Archive for the ‘tech’ Category

Aaron Swartz, open access, and why bother

Monday, December 15th, 2014

By way of recap: for the past four years I’ve been Boston University’s institutional repository librarian. I’m writing this as a private citizen, but since this post is about why I do what I do, it’s relevant.

I spent the evening knitting. It’s hard to convey how rarely I get an opportunity to just sit and knit. Between the full time, bursting at the seams job and the child and the household, I don’t just sit down and knit. I don’t just sit down and do anything. But there’s a holiday gifting idea in my bonnet, so here we are.

Along with knitting, I finally watched The Internet’s Own Boy. It’s 1h45m long. Since you’re reading this blog post on the internet, if you haven’t already seen this documentary about Aaron Swartz, you should. I’m allergic to telling people they “should” do anything—but you should. It directly affects the rest of your life, and all the ones that follow.

It’s not even worth trying to recap Aaron Swartz, but here are some highlights. He was intimately involved in the creation of Reddit, Demand Progress, the RDF standard, and Creative Commons, among too many other initiatives to list. He had a history of making information publicly available—including court documents that were public in the first place, but for which PACER charged obscene amounts of money, effectively making the most comprehensive documentation of the U.S. justice system inaccessible to entire socio-economic classes of people.

Swartz also contributed a big-data analysis of the Westlaw database to a study at Stanford that revealed widespread corruption in law publishing. (That article doesn’t credit him, but I’ll give Kahle and Lessig the benefit of the doubt.)

In 2011 Swartz was a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, about which then-director Lawrence Lessig wrote: “The work of the Center? Studying the corruption of academic research (among other institutions) caused by money.” Whether he decided to download massive numbers of academic research articles from JSTOR for research purposes, or political-activist ones, or both, will remain unknown. But download them he did, by the tens of gigabytes, using MIT’s network.

This should be review for you, so I will only highlight what happened next. Swartz got caught; MIT, JSTOR, the state of Massachusetts, and the FBI’s cyber crimes division got involved. The state and JSTOR brought charges against him, which were later dropped. The federal government brought a lawsuit containing four charges against Swartz; the number of charges was later expanded to thirteen. They offered a number of plea deals, all of which would have involved pleading guilty to a felony, and all of which Swartz refused to take. In January of 2013, Aaron killed himself.

The documentary dives far further into the messy complexity of this. The interviewees include Lessig, Tim Berners-Lee, Quinn Norton, the Swartz family, Brewster Kahle, and numerous other collaborators. The film has a decidedly political stance from the beginning, but makes a convincing argument about the powers involved in the struggles around freedom of information on the internet. This argument is unsympathetic towards the U.S. government, specifically the Obama administration, and with good reason. At the same time as this administration has failed to prosecute what the film calls the biggest crime of our time, the Wall Street machinations that led to the economic collapse, they chose to prosecute the hell out of a young activist researcher in order to make an example of him. Plenty of other damning activity, legislative and otherwise, let’s see: SOPA/PIPA, TPP, NSA spying, net neutrality vs tiered internet access — you haven’t been living under a rock, you know this is a problem.

Now imagine the mainstream media’s coverage of the recent police murders of Black men (and women, and children) being the only thing to which the entire country, the entire world had access. Could the current iteration of the civil rights movement (and it is that) have flared up if the internet were openly censored by the U.S. government, instead of merely by commercial interests?

Enabling open access to academic literature is the way that I’ve chosen to contribute to addressing this dangerous interlocking tangle. In conversations with faculty I usually emphasize other true things: there are individual professional advantages for them, of making their work openly accessible. Increased citation, increased serendipitous opportunities for collaboration and presenting, an establishment of their public voice much earlier in their careers than was possible only 20 years ago, increased opportunities for peer review—all of these are true and valid, and come with the nice side effect of encouraging faculty to learn more about copyright, and how to retain and exercise it in a way that most benefits their purpose, which (stop the presses) publishers often de-prioritize in favor of profit. Helping to fix the thoroughly broken academic publishing system, and maximizing benefits of knowledge dissemination for individual researchers, is a great service to us all.

But that exists alongside, and does not nullify, knowledge workers’ civic obligation to disseminate the fruits of our research in a way that benefits the largest number of people. It benefits the workers, yes—but it also benefits humanity in ways we can never predict. The documentary describes one case of a high school kid coming up with an early detection test for pancreatic cancer, but there are others, and their possibility is precluded by toll access to the results of previous research. In cases where marketplace profits have been all but exhausted (most of everything ever created), retaining millions of articles behind $35-per-item paywalls when they’ve already been digitized, and the expenses of that are recouped, is nonsensical. Seriously, what would be possible if all our recorded knowledge were digitally accessible to everyone? What problems would we be able to address?

Open access (OA) issues and a more proactive approach to copyright are still met with overall researcher indifference, and this is frustrating given how closely aligned OA is with things (like careers and social justice issues) they more consciously care about. Likewise with administrators, so many of whom are surprised to find OA topics directly relevant to their work. I think it’s worth the trouble for all knowledge workers to become knowledgeable in open access and copyright issues, both for personal benefit, and for the benefit of everyone else. And for all of us, it is worth periodically reminding ourselves the consequences of not working toward open access.

Here’s that documentary again. For all its white-affluent-male-ness, it’s worth watching. Thanks for reading.

I would write more, but technology fails me.

Monday, May 11th, 2009

So, I’d like to write more, but that would involve writing from home, and there’s this problem. My computer (and only my computer; this isn’t a network problem as far as I can tell) just won’t see this site. What it sees is the old site, on the old server, and with the default WordPress styling to boot, not with my customized styling.

My work computer sees the gray-palletted Dreamhost-ed site; my phone sees the same; my home computer sees the old one. I’ve tried emptying cache in all of my browsers, but no dice. What are some other things I might try?

hello, the world!

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

My phone is back. I’ve lost some IMs, some budget updates and… that’s it. Tonight, I back up my computer.

How to replace your lost iPhone (aka, Don’t Listen to the Customer Service Reps)

Monday, January 19th, 2009

(If you’re looking for concise instructions as to how to deal with replacing your own lost iPhone, scroll down to the bottom.)

OK, so I lost my phone yesterday. This is full of suck on a completely subjective scale, but on a grander scale it’s, well. It’s a trifle. It did add an unpleasant dimension to a long, long drive across half of Massachusetts in the middle of the night in the sleeting slush. But it also gave me an opportunity to practice non-attachment, learn whatever lessons I’m supposed to learn, and all those other things I’m slowly cultivating.

(The main lesson, by the way: don’t drive in inclement freezy weather with the phone in your lap, particularly not when you’re tired and won’t notice the phone falling into the snow when you stop to get ice off your windshield wipers.)

This morning I looked through my things again, realized that the iPhone hadn’t magically reappeared, and decided to bite the bullet and replace it. Logged into my account on the AT&T site, checked out my options, and saw that I could get a new 8GB iPhone for $399. Wait, hold on a second. I got it for $199 in the first place, what gives? OH! That wasn’t Apple lowering its price, that was AT&T subsidizing my purchase lo those months ago! New thing learned. Well, damn.

But wait! A refurbished 8GB iPhone is $199, and Apple requires a two-year commitment for that. I’m ok with refurbished, and with the two years. So I call up customer service on Skype, hoping that maybe they’d tell me I can order it and then go to one of the local stores to pick it up, if they have one in stock.

The customer service rep outlines my options, which are different from what I’m seeing on the web. Here are my options as Christopher Estepa (ultimately a great, patient and thorough rep) gave them:

– get a new phone for $399; same phone number, no contract extension;

– get the refurb phone for $199, but that requires a new contract, with a new phone line, and my existing phone line is still under contract until mid-2010, so I’d be paying for two phone lines; or

– get a very basic Nokia phone for $40 and wait until December, when I’ll be eligible for the $199 “upgrade” price.

I’m listening to him outline my options, and I’m furious. First it was completely unclear that getting my phone last year for $199 was only made possible by AT&T’s subsidy. Then they’re telling me that I can pay twice as much for a new phone, but that there’s no way at all to get a refurbished phone for the price the web gives and use it with my existing phone line. There’s no technical reason for this, so I keep insisting that this all feels like a swindle to me.

OK, says Mr. Estepa, let’s have you try to get that refurb online and see what happens. He believes that this will result in my getting a new phone line. But that’s not how it looks from here: last night/this morning when I tried to see if this was for real and started the checkout process, my existing phone number featured prominently on the order form. Like this:

So not only do I have no indication as to this being a contract for a new line, the web is suggesting that I’m still operating within the line I currently use. In addition, while I was still in the shopping cart, the following was part of the disclaimer section: “Your first month’s statement will include a one-time activation fee (unless waived), prorated monthly charge, as well as one month’s charge in advance. If you are keeping an existing plan, the monthly fees you already pay will not be reflected in the shopping cart.” Again, no indication that this is a contract for a new line.

So I add the phone to my online shopping cart, go to checkout. Then we spend something like 45 minutes filling out two web forms.

The first screen I get asks me for my contact info and the shipping info. I enter in various configurations of what they have on file and my work address for shipping, and keep getting redirected to the same page without any error messages. Not OK. Finally figure it out: ALL of the information has to be the same stuff that they have on file for me. I can’t just choose to have it shipped to work. And if it auto-fills in 999-999-9999 for the contact phone number, I should leave that alone since that’s what they have on file and the system horks if I put in an actual number.

Fine, I get through that screen. The next screen asks me for my SSN and date of birth for a credit check. Aha! says the rep. We don’t do that unless you’re getting a new account. Um, ok, so what do I do, and what about the evidence above that suggests I’m not getting a new phone line? Well, he says, let’s try this anyway. Fine, so I enter the credit check info (yes, on a secure website, and at that point, damned if I was not going to try to complete the transaction). On the same screen, I enter the billing address and the credit card info. The total is $208.95, including tax.

I place the order. He says something to the effect of, well, what do you know. He claims that he’d been confused earlier, and that the second option above (new contract, new phone line, still responsible for the old phone line) was for a new, not refurbished, phone. We were talking for over an hour, and I’m generally skeptical of this. My short-term memory isn’t that bad. However, refurbs only apparently became available in December, again according to him, and it just seemed that the information as to how they’re handled hadn’t propagated. Not that that’s an excuse, but given how helpful he was in general, he gets the benefit of the doubt here.

I get the confirmation email, which has some ambiguous language: “Your order may be subject to AT&T eligibility and credit requirements. If we have any questions about your eligibility or your order, we will contact you via email.” Mr. Estepa assures me that what they’re actually checking is that I haven’t purchased any additional phones at a discount. They only let you do this once, apparently, so that people don’t keep buying new-to-them phones and reselling them illegally. Fair enough, although have I mentioned there’s no insurance available for the iPhone?

So I’m expecting to receive this in the next few days. Email says it’ll ship in 2-5 business days, and 2-day FedEx is free. I’ll update if it doesn’t work, but at this point it should. To sum up:

Lost your iPhone? Here’s how to replace it with a refurbished one for less money:

0. Please note that these instructions are most useful for those who are not eligible for a phone upgrade. If you are, you can get a non-refurbished phone for $199. Or so They say.

1. Log onto your account at

2. In the Phone/Device section mid-window, click on “check upgrade options”

3. Next to the device you’re replacing, click Upgrade Today

4. From the long list of phones, choose the one you want. As of today’s writing, the 8GB refurbs are $199, and the 16GB refurbs are $299.

5. Go to your cart. Make sure that, at the top of the cart, below your name, it says: “Upgrade: [your city/state/zip] | [your current phone number]”

6. Check out. Make sure that the contact info is the one they have on file for you, and that the shipping address is the same address. It seems, if you want it shipped elsewhere (like, say, to work), your input won’t get accepted. If any phone numbers are pre-filled in with all 9s, leave them be like that.

7. If any of that doesn’t work and you have to speak to customer service, you can use Skype for free to dial toll-free U.S. numbers from within the U.S. (Usually it costs money to use Skype to call actual phones.) If the service rep tells you this price isn’t right, invite them to log into your account and look at the long phone price list with you.

That should do it. If there’s something I’m missing, let me know and I’ll supplement.

psa: no phone for a few days

Monday, January 19th, 2009

I lost my phone on the highway. Don’t ask.

I’m getting a new phone shipped to me; given that it’s a refurb I couldn’t just walk in and get one in a store. It’ll take a few days.

No phone until further notice! Email, comment, etc. I love you all. In fact, I love you so much that I’ll write down all the information you need to get a replacement refurbished iPhone for $200 (8GB) without having to pay for a whole new phone line, even though the customer service reps say you can’t. (!!) I will write it after I eat breakfast, at 1pm this glorious Martin Luther King, Jr. Day morning.

digitizing old media

Friday, January 2nd, 2009

Do I know anyone local who has VHS-to-(eventually)-DVD and/or cassette-to-c0mput3r transferring capabilities? And is either willing to loan equipment or doesn’t mind me coming to them?

I know there are Services out there. I’d like to avoid using Services, mostly for financial reasons.

geekyQ: wordpress- and domain-hosting

Friday, December 26th, 2008

So, I’m transferring off of its current server… um, somewhere else. It’d be nice if the somewhere else was particularly adept at hosting WordPress. There are several recommendations at, and I’ve heard good things about a couple of them, but then I’ve also read some abysmal reviews of both. So, Reader, if you have opinions on Blue Host, DreamHost, MediaTemple, HostICan, and/or Laughing Squid, I’d love to hear them. [on Words’ End, not on LJ] Bonus points if you are using WordPress as the backbone of your site.

The things I care about are uptime and responsiveness to problems. Auto-install and upgrade of WordPress are a big help (really, the install is the important thing), but that is less important than either of the first two. I don’t need a huge amount of space. Good privacy policy is paramount – i.e., if their TOS say “we can monitor you at any time for any reason, and will likely allow law enforcement to snoop around without a warrant,” we’re probably not made for each other. Yes, I know that this isn’t a guarantee against anything, but there’s got to be a good, ethical host whose ethics (law enforcement can totally snoop around, with proper authorization) are explicitly reflected in their terms of service.


why technology is awesome, flu season edition.

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

“We’ve found that certain search terms are good indicators of flu activity. Google Flu Trends uses aggregated Google search data to estimate flu activity in your state up to two weeks faster than traditional flu surveillance systems.”

Once again I fall a little bit more in love with the 21st century.

ask the internets: desktop publishing software?

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

I have a faculty member here at work who wants to transfer the production of her center’s newsletter from an outside source to in-house. She’s sent me an example, and it’s a reasonably complex layout – definitely not something that should be done in Word – and she wants to keep the layout more or less the same.

We are strongly recommending that people here not use MS Publisher, for various reasons. Do you have a favorite desktop publishing application for Windows XP? Inexpensive is a huge bonus.

(Now, if only she were a Mac user… but no.)

coincidence? you decide.

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

News in the past day or so: out-of-state couples will soon be able to marry in MA!!, as a 1913 state law originally aimed at interracial couples is repealed.



I’d say we’re taking off, as a society.

Haven’t been updating, or not here anyway. Dealing with taxes and other emotionally loaded issues, as well as being super busy at work, participating in my village and preparing for Burning Man and its attendant road trip, have all kept me running around. You can see some of my life on Flickr. I suspect this – both the relative dearth of posting on Words’ End and the snippets viewable on Flickr – is going to continue for a while.