Categories: data, openmovement

Open Dinosaur Project

This, I love:

The Open Dinosaur Project was founded to involve scientists and the public alike in developing a comprehensive database of dinosaur limb bone measurements, to investigate questions of dinosaur function and evolution. We have three major goals:1) do good science; 2) do this science in the most open way possible; and 3) allow anyone who is interested to participate. And by anyone, we mean anyone! We do not care about your education, geographic location, age, or previous background with paleontology. The only requirement for joining us is that you share the goals of our project and are willing to help out in the efforts.

Want to sign up? Email project head Andy Farke (, and welcome aboard!

[via datalibre]

Beers for Canada: Fundraiser

beers for canadaFor the price of a beer (or a pitcher, or a round), you can support … the non-profit that promotes online tools for government transparency, openness and accessibility around government and civic data (yay!).

They’ve got a little fundraiser going, in celebration of Canada Day: Beers for Canada

How we’ll spend your money

We work on several aspects of transparency:

Creating new tools: We work with developers and designers to build websites that encourage citizens and governments to communicate openly.
Encouraging government openness: We show elected officials the benefits of open, two-way discourse, highlighting places where information is lacking and celebrating the efforts of those who want to be more transparent.
Public awareness: We emphasize the civic importance of transparency and open government.
Working with other organizations: We share and collaborate with organizations like the Sunlight Foundation, MySociety and Changecamp.

We’re also organizing Code For Canada, an application design competition that awards prizes to people who build web, facebook, and iPhone apps that provide visualization, analysis, and access to federal government data sets.

So, go support a worthy cause.

Bookcamp: The Books Are All Right

[x-posted at Book Oven & Huffpo]

bookcamplogoAs the death watch continues for the publishing business and perhaps even the book itself, a group of writers, technologists, publishers, agents, designers, booksellers, and social architects convened in London for BookCamp, a one-day thinking session (bookish experimentation) about what the future of the written word might be.

The event was organized by Jeremy Ettinghausen, digital publisher at Penguin UK; James Bridle, of BookTwo, and Bookkake; and Russel Davies.

Thinking about books

If the amount of thought and enthusiasm generated that day — and evening — is any indication, I think we’re going to be OK. The book is alive and well, even if defining “book” is becoming more complicated; and the publishing business, bracing itself for the biggest shake-up since the paperback, will come out the other end, transformed certainly, but alive nonetheless. That’s my projection anyway.

An open slate

If you’ve never been to a “camp” or “unconference,” you should find the next one near you, show up and dive in. These un/conferences vary from place to place and event to event, but tend to share a few characteristics: they are free, they are open, and the sessions are not formally presented by the organizers, but rather decided by participants. Everyone is supposed to contribute. The result is that you get a much wider mix of people and perspectives than at industry conferences.

BookCamp London started with a blank grid: 6 timeslots and 5 spaces (or 5 spaces, 6 timeslots?), with participants asked to fill in the grid, adding sessions they’d like to discuss. (For some reason I didn’t write anything in. First time I’ve ducked that responsibility at a camp.)

The sessions

ebook gadgetsSessions included (paraphrasing titles): Talking to Terrified Writers about the Web, the Book as Social Object/What Happens When Books Are Free?, EBook Gadgets, Is the Web Making Writing More Oral?, Social Networks and the Book, Encouraging Kids to Read. And more.

Fellow-BookOvener Suw Charman-Anderson lead a session about the Book as Social Object; or, What happens when all books are free? The group struggled with this difficult question: what happens if writers can no longer make their money from just selling books? The answer wasn’t so clear, but several things are certain: ebooks are coming; DRM won’t stop infinite reproduction on the web; no one likes DRM; and no one really knows how the business is going to work in a decade. But music, for all the worries about the industry at the corporate level, is thriving. How will writing evolve?

book as social objectThe next session I attended was Bookkake: How to Start a Publishing Company in Your Bedroom. James Bridle,Bookkake founder & BookTwo writer, has published new editions of five public domain titles, using ebooks, print-on-demand, and covers designed from photos on Flickr. An inspiring view of indie publishing’s future.

Michael Bhaskar of Pan Macmillan hosted a session on the web and the increasing orality of text, how text is taking on characteristics that we once associated with oral communications: quick feedback, ephemeral, linear, disposable ; Mark Johnson and Kate Hyde of HarperCollins (and Authonomy and BookArmy) lead a discussion of social networks and the book, that the successes and challenges they’ve had with their initiatives.

talking about networks

Speaking of books ….

In addition to enjoying talking with these smart people, I had great conversations with too many more to list, but some particularly good ones with Peter Collinridge of Apt Studio, Anthony Topping, of lit agents Greene & Heaton, Lucy Crichton, Alex Ingram, digital buyer at UK bookseller Waterstones, Naomi Alderman, and Adrian Hon. It was also nice to see some familiar faces, Aaron Straup Cope of Flickr, and Matt Biddulph of Dopplr, as well as Cory Doctorow, who I’ve crossed paths with numerous times online, but never met in person.

It was a great event, and I am very happy I decided to make the trip to the UK. Well worth it, and a real encouragement that what we’re up to at the Book Oven, behind the curtain, is on the right track. My only complaint was that it lasted one day, and not a week.

Can you see the future?

While there are nerves about the future of the book business, the overwhelming sensation I had leaving bookcamp was optimism. What else could be the result of spending a full day with so many bright people, excited about books, and actively shaping their future?

For some other thoughts on bookcamp (I’ll try to keep this up to date, as I see links) see:

[Photos by: Matt Biddulph, Annie Mole, and Russell Davies]

Why Copyright?

From Michael Geist:

smithsonian on flickr commons

The Smithsonian is putting a collection of public domain photos on Flickr, part of the Flickr Commons project.

Here’s an example, with this curious description:

After parcel post service was introduced [in the US] in 1913, at least two children were sent by the service. With stamps attached to their clothing, the children rode with railway and city carriers to their destination. The Postmaster General quickly issued a regulation forbidding the sending of children in the mail after hearing of those examples.

letter carrier

Categories: openmovement

gridrepublic – screensaving supercomputers


GridRepublic members run a screensaver that allows their computers to work on public-interest research projects when the machines are not otherwise in use. This screensaver does not affect performance of the host computer any more than an ordinary screensaver does.

By aggregating idle resources from users around the world, we create a massive supercomputer.

Gridrepublic is built on the system that started as SETI@home, which was turned into a general distributed computing platform BOINC. Gridrepublic is a central place for all projects using this distributed platform, where you can dowload & install the system and even better, choose which projects your computer’s idle time will be supporting, including:

Einstein@home: you can contribute your computer’s idle time to a search for spinning neutron stars (also called pulsars) using data from the LIGO and GEO gravitational wave detectors. computing a massive environmental model intended to forecast climate conditions in the 21st century.

Proteins@Home: investigating the “Inverse Protein Folding Problem”: Whereas “Protein Folding” seeks to determine a protein’s shape from its amino acid sequence, “Inverse Protein Folding” begins with a protein of known shape and seeks to “work backwards” to determine the amino acid sequence from which it is generated.

Donate here.

wikipedia & feathered dinosaurs

In the fall of 2004, I quit my job consulting in the renewable energy industry in order to focus on writing. In addition to fiction-writing, I worked on a research/writing contract to develop an exhibit on dinosaurs (part of which is still online) for the Canadian Museum of Nature.

I’d never used Wikipedia much before, but I used it frequently on that project as a starting point for research. It was an excellent resource (to be backed up with others, of course), and since it was so useful, I thought I should contribute. I got hooked.

So it’s nice to see, three-and-a-half years later, that the article on feathered dinosaurs, for which I was the second editor, still contains a pretty good summary, I think, that I wrote about the history of these peculiar fossils:

Shortly after the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, British biologist and evolution-defender Thomas Henry Huxley proposed that birds were descendants of dinosaurs. He cited skeletal similarities, particularly among some saurischian dinosaurs, fossils of the ‘first bird’ Archaeopteryx and modern birds. In 1868 he published On the Animals which are Most Nearly Intermediate between Birds and Reptiles, making the case. The leading dinosaur expert of the time, Richard Owen, disagreed, claiming Archaeopteryx as the first bird outside dinosaur lineage. For the next century, claims that birds were dinosaur descendants faded, with more popular bird-ancestry hypotheses including ‘crocodylomorph’ and ‘thecodont’ ancestors, rather than dinosaurs or other archosaurs.

In 1964, John Ostrom described Deinonychus antirrhopus, a theropod whose skeletal resemblance to birds seemed unmistakable. Ostrom has since become a leading proponent of the theory that birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs. Further comparisons of bird and dinosaur skeletons, as well as cladistic analysis strengthened the case for the link, particularly for a branch of theropods called maniraptors. Skeletal similarities include the neck, the pubis, the wrists (semi-lunate carpal), the ‘arms’ and pectoral girdle, the shoulder blade, the clavicle and the breast bone. In all, over a hundred distinct anatomical features are shared by birds and theropod dinosaurs.

Other researchers drew on these shared features and other aspects of dinosaur biology and began to suggest that at least some theropod dinosaurs were feathered. The first restoration of a feathered dinosaur was Sarah Landry’s depiction of a feathered “Syntarsus” (now renamed Megapnosaurus or considered a synonym of Coelophysis), in Robert T. Bakker’s 1975 publication Dinosaur Renaissance.[2] Gregory S. Paul was probably the first paleoartist to depict maniraptoran dinosaurs with feathers and protofeathers, starting in the late 1980s.

By the 1990s, most paleontologists considered birds to be surviving dinosaurs and referred to ‘non-avian dinosaurs’ (those that went extinct), to distinguish them from birds (aves or avian dinosaurs). Direct evidence to support the theory was missing, however. Some mainstream ornithologists, including Smithsonian Institution curator Storrs L. Olson, disputed the links, citing the lack of fossil evidence for feathered dinosaurs.

Fossil evidence

After a century of hypotheses without hard evidence, particularly well-preserved (and legitimate) fossils of feathered dinosaurs were discovered during the 1990s and 2000s. The fossils were preserved in a Lagerstätte — a sedimentary deposit exhibiting remarkable richness and completeness in its fossils — in Liaoning, China. The area had repeatedly been smothered in volcanic ash produced by eruptions in Inner Mongolia 124 million years ago, during the Early Cretaceous Period. The fine-grained ash preserved the living organisms that it buried in fine detail. The area was teeming with life, with millions of leaves and the oldest known angiosperms, insects, fish, frogs, salamanders, mammals, turtles, lizards and crocodilians discovered to date.

The most important discoveries at Liaoning have been a host of feathered dinosaur fossils, with a steady stream of new finds filling in the picture of the dinosaur-bird connection and adding more to theories of the evolutionary development of feathers and flight.

To improve the article, head on over to wikipedia. Kinda nice to know that for 95% (50%? 80%?) of the young, English-speaking, students of paleontology in the world, it’s my text that might first introduce them to feathered dinosaurs.

Categories: librivox, openmovement

why public domain and not creative commons?

All LibriVox recordings are in the public domain, and the question comes up often enough: why not license the recordings as creative commons/non-commercial instead? The question came up recently and here was my answer:

So, why should LibriVox recordings be in the public domain, rather than a creative commons license?

LibriVox comes out of a number of ideas: the idealism and pragmatic successes of the free software movement, the collaborative methodology (and “it needn’t be perfect to be useful”) of Wikipedia, Lessig’s defense of the commons, and the alternative licensing of Creative Commons works, the podcasting platform which democratized distribution of media, the astoundingly useful work of project Gutenberg, that has been toiling away since 1971 making public domain texts available to anyone for free, and finally Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive and the vision of universal access to all human knowledge.

One of the important ideas behind LibriVox was this: a vibrant public domain is essential for a healthy society, and is essential for innovation – which I think can also be expressed as: “finding solutions to problems.” Having a wide and vibrant public domain – of ideas, texts, learning, science, open source code, audio recordings, art etc. – means that as we face problems of one kind or another, we have at our disposal a whole host of tools and information and building blocks that will help us find solutions. We’ve seen in the past few decades, however, a move against this idea of public intellectual space – broadly the the movement towards protection of “intellectual property.” We’ve seen this across all sectors of society, from how universities treat their scientific research, to patenting of life, patents on processes, the abusive and self-destructive suing of fans by music companies and Hollywood. I oppose much of this stuff on a number of grounds: one is a moral objection to the greed of companies who wish to extend their ownership beyond where it had ever been imagined previously. The other objection is more pragmatic: that allowing companies to do this will stifle innovation, and in the long run will be very damaging to our societies.

So LibriVox – besides being a project about making audiobooks – was originally conceived of as a small bulwark in a larger moral, intellectual and political battle around the value of the “public domain” broadly defined. And part of that defense is this idea that people can and will and should build on the public domain to make new things and provide new more innovative solutions to problems. LibriVox would make the audio recordings, make them available, and the hope has always been that others would find great things to do with them. The Ebay cottage industry, which annoys some people, is a good example: we have not figured out how to provide CDs of recordings to people, yet people want them. It would take more work and organization, and it would be nice if we could do that for free. But we can’t, or have not been able to. So these other people download our files, burn CDs and sell them to people who want them. The end result is that more people get to listen to (inexpensive) public domain literature they wish to listen to (and wish to pay for), some ebayers have some added revenue generated from spreading great literature throughout the world, maybe more people hear about LibriVox (but maybe not). Some people see that as a problem, but I certainly don’t.

But I hope people will come up with even more useful things to do with LibriVox recordings, and if they are commercial, I just can’t see any problem with that. The “thing” that they will be doing may be using LV recordings, but it certainly won’t be replicating what LV does already. They will be doing something new and hopefully interesting, probably educationally useful, and even if it IS nike selling sneakers with Gord’s recording of Walden, well, at least more people might get turned on to Walden (though I assure you Nike can afford to hire someone to record a chunk of Walden).

So the question around licensing became this: do we want to limit how people use LibriVox recordings? What is *wrong* with commercial uses? As long as the audio remains accessible, and free for all to use forever, then I saw no reason why we should limit anything – limiting would just mean that in the scheme of things, fewer people would listen to the recordings we have made. And in my calculus of the universe, that’s a bad thing: I think the universe will be a better place the more people listen to LibriVox recordings.

But beyond that sort of pragmatic thinking, there is a wider philosophical question about ownership, control, and the act of truly giving something away. I think Creative Commons is a wonderful tool, and it changed the way I thought about art. But it maintains this idea: I own this work and you may do with it just what I say you may do. Now that’s fine: I license, for instance, my personal blog writing like this. But LibriVox is more radical. LibriVox says: we make these recordings, and we give them away, no strings attached. Use them as you like: you don’t have to ask permission or tell us about it, or do anything, just use them as you like. They are yours as much as they are ours now. We have gifted them to the universe.

That’s a pretty radical idea, far more radical than CC which says: here are the terms under which I allow you to use my work.

It’s radical and it’s liberating as well, because in some sense one’s ownership of things is a two way street, and the things you own in some sense own you too – ownership means you have certain responsibilities to that thing, including monitoring how other people use it. Breaking that ownership bond is a powerful sort of experiment.

There are of course some very important pragmatic reasons for a public domain license rather than creative commons: public domain means we just don’t have to worry about it. We don’t have to chase anyone, or ask for checks or tell them they can’t use such and such to do so and so, we don’t have to hire lawyers and sue our fans or anyone else. The files are there for all to use, and all we have to do is concern ourselves with our objective, which is:

To make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet.

Along those lines, we didn’t want anyone to ever have to question which LibriVox license a certain audio falls under. It’s all the same, all public domain, and anyone can use it for whatever they like. Period. Answering questions is easy. Having multiple licenses would have made that a headache for people, including us.

There is one final very important point, which I had not really thought about until Michael Hart of Gutenberg told me about it recently. US copyright law has extended and extended again the term of copyright, currently 95 years after publication date. This means that nothing has gone into the public in a very long time. And if copyright law-making continues on like this, there will be another extension when the next batch of public domain stuff is currently scheduled to click over. So, possibly, nothing new will ever go into the public domain again.

In the old days, there was about a 50-50 split: 50% of texts were in the public domain, 50% under copyright. Every year more and more texts came into being, but a whole swath of things went into the public domain, and the ratio kept more or less the same. That was a healthy for society because people had much easier access to those texts that went into the public domain.

That’s not happening anymore. So the public domain is shrinking as a ratio of available knowledge.

Which brings another point: Creative Commons does not, in fact, make any contribution to the public domain, because the term of Creative Commons licenses is the same as for copyright (i think, that is: 95 years after publication). So Creative Commons in fact does NOTHING to protect or enhance the public domain – it only creates a new class of copyright protection that is much more liberal than previous incarnations.

So LibriVox is a small beacon of light in this policy question, slowly adding to the public domain while all around the public domain is shrinking. This is important in some broad sense beyond anything particular we do at LibriVox. At least I think it is.

Having said all that, I understand why some people don’t want their recordings in the public domain. But that’s fine, there are many other places to put audio up on the web. People don’t need LirbiVox to add recordings to the web. We represent just one little corner of the audio world. Our corner is this: we make free public domain audio versions of public domain texts. If people want to help (many have) that’s great. If they don’t, then that’s OK too, there’s no reason people ought to be forced to make public domain recordings …

But that’s what LibriVox is for, making public domain audio recordings, and giving them away to the world.

scientists vs. publishers vs. wikipedia

From the New Scientist:

Scientists who want to describe their work on Wikipedia should not be forced to give up the kudos of a respected journal. So says a group of physicists who are going head-to-head with a publisher because it will not allow them to post parts of their work to the online encyclopaedia, blogs and other forums.


Leaving aside the problem that posting about your own work on Wikipedia, violates two policies (no original research, and don’t edit articles about yourself or your work) … this is an interesting showdown.

Open Access journals, free and open to web linking, is the way science publishing has to go, for the same reasons NYTimes can’t keep its articles behind registration walls. Value is increasingly defined by network authority (is there an agreed term for this, or can I claim coinage of “network authority”?), aka google juice; and if you are out of the network, you are out of the authority. Scientists realize this – hence the desire to get their stuff on Wikipedia … Journals realize that it chips into their control of information, which it does. But like all other businesses, fighting it won’t make it go away, and the sooner they rejig their business models, the better.

Which opens the question: with the web as publishing platform, is there really a need to have academic journals running as businesses? Or is there a better way?

Categories: openmovement, writing

beautiful writing

Good writing is such as pleasure, especially when it’s about something you care about:

Without the kooks and the insulters and the spray-can taggers, Wikipedia would just be the most useful encyclopedia ever made. Instead it’s a fast-paced game of paintball.