Categories: art, books, librivox, myprojects

70 Works: March Madness

LibriVox had a March Madness campaign – a concerted effort to finish as many public domain books as we could in the month of March.

We finished SEVENTY!

Yes, 7-0 works of great literature. That’s pretty crazy. I didn’t do much to contribute, I must say, but I am proud as punch.

Categories: audio, librivox, media

Darwin’s Origin of Species – audio

Boing Boing reports that LibriVox just released an audio version of:

On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,
by Charles Darwin

Twenty-four hours of audio/biology/history goodness. This project was a real battle to get finished (I’ve got a chapter in there), so congrats to the many hands that made it happen.

podcamp toronto was great …

fantastic organization, kudos to the putters-togetherers, and I’ll point out some cool projects shortly.

But please, please, please make this phrase disappear.

(PS, thanks for the ride home Bob).

UPDATE: you can see vids of the event, including some footage of me, here.

conservative vs progressive, and openness

I’ve been thinking lately about evolution and politics. All this comes out of a revelation I had in the early days of LibriVox, that as an open project, the whole thing – the system – evolved like an organism, getting more complex in response to environmental challenges. More readers, more books, more languages, more projects required a slow evolution of a management from “Hugh collects the files and then uploads” to something very different. We currently have 338 active projects, representing probably 5,000 or more individual audio files – all of which must be collected, checked, named, assigned metadata, and eventually uploaded, and cataloged. That’s a lot of work. Point is that the management system, is very complex, and it evolved in a way that I expect looks a lot (on a small/sped-up scale) like how political systems evolve.

On the conservative/progressive split, there’s an old saw in US politics that the left thinks the right is evil, and the right thinks the left is stupid. Neither is true, of course, or not entirely true, and I think there’s an unwillingness, and sometimes just an inability to understand where the other side comes from. Maybe evolution is useful model to explain things.

Conservatives, generally, appeal to how things have been and claim that we shouldn’t change what’s worked in the past. There’s a sense to that, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.

Progressives, on the other hand, appeal to how things ought to be and claim we should change things to make it work better or differently. There’s a sense to that, that changing environments call for changed response.

By this nomenclature the Bush White House was filled with Progressives, in the sense that they decided to junk the past 50 years of diplomatic standards and wisdom – rule of law, international agreement, importance of history and understanding of the enemy, experience of occupying forces etc – in exchange for a bold new vision of transforming democracy. They thought the purity of the ideal would be enough to carry the day. While the liberals [what was left of them] argued for, essentially, a realist foreign policy approach, more cautionary, and more tied to past experience. The Bush Progressives were shown to be naive at best. And many other things at worst.

I am a temperamental conservative, and an intellectual progressive. Even within LibriVox (a progressive project, I guess), now that we have a system that works pretty well, I am always loathe to change many things substantially, since I worry about the unforeseen impacts changes might have. Because the system evolved through an unknowable cocktail of influences and reactions, I don’t like tinkering with certain of the intangibles, especially the ones whose influence is uncalculable. For instance, there has been a movement to change the disclaimer that comes at the start of our recordings (This is a LibriVox recording, all LibriVox recordings are in the public domain, to find out more or to volunteer, visit; I have resisted in part because I have an intuition that this disclaimer has had some kind of impact on the creation of the community that makes LibriVox succeed. Reciting it, in some sense, joins us all into a common cause, and that makes for a tighter-kint group – actually, some call us a cult!).

Slipping back to the evolutionary model: as the environment changes radically (say, political, economic, or ecological) there is tension between the conservatives and progressives. Conservatives look back and say: it worked before, it’ll keep working. While the progressives look forward and say, we must change! Without having much idea if it will work.

So I’d argue that a healthy society will allow for strong interplay between the two tendencies, the stabilizing force of conservatism, and the evolving force of progressivism. Balanced against the uncertainty of progressive solutions and the rigid inability of conservatives to change with changing circumstances.

Which is one of the reasons I think we need to find new ways to make democracy work. We need to open the process more, to put more of the decision-making process (and the data behind it) into the hands of the people. Our democratic system is very rigid, and does not change easily. One way to change that is to get the data out, to let people find solutions that might be better than the ones the paid beurocrats dream up.

Because I have a feeling – with peak oil, climate change, population growth, the rising power of china and india, political instability in the Middle East, and the newish digital universe – that we are in for a rocky road in the coming decades, and we’ll need to marshall new tools for addressing those problems. Open democracy, open data, is one way to spread the decision-making ability to a bigger, more complex, and more nimble system.

Categories: librivox, openmovement

from TextoSolvo: Clarity (Why It Worked #1)

NOTE: I was in a bit of a conundrum about what to do with TextoSolvo vs. dose, and decided to just cross-post TextoSolvo articles (which are mostly about LibriVox) here.

This is a cross-post.

In the rough project outline I gave a long list of some of the reasons I think LibriVox has been successful. I’m going to try to write about each one separately, and in no particular order. This post is about Clarity, in my opinion the most important pragmatic (rather than thematic) reasons for success of LibriVox. Clarity comes in a variety of guises, all of them important and I’ll touch on each of them individually:

  1. Clarity of Purpose – what are you doing?
  2. Clarity of Language – use plain, exact English (or whatever language you are using)
  3. Clarity of Participation – give people an action they can do right away to participate
  4. Clarity of Process – how does it work? make barriers for entry low. make it clear how it works.
  5. Clarity of Policies – as the project evolves, you need simple, clear policies (less important in the early days)

Clarity is important in any enterprise (hence the 80s/90s/00s fetish for mission statements etc), but that’s especially true in an open web project. If you want to get volunteers involved in what you are doing you need to immeditately let them know:

a) what you are doing
b) how they can contribute

If someone comes to a website and has to read through long texts explaining who started a project, why it was started, what tools are used (technological, management, back-end etc), what influenced the project, what inspired it, or other extraneous information, you will quickly lose the majority of your potential volunteers. Some will read through, but the majority will not. And once “inside” the project, clarity is no less important.

Clarity of Purpose
This is probably the most important of all. Being clear about your purpose is so important because it helps a new web visitor decide whether what you are doing is interesting or not. By purpose, the focus should be: “What are we trying to do?” Leave the politics, ideals etc. out of it. If your purpose is clear, people can make their own decisions about whether or not they want to join you. Consider the most successful of the non-software open projects, Wikipedia. Here’s their purpose:

Wikipedia: the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit.

Contained in that purpose is everything you need to know about the project:

  1. it is an encyclopedia
  2. it is free
  3. you can edit it

Note that you can be interested in 1 & 2, without being concerned by 3. And that’s another thing about open projects – they should be useful no matter what your participation level. The wiki reader:editor ration is, I am told, 50:1 … meaning there are 50 people who use Wikipedia as an information source for every one person who edits.

The beauty of that purpose tho is how clear it is.

Clarity of Language
Turning to LibriVox, compare this slightly baffling introduction text I started with on project launch in August 2005:

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 (?).

Good: It tells you what you need to know.
Bad: It’s wordy, and filled with jargon that only certain tech-heads would understand (podcasting, open source, audio-literary).

Luckily the original “market” for volunteers could decipher those jargony words – in fact it was just that group of sophisticated techies interested in Creative Commons, podcasting, copyright issues, open source that would be able to figure out what LibriVox was all about. But as the project got a bit bigger, the early group of volunteers pared things down and now the “About” text says:

LibriVox volunteers record chapters of books in the public domain and release the audio files back onto the net. Our goal is to make all public domain books available as free audio books. We are a totally volunteer, open source, free content, public domain project.

Maybe still a bit long compared to Wikipedia, but everything you need to know is there, in plain English. The jargon is at the end, which isn’t great, but it’s still important info.
The tag-line, however is still pretty high-falutin:

accoustical liberation of books in the public domain

Which should probably be changed to:

free public domain audio books

Still, I’m a bit of a sucker for lofty ideals, and the high-falutin one maybe does a better job of articulating the dream behind the project, rather than the nuts-and-bolts.

Clarity of Participation
So now you’ve described what you’re about; your visitor has decided whether or not she is interested in your project. Now you have to tell her what she can do to participate. There is a famous website from the US Department of Agriculture that was developed to help the market for buying and selling hay (Haynet … defunct, but the wayback machine provides the preceding link). The site is so simple, not flashy, and lets users decide what they want to do in clear simple English. Need Hay? click here. Have Hay? click here.

Since LibriVox has two potential “markets” – listeners, and volunteers – we used this model, and split the screen into two options: Read/Listen.

And crucially we provided actions for either one: buttons to press to take you where you want to go. That’s important too – if you want people to participate in something, you have to give them a call to action. Read? Listen? You decide, and by deciding you’re already on your way to doing whatever it is you’d like to do. You can abandon ship if you like, but most people who click through to one or the other option are likely to keep going.

Clarity of Process
You’ve hooked people in this far, and this is where, truth be told, things get more complicated. The LibriVox process is “simple,” in a way, but it does require some thinking. The important thing here is to make sure your volunteers understand the bare essentials of how things work, and that they not be frightened by how complicated it is. In the case of LibriVox, our process doc looks like this:

1. a book coordinator posts a book (with chapter info) in the Readers Wanted Section.
2. volunteers “claim” chapters to read
3. the readers record their chapters in digital format
4. the book coordinator collects all the files of all the chapters
5. the book coordinator sends the collected files to a “metadata coordinator”
6. we check the files for technical problems in the Listeners Wanted section
7. the metadata coordinator uploads and catalogs the files… working their secret magic
8. yet another public domain audiobook is made available for free!

In fact it’s a bit more complicated, but that gives an interested reader a sense of how things happen. The important thing is that they can get a snapshot of what goes on, see that the process is relatively straightforward, and understand that their participation is a manageable chunk. Thats a hugely imporant issue, for another post, that you want your first-time contributors to feel that participating is easy, and small, that they will not get roped into a complicated project they are not prepared for. Some LV contributors record one mp3 for us and that’s it. Others do many. And some get obsessed and end up running the project. You need all three types of contributors to succeed, and you have to make sure you take care of all of them.

Clarity of Policies
This last issue is really important as the project gets bigger. In the early days of LibriVox, we had a small group of dedicated participants who all had a shared understanding of what we were doing and why. But as it gets bigger, more people come, more questions get asked and some controversies come up. It really saves a lot of headache if you can define you base policies right away. In the case of LibriVox, here’s what we came to as fundamental principles:

  • Librivox is a non-commercial, non-profit and ad-free project
  • Librivox donates its recordings to the public domain
  • Librivox is powered by volunteers
  • Librivox maintains a loose and open structure
  • Librivox welcomes all volunteers from across the globe

The most important principles there are: no ads; all recordings in public domain (not creative commons); no one is getting paid; we’ll take any language; and the project is open. In addition to these principles, we’ve developed a few policies that help guide what we are doing:

  • we only accept published texts in the public domain (no self-published, creative commons stuff)
  • everything done for LibriVox is public domain – audio, images, text etc… this just makes life so much easier
  • no criticism of reading styles allowed on the forum (unless requested by the reader) – this one is controversial, and I’ll address it separately later
  • be nice – we have a pretty stringent non-flaming policy on the forum which has come under some fire, but the result is that we have among the friendliest forums you’ll find on the net – which helps keep volunteers around

The policies cover a number of things, but it’s been helpful to limit what texts we can take. And on the other issues we tend to make policies that help make volunteers comfortable about participating. That’s been such a huge part of our success, I think, cultivating that sense of a supportive community of volunteers – rather than the more critical communities that are elsewhere.


Clarity in what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how people can participate is of utmost importance if you want to compete for eyeballs, and more importantly participants in this busy web world. If you feel passionate about something, chances are others will too. Trust that passion, but be careful to articulate exactly what it is you are trying to do. Leave out the politics, the ideals, the history, or at least leave it off the front page. All those things might be important to you, but they might be less important to others. Focus on exactly what you want to do. Tell people in clear English. Give them a clear path to participation. And as things develop, make sure you head off complicated conundrums by making your policies clear.

If you do all that, and if you manage to pave a way for others who share your passion to easily participate, you’re on your way.

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, 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, 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!