Making history. Or at least transcribing it

Boston Globe: Boston Public Library asks for help in transcribing abolitionist letters. William Lloyd Garrison’s letters are among the more frequently consulted collections in the Boston Public Library; this project seeks to make them accessible and searchable over the web. This is a rare opportunity, in this world of Google Books and OCR, to help to digitize an asset the old fashioned way. You can sign up to help at The effort uses the new-to-me Zooniverse platform, which enforces not just crowd sourcing but also crowd-correction: no transcription is accepted unless three volunteers provide the same transcription.

I did a bit of book transcription when I had my first Internet-facing job in 1994, as an undergraduate in the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia (now absorbed into the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities), but most of what I worked on was marking up and correcting texts transcribed by volunteers at Project Gutenberg. Crowdsourcing digitization goes way back.

Weekend entertainment: Super Mario HTML5

I started my kids on Super Mario Brothers, which we own in emulation on the Wii (the only game console I own). I’m still trying to teach my son which way to hold the Wiimote to play the game, but my daughter is pretty conversant already with the game. So I can already tell I need to practice if I want to stay ahead of them.

Super Mario HTML5 looks like a pretty good way to do that while I’m away from the Wii. The gameplay is pretty close, at least for the two levels I’ve played so far, with the exception that the sky and ground expand to fill the browser window.

Time for another Mickey Mouse copyright law rewrite?

Ars Technica: Why Mickey Mouse’s 1998 copyright extension probably won’t happen again. The article, which Lawrence Lessig pointed to, is a little skimpy on the research. OK, so the RIAA and MPAA say they’re unlikely to pursue another copyright term extension. I still say we’re likely to see legislation that shows up at the last minute to keep 1923 era works from entering the public domain.

Why? Because it’s happened before, twice, and because I can’t believe the borg-that-is-Disney would voluntarily let go of the opportunity to monopolize the monetization of its collective intellectual property without a fight.

I might be wrong about this, and it’s possible that their ongoing absorption of Lucasfilm, Marvel, and other entertainment properties are a way to diversify so that they can survive losing exclusivity over some of their earliest art. But I’m not holding my breath, until I see Disney swear that they aren’t going to lobby for another round of copyright exclusions.

Turning inside out

Dave Winer posted a link to some of the earliest podcasts recently, Chris Lydon’s interview series. In the header he used a photo from the first Bloggercon. (That’s me, on the left with my eyes down toward my screen, above one of many Mac TiBooks in the audience.)

It got me thinking about Bloggercon and looking back at some of what we learned, and in particular my two-part blog on takeaways, What is a blog? and Blogs providing voices/Blogs mediating connections. There’s a note in the second post that connected especially strongly with me today:

Blogs written by individuals inside institutions also, through their personal nature, offer the readers of those blogs a connection to the institution at an individual level that they would not experience otherwise. This empowers them through connecting them more closely to that institution and enabling them to better understand the institution. This is empowerment by access.

Finally, when the blogger outside the institution publishes a comment and a link to the work of the blogger inside the institution, and the institutional blogger reciprocates with a link, a relationship develops between the two, the outsider and the institution, that helps the outsider to understand, and in some cases affect, the institution. This is empowerment by relationship.

What I meant in writing this by “institution” was “any organization,” but how I feel it today is “a company.” There’s so much expertise tucked away within a modern organization that may not expose itself through a company’s official messaging, but which holds much of a company’s competitive strength. Like what it’s learned about aligning product management to the business, or doing agile at scale, or even applying agile principles to other disciplines like marketing.

Some of the value drivers for blogging seem to have weakened in the last 14 years, but this avenue of empowerment of the individual writer and of their audience by connecting with them is still deeply important.

Thirteen years ago…

I was looking at an article on the history of interactive fiction, including the Infocom games (Zork, Hitchhiker’s Guide, and its ilk).

The link in the original article was to a Java version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide game. There’s been a subsequent revision that doesn’t require Java and has some slight graphical blandishments to boot (which kind of spoils the fun).

Also ironically, the link to the original article is broken and was not preserved by the Internet Archive (and the hosts of the site were kind enough to claim that “Internet Archive generates us no value” in their robots.txt! Well, who’s laughing now?)

Learning from learning

In the spirit of owning my own words publicly, here are some thoughts I shared on a friend’s Facebook page about the value of my higher education degrees. My friend’s question: “Has anyone ever studied the attitudes of persons with bachelor’s degrees toward the value of a postsecondary education as it correlates with field of undergraduate study after 20 or 30 years? Are hard sciences graduates more likely than most to describe their undergraduate years as well-spent, or less? Liberal arts? Business administration?”

I am, in fact, a hard-sciences major with a liberal arts minor undergrad, and an MBA, so I am either supremely qualified or un-, depending on how you value the respondent’s ability to make up one’s mind in evaluating whether you want to listen to the answer.

Regarding physics, I have felt for the past twenty-five years or so a deep gratitude for what it taught me about approaching deep problems, learning by hypothesis and disproof, and the necessity of striking out beyond one’s comfort zone when it becomes clear that one has spent four years getting a degree whose value depends on one’s willingness to spend another twelve years in and post-school and embrace a life of poverty in government funded labs of uncertain stability. They don’t ask me to talk about the last one to modern SPS students.

Regarding my English minor, I believe it gave me a lifelong appreciation for the well-chosen word and for our bloody-minded language, as well as appreciation for history, philology, semiotics, and half a dozen other things I never studied but which were hinted at darkly among the edges of my curriculum.

And business? Little poetry in it, but considered as a sociological study for the alien tribes with whom I’ve spent my latter career, it’s been invaluable preparation.

So, no, none a waste of my time. But I’d argue that choosing any undergraduate major for preparation into a lifelong vocation is not only wrong-headed but shows a dangerous lack of imagination or a distressing naïveté, or both. (I really thought my father’s 30+ career at NASA was the norm when it came to the longevity of employment in the sciences.) But choosing majors that arm the mind with intrinsic skills for future battles—that’s different.

A syllabus for a history of Internet social and privacy issues

Paulina Borsook, Freedom to Tinker: Neophilia and Human Nature. After a well written illustration about how concern about Internet behavior and regulation is more “nothing new under the sun,” Borsook offers a bibliography that would make a fantastic syllabus for a college course on the roots of Internet culture, policy, and journalism.

Near miss

A Wikipedia page I was largely responsible for has been spared the axe, and I feel like a successful defense lawyer.

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia that’s free for anyone to edit, that aspires to surpass other encyclopedias in quality. To meet both goals it has evolved a series of rules, a few arbitrary but most well thought out and endlessly debated, that determine what stays in and what goes. Rules like “Wikipedia is not a directory” and “Wikipedia is not for promotion” are self explanatory; “Wikipedia is not a memorial” may take more careful reading. (I find this page a helpful summary.)

So when Wikipedia editors get in an argument about whether something belongs, it is through a formal process called AfD, for “Articles for Deletion.” And the discussion often goes down the various principles listed above, frequently referred to by initials rather than by name.

That the ensuing debate is called Wikilawyering is unsurprising, as is the fact that that term itself can refer to misuse of rules to obey the letter of the Wikipedia policy while violating its intent.

But in the end, your article is likely to prevail if you have taken steps to ensure you write about notable things, cite your facts, and avoid original research and puffery. It’s a great educational process, in that way.

Hacking the legal system for reputation repair?

Eugene Volokh and Paul Alan Levy, Washington Post: Dozens of suspicious court cases, with missing defendants, aim at getting web pages taken down or deindexed. Brilliantly slimy hack of the legal system and search engine infrastructure. Google won’t take down search results without a court order? Sue an imaginary defendant with a similar name, get him to settle, and use the settlement to get the pages taken down.

Smart thermostats, dumb market

One of the things I’ve been theoretically excited about for a while in iOS land is the coming of HomeKit, the infrastructure for an Internet of Things platform for the home that includes standard controller UI and orchestration of things like smart thermostats, light bulbs, garage door openers, blinds, and other stuff.

I’ve been personally and professionally skeptical of IoT for a while now. The combination of bad UX, poor software engineering, limited upgradeability, and tight time to market smells like an opportunity for a security armageddon. And in fact, a research paper from my company, Veracode, suggests just that.

So my excitement over HomeKit has less to do with tech enthusiast wackiness and more to do with the introduction of a well thought out, well engineered platform for viewing and controlling HomeKit, that hopefully removes some of the opportunities for security stupidity.

But now the moment of truth arrives. We have a cheap thermostat that’s been slowly failing – currently it doesn’t recognize that it has new batteries in it, for instance. It only controls the heating system, so we have a few more weeks to do something about it. And I thought, the time is ripe. Let’s get a HomeKit-enabled thermostat to replace it.

But the market of HomeKit enabled thermostats isn’t very good yet. A review of top smart thermostat models suggests that Nest (which doesn’t support HomeKit and sends all your data to Google) is the best option by far. The next best option is the ecobee3, which does support HomeKit but which is $249. And the real kicker is that to work effectively, both require a C (powered) wire in the wall, which we don’t have, and an always on HomeKit controller in the house, like a fourth generation Apple TV, to perform time-based adjustments to the system.

So it looks like I’ll be investing in a cheap thermostat replacement this time, but laying the groundwork for a future system once we have a little more cash. I wanted to start working on the next-gen AppleTV soon anyway. Of course, to get that, I have to have an HDMI enabled receiver…

Exploring EPCOT’s Horizons ride from the inside

I have a new obsession: reading the archives of the Mesa Verde Times blog. This pseudonymous walkthrough of a series of surreptitious behind-the-scenes tours of the late, lamented Horizons future ride at Disney’s EPCOT is fascinating as much for the old-school blogging as it is for the actual content. Which, don’t get me wrong, is plenty fascinating, as it consists of pictures of hidden areas of the ride’s sets and maintenance areas, Easter eggs left by the ride’s designers (you’ll never guess what the designers hid in the fridge of the Desert Habitat Kitchen, next to the sausages).

Start at the beginning and read up.


Detail of Red Cannas by Georgia O'Keefe
Detail of Red Cannas by Georgia O’Keefe, Google Cultural Institute

Slashdot: Google unveils “gigapixel” camera to preserve and archive art. While certainly no replacement for museum visits, this project, which uses a robot to take hundreds of high resolution close-up images, then stitch them together into a single zoomable image, yields spectacular results.

This is what Google does best: bring the physical into the digital in new and innovative ways that make information accessible for everyone. I wish they’d stick to their knitting a little more. We could use more gigapixel art photos, digitized books and better search results, and less of some of the distractions we’ve seen from them over the past few years.