Wikipedia, LibriVox & a Librarian

Repost from

Below is a paraphrased sample of an email we occasionally get from librarians and teachers, as well as my response to the email. I have paraphrased the email.


To LibriVox,

LibriVox is a great web site. I hope to help my students to use the audiobooks. However I am concerened by the link to Wikipedia you have on your site. We teach our students that Wikipedia is not the best source of information, since anyone can edit it, and we suggest they critically evaluate the site (just as we suggest they evaluate any web site). Wikipedia markets itself as an encyclopedia and many people think it is “tried and true” as a source of information. This is especially a problem in yourger people who have not developed the skills to properly evaluate. I suggest that you should consider taking the link to wikipedia off of your. There are many other sites on the internet maintained by credible sources that could be included instead. Thank you.

XYZ Secondary School

Date: Wed, 18 Jan 2006 14:47:46 -0500 (EST)
From: librivox Subject: Re: Wikipedia link

Hello XYZ,

Thanks for the note, and your feedback much is appreciated. I hope you enjoy the LibriVox audiobooks, and perhaps your school would like to do a recording project for librivox?

re: Wikipedia, I am about to launch into a (long) defence of wikipedia, so be warned! No offense meant. But I would be very happy if you take the time to read my thoughts on wikipedia itself, and its relationship to LibriVox. I would be curious, if you have the time, to hear your response to mine. Again, please don’t be offended, but I am passionate about this issue.

I must say that I could not disagree more with your evaluation of wikipedia, and I think you are making a grave error in warning your students away from this wonderful educational resource. Here are some reasons why:

-the wikipedia does not claim to be “tried and true,” in fact just the opposite: it recognizes that it will have errors, and asks that users edit them, whenever they see them. So it is certainly not tried and true, and this is a very important thing to learn about *any* single source of information – especially on the internet. *Nothing* is tried and true, and wikipedia encourages users (student or otherwise) to be careful and critical about the information they find there. It is recognized as an excellent first source, that should be checked. Perhaps that would be a good thing to teach your students: use wikipedia first, check elsewhere, and then make corrections if there are any mistakes in wikipedia!

-the wikipedia is very often the best first source for any topic on the internet. For instance, I wrote much of this article:

I challenge you to find another source of information on the internet that has as much detailed accurate information on the topic as this article. And I double-tripple challenge you to find another FREE source. It is not my experience that, “There are many other sites on the internet maintained by credible sources that could be included instead.” Which ones? Are they free? If you can find me another resource that has the breadth of detailed information that wikipedia has, for free, I would be very excited indeed! And I wrote large chunks of the article above for precisely this reason: I could not find a single source on the internet that had all the information. It seemed to me that since I had hunted down and found the information from various sources, and since I had used wikipedia previously, that I should give back. It was easy. I just wrote what I had learned, and presto! Now there’s a nice accurate article about feathered dinosaurs, that anyone can read for free, where before there was none. (I note there’s a repeated section in there, which I should edit, unless someone beats me to it).

Note also that lack of of information in a single place is a particular problem for the topics of Authors and Literature, our bread and butter at LibriVox. It is just not true (in my experience) that there is another single source of information on the internet about Authors and Literature with as much accurate information (can you show me one that is free?). And I offer another challenge: can you find a single error in ANY literature articles on wikipedia? If you can I will send you a DVD with all LibriVox books for free … and then I will go correct the error! But I bet you will not find an error.

-wikiepdia also encourages your students to share their knowledge in an open way, to participate in bringing more knowledge to the world. The principle of wikipedia is much like a library, where the idea is that everyone should have access to books. Wikipedians believe that everyone should have free access to knowledge, and they participate in bringing knowledge to the world every time they make an edit, or add a new page. So as a librarian, some of the questions you should ask yourself (among others), are: do you think that knowledge should be free or owned? Should people be encouraged to share knowledge? If you think it should be free, what is the best way to help knowledge be free? What do you think are the effects of discouraging your students from using a source of information, created by volunteers all over the world, who share their time and expertise with the lofty aim of providing a free encyclopedia to the world? If I were one of your students, I would think you were telling me: volunteering to share my knowledge is bad; promoting free access to knowledge is bad; and that I should not contribute to increasing knowledge in the world.

-sometimes articles in wikipedia have incorrect or misleading information – sometimes even hurtful information. This cannot be denied, nor is it denied by anyone. But the amazing thing is how quickly most errors are caught, and edited. The average time between, for instance, “vandalization” (making nonsense, or derogatory edits) and restoration to accuracy is in the SECONDS. Some errors stay longer-usually because no one is reading them. But there is an army of volunteers who care passionately about the objectives of wikipedia — free information for all — and they are incredibly vigilant. Still, they don’t catch everything. But neither does the New York Times.

-errors: Britannica v Wikipedia: although this is, to me, beside the point, an analysis done by Nature magazine found that on scientific topics, Wikipedia has slightly more errors than Britannica, but not significantly more. This despite the wikipedia articles being on average TWICE as long as their Britannica counterparts.

Finally, to wikipedia and LibriVox: wikipedia was one of the prime inspirations for LibriVox. The idea that a group of volunteers could take on a project so useful, so wonderful, so ambitious, and so good for the world – and do it so successfully made me think: maybe people could do the same with audiobooks? Like wikipedia’s editing policy, we accept anyone as a reader, and we make no judgments about the quality of their recordings. And like wikipedia, we say to our listeners: if you do not like how a recording is done, please, make another one, and we will be happy to include it in our catalog.

Finally, and, again, just a silly aside: every time we complete a LibriVox book, we go to wikipedia to add a link to our recording, so that people will know that not only can they go to their library, take out the book for free, but they can also listen for free with LibriVox recordings. We get many hits a day from people who have come from wikipedia. Do you think Britannica, or any other resource would let us link so easily? I bet not.

I hope you did not fall asleep reading that long-winded essay, but I was saddened to get such an email from a Librarian. I have always thought of librarians as defenders of everyone’s right to free information … which is exactly what wikipedia is trying, with all its flaws, to deliver.

In short, we won’t be taking down those link to wikipedia!

Best regards,

Hugh McGuire, Founder

a friendly paypal for podcasts

Why do so many of my posts start with: Mike from ISF was talking about … anyway:

Mike from ISF was talking about micropayments, so I throw out this thought to the wind: PayPal’s sort of annoying and I don’t really trust them. I don’t know why. I just don’t. But having some form of super-easy, co-op micropayment scheme, geared to the diy net crowd, could be a really neat thing for podcasters and vidcasters, and musicians too. OK and bloggers.

Here’s how it would work:
-any website (podcast, blog, vidcast, music band) is allowed to join the micro-coop, which creates a free “account” and gives them a button for their site that says: “micro-pay-me!” or something.
-surfers can get a free account with micro-coop …
-it’s a pre-paid thing, or it could be linked to credit card like paypal, maybe
-so I put in say, $20 – which I can disperse as I wish to any member of the coop
-as I wander around the net, I listen to podcasts and watch vids, and say, wow I’d like to support podcastbob!
-I click on the “micro-pay-me” button on podcastbob’s site, and an easy dialog comes up
-I log in
-the system says: how much do you want to pay podcastbob?
-I put $0.02 or $0.25 or $5 or $100 or whatever I feel like paying
-the amount is transferred from my account to podcastbob
-podcastbob gets a monthly statement, which can be transferred to a bank account if/when he wishes – or transfered to his own micro-coop (paying) account.
-some percentage is taken from the transaction, to pay for server space & management etc.
-micro-coop could be a non-profit coop, (or a for-profit company?) – but not like paypal.

Now why not paypal? Because no one likes it, and no one is inspired to use it. microcoop would be nicely-designed, easy to use, and really be targeted to this do it yourself internet media market, unlike the flashy e-commerce crap you usually see.

Anyone interested in hleping me build microcoop? I seem to be overflowing with ideas these days, unfortunately I have not the skills nor the time to implement them all.

Free Mountain – on Reading Montreal

I was asked to write an article in Reading Montreal. Go check out the site. But here’s the text, and a photo (by Nika Vee):

In the mid 1840s, Sir James Alexander proposed that Mount Royal should be turned into a park, and twenty-five years later, 1869, the City of Montreal amended its charter to approve a $350,000 loan to purchase the land. At the time Montreal, population 112,000, was confined to ten city blocks by the river, and many city councilors argued that the Park was too far from the border of the city to be useful. But Mayor Aldis Bernard pushed for the project (as well as Ile St-Helene, and Parc Lafontaine), and the land was purchased, with a final bill of $1 million, an extraordinarily hefty sum for the time. The park wasn’t inaugurated until 1876, by which time the city had expanded significantly. A few decades later, the park was surrounded by houses and development: if the city had waited, the land would have been too expensive to buy. If Montreal had waited, Mount Royal would be a condo development, and not a park.

mount royal - by nika veeYet the value of the Park, however you want to define the word value, is incalculable. The value to ordinary citizens, the values of properties near the park, the value to the city as a tourist draw, as a hallmark of world-class status. If you could quantify the economic returns from the park, I’m certain you would find it had paid for itself many times over. And if you just measured its value as benefit to the people of the city, that million bucks would be a trivial steal.

We are currently at a turning point in the history of human knowledge, and clear battle lines have been drawn. On one side (let’s call it EVIL) you have those who think information should be controlled and parceled out based on various criteria: money, for instance, and the ability to pass entrance exams at certain universities. On the other side (we’ll call this side GOOD), you have the people who think information should be available to anyone who wants it: the wikipedians, the audiobook makers (disclosure: I am one) and their text-based ancestors, the creative commoners, and the free software crusaders who did much of the philosophical and legal thinking behind this exploding movement of internet do-gooders.

Web2.0 is one of those marketing-phrases that doesn’t mean all that much, and annoys those who have been citizens of the net – not just consumers, but creators – for years. But fundamental things have changed: everything got easy, everything got free, bandwidth all of a sudden got cheap, and kind folks made hosting space available for those who wanted to give their content away. All of a sudden we have blogs, and wikis, podcasts, vidcasts, and scanned books. We have universities committing to put everything online; we have scientists dedicated to explaining complicated issues properly, in public; we have communities writing text-books; academic journals opening themselves up to the world. Among thousands if not millions of other wonderful projects.

What had been the internet mall (or you could call it Web1.0) was opened up to the people, and they said: we want a vibrant city (Web2.0). And this isn’t just about the internet, it’s about all the sources of information you might imagine. It’s about Universal Access to All Human Knowledge. We’re just starting to see what this new city might look like, but certainly it will be a vibrant place, because, so far anyway, it’s got a big park in the middle of it. And the value that creates – economic or otherwise – will be, like Mount Royal, incalculable.

Yet there are forces pushing in the other direction. Forces who wish to influence our governments away from letting the internet be a park, and a market, and a sidewalk, and a home, and everything else a vibrant city is. There are forces who want to keep it as a mall.

London and Paris, Rome, Hong Kong, Sydney Australia, New York, and certainly Montreal, offer a mix of commerce, food, art, parks, public space, business, transport, relaxation, all in one place. The components of one add to the others, and make an integrated whole. Each of those cities have their own particularities (the pubs and pin-stripes of London, the Bistros and buildings of Paris, the cafes and churches of Rome, the butchers and chaos of Hong Kong, the taxis and galleries of New York, the terasses and staircases of Montreal). But all these cities give the sense that life is happpening, before your eyes, that you are in the midst of a place alive. Either by design or history, life is encouraged to happen in public.

In his book, The City After the Automobile, Moishe Safdie writes at length about Le Corbusier and other architects of the 20th century city, who laid the foundations for our lifeless, particularly North American cities, designed for cars, not people; arranged around unusable and unused public space, parking lots, highways, and commerce; the desire to close the formerly public within private walls; and the separation of the different bits of life into their component parts. That is, confine big commerce within malls (with no natural light to distort things!), with few controllable entrances, and no life to speak of outside; keep the schools over there and the churches over here, the business parks isolated, and the housing developments somewhere else altogether. And certainly no small shops anywhere near where people live.

In other words, among other things, the design of these cities took all the component bits of life, separated them, removed the “need” for public space, and sterilized everything, killed everything. The result everyone knows: cities no one likes, but which provide relatively large yards.

Public Space, and Public Domain improves life for everyone — even the rich who can afford to finance their own, sterile versions of life as they wish it. This is why vibrant immigrant neighbourhoods (such as Montreal’s Mile End) attract artists and students, and subsequently the rich. People like to live in places where life is happening. And life happens where there is public space for all the elements of life to intersect. New York’s East Village, for instance, is an astounding place (increasingly less-so, it’s being mallified slowly), and nothing is more wonderful than the those spaces squeezed between two tenement buildings that have been transformed into tiny community gardens, some of which have become the home to chickens! In downtown Manhattan.

The planners of Montreal were smart enough to buy Mount Royal when they still could. It was a fantastic amount of money at the time, yet Montreal is unimaginable without Mount Royal – just as New York is unimaginable without Central Park. These public spaces are the foundations on which the wealth of these cities is built. Today, we all need to be vigilant with our politicians, our governments, and with ourselves, to make sure we keep the internet a vibrant city, and not let it become a strip mall. Again.

Categories: best

CBC: what’s wrong

I have been doing a fair bit of bitching about the CBC recently (see: here, here, and here, and here for examples), including my digs during a small presentation on podcasting I did at Concordia — audio: here. This has been in conjunction with some back and forths with the folks at, some of whom are CBC employees with insights into the strange world of the Crown Corporation. It occurs to me that I should try to articulate not just criticsms, but outline what I think a public broadcaster, and CBC in particular, should be doing in this dawning age of distributed media.

This post, I hope, might grow (or shrink) into some kind of digital manifesto to publicly present to the CBC — a statement from Canadians involved in digital media one way or another (consumers of or creators of) about what the CBC could/should become. Again, this is just a first step at getting some thoughts down. Please let me know if you think this is worthwhile.

Firstly, I’ll just list some of my major frustrations with CBC:

1. please, please podcast more
2. communicate with your frustrated listeners
3. look at what other public broadcasters are doing (BBC, Australian Broadcast Corp, NPR & PBS)
4. don’t dumb everything down
5. be a leader in digital media

Now I’ll give some thoughts on these issues:

1. podcasting
Tod Maffin, responsible for CBC’s podcasting strategy, is on a cross-Canada tour: he invited Montreal podcasters to have their say. It was an informative evening, mainly for learning why CBC does not podcast much. Dear CBC: please put this info on your website. I thought they were just lost, but there are some reasons, to whit:

a. copyright
Canada has different, and in some cases more stringent, copyright laws than Australia, USA, and UK. In those countries, public broadcasters appear to have priviledged positions with respect to copyrights, and so are able to broadcast content with music without much worry/cost associated with copyright. CBC’s case is different, and they must negotiate with SOCAN and the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency (CMRRA) in order to put audio on the air, and online. The negotiation on internet archiving rights (ie rights to allow mp3s for podcast, rather than streaming) are, apparently, going slowly.

I’m not clear on this process, so if anyone can illuminate me, please do. But my question is this: to whom do I, as a Canadian and digital citizen, address my complaints? Who do I lobby? Is it CBC? SOCAN? CMRRA? The federal government? The federal government, different department? If you know the answer, please let me know. If you are the CBC please put this info on your site.

So, essentially we cannot get podcasts because the music on the show — not the actual content — is copyright, and cannot be podcast. (Apparently the producer of Quirks and Quarks actually strips out all the music to allow podcasting…kudos). Now this copyright problem makes sense for music-heavy shows, such as Brave New Waves, but what about Ideas, for instance, unavailable because the music in the show?

What is the purpose of a show like Ideas? Or, Eleanore Wachtel’s Writers and Company? etc. … Presumably the objective is to provide Canadians (and increasingly the world) important audio content. Surely writers and company’s objective is not to finance SOCAN musicians. The music may be important, but the content is why I listen. So, if you are a producer of Ideas, why not make a podsafe-music-only policy? Why don’t you say to SOCAN etc: if you do not lighten up, then we’ll just stop playing your music in our shows. See how happy your artists will be then.

If you are the producer of Ideas would you prefer to:

a) have more listeners, or
b) have fewer listeners.

The answer I hope is a). And podcasting will equal more listeners.

See below for more on this.

b) bandwidth
Another “problem” cited by Maffin is this: CBC podcasts are just too darn popular. And the bandwidth costs are high. Well, for a public broadcaster struggling for ratings and relevance, you would think the reaction would be: there are many thousands of Canadians who wish to get CBC podcasts – that’s wonderful! How do we make more of it available? iTune’s most popular podcast week after week is CBCRadio3.

This reminds me a little of a story I heard about Hudson’s Bay Company, who apparently used to sell boxes of cookies, a popular item. After weeks of buying these cookies at a particular store, a customer was shocked to find the boxes not available one week, and then not available the next week. He asked the manager why the cookies weren’t in stock, and the manager replied: “Oh we kept selling out, and it was just too much bother to keep them in stock.”

There’s a bit of a difference here, since there’s real cost to podcast bandwidth & no monetary return … but if I understand right, streaming is the real bandwidth hog. Why not kill the streaming project, and focus resources on the much more useful podcast/archive service?

c) Revenues
This one gets me steamed. CBC apparently makes lots (how much?) of money from selling tapes, CD’s, transcripts, and books of radio programs …so offering free mp3s for download will kill that revenue stream. This is the real problem with the CBC approach. The CBC priority should be increasing listenership, which will put them in a much stronger position in negotiating for funding – what a public broadcaster should argue for.

Instead the CBC is more focused on ways to turn itself into a business – see their worrying announcement of a partnership with America Online.

The CBC’s biggest problem is chronic underfunding from the government – so you can make that up 3 ways: get more govt funding, advertising, or charge for services. I would argue that as a crown corporation, funded by my tax money, CBC should not have the right even to sell me content which I have already paid for… But I may be in the minority. Still what is CBC management position on this? If they are not on my side here, then I would say we are in big trouble.

Podcasting will quickly become the main source of audio in the world – that’s my opinion. Perhaps in 5 years. If CBC management does not recognize this, and does not articulate a clear strategy on how they will provide this content – rather than becoming a commercial broadcaster — then I will withdraw my support.

2. Communication

First: I got much good information about CBC’s podcasting strategy talking to Tod Maffin. It turns out CBC isn’t totally clueless – which is what I told the class at Concordia, and I have written many times on my blog, because that’s all the information I had. Here is what CBC writes on their podcast page:

Podcasting Trial
This is a pilot project.
CBC hopes to explore the potential for podcasting and has chosen the shows listed as test subjects. Your feedback on this process is much appreciated.
If you have any questions or concerns about CBC Radio’s podcasting trial, please contact us at CBC Audience Relations

Now, why doesn’t CBC tell me their strategy and some of the problems with copyright issues on this page? That would go a long way to dispelling my still-bitter impression that CBC (unlike their public broadcasting bretheren BBC, ABC and NPR) are podcast idiots.

And note that CBC’s “appreciation” of my feedback has been demonstrated by NOT answering emails. This is unacceptable. ABC and BBC have both responded to my emails, and here’s what the Australain National Radio had to say:

Dear Hugh,

Thanks for your email, and your kind comments. Hope you continue to enjoy Radio National’s podcasts; more programs will become available for downloading soon. I’m sure the CBC will get on board sometime … maybe you can start a one-man campaign?!

Best wishes,
Kate Leavey
RN Listener Enquiries

3. Other Public Broadcasters
Look at what other public broadcasters are doing. Check BBC’s 19 podcasts, and look too here, and here, and here. NPR = 46 podcasts. ABC = 17 podcasts .

These public broadcasters are leading the charge and defining what a public broadcaster will become in the new digital age. There is no indication that CBC has any idea how they will become more relevant to Canadians through digital media. They seem to be going the opposite direction: How can we become less relevant. Take a look at CBC’s strategies & priorities, and see if you can detect anything remotely forward-looking.

4. CBC dumb content.
This is a more nebulous area, and perhaps the least important point. They are chasing ratings, and think dumb content and EZ listening is the way to go to get it. Essentially replicating crapy commercial radio. There’s no reason to fund a public broadcaster who provides the same content (worse) than commercial radio. It makes no sense at all. However, I am willing to let the CBC shoot itself in the foot by wasting my tax dollars on crap, as long as I can listen to their good content. But I can only do this if they podcast so I can listen to good mp3s while Freestyle is on the radiowaves. As it is, I listen to BBC and NPR instead. So CBC is in the process of making themselves irrelevant to me, and I am a huge defender of the cause. I assume there are others like me who will not defend CBC if it means I have to listen to Freestyle-type programming all the time. But I will let CBC have their Freestyle if they can give me wiretap mp3s that I can listen to when I want.

5. Call for Some Proposals
CBC could become an important enabler of so much wonderful Canadian content – through finding ways to promote & support podcasting, vlogging, and encouraging distributed media. This stuff is so cheap now, and CBC could have a huge impact in helping to spread these technologies throughout the country – to hear voices we don’t normally hear – what about podcasts of interviews with aboriginal elders? what about interviews with street kids? sask farmers? what about a CBC podcasting program aimed at getting seniors in senior homes to tell their stories? what about interviews with university professors? ie. what if CBC committed itself to training thousands of people to make podcasts? CBC would then be enabling Canadians to tell their stories rather than being this big old heavy filter ? Or in addition to that?

These are just a couple of ideas. Maybe CBC’s not the right group to do this. But they’re also not the right group to give forcefeed me EZ listening, but they don’t seem to have any problems doing that.

Comments? Questions?

Categories: art, best, books, librivox

LibriVox – public domain books for your ears

OK, I’ve just launched a little experimental project, let’s see how it goes. It’s called LibriVox:

LibriVox is a hope, an experiment, and a question: can the net harness a bunch of volunteers to help bring books in the public domain to life through podcasting?
LibriVox is an open source audio-literary attempt to harness the power of the many to record and disseminate, in podcast form, books from the public domain. It works like this: a book is chosen, then *you*, the volunteers, read and record one or more chapters. We liberate the audio files through this webblog/podcast every week (?).

There some more info here.

So if you know any podcasters, literature buffs, actors, librarians, teachers, readers, writers, radio announcers, or anyone at all who might be interested in donating some time to read a chapter of a public domain book and record it to the net, please send them to LibriVox. If you want to get directly in touch, try: librivox(at]yahoo(dot]ca.

So this is for all you bloggers who read and comment on this site occasionally: (eponym, fling, andre, mike l, martine, seb, wirearchy, danielle and the rest)…

let’s see where it all goes!

rms vs creative commons @ copyright2005

rms @ copyright2005
flickr pic by

Somewhere I’ve read that waiting for the interesting post too gestate into something truly gem-like usually means you won’t post about it. So, I was “planning to write a longer post later” (ha! I’ve heard that before); instead I’ll just jot down some thoughts about the copyright2005 conference I attended last night in Montreal, where Richard Stallman gave the keynote, followed by a pannel discussion with rms, russell mcormond of digital copyright canada, and Marcus Bornfreund of Creative Commons Canada, and a few others.

RMS’s speech was done in (somewhat faltering) french, and covered tghe general issues of free software and patent/artistic issues. The Q&A and pannel discussions were much more interesting, mainly for the rather viscious debate between rms and marcus bornfreund of Creative Commons Canada.

rms has withdrawn explicit support for the Creative Commons project (though he recognizes it is a “better” option than the mainstream) because CC has added several new licence options (to the original six), at least one of which, in rms’s view, do not do an adequate job of protecting freedom. (Here is the full list of CC licenses). rms argues that, like the GPL, the creative commons licences should insist on a certain number of core freedoms. Apparently in conversations with CC founder Larry Lessig, Lessig said that those freedoms were “empty” in the CC format.

This criticism of Creative Commons set off the litigator instinct in lawyer-Marcus Bornfreund, who attacked Stallman’s position (and Stallman himself) as a “fascist leader,” forcing his “ideology” on his “followers,” and denying people “choice,” after all doesn’t “choice mean freedom? Yet your leader wants to deny you choice.” It was a pretty intense attack, and a little awkward, but raises a very good question that people need to be able to answer. Is choice freedom?

Bornfreund’s view, as I understood it, is that the author (of art, of software) should be able to choose between a full spectrum of licences, presumably from the freest to the most restricting (if his claim that choice means freedom is valid, then in this case the choice should go all the way to the most restrictive patent/copyright now available). Bornfreund is arguing to give the author the ability to allow users of his/her work to share, if the author wishes. Freedom to share is something the author has the right to grant, or not.

Stallman claims that certain freedoms must be essential for everyone, such as the right to make unlimited non-commercial copies of works. Stallman is arguing that the right to share should be an essential freedom for people regardless of what the author thinks. (Note this is in non-commercial cases). Freedom to share is an inalienable right for all of society.

In other words, Stallman argues for freedom in society, whereas Bornfreund argues for freedom of the author.

It’s too bad the debate was so acrimonious, with, I think it’s fair to say, Bornfreund crossing the line from reasoned argument to show-boaty attack, and not coming off too well in the process. His fascist comments were over the top, and his views of freedom rather childish (if you think freedom is so great, then I am free to punch you in the nose and there’s nothing you can do about it), still if you don’t have time to think about it they sell well, especially since you hear this kind of view of freedom so often (eg free markets = democracy etc).

I guess Stallman has seen this kind of attack before, in the Open Source split from the Free Software movement, where his insistence that there is a philosophical reason for making source code available was made a secondary concern to the pragmatic advantages to open source coding methods. That is, the ethical principle of Free Software was replaced with pragmatic principle in open source. An improved means of production is not the goal of the free Software movement, though it’s a nice fringe benefit.

To be a principled person in the face of competing practical concerns is not easy, and Stallman just seems to shrug off accusations of utopian dreaming and evangelism. He has a belief about what is right, a goal for what right would look like, and refuses to bend from these pillars. He’ll continue taking lumps for that cause, I’m sure. recorded (audio & visual) the event and it should be available here, soon.

and congrats to Robin Millette and the rest of the organizers and volunteers for putting together such a successful event.

Categories: art, best, data, technology

the flickr photo “coincidence”

this is just one of those cool things that the universe likes to throw out at us to remind us that everything, in the end, is related to everything else: Flickr Tokyo Photo Surpise.

Update: O! Ye non-believers, with hearts of cold and minds closed to the Truth, behold: Evidence.

Says one fella in the thread, eloquently and with a hint of the pargmatic philosopher about him:

Whatever your thoughts about coincidences, there appears to be a broad consensus that they occur more frequently on Flickr than they do in our day-to-day lives. I think that says something very interesting about the structure of Flickr, the way it allows those connections to happen. And it has potentially profound implications for Flickr-like systems in general.

It may just be that flickr helps us notice coincidences more often — but that doesn’t make them any less coincidental, now, does it? and maybe it even makes flickr interesting for new and different reasons.

Categories: art, best

suffering & justin hall

I posted a while ago about nietzsche and blogging, and then after a reminder from sen no sen, I dug up some more nietzsche, all of which amounted to a few observations, summarized a bit crassly here:
1. blogging can be a way to transform ones life into something more (art)
2. seeing ones life as art is a means to transform suffering into something meaningful and positive
3. if one is driven by art, one should strive for art
and finally
4. one should equate ones life to fate, and love that fate, whatever it might be

You may have seen this intense video by Justin Hall (via i never knew). Hall has chronicled the last 11 yrs of his personal life online. The video, titled aptly, “I sort of had a breakdown in January 2005” is a cringe-inducing or gut-wrenching 10-minute peek into the soul of a blogger mid-meltdown, a very strange place to peek. Commenters are split between: “I feel your pain,” and “Wait wait wait WAIT ONE FUCKING SECOND, You’re 30 years old? What the fuck, dude!” Anyway, Justin Hall’s dilemma: his meaningful relationships are with that wide web of the internet, his writing (and his camera!); and his candid online writing about personal life taints his personal relationships. So he’s alone. Blogging and art, or or real connection; he thinks he can’t have both.

The video makes painful watching–it’s not the sort of stuff you see too often, but it’s fascinating are really weird, and you can watch real-time as Hall consciously translates this breakdown into a video. At one point Hall, with a wry chuckle, choked in tears, says something like: “If I’m going to go through this crap, I might as well make some good media with it.” I laughed out loud when I head that, but he’s right. Isn’t that, really, what art does? It transforms our lives, experience and our (possibly self-absorbed) torment into something more, something wider, something that other people can connect with? (I used to have a prof in university who constantly quoted CS Lewis: “We read to know we are not alone.”) Whatever you think of Justin Hall’s misery, he took it and transformed it into something for the rest of us to consider, and it probably did him some good. Nietzsche:

Art as the redemption of the sufferer–as the way to states in which suffering is willed, transfigured, diefied, where suffering is a form of great delight.

Blogging as problem and solution, maybe.

I was thinking about Justin Hall as I hopped into a taxi tonight. It’s rare to find a cab driver in Montreal who isn’t mid-argument, or mid-plea with some friend or lover on his mobile while driving you from place to place. A good thing, probably, at least for taxi drivers: talking makes their shifts pass faster, and you hope it helps them better develop their own relationships. But that technology cuts completely my interaction with the driver: I give my destination, and pay my bill. In the past you could count on every fouth taxi ride providing some entertaining conversation–rants about the mayor and bicycles, or just pleasant weather-talk–and sometimes some great human interaction. Now it’s one out of ten, because of mobile phone technology, which occupies the driver with other things. So the crazy taxi conversation fades from our world; what was once a social and commercial transaction becomes nothing but a commercial transaction. I don’t begrudge taxi drivers their mobile converations, but I miss the crazy-talk. I’ve lost out a bit, and I think society has lost out a bit too – though probably the taxi drivers have gained, which is fair-enough as far as trades go.

Blogging’s got some of that calculus as well: you gain in interaction with a community of like-minded individuals spread through the ether of the net, but your flesh n blood interactions can suffer. I notice this in a very small way with myself and others. The trade off. Maybe it’s a bit much to call blogging art, and maybe recording a tantrum isn’t art either; but it’s engaging, I was drawn in, fascinated, and decided to write about it, which gives it some more value, at least to me.

free software, nozick, anarchy right & left

I have been thinking about Free Software as a uniquely successful anarchist project, and one which may well–through its success–have impacts beyond the tools we use on our computers.

By “anarchist” I mean of course the actual definition, rather than reference to black-masked Molotov-cocktail-throwers, namely: a project based on the voluntary cooperation of free individuals, without hierarchy or imposed authority.

What makes Free Software exciting is its ability to propagate itself: that is, if you intend to make use of Free Software, you must agree to play by the rules of Free Software. You may use it, change it, copy it and share it as you like… but whatever you do with it, you must provide to the world on the same terms. The rest of the world must be free to use, change, copy and share. This is the beauty of the GNU General Public License. The ideal of the Free Software (anarchist) project is spread each time it is used.

One of my most infuriating reads as an undergrad was Robert Nozick. His 1974 philosophical text, Anarchy, State and Utopia underpins much of the right-wing movement of the past 30 years, along with work by free-marketeering economist Milton Friedman and the political philosopher Leo Strauss. Nozick argued strenuously that redistribution of wealth (the basis of the welfare state) is fundamentally unjust: taxation and redistribution of wealth (through, for instance, social programs) is on par with forced slave labour. No one, he claimed, has the right to take from a person goods which they have acquired or produced justly through their own work.

Nozick’s main premise is that justice can be defined through three actions:

1. how things not previously possessed by anyone may be acquired;
2. how possession may be transferred from one person to another; and
3. what must be done to rectify injustices arising from violations of (1) and (2).

His argument is that as long as 1 happens justly, 2 can only be achieved justly if the owner agrees – so no forced redistribution can be just.

I was looking over some of Nozick’s work (not much is available online, by the way) for other purposes, but was struck by how pleased Nozick would have been (I think) to see the Free Software movement emerge. While I have been interested in FS mainly for reasons from the left (an alternate way of organizing innovation and collaboration, outside of the traditional commercial framework), I realized that the FS movement is classic Nozick in its definition, and provides a true, real-life “test” of the justice principle. (This is often a failing in political philosophies of distribution, since in many require thought experiments to “test” a moral hypothesis, such as Hobbes‘ imagining the “social contract” development, one must to postulate a time before any civic rigths and resposibilities existed, and see what reasonable ageements may have been made).

In any case, FS offers a starting point to watch as a free system, based on a set of ethical principles, develops in real-time. Ownership here is completely redefined, through the GPL, and one can only claim ownership of free software if one relinquishes the traditional rights associated with that ownership. No government is needed to redistribute, since FS ingeniously makes redistribution a necessary condition of any FS transaction between two “agents”: the commons, which “owns” in a sense Free Software, and someone who wants to use and or modify the FS. That is, if you wish to use FS to build something new, whatever you build, you must allow to be redistributed freely in the same way the original FS was.

Here is a commons that is unlimited, and so far looks to be very far from tragedy. The thing to watch is how nervous the big corporations get, and how our apparent freed trade-loving governments move when it becomes clear that the world of proprietary software is feeling real pressure from the proliferation of FS.

So proponents of FS must be vigilant to watch what our governments are doing to find unjust ways of limiting the growth of this most innovative, and so far enromously successful, social and technological experiment.

intellectual property, free software & the new revolution

This is the start of my thoughts on copyrigh/left, IP and free software.

My pal devlin who works on biotech/agriculture IP issues, sent me a Globe and Mail story about Business Action to Stop Counterfeiting and Piracy. M$ of course is leading the charge, worried about pirate copies of Window XP funding terrorism (etc.).

My response was: “Rats scurrying on a sinking ship.”

To which Devlin, the consumate marxist, replied that one would have thought the same about corrupt capitalists in the 20th Century but look how well they’ve done. My answer to that, which is the seed to a longer (planned) article, was:

The difference is that in the beginning of the 20th C, capital was concerened mainly with producing objects (you can include food in there), and in the end the capitalist system is very rational (except that it is incompatible with physical limits of the world/environment): the objective is to make enough people rich enough to want to preserve the system. In that way, organized labour was a useful tool to keep the system going, because it ensured that enough people were content with the system. That’s why people didn’t rebel (draconian laws and police-state tactics were used in US & Canada in the teens and 20s, but it was New Deal policies that saved capitalism from itself). For the most part, for the majority of people the system seemed to give them a life comfortable enough not to rise up & overthrow the Man.

But back to the question, 20th C capitalism, and its laws, governed things which cost money for good reason: You need to produce raw materials, transport them, reshape them, and sell them again. At each stage there is work that needs to be done, and most agree that that work should be rewarded; furthere there is a built-in mechanism to keep it functioning that way — if someone fails to get paid somewhere in the line, then the system breaks down.

IP is a different kettle of fish. Music companies want to get paid for things they don’t have to do anymore (because of technology): distribution. And software companies want to protect monoplolies on their software, but what they can’t fight is BETTER, free software. Windows controls the market now because they cornered the distribion market early on, and they produced products that became the standard, and tho people complained, there was no real reason to fight it cause the other products weren’t necessarily much better (wordperfect was just as annoying as M$ word). But now it turns out that there are better opensource operating systems (GNU/Linux), and better opensource office software ( and better email clients and browsers (thunderbird and firefox), plus all sorts of amazing new technologies that are making the power of the internet open to all in ways it never was (wiki, blogging, collaborative bookmarking, php, etc.). As time goes on the tools will become more powerful and more and more accessible to the average joe.

So for the majority of work people do, there are better technologies available, free, and developed in a collaborative open format, easily available to anyone with an internet connection. How do you fight against that? Boo hoo that there are pirated versions of Wiindows XP everywhere. The product is shit, and soon there will be just as many computers with GNU/Linux instead. why priate a crappy product when a free version of a better product is available?

the beauty of the hacker culture is that it is: 1. egalitarian (quality of work is arbiter), 2. collaborative (the idea of sharing is wide-spread) 3. anti-establishment (coonstraints on 1 & 2 are viewed with hostility), and 4. superior in product to other modalities.

as for music & movies, I think as the “means of production” become cheaper and more accessible, and same with means of distribution (internet radio taking place of blogs) no one will cry if britney spears’ albums cost $50 while many new innovative bands take new approaches to making a living. again boo hoo if Sony and U2 sue everyone in sight, I think more and more people will turn to creative commons approaches to art & its distribution, and just cut out the cob-webby middle men, who do nothing but cut out a huge slice of pie, now doing an irrelevant thing: marketing stars. If the new system is separated and parallel to the Hollywood productions of Pearl Harbour and Master and Commander, well so much the better for the people who chose the other route. If people want to pay lots of money for crap that’s their perogative, but we are coming to a time when art and culture will be disseminated free by people who think that ideas should belong to the people, not the corporations that own the rights.

This means, in my view, that these companies (M$, Sony-Universal, MegaArtProduct Inc and Mega Software Giant Inc) are fighting irrelevancy, because the means of production are being put into the hands of the collective masses, and the means of free distribution already exists.

This is the kernel of the story I am planning to write on Free Software and the coming anarchist technolution.


I don’t see IP as a different kettle of fish. I don’t think capitalism has survived because it is the most efficient system or because it has distributed the world’s resources in a fair way. Look at the world– would you say that there are enough people living comfortably from capitalism? Most people are surviving despite capitalism not because of it. It was a very small minority from the working class that was able to secure some comfort for itself and this is and will always be precarious for that minority– and for the world since the model is entirely unsustainable.

Capitalism began with a brutal enclosure of the commons and the brutal destruction of alternative economic systems and cultures. There is no reason to believe that these alternative systems could not have developed to be much more comfortable for a much larger number of people than what capitalism has offered. Just look at the industrialisation of agriculture, which is still progressing and which therefore gives us a clearer sense of how things could have evolved much differently.

Capitalism has never been about “free markets” or about rewarding work. Sure there are elements of both, but this is not its essence and there could easily be more of both in other systems. Capitalism is fundamentally about property rights (ever expanding privatisation) and accumulation (ever expanding commodification). Capitalists are always trying to make more profit while doing less. This is the whole point of owning or monopolising the means of productiuon– it allows you to exploit labour (and nature) as much as possible. IPRs are a means to expand commodification and privatisation– whether its seeds, software or music.

David Harvey, in his book New Imperialism (which you really must read), explains how capitalism has really always functioned by way of accumulation by dispossession. With the system now in a crisis (that got going in the 1970s) capital will look for more ways to accumulate (i.e. Make profit) by increasingly dispossessing people of any non-capitalist forms of wealth.

I think it is very dangerous for the potential movement to try and separate what’s happening today from the more general exploitation that capitalism has wrought and continues to wreak on people everywhere (but particularly in the South). Look at the struggles of indigenous peoples. Look at the struggles of peasants. These are long-standing struggles by people against the imposition of a capitalist model that is not defeating them because it offers something better. So, while I think it is very important to foster and encourage the hacker/free software movement, I think that it is very important to see how this struggle is intimately connected to other struggles.


IP is a differenet kettle of fish in that it represents commodification, and privatization, of limitless and non-tangible “goods,” ideas. This compares with commodification of tangible “goods” such as land, sheep, oil and monkey wrenches. More on this distinction in a moment.

You are right on many points about capitalism, its approach to alternatives, and especially the North/South dichotomy, which I skirted on purpose… I am talking about mature capitalism in say North Amercia, but yes there is brutal (armed) maintenance of exploitative relationships between North and South, but this is acheived (more or less consciously) with the support of a relatively comfortable western population. while there is poverty here, most people think the system is “fair” in that the majority of people think they have access to affluence, at least enough to keep them from rising up. This does not discount the extereme poverty, and repression, of certain populations here (first nations, for example, and to a large degree the black population in the US). But generally people are happy with the system (as they imagine it). But things ARE changing (mostly for the worse not better).

Also I realize that the economist’s view of capitalism (free markets and managed employment stats) have nothing to do with the real tools used, but the concepts are not empty. Capitalism, or rather commerce, is generally a decent way to exchange goods and services; the problem is abuse of the system (which is inherent in the system itself). Yes it tends to monopoly and control and brutality, in order to maintain its unsustainable aims: constant increasing profits.

And YES the free software movement should see itself in the context of other struggles. Certainly. And, we need to put these different movements together (alternative software, alternative agriculture, alternative commerce, alternative art … need alternative energy and we’ll be all set).

The difference between IP and traditional goods is the cost of production and the means of distribution. A monopoly capitalist can control all the pineapples by buying all the orchards. But he can’t control all the ideas of the hungry pineappleless people. Writers do not need publishers to decide what to publish, musicians do not need Sony to package and sell their discs.

What I see is a ballooning movement, which is in fact held together by the success of the free-software movement, and the potential it provides for open inforamtion exchange, open exchange of goods and services OUTSIDE the mainstream. For instance: Knowledge is controlled to a certain extent by universities. why? because you had to go there to hear professors speak on a topic. were they the best speakers? the smartest people? prob not… but what if you had access to the smartest speakers on a topic, over the web? access to all thieir books free over the web? access to textbooks etc. (see to imagine how it might be possible). Ditto with radio waves. Enter internet radio (yes they are getting hammered by royalty fees, but what if 5%, 10%, 50% of musicians start publishing their music on their own, outside of Sony?).

Anyway there is much work to do, and unifying these movements (say labour(?) free software, agriculture, culture, energy) is the grand anarchist project of the future, and one that to me, for the first time, seems possible due to advances, and the incredible SUCCESS of free software.