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Audio from Seattle Hieroglyph event with Neal Stepehenson

Here's an MP3 of the audio from the Reigniting Society’s Ambition with Science Fiction event that I did with Neal Stephenson and Ed Finn at Seattle Town Hall on Oct 26, to promote the Hieroglyph anthology, designed to inspire optimistic technologies to solve the Earth's most urgent problems. I had a story in it called The Man Who Sold the Moon.

Stories are a fuggly hack


My latest Locus Magazine column is Stories Are a Fuggly Hack, in which I point out the limits of storytelling as an artform, and bemoan all the artists from other fields -- visual art, music -- who aspire to storytelling in order to make their art.

There are other media, much more abstract media, that seemingly manage to jump straight to the feels: painting, photography, poetry, sculpture, music. Not always – all of these things can tell stories, but they don’t need to in order to make you feel things. Instead, they seem to reach right inside your skull and tickle the feeling parts of you, trig­gering cascades of intense emotion that are all the more powerful for their inexplicable nature.

Now, this stuff is all very primal and non-rational and is hard to taxonomize and rationalize and turn into something repeatable. If I can’t tell you why ‘‘Guernica’’ makes me feel Guernica-ey, then how are you supposed to improve on it in a future iteration to fine-tune the emotive effect? At least with stories, you know that if you tell a scary story, and it works, the audience will experience fear. But the emotional oomph of non-narrative art is much more mysterious, more of an art, really, and though it may be harder to systematize, when it gets in the groove, look out.

Which is why, as a ‘‘storyteller,’’ I sometimes get a little impatient with people who are really good at those other media – none of which I have any talent for, incidentally – when they rhapsodize about sto­rytelling as a way of practicing their art. That’s not because I want to jealously guard my preserve here in storyland, but because making someone feel something without all that tedious making-stuff-up is a hell of an accomplishment and it’s heartbreaking to see brilliant artists turn their back on it.

Stories Are a Fuggly Hack [Cory Doctorow/Locus]

(Image: Großmutters Geschichten 19Jh, Public Domain)

Amanda Palmer’s Art of Asking: art for the crowdfunding age


Amanda Palmer's new book Art of Asking is a moving and insightful memoir of her life performing music while making personal connections with her fans; I wrote a long, in-depth review of it for The New Statesman.

There's a litmus test for how you will likely feel about Palmer's Kickstarter: Palmer invited local musicians in each city on her tour to come onstage and jam with the band. She asked that they come by for an afternoon's quick rehearsal, and offered them beer, t-shirts, and gratitude and recognition. This move - something that Palmer's bands had often done on previous tours - enraged her detractors like nothing else.

The inaccurate headline: "Musician raises $1 million from fans, asks her band to play for free." (Palmer's band was paid, it was the jamming local performers who were volunteers.) Even after it was corrected, even after Palmer relented and offered the volunteer musicians $100 to come on stage with her, she was still pilloried for "not valuing the hard work of fellow musicians".

But in truth, the practice of letting fans jam with the band is an honourable and widespread one. I once spent a night on New Orleans' Bourbon Street, hopping from bar to club, listening to the always-excellent house-bands performing blues and rock and rockabilly and jazz. And without fail, during each set, someone would walk in off the street, a musician on holiday from some much-less-exotic city, perhaps in a state that began and ended with a vowel, with a guitar or sax or even an accordion, and that person would take the stage with the band and jam in. It was a gift - from the band to the vacationing musician, from the musician to the band, from the crowd (who would cheer on the newcomer with real zest), and to the crowd. It wasn't a market transaction, though sometimes a beer or a t-shirt or a CD would change hands (and in any conceivable direction).

As Palmer points out, other bands have run successful Kickstarters in which they charge their backers for the privilege of performing on stage during the tour. No one bats an eye at the idea that musicians should pay to perform, nor do they balk at the idea that they should be paid to perform. But let no money change hands at all and all of our reactions are disordered. Art without the market is a terrifying thing, a frank admission that the alleged "music industry"'s most indispensable components - the musicians - never really had a realistic chance of earning anything, and the ones that do get paid are statistical outliers.

Standing naked in front of an audience: Amanda Palmer and a new way to make art [Cory Doctorow/New Statesman]

Video from SFLC's tenth anniversary conference available.

SFLC News Releases - Tue, 2014/11/11 - 14:21
Video from SFLC's tenth anniversary conference available.

Net Neutrality and Netflix Taxes: The Tension Between Government and Regulatory Agencies on Digital Policy

Michael Geist Law RSS Feed - Tue, 2014/11/11 - 10:26

U.S. President Barack Obama yesterday came out strongly in favour of net neutrality, urging the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to uphold core net neutrality principles. Obama’s comments were unsurprisingly welcomed by net neutrality activists throughout the U.S., though some caution that the ultimate decision still lies with the regulatory agency. Obama focused on the need for greater transparency along with rules to ensure no blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. I wrote earlier this year on how Canada passed net neutrality regulations (termed Internet traffic management practices) in 2009, which address many of the issues raised by Obama.

Obama’s decision to wade into the net neutrality debate highlights how politicians can no longer simply avoid telecom, broadcast, and Internet issues by claiming that the matter is solely for regulators to determine. Policy issues such as net neutrality and Internet regulation have profound importance for millions and we should not be content to leave the issue exclusively to unelected regulators (no matter transparent their processes).

The question of the appropriate role for politicians on policies being considered by regulators has attracted attention on both sides of the border. For example, the involvement of elected officials in telecom and Internet policy captured headlines in Canada in September when the federal government declared that it would not support a “Netflix tax” as an outcome from the CRTC’s TalkTV hearings. The Netflix issues comes in the aftermath of a “mandate letter” to the CRTC on the appointment on CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais that identified top priorities as well as active involvement on issues such as usage based billing.

The public comments on the Netflix tax sparked a backlash from some opposition parties, who claimed the government was “playing politics” with the CRTC. Blais was also clearly unhappy with the interventions both during the hearing and in the weeks that followed. Last Friday, he delivered a talk in Vancouver in which he pointedly criticized outside commentary and emphasized that CRTC decisions would only be based on the evidence raised in submissions and during the hearing.

Blais suggested that government comments will have no impact on the outcome of the policy process, which seems somewhat unrealistic. An independent agency must obviously be free to make its own decisions, but the notion that governmental comments – whether President Obama’s on net neutrality in the U.S. or the Canadian government’s on Netflix here – can be ignored because they are not offered directly through the formal policy process only breeds further uncertainty since it is elected officials, not regulators, that ultimately have the final say on these matters. Indeed, much of the recent criticism appears to be an effort to mask criticism with the substance of policies by focusing on process. There is a danger that politicians can overstep the boundaries with independent agencies, but digital policies are too important to be left solely to the CRTC or FCC.

The post Net Neutrality and Netflix Taxes: The Tension Between Government and Regulatory Agencies on Digital Policy appeared first on Michael Geist.

Competition Matters: New Study Supports Government Policy Focused on Fourth Wireless Player

Michael Geist Law RSS Feed - Tue, 2014/11/11 - 09:38

Appeared in the Toronto Star on November 8, 2014 as Why Canada Needs a Fourth Wireless Player

Last year’s explosive battle over the potential entry of wireless giant Verizon into the Canadian market may be a distant memory, but the debate over the state of wireless competition remains very much alive. Industry Minister James Moore has pointed to a modest decline in consumer pricing and complaints as evidence that government policies aimed at fostering a more competitive market are working.

The big three wireless carriers remain adamant that the Canadian market is competitive and that while pricing may be high relative to some other countries, that is a function of the quality of their networks. In other words, you get what you pay for.

There is seemingly no major international entrant on the horizon, but the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is currently grappling with an assortment of policy measures aimed at improving the competitiveness of new entrants and facilitating the development of a more robust market for virtual operators who could enhance consumer choice. Moreover, the government is planning another spectrum auction early next year that would benefit new entrants.

At the heart of the debate is whether creating a fourth national carrier is a legitimate policy goal or a mirage that will do little to decrease pricing or create market innovation. The major carriers argue that the Canadian market is too small to support a fourth national carrier and that competitiveness is not directly correlated to the number of national operators.

Conversely, the government, supported by independent analysis from the Competition Bureau, believes that more competition is needed given the “market power” wielded by the big three incumbents. The creation of fourth national wireless carrier is often cited as an important target that would alter the competitive dynamic.

The government’s position received a major boost this week with the release of a new study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a leading international governmental body that counts most developed economy countries as members. The OECD report focused specifically on whether the number of carriers within member countries is linked to consumer pricing or marketplace innovation.

After reviewing the recent experience in eleven OECD countries, it concluded that a fourth carrier makes a difference. The study finds that with four or more competitors “there is a higher likelihood of more competitive and innovative services being introduced and maintained.”

For example, France and Israel experienced price reductions and the introduction of unlimited usage plans with the entry of a fourth carrier. In the Netherlands, the study finds that the imminent launch of a fourth carrier has led to more competitive consumer offers, including Europe-wide roaming.

The study also identifies other areas where new competitors have had a significant impact on marketplace dynamics. Fourth carriers have often the been source of better international roaming offers, forcing the established players to respond by reducing their own prices or enhancing their plans. Similarly, virtual operators have targeted niche markets by expanding access to pre-paid plans more aggressively than established carriers.

Just as more competition helps, reduced competition can hurt. For example, the study notes that a 2009 Australian merger that decreased the number of wireless competitors has led to less vigorous retail competition.

Notwithstanding fears that new entrants or virtual operators might reduce earnings and thereby the incentives to invest in new networks, the OECD data suggests those concerns are largely unfounded. Reviewing nearly 15 years of data, the study finds that investments in telecommunications networks has remained remarkably stable.

In other words, competition works. This finding will not come as surprise to most observers, but in the contentious world of Canadian telecom, where incumbents seemingly fear the prospect of new competitors as much as actual competition, the OECD report provides yet another reason for the government to maintain its policy approach and for the CRTC use its regulatory powers to foster a more competitive marketplace.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can be reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.

The post Competition Matters: New Study Supports Government Policy Focused on Fourth Wireless Player appeared first on Michael Geist.

Ontario Provincial Police Recommend Ending Anonymity on the Internet

Michael Geist Law RSS Feed - Mon, 2014/11/10 - 10:31

The Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs began its hearings on Bill C-13, the lawful access/cyberbullying bill last week with an appearance from several law enforcement representatives. The Ontario Provincial Police was part of the law enforcement panel and was asked by Senator Tom McInnis, a Conservative Senator from Nova Scotia, about what other laws are needed to address cyberbullying. Scott Naylor of the OPP responded (official transcript not yet posted online):

If the bag was open and I could do anything, the biggest problem that I see in the world of child sexual exploitation is anonymity on the Internet. When we get our driver’s licence we’re required to get our picture taken for identification.  When you get a mortgage you have to sign and provide identification.  When you sign up for the Internet, there is absolutely no requirement for any kind of non-anonymity qualifier.  There are a lot of people who are hiding behind the Internet to do all kinds of crime, including cybercrime, fraud, sexual exploitation and things along those lines.

The Internet is moving so quickly that law enforcement cannot keep up.  If there were one thing that I would ask for discussion on is that there has to be some mechanism of accountability for you to sign on to an Internet account that makes it like a digital fingerprint that identifies it to you sitting behind the computer or something at that time.  There are mechanisms to do it, but the Internet is so big and so vast at this point, and it’s worldwide, I’m not sure how that could happen, but that would certainly assist everybody.  In that way I can make a digital qualification that that’s the person that I’m talking to.  If I had one choice, that’s what I would ask for.

Naylor’s comment was approved by Senator McInnis, who stated that he “absolutely agreed” with the recommendation.

Leaving aside the deeply troubling inference of requiring licences to the use the Internet in the same manner as obtaining a driver’s licence, the police desire to stop online anonymity suggests that the OPP has not read the Supreme Court of Canada Spencer decision very carefully. If it had, it would know that not only does the court endorse a reasonable expectation of privacy in subscriber information, but it emphasizes the importance of online anonymity in doing so. Justice Cromwell, speaking for unanimous court:

There is also a third conception of informational privacy that is particularly important in the context of Internet usage. This is the understanding of privacy as anonymity. In my view, the concept of privacy potentially protected by s. 8  must include this understanding of privacy.
The notion of privacy as anonymity is not novel. It appears in a wide array of contexts ranging from anonymous surveys to the protection of police informant identities. A person responding to a survey readily agrees to provide what may well be highly personal information. A police informant provides information about the commission of a crime. The information itself is not private – it is communicated precisely so that it will be communicated to others. But the information is communicated on the basis that it will not be identified with the person providing it.

Consider situations in which the police want to obtain the list of names that correspond to the identification numbers on individual survey results or the defence in a criminal case wants to obtain the identity of the informant who has provided information that has been disclosed to the defence. The privacy interest at stake in these examples is not simply the individual’s name, but the link between the identified individual and the personal information provided anonymously. As the intervener the Canadian Civil Liberties Association urged in its submissions, “maintaining anonymity can be integral to ensuring privacy.”

Cromwell adds:

Recognizing that anonymity is one conception of informational privacy seems to me to be particularly important in the context of Internet usage. One form of anonymity, as Westin explained, is what is claimed by an individual who wants to present ideas publicly but does not want to be identified as their author. Here, Westin, publishing in 1970, anticipates precisely one of the defining characteristics of some types of Internet communication. The communication may be accessible to millions of people but it is not identified with its author.

The recognition of anonymity as a particularly important component of Internet privacy will not come as a surprise to millions of Internet users to rely upon it to varying degrees to exercise free speech right and to preserve their privacy. It lies at the heart of posts from abuse victims, whistleblowers, and people who cannot otherwise speak out for fear of a backlash.  What is surprising – or at least discouraging – is that the OPP and a Canadian Senator would seemingly jump at the chance to bring it to an end.

The post Ontario Provincial Police Recommend Ending Anonymity on the Internet appeared first on Michael Geist.

librarians and books in WWI

Fair Duty by Meera Nair - Sun, 2014/11/09 - 22:42

Books in the Trenches – drawn by Edgar Wright

The book is not a history, nor an official report of results accomplished; but, as far as I have been able to make it, a human-interest story of what books and reading have meant to the morale of the army and to the individual soldier and sailor in helping them to win the war and preparing them for their return to civil life (p. viii).

 

So wrote Theodore Wesley Koch (1871-1941), scholar and librarian (last featured here), in Books in the War – the Romance of Library War Service.

Posted to London in 1917 by the Librarian of Congress, Koch became aware of British efforts to supply their soldiers with books, “in camp, trench and hospital.” By the time Koch returned, the United States had entered the war and Koch was asked to assist in the promotion of Library War Service. His chronicle of the war years was published in 1919; sadly, only a few printed copies remain in circulation. But thanks to the provision of original books from Harvard University, University of California and University of Wisconsin, digital replicas are available for the benefit of all via Internet Archive and HathiTrust Digital Library.

The initiative to provide books to the fighting forces, apparently brought out the best in people. The preliminary appeal for funding had been via private subscriptions – a one million dollar goal was quickly exceeded with nearly $2 million raised. Publishing houses joined the effort: “… discounts of from forty-five to fifty percent were not uncommon (p.10).” And some university presses and correspondence schools donated generously from their own inventories.

If there was any doubt of the value of books to soldiers, it was dispelled immediately following the launch of the libraries. Established at training bases, front line units, hospitals, convalescent homes and prisoner-of-war camps, and staffed by librarians (many of whom were volunteers), the libraries were much needed and much loved. Drawing upon original letters, reports and conversations, Koch meticulously described the impact made by the availability of reading material. His research was extensive. British sources included details of library programs for colonial troops and Koch gave the full extent of the reach of library books in World War I.

The outpouring of the soldiers’ gratitude fills many pages of Koch’s work; choosing a favorite thank-you is difficult. But one anecdote remains prominent for me:

‘Please send us some books. We ain’t got no books at all. We are regulars and get just as lonesome as national guards.’ This was the appeal sent by a private from a small camp to a public librarian in the East. Into the first of several shipments the thoughtful-librarian slipped a supply of candy and tobacco. The response was immediate. ‘If you ever done good to a man you done good to me,’ wrote the soldier, ‘but please don’t waste no more space for eats. Just send the books.’ (p.23).

The span of reading material provided to the men was vast. That fiction would be in high demand was expected, but many requests came in for vocational training material as soldiers endeavored to maintain the knowledge and skills necessary for their civilian trades. So too were requests for material that would aid a soldier’s realm of duty. Koch gave the details of a request from a private in the Engineers’ Corps of Camp Devon:

[He] asked for books which would explain the psychology of camouflage. He was something of an artist and had been successful with colour photography.  … Material was found for him and he succeeded in hiding guns so well with paint that he deceived his own captain (p.31).

But beyond technical matters, also desired were books of poetry, literature, biography, mathematics treatises, and, maps and histories of the regions where soldiers were posted. Newspapers and magazines were no less appreciated by men far removed in space and time from life back home. And, given the diversity of cultures among the soldiers, materials were needed in Arabic, French, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Russian, Spanish and Yiddish, just to name a few of the languages spoken. It is no exaggeration to say that most soldiers emerged from World War I more well-read or better educated than when they entered.

The extent to which education was promoted through the libraries and librarians ranged from instruction for men whose background had not included any schooling, and hence were illiterate, to formal programs of study. A Canadian higher education venture came in for special mention from Koch:

An interesting educational experiment was carried on at Witley Camp, occupied by some of the Canadian forces in England. There the library hut of the Y.M.C.A. and the three adjacent huts were handed over by the authorities for educational purposes and became the pioneer college of the “Canadian Khaki University.” .. Credits were given for work properly done in English, French, the classics, mathematics, and agriculture. .. Examinations were held and certificates given, and men were helped to complete an interrupted academic course and to prepare themselves for satisfactory positions after the war (p.55).

Perhaps most thought-provoking among Koch’s accounts are those concerning the supply of books for prisoners-of-war. The value of books was commonly held on both sides of the Great War. Within camps, prisoners would organize themselves into teaching groups; professional and learned men of civilian days became teachers for their fellow prisoners. Koch wrote that “hundreds of schools were maintained in the prison-pens of the contending armies by the American Y.M.C.A;” the ensuing demand for thousands of volumes was met by the American Library Association. “What this meant to the prisoners in the camps cannot be overestimated; to all it meant hope and joy, to some perhaps even life and sanity (p.266).”

The Y.M.C.A’s operation reached far beyond Western Europe. A secretary writing from Siberia, indicated that the German and Austrian prisoners spent a great deal of time in study. The difficulty was that most of the books available were only in Russian. While prisoners who had a general knowledge of Russian could translate for others, eventually “thousands of German books arrived for the prisoners and so enabled many of the advanced students to continue studies interrupted by war (p.267).”

Allied forces were also recipients of bibliophile generosity. Among those stories, Koch includes the experiences of Canadian Lieutenant J.H. Douglas. His time as a prisoner of war began in a German hospital:

“Lieutenant Douglas exchanged lessons in English for instruction in French with a French captain in the hospital. They managed to have textbooks bought for them in the city and did serious work for two hours every day … [The] knowledge of French proved of great value to Lieutenant Douglas later when he was transferred to Switzerland, where he and some of his fellow prisoners were allowed to register at the University of Lausanne and took courses in engineering and French literature (p.273-274).”

World War I is not known to stand out on the historical stage for its humanity; but that some was found courtesy of librarians and books should not altogether surprise us. Koch’s work is exemplary and its digital existence, replete with all the original images, help with the quest, lest we forget.


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