So What’s Wrong With IBM 3270 Terminals?

Serial government-closedness-shamer Carl Malamud and his shaming-crony Peter Brantley have locked sights on the US Copyright Officefor not sharing their database of copyright information (how are you supposed to avoid violating copyright if you don’t know what’s under copyright? Never use any document ever, I guess).

In his blog post on the subject , Brantley has this to say about the state of the Copyright Office’s current information access scheme:

Presently, the Copyright Office charges $55,125 to obtain the retrospective online database, and $31,500 for a current-year subscription that must be annually renewed, for an entry cost of $86,625. Copyright records are available for free only on what the Copyright Office calls a “record-oriented” interface, which has the functionality one would expect of an IBM 3270 terminal emulator dressed up in a style sheet.

Oh snap!

OpenStreetMaps: You Can Has Interesting Maps

As part of my series of ‘quality blogposts I will eventually get around to writing’ (see also further notes on making websites from open source CMSs and comparing music player software), I’m working on some hows and whys to make embedded website maps using open source tools. Inevitably, this isn’t that. But I did come across this website and I figured it was worthy of a shout out:


OpenStreetMap is a project aimed squarely at creating and providing free geographic data such as street maps to anyone who wants them. The project was started because most maps you think of as free actually have legal or technical restrictions on their use, holding back people from using them in creative, productive or unexpected ways.

Their mediawiki powered, cc-wiki licensed website is amateurish but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in my estimation. Sometimes amateur websites suffer from poor informational design, but this is one of the better I’ve seen. The “I want to see maps; get out of my way!” link square at the top of the front page may be a bit cute but it does the job. The ‘lolcat of awesomeness’ they hand out to special contributors may be way too cute but well, it does the job. The whole thing comes off as active, friendly, and telegraphs how to get deeper in, rather than intimidating the new visitor by suggesting how much deeper in you would have to go to figure anything much useful out.

lolcat of awesomeness, I'm afraid

And they’re an open-access street map project. How cool is that?

Debating Formats for Open Access Articles

Andy Powell asks if the ubiquitous Portable Document Format is the right choice for academic publishing online, and especially for open access journals. He suggests that HTML might be the right way to go instead.

I don’t know much about the history of PDF, but I understand it was Adobe’s proprietary descendant of postscript. Obviously PDF has been wildly successful. Interestingly, as Peter Sefton points out in the comments, PDF is no longer a propietary format. Adobe opened up the standard, giving away both the instructions for making PDF documents and the rights to do so to anybody who wants to build the software for it. Why? I dunno. It seems like PDF was a big success as an Adobe-only format, and you have to wonder what convinced them to give up the legal rights to being the only people who can sell software to make and read it. Some governments very sensibly require that their documents be published in non-proprietary formats (although enforcement of that requirement seems pretty thin in places). That’s a sensible requirement both because open standard formats are more accessible to people who can’t or don’t pay for a monopoly company’s software, and because they are more likely to be accessible in years to come when the responsible company may have long ceased to sell readers compatible with current operating systems and such. Perhaps Adobe was afraid that somebody else’s open standard would rise to supremacy on that government requirement and the similar requirement of accessibility-oriented private citizens. In any case, they made the bold move of opening PDF up to the world. Nowadays Foxit among others make software for making and reading .pdfs (and in the case of Foxit, arguably do a better job than Adobe. Certainly their software is less of a bully to your computer, regardless of the quality of the documents it produces).

Peter Sefton also points out that HTML (which was designed not to do layout), is inevitably bad at document layout. Which can matter for the readability of table- and diagram-centric research documents. I would add that all the little readability details of font and kerning and such are also a bit of wreck in HTML. PDF gives the publisher the potential for control of those things, and sometimes control is a good thing.

He also argues for XML as a secondary format for open access articles to be published in. That would allow full semantic machine-fu goodness. I think he’s implying that the XML version would be the canonical one, which is an interesting and compelling idea. No one is going to read a document in native XML of course (XML not being really being designed to be read in its raw form), so this would have the odd fallout that the authoritative version of the document wouldn’t necessarily be seen by humans. Of course, properly implemented, XML is easily machine-translatable into any readable format. I hope and trust that there are existing software engines to automatically do just that.

So maybe researchers should publish their articles in (at least) three versions: an authoritative, future-proof, easily catalog-able, semantically illustrated XML version, a PDF or other hard-pixeled version for printed human consumption, and an HTML version for cursory online use. That would be kind of a work-flow version of what latex does for document creation on a humbler scale. The .pdf and .html could be easily auto-generated to the journal’s norms from the .xml, and further customized for layout by authors/editors that have the time and the inclination. All seems like a good idea to me.

Charlie Slick Goes All Corporate See If I Care

So since Charlie Slick signed with big-deal megalabel Cerberus his myspace page stopped letting you download his songs. See if I care.

Let’s get something straight here slick, I’m not going to pay money for your album. I dunno, I guess I’d think about but I wouldn’t actually do it. I will go to every show you play in Ann Arbor or Ypsi that isn’t at the damn Nuetral Zone, same as I ever have (that’s once). I will keep playing up your songs on the radio every time I host a show (yeah that’s once).

In the meantime, here’s a link to a page that explains how to rip songs from myspace pages. I have never been reduced to ripping songs from myspace pages and I don’t think I’m there yet.

So I guess I’m stuck with Charlie Slick’s back catalog. I don’t care.

In other news, does anybody have a copy of Dan Kahn‘s stuff? Because I can’t find it in the WCBN record collection, and he’s probably off touring in Germany or some damn thing. Why is it so hard to listen to local acts?

But If You Make the Internet a Crime, Only Criminals Will Have the Internet

Australia: Copyright ruling puts hyperlinking on notice.

“Mp3s4free was different in the sense that it actually catalogued MP3 files that were infringing copyright material – Google doesn’t do that,” she said.

“There is, however, action that is being taken against Google in other jurisdictions, and we’re awaiting that eagerly.”

Yeah, that’s going to be great.

Apple Suggests the Unwarrantable

I notice on the official Apple website for the new Intel Mac mini that there is a sidebar with a list of links to external mini-related sites. These include modding webpages which encourage you to de-and-reconstruct your mini to your own physical liking.

Apple prefaces the links with the text

But some adventurous Mac mini customers have taken it places Apple never imagined (or warrants). These links are purely for inspiration, not instruction.

Apple is notorious for their efforts towards top-down control of their products, including their computers. That makes them a leader rather than a outlier in an industry which is generally moving towards joining their “partner” music and movie industries in reframing ownership of a product as a temporary and revocable license to use it for certain specified tasks in certain specified locations at certain specified times. Playfully hinting that their mini is ripe for reconfiguration, if you don’t mind loosing the warranty, is a small but potent step in the other direction. They’re saying “you bought your mini, you can do what you want to it”. That’s a very different message.

And one of the links is to this sweet Millenium Falcon case-mod.

open source viable in GIS?

A friend posted to a remote sensing mailing list to say that he was trying to “create a standalone program for manipulating shapefiles” and did anyone know of any existing code libraries for such things? Several of the responses he got pointed him in the direction of the existing open source GIS community. For example,

GIS is Geographic Information Systems. It’s computer mapping software basically, but it usually isn’t very basic. The existing, commercial tools, are complex, tricky, legacy-ridden and quite powerful. There is one world leader in the production of the software, ESRI with their ArcGIS family, and it is deeply entrenched throughout industry and research.

Open Source is software collaboratively developed by dispersed individuals who contribute their code more or less freely. In return they take advantage of the work of other who collectivley build software that is cheap or free, and open to transformation and growth.

The idea of an actual, functioning open source GIS community is a painful sort of hope. The cost of a single seat license for ESRI ArcGIS is USD$1500.00. That’s a tall barrier to anyone outside of either a) a big institution or b) the western world. GIS, mapping, may sound banal but it’s not. Using spatial data is bottom-line-key to policy and planning in a profound portfolio of infrastructure areas: environmental management, conservation, social and urban development, health. The possibility that every NGO and developing-country school and government organization could use powerful GIS tools is, pardon my geek, a thrilling one.

The reason the hope is painful is that the open-source community has some very high walls to climb if they want to succeed, so high I’m doubtful. The barriers to any new GIS software ecology gaining use are, I think, these:

  • interoperability

    It’s getting easier to open files from one program in another, but even when you can open them, working with them glitch-free across programs is a major issue. Often the process of importing and translating without losing functionality can be time taking and frustrating.

  • transmission of knowledge

    While the underlying theories of cartography and GIS are mostly the same for all different flavours of software, much of the knowledge of a skilled GIS operator is tied up in the working details of specific software. People learn those details from courses or colleagues. Such training is precious and hard to come by, and usually people take what they can get, rather than choosing their software platform and seeking out training for that platform. Once you’ve learned a platform, it’s a more than most people are willing to do to retrain themselves.

  • cost

    nobody wants to buy sofware to do the same thing more than once.

Open source software can generally dodge the cost issue, since it’s typically free and isn’t vulnerable to most of the “total cost of ownership” questions that arguably affect OS operating systems, but the the other two barriers remain substantial for any new GIS software, definitely including open source options.

Hanging over all this is the question of quality. Even if all of the “unfair” barriers to entry are overcome, new software will still have to face the “fair” one: is it good enough to use? For all the complaints I have about ESRI software — and I assure you, I have many — I recognize that creating a program that does so many different complex operations for so many different types and skill levels of users is not a simple thing. The amount of code in the ArcGIS suite must be staggering, and the magnitude of man-hours of interface development is beyond guessing. If an open-source alternative is to compete on features, which ultimately it must, it will require the development of hundreds of analysis and manipulation processes. It seems to me that this is potentially a greater programming challenge than any open source project I am aware of, with the single exception of a full operating system. OpenOffice appears straightforward in comparison (and was jump-started by the Sun Office code, for which there is no paralell option in GIS world), Mozilla/Netscape ditto.

I deeply hope there’s some group of crazy GIS programmers out there with the technical capacity and the heart to take on this challenge. In my short career with GIS/remote sensing I have time and again come across situations where I wished there was a license free GIS package that small groups, enivronmental groups, developing-world groups, could use. Information is power in law, in politics, in science. There is a lot more free data out there than there was: GLCF with it’s back-catalog satellite imagery data, SRTM with all that topology, old, uncopyrighted Soviet maps waiting to become useful again, free fresh satellite data for the taking from NASA, and dozens of small and medium labs turning out their intermediary products. But turning raw and intermediary data into final product needs that software tool. I think it’s safe to say that the overwhelming majority of potential users of GIS simply don’t have the technical knowledge and the computing access to make those products when they need them. Technical know-how is a whole other quagmire, but if someone could make an open source GIS package, the benefits would be substantal and long-lasting. I wish I was more optimistic about the chances of that happening.

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