Thursday, January 26, 2012

Unglue.it Preview All Systems Go

A preview version of "unglue.it", the crowd-funding site for creative commons ebooks that I've been working on for more than a year, opened last week. Some key features are missing (pledging, campaigns) but the site lets you make a list of books you would support for "ungluing".

You can't really plan for a launch. Things always happen that you don't expect. It helps to have had a good night's rest, but other than that...

Our first unexpected event was that Library Journal ran a piece about our "soft launch" on their Digital Shift website, while we were in the process of deploying the website to production. They didn't link to us, but a few impatient readers typed in the website name and started exercising the site before we were finished testing the deployment. Nothing awful happened. Thanks, dave and gsf! Then Google spidered the site, exposing one or two errors. Thanks, googlebot!

We wanted our mailing list subscribers to be the first to see our work, and we finally sent out the email on Thursday. List readers discovered that our "popular" and "unglued" views were running very very slowly, loading down the site. Raymond studied the problem, and, as seems to happen so often with Django, found the answer hidden in plain sight (the documentation). After moving some nested queries, the pages returned 100x faster. The miracles of EC2 allowed us to spin up a bigger server to help with load. And the high load from the glacial queries helped expose some concurrency problems that we never would have found in a million years of normal operation. Or so says the errant coder- me.

We wanted to open the website when we did so that we could show our work to our many friends at the American Library Association Midwinter meeting in Dallas. So on Friday, I got up at 5AM (after bugfixing till 1AM) to catch a flight. I decided not to have any coffee so I could sleep on the plane. When I arrived at my Dallas hotel, I discovered another unexpected occurrence: I had left my laptop on the plane.

Before reading the next paragraph, check your laptop, your iPad, your kindle, your nook, or whatever. It probably looks plain, like mine (left). If there is no identification on it, go get one of those free address labels you got from the Awful Disease Foundation, and stick it on. Also some stickers from your favorite organizations. When you are done, it should look like @vmbrasseur's (right). Are you done?


Here's what I learned about lost MacBook Pros and airlines. Once the battery runs out, you can't even find a serial number. The typical baggage claim operation does not have geek squad backup. They don't have spare power cords or batteries to help them ID lost laptops. What they DO have is a safe, and that's where errant laptops go to die. If you ever find yourself in my position, go to the airport and ask the friendly lost-luggage attendant to go look in the safe. Otherwise, you will never see your laptop again, even if you have entered its serial number into the web form that has replaced the lost and found phone number that no one helpful ever answers.

In contrast, Jeanette, the DFW Continental Airlines baggage claim professional that I talked to in person, was very helpful. She called back to the guy with the safe, and we hardly had time to joke about the huge bag of dried fish from Africa that was smelling up the lost baggage area before safe-guy came out with MY LAPTOP. Yay!

Raymond had emailed me with a status report from the virtual home office, reproduced here in its entirety:
http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/All+systems+go
So I was feeling pretty good. I got to the Convention Center and found Andromeda doing an in-person demo of unglue.it. The in-person demos are an invaluable complement to submitted feedback reports because they let you see expectation mismatch as well as outright failures. Andromeda seemed to have the demo drill down to a science. I am thankful for the generosity of our in-person testers, whose insights will soon be incorporated into the site.

Since this post has been accepting digressions, I must note here that Andromeda gives new meanings to the adjective "awesome". At some point over the past few months, most likely due to lack of proper supervision coupled with web development despair, Andromeda has learned to code javascript and CSS. In a subsequent period of inadequate supervision, Andromeda seems to have recruited a squadron of librarians learning to code, which is somehow becoming an official ALA "codeyear" Interest Group. I doubt that we have heard the last of this.

And then we had dinner at Wild Salsa. (I'm skipping a few things here and there.)

On Sunday, Beth Kephart's article on Unglue.it went live at Publishing Perspectives. Beth writes so beautifully that it hurts. Her first book, A Slant of Sun is on my Unglue.it wish list. Her article introduced the Unglue.it concept to hundreds of new book lovers, more than a few rights holders, and generated a bunch of traffic. We've always expected that we'd need some publicity to find significant numbers of rights holders willing to take the plunge for a completely new business model, and the Publishing Perspectives article was a great start. Ed Nowotka's more cautious commentary is spot on, as well.

In the first week, the preview site has signed up 133 users (a conversion rate of about 10%) and we've received numerous suggestions for improvement. Our intrepid ungluing pioneers have added over 7500 works to our database. The most frequent comment is that we need better ways to indicate works that are already "unglued", either by virtue of being in the public domain, or by being already available under creative commons licenses. Raymond is currently working on loading Project Gutenberg titles; there will be more "unglued" books added as we go on, as well as ways of adding them directly. Coming in second were requests to have more selective imports from GoodReads and LibraryThing.

I should mention that we've had some great talent helping the core unglue.it team. Most prominent is the design work of Stefan from Design Anthem. We've had part-time help on systems and software from Ed Summers and Jason Kace. And it's hard to overlook the contribution of the countless developers who contributed to the open source Python and Django projects.

If you haven't tried the site yet, please give it a spin and tell us what you like (or dislike). The more people that sign up, the less skeptical rights holders with interesting books will be about the concept. If you're a rights holder or a rights manager of any kind, please contact Amanda at rights@gluejar.com with your ideas and questions. Follow @unglueit on Twitter, like unglueit on Facebook.

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Howard Dean and Rush Holt Oppose SOPA

On Wednesday night I attended a fundraising event for Rush Holt, the Congressman representing central New Jersey. He's not my congressman, but as one of the few scientists in congress, he better represents many of my interests than the congressman representing my district. That guy has just been redistricted so he really doesn't represent me any more. As an added attraction, the event featured Howard Dean, the former DNC chairman and presidential candidate.

The reason I really wanted to attend the event was that I wanted to express my dismay at SOPA, the anti-intellectual-piracy proposal that would require the government to shoot internet machine guns at copyright cockroaches, with predictable results. I've previously written about how this law would affect libraries, both domestic and foreign.

The funny thing is that I had trouble discovering where Rep. Holt stood on the issue. I hoped that he would at least be sympathetic. So I arrived early to be sure to ask directly.

I waited my turn to get a photo taken,  introduced myself and said I thought SOPA was a terrible law. To my great relief, both Rep. Holt and Gov. Dean responded quickly that they were against SOPA, and that opposition to the bill was growing rapidly. Gov. Dean urged me to talk to his brother Jim, who heads "Democracy for America" (DFA) the grassroots political organization started by Howard after his presidential run ran out.

It turns out that DFA has begun to oppose SOPA without even publicizing what it's doing. Their tech guy, with the support of the Deans, moved their many domains away from GoDaddy over the holiday break. So if you want to support a progressive group that's walking the walk on SOPA opposition, DFA is a great option. They've not made a big deal of it, because they're not sure how to translate their opposition into action.

When it comes to paying attention to science and what it tells us about public policy, Rep. Holt is the real deal. He's also paying attention to the changing roles of libraries and libraries in today's educational environment. Yesterday he toured school libraries in New Jersey with IMLS director Susan Hildreth to promote the Strengthening Kids’ Interest in Learning and Libraries (SKILLs) Act, which he will soon introduce on the federal level. As I wrote last year, proper use of librarians in schools can have measurable impact on student achievement.

Howard Dean was the star of the evening, however. He spoke extemporaneously for about a half an hour and had the crowd cheering. He does have a problem with microphones, however. He gets so involved in what he talks about that any microphone amp in the vicinity goes into distortion. It was heartening to hear a national politician mention the SOPA controversy among all the other problems the nation faces.

For all the fears that SOPA is not getting proper attention in the mainstream media, its good to know there are some people in power who understand the issues.
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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Foreign Libraries Will Be Infringing Sites Under SOPA


On January 1, "Public Domain Day", another year was added to the copyright gap between the US and the rest of the world. In most of the world, New Year's Day marked the end of copyright for works by authors who died in 1941. But not in the USA. Copying and distribution of gap works may be legal and unrestricted in most countries, but these activities are criminal acts of copyright infringement in the US, punishable by up to 10 years of prison.

One effect of SOPA, the "Stop Online Piracy Act" (which almost means "garbage" in Swedish) is that the US Attorney General will be able to extend the effect of US copyright law to foreign web sites. For example, Project Gutenberg Australia (PGA) distributes electronic versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, which is still under copyright in the US. SOPA would allow the US Attorney General to make a determination that Project Gutenberg Australia, by allowing access from the US, is a "U.S. directed site" that would be subject to forfeiture by the Attorney General for acts prohibited under section 2319 of the U.S. Criminal Code (ongoing copyright infringement), if it were based in the US.

If Project Gutenberg Australia persisted in its criminal activity, SOPA would allow the Attorney General to force internet service providers in the US to block access to the PGA domain. It would also allow the Justice Department to force Google and other US-based search engines to remove PGA links from its search results for the US. It could force Wikipedia to remove links to PGA. Most damaging to PG Australia, it would allow Justice to cut off PGA's revenue from Google's advertising services.

As libraries around the world move aggressively into the digital environment, they will de-emphasize the cataloguing of printed objects in favor of delivery of electronic content, especially public-domain and public-commons content that can be delivered without per-copy fees. They will run up against the same copyright extraterritorial issues exhibited today by Project Gutenberg Australia. If SOPA is enacted as currently written and our system of perpetual copyright persists, we can assume that most of the world libraries will sooner or later be blacklisted from the American internet. And the real bad-guy sites will easily circumvent the blacklist.

The Swedish word "sopa" is not really used as a singular noun. As a verb, it means "to sweep". The plural "sopor" is the stuff you sweep up. "Sopa bort" is what should be done with SOPA.
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Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011: The Year the eBook Wars Broke Out

Open war is upon us, whether we would have it or not. These incidents in 2011  seemed like twitter-inflamed kerfuffles as we lived through them, but with the perspective of time, we can see they were preludes to a fight to the death.

1. Harper-Collins and Overdrive Stop Pretending

In a year or two, libraries may consider the Harper Collins limit of 26 circulations of a list price ebook through Overdrive to be a relative bargain, as all of the other large publishers will withdraw from "pretend-its-print" ebook licensing.

2. Amazon occupies Overdrive

Libraries mostly welcomed the possibility to lend their Overdrive ebooks to patrons with Kindles. Libraries are fundamentally service-oriented institutions and ebooks on Kindle is what the users wanted. But at what cost? Do the traditional library values of privacy go right out the door? Do libraries realize that patrons gone to Amazon might not come back?

3. The Penguin Strikes Back

The big publishers have watched Amazon's market power grow and see a future of slavery to an internet commerce master. Only Penguin allowed hostilities to break out, however, as the Amazon occupation of Overdrive broke the penguin's back. The target of opportunity was library lending. Evidently Penguin decided that a frontal assault on Amazon would be suicidal.

4. Prime Pretends to be a Library

Amazon added ebook borrowing features to their Amazon Prime service, revealing it as Amazon's answer to Netflix, and without even thinking about it, as a service that could eventually compete directly with public libraries. Now we see why Amazon wanted to get in on that library thing.

5. Publishers Decide Google is a Lesser Evil

Publishers looked back on the halcyon days when Google Books seemed poised to establish a new world order for ebooks with nostalgia. A separate, anticlimactic settlement between Google and the Association of American Publishers appears to be in the offing. It's Amazon that they're afraid of now.

6. Authors Lob Legal Grenades at Hathitrust

Spurned by the publishers in their joint crusade against the Google heathens, the Authors Guild decided that Hathitrust might be a less formidable opponent. And indeed it was, the lawsuit exposed a number of copyright blunders by the library cooperative. But the Guild's suit seemed hasty and ill-contrived. This sort of thing happens in wartime.

7. Amazon Obliterates Borders.

Although Borders was tactically weak in many ways, it was Amazon and the rise of ebooks that killed it strategically. Barnes and Noble, if it survives, won't look anything like the book marketing machine that it is today.

8. Libraries Muster the Resistance

The emergence of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) as a rallying point for libraries' continuing presence in the cultural life of America was a surprise, as it went against the prevailing tea-party currents for smaller government and increased reliance on the private sector. It's not clear how the symbolic presence of a library in Zuccotti Park could point the way to a digital future, but many things that have not yet come to pass are shrouded in darkness.

9. Anti-Piracy Hysteria Threatens Freedom Loving Citizens

The powerful publishing and media industries, in a paroxysm of inept do-something-ism, seem to have convinced Congress that it would be a good thing if the intenet could be censored for copyright infringement. Sadly, the solution they've fixed on, SOPA, will be ineffective against unlicensed content and will put the Justice Department smack in the middle of our nation's information infrastructure. Carpet bombing never ends well.

There's hope.

I have learned that whenever it seems that you're falling into the abyss, you must reach for a rope. There is always a rope.
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