violins, librivox, and beauty in chaos

Posted on the LivriVox forum, but I thought it was worth repeating here on dose.

One of the things I (personally) like about many podcasts is how … crappy! … they are. I don’t mean the facetiously, I mean that very honestly. I like that people cough and you hear the trucks roll by, and things are messy and badly-produced etc. It is like real life, unlike the polished stuff you get on TV and Radio & movies, which is fantasy.

And this is something I love about LibriVox. It is a bit of a revolutionary act to say: I wish to listen to a book recorded by a bunch of people, only some of whom are good readers! I want to listen to the words, and to the voices of these average joes & janes reading, the same as I remember my mother reading to me as a kid, and the librarian who used to read to us in school. It’s a rejection of the need for polish, for perfection, for style; choosing instead the substance of the text, and the reality of a real real flawed person like me doing their best to read something they love.

And I think this notion is not so easy to understand – why would I want to listen to something imperfect? Well, for me, because that perfectiion is a sham, and it’s unnecessary and it distracts from the text in a way.

I have a friend here who is a improvisational jazz violinist, Malcolm Goldstein.

the first time I head him play I thought “what the HELLL is this? It’s noise!” But what he’s asking you to do is listen to OTHER things, not the melody & harmony and all the easy things we associate with music, but something else, the underpinnings of the sound, the textures of the noises, the surprise, different cadence. And this is tied in with what the world is really like: it is not so ordered, so clean…it’s very messy and chaotic, but we are trained not to like this aspect of the world, not to like the flaws and imperfection. One reason we are taught to want perfection is that if we don,t like flaws we are easier targets for corporate marketers who sell perfection. Yet there is such beauty in that mess, if you pay attention to it in a different way, there is so much to be learned from chaos and flaws and mistakes. But you have to unlearn how to listen for it.

In the same way, I think (and this is just my personal take) LibriVox is a place that celebrates the flaws, the beauty in chaos, the messiness of life, but interpreted through the great works of literature of the world. we take raw materials and build with our voices something different, but I think something revolutionary, and we say: because it sounds like THAT over there, does not mean it has to sound like that here. We give you something different, and you can give something different too.

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

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.

let’s put it ALL online: brewster kahle

IT conversations, a site that broacasts talks by leading thinkers on all things informational-technology-y, brings this (awe)-inspiring talk which argues that everything, every book and every song & movie, every recorded lecture, everything ought to be, and can feasibly (!) be put online, for anyone to access.

Brewster Kahle, currently leads the Internet Archive (and various previous successes), a repository of everything media, which, among all sorts of amazing things, offers stogage space, for free, for life, for anything published under a Creative Commons license. Among the many many great things in this very brief talk, Kahle mentions, the IA’s collection of lego movies.

If you worry about your ideals, and think the Machine is too big to fight against, listen to this and have some hope. Universal Access to All Human Knowlegde. A worthy, and you will be convinced, possible goal. The question is how many of you will help push for it? (Me included).

The amazing thing, though, is imagining how anyone could argue against this project…but I am sure the lawyers are lining up.

Kahle gets extra points for suing the US goverment to allow out-of-print (but copyrighted) books to be scanned and put online, but even without extra points, he makes it to the top of my “most exciting audio streams” list for 2005.

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.