zoom in on plots of pot or coca trees or the various personal activities of individuals, we could stop the poachers and other people who are destroying — and appropriating for their personal profit — our common natural heritage. I mean, come on. Here we have the frickin’ photographs that show large-scale abuses over the last year. But too little, too late. Those trees are gone, the butterfly habitat is gone, and it’s just frankly pure neglect and waste. We have the technology to do so much more, but we’ve chosen to deploy it — how? As toys for boys with silly war games and spy games. That waste, too, is some sort of environmental crime.

These are the kinds of bad choices and misplaced priorities that national governments are making. Entrusted with a significant portion of the resources and decisionmaking power of the world’s people, and squandering them.

crossing my screen today

How to give a great man-to-man hug — a hilarious video from the developing world of masculinity studies. I went to it on the off-chance that it was actually funny, and was well-rewarded for my optimism.

Kitty not happy tshirts at work: The salon.com column “dear cary” handles various ethics and manner type issues, and I read it occasionally when spending a leisurely morning catching up on news. Today’s column was out-of-the-ordinary great: a meditation on the nature of work, especially non-democratic work.

Suellen Parker, an artist, was profiled at the NYT Magazine in a little video segment about her recent NYT Magazine cover. My partner1, a reliable spotter of intellectual property issues in the news, called my attention to it. Parker’s art for the NYT cover worked like this: She built a clay model; then shot photos of real life models to sculpt the expression; shot her clay model; then took bits & pieces of real life people photos (lips, eyes), to photoshop her clay model together with a bunch of other stuff. Totally fascinating, and M & I had a fun morning conversation about whether Parker only used her own photographs; had she gotten model releases for the photoshopping use, or just for modeling expression in sculpture; and so on. As far as copyright goes, clearly a fair use, but it’s an interesting example of the sort of thing that causes problems for copyright absolutists. (Like copyright image-recognition filters ….?)

… Our conversation also touched on gender issues. Watching how Parker presents her work, and how the NYT frames it — edits it, what music they choose for the background — and how we receive the video, we wondered how it would be different if the artist were a man. How much internalized sexism do we have in evaluating this artist? Would we see her as more “artiste” and less “craftsperson” if her voice had been his deep tenor voice? Would the NYT have chosen a more dramatic background music? A recent study suggests that we begin absorbing gender roles even as toddlers — how deeply embedded are gender roles in our construction of the world? Pretty damn.

And then there was this cool geekery — a video about new technologies that combine social information (like flickr, tagging, etc.) with new photo viewing & recognition technologies. (seadragon & photosynth). The less cool end of this fabulous flickr futurism: Combining photos from flickr with all the knowledge of the world & 3D visualization sounds fun and all, but flickr censors images for people based on their government. What will it look like when we combine flickr’s image censorship with AT&T’s proposed network filtering with google’s youtube video filtering? I see lots of blank spots in the brave new web 2.0 world.


1. My partner, legally recognized as such for at least a few more years. Thanks, Massachusetts!

online lives & data management

So, I’ve been posting a lot because my computer (beloved SugarPunk) is freaking out on me, and while I’ve been waiting to take delivery of a new HD, and working through various problems cloning it, and trying to recover data … all that time I have not much access to my actual files. So naturally I have more time on the Internet and my online life, because my realtime life is impeded by my lack of computer. Am I worried that my realtime life is so … mediated … my a computer? Only when it breaks down.

It seems that every few years I’m doomed to have a data catastrophe. (A datastrophe?)

Most recently, I observed that my beloved SugarPunk (the very last generation of titanium powerbooks, running 10.4) was about to give up the ghost on her hard drive. Her 60G HD had been in use pretty much 18 hours/day for four years, so I bear no grudges, but when I saw the tell-tale signs I hastily did a data backup that was a month or so overdue.

Sure enough, the HD became audibly unhappy within another couple of days, and I ordered a 100G replacement. I couldn’t even get the original to boot up any more, so I swapped in the new one. Of course it had been a long time since I did a full backup, and it had gotten partially erased in the meantime, and my system disks for 10.4 are back in california, so, with one thing and another, I ended up cloning a 10.3 hard drive from my GF’s first-generation aluminum powerbook.

So I’ll live with this, for now. Outstanding issues to resolve:

  • I’m missing some data files that I hope to still pull off sugarpunk’s original 60G HD as soon as I get the right enclosure kit (I had my hands on an IDE kit, but somehow bought the SATA. Why? Because my data management is CURSED this week. And because the shelves at MicroCenter were chaotic. It certainly wasn’t my fault.) Unfortunately the data files include a substantial portion of 2007 work. So I’m still a bit hampered and at sea.
  • Data backups. I bought a new 500G HD + enclosure kit & am going to do the smart thing & do a real backup regime with a periodic HD image as well as systematic incremental backups. The problem that I always face, though, and haven’t figured out a way around yet, is that for personal backups, imaging just doesn’t cut it. Because if you move your stuff around a lot you will inevitably overwrite or delete something you didn’t want to. I am *obsessive* about backups and data retention and this still happens to me. So imaging-style backups always kill something. I just need to do date-stamped incrementals, that’s all. Sigh.
  • Weirdly, when my machine boots up I get the missing system disk flashing folder icon for about two flashes, and then it finishes booting up like normal. I can’t figure this out. I wondered if maybe it was because I’ve cribbed an aluminum powerbook’s files to my tibook, but isn’t that flashing disk icon a firmware-related signal?
  • And I wonder if the flashing system disk flash is related to another weird booting problem I’m having, which is that sugarpunk will not boot in target disk mode. As soon as I get the chime the HD just spins down again. This is the new HD, which disk utility says is just fine. ??? What gives ??? Firewire is alive and well, because I can hook up a firewire drive no problems. (In fact that’s how I cloned: I set up our aluminum powerbook (“Curmudgeon”) in target disk mode, and then booted sugarpunk off curmudgeon as an external drive. Sugarpunk running off curmudgeon’s OS saw sugarpunk’s new 100G HD no problem and I was able to format etc. Hmm.

getting my atheist on

Last week, I was told that I have a “god-shaped hole in my heart.” … I think I’d prefer to phrase it as he has a god-shaped figment jammed crosswise in his brain.

P.Z. Myers, Pharyngula, 2006/10/27, “A godless ramble against the ditherings of theologians

The last couple of years I’ve been pleased to see an outbreak of out-and-out criticism of religion, not just for the bad things religious folks do in the name of religion, but for the silliness and harmfulness of religion itself.

For me, the charge has been led by Richard Dawkins (most recently, The God Delusion), Sam Harris (The End of Faith), and P.Z. Myers (Pharyngula). Dawkins, Harris and Myers aren’t truly leading a charge; they’re surfing the zeitgeist. A lot of folks are ticked off about religion, but until lately, one would rarely hear us talk about it. Despite the stereotype of the proselytizing atheist, most of us don’t bother. (If only the religious folks of the world would just stop flaunting their lifestyle.)

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reflections on the demise of Tower Records

“We’re going to have discounts for consumers to enjoy as they’ve never been seen before in the history of Tower Records,” said Andy Gumaer, president of Great American Group, a Los Angeles-based firm that won the auction …. [LAT 10/7]

Yeah, right.

Last night I stopped by Tower Records to see if I could pick up any deals at their going-out-of-business sale. Yow. No wonder they’re going out of business, when their average CD still costs $18-$20. Take 20% off of something that is 50% overpriced to begin with and, let’s see, do the math — it’s still really overpriced.

I know I signed up for that class action settlement on overpriced CDs (and I never got my check for that, by the way, which would have been a vast underpayment for my ~ 1000 CD collection, no small portion of which was purchased at Tower Records … but it would have briefly afforded me some moral feel-goodness). So what happened? Shouldn’t that have done something to get the prices to something approaching rationality? But no, I guess after the settlement the record companies paid attorney’s fees and shipped multiple copies of the same overstock crap albums to libraries and schools … and then everyone continued merrily on overpricing CDs.

Of course, Tower blamed it on illegal filesharing. “Can’t compete with free.” No, Tower couldn’t compete with reasonably priced. Amazon.com is cheaper even with shipping costs, and iTunes offers 12-track albums for $11.88 on a per-track basis or just skip the tracks you don’t like.

But Tower didn’t have to out-compete Amazon.com and iTunes. Most folks don’t mind paying some kind of premium for brick-and-mortar, which gives you an actual place to go for retail therapy or as part of a date, offers physical browsing and interacting with other people … So a reasonable premium might be, what, 10, 20%? Not the $18 CD. In this market, it’s amazing Tower has lasted as long as it has.

… The LAT (10/22) nicely summed up the goods and bads of this. After driving out all the local record stores with predatory pricing and economies of scale, Tower increased its own prices and proceeded to mismanage itself into bankruptcy. But it was a good record store in terms of selection. So Tower’s demise leaves us with sucky chain record stores and the big-box retailers who “out-chained” Tower and sell only “the hits” — a market that is obviously dwindling.

And the other thing I couldn’t help but notice as I wandered through the vast aisles of youth-oriented crap: There are vast aisles of youth-oriented crap. So what marketing geniuses decided to target the 15-20-yo boy market? Who decides, hey, let’s pick a small age group (a scant 3.4% of the population [US Census Bureau / 2005]) without a very high income, and make them our target demographic? … and the music & movie industries complain about filesharing. Geez.

public knowledge of science

I want free public lectures about science (and okay, social sciences, humanities, politics, art, whatever — but especially science!) to be as freely, conspicuously, and ubiquitously available as church/synagogue/temple services. In a city the size of Boston, people have the opportunity to choose from hundreds of free lectures about religious ideas every week, probably several within easy walking distance. Counting Christian, Jewish, and Islamic, these offerings hit Sunday, Saturday, and Friday; plus scattered such offerings sponsored throughout the week.

Viewed in this light, religious services are simply free public lectures about religious ideas, and I want the same for science: multiple series of lectures on biology, astronomy, nuclear physics, astrophysics (I really don’t get it at all), geology, chemistry … Choose between folksy styles with food & discussion, lecture styles from authoritarian learned types; series that tie it all into politics, or series that tackle the ethical questions relating to particular scientific techniques.

Over the last few months I’ve been thinking about the various statistics on US citizens’ belief and understanding of evolution, claims of particular religious beliefs, and the like. Recently I’ve followed the Dover, PA, trial, read various histories of science, religion, and the conflicts between religious and secular values. Here in the US and elsewhere, the forces of religious intolerance, bigotry, and ignorance are on the rise. At the same time, polls seem to repeatedly suggest that knowledge about basic science is declining and belief in creationism is rising. At times, it can look pretty bleak.

The dubious appeal of religious doctrines aside, some piece of this must surely be an artifact of the availability of particular kinds of information. The supply of information helps shape the demand, and we are well supplied (I might say too well supplied) with religious information. Religious institutions provide free public lectures on a weekly basis from people who are (some lay ministers excepted) trained in the field.

In a sense, religious services prove the effectiveness of open content as a means of popularizing a source of information. How many billions, quadrillions, zillions of dollars have been given to religious groups over the years freely? (Not counting all the coerced funds produced by ties to the state or through outright violence.) Religions are funded with the pledge drive from hell: every single religious service. “We interrupt this service … to ask you for money to help keep our services going. You don’t get this quality of direct-to-God information anywhere else! Pledge now, and you’ll get this lovely piece of pie in the sky when you die! Marked with our logo.” Religious institutions give away their content for free, and they get back in spades: donations to support mega-churches, cathedrals, “towers of power” and so on.

Knowledge about the world — science, our governments, our communities, our environment, our history and literature and art and human nature and health — is not comparably available. This knowledge — which would go so far to empowering and pleasuring people — is carefully metered out to those who can pay for “higher education”.

But imagine if we had free public lectures about science every week; several within walking distance from any point in the city. Would it make a difference? Could people fill the deity-shaped holes in their hearts with excitement and passion about the real world? Could we imagine no hell below us, above us only sky? and then learn why the sky is blue and how fast light travels and really help people understand dark matter and black holes and string theory, for gods’ sakes?

I’d love to find out. And I’ve seen a few moves towards greater openness of academic & scientific content. Stanford is making public lectures available via iTunes. I’ve recently seen advertising on MBTA for free public lectures from Harvard. It’s not quite multiple ongoing series of free public lectures, but maybe it’s a start.

Every university and college should record just a tiny fraction of their content and make it available for free to the public. Consider it a good-will gesture for all those high-handed renovation projects that so annoy the local neighbors. Start with the big lecture hall introductory classes. When a professor wins an award for lecturing or teaching, tape them for the next semester & put them online so everyone can see how fabulous they are. And all those endowed lecture series are just begging to be digitized and made freely available. Many of them have been taped for years; digitization would simultaneously preserve the original tape, make the material more widely available, publicize the lecture series, and honor the, uh, honoree.

And frankly, I’d like to see how well the much-vaunted popularity of religious doctrines stands up to a little competition. [Perhaps this whole issue lends support to the entertainment industry’s contention that “you can’t compete with free” ….]

update 11/22: This posting about “open knowledge drives out closed” is relevant …

update 12/4: Just read about Cafe Scientifique in an article about PZ Myers.

update 12/21: PZ Myers / pharyngula has this relevant post about scientists’ need to communicate clearly, succinctly, engagingly.

ruminating on … rumination? information? tinkering? imagination?

For some time (years, literally) I’ve been pondering the perfect phrase to capture ‘information rights’ — the natural right people have to create, invent, tinker, think, imagine, ponder, access information, etc. The First Amendment conceptual toolkit doesn’t really measure up: we have First Amendment concepts for speaking and the corollary, listening. But these concepts don’t fully capture the rights which are restricted by intellectual property laws, government Secrets Acts, and the like.

The language I would like would be fuller, and would capture not just the First Amendment concepts of communicating, but also the right to gather information and access information about the world around you, the systems, the people, the cultural creations — the right to investigate? the right to explore? the right to acquire information? the right to learn? It’s about knowledge acquisition and communication. I want the perfect pithy, zingy, umbrella term that encompasses all these information and knowledge-based rights.

The pieces that are critical to the term, I think, are

(a) the right to create new stuff;
(b) the right to experiment with & learn about existing stuff, gathering information and exploring the world;
(c) the right to communicate information and ideas; and
(d) the right to receive information and ideas.

Or maybe these could be broken down into (a) communication (first amendment) and (b) creation (gathering existing information and manipulating it; creating knowledge, whether embodied only in the creator’s mind, or whether embodied in an invention, or embodied in a new derivative work). But this doesn’t quite get it: I worry that the concept “creation” is too subject to being cabined off by notions of originality and novelty. Also, while creation requires exploration and knowledge gathering and information access, I would ideally like to the term to capture both aspects and not privilege acts of “creation”.

Or perhaps (a) receiving information ought to be construed more broadly, to include accessing information &mash; as in FOIA requests, sunshine acts, scientific research, reverse engineering products. And (b) communicating and disseminating alone.

The two candidates I’ve toyed with have been intellectual rights and information rights.

“Intellectual Rights” is nice because it balances “intellectual property”: it suggests that “intellectual property rights” are but one subcategory of “intellectual rights”. And “intellectual” gets at the braininess of the matter: the concept should capture the essence of all its elements, which is to say, the human mind at work. But it sounds wonky and, well, in these anti-intellectual times, maybe it’s not really sellable. Also, “intellectual rights” doesn’t necessarily mean that one can gather information, about the government, say, or about the new DRM methods.

“Information Rights” is nice, but the term “information” always sounds so bland, so cheerless and un-fun. Thinking and learning and reading and talking is fun.

I want this concept, because I want a better way to balance the trade-offs of different sets of rights. Information can be free, or it can be controlled. We have many, many doctrines that aim to control or free up information: the Speech Clause and the IP Clause; trade secrets, contract law, the DMCA and DRM; FOIA and government classification and Secrets Acts; privacy and reputational harms; risks of other harms and national security; open content, open source, and open licensing. But often when I look at a particular instance, the values for controlling information are defined well, and the values for sharing the information are not. It seems that a single pithy term or phrase would help make this work more concrete.

Or maybe the “information rights” concepts are too distinct to ever be wrapped into one? Privacy, for instance, has proven to be a troubling concept; we say “privacy”, but we mean “information privacy”, “data security”, the “right to be left alone”, or even “autonomy” (e.g., reproductive rights). And privacy further breaks down on the subject: private from whom? the government? commercial enterprises? public knowledge?

Maybe imsologists and critical information studies folks (CISters?) have already come up with search a term? but I haven’t found it yet.

Hmm. Still processing …

2005/11/28: “intellectual liberty” ???

essence of library

I like the flow of the google / library discussion: what’s the essence of library? and suspect I’ll be thinking about that one for a long time to come. (It sounds like a delightful perfume: a bit musty with an sweet undernote of decaying paper and an overnote of astringent preservative, maybe.)

Just picking out a few of the responses & adding a few more comments:

Michael Madison laid out a best-case defense for google based on google’s added-value of meta-information, and then termed the discussion: “is there an ‘essence’ of library?” And points out that we ought to focus “more what Google does than on what Google is“.

Siva Vaidhyanathan responded that Google doesn’t come close to the ‘essence of a library’.

This is the heart of the discussion that really intrigues me. Not because I truly am arguing that Google is a library, but because I suspect that the ways that information is being transmitted might start to render moot our current definitions of “library”. In my earlier post, I wasn’t really suggesting that Google take advantage of the warm feelings towards libraries; I doubt it would be a very helpful strategy, because most judges, like everyone else, would intuitively distinguish between the classical public library and Google. Rather, I was suggesting that library exceptionalism is only going to work so long as libraries are conceptually distinct.

Michael M then responded to Siva with some discussion of the essence of a library, ultimately concluding that we really have to talk about libraries in terms of information flows. And then he brings it back to Google:

Do we experience Google Print content as we experience other collections that we regard as libraries, or do we experience that content as we experience the Web — a functionally unlimited aggregation of data? Right now, the answer to that question has to rely on intuition and speculation. My money is on the second option, but in the end: who knows?

I’d like to suggest two basic functions for libraries: One is warehousing and archiving physical collections; serving effectively as a museum of information. The second function is providing information services. Storage, and access.

In the past and even today these two functions are, practically, inseparable. And each implicates a whole host of sub-functions many of which serve both masters — e.g., cataloging, which organizes the stored collections.

But these functions have been splitting and will continue to. Digitizing projects, like Google Print, will put the physical artifacts on the same plane with museum artifacts: nice if you’re a scholar and need the original, but for most people, the digitized content will suffice. [Google Print is not the only digitizing project, of course; there are plenty of others on smaller scales that have gotten less attention. I would be interested to get some examples of public-private partnerships because I suspect Google Print isn’t the only one.]

As more of the information content becomes digital, the subfunctions used to service both the storage and access functions will shift. Two examples: cataloging and preservation. Electronic information needs much less in the way of cataloging; full-text searching obviates a lot of cataloging needs. (No, not all; I believe in subject headings and hierarchical thesauruses — although I’m not sure they’re ultimately scalable if we’re talking about organizing all information.) Digital media have their own preservation problems, fairly distinct from those relevant in most special collections. The central problem in preserving digital media collections is shifting formats; the central problem in preserving physical collections is preserving the original artifact.

So as these transitions within libraries move forward, the easy and obvious distinctions present today between libraries and Google Print will erode.

Now, Eric Goldman in a comment here said another of his maxims was never build a business on fair use. Google Print, of course, relies entirely on fair use (17 USC 107), so far as I can see. One way we might distinguish libraries at present is that most libraries, operating in the book-warehousing business today, rely not very much at all on fair use, and rather a lot on first sale (17 USC 109). Libraries vary with respect to the library exemptions in 108, which are used principally, so far as I know, to (a) establish reserves collections; and (b) make backups of software, videos, records, etc.

But the bedrock library provisions we rely on today, 108 and 109, won’t be enough for some collections that need to be built in the future. For instance, I don’t know what libraries are currently archiving popular digital ephemera (besides the Internet Archive). But just as libraries have begun to collect popular culture media in DVDs, CDs, comic books, and zines, so there will have to be archiving projects dedicated to archiving purely digital media, including digital media that are distributed for free via the web. I’m thinking of things like JibJab’s “This Land Is Our Land”, Mark Fiore’s shockwave commentaries, and similar such materials.

Let’s consider the Mark Fiore shockwave animated cartoons. [This is purely my example, because I love Mark Fiore; I have no idea if he has been approached by any libraries or what his response might have been.] The cartoons are distributed for free over the Internet; but they are not (so far as I know) licensed for free reproduction & distribution, and they author retains copyright. If a library wanted to begin collecting them, how would they analyze this collection & provision of access to it? 109 protects the rights of “the owner of a particular copy or phonorecord lawfully made under this title … to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy or phonorecord”. But “computer programs” are exempted. Are shockwave files “computer programs”? Maybe we have to resort, at last, to fair use. Now what do American Geophysical Union, Kelly v. Arriba, MP3.com, et al, tell us? Michael Madison talked about it, but I think it was summed up by Eric Goldman: “Don’t build a business on fair use … multi-factor tests lead to complete unpredictability.”

This is obviously not a fullbore analysis of the relevant provisions as applied to publicly distributed shockwave files, but it does make my point: digital media and new ways of distributing content are already troubling the current copyright categories that are designed around brick-and-mortar libraries and physical artifacts.

And that’s just one example looking at only one aspect of the question of collecting & providing access to Mark Fiore shockwave animations. Consider the reams of problems that digital media pose in the realm of licensing, DRM, and DMCA-type technical protection measures, notwithstanding the protections allegedly offered by 109, 108, and the 1201(d). (Is there any point in even citing to 1201(c)? I feel it’s been effectively read out of the statute the same way, and perhaps for similar reasons, the 9th Amendment to the Constitution has been politely ignored.)

Libraries qua libraries — well, libraries qua public and academic libraries, anyway — will always have recourse to Congress, and I predict they will prove as popular there in the future as they have in the past: not popular enough to sway Congress from granting very broad rights to copyright holders that end up hurting libraries, but popular enough to get some limited library-specific protections.

But most librarians, myself included, want to preserve BOTH today’s model of the library: the brick-and-mortar warehouse-and-cataloger-of-physical-media (which I do think will always be around) — AND the idea of the library: the collector and provider of information. So the question is, how, or why, do we copyfighters / librarians / information activists / legal scholars distinguish Google Print in a way that doesn’t hurt Essence of Library down the line? And why, tactically, should we? Maybe, we should focus on building a more robust fair use, fixing 109 so it works with digital media, or even adding in more 108 exemptions. Or maybe on the DMCA Library of Congress anticircumvention comment rounds that are coming up again.

Further reading on this discussion at copy this blog and copy this blog again. copyfight is following the debate and a number of people are commenting: See google print is as google print does and google print library shoulda coulda woulda. More from “real librarians” and others responding on Siva’s blog: Eileen Snyder, 8/17; Siva responding to Michael Madison, and including comments from other folks too.

I’d like to link to some good discussions on 109 (I seem to recall Derek Slater recently talked about 109 and digital music files, for instance, but can’t find his post — is there a search function I’m missing? Derek?) but will need to do some more digging … later.

As I write I follow one of those social sciences rules about mobs or group discussions or something: I make myself more firm in my opinions the longer I write. This is why it would be much better if I had time to write a long post, then sit on it for a while — my tone could be measured & even the whole way through. But I was already delayed in responding, so wanted to get some thoughts out in a hurry.

update 8/18: a few last posts on this discussion: madisonian.net 8/17; siva 8/18 and siva again 8/18;

siva also posted about an aspect of this issue which i didn’t really touch at all in this discussion, which is the trustworthiness of private actors in general and google in particular. my interest was piqued by the essence-of-library question, but this was a significant thread in comments & subtexts in various discussions. See siva 8/17; copy this blog (previously cited) linked to a post & comment discussion of the google / library contract on the library law blog; and seth finkelstein wrote about what’s in it for google.

update 9/1: the best response to it all came from the onion: Google Announces Plan To Destroy All Information It Can’t Index …

The new project, dubbed Google Purge…. The company’s new directive may explain its recent acquisition of Celera Genomics, the company that mapped the human genome, and its buildup of a vast army of laser-equipped robots. ‘Google finally has what it needs to catalog the DNA of every organism on Earth,’ said analyst Imran Kahn of J.P. Morgan Chase. ‘Of course, some people might not want their DNA indexed. Hence, the robot army. It’s crazy, it’s brilliant—typical Google.’ … ‘This announcement is a red flag,’ said Daniel Brandt, founder of Google-Watch.org. ‘I certainly don’t want to accuse of them having bad intentions. But this campaign of destruction and genocide raises some potential privacy concerns.’

related posts: interesting reading early saturday morning 8/13google & not-for-profit libraries 8/13

zealous cooperation with the state

Follow-up on the seizure of IndyMedia servers from a few months (a year?) ago: Apparently, when Rackspace claimed that they were seized by the FBI, what Rackspace should have said is, “We seized them for the FBI.” Volokh Conspiracy [7/31] takes the opportunity to issue a gentle ‘i told you so’: the FBI was right & proper & all the blame is on rackspace. EFF has more details on the investigation.

VC [specifically, Orin Kerr] goes a bit further than merely saying that his skepticism was borne out: He suggests this is an all too common pattern for online civil rights stories: lots of press, hints and allegations against the government, refusal to comment by the government, all combining to produce a lot of noise and little heat. This version of the story tracks a general conservative theme, which is that government is good, and media is bad for portraying government as (occasionally) bad.

Hmm. As an ‘I-told-you-so’, this is not the strongest case. Members of the online press may cover these stories in their online-centric work (especially on the IndyMedia sites, of course), but the Indymedia-Rackspace-FBI story barely cracked a back-section in the offline world. I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of such claims, offline or online, get little or no media attention. And it so happens that in this particular instance, the press coverage focused on Rackspace as well as the FBI. (Also, the comments section points out that it may not actually be an all-Rackspace-to-blame situation; the FBI may have unofficially exerted pressure that doesn’t show up in the official documents as censored and released. I respect Orin Kerr a hell of a lot, but it was pretty amusing to see him display what looked like a naive trust in the uprightness of his former fellow government employees: I don’t understand. …. Are you suggesting that the FBI may have pushed Rackspace to hand over the physical servers instead of the logs?.)

Nevertheless, the incident and its follow-up led me to meditate on the state of society. One might indeed be thankful that the FBI is not directly strong-arming ISPs to take servers, or at least didn’t in this instance, and still feel disheartened by an attitude that seems to encourage over-zealous cooperation by private entities with governmental authority.

Indeed, zealous coooperation with misguided and even truly evil state policies pretty much seems to be the rule rather than the exception. A repressive society is never created by state officials alone. State officials help to establish a climate; zealous private followers spread that climate. One has only to think of the fascist governments of the 1930s for an example; the McCarthy hearings (should we call it an era?) provides another. In fact, almost all efforts by a government to drum up support for a war end up working hand-in-hand with an awful lot of aggressive over-reaction and over-support by patriotic volunteers — e.g., Judith Miller and her NYT editors’ roles in disseminating White House propaganda prior to the invasion of Iraq. Whatever Miller’s role in the propagandizing effort, her NYT editors weren’t government conspirators; they were merely cooperative. CBS’ delays in breaking the Abu Ghraib story were likewise cooperative efforts by private citizens. Anybody can see, in action, at any time, individuals privately pushing someone else’s agenda; examples abound, today and every day.

Which is why I am nervous when government officials accept the fruits of private misdeeds. And why I am pretty unconcerned with the ‘poor FBI’ picture that Kerr paints. Indeed, I have very little sympathy for any institution suffering an examination of its use of power.

Institutions ought to self-police, and I have no doubt that the FBI writes and trains agents with numerous rulebooks laying out the legal limitations on agents’ actions. But it only has those rulebooks because of the vigorous policing efforts of private citizens who are not zealously cooperating. Self-policing is never enough. People with access to power naturally seek to accumulate more, and multi-individual, multi-individual institutions that retain power, especially governments, foster that tendency. This isn’t a secret; it’s why the founders attempted to establish a government whose powers were “limited”. But since self-policing is never enough, it is essential that anybody subject to power police its exercise. The media provides an opportunity for citizens to police state power. Such policing is only possible by turning a light onto the actions of the state agents. Media inquiries into police actions are, in that sense, sort of like a supervisor inquring about an employee’s use of departmental resources. One would imagine in a well-run department that such inquiries would be routine, even anticipated by reports, and certainly not the subject of lamentations. As conservatives sometimes like to say: If they’ve got nothing to hide, then they won’t mind a little scrutiny.

Related posts: 2004/10/8

what does it mean to hold a religious “belief”?

Lean Left links to this comment from Jay on The Dawn Treader (I couldn’t actually find the original but the link’s there for others to try). I liked this argument, and wonder: would this actually make sense to some people on the fence about how to think about science versus religion & ID?

But, back to the actual topic of the thread, epistemology, I have some thoughts on that too. Let’s assume there *is* no obvious natural explanation for a phenomenon. How do you proceed? You guys are right that the argument that “science might come up with an explanation later” is unfalsifiable and lame. I think a better argument is that invoking God is ad hoc and not very parsimonious. You are quick to invoke Him here because you want to believe.

Put yourself in a scenario where you would naturally be skeptical, be as honest as possible, and tell me that you would invoke God as quickly as you are now doing. You come home and your wife is gone. You worry, you call the police, the days pass, weeks pass, years pass. Finally, a detective closes the investigation and declares “God took her”. Whuh? God? You would demand that he reconsider that she might have been murdered. Or maybe you would assume she wasn’t happy with your marriage and she left. Or amnesia? A mafia hit based on mistaken identity, and a perfect cover-up. A tiger escaped from a zoo, ate her, bones and all, and returned to the zoo undetected. A troupe of psychotic clowns dismembered and made furniture out of her corpse. And so on, less and less plausible, but still technically possible. You wouldn’t say, “yeah, you’re probably right, God did it”, you would demand the exclusion of every natural explanation. Are you honestly subjecting your arguments to this same rigor before you invoke God?

I am certainly not denying that God exists, I am asking you whether you are pursuing scientific truth or just looking for any evidence of God. If this were a few hundred years ago, would you be halting scientific inquiry by arguing that thunderstorms are God throwing things? A few hundred years from now, is someone going to be using your argument as an example of how hastily invoking God obfuscates the truth?

… Can I leave well enough alone? No, I can’t. I like this illustration. It illustrates well that, when it comes to real things, things that are undeniable — like a missing person — people instinctively turn to, not religion, but science — the pursuit of knowledge. Sure, there may also be prayer. But given a choice between prayer and talking to a detective about the matter, who would actually choose prayer? On some level, people know which one is real — and which one is a hopeful fantasy. No matter what they identify as their “beliefs”.

Consider what happens when someone dies. People who profess a belief in heaven often console themselves by saying, “I’ll see her in the next world,” “We’ll be together again someday,” etc. That is, I’m sure, very comforting as a recitation. But I suspect that people don’t really believe it. Because the mourning process for people who ostensibly believe in a soul and an afterlife is pretty much exactly the same as it is for people who don’t claim to hold such beliefs. Grieving for a death feels different than grieving for someone you know you’ll never see again, but who (as far as you know) still lives. Because on some level people know what death is; and their “beliefs” in doctrines like the immortal soul and an afterlife look more like exercises in wishful thinking.

Defining “Belief”

What does this say about religious beliefs? I might describe a spectrum of different kinds of “beliefs”, ranging from beliefs on which one bases one’s actions; and beliefs in which one indulges as an intellectual exercise or an unquestioned but not particularly deeply felt assumption. Belief in an “immortal soul” and an “afterlife” start to look more like the latter than the former, if you consider the sorts of actions described in the two examples above.

This strikes me as right, somehow, even though it only addresses some kinds of displays of religious faith. There are plenty of other kinds of examples which it doesn’t explain: What about the millions of people who have risked or lost their lives for their religious beliefs? Sure, many of them had no choice and were merely victims of someone else’s “religious” war; or were coerced into fighting for someone else’s “religious” war. Still, some uncountably large number of people have died in religious wars. I suspect a lot of interesting explanations, psychological and economic, can account for their behavior in a way that still leaves unresolved the fundamental paradox that people behave inconsistently with their claimed beliefs when their loved one’s life is lost or in danger.

Also, obviously, people act on their religious belief in non-life-threatening situations: going to church, praying, etc. That seems pretty distinguishable, psychologically, from the threatened-life situation.

Disputing Claims of High Levels of Religious “Belief” in the US

Now, in the US we regularly see statistics that show that we have unbelievably high rates of “believers” in “God”, “angels”, the “power of prayer”, and the like. Unbelievably high rates of people who “believe” in creationism or intelligent design or teach the controversy. And these statistics, because they are about “beliefs”, rely on self-reporting.

But there’s another way to analyze “beliefs”, and that’s by looking at observed behavior. Because people generally behave in accordance with their beliefs.

Consider our belief in the sun rising tomorrow, versus our belief in whether or not it will rain. We’re pretty damn sure the sun will rise tomorrow. So if we’re going for a pre-dawn walk we don’t take flashlights with us. We’re not quite as sure that it won’t rain, and so we might prepare for both contingencies: bring an umbrella just in case. We act on strong beliefs (rising sun) differently than we do on uncertain beliefs (no rain).

So you could look at people’s behaviors to ascertain the level of “belief” in a proposition. I suspect that such an analysis would turn up a practically complete “belief” in the proposition that the sun will rise tomorrow. I also predict that such an analysis would turn up a much lower level of “belief” in the local meteorologist’s “prophecy” about tomorrow’s weather — based on people bringing along their own choices of weather gear, despite what the weather forecast says.

If you applied that method to evaluating the high levels of religious “belief” in this country, I suspect that you would find out the levels are not nearly as high as people claim.

The beliefs in “gods”, “afterlives”, immortal “souls”, and the efficacy of “prayer” which such apologists describe ought to have a significant and observable impact in the daily lives of believers. I’m not saying that we should see the effects of answered prayers! (The lack of statistical data showing the efficacy of “prayer” is answer enough to answer any questions about that.) But you ought to be able to see really different patterns in behavior from people who have these beliefs when confronted with life-threatening situations. What they’re claiming is, really, quite incredible. We don’t live a finite, usually less than a hundred years’ time? There’s a hell? And a heaven? There’s an omnipotent, omniscient being? Or a First Creator? An omnipotent being might choose to answer our prayerful petitions? These are, as Christians say, incredible life-changing doctrines.

So why aren’t people’s lives being changed by their belief in these doctrines? When it matters, when it comes down to a choice that might affect an outcome, people’s lives don’t seem very affected. For the most part, these unbelievably high levels of believing people don’t put their money where their mouth is in these matters. If you look at who and how many people really do put their money etc., it might turn out to be a few low percent — some of the Christian Scientists, a few other fundamentalists, some other obvious kooks … I would be really surprised to see the number look anything like the claimed high levels of “believers” that we see now.

Which suggests to me that self-reported statistics about “beliefs” are not very helpful. So the statistics that 90% of Americans believe in “God” or “angels” or the “power of prayer”, or whatever, land right in the same pile as the highly dubious data generated from self-reported levels of church attendance. (Self-reported, and for that matter, pastoral-reported, levels of church attendance are much higher than levels generated by counting heads and cars.)

enough procrastination and pleasant speculations.

but would time travel let us undo the 2004 election?

In yesterday’s NYT article on time travel:

Saving Grandpa

But what about killing your grandfather? In a well-ordered universe, that would be a paradox and shouldn’t be able to happen, everybody agrees.

That was the challenge that Dr. Joe Polchinski, now at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, Calif., issued to Dr. Thorne and his colleagues after their paper was published.

Being a good physicist, Dr. Polchinski phrased the problem in terms of billiard balls. A billiard ball, he suggested, could roll into one end of a time machine, come back out the other end a little earlier and collide with its earlier self, thereby preventing itself from entering the time machine to begin with.

Dr. Thorne and two students, Fernando Echeverria and Gunnar Klinkhammer, concluded after months of mathematical struggle that there was a logically consistent solution to the billiard matricide that Dr. Polchinski had set up. The ball would come back out of the time machine and deliver only a glancing blow to itself, altering its path just enough so that it would still hit the time machine. When it came back out, it would be aimed just so as to deflect itself rather than hitting full on. And so it would go like a movie with a circular plot.

In other words, it’s not a paradox if you go back in time and save your grandfather. And, added Dr. Polchinski, “It’s not a paradox if you try to shoot your grandfather and miss.”

“The conclusion is somewhat satisfying,” Dr. Thorne wrote in his book “Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy.” “It suggests that the laws of physics might accommodate themselves to time machines fairly nicely.”

Dr. Polchinski agreed. “I was making the point that the grandfather paradox had nothing to do with free will, and they found a nifty resolution,” he said in an e-mail message, adding, nevertheless, that his intuition still tells him time machines would lead to paradoxes.

It’s not just intuition. It’s that the paradox is still there: even though the billiard ball didn’t stop itself from entering a time machine, it stopped itself from entering the same time machine. Why do the shoot-your-grandfather paradox folks only consider the most extreme version, in which your grandfather is dead? The fact is that before you entered the time machine, your parent was born of a grandfather without a wound; after you entered & exited the time machine & shot your grandfather, your parent was born of a different grandfather — a grandfather with a wound. Likewise the billiard ball has now had two entrances into the time machine: one clean, and one with a glancing blow that made some impact on the time machine itself — a dent to a minor transferance of energy.

Well, I should read the paper. Maybe they address this! But it seems like this resolution — you don’t actually hit your grandfather, billiard ball (2) doesn’t knock billiard ball (1) completely off its course — resolves nothing. (And it took them months of mathematical struggle to come up with it?) I can only see the shoot-but-miss solution working in two possible ways: (1) the shooting has one and only one possible effect: hitting and killing your grandfather. All the other effects on the world that shooting a gun normally has do not exist. This is logically absurd. Or, (2) It would only work if in the travel to the past you actually can effect absolutely no change whatsoever. But wouldn’t Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle dictate that even if you are present only as an observer you carry the potential to effect change? What if you’re observing something previously unobserved?

I’m assuming that these paradoxes & their potential resolutions exist because the time machine goes in & out of the same universe. If it leaves one universe (Time Stream 1, TS1) and enters another (TS2) or creates another with its entry, then these paradoxes don’t exist. Kill away. But this theory has always struck me as unsatisfying …

Will have to discuss this with physics- and math-minded scientists.

first amendment monopolies for broadcasters

A few months ago (how did I miss this?) CoCo (Constitutional Code in the Realm of Culture) posted about an FCC paper that basically kills the scarcity doctrine, thereby significantly undercutting the rationale for FCC regulation of broadcast airwaves.

CoCo correctly points out that this has both a big potential plus and a big potential minus: (a) first, the plus: the government has less justification for federal obscenity & decency regulations; but (b) the minus: broadcast owners have more justification for trying to ditch things like must-carry rules, the fairness doctrine (if it existed anymore), and other aspects of state regulation in the public interest. (I distinguish between obscenity/decency regulations and the public interest but it must be said that some folks would put both items together, in either the plus or minus columns depending on their politics. I’ll call them both “public policy” regulations, reserving the right to distinguish between good and bad public policy regulations.)

But the so-called First Amendment rights of broadcast corporations stem from the government-granted monopoly they have over particular chunks of the airwaves. So, yes, a dead scarcity doctrine undercuts the rationale for the public policy regulations. But it also undercuts the rationale for the government-granted monopolies in the first place.

So imagine this admittedly unlikely scenario: the FCC gets out of the licensing, as well as the content-regulating, business altogether. Be conservative and leave the FCC the role of standard-setting body, establishing broadcast ranges for this and that type of broadcast. What might the broadcast environment look like? Lots of broadcasters, competing with each other for the airwaves. Encrypted content delivered and decrypted by commercially available equipment. Cooperative groups of content providers? Imagine all the benefits of low power FM, cited by media activists, church groups, union organizers, and the like, but available to all. Sounds pretty good to me. If the FCC isn’t acting as procurer and police for large corporations, handing out and enforcing monopolistic control over chunks of the airwaves, then maybe we don’t have to worry so damn much about the so-called First Amendment rights of large corporate entities.

So, the scarcity doctrine is dead. Long live the age of plenty.

some observations about library architecture

The 10th anniversary of SF MOMA prompted an article in SFGate today [1/13] about MOMA’s architectural values, functionality as an art museum, and fitness into the SOMA neighborhood. I particularly liked the opening observation:

A big problem with architectural criticism is that buildings often are treated as if they are inert works of art, sculptures on a grand scale. The day they’re unveiled is the day they’re best judged.

In fact, even the most meticulous creation is a work in progress that reveals itself over time and is defined in part by its surroundings[.]

This is a common problem with library architectural projects, which too often result in designs of grand buildings that are architectural plums, but are not well-suited for their function as a library. The designers and library committees treat the library building as an inert work of art rather than as a functional building. They do beautifully on opening day and arouse many oohs and ahhs but over time the staff and patrons are forced to live with and adapt to features that are essentially library-unfriendly.

For instance, my pet peeve in modern library architecture is the giant atrium. So many public libraries do as SF Public Library (late 90s) has done — create a large atrium running up & down the center of the building. They make a lovely space for civic entertainments but the big open space is not functional for a library — not for creating reading / study space, not for archiving books, not for providing access to information. It wastes energy, creates a draft, carries sound, and while it’s entertaining sometimes for people on the top floors to people-watch, it invariably renders the first floor under the atrium inhospitable and useful only as a passageway. Huntsville, Alabama’s public library (mid-80s) did likewise, but in a smaller library the sins are proportionally more minor. Chicago Public Library‘s giant new downtown main branch (early 90s) managed to take the cold feel of the atrium and extend it even to its non-atrium spaces.

The SF MOMA article author, John King, also rants about SF MOMA’s atrium. I’m even more uninformed about museum architecture criticism than library architecture criticism — I’m not even a Power User of museums — but it seems to me that while the functionality of the museum as warehouse-for-art [or whatever] might pose a similar problem, the overall function of the museum as an artpiece in itself might make the atrium more justifiable in the museum context than in the library context. This is not to say that libraries shouldn’t be works of art in themselves; they should; but the art should flow with the functionality, not against it. It may be that atria in art museums flows with that functionality in a way that it doesn’t flow with the functionality of libraries.

Some cities of course get their library architecture right. Berkeley Public Library (Berkeley, CA) rehabbed its downtown library, retaining the lovely exterior. There is an atrium, but for only three floors, it’s tolerable, and better done than San Francisco, still allowing the library to retain some warmth. [Berkeley Public also has one of my favorite branch libraries, the North Branch, which has an exceptionally warm and friendly design.]

Boston Public Library married its beautiful, historic old facility to a modern new facility (90s?). While the new facility isn’t beautiful,* and has, yes, the dreaded atrium, the BPL atrium is reasonably functional, or at least, minimally disruptive. The atrium itself is relatively small. And in a city like Boston, the front area/entryway necessarily becomes a passageway rather than a habitable space, because of the drafts and chills thru much of the year. So the passage-ness of the space is less wasteful than it might otherwise be. More importantly, by coupling the old facility with the new facility, BPL managed to marry form to function. The old library now contains reading rooms and research and reference collections. You can appreciate the historical architecture and design elements while working at the slower pace that the functions designate. On the other hand, the new addition contains the higher-traffic programs — the circulating collections and the lively programs (children’s, literacy, friends of the library). On a minor technical note, BPL didn’t succeed in matching floor heights between the old and new sections — hardly any project does — but it’s certainly not as bad as at some libraries I’ve often used [University of Kentucky main library in the early 1990s; University of Berkeley, Boalt Hall School of Law, Library in the early 2000s, with its North Addition].

The new Seattle Public Library (2004), from what I’ve heard, has some interesting features that attempt to break new ground in librariness — for instance, the book stacks on the inclining ramps. Over time we’ll see how library/user-friendly and workable these features really are.

* I may just be prejudiced against 20th century architecture, which is just so extraordinarily bleak and geometric and barren of fun design elements. The designers did a few nice things — I like the curvey arches at the entrance, and while it’s a bit warehouse-like, it’s an elegant warehouse. Some photos.

blink blogs

… i’ve liked the term “blink” which copyfight has been using the last several months for its links. Blink, because it implies a quick look at something; blink at it’s gone. Eliot Gelwan claims it as his idea, describing it as a noun/verb derived from “weblink”, a la blog from weblog.

What’s interesting is how some folks, like Ed Felten and joe hall have set up blink blogs. Ideally I think you could have your blog display with or without your blinks. I think you could do it in WordPress, by giving the items all one category, and then having the blog display without that category; but you link to that category as if it were a separate blog. The problem tho is that I think WP’s boolean isn’t sophisticated enough to allow you to display no items with that subject; instead, it just operates as a “don’t-display” on the bad subject, but where items have more than one subject, there are multiple commands, and I think the upshot is the item would display if it has other subjects.


reading, censorship & theocracy in the US

… Sometimes, fighting for freedom of access to information seems shallow in comparison to the struggle against poverty and inequality, or against government-sponsored murder and torture, or even the struggle to survive in the face of hurricanes and tsunamis and floods. But ultimately I believe it’s all the same struggle.

… Philip Pullman recently wrote an essay, published in The War on Words The Guardian [2004-11-09] and previously apparently in Index on Censorship, about reading, dogma, and theocracy in Bush’s US. So timely, as the world faces so many incidents of censorship and outright ideological attempts to control education and access to information. A few notes:

My third and final charge against the theocracies, atheist or religious, and their failure to read properly is this: that the act of true reading is in its very essence democratic.

Consider the nature of what happens when we read a book – and I mean, of course, a work of literature, not an instruction manual or a textbook – in private, unsupervised, un-spied-on, alone. It isn’t like a lecture: it’s like a conversation. There’s a back-and-forthness about it. The book proposes, the reader questions, the book responds, the reader considers. We bring our own preconceptions and expectations, our own intellectual qualities, and our limitations, too, our own previous experiences of reading, our own temperament, our own hopes and fears, our own personality to the encounter.

I like this analyis of reading. The observation isn’t unique, but tying this form of reader empowerment into broader exercises of democracy and empowerment is sharp.

One of the most extraordinary scenes I’ve ever watched, and one which brings everything I’ve said in this piece into sharp focus, occurs in the famous videotape of George W Bush receiving the news of the second strike on the World Trade Centre on 9/11. As the enemies of democracy hurl their aviation-fuel-laden thunderbolt at the second tower, their minds intoxicated by a fundamentalist reading of a religious text, the leader of the free world sits in a classroom reading a story with children. If only he’d been reading Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, or Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad, or a genuine fairy tale! That would have been a scene to cheer. It would have illustrated values truly worth fighting to preserve. It would have embodied all the difference between democratic reading and totalitarian reading, between reading that nourishes the heart and the imagination and reading that starves them.

I have a minor quibble with the substitution of the term “theocratic” for what might be more properly termed “dogmatic.” Theocratic would be a special instance of dogmatic. I understand, I think, what Pullman is getting at; he wants us to see the common strands between theocratic dogmas and other forms of ideological dogmas, such as the Soviet Union. The US’ current dogma might fit somewhere in the broader slate even if it doesn’t quite line up with Iranian-style theocracy. But as a US citizen who is quite concerned about actual theocracy, I want use of terms to be precise. Just a nitpicker, I guess. I suppose I wouldn’t care if I didn’t have particular beefs with the use of religion to create and buttress political structures. But among dogmas, theologies are particularly prone to abuse.

Pullman also quotes Karen Armstrong’s recent The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam:

There is a good description of two different modes of reading in Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (2001). Armstrong is eloquent on the difference between mythos and logos, fundamentally different ways of apprehending the reality of the world. Mythos deals with meaning, with the timeless and constant, with the intuitive, with what can only be fully expressed in art or music or ritual. Logos, by contrast, is the rational, the scientific, the practical; that which can be taken apart and put together again; that which is susceptible to logical explanation.

Both are necessary, both are to be cherished. However, they engage with different aspects of the world, and these days, says Armstrong, they are not equally valued. Her argument is that in modern times, because of the astonishing progress of science and technology, people in the western world “began to think that logos was the only means to truth, and began to discount mythos as false and superstitious”. This resulted in the phenomenon of fundamentalism, which, despite its own claims to be a return to the old true ways of understanding the holy book, is not a return of any kind, but something entirely new: “Protestant fundamentalists read the Bible in a literal, rational way that is quite different from the more mystical, allegorical approach of pre-modern spirituality.”

These notes lead to the heart of Pullman’s observations, which are that the current US government is increasingly dogmatic in dangerous ways. It’s true that those who see fit to govern us seem to have less of a sense of humor than ever. I’m reminded of John Ashcroft installing covers for the naked lady statues at DOJ (for $8000, apparently!). (U1) More recently, just a day or two ago I saw this story about Mississippi county library officials banning Jon Stewart’s America (The Book). The district library director was offended by the photoshopped photo of the naked US Supreme Court, which asks readers to “restore [the justices’] dignity by matching each justice with his or her respective robe.” Surely, the inability to appreciate absurdity and satire is another feature of the dogmatic … It’s always depressing when a librarian falls short of the standards that so many of us uphold so well. Robert Willits, library director for Jackson & George counties, said “I’ve been a librarian for 40 years and this is the only book I’ve objected to so strongly that I wouldn’t allow it to circulate.” Jesus. Mississippi really is backwards if this was the most offensive thing he’s seen in 40 years. Or is it that he was particularly offended by the use of nudity in the satiric context? … Certainly it wasn’t the prurient aspect of this nudity that appalled, since the sight of 9 naked people, not one of whom is less than 55 years old, isn’t really calculated to arouse prurient interest in most folks today. [update 1/12: after complaints the library board un-banned the book]

I remembered recently the story an acquaintance of mine told me about her youth. Her parents were embedded in an evangelical church, hung up on issues of satanism. At one point her parents became concerned about her choice of reading materials — science fiction, fantasy, comic books, historical romance novels — convinced that some of it at least was satanic — and literally began burning her books. After she pulled some books out of the flames and pointed out to them that they were classics, or not satanic, or were in some other way significantly misapprehended, her parents changed tactics. They demanded that she herself sort the books out according to a standard they adapted from the Supreme Court case Miller v. California: that the books she kept had to have redeeming literary or other social value. Her parents weren’t concerned with just the prurient interest, either, apparently; her books had to attain some higher value other than mere non-prurience in order to be redeemed.

She was required to sort her books according to this metric, and turn over a good portion of her collection of “escapist” fiction with no “redeeming values” to be destroyed. … Forcing someone to apply another’s standard to their own punishment is a tactic of humiliation, of course, used by authoritarians to make the victim complicit in their own victimization. …

Redeeming. Suggesting that the books were damned to begin with, and had to be redeemed by some especial value. Damned, I suppose, because they were for entertainment, or purposes other than religious education. Redeemed by being for some other acceptable purpose. The Supreme Court in Miller damned books (and films, etc.) for their prurient value. A hang-over of our Puritan religious past, a distaste for the sexual. The Court let materials escape if they had other redeeming values — even prurient materials may be redeemed by some other benefit to society. But change the test just a little, as my friend’s parents did, simply drop the prurience requirement, and you’ve shifted the burden from some literature or art to all literature or art. All literature or art is now guilty unless proved innocent, damned unless redeemed.

Carry that notion a little further, and measure science and education and medical information on the same yardstick. Now you’re no longer balancing science education in the schools or medical information against the truth of the science — now you weigh it against some other scale, in which there is a subjective redemptive value. We don’t teach the truth because of its truth. We teach because we want to control the ideological outcome. Now, advocates of so-called intelligent design can feel outraged, hurt, treated unfairly, because all they want is equal time, a fair share of the educational pie. Critics of dispensing information about birth control and the efficacy of condom use for disease prevention can weigh the information not against its accuracy but against their values.

In this view, education isn’t about truth. Education is about ideology, and the intelligent design folks deserve just as much opportunity to control the instillation of ideology (“education”) as the scientists and teachers. Learning, truth, education, truth, aren’t valued for themselves. In fact they’re damned because they cause us to question the values that redeem.

Pullman observed in the His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, etc.) that all of history is a struggle between those who want to disseminate knowledge, and those who want to control and limit that dissemination. Between those who trust only themselves with information — and consequently with freedom — and those who think that information and freedom and power belong to all.

Another acquaintance of mine was recently wrestling with the question of whether or not to have an abortion. Her circumstances were difficult, but she had always identified as “pro-life,” and most of her close friends and family members felt similarly and encouraged her not to have the abortion. Ultimately they joined, though, in supporting her; they believed that she would do the right thing, whatever it was; they trusted her to make the right decision. I was angry about this, although I didn’t discuss it with her. It’s easy to trust people you know. But who are they to make those decisions for all the people they don’t know? Why, in fact, should the people that pro-lifers don’t know have to trust the pro-lifers to make the right decision for them?

The Bush administration is just one manifestation of this greater historical tendency. We ought to weigh this manifestation properly — hard to do, sometimes, when you’re in the thick of it. The Bush administration didn’t start the fear; but it is capitalizing on it, and building on it, and strengthening that tendency in the US and around the world. The push is away from multilateralism, away from respect of others, and towards unilateralism, towards limiting trust to oneself and one’s clan. The control of people’s access to information is a symptom and a sign, but it is also a means towards the end of controlling people. You don’t trust people to do the right thing with information, and by keeping it away from them, you prevent them from doing what the wrong thing.

And since all our struggles — whether against economic injustice or the effects of natural disasters or the repression of governments — are carried forward by individuals, then trusting individuals with information, empowering them through information, and letting people build their own tools is still the best way to further social change. … which of course is why, as Pullman observes, governments and hierarchies such as the Bush administration are always so interested in stifling knowledge and education transfer. Keep the knowledge, keep the power, don’t trust anybody else to do the right thing.


U1: 2005/July/9. Replacement Atty. General Gonzalez quietly undraped the statues, returning a little bit of sanity to the otherwise indecent DOJ.

aleatoric serendipity

Thanks to the Third Circuit, I have a new word for the day: “aleatoric”. It means “characterized by chance or indeterminate elements” according to m-w.com. Hmm, I think. Like Jackon Pollock. Or Pollack.

So I went online to figure out whether it was in fact Pollock or Pollack, which I did simply by Googling “Jackson Pollack”. Not easy to resolve since of the first 6 entries that Google returned 2 of them list “Pollock” and 4 list “Pollack.” And the first entry listed “Pollock” and then said “Var: Jackson Pollack.”

But in looking at the very first entry, for Jackson Pollock Online, www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/pollock_jackson.html, I noticed that the text that Google excerpted was this copyright notice:

Note that the listings on this site are a unique compilation of information and are protected by copyright worldwide.

Curious, I went to the website. The actual page has this text down at the very bottom of the page, in small type, in the usual credit/disclaimer portion of a webpage. Why did Google choose to highlight this text? A mystery of the Google display algorithm that I’m not motivated to follow up on. Maybe because the text is bold. The copyright portion of the notice reads in full:

All images and text on this Jackson Pollock page are copyright 1999-2004 by John Malyon/Artcyclopedia, unless otherwise noted. Note that the listings on this site are a unique compilation of information and are protected by copyright worldwide.

The notice has 5 small thumbnail images of JP [problem solved] paintings. And otherwise the text is a list of paintings, organized alphabetically by collection (museums first followed by public art galleries). It’s unclear whether they actually employed any particular selectivity in listing the JP works or if they just listed those available and known to them in publicly accessible collections.

… Just one more example of copyright insanity. What are they protecting, their exceedingly thin or (IMO) nonexistent compilation copyright? The copyright in the thumbnail images? No, there’s basically very little here for them to actually copyright. But they are being reflexively protectionist. I’d be interested to know more social psychology so I could better understand what’s behind the flood of copyright notices around the world. … I do believe the effect of these notices is ultimately negative. A random person sees this notice and now may believe that there could be a copyright in this work. Now they’re afraid to copy the list of works, or do so only with a feeling of guilt. Geez. What a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

Reminds of the Simpson’s episode when Homer was inventing many things, and when he would make presentations of his drawings to his family, he protectively said, “Patent pending, patent pending, patent pending,” pointing his pointer in each family member’s face for emphasis. [Google sent me to the usabilityworks blog which lists this as Simpsons episode CABF05, airdate 2001-01-14.]