Since installing a whiteboard in our kitchen, conversations at the Acetarium have been moving in new and interesting directions.
Since installing a whiteboard in our kitchen, conversations at the Acetarium have been moving in new and interesting directions.
A Manhattan Project for Cliché Collection
This weekend, I launched an extremely ambitious effort to collect evidence of extremely ambitious efforts. The result was a short program that searched the web and revealed the:
Half the Battle Against DRM
As the free software and free culture movements have sat quietly by, DRM is now well on its way to becoming the norm in the electronic book publishing industry.
The free culture movement has failed to communicate the reality of DRM and, as a result, millions of people are buying books that they won't be able to read when they switch to a different model of ebook reader in the future. They are buying books that will become inaccessible when the DRM system that supports them is shut down -- as we've already seen with music from companies including Wal*Mart, Yahoo, and Microsoft. They are buying books that require that readers use proprietary tools that lock them out from doing basic things that have always been the right of a book owner.
Some anti-DRM advocates are, indirectly, part of this problem as they buy these books and turn to shady methods of stripping the DRM. Buying DRMed books is voting with your wallet for a system that criminalizes those that insist on living in freedom and will screw us all in the long run when DRM is the only choice we are offered and removing the DRM is difficult, unsafe, and illegal.
Buying non-DRMed e-books is a more freedom-friendly alternative for those that, like me, are excited about not lugging kilograms of paper around our cities and the world. We can do this at "non-mainstream" publishers like Smashwords who explicitly reject DRM. Of course, the big ebook sellers like Amazon, and Barnes and Nobel, and Google all offer non-DRMed books. But none of the major ebook retailers explicitly reveal the DRM status of locked down books before purchase.
On Amazon, there are some cryptic signs and signals that, if you understand them, suggest the absence of DRM. Google and Barnes and Nobel currently offer no way to know if a book is DRMed without buying it first and questions in their support forums go unanswered.
It's hard to support non-DRM alternatives when we can't recognize them. It's hard to tell people to not buy DRM ebooks if we can't even tell them apart. Getting this message through to book buyers -- and perhaps even to ebook retailers -- seems like a critical first step.
Unhappy Birthday Hall of Shame
I roll my eyes a little when I think that Unhappy Birthday is the document I have written that has been read by the most people. The page -- basically a website encouraging people to rat on their friends for copyright violation for singing Happy Birthday in public -- has received millions of page views and has generated tons of its own media (including a rather memorable interview of CBC's WireTap). At the bottom of the page I am listed, by name and email, as the "copyrighteous spokesman" for the initiative.
And since the page has been online, I have received hate mail about it. Constantly.
Since the email only goes to me, I thought it might be fun to share some of these publicly. All these messages are quoted verbatim but I have not included the senders' names. Be warned: the language is often salty.
This email is years old now but it is probably still my favorite:
Atrocity and strife run rampant in this world.
Babies are abandoned in dumpsters. Teachers molest students. Impoverished Indonesians make sneakers for pennies while the spoiled jackhole in the 30-second commercial makes millions for sinking a three-pointer and smirking at the camera. Forms of religion are interpreted as to compel people to strap explosives to their chest and board buses full of innocents. Boss Tweeds embezzle and get severance pay while John Q. Workingman gets put out on the street when the corporation goes belly up.
Out of all these indignities and countless others I haven't the time to mention, why do you make it your personal crusade to assist in the flagrant persecution of family restaurants for partaking in the time-honored tradition of singing "Happy Birthday"? God forbid these foul brigands bend copyright law in order to bring a smile to somebody's face.
Food for thought...without the accompanying song.
Many others strike a defiant, if less poetic, tone:
Good luck! There are millions of us who refuse to accept the ridiculous "copyright" on Happy Birthday. If Time Warner were an ethical company rather than a greedy megacorp they would do something truly special and release it into the public domain.
There are some things in this world more important than money.
Quite a few people notice that my last name is Hill and suspect that I must be related to the Hill sisters who originally penned the song. I'm not, to my knowledge, although since Time Warner bought the rights, it's not clear it would matter:
I am writing to just let you know how disappointed I am that a large corporation and others (like the HILL family) are making $2 million plus for a song that was created over 100 years ago with noone knowing who created the lyrics! None of us at our place of employment could believe this and we certainly won't encourage people to send money to ASCAP. It is a shame that ASCAP license fees aren't used to pay more to up-and-coming artists who I'm sure need this money alot more than Time Warner.
We all plan to sing Happy Birthday MORE now in public places and if anyone asks if it is copyrighted we will say "of course not". Maybe this way the song will not die out completely as more and more other "birthday" songs are being sung. It would also be nice if your website cited whose opinion is writing the piece and your obvious conflict of interest.
Is it a coincidence that your last name is the same as the last name of the authors of the song "Happy Birthday?" You seem to have a personal monetary motive for your work with the "grassroots project" you call Unhappy Birthday, and if you do not, your concern is misplaced all the same. Whom do you imagine your campaign serves? And do you realize whom it harms?
I do not question the illegality of performing the copyrighted song publicly. And you are correct that most of the public is not even aware that the song is under copyright. I think the harm done to Time Warner and its associates by such public performances is far outweighed by the joy created when the much-loved happy tune is shared.
I urge you to ask yourself why you think the immortal Hill sisters wrote the song in the first place. It was not to put more money Time Warner's pocket. It was, I would argue, for the sake of the song itself and the happiness it brings when performed (publicly or otherwise). Please consider siding with the children and the artists; let the lawsuits alone.
Some people suspect the site may be satire, but include insults and and attacks just in case it isn't:
I'm trying to figure out if your Unhappy Birthday site is meant to be in jest. If so Rofl, and congrats on a hilarious site. If you're actually serious, then fuck you Nazi cunts and your corporate butt buddies. Thank you for your time.
Or these two alternatives (each were separate emails):
If this is a joke then it's rather funny. However if this website is serious then you're a fucking idiot. Get a life!!!!
if it is a form of protest, then THANK YOU! if it is not, then screw you all!
One memorable piece of mail was from someone who knew of me from my activities in the free software and free culture communities and had a hard time reconciling my work there with the high protectionist website:
I was quiet surprised to see your name and email address at the bottom of the home page of the site Unhappy Birthday. The site claims that you are their spokesman.
Is this correct? I do not understand... You have all this Open Source/ Free Software background and then this site that defends one of the most controversial copyright issues???
Do you really mean this? Do you want to help Time Warner?
I was going to buy one of your products from your Unhappy Birthday Shop at CafePress but there's a problem.
I hate emblems that uses human skulls in them.
Being a member of ASCAP I really do support your cause but I can't buy a product that I would never wear.
And many people are simply confused asking something like this one:
So I saw the unhappy birthday site and I'm just a little confused. Is this a joke or a serious thing?
I usually reply and explain that I have tried to ensure that the site describes the legal situation around Happy Birthday honestly and correctly.
That said, the vast majority of messages I receive are unequivocal. Like this email that I received last week addressed to "you anti-free speech fascists":
__ / \ | | | | | | __ __ | | __ / \/ \| |/ \ | \ | | | / | \ | / \ / | | | |
Half an hour later, the author followed up with a English version of the same message, set to the tune of happy birthday.
You might think that getting insulted and flipped off by confused people on the Internet might get me down. It doesn't! I made Unhappy Birthday because I thought that the fact that something as important to our culture as Happy Birthday could be owned was outrageous. Every piece of hate mail means that somebody else -- almost always somebody who isn't a "copyfighter" or a free culture geek -- is now upset about the current state of copyright too.
Sure, Unhappy Birthday makes me a tiny bit sad about people's ability to recognize satire. But it makes me really happy about people's ability to get very annoyed at what they think is the outrageous control of our culture through copyright. When more people are as mad as the the people I've quoted above, we will be able to change copyright into something less outrageous to all of us.
Advice for Prospective Doctoral Students
There is tons of advice on the Internet (e.g., on the academic blogs I read) for prospective doctoral students. I am very happy with my own graduate school choices but I feel that I basically got lucky. Few people are saying the two things I really wish someone had told me before I made the decision to get a PhD:
Most People Getting Doctorates Probably Shouldn't
In most fields, the only thing you need a PhD for is to become a professor -- and even this requirement can be flexible. You can have almost any job in any company or non-profit without a PhD. You can teach without a PhD. You can write books without a PhD. You can do research and work in thinktanks without a PhD. You don't even always need a PhD to grant PhDs to other people: two of my advisors at the Media Lab supervised PhD work but did not have doctorates themselves! Becoming a tenured professor is more difficult without a doctorate, but it is not impossible. There are grants and jobs outside of universities that require doctorates, but not nearly as many as most people applying for PhDs programs think.
Getting a doctorate can even hurt: If you want to work in a company or non-profit, you are usually better off with 4-6 years of experience doing the kind of work you want to do than with the doctorate and the less relevant experience of getting one. Starting salaries for people with doctorates are often higher than for people with masters degrees. But salaries for people with masters degrees and 5 years of experience are even higher -- and that's before you take into account the opportunity costs of working for relatively low graduate student wages for half a decade.
PhD take an enormous amount of time and, in most programs, you spend a huge amount of this time doing academic busy work, teaching, applying for grants or fellowships, and writing academic papers that very people read. These are skills you'll need to be a successful professor. They are useful skills for other jobs too, but not as useful as the experience of actually doing those other jobs for the time it takes to get the degree.
Evaluating Graduate Programs
If you are still convinced you need a doctorate, or any graduate degree for that matter, you will need to pick a program. Plenty of people will offer advice on how to pick the right program and trying to balance all the complicated and contradictory advice can be difficult. Although I love my program and advisors, I've known many less happy students. Toward that end, there are two pieces of meta-advice that I wish everybody was told before they applied:
Find recent graduates of the program you are considering, and the faculty advisor(s) you are planning on working with, and look at where they are now. Are these ex-students doing the kind of work that you want to do? Are they at great programs at great universities?
Chances are good that a PhD program and its faculty will prepare future students to be like, and do work like, the students they have trained in the past. Programs that consistently make good placements are preparing their students well, supporting them, making sure they have the resources necessary to do good work, and helping their students when they are on the job market. A program whose students do poorly, or just end doing work that isn't like the kind you want to do, will probably fail you too.
If recent graduates seem to be generally successful and doing the kind of work you want to do, find one who looks most like the kind of academic you want to become and talk to them about their experience. Chances are, your faculty advisors will overlap with theirs and your experience will be similar. Ex-students can tell you the strengths of weaknesses of the program you are considering and what to watch out for. If they had a horrible experience, there's a decent chance you will too, and they will tell you so.
Doing these two things means you don't have to worry about trying to think of all the axes on which you want to evaluate a program or pour through admissions material which is only tangentially connected to the reality you'll live for a long time. What matters most is the outcomes, of course, because you're be living the rest of your life for a lot longer than you'll be in the PhD program.
Public Resource republishes many court documents. Although these documents are all part of the public record and PR will not take them down because someone finds their publication uncomfortable, PR will evaluate and honor some requests to remove documents from search engine results. Public Resources does so using a robots.txt file or "robot exclusion protocol" which websites use to, among other things, tell search engine's web crawling "robots" which pages they do not want to be indexed and included in search results. Originally, the files were mostly used to keep robots from abusing server resources by walking through infinite lists of automatically generated pages or to block search engines from including user-contributed content that might include spam.
The result for Public Resource, however, is that PR is now publishing, in the form of its robots.txt, a list of all of the cases that people have successfully requested to be made less visible!
In Public Resource's case, this is is the result of a careful decision; PR makes the arrangement clear in on their website. The robots.txt home page also explains the situation saying, "the /robots.txt file is a publicly available file. Anyone can see what sections of your server you don't want robots to use,", and "don't try to use /robots.txt to hide information."
That said, I've looked at a bunch of robots.txt files on websites I have visited recently and, sadly, I've found many sites that use robots.txt as a form of weak security. This is very dangerous.
Some poorly designed robots simply ignore the robots.txt file. But one can also imagine an evil search engine that uses a web-crawler that does the opposite of what it's told and only indexes these "hidden" pages. This evil crawler might look for particular keywords or use existing search engine data to check for incoming links in order to construct a list of pages whose existence is only made public through a file meant to keep people away.
Check your own robots.txt and ask yourself what it might reveal. By advertising the existence and locations of your secrets, the act of "hiding" might make your data even less private.
It is now joined by Kim Jong-Un Looking At Things. I think I agree with João Rocha, creator of the original, that the younger Kim seems to be missing some hard-to-pin-down quality that made the original work well.
Last year, my team Codex won the hunt. The reward (punishment?) for winning is the responsibility to write the 100+ puzzles, (and meta-puzzles, and meta-meta-puzzles, and theme, and events) and to put on the whole event the following year.
So over the last year, I've worked with a huge group of folks to put together this year's hunt which had a theme loosely based on The Producers. My own role was small compared to many of my teammates: I contributed to some puzzle writing and to a bunch of "test-solving" of candidate puzzles to make sure they were solvable, not too easy, fun, and well constructed. During the hunt, I visited competing teams, verified answer submissions, and took advantage of my jet-lag from my return from Japan on the day of the hunt to work the night shift distributing items to teams.
To get an idea of what the hunt is like, you can check out a puzzle I wrote for this years hunt. The solution is linked from the corner of that page.
The Influence of the Ecstasy of Influence
Back in 2007, Harpers Magazine published The Ecstasy of Influence: a beautiful article by Jonathan Lethem on reuse in art and literature. Like Lewis Hyde in The Gift (quite like Hyde, as readers discover) Lethem blurs the line between plagiarism, remix, and influence and points to his subject at the center of artistic production. Lethem's gimmick, which most readers only discover at the end, is that the article is constructed entirely out of "reused" (i.e., plagiarized) quotations and paraphrases.
A couple months ago, I suggested to my friend Andrés Monroy-Hernández a very similar project: a literature review on academic work on remixing and remixing communities constructed entirely of text lifted from existing research.
After some searching around, Andrés pointed out that Lethem had essentially beaten us to the punch and linked me to his article. Only after I visited the link did I remember that I had read Lethem's article when it was published and loved the idea then. Over time, I'd forgotten I read ever it.
Without knowing it, I had read, loved, forgotten, and then -- influenced, if unconsciously -- copied and reproduced the idea myself in slightly modified form.
And I suppose that was the point.
It seems that nearly all computer monitors have now switched from a 4:3 aspect ratio popular several years ago to a "wide screen" 16:10 and now mostly to an even wider 16:9.
But screen sizes are usually measured by their diagonal length and those sizes have not changed. For example, before I had my Thinkpad X201, I had a X60 and a X35. They are similar laptops in the same product line with 12.1" screens. But 12.1" describes the size along the diagonal and the aspect ratio switched from 4:3 to 16:10 between the X60 and the X201. As the screen stretched out but maintained the same diagonal length, the area shrunk: from 453 square centimeters to 425.
But screens are not only getting smaller, they are also getting less useful. The switch to wider aspect ratios is done so that people can watch wide screen movies while using a larger proportion of their screens. Of course, the vast majority of people's time on their laptops is not spent watching wide screen movies but in programs like browsers, word processors, and editors. Because most of our writing systems lay out documents from top to bottom, the tools we most frequently use to display (and then scroll through) the things we read primarily use vertical screen space -- the dimension that is shrinking.
If you have a desktop monitor, you might rotate the whole thing 90 degrees and "solve" the problem. If you're on a laptop though (as I usually am) this is clearly not an option.
I am not the first person to be annoyed by this trend. In fact, many recent desktop UI changes are designed to work around this issue. In the free software world, both Unity and GNOME 3 have made efforts to hide, merge, or otherwise get ride of title bars, menu bars, and panels that take up dwindling vertical space. I use Awesome which I've mostly set up to do two side-by-side terminals with very little in the way of menu bars.
Applications are the worst offenders and the solutions for those things that won't run in a terminal (or people that don't want to live there) are still lacking. I have been using Firefox's Tree Style Tab extension to move tabs to the side and hand-customized toolbars that squeeze everything I need (i.e., back, forward, stop, refresh, and URL bar) onto a single menu bar.
But the situation still drives me crazy. I'd love to hear what others are doing.
New HTML Parser: The long-awaited libxml2 based HTML parser code is live. It needs further work but already handles most markup better than the original parser.
Keep up with the latest Advogato features by reading the Advogato status blog.
If you're a C programmer with some spare time, take a look at the mod_virgule project page and help us with one of the tasks on the ToDo list!