shaking off the doldrums?

I’m finally getting excited again about web tech. i dipped my toes in this new world in the fall of 2004, when I started reading about free software, discovered wikipedia, figured out I could write stuff on the web. Then came a couple of years of really exciting stuff … LibriVox and collectik being two results, but also figuring out podcasting and RSS etc.

But I’ve always maintained that the tools are not interesting, it’s what happens with the tools.

The past few months I’ve felt a bit blase about the whole thing: it seems like we’ve got it all figured out, OK, wikis, sure, open movement, great, blogging, video, OK OK I get it. Great. We know what it’s all about. Twitter – fun, and useful, but not going to change the world. Facebook, linked-in…OK! Leave me alone.

But lately there’s been some rippling, and it feels as if all this stuff is starting to leak into more interesting areas. Freebase, for instance, will be a hugely useful tool, I am sure. I already have a couple of ideas, but there will be many exciting things to come out of that. Think google maps for data, maybe, and hence far more useful. The Encyclopedia of Life, a wiki-style project, focused on biology, will be fantastic. Such targeted wiki-style projects will sprout all over soon, since wikipedia has convinced people of the feasibility of this mode of information organization. We need this for politics, and health, among other things. Many other things. Openmedicine.ca is fantastic. So more and more is starting to roll out. Pushed not by geeks but by other people. Wonderful.

It occurred to me, as I listened [mp3] to E.O. Wilson talk about the Encyclopedia of Life that there’s still the old problem of human nature, power and the spread of info. It’s one thing to have every bit of information you could want at the tip of your fingers – another thing altogether to make sure that benefits more than just you and your buddies.

Any ideas anyone?


Categories: free software

microsoft: use windows or we’ll sue

From boingboing:

Microsoft has announced that Free Software users — including everyone who … uses Ubuntu Linux — are violating at least 235 of Microsoft’s patents, though they don’t say which ones. Microsoft are now threatening end users of GNU/Linux (that’s you and me again) with lawsuits unless we pay them protection money. “Nice operating system you got there, it’d be a shame if something were to happen to it.”

For the original article in Fortune, see: Microsoft takes on the free world.


NeoOffice

I just made the switch to NeoOffice, the Mac version of OpenOffice, which is free software versions of Microsoft Office products (word, excel, powerpoint).

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long. When I first tried to get OpenOffice running on my mac, it required the dreaded “terminal” … and was beyond my minimal geekdom. I later tried NeoOffice, but it was buggy, and crashed a couple of times while I was writing novel chapters, so that was the end of that. Probably 2 years ago?

I’d heard the new versions (well, probably for a year or more), were stable, slick and nice-looking. And it is. The transfer has been totally painless.


BookReview: Wealth of Networks

The Wealth of Networks

Book by Yochai Benkler


A comprehensive and exhaustive book about the open movement (free software, wikipedia, blogging, flickr, creative commons, crowdsourcing etc) of which LibriVox is an enthusiastic member. Not for the faint-hearted, this book is dense, big and academic in approach, but refreshingly rigourous, with significant attention paid to law, economics, and history as well as softer moral/ethical considerations. The history of radio (fascinating) & laws around who can broacast what; net neutrality; patatent law and innovation; SETI@home; copyright law; and much more all get detailed treatment.

This book really brings everything together, and for anyone serious about collaborative approach to solving problems, this one is a must. Especially for you academics out there. But everyone else should read it too.

You can get the book online here, in pdf, html, or wiki formats … or you can even buy it at amazon. There’s an extensive wiki too, to contribute to the project, here.

My rating: 5 stars
*****


Software Licenses & Climate

WordwebPro is, apparently a good dictionary/thesaurus ap for Windows, and it’s free, which is not all that interesting. What is interesting is this provision in their free license:

WordWeb may be freely used only by people who meet the conditions below.

Global greenhouse gas emissions are currently around 1 tonne per person per year, and need to be greatly reduced to avoid catastrophic warming this century. Most computer users are responsible for far more emissions than is sustainable. For example one medium distance return flight can be warming-equivalent to over 1 tonne of emissions: more than an average person should be emitting in an entire year. A typical SUV causes about twice as much warming per mile as a typical normal European car: 10,000 miles of travel in an SUV is responsible for about 5 tonnes of emissions. Offsetting emissions is no substitute for direct cuts.

You may use the program free of charge indefinitely only if
* You take at most 4 flights (2 return flights) in any 12 month period
* AND you do not own or regularly drive an SUV (sports utility vehicle).

Surely not effective on its own as a way of making a difference, but it is a curious and interesting extension of the copyleft mechanisms developed in the free software movement: to stipulate legal/moral obligations to use a particular piece of code, but extending those obligations beyond the normal provisions of software licenses.

I don’t know how legal such things are, but it’s very very interesting, and very creative.


events

A couple of events to attend:


art, society, data, stability

I haven’t written a ramble in a while. Here’s one:

I had an impromptu drink with Boris the other night – unfortunately the other brain I seem to be feeding off of a lot lately wasn’t there.

We rambled about art, data, open source, society, flexibility, stability, evolution to touch on a few things.

My experience with the open project LibriVox has been very interesting, and has influenced my thinking about a lot of what we talked about: it started small, and grew and grew; in about four places it encountered major environmental challenges – mainly having to do with putting together the structures to let the project accomodate more volunteers, and more projects. At 10 people and a couple of projects it was OK with me running the thing, and some help on the website design; then it went up to 50 volunteers and 10 projects, and I needed help, and a new mode of managing people and projects; the help appeared. It cranked up to 250 volunteers, and 40 projects; more help & organization was needed; it appeared. We’re now up to 1000+ volunteers and something like 150 active projects. Needing more structure and more support. It came.

Because the project was open everytime a major problem presented itself, someone seemed to be there who had just the skills needed (designing the site for clarity, setting up a forum, cataloging, documenting, setting up a wiki, a promo poster, catalog software). Like an organism encountering environmental challenges, LibriVox was flexible and open enough to easily evolve into something able to handle the new demands. One hopes it will continue to do so.

Is there anything in the little microcosm of LibriVox worth thinking about in a bigger context?

Boris gave this interesting visualization about society. (Boris can you draw it so I can link to a pic?) Imagine a bell curve, moving from left to right along a time axis. Stick a couple of wheels under the middle of the curve: the wheels are industry – driving things forward; the big hump is regular society who go along with things; and the front angle part of the bell-curve/snowplow are the out-there artists at the far tip, and then creative types who interact with industry making up the rest of the angle. There’s some interaction between the two. The artists are at the forefront, are misunderstood, and suffer the greatest amount of attrition because they are battling directly against the universe – in a way they both lead the way for the rest of society, and introduce us to, and protect us from, the new. You can go on about this metaphor, but probably there’s an optimal steepness of the curve – steeper meaning more arty & creative types.

I’ve seen two arty shows recently: Marie Chouinard’s dance show Body Remix/Goldberg Variations; and Anslem Kiefer’s Heaven & Earth. Neither was “beautiful” in any standard sense, but in both cases my mind was flying the whole time I was experiencing them. I don’t know what I was thinking about, but these two big shows — both very intellectual, and very abstract — had my mind whirrling around at top speed. There was something about the depth of the data transfer to me — chaotic and not really articulable by me — that influenced me in profound ways both times. And I think this is what Boris was talking about, about art, especiallly challenging art, communicating information about the universe that we are not really able to comprehend in any systematic way: we can take a bash at it, we can define & systematize, but the chaotic and big nature of out-there art is precisely powerful because we can’t describe it properly. By it’s nature it’s beyond a complete intellectual definition; so much data referring to so much, interacting with our own particular data processing systems. But somehow there is great value in that process, because it forces me to *try* (we are, after all, so earnest we humans) to process the data, and in doing so I reform my brain paths, and evolve my brain to try to cope with a changing universe.

And this, maybe, is why the free software/open source and open data movement is actually of huge importance. An open source approach to problems, along with an open data approach to the world will allow “us” to a) have access to the data we need to solve problems and b) allow all of us to contribute to the solving of these problems in open source projects.

I have a feeling that the world will become more chaotic soon. Two things in particular make me worried: climate change, and oil supplies. Those two issues are catastrophic in ways that most people aren’t willing to admit: human civilization has developed over a small band of time, the last 10,000 years, with relatively warm & relatively stable climate (scroll down to chart: “Temperature of Lower Atmosphere Last 400,000 years“). If things get unstable, we’ll be in trouble. As for oil everything in our modern world is based on cheap available oil, particularly our food-supply system. Without cheap fuel for farm equipment, and food transport, we’re in big trouble.

So if you consider that:
a) major environmental challenges (ie. global upheaval) are on the way
b) successful organisms are those that best adapt to environmental challenges
c) providing the maximum amount of data to maximum number of people will allow maximum adaptibility
d) and supporting open source solutions to problems is the most flexible & adaptable approach

Then any society that does not support open access to civic data; and open source solutions to problems … is likely to have major troubles soon. This is the next level of democracy … data democracy, and is I think crucial for our survival. Maybe that’s too much; but a country (say Canada) that embraces data democracy, will inevitably become more flexible, more nimble and more innovative in its solutions.

Do you think our politicians are at all ready to think about this? There’s a new, not yet public project, called civicaccess.ca, that will try to convince governments to start. Good work Mike.


what is the open movement?

So a few Montreal geeky types convened at the Office (aka Laika) for a sort-of impromptu discussion to try to figure out what the hell is going on in the world, and specifically what this “Open Movent” might be, and what connections we can draw (if any) between it’s various strands: that is, are there any connection between:

The group was mainly geeks, and unfortunately Devlin couldn’t make it. That’s too bad because Devlin isn’t a geek, and works in agricultural IP issues, mostly in the South (ie developing countries) and his take on things might have helped us find the root we couldn’t grasp: biotech/IP issues are important in those countries because they have a direct impact on farmers’ choices about how they feed their families, how they live – if they can feed their families – and so are, in some sense, more critical than what we were talking about.

But I feel that there is an important link between all these things, a link that is very difficult to articulate because all these “sectors” talk in very different words, and are motivated by very different things. The hard-core geeks and the creative commons artistic freedom fighters are not necessarily talking about the same things, and probably wouldn’t agree on much.

Julien assigned me the task of summarizing the 1.5 hr discussion, but I don’t think I’ll do that. It would be a disservice, and I’m much more interested in what those attending have to say themselves (get writing!) than trying to interpret what they had to say, and butchering their thoughts in the process. Still, what I’ll try to do is summarize my perspective of things, after trying to absorb the discussions. I’ll probably leave out things like “I think” and “in my opinion” and “as steve said” etc…Take what comes below as an open reflection that could encourage comment & discussion, and not exactly my categorical statement of Reality in the Universe (although it might sound like that).

To start with, there are links, they are important, and figuring out what those links are is important. But all these “new movements” are in fact not new at all: the various principles the intellectual movements are built on (say: freedom, equality, access to data/information) are all old successful ideas. Ideas that are compelling because they appeal to successful and enduring notions in many cultures. For instance: sharing is good (kindergarten class #1), everyone should have access to knowledge (public libraries, public schools), a society should try to give everyone the same opportunities – ie you shouldn’t be explicitly barred from doing something because of race, creed, colour; but we might not do too much to help you.

These ideas are not at all universal, but just happen to be prevailing ideas of our particularly successful (ie good at economic & military dominance) western liberal democracies. We happen to be at the top of the heap right now. Meaning we’ve been successful, but not necessarily meaning that the Universe has designated us Kings of the Planet.

Note also: Not everyone is motivated by such abstract ideas. This is something that Mike speaks of with great passion from his experience at ISF: many people are involved because they like coding, they like wires & antennae, they like fiddling with projects, tinkering, building. That they’re doing something for the “good of humanity” (freedom etc) might be important to some, but it’s certainly not the universal motivator. Some couldn’t care less.

So here’s what I think: Humans are programmed to find ways to overcome environmental challenges, and to get pleasure from overcoming them (which encourages them to overcome them). If you look at the history of human civilization, you could look at it as a series of problems: access to water, access to food, access to heat/energy, access to clothing, access to shelter, access to mates. “Civilization” is an evolving process which morphs based on a lack of any combination of those, and cultures develop as codified ways to meet those needs, in more and more complex ways, generally for more people. Wars start when one culture’s need for one thing rams up against another culture’s need for another; successful cultures are the ones that win wars, and gain access to what they need; or cultures that succeed in negotiating in some non-war way. Unsuccessful cultures don’t win the wars, and get denied access to varying degrees. Similarly within a culture you’ve got warring factions all fighting for bits of the stuff that satisfies those needs. And the drive for wealth, the drive for power etc. is a sensible thing to have within the system of a culture because it means that the culture, as a system, will be driven to maintain access to the things which fulfil those base needs. As the world & it’s cultures get more complex, this need is abstracted out to other things. So you get art, computer games, religion etc. But in a way that’s just a fetishized expression of the same thing. (That guy’s pyramid, whatever his name is). Even when you have all the water, food, mates etc you could possibly want, your drive to solve those problems is still there; your drive to solve problems full-stop is still there. Otherwise you would fade away. That drive to solve problems manifests itself in art, in the joy of coding, in building bookshelves…anytime you “do” something, accomplish something, build something, and you feel good about it, you’ve filling that need; and the pleasure you get out of it is a genetic signal that you’re a functioning human. There are of course exceptions, but bear with me.

So: Humans are happiest when they build things (whether that’s a poem, a bridge, a printer driver code, or a field of corn, a new way to generate energy, a library, a community of freedom-fighting geeks). Let’s say we are genetically (culturally?) programmed to get satisfaction from completing tasks, making something. Some tasks are more fulfilling than others, but in general even completing excruciatingly boring tasks results in a pleasing feeling. You can describe this in many different ways, but we generally feel pride and happiness about accomplishments.

We use various tools to accomplish these tasks, to build things & do things. Hammers and ibooks, and apple scripts, paintbrushes, shovels, encyclopedias, calculators. And people who are driven to build things (say, the tinkerers, the programmers, the car buffs and the CEOs, the politicians & the activists) are pretty pissed when they are told that they cannot make the tools they use better. So when, for instance, a software company gives you a tool to do a job, and you say to yourself, this is OK but what I really want is THIS; but the software company says: you cannot change the tool to do THIS, you can only do THAT. Well that pisses off someone who has a job to do, an inefficient tool, the means to make that bad tool into a good tool; but gets artificially prevented from improving that tool by IP protections. That, I think, is the root of the Free Software movement. That a non-free software system that doesn’t allow tool users to use tools the way they want, and to improve those tools offends their general desire to build things and do things. If you have a bad tool and the means to make it a good tool, it’s really shitty not to be able to make it a good tool.

Now you can abstract THAT out to everything else related. Art, data, scientific research, education, seeds etc. are all tools used to solve problems. Those problems could be very base & important (how do I feed my family), or very trivial (how do I make a better songlist in iTunes), but we are driven to DO these things and build these things and solve problems; and that we are driven this way means that we as a species are good at overcoming environmental challenges. ie It has been essential for our survival that this be the case.

So I *think* this open movement is about something very fundamental to the survival of the human species, that is: we want the ability to get and use tools to solve whatever problems we deem worth solving.

The free movement is about defending this fundemental need of humans to use tools as they wish, for purposes they wish, and with whatever modifications they wish. And the different strands grow out of different people’s interest in different tools (encyclopedias or bits of code, or music samples). So we are against:

And we are for: Allowing humans to use their tools as they see fit, and to modify their tools if they want to modify them so that they are better at solving problems. By “opening” this stuff up, we give humans access to more data and more ability to solve problems (trivial, critical) in creative ways. The Open movement has huge implications for the future survival of cultures, and perhaps the species.

NOTE about participants (ie people who happened to be there): brett (videoblogger & film maker), mike (isf founder & general free movement spitter), robin (anarchist software developer), steve (builder of opensource tools for scientific collaboration), julien (ace podcaster), and me (in my LibriVox hat, I guess). Ella, an artist & blogger and non-boy popped over to our table a couple of times, but I think we were stupidly much less welcoming than we should have been – more out of intentness of our conversation than anything conscious – and I would like to personally apologize for that.


Categories: art, best, free software

openmovement: my first vlog

Brett issued a challenge in his last vlog, which was a response to the recent intense discussion we had at Laika about the open movement, what’s going on and what it all might mean. I wrote a long post about that discussion below, and here is my effort to make a vlog about my thoughts. Some notes:

Recorded Sunday March 26, 2006 at 8:15-8:45am while walking around my home at de Bullion & Pins in Montreal. It was a bit wierd talking to myself while walking around with a camera in my hand.

In this video I refer to this post about our Laika meeting here; and my description of Boris’s snowplow analogy here.
And, here is my first vlog:
openmovement-hugh.mov


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.