Joho the BlogApril 2012 - Page 2 of 3 - Joho the Blog

April 15, 2012

Timbuktu librarians, scholars, and citizens preserving ancient documents and Islamic heritage

On April 1, rebels overran Timbuktu, so, according to a Reuters article, librarians, scholars, and citizens in this important site of Islamic learning are hiding away thousands of irreplaceable manuscripts. “Estimates for the total number of historic documents in the city, some of them from the 13th century, range from 150,000 to five times that number,” says Pascal Fletcher, the article’s author.

In fact, citizens lined up to deny armed rebels access to the archives where 20,000 ancient manuscripts are stored.

From the article:

ome texts were stashed for generations under mud homes and in desert caves by proud Malian families who feared they would be stolen by Moroccan invaders, European explorers and then French colonialists. Now many fear the rampaging rebels, who carry AK-47s instead of muskets, lances and swords.

Brittle, written in ornate calligraphy, and ranging from scholarly treatises to old commercial invoices, the documents represent a compendium of learning on everything from law, sciences and medicine to history and politics. Some experts compare them in importance to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

(I came across this article in the really useful aggregation site Library News, which (disclosure) comes out of our Harvard Library Innovatino Lab.)

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April 14, 2012

[2b2k] Too Big to Know’s network

Valdis Krebs has posted a map of books that Amazon says people who bought 2b2k also bought, and then the web of books that are one degree away from those books.

It’s interesting to parse as you try to discern what the shared interests are. And I’m surprised that Amazon hasn’t picked up on it as a way to sell more books, and that publishers haven’t picked up on it to understand their market better.

In any case, thanks, Valdis!

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Erin McKeown on copyright ambivalence

Musician and Berkman Fellow Erin McKeown has written a wonderful post expressing her ambivalence about copyright.

Her heart and her brain are on the side of copyreasonableness, and thus she reacts strongly against the insane copyright totalitarianism that has come to be taken as obvious, normal, and even righteous.

But then this happened: In 2003, she wrote and recorded Slung-Ho with some success.

In 2008, it was used in a commercial shown in the Czech Republic. Last year, a Czech singer issued this song. See it here because Sony, having its sense or irony removed in the operation that removed its heart and common sense, won’t let the video be embedded. Proof:

Let’s stipulate that it’s a rip-off: not a mash-up, not an homage, not an inspired-by. It’s a commercial rip-off intended to make money off the another’s creative work. And the song has done very well commercially.

Erin has mixed feelings, which she expresses honestly. That’s what makes her post so interesting.

And challenging.

I think our current copyright system is insanely inadequate for the new ecology, and that it has the opposite effect that its best-spirited defenders want it to have: the current copyright laws (and mindset) are impeding the greatest cultural flowering in our history, and if those copyright laws are taken to their proposed maximum, they will kill culture dead.

And yet. I write books that are copyrighted. I write them in part to make a living. If you published my book without my permission under your name, I’d be pissed off. If you then sold them at half my publisher’s price on Amazon, my publisher would sue you and I’d happily testify against you. And I wouldn’t feel like a hypocrite. Well, I would (just as Erin feels ambivalent), but I’d remind myself that in this case, that niggling fear of hypocrisy is evidence t hat I’ve fallen into the copyright totalitarians’ trap.

The trap uses the fact that the line between cultural sharing and ripping someone off is blurry. Was George Harrison really ripping off The Chiffon’s in My Sweet Lord? For me, that’s a really blurry line, but ultimately I was sorry that he lost the case, in part because the song was simpler, in part because it was so famous a reference that I thought it was a form of homage, and in part because when in doubt we should allow cultural re-mixing to avoid cultural chilling effects. But the fact that the line is blurry does not mean that all cases are blurry. And Erin’s case and my hypothetical case are to me clear instances where someone is stealing the rewards that should accrue to the creator. I don’t think Erin is being hypocritical in the least: supporting serious copyright reform does not require one to give up all copyright claims. We think otherwise because the copyright totalitarians have succeeded in making us think that the alternative to the current insanity is to have absolutely no protection for creators. But fuzzy lines are still lines. (Well, ok, maybe they’re actually areas, not lines. But that’s neither here nor there.)

If anything, Erin’s willingness to protect her works from an egregious ripoff should make her an even stronger voice in the movement to protect sharing from the current predatory copyright laws.


April 13, 2012

Digital Differences – a Pew survey

Highlighted results from a new Pew Internet poll (taken directly from their pr email):

  • One in five American adults does not use the internet. Senior citizens, those who prefer to take our interviews in Spanish rather than English, adults with less than a high school education, and those living in households earning less than $30,000 per year are the least likely adults to have internet access.

  • Among adults who do not use the internet, almost half have told us that the main reason they don’t go online is because they don’t think the internet is relevant to them. Most have never used the internet before, and don’t have anyone in their household who does.

  • The 27% of adults living with disability in the U.S. today are significantly less likely than adults without a disability to go online (54% vs. 81%). Furthermore, 2% of adults have a disability or illness that makes it more difficult or impossible for them to use the internet at all.

  • 88% of American adults have a cell phone, 57% have a laptop, 19% own an e-book reader, and 19% have a tablet computer; about six in ten adults (63%) go online wirelessly with one of those devices. Gadget ownership is generally correlated with age, education, and household income, although some devices—notably e-book readers and tablets—are as popular or even more popular with adults in their thirties and forties than young adults ages 18-29.

  • The rise of mobile is changing the story. Groups that have traditionally been on the other side of the digital divide in basic internet access are using wireless connections to go online. Among smartphone owners, young adults, minorities, those with no college experience, and those with lower household income levels are more likely than other groups to say that their phone is their main source of internet access.

    More from Pew’s Lee Rainie here. Data here.

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    [2b2k] The power of extreme diversity

    Brian Millar has a brief article in FastCompany about his company’s strategy of consulting “extreme customers” to get insight into existing products and ideas for new ones. He writes, “You can learn a lot about mobile phones by talking to a power user. You can learn even more by talking to somebody who’s deliberately never bought one.” And

    We recently worked with some Brazilian transsexuals on hair-removal products, looking at ways of making the process less painful. I can assure you, we had their full attention. Some are still sending us ideas.

    It’s a great illustration of the fact that innovation tends to come from the intersection of orthogonal streets.

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    April 12, 2012

    When philanthropy gets personal

    My friend Nathaniel James has a kickstarter-like project going in order to fund a 90-day tour gathering stories and information about “New Giving.” (Yes, this is a self-reflective New Giving project.) He’s got five days left to reach the tipping point so that the project actually gets funded. Nathaniel is a smart, sincere, good-hearted person, so I kicked in a little bit.

    But I have reservations. Not about Nathaniel. About this model of funding. I am one of those people who resent it when friends hit me up for a donation for walking 20 miles or biking from here to wherever. If I wanted to give to those charities, I would, and I don’t see why your deciding to walk or ride or bob for apples or grow a moustache should affect my giving. And if it’s not those activities but your friendship itself that you’re bringing to bear, then I’m even more resentful and possibly a little angry. At least at sites like Start Some Good, the projects themselves do good in the world, unlike your request that we donate a dollar for every yard you slip down the Mount Washington Slidey-Rail. Still, as a norm, I would remove friends and relatives from the list of potential funders. If the project is worthwhile and the people are credible (two check marks for Nathaniel’s project), then it will get funded. If not, not.

    But where I’d really like to apply this norm is to all the walkathons, swimathons, and begathons: If you can’t raise money from strangers because you’ve pledged to peel 5,000 bananas before sundown, then maybe it isn’t a charitable exercise worth pursuing. And second of all, get off of my lawn!


    April 11, 2012

    [2b2k] Editorials and echo chambers

    From a New Yorker article (April 9, 2012) by Adam Gopnick on Camus:

    Good editorial writing has less to do with winning an argument, since the other side is mostely not listening, than with telling the guys on your side how they ought to sound when they’re arguing…Not “Say this!” but “Sound this way!” is what the great editorialists teach.

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    April 10, 2012 goes open source

    The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — AKA “The Agency Elizabeth Warren Was Born to Lead” — has announced that its software will be open source, with rare exceptions for security, although “… we believe that, in general, hiding source code does not make the software safer”.

    The CFPB’s explanation of why it’s going the open source route hits all the right notes: It’s easy to acquire, it keeps its data open, and it lets the agency tap into the enormous libraries of available code. Plus:

    Open-source software works because it enables people from around the world to share their contributions with each other. The CFPB has benefited tremendously from other people’s efforts, so it’s only right that we give back to the community by sharing our work with others.

    I like it when government talks — and acts! — this way.

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    April 6, 2012

    Google Exodus: Passover told in social media


    April 4, 2012

    Culture of Hope

    Forum d’Avignon is an annual get-together in France to talk about culture, by which most of the attendees (and especially President Sarkozy who came to give a speech) mean how they can squash the Internet and retain their stranglehold on culture. A little harsh? Maybe, but not entirely unfair. I went last year, and both Jamie Boyle and I felt so oppressed by the relentless Internet Fear exhibited by the other presenters that we felt obliged to say, “You know, there are some good things about the Internet also.” We also both found a cadre of fellow travelers among the attendees and a handful of the other presenters, including many of the conference organizers. (Here’s a set of my posts from the Forum.)

    The Forum today invited a set of people to respond to four questions. The first question is: “1. Does culture / creative imagination give you a reason to hope?” With the above as context, here is my response:


    Of course! If not culture, then what would give us reason to hope?

    There are a few elements coming together that make this an especially hopeful time…and a few elements that I take as cold water being thrown in the face of hope.

    The elements of hope include: (a) the scale of content, (b) the intense inter-linking of that content, (c) the growing open access to that linked content, and (d) the new forms of collaborative sociality that are emerging that (e) value difference and disagreement.

    (a) The scale means that we now have works that can matter to us in any way we can imagine, rather than relying upon centralized authorities to decide what counts. Of course, from those centralized sources we have gotten great works of art, but we have gotten far more gross, coarsening, commercial crap. (b) The fact that these elements are linked means that we can now explore ideas all the way to the ends of our curiosity. It also means we can continuously derive new meaning from this interlacing of ideas. (c) Open access – the growth of outlets that may or may not be peer-reviewed and edited, accessible to the world for free – means that our best ideas are not locked up where only the privileged can view them. (d) The availability of these works on the very same medium that enables us to form social networks around them – the fact that the Net is equally good as a means of distributing content and as a social medium is unprecedented – has spurred innovative new ways of working and being together. Some of these new social forms have tremendous power, and are tremendously engaging; we can do things together that we never before thought possible. (E) Finally, the Internet only has value insofar as it contains and embraces differences and disagreements. A culture that does so is far more robust and far less oppressive than a culture homogenized by a timid sameness – the sort of lack of adventure characteristic of mainstream media.

    Against this we have old industries that benefited from the scarcity of works and the difficulty of distributing them. They view culture as the set of cultural objects, and believe that they are entitled to continue to restrict and control access to them. They say they are doing this in order to support the artists, but they in fact are pocketing most of the artists’ wages in the name of services we no longer need these industries to provide. Culture flourishes when it is open, abundant, connected, engaged, and diverse. Such a culture supports artists of every sort. The culture of hope is just such a culture.


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