- OStatus: like Twitter, but open – Ooh. I'm actually quite excited about this. The HN thread has some good points about WordPress integration as well. If OStatus can get itself hooked in closely to the WordPress ecosystem, it could actually have enough people using it — non-geek people, that is — to be worthwhile.
- Proofreading font – Did you know there is a special font for proofreading OCR'd texts? This one was developed by Project Gutenberg. "It's designed to constantly throw you OUT of the story and get you to focus on the letters and punctuation. It's glorious. And ugly. Wow, I didn't know it was possible to make a font that ugly and still readable."
- The day I confronted my troll – An engaging story with a twist at the end. There's something about it that rubs me the wrong way. Perhaps it's the delight with which people have been latching on to a story that portrays trolls as harmless individual actors. Few such stories are solved as neatly as this.
- To Encourage Biking, Cities Forget About Helmets – What makes cycling safe? Tons of cyclists on the road. Helmet laws make cycling seem difficult and scary, discouraging ordinary riders and paradoxically making cycling less safe. Take note, Melbourne!
[Contains spoilers for Anathem, if anyone cares.]
I’m going through two intensely frustrating things at present:
- The end of my first semester of sound engineering school, and
- Reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem
School: it’s TAFE, which means no exams worth mentioning, and they really don’t want to fail anyone if they can help it. That means the assessment tasks aren’t too difficult, and in many cases we finish them long before the end of semester so that there’s time for marking, resubmission, late submission, or whatever. The side-effect of this is that the last weeks of semester seem to be spent mostly sitting around not doing much. Last week I had a couple of days where we essentially did nothing — or nothing that I either hadn’t done before, or which I couldn’t do myself via Google or Wikipedia in a fraction of the time — which as you might imagine I found rather irritating. Wait, that’s perhaps too much understatement. I was literally bored to tears, and yes, I do know the meaning of the word “literally” thank you very much.
By Wednesday afternoon I’d started to think the whole TAFE thing was a waste of time. Perhaps I could do better working (paid or unpaid, or most likely a mix of both) in the industry and learning on the job. I’d almost certainly find it more fulfilling than sitting in class, and over the same time period I’d probably learn more and certainly get more hands-on experience and industry contacts. When I approached one of our teaching staff about this, asking for his opinion, he said that I “might as well finish what I started”. In other words: I’ve done a semester of a course that takes two semesters to receive a piece of paper (and four semesters to receive a more advanced piece of paper, but two semesters is the first relevant exit point). Now that I’ve sunk the costs into the first half-year, I might as well go through to the end of it, even if what we’re doing in class is of only limited use to me, and not all that good for my mental health.
On another note, Anathem: a few weeks ago, probably because I was missing Wiscon, I found myself in an SF-reading mood. I wanted to catch up on a lot of the books my friends had been talking about over the last couple of years, while I’d been reading other things. I ordered an ebook reader, which would take a couple of weeks to arrive from the US, and in the meantime I hit the public library and borrowed a couple of books I’d been meaning to read or re-read, to tide me over. One of them was Anathem.
Before I start panning the book, I should mention that I’m actually a moderate Stephenson fan. This website is named after a term I found in one of his books, after all. I first encountered his work when found Snow Crash on the shelf of a general bookstore in Ballarat, sometime in the early 90s. I picked it up because the cover looked cool and bought it because the first paragraph grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Cryptonomicon came out the same year the geeky consultancy company I was running was working on a gambling project on an offshore data haven; all our servers were named things like “kinakuta” and “raft”, and my laptop was “yt”. Hell, I even got hold of a copy of The Big U and read it. So, I’m not generally averse to the guy, and I have a fairly high tolerance for his diversions, random infodumps, and half-assed endings.
It was only when I got to the Baroque Cycle that I couldn’t handle it. At the time I was reading a lot of historical fiction and had pretty firm ideas on what constituted good writing in that genre. Quicksilver rubbed the wrong way against those genre conventions once too often, and since Stephenson was a relative newcomer to a period I already knew a bit about, his geeky fascination with things I considered commonplace (muskets and slow-match, for example) started to grate. Quicksilver was the first of his books that I didn’t finish, and I didn’t pick up another one until now.
Anathem is about a monk-like order who have survived thousands of years, who remain cloistered for up to a thousand years at a time, and who have a daily service of winding their giant clock, which has not just minute and hour hands, but year/decade/century/millenium hands too. It came out when I was working at Metaweb, on Freebase. The company had been named after Baroque-cycle-affiliated wiki of all knowledge, “The Metaweb” (now defunct, but you can see it on the Wayback Machine), and was founded by people closely associated with the Long Now Foundation, who are actually building a 10,000 year clock. Long Now talk was common at the office when I worked there, and there was lots of enthusiasm for Anathem when it came out — I remember there being an offer of tickets to a launch event or author talk or something for Metaweb staff — but I wasn’t in an SF-reading phase, so I skipped it. When Metaweb was acquired by Google, one of our founders gave a speech at our acquisition party talking about how Freebase was meant to be a repository of information that would last 10,000 years, and getting it into Google was the best possible way of furthering that goal. (True? Not sure.)
Enough background. A couple of weeks ago when I was standing in the Darebin Public Library’s Adult SFF section wondering what to read, I saw Anathem and grabbed it. I figured it would fill the time before my ebook reader arrived, I’d get to see what connections it had to Metaweb-the-company-where-I-worked, and it couldn’t hurt to have some of pop-cultural awareness of what it’s all about, the same as how I went to see Avengers, even though I don’t have much interest in the franchise, just so I’d know what people were talking about. All these were reasons to have a shot at it even though I knew there was a risk that I might find it as tedious and annoying as Quicksilver.
Surprise! It’s tedious and annoying! Stephenson finally found a way to add even more tangential infodumps into the story, by having almost the entire cast of characters be philosophers/theoretical scientists who spend most of their time lecturing or in Socratic-style dialogue about things like geometrical puzzles or the sensory perceptions of worms. Most of it ties in to the overall plot development, which at least is an improvement on some of his previous works.
The other thing that annoyed me was his worldbuilding: it’s set in another world where the people in it have “jeejahs” that are almost identical to our mobile phones and tablet devices; where the plebs wear baggy pants and sports jerseys with numbers on the back; where the dominant religion has a schism directly equivalent to the Reformation; and where details ranging from canvas-covered military transport vehicles to bucket-sized “sugar-water” drinks are all surprisingly familiar. The overall effect was of the kind of lazy worldbuilding where everything gets an “alien” name full of Zs and Qs and apostrophes, but is otherwise exactly the same as our world.
And then, over the course of hundreds and hundreds of pages, you eventually realise — SPOILER — that it’s all because parallel universes blah blah. Wait, you’ve been irritating me with your sloppy worldbuilding and “jeejahs” for all this time just so you could go SURPRISE! ALTERNATE EARTH!? And I’m meant to go “oh, wow, you’re not sloppy, you’re actually BRILLIANT!” Sorry, not feeling it.
So, I’m seven-hundred-something pages in to the book, and about ready to throw it across the room. And yet I find myself thinking, “Well, I’ve come this far, I may as well finish. Maybe it’ll get better.” At the same time, I have books ready and loaded on my ebook reader that I could be reading now, and probably enjoying more.
So the questions I’ve been asking myself, and which I ask you, if you care to take a shot at them: Firstly, with about two hundred pages to go, should I finish Anathem? Secondly, should I stay in school? If your answers differ, then why?
A while ago I started collecting examples of copyright hypocrisy, with the intent of creating a definitive list of cases where copyright bullies are caught infringing the same rules they say everyone else should obey.
Here’s what I’ve got so far:
- Lamar Smith, author of SOPA, uses website background image without permission
- Anti-P2P lawyers rip off the content of another copyright settlement group’s website
- The party run by music-label-owned VEVO, where they showed a pirated NFL game
- Norwegian author complains about ebook piracy, then admits having pirated heaps of music and owning knockoff Prada handbags
- MPAA’s “University Toolkit” spyware violates GPL; open source developers have it taken down under DMCA
- MPAA blog based on platform that requires link to original author’s site, but removes links, against terms of license
- Pro-SOPA/PIPA group copies campaign emails, without permission, from anti-SOPA/PIPA activist group
Anyone got any others to add?
- Founder of StopFashionPiracy.com found copying another fashion designer’s work
- Nicholas Sarkozy, original creator of the “three strikes” idea, caught mass-pirating DVDs, also used unlicensed music in his campaign
(I’m kind of tempted to do a fanfic hypocrisy link collection too. Jasper Fforde and Diana Gabaldon would top the list.)
In the end I removed several things:
- Elf’s linkspam (elf1)
- Kanata’s linkspam (kanata)
- The entire tech-blog cluster (oreilly1, booksprung1, and those linked to them)
- Any posts that linked to mitchell but weren’t otherwise connected to the graph
- Any posts which, after all that was done, were orphaned, not linking to anything else
The results were interesting:
So, to reiterate, this is the “interesting bits” version of the LiveJournal/Dreamwidth discussion that took up most of the previous graph. I’ve also added something new to the visualisation: posts shown as ellipses happened on LJ/DW, and those in rectangles happened on non-LJ/DW blogs. This makes it easy to see which parts of the conversation were happening where. As I did last time, any post that was crossposted to at least one of LJ or DW counted as an LJ/DW post.
Points of interest:
- In the lower left, there’s a cluster of mostly authors or others involved in the publishing industry, many of them posting on non-LJ/DW blogs.
- The centre of the graph, especially those posts linking to troisroyaumes and colorblue1, are what I would characterise as members of the social justice/fandom community.
- At the upper right, also linking to some posts shown in the lower right, you can see that there were a handful of men mostly linking to other men (jimhines et al.)
We already knew that the tech blogs were having their own discussion unconnected to the LJ/DW discussion, but now we can see that the authors/publishers were, for the most part, having a conversation disconnected from the fans. The crossover between the author and fan conversations mostly happened via Karen Healey, a young author whose first YA novel was published last year, and who moves in both circles.
I thought it would be interesting to take a look at the different conversations going on, and see how the actual content of them differed. Here are Wordle diagrams of the three main clusters:
It’s no real surprise to find that each of these groups was writing about different stuff, but I still find it interesting to see the words that pop out in each picture: “publishers” and “illegal” in the author wordle; “people”, “Western”, and “indigenous” in the social justice one; “piracy” and “DRM” among the tech bloggers.
Again, for reference, links to all the blog posts referenced can be found in this spreadsheet.
Apologies. Have just torrented The Demon’s Lexicon. Will buy when laggardly, pickpocketing, luddite publishers in Aus get around to allowing Australians to buy books off Amazon. So sick of “Aussies can’t purchase this book” message.
If even HALF of those people who downloaded my book that week had bought it, I would have hit the New York Times Bestseller list. If the 800+ downloads a week of my book were only HALF converted into sales, I would earn out in one more month. But I’m never going to earn out. And my book is never going to be available in your $region, not for lack of trying.
Things took off quickly; there were almost 20 posts that day, mostly in response to Mitchell. In the next two weeks, or a little more, almost a hundred posts on the subject sprang up, more than two-thirds of which were on LiveJournal or Dreamwidth (a LiveJournal-like site, based on the same code; many people crosspost between the two.)
Reading these posts as they flowed past, I noticed several interesting things about them. Firstly, many of them were addressing the issues of ebook piracy from an angle I had never seen before, criticising the capitalist structures of book distribution and intellectual property from a social justice perspective. Secondly, most of the posts seemed to be by women. Thirdly, nobody outside the circles of LJ/DW fandom and social justice circles seemed to be noticing. It seemed a pity. I’m a regular reader or visitor to many tech blogs, including O’Reilly Radar, TechCrunch, ReadWriteWeb, and pop-culture-meets-tech blogs like Boing Boing, any of which might have picked up this story and run with it, if they’d been in the loop.
I wondered, though, whether I was missing something. I know that we tend to follow people most like ourselves online, and read things that reinforce our own views and opinions. If men disproportionately follow other men, maybe I’m disproportionately reading posts by women, and there were a whole bunch of posts by men that I’d missed. It’s happened before, after all.
Tonight I decided to investigate. Using Google Blog Search and following links from any posts I found, I put together a spreadsheet of posts, 112 in all, on the subjects of ebook piracy and international distribution, between Jan 10th and Jan 27th. (Why Jan 10th rather than 12th? Turns out that O’Reilly Radar had posted an article about ebook piracy and DRM on the 10th, which was referenced by other bloggers over the next few days, so it seemed worth including. More notes on my methods and choices made are at the bottom of this post.)
I then took the spreadsheet and ran it through a few lines of Perl to generate the following GraphViz graph:
- A <- B means that post B linked to post A
- Gender of poster is shown by colour of the nodes (pink for female, blue for male, grey for unknown/other)
Here’s what’s going on.
- The giant tangled blob taking up most of the image is the discussion sparked by lucyham’s illegal download of Sarah Rees Brennan’s book, and Saundra Mitchell’s subsequent blog post. As you can see, there are the best part of 100 posts, mostly by women. This discussion ran from at least the 12th to the 27th of January (and the post you’re reading right now extends it into February).
- At the top of the chart are some small clusters showing conversations not connected to the main LJ/DW conversation. The first is small cluster mostly around posts by Chris Walker of booksprung.com, criticising publishers who don’t make their books available to Australian consumers. This discussion ran from at least Jan 11th to 25th, but never crossed over with the discussion sparked by lucyham (also Australian).
- Just below that is a set of posts about ebook piracy and DRM circumvention, mostly centred around O’Reilly Radar’s interview with Brian O’Leary, who says that DRM doesn’t prevent piracy. O’Reilly run the Tools of Change for Publishing conference, and that blog post was part of the lead-up to that event. This discussion played out from the 10th to the 18th of January, without linking to any of the other discussions in progress. (Nor, to be fair, being linked from them; the community discussing ebooks in January was as unaware of O’Reilly as O’Reilly were of them.)
- At the extreme top right, a single post by Mike Shatzkin, on the globalisation of ebook publishing, was posted on Jan 21st but doesn’t link to any of the aforementioned conversations. It’s included purely because of its topicality, even though it wasn’t connected to anything else.
I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from this, other than that my gut feeling was correct: there was a really fascinating, complicated, crunchy conversation going on, mostly among women, mostly on LJ/DW, that the tech blogs and other parts of the web don’t seem to have noticed. Make of that what you will.
If you missed the discussion and would like to catch up on some of the highlights, I would recommend:
- Troisroyaumes On piracy and copyright is a roundup of social-justice criticisms of the ebook piracy issue; it’s a great entry into that side of the debate.
- First-person accounts of acquiring books outside of affluent, English-speaking countries: qian in Malaysia, Marina in Israel, wistfuljane in Vietnam, Aurora in Colombia, Charles in the Philippines
- Elf has several really solid posts on different aspects of the discussion: on business models, books are not music, on authors who say “the poor should not be reading my books”
- Authors who publicly changed their minds as a result of the discussion: Karen Healey, Jim Hines.
Links to all ~100 posts are in the spreadsheet o’ doom.( Read the rest of this entry » )