politics, instability, open source, stability

Some other general political thoughts – and a reference to open source & computer networks at the end. There has been a general tendency recently in the developing world to elect what could be called “anti-US” governments: Hamas in Palestine, and, say the sweeping leftism in South America: Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Bachelet in Chile, Lulu in Brazil, Vázquez in Uruguay, and maybe Kirchner in Argentina. There are likely more, elsewhere.

All of these are considered “worrying” by the policy-makers in USA; yet most of these elections were considered fair. The question worth asking is, why do countries in the South keep electing governments that the US is opposed to (publicly and privately)?

And I suggest that the answer is this: the policies that the US exports, and the governments they support, have not done a very good job of providing for their populations. So the global status quo (as defined by US and its allies) is not a very stable system – or at least it won’t be unless the Northern policies are adapted to accomodate the shifts in the south.

Something similar happened during and after the 1929-39 Depression in North America. The late 1800s to late teens of the 20th C saw a radical shift in industrialization; huge production, technological advances, etc twinned with terrible conditions for workers. To avoid revolution, and total chaos in our governing and social systems, we built a social safety net, worker safety conditions, worker rights etc. Which in fact either brought on, or at least paralleled the most prosperous era in the history of humanity. Is that a coincidence?

Capitalism, unfettered, leans towards massive exploitation – of workers and consumers – monopolies, and destruction. Unattended capitalism will tend to be very lucrative for a few, and very destructive for the rest.

Socialism, unfettered, leans towards inefficiency and unnecessary government intervention.

Somewhere between the two is a balance that’s probably the optimum for the global system (though the variables are changing: oil prices, and climate change being the two biggies, I think, which are likely to throw everything out of whack in the near future). We’ve seen a massive shift to the right in the US; and much of the rest of the world is shifting in the other direction. And I suggest that if the US starts creeping towards the centre the balances on the other side will too; but the US – being the powerful beast – needs to examine why the rest of the world is reacting the way it is, and where they need to change their policies, not just their communication strategies.

All this makes me think about (much less complex) open source systems – like LibriVox, or more obviously wikipedia – that are self-stabilizing through open input; and also extremely efficient at producing “useful work” from idle hours. I’m not sure what the connection is exactly, but I keep thinking about politics from an open source perspective: how to bring the efficiencies and stability inherent in open source systems to our political structures?

Anyone know the answer?

Wikipedia, LibriVox & a Librarian

Repost from librivox.org:

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

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.

rms vs creative commons @ copyright2005

rms @ copyright2005
flickr pic by francois@edito.qc.ca

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.

indymeda.quebec 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.