Category Archives: Rant

It’s why we all have blogs, isn’t it?

The religious right: An anti-American terrorist movement

The title says it all: The religious right: An anti-American terrorist movement. It’s a very good essay that elucidates the extremism of the Religious Right movement in America. Most Christians that I know, including my family, do not hold such views consciously, but elements of their belief system overlap with such extreme ideas and can, in the extreme, be pushed in that direction. It was for this reason, I believe, that the framers of the U.S. constitution established a system that explicitly rejects a theocracy. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be holding up very well in today’s America.

The power of blogs

Prologue 1: Let me start by encouraging you to consider using Yahoo! Search instead of Google if only for this single feature: Yahoo searches within the domain of the websites in its collection, whereas Google ignores the domain (as far as I can tell), and so Yahoo can deliver more relevant results. What does this mean? The domain is the first part of the web address, such as my www.madphilosopher.ca. So if you search for the phrase “madphilosopher” on both Google and Yahoo!, Google won’t find my site but Yahoo will. In fact, I’m currently the top hit in Yahoo!, even beating out the site www.madphilosopher.com. Maybe this isn’t important to you, but perhaps it will make your web searching more fruitful. Try it here:

Prologue 2: Okay, now that you’ve tried that, you might think I’m a total loser because the opposite of what I said actually occurred. But I swear it didn’t work this way yesterday when I was doing research for this post. That is, with Google, my site didn’t use to appear within the first 10 hits, but with Yahoo! I was number 1. Now the opposite is happening. Murphy’s Law, I guess. But I’m not the only one to have discovered this no-longer-true discovery. James Slusher wrote about this very thing back in February 2005.

All of this is to announce that I’ve switched to using Yahoo! search instead of Google for the majority of my web searches. Why? The primary reason is quite interesting. Basically, I started to read the Yahoo! Search Blog and the Google Blog. And what did I find? I found that the Google blog was surprisingly trivial. Sure, Google occasionally announced new and old features through their blog, but a lot of what they were talking about was fluff and sounded like it was being written by an airhead. Seriously. It still sounds that way to me. But Yahoo’s blog was quite serious in tone, and they wrote about technologies and partnerships that seemed to support the vision and kind of growth that I would like to see in the future Internet. Some examples of engaging content would be the post on the partnership with Wikipedia, on Wikipedia and geography, and on the partnership with the Creative Commons.

The contrast between these two blogs showed me the differences in the hearts and visions of the two search companies. Note that the choice to publish a public blog was a marketing strategy by the two. Via their blogs, Yahoo! and Google choose to communicate directly to the public, and what they talk about and how it gets said are both consciously and subconsciously determined. Yet even if what they present is merely spin, the readers of the blogs react to the content nevertheless. So for me, my reaction was a revocation of my allegiance to Google. Making that choice was a surprising outcome for me, one that I didn’t foresee when I first subscribed to the two blogs. The Cluetrain Manifesto begins by stating that markets are conversations. Certainly. And the conversations of the markets are being furthered through the use of blogs.

I think it’s time for me to go back and reread the Cluetrain Manifesto cause it’s been a few years since I first saw it. If you haven’t already, go read it for yourself. And please leave me a comment below. I’d appreciate your reaction to this weblog entry and what it says about the consequences of blogging (corporate or otherwise). I’d love to hear stories about how you’ve reacted to the blogs you read or have read in the past. Keep the conversation going. And as a teaser, let me say that I’ll have a follow-up to this entry on the power of podcasts, so expect to see that next.

CJSR should be podcasting

I just sent an email to Daryl Richel, program manager of CJSR Radio, the campus/community radio station from the University of Alberta, proposing that the station take up podcasting. Here’s the text of my letter:

Dear Daryl:

Hey, this Darren Griffith. Back in 2001/2002 I used to produce promos for Alternative Radio as a volunteer at CJSR. I’ve since moved to Beijing. I still tune in to Prairie Pickin’ when I can over the web. I love that show. 🙂

Anyway, I’m back in Edmonton on vacation and I’m sorry to say I’m not listening to the station as much because I’ve discovered podcasts on the Internet. As a radio professional, I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of this, but just in case I’ll describe it briefly. It’s an aggregation of simple ideas that allows an individual to subscribe to “radio” shows and have them downloaded over the Internet and appear in their personal mp3 player, usually overnight. For a more complete description on what it is and how it works, see this Wikipedia article on podcasting.

Now this pertains to CJSR because many radio lovers are finding that they can now personally construct their own programing and have it on demand and always with them. And once they set up the subscription, they don’t have to think about it. So they are listening less to broadcast radio.

So, perhaps the time is right for CJSR to consider podcasting some of its content. This would consist of producing mp3 files of individual shows and offering them for download, and the further step of producing an RSS feed for each show, which is the main technology of podcasting. (Don’t worry, it’s not very hard.) I realize that you currently offer mp3s of Radio Outpost for download. This show would be an excellent candidate for podcasting. The only extra step would be setting up the RSS feed that would allow podcatching clients to know when a new show appears and download it.

Basically, any content that you are licenced to offer for download could be made into a podcast. CJSR-produced news programming would be perfect for this. Music shows (or news shows that have a music intro, for example) are problematic because the licensing issues of podcasting have not been worked out yet (because it’s downloading and not Internet broadcasting).

To further my case for podcasting, I’ll mention that CBC is now doing a podcasting trial of /Nerd and Quirks & Quarks, which is really cool to think the CBC is forward-thinking enough to try this.

I hope all is well with you and the station, and I hope that you will consider using podcasting as a way to spread the great content produced at CJSR to a wider audience.

I’ll keep you readers informed of what comes of this. CJSR produces very good content, and it would be great to see it available on this new and growing distribution medium.

Copyright

The issue of copyright really hit home for me today. On my flight to Singapore, I finished reading the book Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig, and at the end, the author addresses the particular loss of freedom by library users as journals have switched from paper copies to online electronic versions. Basically, libraries make freely available to anyone the content of the printed journals that they subscribe to. But the libraries are barred from offering free access to their electronic counterparts. The reasoning behind this is certainly valid because an electronic document can be copied and distributed freely beyond the library’s (and publisher’s) control in this age of the Internet.

So in light of this, I’m thinking about the meeting I had at work today. The journal I work for is considering entering into a deal with a major scientific publisher who, for the price of the exclusive right to publish and distribute the journal (paper and electronic wise), will market our journal beyond our capacity to do so ourselves. I was presented with this news today and asked for my opinion. I am not a member of the board of directors who will make the decision, but I was approached as a foreign consultant.

The deal doesn’t sit right with me. It sounds, at first hearing, like a deal with the devil. For the price of our soul, we get a good marketing deal. The goal is to increase our circulation and hence our standing in the field of Atmospheric Science journals. I have no problem with this. But the price seems high. I am still trying to figure out if it is too high. For one, while still retaining copyright over the journal (in fact, sharing it with the publisher), the deal involves giving up our right as copyright holder to distribute the journal electronically. This means the current free offering of our articles on our website would no longer be permitted. New articles would only be available online through the publisher’s website, no doubt for a fee.

One of the issues that was raised in the meeting today was the effect this would have on our students. The journal I work for is published in house by the Institute of Atmospheric Physics. The institute has several dozen graduate students who make use of the electronic version of our articles. If this deal were to be accepted, it would be up to the students (or the institute) to purchase a subscription for the content they now enjoy for free. While I am not opposed to paying for content as a general principle, it should be clear that the students would be paying for something that is already theirs (indirectly, at least, as members of the institute).

Furthermore, Lessig’s description of the various licensing schemes of the Creative Commons License (which aims to balance the extremes of “All rights reserved” and “No rights reserved” of the current copyright system) brought the following point to mind. There is a Creative Commons license that grants free use of a copyrighted work to those in developing nations. There is also a license that specifies free educational use. This made me realize that this proposed deal with the major scientific publisher could be unfair to citizens of the People’s Republic of China, a developing nation by some standards, who are potential subscribers to the journal, and to member states of the Third World Academy of Sciences, as these two groups have smaller incomes and budgets compared to their developed counterparts. This exclusive right to publish and distribute gives the publisher the right to set the subscription rate. So it is for this reason that I feel the journal would be giving up too much of its rights in this deal. That is, would the needs of our subscribers and potential subscribers be considered by this publisher? In accepting the deal, we write ourselves out of that decision.

Perhaps there is something to be learned from the free software / open source movement. Open source software is computer code that is released under a certain license that explicitly states that all copies of the software must be distributed along with the source code (the bits of the software that are human readable that can be used to inspect and modify the software). The source code and the software are still under copyright. What is possible, though, is that the copyright owner may choose to release the source code simultaneously under different licenses that permit different uses and give different rights.

So perhaps it is possible for the journal to grant an exclusive right of distribution to this publisher while simultaneously releasing the articles under a different licensing scheme, one that encourages free academic use. I would suspect that it would not be possible for the journal to do this directly, but instead to get the authors of the articles themselves to release their work under a separate scheme. But for this, I think we would need a team of lawyers to wade through these waters safely.

Still, it feels like a deal with the devil. I guess anyone contemplating such a Faustian bargain needs to decide what their goals are—in particular, ultimate goals—and who they want to become. In light of these values so discovered, counting the cost becomes much easier.

What would you do?

Death Traps R Us

I’ve just spent two days in Hefei, doing some collaboration work with a research group at Anhui University. They’ll be building a temperature and precipitation dataset like I did for my masters degree over two years ago.

Here’s a picture of the fire exit in the hall outside of the hotel room where I stayed on campus. The double door is situated at the end of the long hallway.


[Fire Escape]

Yep, that’s right. That’s a bicycle lock threaded through the two door handles. So, when I first checked in, I thought I’d entertain myself and ask the staff to unlock the door for my safety. For one thing, the Chinese characters on the sign above the door translate into “Safety Exit”. I didn’t expect them to honour my request, but I wanted to see what would happen if I insisted. I had a good laugh when they responded by saying: “It will be less safe for you if we unlock the door.” I told my translator to tell them, “No, you’re wrong.” I should get an honourary degree in cross-cultural diplomatic relations for coming up with that one. I stood my ground for a few more minutes, but I didn’t bother getting angry. I mean, I really didn’t have to because I wasn’t taking it personally, nor did I expect them to do anything anyway. But one of the staff members involved in the conversation with the “crazy foreign devil” was smart enough to realize that a person could fit through the open doors when the lock stretched to full length. So they took me back upstairs from the front desk and we opened the two doors so that I could see that a person of my stature could fit his head, and hence his body, through the space between the two restricted doors. I told them that was good enough and that I was satisfied. Of course, I then wondered how having this more-or-less useless lock there in the first place made me “more safe”? I guess it would keep someone from sneaking a lion into my room while I was sleeping. But what about a smaller animal that was just as hungry?

Anyway, this is just a typical example of the state of fire safety in buildings in China. The lock wasn’t even a problem, really. I inspected the doors before making my request and realized that even a ten-year old could kick the doors open if necessary. All over China actually, and here in my hotel room, any windows on the first and second floors are covered by bars that are bolted to the concrete door frames. The only way to bust them open is with a moving car and a strong cable. That, or a half-stick of dynamite. (I keep a half-stick in my backpack just for this purpose!) Sometimes they even bar the windows on the third floor. Most fire exits are treated as potential entry points and are thus locked. Typically, they are used as storage closets too. In the case of the hotel, I suspect they are trying to prevent television sets and furniture from walking off. But anyway, when I hear that dozens of people die in a building fire in China, I am never surprised. Death traps are endemic despite being 100% preventable.

Yet through my little stunt in challenging the hotel staff, I didn’t actually get any closer to understanding how the Chinese think about fire safety. Well, okay, I can infer a lot from the fact that everyone who joined in the conversation burst into laughter—laughing directly at me, in fact. There was a hotel fire in my neighbourhood last month and about nine people died. So my office decided we needed to replace all the powerbars in the room (the supposed cause of the hotel fire) with brand new ones. But we still keep the doors on most floors propped open to the stairwells. (This is hazardous because smoke will spread from the floor that is on fire and prevent people on all floors from using the stairs—the only way of escape.) So I don’t have much faith in their reactionary way of doing things. It’s not going to make a lasting difference. It never does. So to the people laughing at me over the fire exit request, “See you in hell” should have been my response. It’s a literal possibility from my point of view.

I’ve finally found a company…

I had a good laugh this morning over a single quote in this Usenet post entitled THANKS SONY indeed !!! grr. The article is a very good rant on Sony’s disregard for its customers. “If the company can’t trust the customer, then why should the customer trust the company?”

The poster, David W. Poole, Jr., ends the article with the following:

NetMD software? I could write far more on this, but I hope it’s sufficient to say that I’ve finally found a company that produces shittier software than Microsoft.

Now that’s funny! Needless to say, anyone interested in fair business practices should never buy anything from either Sony or Microsoft.