Post Wikipedia

Question Public Domain Day

Friday, January 1st, 2016

I forgot last year to re-affirm (2014; includes links to previous years’ public domain day posts):

Unless stated otherwise, everything by me, Mike Linksvayer, published anywhere, is hereby placed in the public domain.

With that out of the way, I want to question the public domain of works that were subject to copyright upon publication but no longer are due to expiration of the term of copyright. Public Domain Day celebrates such works no longer subject to the private censorship regime as of January 1 each year, and mourns the lack of such work in some jurisdictions such as the United States (none 1999-2019, unless another retroactive extension pushes the date back further).

  1. Copyright is unjust. Works created under that regime are tainted. Extreme position: the disappearing of works subject to copyright is a good, for those works are toxic for having been created under the unjust regime. Compare with born free works, initially released under a free/open license (i.e., creators substantially opted out of regime). Even born free works were created in the context of an unjust regime but we have to start somewhere.
  2. Born free works are a start at re-shaping the knowledge economy away from dependence on the unjust regime, a re-shaping which is necessary to transfer prestige and power away from industries and works dependent upon the unjust regime and towards commons-based production. Works falling out of copyright due to expiration do not tilt the knowledge economy toward commons-based production. Worse, copyright-expired works distract from the urgent need to produce cultural relevance for born free works.
  3. Celebrating works falling out of copyright celebrates the terrible “bargain” of subjecting knowledge to property regimes (harming freedom, equality, and security) in order to incent the over-production of spectacle. Compare with born free works, which provide evidence of the non-necessity of subjecting knowledge to freedom infringing regimes.

Note the title of this post starts with “question” rather than “against” — my aim is not really to claim that copyright mitigation through measures such as limited terms of restriction is bad (as noted above, such a claim really would be extreme, in the sense of being very difficult to justify) but to encourage prioritization of systematic repair through commons-based production. There are many (but not nearly enough) people with commitments to copyright mitigations, limited terms in particular, and use of term expired works even more particularly. Further, there presumably will be some attempt at further retroactive extension in the U.S. before 2019, and though I will probably complain about non-visionary rear guard actions, I don’t doubt that stopping bad developments such as further retroactive extension is in the short term relatively easy and should be done.

Thus this “questioning” leads me to merely want:

  • Copyright mitigations to be useful for commons-based production (limited terms are such; contrast with many mitigations which make using works possibly subject to copyright somewhat less costly but not in a way which is useful for commons-based production).
  • Commons-based production efforts to actually take advantage of newly unrestricted works to a greater extent than freedom infringing industries do. Wikimedia projects (especially Wikisource and Wikimedia Commons, with cultural relevance via Wikipedia) do an excellent job, but meeting this very tall order probably requires many additional hugely successful initiatives that are able to create cultural relevance for free works, including works falling into the public domain and works building on such.
  • Making repair part of knowledge policy discourse, at least on the part of liberalizing reformers: a debate about mitigation or opposition to expansion is always an opportunity to position and advocate for repair; that is favoring commons-based production. This could lead to contemplation of what I’d consider a genuine political bargain: allow works subject to copyright to remain so but favor commons-based production for new works.

Happy GNU Year & Public Domain Days

Bonus: Help create 2016/2017 holiday greetings that build free cultural relevance.

Research Ideas, Inputs, Impacts and Outcomes, Outputs

Saturday, December 26th, 2015

I’ve previously cheered Daniel Mietchen’s efforts to promote open access research proposals. Mietchen, with fellow researcher/OA activist Ross Mounce and ecologist/academic publisher Lyubomir Penev have recently launched Research Ideas and Outcomes (I sometimes misremember the name; title of this post may help others afflicted find RIO), a new open access mega journal that provides a venue for publishing the entire research cycle for almost any field of research.

The Wikidata for Research proposal that Mietchen also spearheaded and I again cheered is one of the first artifacts published in RIO.

I encourage everyone to read RIO’s opening editorial, Publishing the research process. I want to especially highlight the “highlighting social impact” section by making a copy:

Given that much of research is publicly funded and that public funding is limited, there is a growing interest in assessing the impact that research has on society beyond academia and in having this criterion influence decisions on whether and how public funds are to be spent on specific lines or fields of research (Roy 1985, Bornmann 2012, Reich and Myhrvold 2013).

Despite past criticisms of similar initiatives (e.g. Wright 2002), some researchers have called for support from the scientific community for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, seeing their role in “help[ing] to integrate monitoring and evaluation mechanisms into policy-making at all levels and ensure that information about our planet is easily available to all.” (Lu et al. 2015)

RIO addresses societal impact in several ways: (i) it is free to read, so that anyone interested can actually access it, (ii) it is openly licensed (CC BY 4.0 by default, with an option for CC0/Public Domain), so as to encourage the dissemination and reuse of its materials in other contexts, (iii) it is available in XML, which facilitates reuse by automated tools and integration with other platforms, (iv) it encourages authors to map their research to societal challenges it helps to address (and allows users to search and browse the journal by societal challenges they are interested in).

While the first three of these publishing practices are on the way to becoming standard in a growing range of disciplines, we are not aware of other journals to engage in the fourth one, but we encourage them to do so.

As another way to achieve societal impact, it has been suggested that researchers engage more in writing overview papers that summarize the state of knowledge in their field in a way that is accessible (in multiple senses of the word) to a broader audience, and that research evaluators should take such activities into account (Bornmann and Marx 2013). With that in mind, RIO offers the possibility to publish such overview papers as Policy Briefs.

When thinking of impact outside academia, another useful strategy is to bring research to places where non-academics might look for information. RIO will thus facilitate the creation of Wikipedia articles (Butler 2008, Logan et al. 2010), both on topics that have just been created through advances of scholarship (i.e. new methods or objects of study; e.g. RNA families, as in Daub et al. 2008) or on topics that have been studied for a while but not yet found decent coverage on the English Wikipedia (as pioneered for computational biology; Wodak et al. 2012).

Finally, RIO’s policies have been written with societal benefits in mind: they default to open sharing of all data and code underlying the research reported here and require public justification for exceptions to the open default. The primary effect of such an open default is an increase in the reproducibility and replicability and thus the reliability of research: the more of research workflows is being shared and the earlier the sharing occurs, the harder it will be for mistakes, systematic errors or fraud to go unnoticed. A welcome side effect of this is an increased educational value of the research and its documentation, and over time, we expect learners and educators, practitioners, journalists, artists, makers and others to engage with the research reported in RIO and with the associated data, code and materials.

RIO has a blog post on emphasizing research contribution to, e.g., the UN Sustainable Development Goals. I wholly endorse this emphasis, but the above excerpt is far richer, as it additionally tackles the social impact of academic publishing, which affects the social impact of all research. Not only does the secton cover the (should be) obvious open (free access, free permission, to/for forms suitable for modification) dimensions, but the huge opportunity to make research more accessible through summarization and cooperation with Wikipedians.

The only way the section could be improved would be for it to also mention macro impacts of commoning the knowledge economy, e.g., on equality and security. But I can’t blame the authors as I don’t know of great citations on these topics. I love Copyright and Inequality but it isn’t about research publications. I’ve got nothing on academic publishing and security, though recently widely discussed The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work is related. Please help correct my ignorance by pointing me at more on-point citations for these topics or by creating ones…why not start by publishing a proposal for such research in RIO?

Well, there is one other way the section could be improved: a mention of commoning academic publishing infrastructure. But, the software that runs RIO is not open source. I’d love to see a proposal published in RIO for funding whatever work would be needed to make the RIO platform open source.

If you’re interested in getting involved in RIO, you can apply to be a subject editor or editorial apprentice (see links on the RIO home page). If you’re working on any of the research or proposals mentioned in the two previous paragraphs and there’s any way I might be able to help, feel free to get in touch. I’m not an academic but am very keen to see progress in these areas!

Call for mini-essays on “the cost of freedom” in free knowledge movements in honor of Bassel Khartabil

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

Dear friends,

I’m helping organize a book titled “The Cost of Freedom” in honor of Bassel Khartabil, a contributor to numerous free/open knowledge projects worldwide and in Syria, where he’s been a political prisoner since 2012, missing and in grave danger since October 3. You can read about Bassel at https://www.eff.org/offline/bassel-khartabil
https://blog.wikimedia.org/2015/10/08/bassel-missing-syria/ https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/MDE24/2603/2015/en/ and lots more at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bassel_Khartabil and http://freebassel.org/

Much of the book is going to be created at a face-to-face Book Sprint in Marseille Nov 2-6; some info about that and the theme/title generally at http://costoffreedom.cc/

We’re also asking people like yourself who have been fighting in the trenches of various free knowledge movements (culture, software, science, etc.) to contribute brief essays for inclusion in the book. One form an essay might take is a paragraph on each of:

* An issue you’ve faced that was challenging to you in your free knowledge work, through the lens on “cost”; perhaps a career or time opportunity cost, or the cost of dealing with unwelcoming or worse participants, or the cost of “peeling off layer upon layer the proprietary way of life” as put in
http://www.adamhyde.net/open-is-not-a-license/
* How you addressed this challenge, or perhaps have yet to do so completely
* Advice to someone starting out in free knowledge; perhaps along the lines of had you understood the costs, what would you have done differently

But feel free to be maximally creative within the theme. We don’t have a minimum or a maximum required length for contributed essays, but especially do not be shy about concision or form. If all we get is haiku that might be a problem, or there might be a message in that of some sort.

Other details: The book will be PUBLISHED on Nov 6. We need your contribution no later than the end of Nov 3 UTCThursday, Nov 5 at 11:00 UTC (Paris: noon; New York: 6AM; Tokyo: 9PM) to be included. The book will be released under CC0; giving up the “right” to sue anyone for any use whatsoever of your contribution is a cost of entry…or one of those proprietary layers to be peeled back. Send contributions to book@costoffreedom.cc

Feel free to share this with other people who you know have something to say on this topic. We’re especially looking for voices underrepresented in free knowledge movements.

Cheers,
Mike

p.s. Please spread the word about #freebassel even if you can’t contribute to the book!

AcaWiki non-summary

Sunday, October 25th, 2015

Six years ago I helped launch AcaWiki, a site based on Semantic MediaWiki (software for which I had very high expectations, mostly transferred to Wikidata) for summarizing academic research.

A substantial community failed to materialize. I’ve probably been the only semi-consistent contributor over its entire six years. The best contributions have come from Jodi Schneider, who summarized a bunch of papers related to her research on the semantic web and online discourse, Benjamin Mako Hill, who summarized his PhD qualification exam readings, and Nate Matias who did the same and added a bunch of summaries related to online harassment. Students of an archaeology course taught by Ben Marwick summarized many papers as part of the class. Thank you Jodi, Mako, Nate, Ben, and a bunch of people who have each contributed one or a few summaries.

I’m not going to try to enumerate the deficiencies of AcaWiki here. They boil down to lack of time dedicated to outreach and to improving the site, and zero effort to raise funds to support such work, following a small startup grant obtained by AcaWiki’s founder Neeru Paharia, who has since been busy earning a doctorate and becoming a professor. With Neeru I’ve been the organization’s other long-term director so bear responsibility for this lack of effort. In retrospect dedicating more time to AcaWiki these last years at a cost to non-collaborative activity (e.g., this blog) would have been wise. I haven’t moved to take the other obvious course of shutting down the site, because I still believe something like it is badly needed, not least by me, as I wrote in 2009:

This could be seen as an end-run around access and copyright restrictions (the Open Access movement has made tremendous progress though there is still much to be done), but AcaWiki is a very partial solution to that problem — sometimes an article summary (assuming AcaWiki has one) would be enough, though often a researcher would still need access to the full paper (and the full dataset, but that’s another battle).

More interesting to me is the potential for AcaWiki summaries to increase the impact of research by making it more accessible in another way — comprehensible to non-specialists and approachable by non-speedreaders. I read a fair number of academic papers and many more get left on my reading queue unread. A “human readable” distillation of the key points of articles (abstracts typically convey next to nothing or are filled with jargon) would really let me ingest more.

This has held true even given AcaWiki’s tiny size to date: I regularly look back at summaries I’ve written to remember what I’ve read, and wish I summarized much more of what I’ve read, because most of it I’ve almost totally forgotten! I recommend summarizing papers even though it is hard.

Much harder still and more valuable are literature reviews. These were envisioned to be a part of AcaWiki, but I now think that every Wikipedia article should effectively be a literature review (and more). A year ago I blogged about an example of Wikipedia article as literature review led by James Heilman. Earlier this year Heilman wrote a call to action around a genre of literature review, Open Access to a High-Quality, Impartial, Point-of-Care Medical Summary Would Save Lives: Why Does It Not Exist? (which of course I summarized on AcaWiki). I have a partially written commentary on this piece but for now I can only urge you to read Heilman, or start with and improve my summary.

This brings me to one of my excuses for not dedicating more time to AcaWiki: hope that it would be superseded by a project directly under the Wikimedia umbrella, benefiting from that organization’s and movement’s scale. But, I’ve done almost nothing to make this happen, either. I imagine the current effort that could lead in that direction is WikiProject Open Signalling OA-ness, as I’ve noted at the top of a page on AcaWiki listing similar projects. By far the best project on the list is Journalist’s Resource, also launched in 2009, with vastly greater resources. The projects listed so far as “similar” must only the tip of an iceberg of efforts to summarize academic research, for it’s widely recognized (yes, citation needed; I just created a placeholder on AcaWiki for gathering these) that summarization in various forms is valuable and much more is needed.

If this hasn’t been enough of a ramble already, I’ll close with miscellaneous notes about and unsorted to-dos AcaWiki:

  • Very brief summaries, perhaps 140 character or not much longer, would be useful complements to longer summaries. It would be easy to add a short summary field to AcaWiki.
  • For summaries of articles which are themselves freely licensed, it might be useful to include the author’s abstract in AcaWiki. Again, it would be easy to add a field.
  • There’s lots of research on automated summarization, some of it producing open source tools. These could be applied to initialize summaries, either for human summaries, or en masse bot summary creation.
  • I have added a field for an article’s Wikidata identifier. AcaWiki is one of a handful of sites potentially using Wikidata for authority control. There will be many more. But it’d be far more useful to do something with that identifier, most obviously to ingest article metadata from Wikidata and create Wikidata items/push metadata to Wikidata where items corresponding to summarized articles do not exist. I’ve not yet seriously looked into how much of this can be currently accomplished using Wikibase Client.
  • Last month there was debate about a program giving some Wikipedia contributors gratis access to closed academic journals. Does this program help improve Wikipedia as a free resource, or promote non-free literature? It must do some of both; which is the bigger impact on long-term free knowledge outcomes probably depends on one’s perspective. My bias is that improving and promoting free resources is vastly more important than suppressing non-free ones. But I also think that free academic summaries could help in both respects. For Wikipedia readers, a reference with an immediately available summary would be more useful than one without. The summary would also reduce the need to access the original non-free article. AcaWiki in its current state is inadequate, but perhaps the the debate ought motivate more work on free academic summaries, here or elsewhere.
  • Has any closed access publisher freed only article abstracts (including a free license; abstracts are almost always gratis access)? This would be useful to a site like AcaWiki at the least, especially if abstracts were more consistently useful.
  • Should the scope of AcaWiki be explicitly expanded to include summarizing material that is somehow academic but is not in the form of a peer-reviewed paper published in an academic journal? Some of the summaries I’ve contributed are for books or grey literature.
  • Periodically it’s been suggested to change the default license for AcaWiki summaries from CC-BY to CC-BY-SA. I should add updated thoughts at the link.
  • Some time ago in order to put a stop to the creation of spam accounts, I enabled the ConfirmAccount extension, which forces users who want to contribute to fill out an account request form. I admit this is hugely annoying. I have done zero research into it, but I would love to have an extension which auto-enables account creation based on some external authentication and reputation, e.g., Wikimedia wiki accounts or even users followed/subscribed to/endorsed by existing AcaWiki users on other sites, e.g., social networks.
  • Upgrade site to https when Let’s Encrypt becomes generally available. Alternatively, see if it is possible to move hosting (currently a $10/month Digital Ocean VPS) to Miraheze, which mandates https.
  • I intended to write an update on AcaWiki for Open Access Week (October 19-25). I only realized after beginning that AcaWiki was recently 6 years old.
  • I’m going to ping the people who have contributed to AcaWiki so far to look at this post and provide feedback. What would it take for them to feel good about recommending others do what they’ve done, e.g., summarizing PhD or research program readers, or assigning contributing or improving AcaWiki summaries to their classes? Or if something else entirely should be done to push forward free summarization of academic literature, what is that something?
  • For some time Fabricatorz did a bit of work on and hosted AcaWiki. From my email correspondence I see that Bassel Khartabil did some of that. As I’ve blogged before (1, 2, 3), Bassel has been detained by the Syrian government since 2012. Recently he has gone missing and presumably is in grave danger. Props to his Frabricatorz and many other friends who have done more to raise awareness of Bassel’s plight than I would have imagined possible when writing those previous posts. See freebassel.org for info and links, and spread the word. I’ll add a note about #freebassel to the AcaWiki home page (which badly needs a general revamp) shortly.

If any of this interests you, get in touch or merely watch for updates on the acawiki-general mailing list, AcaWiki on pump.io, Twitter, or Facebook, or blog comments below, or the AcaWiki site.

Democratizing Wikimedia Innovation

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

Through the end of this month the Wikimedia community is electing 3 members of the Wikimedia Foundation board. You qualify to vote if you’ve made at least 300 edits before April 15 and 20 between October 15 and April 15 to any Wikimedia project.

If you don’t quality to vote, it won’t be hard to do so for next time if you get started now: Log in or create an account and be bold when you see a typo, incorrect or missing information in a Wikipedia article. Familiarize yourself with Wikipedia’s sibling projects; edits to any of them count. Play the Wikidata Game. I heartily recommend doing these things as a matter of learning and sharing knowledge regardless of desire to vote in Wikimedia elections or lower threshold and more fun votes such as for the Wikimedia Commons Picture of the Year. The current election is just an excuse for inserting this Public Service Announcement. ;-)

If you do qualify to vote, please do. I voted for Denny Vrandečić and give him the strongest possible endorsement. I also voted for and endorse James Heilman.

The election uses approval/disapproval ratio to determine winners, so disapproval votes are powerful. I made a few but don’t want to publish because frankly all of the candidates are excellent and extremely qualified for a Wikimedia Foundation community board seat.

community-centered theory of changeThe central issue in this election is evident in the Candidate statements, discussion, structured Q&A (1, 2, 3, 4), in a series of blog posts by Pete Forsyth (who was briefly a candidate but stepped aside), and outside the context of the current election, in blog posts by Lane Raspberry and Nimish Gautam., and the one message I’ve sent on the issue, which the first paragraph of Vrandečić’s candidate statement sums up:

Wikimedia is a modern wonder – and yet, it must change: most of our projects, as they are today, cannot truly succeed. To achieve our mission, we must increase the effectivity of every single contributor. At the same time, the communities are often seen as change resistant – but falsely so: they do welcome change, done right, as I have shown with Wikidata.

Along these lines, I especially commend Vrandečić’s and Heilman’s answers to the following Q&A topics: Use of Superprotect and respect for community consensus, Retaining current volunteers versus recruiting new ones, Improving content, and Diversity and scope.

It’s commonplace for central organizations (of which I am a fan) to neglect or denigrate communities they serve, whether the relationship is one of collaboration, constituency, or consumption. Sometimes a version of neglect is even the right behavior, e.g., a product or project with some users may need to be EOL’d. But most organizations could do much better. It is essential that the Wikimedia Foundation do so, as the people who edit or otherwise contribute to the various Wikimedia projects are its key competitive advantage. If Wikimedia and other commons-based peer production projects are to stay relevant, nevermind helping achieve world liberation, they need to figure out how to become more effective, starting with embracing the idea that most of the vision and innovation needed to do so will come from the community, not the central organizations, and implementation done in partnership with the community.

Unrelated to the community issue, I’ve previously blog cheered Vrandečić’s and Heilman’s work on Wikidata and Wikipedia/medical journal collaboration respectively.

Tangential ex-Wikimedia Foundation links:

I was very sad to read that Erik Moeller recently left the foundation, where he was Deputy Director. Though he seemed to endorse the organization/community vision dichotomy (my one message linked above is a mailing list reply to him), in my view he is perhaps the best example in the Wikimedia universe of community vision — he had written about and many cases prototyped most of the innovations the foundation is still working on implementing, many years later, before becoming an employee.

Moeller has since started a podcast, interviewing another ex-Wikimedia Foundation person, Sumana Harihareswara, for the first episode.

Harihareswara has two recent posts on Crooked Timber, Codes of conduct and the trade-offs of copyleft and Where are the women in the history of open source? I found them both very interesting and left comments.

Former Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner is now “developing a strategic plan for and with the Tor Project” and separately researching “the broader state of ‘freedom tech’ — all the tools and technologies that enable free speech, free assembly, and freedom of the press.” That’s great news; Tor and other ‘freedom tech’ tools are incredibly exciting and important. But, a moment of critical cheering: as I noted around the time Gardner stepped down as WMF ED, I’m inclined to think that re-routing the knowledge economy is even more important than tools that can route around censorship for a good future. The former is what Wikimedia projects do.

The Killing of Abu Sayyaf (according to unreliable, one-sided, and conflicted sources)

Saturday, May 16th, 2015

Read The Killing of Osama bin Laden or a summary on the English Wikipedia entry for Seymour Hersh.

Then read Abu Sayyaf, an ISIS Leader, Killed in Syria by Special Forces, U.S. Says. The part after the last comma is backed up by the article:

Pentagon officials said
One American military official described
the Pentagon’s description
A Defense Department official said
The official said
(The accounts of the raid came from military and government officials and could not be immediately verified through independent sources.)
officials said
American officials said
The White House rejected initial reports
said Bernadette Meehan, the National Security Council spokeswoman
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said
Officials said
Defense Department officials said
a Defense Department official said
the official said
the official said
the Defense Department official said
Defense Department officials said
officials acknowledged
officials said
Mr. Carter said
the senior United States official said

Why bother to publish this story? Why is the disclaimer of verifiability buried in a parenthetical instead of a banner at the top of the article highlighting multiple issues, a la Wikipedia?

The article closes with a conjecture from a former C.I.A. analyst that anyone could have made.

I’m not complaining about anything new; recently reading the Hersh article made me want to skim the article on the apparent killing of Abu Sayyaf, and the opportunity to update the title of Hersh’s article made me want to write this blog post.

Great Crimes, Again and Again

Friday, April 24th, 2015

Title refers to Medz Yeghern (Armenian: Մեծ Եղեռն, “Great Crime”), a name for the Armenian Genocide (April 24 is remembrance day), and the empty slogan never again.

I recommend the English Wikipedia article on the Armenian Genocide. It’s a good long read; I learned a fair bit from it that should stick with me. I did not realize that the vast majority of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire lived a helot existence (I only knew that there were prominent Armenian elites in the Empire; indeed the remembrance day is the anniversary of rounding up of 250 Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople), that there was a mass expulsion of Muslims from the Balkans in the years prior to the genocide, that the genocide was widely reported in the West as it was in progress, and that it was witnessed directly by many (Central Power allies) Germans, possibly creating a direct line to some elements of the Holocaust.

I’ve only done naive searches for and skimming of genocide prevention material but my general impression is that it all takes an international perspective. That’s necessary and fine, but given how abysmal and nationalistic international governance is (including with regard to remembering genocides), I’d love to read more about how potential perpetrator and victim groups within jurisdictions have attempted to prevent genocide or its direct preconditions. I know when they have failed (documented genocides), but am almost completely ignorant of what attempts have been made, including any that have been successful, and how such attempts might inform the actions of people under threat today. I’m not talking about simplistic hypotheticals (e.g., what if someone killed Hitler before the war), nor heroic actions to save some people during a genocide. I’m wondering for example the extent of Turk liberal and Armenian elite efforts toward equal rights for all, Armenian elite efforts to protect Armenian helots, Armenian helot efforts to organize, and how such efforts could have been made more effective.

Previously regarding the Armenian-Assyrian-Greek genocide.

“Within jurisdictions” implies “improve yours” (in my case, the U.S.), which indeed I take as highly effective and necessary. A few past posts: Stop Killing Them and Invasion Ethics (present), Robot Gang Memorial Day (future), and Independence′ Day (remembrance).

Addendum 20150501: The English Wikipedia Signpost’s traffic report for April 19-25:

And much more sobering, but also in the Report for the first time, is the Armenian Genocide (#10 added: 631,960 views), which commenced 100 years ago this week. Farther down the list on the Top 25, it is worth noting that Adolf Hitler (#23), who famously asked who remembered the Armenian Genocide, also appears in the Top 25 for the first time. While World War II related topics often make the charts, for some reason Hitler himself has not since the Top 25’s debut in January 2013.

Annual thematic doubt 2

Tuesday, February 17th, 2015

My second annual thematic doubt post, expressing doubts I have about themes I blogged about during 2014.

commons ⇄ freedom, equality ⇄ good future

Same as last year, my main topic has been “protecting and promoting intellectual freedom, in particular through the mechanisms of free/open/knowledge commons movements, and in reframing information and innovation policy with freedom and equality outcomes as top.”

Rather than repeating the three doubts I expressed last year under the heading “intellectual freedom” (my evaluation of these has not much changed), I will take the subject from a different angle: the “theory of change” I have been espousing. This theory is not new to me. Essentially it is what attracted me to following the free software movement circa 1990 — its potential of extensive, pro-freedom socio-economic reform from the bottom up. That and wanting to run a unix-like on my computer — a want satisfied without respect to freedom as soon as I could use a Sun workstation at work, and for many years now would have been satisfied by OS X. I never cared very much about being able to read, modify, and share all of the software on my computer — the socio-economic implications of those capabilities make them interesting, to me. The claimed ends of the theory are in the ‘for a good future’ slogan I’ve occasionally used at least since 1998. I occasionally included the theory in blog posts (2006) and presentations (2008). Much of my ‘critical cheering’ last year (doubt) and before has largely been about my perhaps unreasonable wish that ‘free/open’ organizations and movements would take the theory I do and act as I think follows. I could easily be wrong on the theory or best actions it implies. Accordingly, I ratcheted down critical cheering in 2014; hopefully most but not all of what remained was relatively fun or novel. Instead I focused more sharply on the theory, e.g., in Sleepwalking past Freedom’s Commons, or how peer production could increase democracy, equality, freedom, and innovation, all of them!

The theory could be attacked from a number of angles — I’d love to see that done and learn of new vulnerabilities. For example, commons might not significantly affect freedom and equality, these may not be the right values, and one might consider a ‘good future’ to be one with maximum hierarchy, spectacle, even war (I repeatedly argue that future tech and culture will be marvels in most plausible futures, and that is a reason to reject ones that do not have freedom and equality as top values, but also something that makes it hard to see how a future — or present — could be different or better with more knowledge economy/policy-driven freedom and equality). But this isn’t a cheap refutation post (see below) and I don’t have very practical doubts about those values and what they imply constitutes a good future.

But I do have practical doubts about the first leg of the theory. Summary of that leg before getting to doubts: Commons-based knowledge production simultaneously destroys rents dependent on freedom infringing regimes, diminishing the constituency for those regimes, grows the constituency and policy imagination for freedom respecting regimes, and not least, directly increases freedom and equality.

Doubts:

  • Effects could be too small to matter, or properly attributed to generational or other competition among firms, not commons-based production. Consider Wikipedia, a success of commons-based production if there is one. Such success may not be possible in other sectors, especially ones that command top policy attention (drugs and movies) — policy imagination has not been increased. The traditional encyclopedia industry was already mostly destroyed by Microsoft Encarta when Wikipedia came along. The encyclopedia industry was not a significant constituency for freedom infringing regimes, so its destruction matters not for future policy. Encyclopedias were readily accessible at libraries, vastly more useful info of the sort found in encyclopedias is accessible online now, excluding Wikipedia, and ‘freedoms’ to modify and distribute are just not relevant nearly all humans.
  • I claim that the best knowledge policy reform is that which favors commons and that the reforms traditionally proposed by copyright and patent reformers are relatively futile because such proposals if implemented would not significantly change the knowledge economy to produce freedom and equality nor grow the constituencies for such changes — rather they are just about who, how, and for how much the outputs of production under freedom infringing regimes may be used — so-called balance, not the tilt I demand. But perhaps the usual set of reform proposals is the best that can be hoped for, especially given decades of discourse and organization-building around those proposals, and almost none about commons-favoring reform. Further, perhaps the usual set of reform proposals is best without qualification — commons-based production is a culturally marginal (in software; wholly irrelevant in most other sectors) arrangement that ought be totally ignored by policy.
  • Various (sometimes semi-) free/open movements within various sectors (e.g., software, education, research publication) are having some policy successes, without (as far as I know) usually considering themselves to be as or more central to shaping knowledge policy as usual things fitting under ‘copyright reform’ and ‘patent reform’ but this could be just what needs to happen. The important thing is that commons-based knowledge production entities act to further their interests with minimal distance from current policy discourse, not that they have any distracting and possibly discrediting theory about doing so relative to overall knowledge policy.

Only the first of these gives me serious pause, though my discounting the last two might be a matter of (dis)taste — my feeling is that most of the people involved thoroughly identify with the trivia of copyright, patent, and similar law, even if they think those laws need serious reform, and act as if commons-based production is something to be protected from reform in the bad direction, but not at all central. Sadly if my feeling is accurate, the second and third doubts probably ought give me more pause than they do.

Despite these doubts, the potential huge win-win (freedom and equality, without conflict) of reorienting the knowledge economy and policy around commons-based production makes robust discourse (at the least) on this possibility urgent, even if tilt probability is low. One of the things that makes me favor this approach is that reform can be very incremental — indeed, it is by far the most feasible reform of any proposed — we just need a lot more of it. Push-roll towards tilt!

The most damning observation is perhaps that I’m only talking, and mostly on this very blog. I should change my ways, but again, this is not a cheap refutation post.

Software Freedom/Futurism/Science Fantasy

I recently wrote that “it’s much easier to take software freedom as a serious issue of top importance if one has a ‘futurist’ bent. This will also figure in a forthcoming post from me casting doubt on everything in this post and the rest from 2014.”

How important are computers to human arrangements, and how large is the range of plausible computer-involved arrangements, and how much can those realized be changed? Should anyone besides programmers and enthusiasts care about software specifically, any more or less than they care about the conditions under which any tool is created and distributed? (Contrast with other tools would be good here, but I’ll leave for another time.)

The vast majority of people seem to treat software as any other tool — they want it to work as well as possible, and to be as cheap as possible, the only difference being that their intuitions about quality and cost of software may be worse than their intuitions for the quality and cost of, for example, bridges. Arguably nearly everyone has been and perhaps still is correct.

But one doesn’t need to be much of a futurist to see software getting much more important — organizations good at using software ‘eating’ the lunches of those less good at using software, software embedded in everything or designing everything (and anything else being obsolete), regulating and mediating every sort of arrangement — with lots of plausible variation as to how this happens.

Now the doubt: does future-motivated interest in software freedom share more with interest in science fiction (i.e., moralistic fantasy) or with interest in future studies and the many parts of various social sciences that aim to improve systems going forward in addition to understanding current and past ones? If the latter, why is software freedom ignored by all of these fields? Possibly most people who do think software is becoming very important are not convinced that software freedom is an important dimension to consider. If so (I would love to see some kind of a review on the matter) it would be most reasonable to follow the academic consensus (even if it is one of omission; that consensus being of software freedom not interesting or important enough to investigate) and if one cares about the ethical dimensions of software, focus instead on the ones the consensus says are important.

Two additional posts last year in which I claim software freedom is of outsized and underappreciated importance (of course I don’t usually restrict myself to only software, but consider software a large and growing part of knowledge embodying cumulative innovation, and of the knowledge economy leading to more such accumulation) and some of many from years past (2006, 2006, 2007, 2007). The first from 2006 highlights the most obvious problem with the future. I had forgotten about that post when mentioning displacement of movies by some other form as the height of culture in 2013 — one has to squint to see such displacement even beginning yet. The second isn’t about the future but is closely related: alternative history.

Uncritical Cheering

I feared that many of my posts last year were uncritical cheering (see critical cheering above and last year). Looking back at posts where I’m promoting something, I have usually included or at least hinted at some amount of criticism (e.g., 1 2). I don’t feel too bad. But know that most of the things I promote on my blog are very likely to fail or otherwise be inconsequential — if they were sufficiently mainstream and established they’d be sufficiently covered elsewhere, and I likely wouldn’t bother blogging about them.

One followup: I cheered the publication of the first formally peer-reviewed and edited Wikipedia article in Open Medicine — a journal which has since ceased publishing.

Freeway 980

I continue to blog about removing freeway 980, which cuts through the oldest parts of Oakland. Doubt: I don’t know whether full removal would be better (at least when considering feasibility) than capping the portion of 980 which is below grade. I intended to read about freeway capping, come to some informed opinion, and blog about it. I have not, but supposedly Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf has mentioned removing 980. Hopefully that will spur much more qualified people to publish analyses of various options for my reading pleasure. ConnectOakland is a website dedicated to one removal/fill scenario.

Politics

I’m satisfied enough with the doubt in my two posts about Mozilla’s leadership debacle, but I’ll note apparent tension between fostering ideological diversity and shunning people who would deny some people basic freedoms. I don’t think this one was fairly clear cut, but there are doubtless far more difficult cases in the world.

Instead of doubt, I’d like to clarify my intention with two other posts: thought experiment/provocation, serious demand.

Refutation

I fell further behind, producing no new dedicated collections of refutations of my 8+ year old posts. My very next post will be one, but as with previous such posts, the refutations will be cheap — flippant rather than drilling down on doubts I may have gained over the years. Again these observations (late, cheap) are what led me last year to initiate a thematic doubt post covering the immediately previous year. How was this one?

Happy UTC+0 New Year

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

With apologies for the projection.

Smattering of followups on mostly-recent posts, posted at 2015-01-01 00:00:00 UTC. Does anyone celebrate UTC+0 New Year except by coincidence of being in UTC+0 time zone? Yes.

Software Freedom Conservancy released a video with me endorsing them (my recent blog endorsement). I self-recorded the footage and acknowledge total videography incompetence, need of a haircut, and need to be still.

PLOS Biology published a perspective by Daniel Mietchen on The Transformative Nature of Transparency in Research Funding. Riffing on his tweet, that’s early theory; practice is the Wikidata for Research proposal that he is leading creation of in the open (my recent blog endorsement).

Snowdrift.coop’s one-time crowdfunding campaign (my recent blog endorsement and others) is wrapping up very successfully. Looking forward to seeing Snowdrift.coop launch in early 2015.

Free Software Foundation’s call for input on updating its high priority projects list (my blog post) has resulted in over 100 emails to hpp-feedback@gnu.org, most of them very thoughtful and containing numerous suggestions. Some are mirrored in public posts: Antoine Amarilli, Christopher Allan Webber, d3vid seaward, Denver Gingerich, Ingegnue. Please send your feedback! I especially enjoy seeing public posts and explanations of how suggestions are on critical path toward achieving goal of software freedom for everyone.

Speaking of the FSF, they recently released a new video making the case that software freedom is important for everyone. I agree with Christopher Allan Webber’s asseessment of good progress. The video also ties into a free software futurist dinner that Webber said raised money for Software Freedom Conservancy, and some statements I make in the video above: I suspect it’s much easier to take software freedom as a serious issue of top importance if one has a “futurist” bent. This will also figure in a forthcoming post from me casting doubt on everything in this post and the rest from 2014 (last year’s version).

There’s some overlap between the above and OpenHatch’s year-end newsletter (my year-ago blog endorsement).

Finally, check out Don Marti’s below the fold announcement about Aloodo, a project to (if I understand correctly) help sites protect themselves from the long-term damage of being associated with pervasive tracking and door-to-door-like incentives (everything to make immediate conversion, nothing to build trust). I still have not gotten around to blogging other ideas for “fixing” online advertising, but very much look forward to seeing how Marti’s project plays out.

wikidata4research4all

Sunday, December 21st, 2014

Recently I’ve uncritically cheered for Wikidata as “rapidly fulfilling” hopes to “turn the universal encyclopedia into the universal database while simultaneously improving the quality of the encyclopedia.” In April I uncritically cheered for Daniel Mietchen’s open proposal for research on opening research proposals.

Let’s combine the two: an open proposal for work toward establishing Wikidata (including its community, data, ontologies, practices, software, and external tools) as a “collaborative hub around research data” responding to a European Commission call on e-infrastructures. That would be Wikidata for Research (WD4R), instigated by Mietchen, who has already assembled an impressive set of partner institutions and an outline of work packages. The proposal is being drafted in public (you can help) and will be submitted January 14.

4all

The proposal will be strong on its own merits, and very well aligned with the stated desired outcomes from the EC call, and the open proposal dogfood angle is also great. I added for all to this post’s title because I suspect WD4R will be a great for pushing Wikidata toward realizing aforementioned “universal database” hopes (which again means not just the data, but community, tools, etc.; “virtual research environment” is one catch-all term) and will make Wikidata much more useful “research” most broadly construed (e.g., by students, journalists, knowledge workers, anyone), potentially much faster than would happen otherwise.

My suspicion has two bases (please correct me if I’m wrong about either):

  1. A database or virtual environment “for research” might give the impression of someplace to dump data from or perform experiments. Maybe that would be appropriate for Wikidata in some instance, but the overwhelming research-supporting use would seem to be mass collaboration in consolidating, annotating, and correcting data and ontologies which many researchers (and researchers-broadly-construed, everyone) can benefit from, either querying or referencing directly, or extracting and using elsewhere. The pre-existing Gene Wiki project which is beginning to use Wikidata is an example of such useful-to-all collections (as referenced in the WD4R pages).
  2. One of the proposed work packages is to identify and work on features needed for research but not on, or not prioritized on, the Wikidata development plan. I suspect other Wikimedia projects can tremendously benefit from Wikidata integration without Wikidata itself or external tools supporting complex queries and reporting that would be called for by a virtual research environment — and also called for to realize “universal database” hopes. Wikidata’s existing plan looks good to me; here I’m just saying WD4R might help it be even better, faster.

The previously linked Gene Wiki post includes:

For more than a decade many different groups have proposed and many have implemented solutions to this challenge using standards and techniques from the Semantic Web. Yet, today, the vast majority of biological data is still accessed from individual databases such as Entrez Gene that make no attempt to use any component of the Semantic Web or to otherwise participate in the Linked Open Data movement. With a few notable exceptions, the data silos have only gotten larger and problems of fragmentation worse.
[…]
Now, we are working to see if Wikidata can be the bridge between the open community-driven power of Wikipedia and the structured world of semantic data integration. Can the presence of that edit button on a centralized knowledge base associated with Wikipedia help the semantic web break through into everyday use within our community?

I agree that massive centralized commons-oriented resources are needed for decentralization to progress (link analogous but not the same — linked open data : federation :: data silos : messaging silos).

Check out Mietchen’s latest WD4R blog post and the WD4R project page.