Contact me

These days, I'm the director of the American Library Association' s Office for Intellectual Freedom. I'm also executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation. See "About Me" for contact information.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

RTFM

I spent a little time yesterday going through some of the software on my various computers. Help files and online documentation are wonderful things. Also, it never hurts to actually look at the screen, which often reveals useful menu choices. Sheesh.

So Evernote (and the Ubuntu client Nixnote) turn out to have all kinds of wonderful features. They're all right there in the help files.

Likewise, I find that when there's something that finally bubbles to the top of my consciousness as an annoyance that can no longer be borne, all I have to do is Google the problem, and someone solved it a few years ago. Example: after being irritated about how difficult it was to post links to my blog to Facebook and Twitter, I looked up a way to add that to my blogger template. I was very proud of myself. Except that just now I noticed that there's a little menu choice, "more," next to the blogger search bar that does exactly the same thing. It's probably been there forever.

Pay attention.

Read. The. Friggin. Manual.

Android apps

I really do try to keep things simple. On my Android phone, I don't use all that much. Browser, email, Gtasks (to put tasks on my Google calendar), and Evernote for miscellany, some ebook reading software. But today I found two apps that are really kind of amazing.

The first is called Pocket. It's like Instapaper -- a utility to grab a website and send it to a location where you can read it later. But it's all cleaned up - stripped of ads and multiple columns. You just scroll through it in a preset type size. Brilliant and simple. You can also download the app to your browser on a desktop. Available in Android and iOS.

The second is called Swype. It was already right there on my phone, a separate "input method" that allows me to very quickly enter text just by swiping a single finger across the keyboard. It seemed a little weird, but I found after just a few moments practice that I could input both more quickly and more accurately this way than by using both thumbs. Then, after watching some of the videos on the site, I learned how to get to a long document editing mode that lets me page up and down, delete forward, delete backward by word, and more. Just astonishingly useful. This one isn't available for iOS (or Windows Phone).

Who comes up with this stuff? But thank you!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Newtown, gun control

On the same day that the Newtown, CT tragedy made headlines status in the Denver Post, there was another story: 22 kids, 1 adult hurt in China school knife attack. Terrible? Yes. Deaths? None. Why? Because the attacker didn't have a gun.

In the past several days, many people have written all kinds of pithy statements, often pointing out the ready availability of weapons, and the heartbreaking difficulty of finding help for mental illness, as movingly told in "I am Adam Lanza's mother.".

But I wanted to link to this thoughtful posting by Nicholas Kristof, Do we have the courage to stop this?

Incredibly, I've already seen the wacko responses: "if only the teachers had been armed," as if our problem is too few guns. I've also seen, "God withdrew protection from children when we withdrew prayer from the schools," as if (as someone else Tweeted) the Holocaust was the result of too little prayer.

We don't need stridency or posing. We need to reduce the number of guns in this country. Other nations have done it, and fewer people have died. It's time.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Computer stuff

My inner geekiness speaks:

First, OMG I want a Nexus 7. Let me be perfectly clear that I do not need one. But the combination of form factor, function, and price leaves me itching for the one device that does most of what I want, is both portable and essential. Thank you MicroCenter, for the chance to see and touch it. We really are getting close to the electronic notebook (anyone remember the DynaBook?) that actually works. I just might have to put this on my Christmas list. On the other hand, I suspect the right thing to do is wait until AFTER Christmas.

Second, in the process of poking around to define availability of essential programs, I stumbled across Kingsoft Office for Android. It's free for that platform, and, like LibreOffice, a reasonably solid replacement for Microsoft Office. Today was the first time I'd heard of it. If you have an Android device, grab it.

Third, after some disappointing downloads for office software for the iPad, I trashed two Openoffice.org based products I'd bought (I haven't given links because I don't recommend them) to pay for Polaris Office. $12.95. It's clean, fast, saves to both Google Docs and Dropbox, is much simpler and easier to use than any similar thing I've found on this platform, and looks good. There's some stuff that's missing, natch. But ... pretty good.

Fourth, here's a chance to grab software and do good at the same time. Try Softmaker for Windows or Linux here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Forbes on ebooks and libraries

David Vinjamuri, author of one book published through traditional publishing, and another self-published, wrote the first of what looks to be a provocative series. He calls it "The Wrong War Over eBooks: Publishers Versus Libraries."

I wrote him to correct the first version of this. I told him, I believe, "I saw a decrease in USE (not youth or youth readership) that was hard to explain because our libraries are busy."

Vinjamuri is an astute writer, although I’d challenge this statement: "For better or worse, publishers are unlikely to adopt a pricing model for eBooks that mirrors how print books are sold to libraries." My library bought some 18,000 titles from publishers who DID agree to our Statement of Common Understanding. That Common Understand captures a lot of things close to the First Sale doctrine.

I still think of it like this: the Big 5 (and shrinking) aren’t the only game in town, and what’s good for them isn’t necessarily good for the author, or the reader.

But I’ve wondered why nobody pitched this model before. It's metered reading, and I can well understand why publishers might want that – for some books. I remain reluctant to give up the idea of ownership. I think the public isn’t well-served by the sacrifice of First Sale.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Creative destruction

I'm sure I'm jet-lagged. All of my thoughts and conversations of the day are running together. But here's the idea: in times of fundamental change -- whether the rise of digital publishing in a time of the Big 5 publishers in America, or the rise of the Internet amidst Russia's increasingly totalitarian state - you don't bet on the systems of control. You bet on the creators.

Regarding publishing, why would an author give up 90% of the profit when without the author there's nothing to publish? Regarding politics, why would a new generation of workers agree to be penned into a closed, archaic industrial system when they've tasted an open global network?

If the economic or political system can't accommodate the new and developing, then it is by definition old and decaying.

So for the Big 5: your attempt to consolidate and lock down the market is doomed. The writers really don't need you anymore. And for Putin: to a new generation, it doesn't look like patriotism to prop up those who seek to control you.

Both want freedom.

The Foreign Service

A quick note about the US Embassy people I worked with while in Russia. They impressed me. Quick with languages, knowledgeable and insightful about culture and customs, they all moved deftly and thoughtfully through a host of complex situations. I hadn't really imagined what it would be like to have such a career, with its frequent repostings around the world. But I believe our nation must be well-served by such persistent attempts to do nothing more than build friendly relationships among various professionals. At any rate, I was genuinely grateful for their professionalism and competence.

Russia reflections: censorship

I'm sure I'll have many more thoughts over the next few days about my experience. But now that I'm back in the US, I'll say what I really didn't want to say while I was there: there is a strong and widespread sense that anti-American sentiments are rising, aided and abetted by Putin's administration, and somewhat to my surprise, by the Orthodox Church.

Many of the questions I received by Russians were about censorship. My stories - about overprotective parents who wanted stories of woods without wolves (lest they frighten the children) - seemed almost naive to the Russians. While I was there, as recorded on the front page of the English language Moscow Times (November 30-December 2, 2012), "a city court declared Pussy Riot's 'punk prayer' video extremist, meaning that media outlets can face closure for publishing the all-female band's famous performance in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. Thursday's far-reaching decision also means that hosting platforms like YouTube must remove the video for Russian users and that national Internet providers will have to block access to sites that continue to carry the video." This isn't the first time Russian courts have tried this. They also banned the infamous anti-Islamist film (which came from the US) "Innocence of Muslims. In fact, for a while, all of Youtube was banned, until popular outrage compelled the government to restore it.

I was talking with one woman who was flipping around TV one night and found a program featuring an Orthodox priest talking to a roomful of children. First they sang some songs together, all very innocent and sentimental. Then the tone turned: the priest asked them, don't you love going to an Orthodox school? Don't you wish everyone could? Shouldn't all schools be Orthodox? When you go to university, wouldn't you prefer to study in Russia, and avoid western ideas? Does Russia have enemies? Yes, it does!

Another person talked about attending a local event, and hearing someone else make a very innocuous joke about church. Suddenly, others started pulling back. Don't you believe? they asked.

There is both fear and evidence that Putin is tightening controls, and using the Orthodox church as one of his strategies. There is a growing convergence of church and state. Several people remarked to me that people are tired of chaos, seeking black or white. There is even nostalgia for the the Soviet days, because everything goes golden if far enough in the past.

The same Moscow Times reports that Putins' approval rating is falling. But only from 69 percent in May to 63 percent in November. But at that, it's higher than American ratings of Congress. Meanwhile, there is widespread understanding that the Mafia has moved from open gun fights on streets to more decorous engagements in the halls of government. One of my cab drivers pointed proudly to some apartments in the old part of Moscow, truly beautiful. "But expensive," he said. "They cost a million dollars." When I remarked that I thought most Russians only made about $10,000 a year, he shrugged and said, "government and Mafia people."

It happens that I took an interesting book with me (downloaded from Bilbary before I left). It's called Why Nations Fail, by American economists Daron Acemoglu, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and James Robinson, a Harvard professor. The theme of the book, which used the Soviet USSR as a prime example, is that political institutions reinforce economic systems that are either inclusive (democratic, participative, encouraging of innovation) or extractive (hierarchical, exclusive, controlling). At first, the Soviets succeeded (and were hailed by many American intellectuals as "the future") but only because they followed a clear path from agrarian to industrial. Once they got there, the USSR totally stagnated, focusing on transferring wealth from the masses to the elite. In the long run, that's simply not sustainable. So the empire collapsed.

But the extractive institutions under Putin seem to be even more deeply entrenched, funded for now by the older technology of oil. While there appears to have been a great explosion of capitalist wealth (as witnessed by many shops, businesses, etc.), the underlying uncertainty about whether people will be able to keep their wealth (because it will be skimmed or stolen by the state or organized crime, or some combination of the two) is corrosive. And ultimately the "creative destruction" caused by real innovation (in which whole sectors of the economy fail because the underlying premises change) is seen by extractive institutions as dangerous. And so innovation occurs elsewhere.

On the other hand, I found free wifi everywhere I went. Many young people (if 21 or under, born after the collapse of Communism) seemed to have cell phones and laptops. When the people can get information quite different from the overtly biased, government-friendly media, they will surely grow restless, understand that there are alternatives, and either leave, or stay and foment reform. That's a genie that's hard to put back into the bottle.

So I have complex feelings. On the one hand, I got from my brief trip some measure of the Russian people. They have real magnificence in their history: language, literature, architecture, culture. To a person, I found them smart, warm, funny, and generous. But their political institutions are overtly corrupt, controlling, suspicious, and ratcheting up in pugnacity and rapaciousness. Sad.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Non-fiction book fair

Yesterday I had my final speaking engagement. It was at the Non/Fiction Book Fair, at a large hall just opposite Gorky Park. The traffic is USUALLY bad in Moscow, but it was particularly crowded around the fair. There were two incredibly long lines outside the building to buy tickets. But as a speaker, I already had one.

I dropped by the coat check room (most building in Moscow seem to have one -- the legacy of cold winters) -- then went upstairs. Peter from the Embassy introduced me to Americans from the company Foreword Reviews, who represent many small and independent publishers. They knew about Douglas County Libraries because they'd met some of our people at the recent PubWest conference in Colorado.

One thinks of such fairs as industry gatherings. But apparently there are so few retail outlets for books that the Moscow citizenry just swarms the place. Almost every space was elbow to elbow. A lot of book buying was going on -- really more of a consumer event. I've posted a bunch of pictures on Facebook.

Peter took me to a large gathering space downstairs, where there was a stage, a large projection wall behind it, and serious amplification. When I walked in I was offered a lanyard with a radio device and earpiece. This was for simultaneous translation. The speaker before me was talking about Internet filtering and copyright, and the dangers of taking a wide open space and turning it into a series of walled enclosure. He may have been German (the hosts of the conference, as it happens) but he was speaking in English.

When he finished, I met Gelmiza Andrey, CEO of Knigabyte, Russian Digital Publishing Expo and Conference. I gather he was one of the main conference organizers. He told me that I'd be part of a panel with three others: a Russian publisher, a hardware and content distributor called Wexler (www.wexler.ru), and another site (Koogi.com) that's a kind of mix of social networking and content delivery. I went first as a speaker, for about 30 minutes. Then the Wexler and Koogi folks went, then we all took questions. In brief, I would say that the Russians are quite as sophisticated and tech savvy as we are, but there appear to be two large differences. First, there seems to be in Russia no ubiquitous ereading device (although I sure saw a lot of iPads). Wexler is marketing such a device, based on Android, if I got that right. Second, there appears to be no widespread Digital Rights Management standard or systems. So the market for econtent lags that of the US by quite a bit, and nobody seems to be making money at it. Meanwhile, consumers are learning that stealing the content is childishly simple.

Getting the simultaneous translation was interesting, but kind of sloppy. When a few questions were directed to me, I really couldn't make sense of them. I did track down a few people afterward, and Peter quickly made both sides clear to each other. These Embassy people are pretty darn good. other questions seemed to be along the lines of "is the library really that busy or interesting to the public?" Oh yes.

In my closing remarks, I said that I think there are three phases to gearing up for the digital publishing revolution. First is infrastructure: we need to develop software to host and deliver the content. This can happen very quickly. Second is relationships: the opportunity for new partnerships between authors, publishers, vendors, and libraries. Third is marketing: we need to find ways to encourage good writing, then promote the works through greater discoverability, and engagement with readers. But there is a place for the digital book.

When that was over, Gelmiza Andrey took up to see his "techmedia" exhibit. The idea was to assemble various "modules" to promote digital literacy. He showed me a terrific display screen (which I'll try to patch in here later) that would be put, for instance, in a park or cafe.

It's a very different style of display than DCL has been using, and I found it attractive and inviting. Then he took me to a children's area, which though small was populated with whimsical furniture (bean bag chairs and book/magazine trees, with the books ingeniously strung up to wire),
listening and viewing stations, and a live video studio of kids talking about books, then immediately having the video streamed on large panels around the room. It was delightful. We exchanged cards, and I would very much like to get this guy to some American library conferences. The sense of play and exploration was palpable. We haven't really talked that much about technology in the children's space, and this was genuinely promising.

Finally, I came back to my hotel, had dinner here, and spent the rest of the evening packing and reading. Naturally, I now seem to have the beginning of some kind of a cold, due no doubt to a persistently interrupted sleep cycle. I'm ready to go home.