The cultural significance of Free Software

Finding new books is always exiting and I am looking forward to reading Two Bits: The cultural significance of Free Software by Christopher M. Kelty

Free Software is a set of practices devoted to the collaborative creation of software source code that is made openly and freely available through an unconventional use of copyright law. Kelty shows how these specific practices have reoriented the relations of power around the creation, dissemination, and authorization of all kinds of knowledge after the arrival of the Internet. Two Bits also makes an important contribution to discussions of public spheres and social imaginaries by demonstrating how Free Software is a “recursive public” public organized around the ability to build, modify, and maintain the very infrastructure that gives it life in the first place.

My only concern so far was that in the beginning of the book I found the sentence: This is a book about Free Software, also known as Open Source Software, and is meant for anyone who wants to understand the cultural significance of Free Software.

It is always disconcerting when people mix up free and open source software – to many the difference may not be important but when someone writes a book about the subject they should know that these are not synonymous terms. Despite this after browsing through the book – it looks very promising.

The book is available under a Creative Commons license (by-nc-sa) and can be downloaded from the book website.

War on photography

There has been some really weird stuff happening to photographers. The mood is growing against public photo takers are being hassled by police. The idea is that taking photo’s in public is becoming more and mote connected to terrorism.

Schneier on security writes:

Since 9/11, there has been an increasing war on photography. Photographers have been harrassed, questioned, detained, arrested or worse, and declared to be unwelcome. We’ve been repeatedly told to watch out for photographers, especially suspicious ones. Clearly any terrorist is going to first photograph his target, so vigilance is required.

Except that it’s nonsense. The 9/11 terrorists didn’t photograph anything. Nor did the London transport bombers, the Madrid subway bombers, or the liquid bombers arrested in 2006. Timothy McVeigh didn’t photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The Unabomber didn’t photograph anything; neither did shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Photographs aren’t being found amongst the papers of Palestinian suicide bombers. The IRA wasn’t known for its photography. Even those manufactured terrorist plots that the US government likes to talk about — the Ft. Dix terrorists, the JFK airport bombers, the Miami 7, the Lackawanna 6 — no photography.

Given that real terrorists, and even wannabe terrorists, don’t seem to photograph anything, why is it such pervasive conventional wisdom that terrorists photograph their targets? Why are our fears so great that we have no choice but to be suspicious of any photographer?

Because it’s a movie-plot threat.

He develops this as an interesting theory. Read the rest here

Women in Science

The numbers differ between the disciplines but there is a basic sad truth in academia and that is that the higher up you climb the less women are left. Anna Kushnir writes in Wired:

Take my graduate school for example: My class was made up of eight people — seven women and one man, or 7 to 1. He was Snow White and we were the seven dwarves — each with a remarkably appropriate nickname. I was Grumpy, should you be curious to know.

Snow White and at least four of the dwarves have continued on to postdoctoral research jobs. That is a 4 to 3 ratio of women who went on to do a post-doc to those that chose alternate career paths.

Everything is adding up so far, right? Lots of women are around. Lots of science is being done. All is well.

The next set of numbers is slightly puzzling, however. That is the ratio of female to male professors in our department, at a well-respected academic institution, is 48 to 7 men to women.

Interesting reversal, isn’t it? We go from 7 to 1 in grad school to roughly 1 to 7 in professorships.

There are plenty of reasons and explanations but none that adequately explain the whole process. One of the reasons is that, unfortunately, academia for a long time been a boys club where girls are not welcome. This is a really silly reason but who said that professors were not silly?

Calvin & Hobbes G.R.O.S.S. club (get rid of slimy girls)
by Bill Watterson

Data retention is pointless violation

Not only is data retention a potential violation of civil liberties but it now may turn out to be pointless according to the Max-Planck-Institute for Criminal Law. (via Gisle Hannemyr)

A report (PDF) from Max-Planck-Instituts für Strafrecht about data rentention was recently featured in and the online edition of Der Spiegel. Below is a summary in English.

According to the study, the logging and retention of certain telecomminications traffic data for six months that was made compulsory in Germany in January 2008 will only have mariginal effect and traffic data will be of use in as little as 0.002 % of the total number of criminal cases. This is within the marigin of statistical error and the annual variation in criminal cases solved is one hundered times greater.

This finding corresponds to estimates from Bundeskriminalamts, who in a separate study from the summer of 2007 says that data retention will incease the percentage of solved crimes “from 55 percent today to, at most, 55.006 percent.”

The Max-Planck study also shows an exponential increase in use of traffic data by law enforcement, from 5000 queries in year 2000 to about 41000 in the year 2005 (see summary and figures on pages 77, 90, and 402 in the report). In Bayern traffic data queries increased by 60 percent from 2006 to 2007 according to this report.

With respect to types of crime, 50 percent of IP-address queries concerns fraud and 25 percent concerns copyright violations. The argument that traffic data are needed to prevent terrorism is not supported by the statistics.

The study also warns about dangers from abuse due to unauthorized access to the stored data by inside or outside agents at well as the potential to use such data for “strategic surveillance” of large segments of the population.

Are we secure yet?

Thankfully the term “war on terrorism” seems to have fallen out of fashion. Unfortunately the threat of terrorism is being used to systematically and creatively remove civil liberties. At some point a society must ask itself if the security needed to prevent terrorism is in itself an act of terrorism and repression.

Unfortunately all the silliness is not confined to high government (even though a lot of the silliness originates from there). In times of tension the wacko’s, weirdo’s and sociopaths step forward and fill the lower levels of the security system. These are the working stiffs in the security system. Heady with power and filled with self importance they are responsible for degrading ordinary people all in the name of terrorism and security. In reality it’s all for their own little ego’s.

You think I may be exaggerating?  Then give me some better explanations for these:

A man trying to fly British Airways to Dusseldorf was told that he could not board the plane wearing the t-shirt he had on. The offending t-shirt had a picture of Megatron (a 40 foot tall cartoon robot with a gun as an arm).

In Canada (Kelowna Airport, British Columbia) a PhD student was not allowed to board the plane because she wore a necklace with a pendant in the shape of a gun (a silver classic Colt45, under two inches in length with no moving parts) story and photo here.

A classic example of misguided airport security in relation to clothes is Raed Jarrar’s experience at JFK where he was forced to take off a shirt with Arabic writing on it or miss his flight; new BBC article. The story upset many people but inspired some: You can now buy t-shirts from Casual Disobedience with text “I am not a terrorist” in Arabic. I bought one and it is among my favorites.

Another classic is when John Gilmore was refused carriage by British Airways recently for declining to take off a button that read “Suspected Terrorist”.

These are only examples relating to clothes or jewelry in relation to airport security – there are plenty of stories of offending clothing (political, not sexual) that have got people detained or arrested. I think I need to develop this into a full length article…

Digital Culture book

The book Structures of Participation in Digital Culture is now available for download for free. Here is a part of the blurb:

Structures of Participation in Digital Culture, …explores digital technologies that are engines of cultural innovation, from the virtualization of group networks and social identities to the digital convergence of textural and audio-visual media. User-centered content production, from Wikipedia to YouTube to Open Source, has become the emblem of this transformation, but the changes run deeper and wider than these novel organizational forms…

The contents include some familiar and some unfamiliar names and a lot of chapters that seem worth reading, take a look at this:

  • The Past and the Internet (Geoffrey Bowker),
  • History, Memory, Place, and Technology: Plato’s Phaedrus Online (Gregory Crane),
  • Other Networks: Media Urbanism and the Culture of the Copy in South Asia (Ravi Sundaram),
  • Pirate Infrastructures (Brian Larkin),
  • Technologies of the Childhood Imagination: Yu-Gi-Oh!, Media Mixes, and Everyday Cultural Production (Mizuko Ito),
  • Pushing the Borders: Player Participation and Game Culture (T. L. Taylor),
  • None of This Is Real: Identity and Participation in Friendster (danah boyd),
  • Notes on Contagious Media (Jonah Peretti),
  • Picturing the Public (Warren Sack),
  • Toward Participatory Expertise (Shay David),
  • Game Engines as Open Networks (Robert F. Nideffer),
  • The Diablo Program (Doug Thomas),
  • Disciplining Markets in the Digital Age (Joe Karaganis),
  • Price Discrimination and the Shape of the Digital Commodity (Tarleton Gillespie),
  • The Ecology of Control: Filters, Digital Rights Management, and Trusted Computing (Joe Karaganis).

Download the Entire Book

Professionals and amateurs

The distinction between professional and amateurs within many cultural fields is rapidly evaporating. Without being negative towards the amazing professionals out their I would just like to point to the many resources where amateurs are sharing material as a proof of the great work being done for love rather than money.

So what is the difference between a professional and an amateur? This is actually a tricky question which is usually fobbed off with the response that professionals get paid for their work or professionals live off their work. But this is problematic since it says nothing of the quality of the work.

Also many of us do more than what we are paid for – does this mean that we are unprofessional? Van Gogh was a painter but he could not support himself… does this mean he was an amateur? Another question is whether it is better to be an amateurish professional, a brilliant amateur or a maybe even a professional amateur?

One of my photos was published in a magazine recently (ok so it was the university staff magazine) does this mean I can call myself a professional? Should this title come from one lucky shot or the hundreds of photographs that I am more proud of?

Zero Privacy in UK

The Times has an article on the recent proposal has been put forward in England to create a massive government database holding details of every phone call, e-mail and time spent on the internet by the public.

Naturally this is all being done in the effort to fight crime and terrorism. Against what? Systems such as these are massive threats against democracy and weaken the whole legitimacy of government. Unfortunately instead of kicking and screaming most people still seem to believe that as long as they have nothing to hide then total surveillance is not a problem.

As if nothing bad ever happens to innocent people…

Passionate scientists

Explaining what scientists do is complex, and it doesn’t get easier if you are one of those scientists who hasn’t got a lab coat. Occasionally, when asked, I just say that I am a teacher which everyone “gets” and has an easy, positive relation to.

Peter Medawar wrote in Pluto’s Republic that:

Scientists are people of very dissimilar temperaments doing different things in very different ways. Among scientists are collectors, classifiers and compulsive tidiers-up; many are detectives by temperament and many are explorers; some are artists and others artisans. There are poet-scientists and philosopher-scientists and even a few mystics.

I love this quote and use it regularly in my teaching. But there is one factor which unites many scientists across different scientific disciplines and that is passion – most scientists are passionate about what they do (some maybe a bit too much)

A nice example of the passion science inspires among its practitioners (yes we are proud to be geeky) is represented in Carl Zimmer’s Science Tattoo Emporium:

Underneath their sober lab coats and flannel shirts, scientists hide images of their scientific passions. Here they are revealed to all.

Only a truely passionate person would get tattoos such as these


This is a formula called the Y Combinator. It is a fixed-point combinator in the lambda calculus and was discovered by Haskell Curry, a rather prolific mathematician and logician whose work helped start Computer Science.

“What this formula does is calculates the fixed point of a function, which in turn allows for recursion by calling on that fixed point; recursion is perhaps the single most important concept in Computer Science. Being a computer scientist and a mathematician, this formula is very important to me and represents the innate beauty of computer science and mathematical logic.” –Mark

…and only those who share a passion (but no the subject) understand and enjoy them!