29 April 2006

Poodles, UFOs, Truth, Terror and Microsoft

The facts behind the UK cracker who ill-advisedly decided to break into Pentagon systems just gets more and more bizarre. The main issue is that this poor bloke faces porridge in Guantanamo Bay - with hot and cold running torture (mental and physical), kindly provided by that nice Uncle Sam. But along the way there are issues of jurisdiction, questions about George W. Bush's favourite poodle, UFOs and Microsoft.

Yes, it's actually all Microsoft's fault.

Mum Was Right: It's Good to Share

A nice story in PC World (via Engadget) about a way to pool WiFi connections with a neighbour so as to boost throughput for both. Now, imagine if we started to do this on a national basis....

Send Microsoft a Message Today

Microsoft has been suprisingly good in its Firefox support recently - until this came along. If you use Firefox, do make sure you pay them a visit just to let them know through their Web stats that Firefox has to be on the A-list in the future.

Why Open Access Makes Sense

There are lots of moral reasons why academics should support open access. But there is also an extremely strong pragmatic one: their work is more widely read, and their institutions gain in visibility and hence prestige.

Open access? - You'd be daft not to.

Update. Peter Suber has kindly sent me this link to a huge bibliography of studies that demonstrate the benefits of open access in even more detail.

Dry Sterile Thunder Without Rain

The looming storm...?

Tridge and Bill

An interesting story in The New York Times about the courtroom battle between the EU and Microsoft. It makes beautifully clear how one human story trumps any number of dry legal expositions, however detailed and cogent the evidence they present.

Certainly, it was a shrewd move wheeling out Andrew Tridgell. I had the pleasure of interviewing Tridge for my book Rebel Code, and his boyish enthusiasm for hacking positively beamed through the conversation, undiminished by the journey from his native Australia. Indeed, he presents a fascinating contrast to some of the other bigs of the free software world, for example the driven and messianic Stallman or the sardonic and by nature rather shy Linus.

28 April 2006

We Are Not Alone

One of the heartening things is how I keep coming across blogs that are broadly pushing for the same things as this one, even if they come at it from very different angles. A case in point is the excellent Against Monopoly, which has the subhead "Defending the Right to Innovate" - a phrase that will sound familiar (and wonderfully ironic) to Microsoft-watchers.

I shall have more to say about this site and some of the people behind it in due course.

27 April 2006

I've Seen the Future - and It's Patented

The name Nathan Myhrvold probably doesn't strike fear into your heart; it may not even be known to you. But one day, rest assured, he will make Bill Gates look benign. Gates simply wants to own the software industry, and, as has been amply shown over the last quarter century, is prepared to do anything - including creating the odd illegal monopoly - to achieve that. But at least Gates has the virtue of believing passionately in the value of the software his people make; and at least they do actually make something.

Myhrvold's company, Intellectual Ventures, does not make anything. It will never make anything. For its domain is patents, and all it aspires to do is to create the world's biggest and most lucrative heap of patents to get the people who do actually make stuff to pay licences - whether justified or not - by threatening to sue them if they don't. Industrial-scale patent troll-dom, in other words.

Myhrvold once worked for Microsoft, and became very rich doing so. His new venture is based on an astute reading of the broken patent system in the US, and on how to play it in all its glorious brokenness. If you want the full details, read the excellent article in IP Law & Business, probably the best introduction to just how Myhrvold intends to do it.

He may well pull it off. His logic is impeccable, as you would expect from someone who is anything but a fool. But it is based on the past - a deeply-flawed past that threatens to bring innovation to a grinding halt in the US, and anywhere else stupid enough to acquiesce in the latter's demands that its own patent regime be imposed as part of trade agreements.

For all his cleverness, Myhrvold cannot see - will not see - that the future belongs to a different model for "intellectual property", a commons-based approach made famous by free software, though not invented by it (it's actually as old as the idea of the commons, which goes back to the Romans and beyond into the mists of time).

In fact, Myhrvold's likely success in bringing entire sectors to their corporate knees through the use of broad patent portfolios may have the ironic consequence of hastening the ultimate repeal of all the accumulated stupidities in the fields of patents, trademarks and copyright. For this reason, I wish him every success. Almost.

Apache Now Leader in Secure Web Servers Too

One of the statistics most often trotted out to demonstrate open source's rise and reach is Apache's total dominance of the public Web server sector (I should know, I've done it often enough myself). This has always stuck in Microsoft's craw, and their standard response is "Well, it doesn't really count since it's mostly mickey-mouse Web servers, whereas we are the tops for grown-up secure Web servers" (not their phraseology, but you get my drift).

The news that Apache is now the leading secure Web server as well as the leading Web server overall rather blows this story out of the water. It also means that all that hard work Microsoft has been doing converting domain registrars in a desperate attempt to boost its market share - that is, gaining share among the mickey-mouse Web servers it so pooh-poohed before - was a complete waste of time and money.

Avast There, Landlubbers


26 April 2006

Audacious, Adorable Auntie

I've been a big fan of the BBC ever since I first saw Doctor Who - and I mean since I first saw the very first episode of the first Doctor Who (yes, I know, I know). Today, life is inconceivable without the backdrop of Radio 3 from early morning until late at night. And so it's good to see such a fine institution being so, well, good and fine.

Its latest move as it dances on the brink of opening up the vast audio-visual thesaurus hidden in the vaults is to make its Programme Catalogue freely available for searches (and how appropriate that an institution that almost defines Britishness should use two of the words that almost define the British variant of English for this).

It's not complete (it only has one entry for me, but I'm sure I took part in a deeply obscure BBC TV programme about computers several geological time-periods ago); it's not completely free (the licence essentially limits you to personal, non-commercial use). But it's a completely wonderful start, and a magnificent contribution to open knowledge.

Update: Apparently, the dinky little graphics that pepper the results are called sparklines (via Nodalpoint.org).

The European Digital Library: Glimmers of Hope

When I last wrote about the proposed European Digital Library, I was not optimistic about what users might be able to do with its content: "IP" considerations seemed to be raising their ugly head.

But maybe there's hope. A recent background paper contains the following two clueful passages:

The Creative Commons initiative, which started in the USA, is gaining ground in different European countries. It provides a set of user-friendly online licenses giving creators of content the opportunity to protect some of their rights, while giving away others.


London’s Wellcome Trust, one of Europe’s largest charities, is planning to launch a system that will archive all papers produced by its grantees in a digital library. Wellcome will require researchers to deposit a copy of the accepted manuscript within 6 months of publication.

Copying CDs is Worse Than Stealing Them

At least that's one implication of the proposed DMCA++. There are other interesting ways of putting it, too.

Opening Up to Pure Geek Goodness

The real power of open APIs is not so much the particular, obvious things they let you do, but that - as with all open endeavours - they remove unnatural obstacles so that the only limits are your ingenuity.

For example, an outfit called TruePath Technologies has plugged network monitoring into Google's open Calendar API to create something no sane - or uninspired - individual would ever have dreamt of. (Via Digg)

Beyond Open Source - The Talk

I mentioned a little while back that I'd been asked to give a talk at the Open Source and Sustainability conference in Oxford. This has now taken place, both I and my audience survived, and the talk is available online (as a PDF, I'm afraid). It's about open source, open genomics and open content.

Now there's a surprise.

25 April 2006

Now It's Trademarks' Turn

I've written a fair amount about patent woes in these posts (some would probably say too much). And in many ways, patents are easy pickings, since the idiocies perpetrated by patent offices around the world are pretty obviously wrong, even to the person on the Clapham omnibus.

But trademarks are another matter. Rights and wrongs here are more slippery, since there is certainly commercial sense in allowing owners to protect brands that they may have invested considerable amounts to build up. But trademarks are not like copyright: it is not an artistic question of infringing on an expression of an idea, but rather a commercial issue of avoiding confusion in the marketplace.

So the news that the US is about to push through some changes to its trademark law that will radically re-shape what trademarks will do in areas outside commerce is bad indeed. The bill in question would remove traditional exceptions to US trademark law that concern news reporting and commentary; fair use; and non-commercial use. If these proposals become law, it will give owners of trademarks huge and totally inappropriate power over not just competitors, but the media and the public too.

Update: Here's what companies already get up to using trademarks.

At the Top of the Stack

The Inquirer has an interesting story about the quaintly-named "China Rural PC", which seems to be Intel's bid (a) to make some dosh out of the huge Chinese market and (b) to prove that a Lintel duopoly is just as nice as the Wintel one.

But what really caught my attention was the software line-up that this system - whether it ever gets made or not - will/would run at the top of the stack:

Gnomemeeting, aka Ekiga

along with some interesting extras like Moodle (what a great name: now I wonder why I like it so much...?). The only things I'd change are to swap out Mozilla for Firefox and Evolution for Thunderbird, especially once the latter acquires the Lightning calendar extension.

What this list shows is the range and maturity of GNU/Linux apps on the desktop, and the fact that the technical obstacles to broader take-up are diminishing by the day.

That only leaves the users.

24 April 2006

Burning Down the House

After middleware, now business intelligence. Burning down the house (of closed source) - seeping up the stack.

Murdering Memory

This press release from the US National Archives raises a key issue for the digital age: the need for archives to act in a completely transparent fashion. If, as has been happening, archives can be silently "disappeared" by security forces, history - built on sand at the best of times - becomes even more unstable.

The words of the grandly-named Archivist of the United States should be framed on the walls of everyone working in the world of digital memories:

There can never be a classified aspect to our mission. Classified agreements are the antithesis of our reason for being.

Imagine, for example, if the great and wonderful Internet Archive were forced to delete materials, without even leaving a notice to that effect. Perhaps they already have.

Wikis, Wikis, Everywhere...

...Nor any stop to think.

The New York Times reports on the rash of wikis that are appearing on e-commerce sites. I've already mentioned the one that's popped up on Amazon, as well as that on Chinesepod.

But I really can't see this as turning into a general component of any old shopping site. Unless there is a clear benefit for users to contribute to this communal effort - and for most e-commerce sites there isn't - then customer reviews, which at least allow people to express themselves, seems the better approach.

Unrelenting Evil

I couldn't have put it better myself.

It's Blogging - But Not As We Know It

A few weeks ago I interviewed Michael Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg. As I wrote in the article that resulted, there are close similarities between him and Richard Stallman. Both have conducted a single-minded - not to say lonely - campaign for their respective projects, both have achieved miracles, and both are, er, colourful characters.

In the course of my discussions with him, I recommended that he start blogging. He has been a prolific and fascinating wordsmith for decades, but I thought that the medium of the blog would allow him to reach out to new audiences.

So I was intrigued to receive an email from him recently in which he spoke about a new introduction to his blog. As you will see, this is an interesting interpretation of the blog format - a kind of retro 70s ASCII blog.

But don't let that put you off. What Hart has to say is interesting and important. Indeed, I think he will go down in history as a highly significant figure. Even if he has unconventional ideas on blogging - and on much else.

23 April 2006

It Can't Get Any Worse - Or Can It?

You may think that the US DMCA is bad enough, since it "criminalizes production and dissemination of technology that can circumvent measures taken to protect copyright, not merely infringement of copyright itself, and heightens the penalties for copyright infringement on the Internet", as Wikipedia puts it.

But if you take a look at this news story, you'll see it can still get worse. It seems that the IP maximalists really want to nail everything down - even if that means soft parts of your anatomy get caught in the process.

And if you live outside the US, you can wipe that smile of smug satisfaction off your face. The DMCA has already led to the pernicious EU Copyright Directive; if the Americans are blessed with the joy and privilege of a DMCA++, rest assured that it will only be a matter of time before "IP harmonisation" demands that we follow suit.

22 April 2006

Access to Knowledge - or Not...

I came across the Access to Knowledge conference, which is currently running at Yale under the aegis of the Information Society Project. The latter's sub-head is "memes, genes and bits", so you can see why my interest was piqued.

Unfortunately, the main conference page given above uses a crazy non-transparent navigation system - so much for Access to Knowledge - so I can't give direct links to some of the more interesting sections. At least I can point to the obligatory conference wiki; there's not much there at the moment, but in the days to come it should fill up with some juicy light reading for those of us that way inclined.

21 April 2006

Shopping Made Delicious

Well, it had to happen. After all the innocent tagging fun at bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, somebody has now come up with a vulgar commercial application: social shopping. It's called Stylehive, it has a nicely minimalist site, and seems a paean to pointless consumerism. (Via Techcrunch).

The Unadmirable Miró Family

As you probably noticed, Google put up one of its snazzy logos yesterday, in homage to the Catalan artist Joan Miró. Molt ben, you might say.

But sadly the family of Miró seem not to partake of their ancestor's largeness of spirit: some puffed-up representative or other blithered on about "underlying copyrights to the works of Miro" - as if you could copyright a style (individual works, yes; the overarching idea behind them, no). Google took down the logo early.

Once again, IP petty-mindedness plays the killjoy.

Music to My Ears

There's a fascinating story over on BBC News, nominally about Madonna, but really about a new commons. It reports on how concerts are becoming ever-more important to rock stars, as sales of their recordings diminish.

The latter fact may be due to the Internet; but whether it is or not, the future seems to be one where the digital stuff - the song - is essentially free, and the stars make their dosh from the analogue side - concerts. So here we have pop songs as a new commons, where the creators of that commons make a more than decent living.

Two quotations in particular are worth noting. One is from Alan Krueger, an economist, who provides the figures to back up this idea:

Only four of the top 35 income-earners made more money from recordings than live concerts. For the top 35 artists as a whole, income from touring exceeded income from record sales by a ratio of 7.5 to one in 2002.

The other is from the ever-perceptive David Bowie:

music itself is going to become like running water or electricity

Now that's music to my ears.

20 April 2006

Closing Ranks

Talking of Microsoft, I see that my old chums at Reed Elsevier (disclosure: I used to work there a long, long time ago) are cosying up to none other than the same. I particularly enjoyed the following paragraph:

"We provide access to a very large collection of proprietary content to millions of professional users around the world. This includes more than 4.6 billion searchable documents through LexisNexis.com and 6.7 million articles through ScienceDirect,” said Keith McGarr, chief technology officer at Reed Elsevier. “Technology from Microsoft has played, and continues to play, a key role in our ongoing, aggressive online strategy."

What's amusing here is not just the fact that Reed Elsevier is using Microsoft's technology to be "aggressive" - "go on, bite 'is 'ead off" kind of stuff, I presume - but the way the word "proprietary" is added so gratuitously. It's almost as if Reed Elsevier wants to emphasise its close kinship to a certain other proud pusher of the proprietary. And it's rather drole to see this relationship made explicit like this, since half-jokingly I have been calling Reed Elsevier the Microsoft of the open access world for some time.

Signs of Eclipse

Microsoft never gives ought for nought. Few remember that originally you had to pay for Internet Explorer, which formed part of something called Windows Plus; it was only when beating Netscape Navigator became a priority that Internet Explorer suddenly became an indissoluble part of Windows that could never be removed without destroying the whole system (funny that I remembering uninstalling it without causing any global chaos).

So the news that Microsoft is making Visual Studio Express free begs the question: why? Since we can discount the theory that Steve Ballmer has become a closet communist, we might suspect that there is a competitive reason. Surely it couldn't be because that funny old Eclipse project is beginning to, well, eclipse Microsoft's own offerings among the "18 million recreational and hobbyist developers" that the press release mentions by the by?

Measuring the Commons

The commons is clearly important, but it's hard to get a handle on just how big it is these days. So the release of some figures from the Creative Commons project, detailing how many of which kind of licence has been adopted, makes fascinating reading.

It also has some useful links: to more licence statistics, and to "curators" of Creative Commons material, complete with figures showing the size of their respective holdings. Interesting to see that Flickr towers over everyone.

Paying the Price for Free Software

Sometimes, I think they do this kind of thing on purpose, just to annoy me.

Somebody writes some free software; somebody later "patents" the same software/idea (as if you could patent either software or an idea) - and then accuses the free software author of infringing on their patent and causing them financial loss by daring to give away an open source program, and tries to recover a mere $203,000 as compensation.

So let's count them, shall we? Patenting an idea, patenting something blindingly obvious, patenting something that has prior art - and then having the temerity to harass someone who actually came up with the idea first by demanding money they don't have from not selling the program because they generously give it away: only in America. (Via Right to Create).

I hope.

19 April 2006

The Euston Manifesto

After the right espousing open source and related open goodness yesterday, today we have the left. More specifically, we have something called The Euston Manifesto (via Compromiso Social por la Ciencia). This may sound a bit like an Ealing Comedy, but it includes the following rather surprising paragraph:

14) Open source.
As part of the free exchange of ideas and in the interests of encouraging joint intellectual endeavour, we support the open development of software and other creative works and oppose the patenting of genes, algorithms and facts of nature. We oppose the retrospective extension of intellectual property laws in the financial interests of corporate copyright holders. The open source model is collective and competitive, collaborative and meritocratic. It is not a theoretical ideal, but a tested reality that has created common goods whose power and robustness have been proved over decades. Indeed, the best collegiate ideals of the scientific research community that gave rise to open source collaboration have served human progress for centuries.

Amazon Plays Tag, Blog and Wiki

For all its patent faults, Amazon.com is one of my favourite sites. It has repeatedly done the right thing when mistakes have been made with my orders, to the extent that I can even forgive them for doing the wrong thing when it comes to (IP) rights....

So I was interested to see that Amazon.com now lets users add tags to items: I first noticed this on Rebel Code, where some public-minded individual has kindly tagged it as open source, free software and linux. Clicking on one of these brings up a listing of other items similarly tagged (no surprise there). It also cross-references this with the customers who used this tag, and the other tags that are used alongside the tag you are viewing (a bit of overkill, this, maybe).

I was even more impressed to see a ProductWiki at the foot of the Rebel Code page (it's rather empty at the moment). This is in addition to the author's blog (which I don't have yet because Amazon insists on some deeply arcane rite to establish I am really the Glyn Moody who wrote Rebel Code and not his evil twin brother from a parallel universe). Mr. Bezos certainly seems to be engaging very fully with the old Web 2.0 stuff; it will be interesting to see how other e-commerce sites respond.

Bloggers Do It Openly

So bloggers do matter after all, according to this Guardian piece. That there exist groups of people who wield a power disproportionate to their numbers is nothing new: it has happened throughout history. What's novel here is that this is being done in a completely transparent way, whereas in the past all the discussions and verbal derring-do would have happened behind closed doors.

So say what you like about bloggers - and heavens knows, I've done my bit - at least they do it openly.

18 April 2006

Their Words, Not Mine

Since this whole blog is predicated on the commonality that exists between open source, open genomics, open access, open content, and open blah-blah-blah, my own posts that argue for the power of openness will hardly come as a surprise.

So it is always handy when I can point to somebody else who is saying exactly the same thing - particularly because in this case that "somebody else" is about as far as you can get from your stereotypical sandal-wearing, Guardian-reading, weedy liberal.

It comes from the US Committee of Economic Development - "the best of business thinking", no less - which "has addressed national priorities that promote sustained economic growth and development to benefit all Americans," apparently, so nothing wishy-washy there, then.

And yet its latest report is entitled Open Standards, Open Source, and Open Innovation: Harnessing the Benefits of Openness. Its peroration is positively dithyrambic:

Openness is not an overriding moral value that must prevail in every circumstance. But, its extraordinary capability to harness the collective intelligence of our world requires us to consider its implications carefully, nurture it where possible, and avoid efforts to foreclose it without compelling reason. We should not miss the opportunity to harvest the benefits openness might bring.

Their words, not mine.

Lear's Fool, Mac OS X, Windows and Open Source

Misled by his intentionally-provocative columns, people tend to treat John Dvorak as some kind of industry buffoon. But as his biography indicates, he's been around a long time, and certainly knows the computer industry inside out. That doesn't mean he's always right, but it does ensure that he writes from insight not ignorance. And let's not forget that the figure of the Fool in King Lear is the one who sees more than most, for all his jests and jibes.

Dvorak's latest effort is more of the same. It is entitled "Apple Needs to Make OS X Open-Source". What interests me most is not his argument, but the fact that the solution is open source. Moreover, the worst-case scenario is that Apple does nothing - in which case, open source can just sit back with Olympian detachment and watch Microsoft and Apple pull each other's hair in the closed-source playground.

17 April 2006

Does Larry's Linux Stack Up?

The tantalising story in the FT that Oracle is ruminating upon acquiring one of the main GNU/Linux distributions - well, Novell - is bound to re-ignite speculation about Oracle's intentions and ultimate impact in this sector. An earlier rumour that Oracle was about to buy JBoss - obviously not true - led to a similar spate of comments, for example that Oracle was about to wipe out open source itself.

But as I wrote back then, it would seem that Larry Ellison really doesn't get this free software lark if he thinks he can wade in with a cheque-book and walk out with anything perdurable. Basically, the moment he tries to throw his weight around in any newly-acquired open source company, he will find that everything valuable in that company - its coders - will walk out of the door and work somewhere else (like Red Hat or IBM). So the idea he will snaffle up one of these cute little old GNU/Linuxes to complete his collection of netsuke rather misses the point.

What is really interesting about the FT story is that Mr. Ellison says "I’d like to have a complete stack." The stack refers to the complete set of software layers, starting at the bottom with the operating system, moving up through middleware and on to the applications. This shows that he may not quite understand the answer, but at least can articulate the question, which is: what does a software company do when the layers of the stack are commoditised one by one?

Things started even below the operating system, at the level of the network, when TCP/IP became the universal standard. But what many people forget is that once upon a time, there used to be three or four or more competing network standards, including Novell's IPX/SPX: it was Novell's dogged support for its protocols in the face of TCP/IP's ascendancy that nearly destroyed the company.

Similarly, not everyone today realises that once there were alternatives to the now-ubiquitous GNU/Linux operating system, including an older approach from a company called Microsoft, also destroyed by clinging too long to outdated closed-source solutions (this information sponsored by the year 2016).

What Ellison's comments indicate is that there is growing awareness that the free software approach is seeping inexorably up the stack. It will be interesting to see his response when it starts to dampen the application layer, and databases like Oracle's flagship start looking as soggy as IPX/SPX....

Update: There's a good table in this C|net article on how the competing stacks, er, stack up.

The Open Research Web

Aside from the strong moral arguments for open access - based on the fact that much of the research published in journals has been paid for by the public, who therefore have a right to see the stuff - there are also strong utilitarian grounds for making materials freely accessible.

A group at Southampton, including the irrepressible Stevan Harnad, have put together an excellent discussion of some of the amazing things that thoroughgoing open access will permit in the future.

Many of them - there are 28 in all - are positively gob-smacking, and make explicit the way in which the open access revolution will render ordinary impact factors, one of the great bugbears of academic research, obsolete by bringing in far richer metrics for measuring influence and achievement.

This is the sort of stuff that will make traditional publishers break into a cold sweat at night; but it will warm the cockles of the growing band of OA supporters because it breaks the vicious circle of "high-impact" journals being favoured by top researchers simply because they are "high-impact", not because they are the best vehicles.

16 April 2006

Open Access Books Are Like Buses...

...you wait for ages, and then three turn up at once.

Well, two at least: I wrote recently about Willinsky's The Access Principle, and now here, hard on its heels, comes Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks.

If the name Benkler is unfamiliar, you might want to glance at the suggestively-titled Coase's Penguin (yes, that penguin), which is effectively a sketch of the present book. Both, then, are about how the network changes everything, and how all the opens and the various kinds of commons that are central concerns of this blog lie at the heart of one of the most profound economic, social and political transformations seen in recent years.

But don't take my word for it, listen to what Larry Lessig has to say, with typical generosity:

This is — by far — the most important and powerful book written in the fields that matter most to me in the last ten years.

Then buy/download the thing (CC licence, of course) and read it. I know I will. The fact that I haven't yet finished its 500+ pages is not just another reason not to listen to me: it's also a further hint of why eventually all books will be freely available as digital downloads online. Basically, reading on a screen and reading text placed on a physical object are two quite different experiences, and warrant two quite different business models.

14 April 2006

"The Access Principle" Made Accessible

One of the jibes that the anti-open access lot like to lob is that many of those writing in favour of these ideas often do so in non-open access outlets. But the fact is, we don't always have a choice if we want to reach traditional audiences who aren't yet used to reading open access titles/media. Against this background, it's good to see some traditional publishers proving amenable to releasing open access versions of works dealing with open access alongside the hard-copy versions.

A case in point is The Access Principle, The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship, by John Willinsky. I've just discovered (through the indispensable Open Access News) that the enlightened MIT Press has made this freely available (apart from some mild registration): kudos for that.

I've only skimmed through the first few chapters, but already it looks to be about the most important book on open access so far. This is hardly surprising given the author's work as director of the Public Knowledge Project - and the fact that he wrote an essay entitled "The unacknowledged convergence of open source, open access, and open science", which sounds strangely familiar as an idea.

So now there's no excuse for anyone not to rush out and buy it/download it and read it.

End of the World Nigh: VCs Clueful on Patents

And now for some good news about patents - no really. Judging by this article on the excellent Techdirt, a few of the brighter VCs are starting to get the message about software patents. Next thing you know, even the lawyers will join in - then we'll know that the end of the world is really nigh.

13 April 2006

Right-minded Right to Create

As you may have noticed, some of the more outrageous abuses of the patent system tend to make me go a funny colour. So I was interested to discover (via Techdirt) that there is an entire right-minded site called Right to Create offering a concentrated helping of bile directed at the manifold insanities of the patent system.

The only trouble is, having read it, I think I need to go and lie down for a while.

12 April 2006

PageRank on a Stick

Googlejuice: everybody wants it. It's measured in that mysterious coinage of the cyber-realm known as PageRank, and everybody wants to know how much they've got. Enter Webmaster Eyes, which tells you (via Digg). And if you were wondering, Google's GoogleJuice is 10 (and this site is a middling 6).

Windows Live Academic Search Goes Live

Microsoft has rolled out the first beta of its academic search engine. It has some nice Web 2.0-y features that make it look far cooler than Google Scholar (Google, are you listening?). One of the FAQs made me smile:

What about open source repositories? Do you have content from them in your index?

Academic search has implemented the Open Architecture Initiative (OAI) protocol for indexing OAI-compliant repositories. For example, we indexed the content present in ArXiv.org for the launch. We will continue to index more repositories after the launch.

I don't know of anybody except Microsoft that calls these OAI repositories "open source": you don't think that Microsoft's hung up on something?

Another FAQ talks about something new to me: the OpenURL. This turns out to be a wonderful piece of Orwellian double-speak, since it is a way of ensuring that people only get to see the content they are "entitled" to - that is, have paid for. In other words, OpenURL is all about closing off your options.

What a Tangled Bank We Weave

If you've not come across the Tangled Bank miscellanies, take a look at the latest one, hosted on the fine Discovering Biology in a Digital World blog. As the Tangled Bank home site puts it, these collections are a "weekly showcase of good weblog writing, selected by the authors themselves," in the realm of science. And yes, I'm afraid there's something by me.

But it's still worth reading.

11 April 2006

From Blogroll to Searchroll

I confess it: I'm a sucker for analogical thought. So taking the idea of a blogroll - even if I don't actually use the things - and coming up with a "searchroll" - a personalised list of sites across which you can carry out searches - is intrinsically appealing. This is what Rollyo has done: I know it's not exactly new, but the last time I looked there wasn't much to see. Now there is.

For example, I was rather taken with this Russian library searchroll, which somehow makes the idea nicely concrete. I can see that you might well want to search through a group of related sites, rather than wade through several million Google hits.

The only problem, of course, is that you either have to set up the searchrolls yourself, or try to find one that suits your needs. Fortunately Rollyo has done the obvious, and come up with a search engine for search rolls. From here you can enter keywords and try to piggy-back off someone else's collection (all in the spirit of sharing, of course).

I was impressed with the range of open source searchrolls that are already available. Open access searchrolls are thinner on the ground, while open content is waiting for its first example. Any offers?

10 April 2006

Webaroo - Yawnaroo

Convincing proof that Web 2.0 is a replay of Web 1.0 comes in the form of Webaroo. As this piece from Om Malik explains, this start-up aims to offer users a compressed "best of the Web" that they can carry around on their laptops and use even when they're offline.

Sorry, this idea was invented back in 1995, when Frontier Technologies released its SuperHighway Access CyberSearch, a CD-ROM that contained a "best of the Web" based on Lycos - at the time, one of the best search engines. As I wrote in September 1995:

Not all of the Lycos base has been included: contained in the 608 Mbytes on the disc is information on around 500,000 pages. The search engine is also simplified: whereas Lycos possesses a reasonably powerful search language, the CyberSearch tool allows you to enter just a word or phrase.

Only the scale has changed....

Open Peer Review

Open access does not aim to subvert the peer review process that lies at the heart of academic publishing: it just wants to open things up a little. But you know how it is: once you start this subversive stuff, it's really hard to stop.

So what did I come across recently, but this fascinating hint of what opening up peer review might achieve (as for the how, think blogs or wikis). Maybe an idea whose time has (almost) come.

09 April 2006

(Patently) Right

Paul Graham is a master stylist - indeed, one of the best writers on technology around. Reading his latest essay, "Are Software Patents Evil?" is like floating in linguistic cream. And that's the problem. His prose is so seductive that it is too easy to be hypnotised by his gently-rhythmic cadences, too pleasurable to be lulled into a complaisant state, until you find yourself nodding mechanically in agreement - even with ideas that are, alas, fundamentally wrong.

Take his point in this recent essay about algorithms, where he tries to argue that software patents are OK, even when they are essentially algorithms, because hardware is really only an instantiation of an algorithm.

If you allow patents on algorithms, you block anyone from using what is just a mathematical technique. If you allow patents on algorithms of any kind, then you can patent mathematics and its representations of physics (what we loosely call the Laws of Physics are in fact just algorithms for calculating reality).

But let's look at the objection he raises, that hardware is really just an algorithm made physical. Maybe they are; but the point is you have to work out how to make that algorithm physical - and that's what the patent is for, not for the algorithm itself. Note that such a patent does not block anyone else from coming up with different physical manifestations of it. They are simply stopped from copying your particular idea.

It's instructive to look at another area where patents are being hugely abused: in the field of genes. Thanks to a ruling in 1980 that DNA could be patented, there has been a flood of completely insane patent applications, some of which have been granted (mostly in the US, of course). Generally, these concern genes - DNA that codes for particular proteins. The argument is that these proteins do useful things, so the DNA that codes for them can therefore be patented.

The problem is that there is no way of coming up with an alternative to that gene: it is "the" gene for some particular biological function. So the patent on it blocks everyone using that genomic information, for whatever purpose. What should be patentable - because, let me be clear here, patents do serve a useful purpose when granted appropriately - is the particular use of the protein - not the DNA - the physical instantiation of what is effectively a genomic algorithm.

Allowing patents on a particular industrial use for a protein - not a patent on its function in nature - leaves the door open for others to find other chemicals that can do the same job for the industrial application. It also leaves the DNA as information/algorithm, outside the realm of patents.

This test of whether a patent allows alternative implementations of the underlying idea can be applied fruitfully to the equally-vexed questions of business methods. Amazon's famous "one-click" method of online making purchases is clearly total codswallop as a patent. It is a patent on an idea, and blocks everyone else from implementing that (obvious) idea.

The same can be said about an earlier patent that Oracle applied for, which apparently involved the conversion of one markup language into another. As any programmer will tell you, this is essentially trivial, in the mathematical sense that you can define a set of rules - an algorithm - and the whole drops out automatically. And if you apply the test above - does it block other implementations? - this clearly does, since if such a patent were granted, it would stop everyone else coming up with algorithms for conversions. Worse, there would be no other way to do it, since the process is simply a restatement of the problem.

I was heartened to see that a blog posting on this case by John Lambert, a lawyer specialising in intellectual property, called forth a whole series of comments that explored the ideas I've sketched out above. I urge you to read it. What's striking is that the posts - rather like this one - are lacking the polish and poise of Graham's writing, but they more than make up for it in the passion they display, and the fact that they are (patently) right.

08 April 2006

Death to the Podcast

"Podcast" is such a cool word. It manages to be familiar, made up as it is of the odd little "pod" and suffix "-cast", as in "broadcast", and yet cheekily new. Pity, then, that it's completely the wrong term for what it describes.

These are simply downloadable mp3 files. The "pod" bit is a misnomer, because the iPod is but one way to listen to them: any mp3 player will do. And the "-cast" is wrong, too, because they are not broadcast in any sense - you just download them. And if they were broadcast across the Internet, then you'd call them streams - as in "podstream", rather than "podcast".

Given my long-standing dislike of this term - and its unthinking adoption by a mainstream press terrified of looking uncool - I was pleased to come across Jack Schofield's opinion on the subject, where he writes:

[P]odcasting's main appeal at the moment is time-shifting professionally-produced programmes. It's a variant of tape recording, and should probably be called AOD (audio on demand).

AOD: that sounds good to me, Jack.

His wise suggestion comes in piece commenting on the release of a typically-expensive ($249 for six pages) piece of market research on this sector from Forrester Research.

Many people have taken its results - the fact that only 1% of online households in the US regularly download and listen to AOD - to indicate the death of the medium. I don't agree: I think people will continue to enjoy audio on demand in many situations. For example, I regularly return to the excellent Chinesepod site, a shining example of how to use AOD well.

But even if the downloads live on, I do hope that we might see the death of the term "podcast".

07 April 2006

Another Day, Another Open

Open content is an area that I follow quite closely. I've just finished the second of a series of articles for LWN.net that traces the growth of open content and its connections with open source. The first of these is on open access, while the most recent looks at Project Gutenberg and the birth of open content. The next will look at open content in education, including the various open courseware projects.

Here's a report from UNESCO on the area, which it has dubbed open educational resources, defined as

the creation of open source software and development tools, the creation and provision of open course content, and the development of standards and licensing tools.

I'm not quite sure we really needed a new umbrella term for this, but it's good to see the matter being discussed at high levels within the global education community.

A Nod's as Good as a Wink

As I mentioned, I have started playing with Google Analytics for this blog. It's early days yet, but already some fascinating results have dropped out - I'll be reporting on them once the trends become slightly more significant than those based on two days' data....

But one thing just popped up that I thought I'd pass on. Some of my traffic has come from Wink, which describes itself as a social search engine. More specifically:

Wink analyzes tags and submissions from Digg, Furl, Slashdot, Yahoo MyWeb, and other services, plus user-imported tags from del.icio.us, and favorites marked at Wink, and figure[s] out which pages are most relevant.

So basically Wink aims to filter standard Web search results through the grid of social software like Digg, del.icio.us etc. It's a clever idea, although the results at the moment are a little, shall we say, jejune. But I'm grateful for the tip that Google Analytics - and one of my readers - has given me. Duly noted.

UNDPAPDIPIOSN - A Name to Remember?

The UN is such a huge, amorphous organisation that it is no suprise that there are bits of it that rarely make it into the limelight. A case in point is the UN Development Programme (UNDP), "the UN's global development network, an organization advocating for change and connecting countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build a better life."

Given its task, and its doubtless limited resources, it is only natural that the UNDP has been promoting free software use around the world longer than most (I first talked to them about it in 1997), and its efforts in this sphere are becoming significant. It now has a separate arm, the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) Asia Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP) International Open Source Network - UNDPAPDIPIOSN for short.

As a quick glance at the home page shows, there's lot of good stuff going on, with all the right buzzwords. For example, news on the Asian Commons, a press release about the UNDPAPDIPIOSN joining the ODF Alliance, which pushes for ODF adoption (and complements the OpenDocument Fellowship I mentioned yesterday), plus some free software primers.

What I like about these is that they take a truly global view of things, providing information about open source adoption around the world that is hard to come by elsewhere, particularly in a consolidated form. They deserve to be better known - as does the UNDPAPDIPIOSN itself - although probably not under that name....(IOSN seems to be the preferred abbreviation).

06 April 2006

Microsoft's Open Source Blog

Not something you see every day: a Web site called Port 25, with the explanatory line "Communications from the Open Source Software Lab @ Microsoft". Yup, you read that right. It will be interesting to see what they do with this apparent attempt to reach out (port 25, right?) - especially if they can get rid of the Russian spam on Bill Hilf's welcoming post....

The Commons Becomes Commoner

I've already written about how the "commons" meme is on the rise, with all that this implies in terms of co-operation, sharing and general open source-iness. Now here are two more.

The first is the Co-operation Commons, "an interdisciplinary framework for understanding cooperation" (an excellent, fuller explanation can be found here). The second is the Credibility Commons, "an experimental environment enabling individuals the opportunity to try out different approaches to improving access to credible information on the World Wide Web."

As the commons becomes, er, commoner, I find that it is all just getting more and more interesting.

ODF Petition Hits 10,000

I'm a big fan of the OpenDocument Fellowship - there's something very Tolkienian about it, and it's one of the best places to keep on top of developments in this important area.

One of its projects is a petition trying to persuade Microsoft to support the Open Document Format. This may be somewhat of a forlorn hope, but then they do say that a gentleman only supports lost causes.

If you wish to add your name to the 10,000 or so who have shown their gentlemanly/ladylike credentials in this way, you can do so here.

Why VOIP Needs Crypto

The ever-wise Bruce Schneier (whom I had the pleasure of interviewing a couple of years ago) spells out in words of one syllable why the hot Voice over IP digital 'phone systems absolutely need encryption. He also links to the perfect solution: Phil Zimmermann's latest wheeze, Zfone - an open source VOIP encryption program.

In Praise of Nakedness

The impudence of Microsoft knows no bounds. According to this report in ZDNet UK, it is now doing the nudge-nudge, wink-wink to PC dealers that selling "naked" systems - those with no operating system installed - might be inadvisable, know what I mean?

According to the original article in its Partner Update magazine, "Microsoft is recruiting two 'feet on the street' personnel whose role will be to provide proactive assistance during customer visits" in other words, threatening to send in the heavy mob to duff up customers, too. Although Microsoft hurriedly "retracted" this part of the story, if it was a slip, it was surely Freudian.

From this and other statements, it's clear that Microsoft sees every PC as its birthright, and naked PCs as, well, positively obscene. I'm an OS naturist, myself.

05 April 2006

After Wikia, Qwika: the Wiki Search Engine

The last time I wrote about Qwika, it seemed to be a solution in search of a problem. A recent press release suggests that it's managed to come up with an answer to that conundrum: Qwika has turned into a dedicated wiki search engine.

At first sight, you might think that's rather redundant. After all, wikis are essentially just Web pages, and one or two search engine companies seem to have that sector sorted out. But if you only want to look in wikis, and don't want the other million hits on ordinary Web pages that common words throw up, a dedicated wiki search engine makes sense.

Moreover, wikis do have some special characteristics, as Qwika's Luke Metcalfe explained to me:

[W]ikis are quite different to html documents - they have a good amount of metadata associated with them - edit histories, user information, and data embedded within the WikiMedia format. They conform also [to] a certain writing style, which makes things easier to parse from a computational linguistic perspective. Other search engines are only interested in them as html documents with links pointing to them, so they miss out on a lot.

It's early days yet - both for Qwika and the wikis it indexes (1,158 at the time of writing). But recent moves like Wales' Wikia relaunch, which I wrote about the other day, mean that the wiki space is starting to hot up.

So, in the "One to Watch" category, to Wikia, add Qwika.

Blender - Star of the First Open Source Film

Blender is one of the jewels in the open source crown. As its home page puts it:

Blender is the open source software for 3D modeling, animation, rendering, post-production, interactive creation and playback. Available for all major operating systems under the GNU General Public License.

It's a great example of how sophisticated free software can be - if you haven't tried it, I urge you to do so. It's also an uplifing story of how going open source can really give wings to a project.

Now Blender is entering an exciting new phase. A few days ago, the premiere of Elephant's Dream, the first animated film made using Blender, took place.

What's remarkable is not just that this was made entirely with open source software, but also that the film and all the Blender files are being released under a Creative Commons licence - making it perhaps the first open source film.

Given that most commercial animation films are already produced on massive GNU/Linux server farms, it seems likely that some companies, at least, will be tempted to dive even deeper into free software and shift from expensive proprietary systems to Blender. Whether using all this zero-cost, luvvy-duvvy GPL'd software makes them any more sympathetic to people sharing their films for free remains to be seen....

United States of Patent Absurdity

If you ever wondered how the US got into such a mess with patents on software and business methods - and wondered how the European Union can avoid making the same mistakes - take a look at this excellent exposition. As far as I can tell, it's a condensed version of the full half-hour argument in the 2004 book Innovation and Its Discontents: How Our Broken Patent System is Endangering Innovation and Progress, and What to Do About It.

Read either - or both; then weep.

Daily Me 2.0

One of the problems with blogs for advertisers is their fragmented nature: to get a reach comparable to mainstream media generally involves faffing around with dozens of sites. The obvious solution is to bundle, and that's precisely what Federated Media Publishing does. As its roster of blogs indicates, it operates mainly in the field of tech blogs, but the model can clearly be extended.

To the average blog-reader on the Clapham Ominibus (probably the 319 these days), more interesting than the business side of things is the possibility of doing blog mashups. And lo and behold, Federated has produced such a thing (note that the URL begins significantly with "tech", hinting of non-tech things to come...).

What struck me about this federated news idea is that it could be extended beyond the bundles. It would be easy - well, easy if you're a skilled programmer - to knock up a tool offering a range of newspage formats that let you drag and drop newsfeeds into predefined slots to produce the same kind of effect as the Federated Media/Tech one.

RSS aggregators already do this crudely, but lack the design element that would help to make the approach more popular. You would also need some mechanism for flagging up which stories had changed on the page, or for allowing new stories from designated key blogs to rise to the top of the dynamically-generated newspage.

The result, of course, is the Daily Me that everyone has been wittering on about for years. But it comes with an important twist. This Daily Me 2.0 is not just a cosmetic mixing of traditional medium news, but a very different kind of online newspage, based on the very different perspective offered by blogs.

One reason why Daily Me 1.0 never took off was because traditional media are simply too greedy to contemplate sharing with anyone else. Blogs have no such qualms - indeed, they have different kinds of sharing (quotations, links, comments) at their core. I think we'll be reading more about this....

Privacy Policy

As part of my exploration of Google, I've signed up for Google Analytics. This means that these pages now collect some anonymous traffic data - nothing personal. For the same reason, the site will ask whether it can set a cookie (one of Netscape's more enduring legacies). If you don't want one on your computer, just refuse: it won't make any difference to your access.

04 April 2006

Exploring the Digital Universe

The Digital Universe - a kind of "When Larry (Sanger) left Jimmy (Wales)" story - remains a somewhat nebulous entity. In some ways, it's forward to the past, representing a return to the original Nupedia that Larry Sanger worked on before Wikipedia was founded. In other respects, it's trying a new kind of business model that looks brave, to put it mildly.

Against this background, any insight into the what and how of the Digital Universe is welcome, and this article on the "eLearning Scotland" site (CamelCase, anyone?) provides both (via Open Access News). Worth taking a look.

Coughing Genomic Ink

One of the favourite games of scholars working on ancient texts that have come down to us from multiple sources is to create a family tree of manuscripts. The trick is to look for groups of textual divergences - a word added here, a mis-spelling there - to spot the gradual accretions, deletions and errors wrought by incompetent, distracted or bored copyists. Once the tree has been established, it is possible to guess what the original, founding text might have looked like.

You might think that this sort of thing is on the way out; on the contrary, though, it's an extremely important technique in bioinformatics - hardly a dusty old discipline. The idea is to treat genomes deriving from a common ancestor as a kind of manuscript, written using just the four letters - A, C, G and T - found in DNA.

Then, by comparing the commonalities and divergences, it is possible to work out which manuscripts/genomes came from a common intermediary, and hence to build a family tree. As with manuscripts, it is then possible to hazard a guess at what the original text - the ancestral genome - might have looked like.

That, broadly, is the idea behind some research that David Haussler at the University of California at Santa Cruz is undertaking, and which is reported on in this month's Wired magazine (freely available thanks to the magazine's enlightened approach to publishing).

As I described in Digital Code of Life, Haussler played an important role in the closing years of the Human Genome Project:

Haussler set to work creating a program to sort through and assemble the 400,000 sequences grouped into 30,000 BACs [large-scale fragments of DNA] that had been produced by the laboratories of the Human Genome Project. But in May 2000, when one of his graduate students, Jim Kent, inquired how the programming was going, Haussler had to admit it was not going well. Kent had been a professional programmer before turning to research. His experience in writing code against deadlines, coupled with a strongly-held belief that the human genome should be freely available, led him to volunteer to create the assembly program in short order.

Kent later explained why he took on the task:

There was not a heck of a lot that the Human Genome Project could say about the genome that was more informative than 'it's got a lot of As, Cs, Gs and Ts' without an assembly. We were afraid that if we couldn't say anything informative, and thereby demonstrate 'prior art', much of the human genome would end up tied up in patents.

Using 100 800 MHz Pentiums - powerful machines in the year 2000 - running GNU/Linux, Kent was able to lash up a program, assemble the fragments and save the human genome for mankind.

Haussler's current research depends not just on the availability of the human genome, but also on all the other genomes that have been sequenced - the different manuscripts written in DNA that have come down to us. Using bioinformatics and even more powerful hardware than that available to Kent back in 2000, it is possible to compare and contrast these genomes, looking for tell-tale signs of common ancestors.

But the result is no mere dry academic exercise: if things go well, the DNA text that will drop out at the end will be nothing less than the genome of one of our ancient forebears. Even if Wired's breathless speculations about recreating live animals from the sequence seem rather wide of the mark - imagine trying to run a computer program recreated in a similar way - the genome on its own will be treasure enough. Certainly not bad work for those scholars who "cough in ink" in the world of open genomics.

Ozymandias in Blogland

A fascinating post on Beebo (via C|net): a list of the top 50 blogs, six years ago. It's interesting to see some familiar names at the top, but even more interesting to see so many (to me) unknown ones.

"Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" was my first thought. My second, was to create a blog called "Ozymandias" on Blogger, so that I could link to it from this post. But somebody already beat me to it.

Its one - and only - post is dated Sunday, January 07, 2001.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

03 April 2006

To DRM or Not to DRM - That is the Question

Digital Rights Management - or Digital Restrictions Management as Richard Stallman likes to call it - is a hot topic at the moment. It figured largely in an interview I did with the FSF's Eben Moglen, which appeared in the Guardian last week. Here's the long version of what he had to say on DRM:

In the year 2006, the home is some real estate with appliances in it. In the year 2016, the home is a digital entertainment and data processing network with some real estate wrapped around it.

The basic question then is, who has the keys to your home? You or the people who deliver movies and pizza? The world that they are thinking about is a world in which they have the keys to your home because the computers that constitute the entertainment and data processing network which is your home work for them, rather than for you.

If you go to a commercial MIS director and you say, Mr VP, I want to put some computers inside your walls, inside your VPN, on which you don't have root, and you can't be sure what's running there. But people outside your enterprise can be absolutely certain what software is running on that device, and they can make it do whatever they think necessary. How do you feel about that? He says, No, thank you. And if we say to him, OK, how about then if we do that instead in your children's house? He says, No, thank there either.

That's what this is about for us. User's rights have no more deep meaning than who controls the computer your kid uses at night when he comes home. Who does that computer work for? Who controls what information goes in and out on that machine? Who controls who's allowed to snoop, about what? Who controls who's allowed to keep tabs, about what? Who controls who's allowed to install and change software there? Those are the question which actually determine who controls the home in 2016.

This stuff seems far away now because, unless you manage computer security for a business, you aren't fully aware of what it is to have computers you don't control part of your network. But 10 years from now, everybody will know.

Against this background, discussions about whether Sun's open source DRM solution DReaM - derived from "DRM/everywhere available", apparently - seem utterly moot. Designing open source DRM is a bit like making armaments in an energy-efficient fashion: it rather misses the point.

DRM serves one purpose, and one purpose only: to control users. It is predicated on the assumption that most people - not just a few - are criminals ready to rip off a company's crown jewels - its "IP" - at a moment's notice unless the equivalent of titanium steel bars are soldered all over the place.

I simply do not accept this. I believe that most people are honest, and the dishonest ones will find other ways to get round DRM (like stealing somebody's money to pay for it).

I believe that I am justified in making a copy of a CD, or a DVD, or a book provided it is for my own use: what that use is, is no business of the company that sold it to me. What I cannot do is make a copy that I sell to someone else for their use: clearly that takes away something from the producers. But if I make a backup copy of a DVD, or a second copy of a CD to play in the car, nobody loses anything, so I am morally quite justified in this course of action.

Until the music and film industries address the fundamental moral issues - and realise that the vast majority of their customers are decent, honest human beings, not crypto-criminals - the DRM debate will proceed on a false basis, and inevitably be largely vacuous. DRM is simply the wrong solution to the wrong problem.

The Birth of Emblogging

I've written before about the blogification of the cyber union - how everything is adopting a blog-like format. Now comes a complementary process: emblogging, or embedding blogs directly into other formats.

This flows from the observation that blogs are increasingly at the sharp end of reporting, beating staider media like mere newspapers (even their online incarnations) to the punch. There is probably some merit in this idea, since bloggers - the best of them - are indeed working around the clock, unable to unplug, whereas journalists tend to go home and stop. And statistically this means that some blogger, somewhere, is likely to be online and writing when any given big story breaks. So why not embed the best bits from the blogs into slow-moving media outlets? Why not emblog?

Enter BlogBurst, a new company that aims to mediate between those bloggers and the traditional publications (I discovered this, belatedly, via TechCrunch). The premise seems sensible enough, but I have my doubts about the business model. At the moment, the mainsteam media get the goods, BlogBurst gets the dosh, and the embloggers get, er, the glory.

Still, an interesting and significant development in the rise and rise of the blog.

02 April 2006

Wiki Wiki Wikia

Following one of my random wanders through the blogosphere I alighted recently on netbib. As the site's home page explains, this is basically about libraries, but there's much more than this might imply.

As a well as a couple of the obligatory wikis (one on public libraries, the other - the NetBibWiki - containing a host of diverse information, such as a nice set of links for German studies), there is also a useful collection of RSS feeds from the library world, saved on Bloglines.

The story that took me here was a post about something called Wikia, which turns out to be Jimmy Wales' wiki company (and a relaunch of the earlier Wikicities). According to the press release:

Wikia is an advertising-supported platform for developing and hosting community-based wikis. Specifically, Wikia enables groups to share information, news, stories, media and opinions that fall outside the scope of an encyclopedia. Jimmy Wales and Angela Beesley launched Wikia in 2004 to provide community-based wikis inspired by the model of Wikipedia--the free, open source encyclopedia founded by Jimmy Wales and operated by the Wikimedia Foundation, where Wales and Beesley serve as board members.

Wikia is committed to openness, inviting anyone to contribute web content. Authors retain their own copyrights, but allow others to freely reuse their content under the GNU Free Documentation License, allowing widespread distribution of knowledge and ideas.

Wikia supports the development of the open source software that runs both Wikipedia and Wikia, as well as thousands of other wiki sites. Among other contributions, Wikia plans to enhance the software with usability features, spam prevention, and vandalism control. All of Wikia's development work will, of course, be fed back into the open source code.

In a sense, then, this is yet more of the blogification of the online world, this time applied to wikis.

But I'm not complaining: if that nice Mr Wales can make some money and feed back improvements to the underlying MediaWiki software used by Wikipedia and many other wikis, all to the good. I just hope that the dotcom 2.0 bubble lasts long enough (so that's why they used the Hawaiian word for "quick" in the full name "wiki wiki").

01 April 2006

Open Access Opens the Throttle

It's striking that, so far, open access has had a relatively difficult time making the breakthrough into the mainstream - despite the high-profile example of open source to help pave the way. Whether this says something about institutional inertia, or the stubbornness of the forces ranged against open access, is hard to say.

Against this background, a post (via Open Access News) on the splendidly-named "The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics" blog (now why couldn't I have thought of something like that?) is good news.

Figures from that post speak for themselves:
In the last quarter, over 780,000 records have been added to OAIster, suggesting that those open access archives are beginning to fill! There are 170 more titles in DOAJ, likely an understated increase due to a weeding project. 78 titles have been added to DOAJ in the past 30 days, a growth rate of more than 2 new titles per day.

OAIster refers to a handy central search site for "freely available, previously difficult-to-access, academically-oriented digital resources", while DOAJ is a similarly-indispensable directory of open access journals. The swelling holdings of both augur well for open access, and offer the hope that the breakthrough may be close.

Update: An EU study on the scientific publishing market comes down squarely in favour of open access. As Peter Suber rightly notes, "this is big", and is likely to give the movement a considerable boost.

When Blogs Are Beyond a Joke

As any fule kno, today is April Fool's Day. It has long been a tradition among publications - even, or perhaps especially, the most strait-laced - to show that they are not really so cold, callous and contemptible as most people think, by trying to sneak some wry little joke past their readers. Ideally, this will achieve the tricky combination of being both outrageous and just about plausible.

This was fine when news stories came sequentially and slowly: it was quite good fun sifting through a publication trying to work out which item was the fake story. But in the modern, blog-drenched world that we inhabit these days, the net effect of April Fool's Day combined with headline aggregators is to find yourself confronted by reams of utter, wilful nonsense, lacking any redeeming counterweight of real posts.

As many people have suspected when it comes to blogs, you really can have too much of a good thing.

Update: Maybe the solution is this cure for information overload.