joegratz.net

August 27, 2006

A Programming Note

Blogging is likely to be sporadic over the next several months. I’ll be taking a rather long trip — around the world, in fact. I depart in 48 hours, and I’ll return in mid-November. If you’d like to keep tabs on me during my travels, I’ll be blogging from the road at Forty Thousand Kilometers Around. And if you’re a joegratz.net reader living in Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India, England, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, or the Czech Republic, drop me an email or leave a comment on this post.

See you in November (or, perhaps, in Ahmedabad or Panevėžys).

August 25, 2006

The Audio Public Domain Grows

The New York Times has a very nice story today on LibriVox, a project working to create volunteer-read, public domain MP3 audio books. The project uses texts from Project Gutenberg, and the recordings’ complexity ranges from a solo recording of nonsense verse “The Purple Cow” to a full-cast recording of Hamlet.

I came across the project this past spring and recorded one letter’s worth of definitions from The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce — an old favorite. The recording is being checked and combined with others’ contributions, and should be released soon. Among its other volunteer constituencies, LibriVox makes a great hobby for pedantic old hams like me.

It’s wonderful to see how people are squeezing as much utility as possible out of the frozen pool of public domain works we’re left with after the last 30 years of legislation. Imagine what could be done if the public domain were larger!

June 29, 2006

No Body Parts, Please.

Google has launched its Google Checkout service, which is somewhat notable for its integration with their AdWords program. But what’s really remarkable is their extremely exhaustive list of things you can’t sell using Google Checkout. Hawkers of miracle cures, satanic-ritual supplies, and body parts will just have to use PayPal.

June 16, 2006

Linkblog

If you read joegratz.net through a feed aggregator, you may not have noticed that I’ve jettisoned my music blog in favor of a link blog in the sidebar over to the right. As of today, I subscribe to 83 feeds in my Google Reader feed aggregator. I’ll use the linkblog to highlight the most interesting posts in those feeds — mostly about technology and information law, but occasionally about music or art or San Francisco. Of course, I don’t always agree with the authors of the posts I highlight; I just think they’re worth reading. If you don’t want to keep checking back for linkblog updates, you can directly subscribe to an Atom feed of my linkblog here, or, if you use Google Reader, you can view my linkblog here.

Curious techies: The linkblog bar on the right is just a CSS-styled version of the Google Reader “My Starred Items” clips box. When I want to add an item to my linkblog, I just star it in Google Reader, and the sidebar and feed are automatically updated. It’s pretty easy to do, since the Google clip box JavaScript generates pleasantly semantic XHTML. This post at the Google Reader blog links to my integration of the clip box into my blog design, along with several others.

May 15, 2006

Cheating

In law school, my friends and I were fond of making legal puns. The concept of escheat proved especially fertile ground; we made up various outlandish stories about having gambling proceeds confiscated by the state (escheating at cards) or spending so much time at one’s government job that one’s spouse has a claim for loss of consortium (escheating on your wife). There was even a joke about the reversion of unclaimed property to the government in the animal kingdom. (It involved an escheetah.)

Imagine my disappointment upon hearing, while listening to a podcast of the old NPR segment “On Words with John Ciardi,” that my friends and I were even less clever than we thought. It turns out that the verb “to cheat” is derived from “escheat.” As Ciardi tells it (and I urge you to listen, as he was a charming etymological storyteller), the escheator was the functionary responsible for tallying the property that had escheated after the owner was convicted of a felony or died intestate without heirs. It was easy for the escheator to skim some of the property for himself simply by failing to include it in the inventory reported to the superior feudal lord or to the Crown. Such a practice was so commonplace that anyone who took something not rightly his was referred to as an escheator, which became “cheater,” from which was formed the verb “to cheat”.

So our lame jokes were even lamer than we knew.

April 27, 2006

Jane Jacobs: Maker

Susan Crawford posts an excerpt from a 2001 interview with Jane Jacobs:

I’ll tell you something that had been worrying me: I liked to visit museums that showed old time machines and tools and so forth. And I was very struck. There was one of these museums in Fredricksburg, Virginia, which was my father’s hometown. He was from a farm near Fredricksburg. I was very struck with the way these old machines were painted. They were painted in a way to show you how they worked. Evidently the makers of them and the users of them cared about how these things were put together and how what moved what so that other people would be interested in them. I used to like to go to the railroad station in Scranton and watch the locomotives. I got a big bang out of seeing the locomotives and those pistons that moved the wheels. And that interested me how they were moved by those things and then the connection of that with the steam inside and so on. In the meantime, along had come these locomotives that had skirts on them and you couldn’t see how the wheels moved and that disturbed me. And it was supposed to be for some aerodynamics reason, but that didn’t make sense. And I began to notice how everything was being covered up and I thought that was kinda sick.

Jane Jacobs died Tuesday. The weekend before her death, I attended an event emblematic of the curiosity about the world and its workings whose loss Jacobs lamented. Make Magazine‘s Maker Faire — bearing the motto, “If You Can’t Open It, You Don’t Own It” — drew a crowd of tens of thousands of intellectually curious tinkerers to the San Mateo County Fairgrounds to participate in workshops and meet with other tinkerers in what felt like a big, joyful adult science fair.

The “joyful” bit was what surprised me most. Attendees seemed genuinely, deeply happy that there were so many others who shared their curiosity and do-it-yourself spirit.

Many tinkering projects run afoul of intellectual property laws. Even leaving aside patent concerns, all tools that manipulate media are tools of copyright infringement, and tinkerers see no reason why laws initially intended to prevent unfair competition within the content industry should keep them from making and using cool new tools.

The publisher of Make Magazine, Dale Dougherty, gave a presentation to a very enthusiastic crowd at dorkbot a few months ago. After the presentation, I asked him whether the DIY attitude toward technology promoted by the magazine required hostility toward laws like the DMCA’s anti-circumvention provisions. His answer was telling. “It’s not a matter of ‘To do this, you must believe this,’” he said. “It’s more, ‘If you do this, you’ll come around to believing this.’”

Tens of thousands of people gathered last weekend because they didn’t like “how everything was being covered up,” and they wanted to celebrate the creativity and intellectual satisfaction of making things that work. What will happen when they all come around to believing that laws restricting what they do on their garage workbench represent misguided policy?

November 1, 2005

Foxtrot on RIAA and MPAA Lawyers

Everybody loves a copyright lawyer.

October 30, 2005

Turing’s Cathedral

There’s a new essay by George Dyson about his recent visit to Google called “Turing’s Cathedral,” and it’s fantastic — near epiphanic. The point isn’t one of Google-worship, or even techno-utopianism; it’s that humans yearn to work together to create something larger than ourselves — something more beautiful, like a cathedral, or more benificent, like a charity, or more efficient, like a corporation.

And we are creating the Internet. It may turn out to be more beautiful, or more benificent, or more efficient, or more knowing, or even more wise. But it will be larger than ourselves, and it will be of us.

September 23, 2005

First Sale Handbags

These are cool. So is the statute that makes them legal.

September 14, 2005

Tinker-Ready Hardware

There’s an emerging market for consumer electronics that are tinker-ready. It may be small, but it inspires passionate consumer loyalty, and tinkerers will pay a premium for the privilege.

I was reminded of the value of tinker-ready hardware in the past few days, as I played with a new gadget. I got a Roku SoundBridge m500 digital music player (for fifty bucks rather than the usual $200, but that’s another story). It sits on my WiFi network and allows me to select audio to be streamed over the network. It can play MP3 streams of internet radio natively, and interfaces seamlessly with both iTunes and Rhapsody. Out of the box, it’s a useful piece of kit.

But, brilliantly, the engineers at Roku didn’t stop there. You can add your own favorite radio stations to the machine’s internal list via a very slick web interface, which is handy. The real fun comes when you telnet to the box on port 4444. With a very simple, command-driven interface, it’s possible to take near-complete control of the device. You can play back Rhapsody tracks or SomaFM radio stations. You can draw arbitrary text on the display. You can adjust the volume, connect and disconnect from servers, and so on. Happily, it’s all relatively well-documented.

This increases the utility of the device substantially. For example, even with my limited programming skills, I was able to write a Python script to turn on the device, turn the volume up all the way, and play back KCRW’s News webcast. That, plus a cron job on my Linux box running the script every weekday morning, turns the SoundBridge into a very slick, very configurable alarm clock. I’m thinking about making it scroll various bits of useful morning information when it wakes me up, like the weather conditions or the number of unread emails in my Inbox.

Yes, I just used an awful lot of silicon to emulate a $10 clock-radio, but that’s not the point. The point is that Roku let me take control of the hardware I own in a way that few consumer electronics vendors do. And now I’m hooked.

Disclaimer Haiku:
West wind seems to say,
"This is not legal advice;
I'm not your lawyer."

(And if you're a client with whom I have a preexisting attorney-client relationship, this still isn't legal advice.)

In case you're wondering, this blog is also not intended as advertising, as a representation of anything but my personal opinion, or as an offer of representation.

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