I’ve been bad about keeping this journal up to date lately because I’ve been neck deep in running through acceptance tests for the latest H2O release for the past few days. As important as testing is, it’s boring as all hell. We have a lot of unit tests for individual parts of the backend, but something has to test the overall processes from the user point of view. I’ve tried to script these sorts of tests in the past, but I’ve always ended up spending way more time writing those test and then keeping them up to date than it would take just to run them manually. So for H2O we decided just to write up the acceptance tests and run through them manually before each release. It’s been a good trade off, I think, since it only takes a few days every few months when we make a release. And it also gives all the developers a good opportunity to take a comprehensive tour of all the features each release. It’s still boring as hell, though.
After all the hard work, though, we’ve finally deployed the latest release. As always, kudos to Juliet Armstrong for doing the vast majority of the development work. Mostly we’ve just fixed a lot of small bugs, but we’ve added some features as well. Most importantly, the new project based routing feature allows the system to route posts within cross project rotisseries such that participants will always get a response from a user in a different project when possible. So with the Rotisserie Ring discussions, for example, we can now make a best effort to get students talking to students from classes other than their own (instead of just throwing all the students into a big pot and hoping they get mixed up well). We’ve also got about 75% of the work done for a SOAP API to the system, but we decided to go ahead and make this release now without the SOAP stuff functional so that we could get the project based routing stuff in before the Rotisserie Ring discussions start.
The latest issue of MIT’s Tech Review has a great article on the future of web search engines. It mentions Nutch, an effort spearheaded by Doug Cutting (creator of Lucene) that is implementing an open-source web search engine. “The Nutch Organization is a public-benefit non-profit corporation”, that seeks to provide a window onto the proprietary algorithms used by engines such as Google. In so doing, the project provides a standard that can be used to expose for-profit search engines that are indexing content based on payments, or incentives unrelated to page merit or relevance, and provides us with high quality source that anyone can use.
Who wants their search engine to be an indirect form of advertising? Wouldn’t we like to know why search results are ranked the way they are? I’m not alone in feeling nervous about Google’s power. Anyone who wants an alternative, can donate to the Nutch project, or write some code.
This week’s reading for the IP reading group was Carla Hesse’s “The rise of intellectual property, 700 b.c. – a.d. 2000: an idea in the balance”. Hesse argues that since the enlightenment we have had two inconsistent notions of IP. Some view IP laws from a social utilitarian point of view — we give creators rights over their ideas because in doing so we encourage other creators to generate more ideas. According to this argument, we should give just enough protection for just long enough to original ideas to encourage the creation of new ideas. Others view ownership of an idea as an inherent and inalieabale right that creators should enjoy forever simply because an idea is the most personal of all possessions and therefore should be linked with its creator forever. She cynically points out that countries tend to move from the former view to the latter as they become exporters of ideas (with the United States as the prime example).
Hesse points out there was no such disagreement in the ancient world because ideas were generally seen as divine gifts and an author generally believed it his duty to share his ideas as a gift to the community. This notion of an idea as a gift rather than a commodity brought to my mind the difference between gift economies and our modern commodity economies and how we might use the model of a gift economy as an alternative framework for establishing IP rights. Read more in my response. Even better, join the project to participate in the reading group.
WebGUI is really an application server dressed up like a content management system. Lots of content management systems offer the ability to manage little bits of functionality (discussion, syndicated feeds, etc) in addition to static content, but the range of functional objects is generally relatively small and difficult to build upon. In contrast, WebGUI offers a broad range of functional objects in addition to the static content stuff (inluding discussion, syndicated content, blogs, calendars, link lists, and lots more). And just as importantly, the WebGUI architecture is specifically designed to make it easy to build an plug in new objects of these sorts, as well as to edit the existing objects. Almost every site we develop at the center needs to do something interactive in addition to its static content, so WebGUI was a good choice for us.
This week I used the WebGUI SQLReport wobject for the first time. The user didn’t like the way the standard user management screen was laid out for our ILAW site and wanted additional fields added. I could have mucked with the code that drew that list, but instead I spent about an hour building a custom page that performs its own query using the SQLReport object. Easy as pie, integrated painlessly into the existing site, and will be trivially easy to update as the user’s needs change. The SQLReport feels like a widget built by a programmer to scratch an itch, which is the best way to build things as long as the programmer is good (which this one was, I’m happy to say!).
I also mucked around with the layout of the Digital Media Project site to make the main navigation menu more clear. It seems to have turned out well and was not too much of a pain (it was a bit of a pain, but that’s because I spent half an hour trying to figure out why a macro wouldn’t work only to finally figure I was typoing the url of the page the macro referred to — ugh).
We use WebGUI as our content management system here at the Berkman Center. It has been a great success so far, enabling us to easily build and manage not only our new main site, but increasingly lots of other project sites as well.
Recently, we reimplemented the ILAW site in webgui, which has made the site lots easier to manage (offloading almost all of the content work off of the tech folks and onto the content folks and making the user registration system a lot cleaner, for example). One of the great things about using a free software system like webgui is that if it doesn’t do exactly what I want, I can just fix it. For example, the ilaw coordinator spends a lot of time mucking around with the data about the registrants, and webgui doesn’t provide any way to manipulate (sort, filter, total, etc) the registrant data. So I wrote a quick registrant export function that shoots the registrant data to a spreadsheet. Problem solved, user and programmer happy. And today, I worked on some bits of that export functionality — I added the ability to specify a different order for the data fields in the export than on the registration screen and I fixed the date creation field to appear in a nice human readable format instead of the epoch format it was in. Code is good.
I also had some great news for H2O today. We got an agreement from another professor to serve as a core faculty member of our 2004 Internet and Society cluster of courses on H2O. I’m waiting until we have agreement from a couple more folks to describe the project in more detail (email me though if you want details) so that we can make a big splash when we announce publicly. But this project has the potential to demonstrate how we can use thoughtful, innovative technology like H2O to really change how people teach and learn rather than just to provide conveniences like online lecture notes and assignment submission boxes.
I had a great phone conversation with Toru Iiyoshi about the great work they are doing with the KEEP project. KEEP is a set of tools that help teachers to reflect on their classroom experiences and to share those experiences through illustrative snapshots of their courses.
I also wrestled a bit with getting our wireless network in Baker House back up to snuff. The wireless access point has been periodically producing horrible latency (ping times of up to 1 second) for months now, but the networking folks are having trouble pin pointing and fixing whatever the problem is. They seem more focused on fixing the problem now, so hopefully they’ll get it cleaned up soon.
Lastly, we are in the early stages of gathering together a wide range of folks from different disciplines and countries to use H2O to exahcnge curricula and discussions next academic year. I did more work today on recruiting some core faculty to commit to participating in the project with us. Once we identify the core faculty, we can start publicizing the project more widely.
Today was mostly spent traveling back to Memphis, so not a lot to report. I spent a while trying to track down Edward Walterscheid to ask his permission to post a chapter of one of his books to the online IP reading group, but the only email address I managed to get for him bounced. Anyone happen to have his contact info? If so, please let me know.
For personal reasons, I decided to move from Boston to Memphis about three months ago. I finally made the move two weeks ago and am now living in Memphis more or less full time. I am, however, still working in mostly the same position at the Berkman Center. I will be telecommuting most of the time but returning to Cambridge for a couple of days twice a month so that folks will remember what I look like.
I took the past couple of weeks off to settle down in Memphis, and today was my first day back at the center since moving, though I was actually in Cambridge for this my first day of telecommuting. Tomorrow I’ll fly back down to Memphis and start the telecommunting thing for real. A big part of the challenge of this arrangement will be keeping in touch with the day to day happenings at the center and giving folks at the center a sense of what I’m up to each day. To help that process as well as to document the progress of this experiment in work arrangement, I’ll be keeping a daily journal on this blog with the probably mostly boring details of what I’ve spent each day doing. This entry is the beginning of that journal.
Today was spent as I imagine most of these Cambridge return days will be — in meetings nearly the entire day with much of the non-meeting time spent casually chatting with people around the center (and thereby remembering why I love working with these folks so much!). I managed to get in early enough today to work on my email a bit before my first meeting at 9:00. I’ve been triaging my email for a couple of weeks, only dealing with the easiest / most important stuff and saving the rest for my return to full time work (today!). I made a good pass at getting rid of another wave of emails today, so I’ve mostly got only medium to long term tasks left.
I spent my little amount of non-email / non-meeting time today getting the History of IP in the US online reading group setup on H2O and announced through the various Berkman channels. We’ve got 11 great mostly Berkman folks signed up so far, and lots of others tried to sign up but were foiled by a bad link in the announcement on the front page (now fixed!). I’ve also included the Internet & Society project in the first week’s discussion, so it should have critical mass to start.
Meetings today included: a meeting in the server room to figure out why a server we’re running with a partner center was rebooting randomly (bad hard drive); a meeting with Robyn to agree on what more needs to be done to the Internet Law Program site; a meeting with Mary Bridges to go over some issues with the Digital Media Project, AudioBerkman, and Berkman Briefings sites; the luncheon speakers series with John Palfrey and Susan Crawford presenting their work on the accountable Internet; a meeting with the H2O crew about the status of the Rotisserie Ring project and implementation plans to fix the mess that currently is the idea exchange part of H2O (more to follow in another post); and a meeting with the Berkman fellows to figure out how we staff can better help them to continue doing the terrific work that they do.
As planned, I’ve got reams of notes from the various meetings, all very productive in their own ways, to make sense of tomorrow and to keep me busy working on the for the next couple of weeks. My next return to Cambridge will be from Wednesday, 3/3, to Friday, 3/5.
The Berkman Center is hosting an online reading group on the History of Intellectual Property in the U.S. The group will loosely mirror a reading group led by Professor Lewis Hyde meeting in-person at the Berkman Center. We will generally read what the in-person group is reading the week after they read it. There will be about one reading per month, with 3 weekly rounds of discussion after the reading is posted. Readings will be chosen by the in-person reading group, and posted as the semester progresses.
To participate, click below:
Here is Lewis Hyde’s invitation to the reading group:
My own interest in this history began with the surprising lack of debate some years ago when copyright term extension was pending. There seemed to be almost no public sense of why it might matter to preserve a lively public domain. One was led to wonder if there weren’t historical roots to the public domain’s lack of presence in our political and economic discourse. If that is the case, might not an understanding of this history be a useful tool for those of us trying to shape current policy?
For a reading group I propose an initial meeting in February where we talk about the scope of our interests, and make a list of what we might read. I suggest one short first reading (Carla Hesse’s “The Rise of Intellectual Property, 700 B.C.–A.D. 2000” (Daedalus, Spring 2002)). As for other readings, we will decide these together but at the moment my own list would include works such as Mark Rose’s “Authors and Owners,” Siva Vaidhyanathan’s “Copyrights and Copywrongs,” and Edward Walterscheid’s recent book on “The Nature of the Intellectual Property Clause.”