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Webmail circumvention of gv’t transparency continues

Last year I noted that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez’s use of RNC mail servers to conduct business related to the attorney firings scandal posed a serious threat to our democratic government’s requirement of transparency and access. The problem of using private email accounts to conduct public business reemerged with the discovery that Gov. Sarah Palin was using Yahoo webmail accounts, at a minimum to communicate with one of her appointees to the Governor’s Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. The compromised accounts are now, apparently, deleted.

Whether or not Gonzalez and Palin violated the law in their use of webmail to conduct business is one question. But there’s also a question of whether the actions of “anonymous” might be seen as vigilante FOIA enforcers. And then there’s the very serious business question of whether Yahoo!, Google, should and will be on the hook to abide by government and corporate retention laws whenever relevant personnel (whether governors, CIOs, or desk clerks) conduct corporate or government business on those channels. I doubt, for example, that the bits constituting the inbox of are forever gone.

If we are to dampen the use of private communication channels for publicly-relevant business, it seems the best bet is to enlist the help of webmail hosts, who are probably not all that enthusiastic about being legally required to retain messages for years or even decades.

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Professor sacrifices royalties to protest high textbook costs

Another article about Professor R. Preston McAfee, an economics professor at Cal Tech, in today’s New York Times. McAfee is giving away his economics textbook and letting students download it as a PDF or get it micro-printed from Lulu or Flat World Knowledge. He also scoffs at the idea that textbooks can ever be fully crowdsourced: “Of all the things that are changing, one thing is consistent — the authorship model. What doesn’t worry me is that leading experts will say I will write my own damn book and people will read it.” Which is pretty much how we see it at eLangdell.

update: Interestingly, this article has hit the top-10 most emailed on the Times, on a day when politics and economics otherwise reign supreme.

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Yet another open-source textbook

(c) CK-12Yesterday Creative Commons announced a partnership with the CK-12 Foundation‘s Flexbook, “a free and open source textbook platform where one can build and edit collaborative textbooks.” The Commonwealth of Virginia announced a partnership with CK-12 to build an open physics flexbook for all of Virginia. Interestingly, the Foundation chose the Creative Commons BY-SA (attribution + sharealike) license, which permits commercial use of the IP. That’s the same license we’ll be using for eLangdell.

Open source textbooks spreading

Last week’s LA Times reported on vigilante open-source textbook publishing. Economist R. Preston McAfee was so fed up with “idiotic books that are starting to break $200” that he turned down $100K for his textbook and decided to let it go Free.

“I’m a right-wing economist, so they can’t call me a communist,” he is quoted as saying.

If there’s a limitation with Prof. McAfee’s approach, it’s that he seems to be doing it in a vacuum. The article mentions Connexions in an aside, which is more than just an e-publishing tool but, like eLangdell, an entire platform for exchanging teaching materials.

More discussion of this effort on Slashdot.

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Hub2 luncheon presentation at Berkman

In this presentation, Professor Eric Gordon (Emerson College) and Gene Koo (Berkman), together with the staff of Hub2, will describe Hub2’s progress and challenges in working this summer with the North Allston neighborhood to participate in the design of Honan Library Park, which Harvard University is redeveloping as part of its larger Allston project. Joining this presentation will be the youth interpreters who have helped less technologically adept neighbors access the Hub2 technology and who in turn have learned to build and code in Second Life as well as understand urban planning.

Find out more and RSVP

Trolls, politics, and the New York Times

To the editor:

Given the reality of Internet trolling (The Trolls Among Us, by Mattathias Schwartz, Aug 3), the New York Times’ own reader comment system is hopelessly naive in its architecture. Head over to the Caucus blog, read the comment threads, and ask yourself: how many of those who claim to be an “Obama supporter” or a “Republican in Iowa” can be believed? How many, instead, intend to sow discord or harvest “lulz”?

The question mattered during a Democratic primary where Clinton and Obama supporters seemed to trade vitriol directed as much at each other as at the candidates. And because the character of candidates’ supporters continues to matter (Obama supporters are “elitist;” McCain’s, “racist”), trolls can easily spread mistrust among the electorate.

Political trolling, whether coordinated or freelance, may be the newest weapon in politics’ arsenal of dirty tricks. But the Times need not serve as a proving-ground. Take a lesson from the Robot9000 example and patch your own blogs before real harm is done.

(See also “Don’t Let Internet Trolls Get Your Goat“)

Textbook pirates, aaargh

Looks like someone in the publishing industry’s PR machine has been hard at work peddling this story:

Textbooks, free and illegal, online: Use of pirated works hurting publishers

I’m sure that piracy is cutting into sales, but as is typical, the story lacks any quantitative data substantiating its overall alarmist tone.

As far as eLangdell is concerned, this passage is particularly telling:

Some instructors avoid textbooks altogether, while still making use of the Web. “I have over the last five years or so stopped the practice of assigning textbooks,” said Vincent Rocchio, an assistant professor of communication studies at Northeastern University in Boston. “Instead, I publish a group of essays electronically on my course website.”

Rocchio said “the outrageous cost of textbooks” makes it cheaper for him to purchase electronic publishing rights and pass the lower costs on to the students.

Hub2 engages Allston residents in designing Honan Library Park

Project Coordinator Peter Bowne engages residents in design Something remarkable happened last night at the Hub2 Honan Library Park design session. People were laughing — laughing because they were having fun and enjoying an open design process.

Nine residents of North Allston sat down with our staff, experienced the space virtually on both the big screen and their own laptops, and brainstormed how the park could play a role in community life. We asked the residents to pick a theme from among the several that emerged from the formal design process being led by Harvard and the ICON Group. Among these themes were “playful,” “educational,” and “contemplative.”

Because the park is still in the early design phases, we focused on broad strokes rather than specific design, and participants knew we were throwing out ideas, not specific recommendations. Nonetheless, the residents were actively engaged in thinking through how the space might weave into the fabric of the neighborhood, what can realistically fit in the relatively small, L-shaped parcel, and what the community really needs. Among the general ideas were a fitness circuit, ampitheatre-type group space, a covered seating area, and a naturalistic pond.

The outcome of last night’s process will be available to view in Second Life through tomorrow afternoon, when a new community group will come in and do it all again. We’ll be providing Copley-Wolff Design Group, the landscape architects for the park, with these ideas as well as more specific designs later in the summer. If you’re a local constituent of the park, please consider joining us at tomorrow’s brainstorming session:

Harvard Allston Education Portal
175 N. Harvard St

Anwar helps navigate Second Life We’d especially like to thank, among the Hub2 staff, our interpreters — local Allston youth who have been learning more about both the virtual world of Second Life and the real world of park design — who helped residents manipulate their avatars through the virtual space. Our hosts, the Harvard Education Portal, also worked extra-hard to ensure that the computers and network stayed up and running.

Law, not just the Internet, fuels fundraising success

Sure, the Internet has given Barack Obama’s presidential campaign an incredible fundraising edge. But smart use of technology only partially explains the breathtaking numbers (over $260M raised, over 1.5M individual donors). Obama’s online fundraising strategy is possible only because of the Federal Election Campaign Act — ironically, the very legislation that pundits claim he now threatens with his decision to opt out of federal public campaign financing.

In 1974, Congress amended FECA to limit the total amount that individuals can contribute to individual candidates. One of the goals behind this cap was to somewhat equalize citizens’ voices by muffling the wealthiest (and therefore “loudest”) individuals. In reality, the cap remained high enough ($1,000 in 1974, $2,300 today) that while the filthy-rich could no longer buy the vote outright, the merely wealthy still had an outsized impact on elections. In 2000, of donors who contributed $200 or more to any given political contribution, those who gave more than $999 made up only 44% of contributors but constituted over 86% of the total dollars taken in.

campaign-fundraising.pngThen Howard Dean came along and upended this cozy arrangement. The progressive Netroots helped Dean raise over $30M from small (under $200) donations during the 2004 Democratic primaries — just $4.4M shy of what Gore raised for the entire 2000 race. Suddenly, small donors became a viable way to fund a major campaign. And even though Dean was far more successful than his peers that year at galvanizing small-donor support — they made up 60% of his individual fundraising — both major parties’ 2004 nominees relied far more on small contributions than in 2000 (See chart).

Law matters, because without caps on the amount of hard money any one person could give to a candidate, neither Dean’s nor Obama’s army of small donors could keep up with the astonishingly deep pockets of the American mega-rich. Technology matters too, of course, because it is the mature Internet — one that citizens trust with their credit cards — that makes small-donor fundraising efficient enough to pursue as a serious fundraising strategy. But it took 30 years before fundraising technology realized FECA’s goal of (somewhat) leveling the playing field across campaign donors.

Policy — even if it’s no policy at all — always tilts the playing-field in one direction or another. Capping campaign contributions dampens the voices of the very rich; conversely, removing them would reduce the relative power of the small donor. Banning cash contributions altogether would favor those with time rather than money to give. Our laws define fair play: we can’t ban campaign money because it’s a Constitutionally protected form of free speech, but we don’t want it to be too influential, either.

For any given policy landscape, there’s a set of technologies and tactics that best advances the players’ strategic goals. It would seem that the Obama campaign has struck one such optimal combination, fusing Dean’s Netroots with old-fashioned grassroots. But lest Democrats feel too smug about striking that sweet spot, they might do well to recognize the Howard Dean of the 2008 Republican field: Mike Huckabee muscled his way to third place with half of his contributions coming from small donors. Broad-based, Internet-enabled fundraising has no ideological bias, only a small nudge for those with wide grassroots appeal.

Don’t Let Internet Trolls Get Your Goat: politics is divisive enough without them taking a toll

Last week, as Hillary Clinton stood at the brink of suspending her candidacy, I changed my Facebook status to “Gene Koo respects and admires Hillary.” I meant this in all sincerity: I proudly supported Clinton’s Senate campaigns, and I marvel at what she accomplished in her historic run for President. But in less than an hour one of my friends had changed her status to, “… does not appreciate Gene’s sarcasm.” Knowing that I had campaigned for Barack Obama, she read my sentiments with skepticism.

I understood her distrust. I also worried about it, so when an anti-Hillary message showed up on an Obama mailing list, I shared my Facebook story and pleaded for civility. Soon enough the author of that email sent me a nasty message, questioning my judgment and obliquely threatening my family. A few discreet inquiries later I learned this fellow had been doing the same to other members of the list.

My email adversary was revealed as an “Internet troll” – someone who gets his kicks from goading others into emotional responses. Like their counterparts in folklore, Internet trolls live under bridges across the gulfs that divide us and exploit those divisions for their own perverse pleasure.
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