Support open data and defend Aaron Swartz

I fully support Aaron Swartz as he fights unjustified charges from the U.S. government, and hope that my readers will support him too. Aaron is a researcher who works with huge datasets and has worked on many open data projects. Aaron is being charged for having accessed JSTOR, a repository of academic journal articles, and downloading them.

JSTOR itself didn’t want to press charges and says it hasn’t suffered loss or damage. But the U.S. Government indicted Aaron because they feel like they “caught a hacker”.

Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz

I’m incredulous that they would pursue this case against a well known researcher and activist who allegedly was doing something quite benign — scraping data.

I worry that this case will have a chilling effect on open data projects. The government has gone to great lengths here to stop a respected activist’s work, siccing the Secret Service on him and wasting an incredible amount of resources to trump up this case. The FBI has already investigated Aaron at least once for downloading PACER data . It looks bad to me, like the government was basically waiting for any excuse to build some sort of charge against Aaron for his briliant open data activism.

Here’s Aaron’s background in open data and analyzing large data sets:

In conjunction with Shireen Barday, he downloaded and analyzed 441,170 law review articles to determine the source of their funding; the results were published in the Stanford Law Review. From 2010-11, he researched these topics as a Fellow at the Harvard Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption.

He has also assisted many other researchers in collecting and analyzing large data sets with His landmark analysis of Wikipedia, Who Writes Wikipedia?, has been widely cited. He helped develop standards and tutorials for Linked Open Data while serving on the W3C’s RDF Core Working Group and helped popularize them as Metadata Advisor to the nonprofit Creative Commons and coauthor of the RSS 1.0 specification.
In 2008, he created the nonprofit site, making it easier for people to find and access government data. He also served on the board of Change Congress, a good government nonprofit.
In 2007, he led the development of the nonprofit Open Library, an ambitious project to collect information about every book ever published.

I would also like to say that I think that libraries and academics should stop buying into the JSTOR model. JSTOR aggregates academic journal articles which it doesn’t even own, and sells limited access to those articles to large institutions for thousands of dollars. Libraries and universities should act to enable access to information, not to limit it.

ETA: Here is JSTOR’s official statement on the case.

Small press in a box

I met David Merritt at in Wellington, New Zealand earlier this year. He had a table in the exhibitor’s hall on Open Day and was making tiny books there with his son. He was carrying around Landrover Farm Press in his suitcase. His idea is that publishers should carry their means of production with them in a box. I got instantly very excited! I’ve been making xerox zines since 1986 and carried that forward over the years to many small press poetry books and journals as well as riot grrl zines.

fabulous poet

David was taking the poems (previously printed or xeroxed), cutting them out at the table, stapling them into inside-out hardback book covers, pasting a label for his press on the inside cover, and then stamping the book titles on the front cover with alphabet block rubber stamps while chatting with his customers. Here is his “press in a box”:

david merritt's means of production

Most people were buying a tiny book called “Geek Prayers”. I bought one for 5 bucks.

outside front cover of geek prayers

The poem itself made me think of Len Andersen’s “Beep“, a parody of Howl which I put up on the web a few years ago with his permission. Like Beep, it attempts to include computers, technology, and the experience and culture of the Internet into poetic experience, but unlike Beep it pushes into the territory of embodying that culture. All it needs is a web site where you can print and construct your own version…

As I looked over my hastily constructed Geek Prayers book, the cleverness of its design struck me.

This poem is structured in separate phrases rather like the giant sentence that’s the first section of Howl. The sections can be in any order, which is pretty handy for the book binding. The last part of poem is printed and cut out separately and glued to the back cover. You could print out the double-sided pages of poem snippets on a sheet of paper, then cut them across and fold them in any order. I thought this was a very clever way of avoiding fuss in the page-collating and binding process by using randomness. It is in itself an excellent geek solution for a geek poem!

inside back cover of geek prayers

Here is the outside cover unfolded, showing how the inside endpapers of the original cover look when dissected, stapled, and stamped. Frayed bits of mull, endpaper, and the spine’s cardboard backing stick out like torn lace. One cover is stamped with a library mark and “discarded” giving a pleasant retro feel to a book that now sports its new and more meaningful rubber stamp marks. The poem has a sort of wistful history in its covers, a ghost existence underlying its new incarnation as a book. We are ephemera!

Of course David and I got to talking about publishing and poetry. As we talked he just kept giving me more books and showing me more poems, which I read instantly and which made my head explode. Most poetry leaves me a bit bored, if not completely nauseated. I get VERY EXCITED when a poem is fabulous, weird, thoughtful, unexpected, out there, or has anything at all FREE in it. As in a song, there has to be a break. A disruption between order and disorganization that exposes something. I like the arcs of big ideas, and I like supercompressed symbolist narratives, and along with it all, disruption of language and something new.

I think we babbled for a couple of hours about being our own movement, the unnamed inheritors of the Beat, just writing a ton and scattering it out into the world without any constipated fretting about copyright and Being Important. I went on an extended rant about wankery poetry scenes, stuckup expensive journals that no one reads except to figure out how to get in them and that become instant landfill, my old projects to wheatpaste poetry all over Austin — OPUS or OccuPations of Uninhabited Space (after Takver’s mobiles in Ursula Le Guin’s anarchic epic, The Dispossessed). And while I like Book Arts people I cannot really get into the idea of a book as a precious one of a kind handmade object. I like better to churn out sloppy handmade books, mass-production style, that are affordable enough for anyone to buy and read them, or that are cheap and easy enough for me to produce that I don’t mind giving them away.

At some point I wheeled away to beg the use of the organizers’ office printer, then was able to hand David a big batch of my own long ranting poems and a few translations. I talked about F.A. Nettelbeck and the tiny books he prints called “This Is Important” and how I look for the books printed by Alta in the 70s and early 80s and wrote letters with Cid Corman about bookmaking and short poems. If you haven’t seen Cid Corman’s tiny books, he did so much more than Origin (which rocks… but I love little handmade books.) We talked about short poems and long poems, form and performance and spoken word. It was really nice and unexpected to have this conversation at a technical conference!!

Here is David’s “first friday in fifteen”, which is one big 11 x 17 sheet trimmed down the long side to fit inside the cover, and folded up from the bottom so that the entire very long poem is on one page.

friday out

And here is a copy of his poem “nice things”, to show how interesting endpapers can jazz up an inside-out book:

outside of "nice things" book

The poem “nice things” is totally fucking awesome!

the single unfolded page of Nice Things

I’ll write another post about my explorations of making inside-out books over the past few months, inspired by David Merritt’s books from Landrover Farm Press, along with a step by step guide on how to do some recycled bookbinding!