27 February 2010

Jewel in the Open Content Crown Needs Help

Far too few people know about LibriVox:

LibriVox volunteers record chapters of books in the public domain and release the audio files back onto the net. Our goal is to make all public domain books available as free audio books.

Think about that: turning all public domain books into free audio books. That would be a wonderful resource, and not just for the visually impaired, for whom it is a tremendous boon.

But as is often the case, this fine project is put together by volunteers, with no funding, and that's now a problem:

For four-and-a-half years, LibriVox volunteers have been making audiobooks for the world to enjoy, and giving them away for free. We’ve made thousands of free audiobooks that have been downloaded by millions of people; our site gets 400,000 visitors every month. To date, all our costs have been borne by a few individuals, with some generous donations from partners. However, these costs have become too big.

All they need is $20,000 - a paltry sum for such an incomparably rich holding. Please use the "Donate Now" button on their site to give to them so that they can continue to give to us immeasurably more.

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26 February 2010

Schneier Nails it on CCTV Folly

Another brilliant essay on security from Bruce Schneier. It's all well-worth reading, but here's the nub:

If universal surveillance were the answer, lots of us would have moved to the former East Germany. If surveillance cameras were the answer, camera-happy London, with something like 500,000 of them at a cost of $700 million, would be the safest city on the planet.

We didn't, and it isn't, because surveillance and surveillance cameras don't make us safer. The money spent on cameras in London, and in cities across America, could be much better spent on actual policing.

When will the politicians face up to the facts on CCTV? (Via Boing Boing.)

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25 February 2010

The End of Anonymity

One of the (few) advantages I enjoy over Bill Gates is that I can walk down the street without people recognising me. Not for much longer:

An application that lets users point a smart phone at a stranger and immediately learn about them premiered last Tuesday at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. Developed by The Astonishing Tribe (TAT), a Swedish mobile software and design firm, the prototype software combines computer vision, cloud computing, facial recognition, social networking, and augmented reality.


TAT built the augmented ID demo, called Recognizr, to work on a phone that has a five-megapixel camera and runs the Android operating system. A user opens the application and points the phone's camera at someone nearby. Software created by Swedish computer-vision firm Polar Rose then detects the subject's face and creates a unique signature by combining measurements of facial features and building a 3-D model. This signature is sent to a server where it's compared to others stored in a database. Providing the subject has opted in to the service and uploaded a photo and profile of themselves, the server then sends back that person's name along with links to her profile on several social networking sites, including Twitter or Facebook.

But of course, the "opt-in" part is just a fig-leaf. It could be done just as easily even if they don't opt in, provided you have access to their photos, from a passport application, say, and a belief that you have a right - nay, duty - to keep watch over them, purely for their own protection, you understand.

Now, who could possibly fit that description? Any ideas, Gordon?

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The Continuing Scandal of Vendor Lock-in

As I've noted many times, one of the big benefits of deploying open source is freedom from lock-in: using open formats that anyone can implement means that it is relatively easy to change supplier. That's not the case with Microsoft's code and formats, as the following sad saga underlines...

On Open Enterprise blog.

The Death of Open Wifi in the UK

If you needed proof that the UK government simply hasn't thought through the implications of its Digital Economy Bill, look no further than this:

Government admits cafes and open wifi providers will face disconnection but can appeal

Government notes from the Digital Economy Bill Team admit that cafes and other similar businesses will face disconnection: but say that a combination of blocking technologies and the right to appeal means they will be ok

Reading the rest of the government's reply to this point, it's clear that they simply have no idea about the technology. The fact that any blocks put on services can easily be circumvented means that open wifi will, inevitably, be used to download copyrighted material. Which means that those providing it will, inevitably, be disconnected.

This bill simply has "Fail" written all the way through it; the only good news is that once they realise the implications, the entire tourist and hospitality industries will be fighting against it...

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Important Leaked Document on ACTA

An important document about ACTA has been leaked. It's in Dutch, but Jan Wildeboer has kindly provided a translation. It's worth reading all of it, since it gives one of the best - and frankest - reports on what's going on, at least for certain aspects of ACTA.

In the interests of fairness I have to pick out the follow sections on transparency:

POL [Poland], VK [United Kingdom], OOS [Austria], NL [Netherlands], FIN [Finland], IER [Ireland], HON [Hungary], EST [Estonia], ZWE [Sweden] were in favour of more transparency.

FRA [France] did not object against full disclosure if that would be the consensus, but did have concerns about the U.S. position.

ITA [Italy] sided along with France, was also concerned about impacts on free trade agreements, noted that even if plurilateral setting the precedent of ACTA would in principle be adequate closure. DK agreed with ITA and put reserve study status on the documents.

HON [Hungary] however opposed this with the position that the treatment of ACTA documents would be much more logical to compare with the documents of multilateral negotiations.

And more specifically:

UK once again declared its support for full disclosure of the documents, noted the current position [of secrecy] in EU is hard to keep national parliaments (European Parliament), citizens and civil society should be informed, there was nothing to hide.

UK insisted Cie should take a pro-active stance and should try to convince other parties of the need to be transparent.

So, whatever its undoubted faults in other respects, the UK government seems to be trying to do the right thing as far as transparency is concerned, and it deserves kudos for that. Interesting, too, to see that the main hold-out seems to be Hungary, which surprised me given its positive attitude to open source.

Good to see that more and more countries are backing transparency - and that more and leaks are providing it by other routes.

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Open Source Re-writes the Rules for Mobile

It is well known that an old PC, underpowered for ever-more greedy Windows versions, will generally run GNU/Linux without a problem. This means that hardware can be kept for longer using open source, saving money and sparing the environment.

One consequence of open source's rapid spread in the world of mobiles is that you can now do the same in that market:

Have an old HTC Tilt, Polaris, Niki, or Vogue laying around collecting dust because you can’t stand using Windows Mobile? Well, according to the XDA Developers forum you may be able to get a little more life out of your old device by hacking it to run the latest version of Android.

This was simply not possible with older, proprietary mobile operating systems, because you couldn't hack them to work on different hardware. With Android, that all changes, opening up a whole new world of mobile re-use. As the same post rightly points out:

This story shows me once again how important Android is to the mobile OS space. The idea of taking older phones and using a free, powerful OS to breath new life into them is the promise of open source software like Android.

Indeed, and another instance of where free software really does give you new and useful freedoms.

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24 February 2010

Many Happy Returns, Apache

We tend to think of free software as (mostly) new, so the fact that Apache celebrated its 15th birthday yesterday seems pretty extraordinary. We also typically think of free software as being the perennial plucky underdog, but as this post on the Apache Software Foundation Blog reminds us, Apache has been the leading Web server for almost its entire existence...

On Open Enterprise blog.

23 February 2010

Amazon Sells GNU/Linux down the River

Here's a particularly stupid move by Amazon:

Microsoft Corp. today announced that it has signed a patent cross-license agreement with Amazon.com Inc. The agreement provides each company with access to the other’s patent portfolio and covers a broad range of products and technology, including coverage for Amazon’s popular e-reading device, Kindle™, which employs both open source and Amazon’s proprietary software components, and Amazon’s use of Linux-based servers.

Microsoft has consistently refused to give any details of its absurd FUD about GNU/Linux infringing on its patents, which is not surprising, since they are likely to be completely bogus and/or trivial. So Amazon is showing real pusillanimity in making this unnecessary deal. Shame on you, Jeff.

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Oh, Tell Me the Truth about Patents

One of the pernicious effects of the highly-successful campaign to re-brand intellectual monopolies as "intellectual property" is the abiding belief that whatever the local faults, globally the system is working well. Well, maybe not:

For those with a principled, libertarian view of property rights, it is obvious that patent and copyright laws are unjust and should be completely abolished. Total abolition is, however, exceedingly unlikely at present. Further, most people favor IP for less principled, utilitarian reasons. They take a wealth-maximization approach to policy making. They favor patent and copyright law because they believe that it generates net wealth — that the value of the innovation stimulated by IP law is significantly greater than the costs of these laws.

What is striking is that this myth is widely believed even though the IP proponents can adduce no evidence in favor of this hypothesis. There are literally no studies clearly showing any net gains from IP. If anything, it appears that the patent system, for example, imposes a gigantic net cost on the economy (approximately $31 billion a year, in my estimate). In any case, even those who support IP on cost-benefit grounds have to acknowledge the costs of the system, and they should not oppose changes to IP law that significantly reduce these costs, so long as the change does not drastically reduce the innovation gains that IP purportedly stimulates. In other words, according to the reasoning of IP advocates, if weakening patent strength reduces costs more than it reduces gains, this results in a net gain.

Well, $31 billion: that's a high price to pay for something we don't need... (Via Tim Bray.)

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22 February 2010

Three Strikes and You're *Not* Out?

Now this is rum.

A little while back, there was a petition on the 10 Downing site:

“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to abandon Lord Mandelson’s plans to ban individuals from the internet based on their use of ‘peer to peer’ file sharing.”

I didn't bother signing it because it seemed pretty hopeless in the face of the government's unbending statements on the subject. And now we have the response:

The Government wants as many people as possible to enjoy all the benefits that broadband internet can bring. New technology has changed the way people want to use and access media content, in some cases faster than products and services commercially on offer have developed. We are also clear that the benefits of the internet must include economic benefits for our creative industries and artists. We therefore take extremely seriously the problem of on-line copyright infringement, and have been working closely with rights holders, media companies and internet firms to develop practical solutions to reduce and prevent this.

Yes, yes, yes - *do* get on with it.

There then follows a long, and fairly intelligent commentary on the area and the issues it raises:

We also recognise the need to ensure proper education of consumers, for new attractive legal sources of content as well as a system of notifications. Notifications will play a significant part in that education role, but it is vital that there are attractive legal offers available so that unlawful behaviour is no longer the “default” for many seeking content on-line. Rights holders need business models which work in the new digital environment. That is why we welcomed the announcements such as the Virgin Media and Universal agreement, the development of Spotify and the music offers announced by Vodafone and Sky. These are the types of agreement which will play a critical role in moving the great majority of people away from piracy.

And then, tucked away at the end, there is this:

We will not terminate the accounts of infringers - it is very hard to see how this could be deemed proportionate except in the most extreme – and therefore probably criminal – cases.

We added account suspension to the list of possible technical measures which might be considered if our measures to tackle unlawful file-sharing through notifications and legal action are not as successful as we hope. This is but one of a number of possible options on which we would seek advice from Ofcom – and others – if we decided to consider a third obligation on technical measures. However what is clear is that we would need a rapid and robust route of appeal available to all consumers if we decided technical measures were needed.

"We will not terminate the accounts of infringers": really? Do you think they mean it? Is it a trick? Answers on the back of a CD... (Via ZDNet UK.)

Update: Open Rights Group has a good explanation for what may be going on here: that, as usual, the UK government is simply playing with words, and has no intention of actually listening to reason... (via the Guardian.)

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A Tale of Two Ballot Screens

Remember the browser ballot screen that Microsoft agreed to add as part of its settlement with the EU over competition issues? It's happening now:

Over the next few weeks, Microsoft will begin offering a “Web browser choice screen” to Internet Explorer users in Europe, as required by the European Commission. Internal testing of the choice screen is underway now. We’ll begin a limited roll-out externally next week, and expect that a full scale roll-out will begin around March 1, a couple of weeks ahead of schedule.

On Open Enterprise blog.

Let My Codecs Go: Will Google Free VP8?

I've written about the growing interest in HTML 5 a couple of times, and there is a parallel discussion around the role, if any, of Flash and its proprietary codecs in an Open Web. And now, hidden away in this dull press release from Google, we have another ingredient added to the bubbling cauldron...

On Open Enterprise blog.

21 February 2010

Criminalise Exotic Pets, not File Sharing

As I've noted before, in ACTA governments and the content industries are pushing the Big Lie that swapping copyrighted materials is linked to organised crime. Here's some actual research in developing countries refuting that:

they’ve found no connections between piracy and drug trafficking, prostitution, organized crime, or terrorism. There are little overlaps but nothing systematic. This is despite industry claims that piracy funds organized crime and terrorism.

And if the authorities really cared about stopping organised crime's ancillary activities, here's one it would be tackling first:

Countries across south-east Asia are being systematically drained of wildlife to meet a booming demand for exotic pets in Europe and Japan and traditional medicine in China – posing a greater threat to many species than habitat loss or global warming.

More than 35 million animals were legally exported from the region over the past decade, official figures show, and hundreds of millions more could have been taken illegally. Almost half of those traded were seahorses and more than 17 million were reptiles. About 1 million birds and 400,000 mammals were traded, along with 18 million pieces of coral.

The situation is so serious that experts have invented a new term – empty forest syndrome – to describe the gaping holes in biodiversity left behind.

"There's lots of forest where there are just no big animals left," says Chris Shepherd of Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network. "There are some forests where you don't even hear birds."

Seahorses, butterflies, turtles, lizards, snakes, macaques, birds and corals are among the most common species exported from countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. Much of the business is controlled by criminal gangs, Shepherd says, and many of the animals end up in Europe as pets. The rarer the species, the greater the demand and the higher the price. Collectors will happily pay several thousand pounds for a single live turtle.

But of course, since we're talking about mere ecosystems here, not something sacred like intellectual monopolies, it's pretty low on governments's priorities....

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19 February 2010

Trains of Thought...

I love travelling by train. In my youth, I bought Interail passes for many years, and basically lived on trains for a month, wending my way slowly around Europe. More recently, I spent 36 hours on a train travelling from Italy through Austria, Czech Republic, Poland and Belarus (don't get me started on how I was dragged out of my carriage at gunpoint, at 5 o'clock in the morning, because I didn't have a transit visa for Belarus...)

But the big daddy, of course, is the Trans Siberian Railway. And now, thanks to those kind, but troublingly pervasive people at Google, I/you can travel that amazing journey without leaving home:

Moscow-Vladivostok: virtual journey on Google Maps

The great Trans Siberian Railway, the pride of Russia, goes across two continents, 12 regions and 87 cities. The joint project of Google and the Russian Railways lets you take a trip along the famous route and see Baikal, Khekhtsirsky range, Barguzin mountains, Yenisei river and many other picturesque places of Russia without leaving your house. During the trip, you can enjoy Russian classic literature, brilliant images and fascinating stories about the most attractive sites on the route. Let's go!

And when they say Russian classic literature, they mean classic literature *in Russian*; indeed, it's worth hopping aboard just for that.


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Herding the Meta-Cats

In the famous online argument between Linus and Minix creator Andrew Tanenbaum during the very early days of Linux, one of the more memorable statements from the latter was the following:

I think co-ordinating 1000 prima donnas living all over the world will be as easy as herding cats.

On Open Enterprise blog.

Open Data: A Question of (Panton) Principles

Since I have been banging on about the need for open data in science for some time, you won't be surprised to learn that I am in agreement with the following:

Science is based on building on, reusing and openly criticising the published body of scientific knowledge.

For science to effectively function, and for society to reap the full benefits from scientific endeavours, it is crucial that science data be made open.

By open data in science we mean that it is freely available on the public internet permitting any user to download, copy, analyse, re-process, pass them to software or use them for any other purpose without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. To this end data related to published science should be explicitly placed in the public domain.

They form the basis of the newly-formalised Panton Principles for open data in science, and are followed by the four short principles themselves - essentially that there should be an explicit statement of what may be done with the data, and that ideally that data should bein the public domain.

The principles derive their name from the Panton Arms on Panton Street in Cambridge - destined, perhaps, to pass into science history rather as the Eagle pub did 50 years ago.

But given that provenance, and the fact that 75% of the authors of the Principles are British, it's a shame they couldn't spell the word "licence" properly. Sorry for the nit-picking, but it's a question of, er, principle for me...

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15 February 2010

Lies, Damned Lies and Climate Science

If, like me, you were wondering where on earth (and atmosphere) we now stood with climate science in the wake of recent events, here's the best discussion I've seen:

Currently, a few errors –and supposed errors– in the last IPCC report (“AR4″) are making the media rounds – together with a lot of distortion and professional spin by parties interested in discrediting climate science. Time for us to sort the wheat from the chaff: which of these putative errors are real, and which not? And what does it all mean, for the IPCC in particular, and for climate science more broadly?

There then follow several thousand words analysing what exactly the errors were, where they came from, and what they mean, all meticulously referenced so that you can go to the sources in question and make up your own mind.

Here's the concluding paragraph:

Overall then, the IPCC assessment reports reflect the state of scientific knowledge very well. There have been a few isolated errors, and these have been acknowledged and corrected. What is seriously amiss is something else: the public perception of the IPCC, and of climate science in general, has been massively distorted by the recent media storm. All of these various “gates” – Climategate, Amazongate, Seagate, Africagate, etc., do not represent scandals of the IPCC or of climate science. Rather, they are the embarrassing battle-cries of a media scandal, in which a few journalists have misled the public with grossly overblown or entirely fabricated pseudogates, and many others have naively and willingly followed along without seeing through the scam.

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Something Happened: Where's Microsoft?

As you may have heard, last week there was a bit of kerfuffle over Google's Buzz and its implications for privacy. And Google has responded:

On Open Enterprise blog.

11 February 2010

SAP Slouches Towards Bethlehem

Readers with a taste for high comedy may remember my post “Why SAP is Such a Sap over Software Patents”, which rather took to task a certain large German software company over its stance on software patents. Now, to be fair, SAP has done some good things for free software – not many, but some – and Matthew Aslett has produced an excellent summary of these on his 451 CAOS Theory blog, which I urge you to read.

On Open Enterprise blog.

British Library Helps Lock Down More Knowledge

It has been a sad spectacle to see the British Library – without doubt once the greatest library in the world, and hence a powerful force for disseminating knowledge as widely as possible - become more and more enmeshed in locking down research in proprietary formats.

On Open Enterprise blog.

10 February 2010

Is Microsoft Exploiting the Innocent?

I'd never heard of the UK government's Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), but that's not surprising, since I'm allergic to organisations whose approach is "truly holistic" as CEOP brightly claims. But as well as being susceptible to embarrassing cliches, it seems that the outfit is naive, too.

For, as part of the "Safer Internet Day", CEOP is promoting Internet Explorer 8 on its front page. And what exactly does this famous panacea for all human ills offer in this context? Well:

Download the 'Click CEOP' button into your browser toolbar to provide instant access to internet safety information for children and parents.

Of course, it's rather a pity that to access the information you have to use Internet Explorer 8, scion of a family of browsers that has probably done more than any other software to expose young people to harm on the Internet through woeful security that allows viruses and trojans to be downloaded so easily - one still riddled with flaws.

Strange, then, that CEOP didn't offer a much better way of protecting vulnerable users by suggesting that they switch to a safer browser; it doesn't even offer that same instant access to safety information for Firefox users, thus encouraging people to use IE8 if they want to see it. Moreover, it does this by providing - oh irony of ironies - a link to a .exe file to download and run, the very thing you should be teaching young people *not* to do.

It couldn't be that the young and innocent Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre has allowed itself to be, er, exploited by that wily old Microsoft here, could it?

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09 February 2010

Of Open Science and Open Source

Now here's an idea:

Computer code is also at the heart of a scientific issue. One of the key features of science is deniability: if you erect a theory and someone produces evidence that it is wrong, then it falls. This is how science works: by openness, by publishing minute details of an experiment, some mathematical equations or a simulation; by doing this you embrace deniability. This does not seem to have happened in climate research. Many researchers have refused to release their computer programs — even though they are still in existence and not subject to commercial agreements. An example is Professor Mann's initial refusal to give up the code that was used to construct the 1999 "hockey stick" model that demonstrated that human-made global warming is a unique artefact of the last few decades. (He did finally release it in 2005.)


So, if you are publishing research articles that use computer programs, if you want to claim that you are engaging in science, the programs are in your possession and you will not release them then I would not regard you as a scientist; I would also regard any papers based on the software as null and void.

I'd go further: if you won't release them and *share* them, then you're not really a scientist, because science is inherently about sharing, not hoarding knowledge, whatever kind that may be. The fact that some of it may be in the form of computer code is a reflection of the fact that research is increasingly resting on digital foundations, nothing more.

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The UK Police State's Perfect Storm

I missed this story when it first came out, which is a shame, because it's an important revelation of what the current mad mix of surveillance, authoritarianism and target-driven management is doing to civil liberties in the UK:

Police are using controversial car-surveillance technology aimed at catching criminals and terrorists to target members of the public in order to meet government performance targets and raise revenue, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Police whistleblowers also claim that intelligence stored on the national Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) database is "at least 30 per cent inaccurate", which has led to the wrongful arrest of innocent motorists and the seizure of their cars.

The revelations highlight growing concerns about a burgeoning target culture among enforcement agencies and local authorities seeking to bolster figures and income with so-called soft arrests and fines on otherwise law-abiding members of the public.

Now, it seems, the target cart is driving the horse of policing:

This target culture has allegedly led to unethical practices during roadside stops, according to concerned police sources. Some officers, they say, trawl through drivers' personal data on police databases to find any reason to arrest. Alternatively, they "wind up" motorists who, in their frustration, become abusive and are then arrested for a public-order offence.


Whistleblowers also expressed concern that managers are "engineering" arrests to meet targets. Officers have been sent to re-arrest drivers fined for driving without insurance. Before cars can be released from the pound the driver has to apply for insurance. "[Officers were] checking with insurers if Mr Smith had declared his recent penalty," said one officer. "If the answer was 'no' they arrested him for obtaining insurance fraudulently."

If this carries on, or is extended, it will destroy the public's faith in the UK police: is that what the government really wants? (Via Techdirt.)

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Has the Irresistible Rise of OpenOffice.org Begun?

Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm a big fan of OpenOffice.org, and that I think it has the potential to break through into the mainstream. Maybe it's already begun, judging by these figures from webmasterpro.de:

On Open Enterprise blog.

08 February 2010

EU's Unconvincing ACTA Act

The EU has made an official statement [.pdf] on ACTA. As you might expect, it is as wriggly a wriggly thing as a wriggly thing can. Here it is, with a few annotations:

The Commission can inform the Honourable Member that the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) will be in line with the body of EU legislation, which fully respects fundamental rights and freedoms and civil liberties, such as the protection of personal data. This includes the Intellectual Property Rights' relevant aspects of the Telecoms package.

As for being in line with "EU legislation", this *already* allows ACTA-like provisions, so that's cold comfort.

ACTA should not contain measures restricting end-users’ access to the internet that would not be appropriate, proportionate and necessary within a democratic society and without a prior, fair and impartial procedure.

These are the same weasel words used in the Telecoms Package, and have no real weight whatsoever without judicial oversight: no protection there.

It is the Commission's view that ACTA is about tackling large scale illegal activity, often pursued by criminal organisations, that is causing a devastating impact on growth and employment in Europe and may have serious risks to the health and safety of consumers. It is not about limiting civil liberties or harassing consumers.

That may well be; but the great ACTA bait and switch means that civil liberties *would* be limited, and consumers *would* be harassed.

So, "no points - nul points - keine Pünkte", I'm afraid, for that attempt at mollification.

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Beyond Open Access: Open Publishing

Another splendid piece from Cameron Neylon calling into question the value of traditional peer review:

Whatever value it might have we largely throw away. Few journals make referee’s reports available, virtually none track the changes made in response to referee’s comments enabling a reader to make their own judgement as to whether a paper was improved or made worse. Referees get no public credit for good work, and no public opprobrium for poor or even malicious work. And in most cases a paper rejected from one journal starts completely afresh when submitted to a new journal, the work of the previous referees simply thrown out of the window.

Much of the commentary around the open letter has suggested that the peer review process should be made public. But only for published papers. This goes nowhere near far enough. One of the key points where we lose value is in the transfer from one journal to another. The authors lose out because they’ve lost their priority date (in the worse case giving the malicious referees the chance to get their paper in first). The referees miss out because their work is rendered worthless. Even the journals are losing an opportunity to demonstrate the high standards they apply in terms of quality and rigor – and indeed the high expectations they have of their referees.

What Neylon has exposed here is that scientific publishing - even the kind that wears its open access badge with pride - simply isn't open in any deep way. We need to be able to see the whole process, for the reasons he mentions. Open access isn't enough, not even with open data: we need *open publishing*.

And yes, that's going to be a huge shift, and painful for many. But if that's the price of producing better scientific papers - and hence better science - surely it's a price worth paying. (Via Nat Torkington.)

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Microsoft's Sulphurous Cloud Computing Offer

I've written before about Microsoft's attempts to break into the world of academic computing, currently dominated by GNU/Linux, by offering all sorts of super-duper deals on HPC systems. Well, now it's trying the same trick with cloud computing:

Microsoft and the National Science Foundation have announced an agreement that will provide free access to advanced cloud computing resources for select NSF-funded researchers for the next three years.

It is our shared hope that the storage and computational power of Windows Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform, and access to easy-to-use client and cloud tools will enable researchers to accelerate scientific breakthroughs in vital yet highly complex areas of inquiry, ranging from climate change to genetics.

So, basically, you sell your digital soul by using Windows instead of GNU/Linux and get three years' cloud computing in return: I don't think even Faust would have gone for that one.

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Crowdsourcing + Open Source: the Perfect Combination for Startups?

Crowdsourcing represents an interesting attempt to generalise the open source methodology to non-technical areas. The basic idea is to tap into the the vast store of knowledge and wisdom among the general population by providing a mechanism to funnel the best ideas to those who can build on them. Recently there have been some interesting examples in very different domains that suggest crowdsourcing is beginning to enter the mainstream.

On Open Enterprise blog.

06 February 2010

The Tragedy of the Antibiotics Commons

Here's an interesting - and frightening - story that opened my eyes to something:

Studies in China show a "frightening" increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as staphylococcus aureus bacteria, also know as MRSA . There are warnings that new strains of antibiotic-resistant bugs will spread quickly through international air travel and internation food sourcing.

"We have a lot of data from Chinese hospitals and it shows a very frightening picture of high-level antibiotic resistance," said Dr Andreas Heddini of the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control.

"Doctors are daily finding there is nothing they can do, even third and fourth-line antibiotics are not working.

"There is a real risk that globally we will return to a pre-antibiotic era of medicine, where we face a situation where a number of medical treatment options would no longer be there. What happens in China matters for the rest of the world."

What this emphasises is that antibiotics form a kind of global commons - a resource whose benefits we all share. But if one party overexploits that commons - in this case, by recklessly handing out antibiotics as the article suggests - then the commons is ruined for *all* of us.

This development is yet another reason to get commons-based thinking into wider circulation - especially amongst the people making decisions, so that they can appreciate the massive global consequences that can flow from their apparently minor local actions.

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05 February 2010

Opening Our Eyes to the Tilted Playing-Field

One of the subtlest ways of gaming the system is to hack the system before you even play - for example, by building in a bias that means your particular approach is given a natural advantage. That this goes on, is nothing new; that it's happened at the heart of the European Union is profoundly disturbing. Here's the summary of what's now been discovered:

These findings suggest that BAT [British American Tobacco] and its corporate allies have fundamentally altered the way in which EU policy is made by ensuring that all significant EU policy decisions have to be assessed using a business-orientated IA [Impact assessment]. As the authors note, this situation increases the likelihood that the EU will produce policies that favor big business rather than the health of its citizens. Furthermore, these findings suggest that by establishing a network of other industries to help in lobbying for EU Treaty changes, BAT was able to distance itself from the push to establish a business-orientated IA to the extent that Commission officials were unaware of the involvement of the tobacco industry in campaigns for IA. Thus, in future, to safeguard public health, policymakers and public-health groups must pay more attention to corporate efforts to shape decision-making processes. In addition, public-health groups must take account of the ways in which IA can be used to undermine as well as support effective public-health policies and they must collaborate more closely in their efforts to ensure effective national and international policy.

A number of lessons need to be learned from this.

First, that if you want a system to produce fair results, you need to ensure that its framing is fair. Secondly, full transparency is imperative, especially about the relationships between those who are lobbying for changes to a system. Basically, you just can't have too much openness when it comes to setting key policy like Impact assessment.

This is an incredibly important - and impressive - paper, with huge implications for many areas. One that springs to mind is that of environmental protection. Given that the framing of Impact assessments is biased in favour of business and financial issues, it's not hard to see that other viewpoints - for example of examining the implications for animal and plant life, or of the various commons impacted - will receive pretty short shrift. It's also an argument for the economics of externalities to be developed more so that they can be brought into the equation when such one-side reviews are being conducted.

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Oh, What a Lovely Standards War

You know something big must be afoot when people start to get worked up over video compression standards. Basically, the issue is whether the current de facto standard, H.264, will continue to dominate this field, and if not, what might take over.

On Open Enterprise blog.

04 February 2010

China (Hearts) Royalty-Free Standards?

This sounds great news for free software (and the world):

China recently circulated a draft regulation regarding the use of patents in Chinese national standards. The regulation demands that for patents to be eligible for incorporation in standards, they must be made irrevocably available royalty free or for a nominal fee. This will have dramatic consequences for foreign and domestic innovators.

The royalty-free option is exactly what free software needs, and what patent holders have been fighting against so hard in the West (nominal fee is still problematic, though).

The interesting thing is that as China becomes the world's biggest market, what happens there will inevitably affect elsewhere. So this is by no means a parochial issue. (Via @zoobab.)

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ACTA Goes on the Charm Offensive sans Charm

Sorry to rattle on about ACTA, but it seems there's something of a concerted campaign to "counter" all the noise we little people are making. Here's a line that might sound familiar, this time from Stanford McCoy, "Assistant United States Trade Representative for Intellectual Property and Innovation":

Intellectual property protection is critical to jobs and exports that depend on innovation and creativity. Trade in counterfeit and pirated products undermines those jobs and exports, exposes consumers to dangerous knock-offs from toothpaste to car parts, and helps fund organised crime.

Yes, the old counterfeit = "pirated" equation. And to add insult to injury:

Far from keeping them secret, governments participating in these negotiations have sought public comments, released a summary of issues under discussion, and enhanced public engagement.

Oh dear, I must have blinked and missed all that public discussion and "enhanced" public engagement....

My prediction: there's lot's more where this came from.

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EU Official Caught in the ACTA

As more and more people write about the global scandal that is ACTA, a question naturally forms itself: is it worth it? After all, however many times people ask for more transparency, or attempt to probe what exactly is going on and going into ACTA, all we get are the usual fob-offs: maybe it's time to give up?

I don't think so.

In what seems to be a case of constant dripping wearing away the stone, more and more tiny informational breakthroughs are occurring that together are beginning to reveal the bigger picture. Here's the latest one:

An upcoming global trade agreement on copyright and counterfeiting, known as ACTA, will not rewrite EU rules on the liability of internet service providers, a leading European Commission official told EurActiv, denying media reports that suggest otherwise.

Oh, no? So why have we got the wrong impression?

The leading Commission official said media reports were oversimplifying the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which wrapped up one stage of a series of negotiations in Mexico last week.

Oh, I *see*: those naughty journalists have been "oversimplifying* things. Mind you, that's quite an achievement, since they are essentially "oversimplifying" nothing, which is more or less what the ACTA negotiators have so far deigned to distribute to hoi polloi.

But then we get a little more detail on why ACTA will not "rewrite EU rules" on ISP liability:

A leaked Commission paper on ACTA in October allegedly showed that negotiators at the global talks were attempting to rewrite current EU rules on the liability of internet service providers (ISPs) for pirated content on their networks.

The official denied those allegations and added that under the EU's eCommerce laws, ISPs can already be held liable for content on their network if they do not meet certain requirements.

For example, if an ISP is defined as a "mere conduit," a carrier of content, then it is not responsible for pirated content if it does not "initiate or modify" it and has no say on where it ends up, the official explained.

Ah-ha: what this reveals is that the reason ACTA won't "rewrite" the rules is because the rules are *already there*, according to this interpretation: ACTA will simply foreground them. It's tacitly admitting that there are latent ACTA-like provisions in the eCommerce laws; the big difference is that ACTA will activate them, so to speak.

In which case we need to look carefully at what exactly those laws say to find out whether that "mere conduit" definition is quite so, er, water-tight as the EU official would have us believe. [Added: more specifically, as Rui Seabra points out on Twitter, "ISPs technically initiate [and] modify many connections."]

If this is new information, as it seems to me, it shows the virtue of pressing ACTA officials again and again, because they often let slip what seem to them to be insignificant information that is actually more important than they realise.

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From Open Source to Open Government

Yesterday I had an interesting chat with Paul Clarke, an advisor to government departments on digital strategy, and a man with fingers in many interesting pies, about open government. The central issue we were ruminating upon was how to help those within government who want to open up, given the huge inertial forces operating against them.

On Open Enterprise blog.

The New Face of Open Source: Facebook

Without doubt, one of the most extraordinary developments in recent years has been the rise of Facebook - not just as the most popular social network, but increasingly as a force to reckoned with in the world of computing, perhaps soon on the scale of Microsoft and Google. This makes its relationship to free software something of more than passing interest.

On Open Enterprise blog.

The Great Oracle Experiment

So, it finally happened:

We are pleased to announce that Oracle has completed its acquisition of Sun Microsystems and Sun is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Oracle. With this news, we want to reiterate our commitment to deliver complete, open and integrated systems that help our customers improve the performance, reliability and security of their IT infrastructure. We would also like to thank the many customers that have supported us throughout the acquisition process....

On Open Enterprise blog.

03 February 2010

LoveMachine: Virtually the Singularity?

A few years ago I had the good fortune to interview Philip Rosedale, the creator of Second Life. Now, say what you might about that virtual world, and what it has become, but there's no denying its splendidly metaphysical origins:

There's a book I read ... that we were talking about a lot, which really informed our design, and that's Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities. That was one of the most important things because it was in 2001, 2002, that we got into this idea that the way online games worked was just completely inconsistent with what we're trying to do, and that Everquest or online games of the time were what Jane Jacobs was talking about when she said that planned cites all failed.

Then you read Death and Life of Great American Cities, and what that says is that it all has to be random. The randomness gives way to overlapping behaviours where some people are walking to go to the store, some people are walking to their home, some people are walking to go to work. Those people all run into each other, there's a kind of a commons behaviour where they'd like to just double click on their work and get there immediately, but they can't: they have to walk. That means they entertain each other: some of the times you're the one being entertained, and some of the times you're the entertainment, that's kind of what Jane Jacobs said. And we were like, oh yeah, that's exactly what we want. Because if the world is just created by everybody, then you'll have this very haphazard, crazy kind of feel to it, and that'll be incredibly powerful the way New York is.

The Mystery of Capital was like a follow on to that, because it said for people to build that way everybody has to own their own intellectual property - including of course physical real estate - in a very explicit way with alienability and all that stuff.

Rosedale left Linden Lab a while back, and has been working on something memorably called LoveMachine. Now we have the first inkling of what that might entail - and it's suitable big:

Recently, a Second Life veteran named Hikaru Yamamoto told me about the plans she'd heard Philip Rosedale was cooking up for his new company, LoveMachine. He wasn't just building a public version of Linden Lab's employee rating system. Turns out that was just one project. A somewhat more ambitious goal, she told me, was, well, creating a sentient artificial intelligence which existed in a virtual world.

"He wants it to live inside Second Life," as she put it to me. "It will think and dream and everything." Indeed, the company's website now lists as one of its three projects, "The Brain. Can 10,000 computers become a person?"

Never a dull moment with that Mr Rosedale...

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Welcome to the Free Technology Academy

How did I miss this amazing project?

The expansion of Free Software has brought together a continually growing global community of developers, by offering solid quality products which have not gone unnoticed in business, government and academic circles. Big players such as Novell, IBM and SUN have brought Free Software into their business models, and many more SMEs provide professional services around Free Software. The European Commission and many national, regional and local governments have started adopting open standards and show a preference for Free Software to cover their IT needs.

Although there is a growing interest in free technologies (Free Software and Open Standards), still a limited number of IT professionals, teachers and decision makers have sufficient knowledge and expertise in these fields. This is particularly problematic since these are crucial actors in promoting and implementing free technologies.

So where does the Free Technology Academy fit in?

In order to tackle this problem, the Free Technology Academy (FTA) is being set up as a distance learning programme. This distance learning programme consists of specific modules to enable IT professionals, students, teachers and decision makers to upgrade knowledge and acquire relevant skills on free technologies. Those users interested in getting a master degree could complete their study and get a master degree at one of the participating universities.


The FTA's main goals are twofold. First, to set up a virtual campus offering course modules on Free Software and Open Standards with teaching staff from the participating institutions; and second, to become a showcase of a virtual campus based on FS, OS and the use of Open Educational Resources, in order to promote its use in other institutions. The programme will acquire its shape through close cooperation between higher education institutions and
social and private organisations.

To this end a virtual campus is created where open educational materials are available and users will be able to follow specific course modules on:

1. the Introduction to Free Software and Open Standards;
2. the GNU/Linux Operating System;
3. Network Technologies;
4. Web Applications development;
5. Economical models;
6. Legal aspects of the Information Society;
7. Software development and
8. Case studies.

Even better:

Educational materials in the FTA will be released under free licenses in line with the philosophy of the free knowledge and open educational resources movement. The educational content necessary to complete the curriculum will be developed using the SELF platform, a tool for the collaborative development of educational materials. These materials will comply with dominant open standards such as SCORM and IMS, thus enabling the seamless exchange with other educational platforms.

Sounds a perfect storm of open source, open content, open courseware and open educational resources. Kudos. (Via LWN.net.)

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01 February 2010

Britain Loves Wikipedia - And About Time, Too

One of the important roles of museums and galleries is education: helping the public to discover and explore the masterworks in their collections. So you would have thought that they would be only to happy to have images of those works exposed in the greatest online gallery of them all, Wikipedia. And yet there has been a certain resistance to this in some quarters, thanks - of course - to a crazy obsession with "copyright".

That's doubly misguided: we're talking about old works here, so the idea that copyright should be operative on their images, is nuts; but it's also perverse, because it stops people from finding out about what's on offer in museums, which is against their best interests.

Against that rather sad background, I obviously applaud this initiative:

‘Britain Loves Wikipedia’ is a month-long competition and series of events to be held in participating museums nationwide from 31 January 2010. People from all ages, backgrounds and communities can take part in the competition, which encourages the public to photograph the treasures of our nation’s museums and galleries, actively involving them in digitally recording the collections. All of the photos entered into the ‘Britain Loves Wikipedia’ competition will be made available under a free license on Wikimedia Commons, and can then be used to illustrate Wikipedia articles.

It's just sad that this hasn't been happening automatically, everywhere.

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