Archives for category: books

In the 1980s the Internal Revenue Service underwent a controversial rebirthing. Turning away from its paper-laden, human-eye examiners, it looked to become a more automated, “noncompliance-seeking” (read: for-profit) outfit. The process, termed “the Initiative”, serves as the backdrop of Dave Foster Wallace’s self-described nonfictional memoir, The Pale King[1].

It’s also a fitting case study of why we need data journalists and good data designers.

According to DFW, the system-wide restructuring of the IRS was, obviously, massive. It affected every American and held great repercussions for business and the role of the state. But as Wallace reports, the Initiative was never investigated deeply by journalists.

Why? Despite the Initiative’s far-reaching impact, the actual material recounting the IRS’ changes was never read. But not because an extensive public record wasn’t available (it was). Rather the written proceedings, in their mountains burocratese, were so utterly mind-numbingly boring that no one could bear plowing through them. The public record was solid rock.

…one of the GS-11 Chalk Leaders in our Rote Exam group, a man of no small intuition and sensitivity, proposed an analogy between the public records surrounding the Initiative and the giant solid-gold Buddha statues that flanked certain temples in ancient Khmer. These priceless statues, never guarded or secured, were safe from theft not despite but because of their value—they were too huge and heavy to move.

This is a brilliant insight. As DFW argues, we shouldn’t underestimate government’s reliance on this very strategy, the intentional opacity of the public record to discourage journalistic investigation. Secrecy invites curiosity and scandal — yet monumental dullness will pass unexamined.

It’s striking how relevant this chapter is to the world of open data and journalism today. More and more data is being created and released. More and more journalists are expected to have data literacy. But without tools that support sensemaking and parse databases, the public record will remain unyielding and under-reported.

[1] Footnote HT to DFW.  Mid-book, he slips in an author’s forward that counters the boilerplate disclaimer publishers are legally obliged to include: “all characters and events in this book are fictitious”. Instead, Wallace asserts that nearly all of the book’s content is true, documented from his year in exile at an IRS examination center in the Midwest. You get in a nice tangle trying to sort whether his statements about the book’s authenticity, which occur after the disclaimer, are in fact subject to the blanket disclaimer about everything in the book being fiction. And so on. “Believe nothing, O monks, merely because you have been told it,” says Buddha.

Image: The Buddha King of Angkor Wat by Stuck in Customs / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The transmediale gave a lot of attention to Free Culture and the Open Web this year, from the book sprint to the Open Zone to a panel series called Lost in the Open, and piles of spontaneous sharerrorism actions throughout the festival. Curated (or should we say connected by) the talented Stephen Kovats and Ela Kagel, these events offered a platform for reflecting on sharing and collaboration through the lens of art.

Admittedly, I know next to nothing about art, but the biggest take-away from the festival was: 1) you don’t need to know much about art to try it yourself, and 2) the internet, including clusters of standards like the Web, is really important to making, distributing, critiquing, funding, and reusing art — now and in the future.

A film sprint by the Emergence Collective (Gabriel Shalom, Patrizia Kommerell, Clare Molloy, Annika Bauer) helped capture the state of the conversation. Iterating on the immediated documentation techniques pioneered by the group, they produced the film The Future of Art. This time they complemented the in-person (and one in-robot) interviews with an online discussion via the #futureofart hashtag and several Quora threads.

The team did a great job compressing 13 interviews and lots of festival footage into a thought-provoking film. After watching the screening at transmediale, it made me appreciate how challenging it must be to harmonize so many different voices. One thought, at least from an interviewee point of view, is that in advance sitting in front of the camera, it would be helpful if you could grab a sneak peek of the other conversations. At least with my non-existent art cred, it would’ve helped to know the angle other interviewees have taken and respond to their comments. In particular, Ken Wahl’s insight was excellent and very riff-able in hindsight:

The idea of originality and proprietary-ness contributes to the whole Great Man theory, which is slowly disintegrating. The concept of the genius — you know, the Freud, the Marx, the Leonardo, the Einstein — [who] come up with an idea that is completely related to the man who came up with the idea. Today, ideas just get thrown out there and used. And it’s that use in a way that’s the art, rather than the person that comes up with the idea.

While I’ve often seen the Great Man theory as a historical anomaly (albeit an enduring one since the Renaissance or thereabouts), there has always been a strong undercurrent of collaboration all throughout art and other cultural processes. Even the canonized Greats were immersed in conversations and environments that enriched (or challenged) their thinking, some of them having close friends or partners who pushed the work further, often without the same recognition.

So, it seems with the rise of massive collaborative online projects, we see a return of sorts to more distributed authorship, yet at the same time with a granularity of attribution never before possible. Each commit or edit or interaction can be logged and attributed to one source. So this gives rise to an unprecedented quantitative measure of reputation. And what’s more interesting, to follow Wahl’s point, is that the measure of contribution isn’t so valuable as the measure of reuse. A good idea is duly cited, a great idea takes flight and becomes owned by all.

(For the record, this is very much how I feel about the concept “collaborative consumption,” although it seems to be at great odds with one public proponent of the term.)

Similar sentiments were echoed in the Sharism workshop I conducted with Fabricatorz Jon Philips and Christopher Adams. Sitting in a circle (just realizing how redundant it is to say “round circle”), we raised the question about motivations and effects of sharing. Here’s a nice recap of the ground we covered.

When one participant asked whether sharing excludes people without wealth and means, it was countered that in fact one of the greatest things to give is one’s attention and willingness to listen, learn, and contribute. A conclusion was then that sharing is often, in its most profound form, an immaterial gift. And so rather than getting bent up about direct remuneration for each and every act of sharing (which quickly dissolves into a quid pro quo “business model” crisis), it’s actually not insane to talk about sharing holistically and karmically.

This is where I sometimes feel the need to run around in tie-dye and chant, but for all it’s cheesiness, it’s actually a powerful idea. And one that gets lost sometimes in the noble trenches of the copyfight…though the sunshine is not meant to downplay the importance of remuneration and viable use cases. I care about those and empirical support for them quite a lot.

It also seems like I shared enough today, so with that — curious to hear your thoughts!

In November, Amazon won a few good enemies by scrapping public domain texts from Project Gutenberg’s database, wrapping them in DRM, and then selling the books without a cent or a thank you to the project they’re ripped from.

Is this legal? Yes. Is it ethical? I don’t think it is,” commented Project Gutenberg CEO Greg Newby about the maneuver.

In response to this shady practice, and because it’s fun to riff on these things and learn how to make stuff, Skandle buddies ℝ & ⁋ (also of fame) partnered up with me (ӎ) to deliver:

The Skandle

The Skandle is a free software project that uses a scanner and a laptop to bypass Amazon’s DRM — by scanning Kindle pages one by one, cleaning up the images, and converting the file into plain text.

The resulting plain text version of the book can then be modified, adapted, and shared freely. The text can’t expire or be deleted by a private company. It can’t be controlled by obscure terms of service that chip away your rights or try to lock you into a manufacturer’s empire.

Amazon’s Digital Restriction Management (DRM) is a system designed to take away rights you would typically have when reading a book.

Digital Restriction Management

Normally, after you read a physical book, you can give it to a friend or sell it. Not so with a Kindle book. Kindle’s DRM is designed explicitly to prevent sharing. This is a legal and technical battleground. Amazon can remotely delete books from your device, as it did during an infamous 1984 recall.

Amazon uses DRM and a proprietary format (AZW) in an attempt to lock you into its distribution model. It wants you to buy from their ecosystem alone, and it won’t allow you to change providers or move your bookshelf without their approval. The price you pay for this “convenience” is restrictions on your rights and coercion to hand over personal data linked to reading habits and purchasing practices.

The Analog Hole

Computer security systems can be described as a method of delivering a message from a sender to a receiver, while not allowing the message to be read by an attacker. The reason DRM systems aren’t generally effective is because the end user, in this model, is both the “receiver” and the “attacker.” This paradox is demonstrated especially well by exploits of the so-called analog hole.

The term “analog hole” describes the idea at the end of the day, the user has to actually see or hear the content that DRM systems are trying to restrict. No matter how many digital fences are put up along the way, the last stage has to be something that can be perceived by a human being, and thus just as well by a camera, scanner or microphone. For this reason, attempts to close the analog hole end up making content less usable.

The Skandle exploits the fact that Kindle books are easy to read on the screen. And if they’re easy for us to read, they’re really easy for a computer to read.

Our Skandle

We used an HP PSC 2410 and a Thinkpad running Ubuntu 10.10. Decisions were made with portability in mind, so it should run with a little tweaking on plenty of other platforms.

You can check out to see how to make your own.

“As much as we love the open Web, we’re abandoning it.”
—Chris Anderson, WIRED Magazine

The Web was meant to be Everything. As the Internet as a whole assumes an increasingly commanding role as the technology of global commerce and communication, the World Wide Web from its very inception was designed to be a free and open medium through which human knowledge is created, accessed and exchanged. But, that Web is in danger of coming to a close. This book shows what is happening and how you can play an important role in keeping the web open.

An Open Web was written in 5 days by 6 collaborators. Zero to book in 5 days. It was an intensive process and loads of fun. You can also participate by improving the book and and keeping it alive!  All edits are welcome! The Book Sprint was held in Berlin January 17-21 2011, sponsored by Transmediale and FLOSS Manuals and the CHB.

Read the HTML version.

Read the ePub version.

Order the printed book.


I’m locked in a room with six crazed writers to crank out an ambitious publication, “An Open Web.” The sprint, facilitated by Adam Hyde of FLOSS Manuals and commissioned by the transmediale, sits in the penthouse of the window/screen-filled Bauhaus property of Collegium Hungaricum Berlin (“Berlin is too important to leave to the Germans,” explains its director János Can Togay).

We’re struggling to define the (open) Web and to make it a compelling topic for a general audience, typified by an iStockphoto image of someone we’re generically referring to as “the Dude.”

It’s turning out to be a good challenge. We’ve made the key design decision to create an outline that carries our thesis in the chapter titles alone. If you can get what we have to say just by reading the table of contents, we’ve done a good job. The goal of the rest of the book is now to back up each of the bold title statements.

I’m hacking on “The Future is Open” chapter, wherein I attempt to argue that the Web as already enabled innumerable successes in a diverse range of fields (education, science, the arts, democracy) and furthermore make the claim that, if it remains open, we’ll see continue to see this and more.

I’m not doing the best job highlighting various online darlings and linking the causation to the Web. As we get stricter with our definition (a huge debate in itself), it’s harder to map the enabler of certain projects. Could Wikipedia have happened without the Web? If not, what part of the Web was critical to its growth? The same question could be asked in many fields. We’re not talking about a mirage of Twitter Revolutions, so what about the Web, as opposed to other internet technologies, fostered civic engagement and democracy? Some of these cases become slippery to pin down.

After a late dinner break and wine-drinking, we pulled up Chris Anderson’s extremely controversial (and self-serving) article, The Web is Dead. In it he argues that the recent trends towards tether appliances and app stores is reinforced by our purchases. “Openness is a wonderful thing in the nonmonetary economy of peer production. But eventually our tolerance for the delirious chaos of infinite competition finds its limits,” Anderson speculates.”Much as we love freedom and choice, we also love things that just work, reliably and seamlessly. And if we have to pay for what we love, well, that increasingly seems OK.”

Is this right? Well, there’s some truth to the veiled point that open stuff needs better user interfaces. Igor has made this fantastic point before: when open technologies don’t work and don’t develop better interfaces, users go elsewhere. Open has to compete with good design and stellar user experiences. We’re seeing a strong signal of this from the tidal rush to dumb-downed devices. But there is no reason why open can’t be beautiful and easy to use. It’s a challenge, and open projects do need more designers and talented people who can create simple yet powerful environments. The Web needs all sorts of people talking about their preferences and lending expertise to making the technology what they want and deserve.

But what else is it about the Anderson piece that is inflaming? Well, his conflation of openness and the possibility of payment, for starters. And his uncouth product placement later in the article (“check out Wired’s cool new iPad app!”). I guess the graph he touted has received a thorough bashing, too.

Still, rather than being reactionary, we’re working through positive statements about the Web. We’ll be talking about rights that users have (the right to enter, participate, and exit; the right to control your data), and we’ll be talking about key battlegrounds (devices, browsers, standards). Joi Ito’s brilliant Open Stack will provide a lot of backbone to our arguments.

I’m so curious to see where this book takes us. I’m already learning a lot and more than pushing up against the limits of my knowledge. If folks are keen to help out, create an account at FLOSS Manuals and dig in. We could use the help!

There’s a forthcoming book on open design curated by Premsela, Dutch Platform for Design and Fasion, Waag Society and Creative Commons Netherlands in partnership with FabLab. Groundwork for Open Design Now was laid during the DMY Maker Lab and later at a workshop in Amsterdam; both of which I delightfully attended. The book previewed recently at PICNIC, and now the text is in full iteration and will hit the publisher soon. It’ll showcase some stellar examples of open design, as well as provide background and a critical perspective of the years to come in the field.

While we wait, I wanted to share an excerpt I found to be a very simple yet sharp metaphor for “IP-theft” versus the positive messaging of sharing and Creative Commons licenses. The quotation comes from Dr. Peter Troxler’s profile of Open Design founding father, Ronen Kadushin. Ronen will probably hate me that phrase. ^_^

Let’s say you have a good bicycle. You like it, so you buy a really nice lock for it. If a thief wants to take this bicycle, it doesn’t matter how good your lock is, he will find a way to take your bicycle. And this is exactly the same with intellectual property. I’m not saying that I’m leaving my bicycles without a lock; [my work] has a lock. But the lock says, “Hey, you want to ride this and give it back when you’re finished?” You know, because you can have a ride, but if you want to buy it, I will sell the bike to you [Ronen releases most of his works under BY-NC-SA]. If you want to produce it, I will let you do it. But there are many more options. People should be straight and honest about it.

Speaking of locks, at Ronen’s latest exhibition, Recent Uploads, Parker and I hatched a fun art project: why not DIY scan a Kindle ebook? You know, purchase a DRM-wrapped text of your choice, set up the Kindle on a flatbed scanner, and just rip, mix, burn your way through it. There’s a difference between locks that say no and locks that say please treat me nicely.

Wikipedia edit wars provide a unique glimpse into the burning topics (and spelling grudges) of thousands of people. As Wikipedia becomes increasingly established as the go-to reference work online, these edit wars help demonstrate the dynamics of the site and highlight a drafting process that lives and thrives from debate.

A weighty example of a truly dedicated edit war comes from the German Wikipedia over the controversy of a tower in Vienna. The discussion pages, when printed in this neat Pediapress edition, are 440 pages long.

Interested in other heated debates? Information is Beautiful shares their summary of the “lamest” Wikipedia edit wars since 2003 (via @antischokke).

Traditional book production time lines are normally measured in months and years. Book Sprints produce comparable content in 2-5 days.

The Transmediale Book Sprint: Write a book with us!

Topic: Free Culture
Jan 18-22, Berlin & online
Info Session (optional):  Jan. 12, 13:00h @ St. Oberholz

In 5 days, we’ll write a full, ready-print book about Free Culture — with your help!

Sound impossible? It’s not. Find out from the *only* people in the world experimenting with this method and see the (free) software they have built to support collaborative authoring and Book Sprints.

As an example, the How to Bypass Internet Censorship book was written in 5 days. The sprint brought eight people together from around the world. We started work on the text at 9:00 AM Monday and finished with a beer on Friday at 6:00PM. At that moment, with the click of a button, we generated the book-ready source files and uploaded them to the print-on-demand service. 220 page book finished in 5 days.

The Introduction to the Command Line was also produced in a Book Sprint and has been described by Free Software Foundation Board Members as the best book on the topic. The really unusual part of this books story is that it was written by 20 people all working remotely, collaborating to make a 280 page book in just 2 days. Come find out how it works and how to participate.

Info Session: Transmediale Book Sprint on Free Culture.

Where: Cafe St. Oberholz
When: Jan. 12 at 13:00h

More info:

Image: FLOSSify – Digital Foundations Book Sprint, February 2009 by /


“For the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things.”

Join us on Sept. 22 for a public reading of Makers, the new serialized novel by hacktivist and BoingBoing author Cory Doctorow, as part of the Berlin festival Atoms & Bits.

What happens when hardware hackers get tangled up with microfinancing venture capitalists in the aftermath of the financial crisis? The answer: a fast-paced witty novel whose ending the public doesn’t even know. That’s because the book’s author, free culture advocate and geek writer extraordinaire Cory Doctorow, hasn’t published it all yet. The hardcover hits bookstores this October, but in the meantime, publisher Tor is releasing Makers tidbit by tantalizing tidbit.

We’re organizing a public reading of the book’s juicer excerpts. Performers are welcome, so if you’d like to entertain a friendly crowd with your rendition, please let a comment! Betahaus’ Christoph and DIY Masters student Pippa are already rehearsing (thank you!), and we’d love to have more of you take part. Update: Jay Cousins will join us as well. Cool!

The reading will fire up the Berliner festival on making and doing, Atoms & Bits. Since we’ll be spending the week glorifying DIY culture, openness, co-working, and the creative spirit, Doctorow’s novel will help set the tone and remind us of concepts like the Maker’s Bill of Rights: if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.

Drop a line if you’d like to do some reading yourself, else see you on Sept. 22 at 20:00 at our tentative location in Neukölln’s own maker hub, Studio 70.

Also, if you’re interested in innovative publishing models, check out the Creative Commons case study on Doctorow and the author’s Forbes interview about “giving it away”.

Cover art: Sorry, I couldn’t find the attribution information for the cover art. If you know, please help a gal out. ^_^