OpenLibrary discussion mailing lists (powered by GNU MailMan, of course), you come across debates like a long discussion on how to deal with doubles in the entries, is a different version of a publication a new book and, by extension, how should a book be uniquely identified in the system, how should OL interact with Google Book Search in a fashion that would make usable, non-amputated metadata available, if a text is freely available, should it be linked/inkluded - and so on. And on.

The entire material is published under a Public Domain license, so under all circumstances it is freely accessible. I would routinely prefer to use Creative Commons licenses, but public domain offers a different level of freedom… perhaps. Well, that is another discussion for you there. I would assume the licensing is chosen to to sync it with the rest of the Internet Archive.

In conclusion: This is an interesting project which I will be keeping an eye on and contributing to. A highly qualified professional discussion of how to deal with this kind of data makes it even more appealing.
The project has also made me aware of the technical implications of the registration of library data, and though it will hardly be interesting to everyone, I have found some interesting articles in the Code4Lib magazine - mostly articles on principle, since I am hardly a library hacker - and the website of Karen Coyle, the OL metadata guru, came to my attention. She has some interesting observations - also of interest for those who are into the copyright discussions going on at the moment.

Jeff Lindsay: Darkly Dreaming Dexter

Posted by – February 11, 2010

I have been looking forward to writing about the book Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay.
Many will probably be familiar with the TV series of the same name based on the Dexter books. While the series are not too far off the mark, the book has it’s own supply of Dexterisms which make it worthwhile.

The plot is quite original. Dexter, the main character, has some very serious flaws in his personality; he is what one in another setting would call a homicidal maniac. Dexter experiences practically no human emotions and finds it difficult to understand people around him, since he is, essentially, without empathy. There is a side of him which compels him to kill – his Dark Passenger, as he calls it – which comes to him with great temptation. Dexter enjoys killing and doing it well, with meticulous preparation and flawless execution.

Now, that makes him elegible for the role of Bad Guy in thousands of books already written and read, but – there is a twist to this one, because Dexter was adopted as a child by Harry Morgan, or as Dexter refers to him in his internal monologue, The Good Cop. And at an early stage in Dexter’s life, Harry pulls him aside and tells him that – yes, he knows that Dexter is different. And he knows what Dexter did to the neighbour’s dog, which disappeared. And Harry explains to him that sometimes, being a policeman doesn’t make the necessary difference, sometimes one simply can not stay within the lines and still get the job done. So maybe there is something to be said for someone like Dexter if he can learn to control his urges and direct his focus in the right direction since – “There are plenty of people, who deserve it, Dexter”.

This advice sets Dexter in the direction where we find him in this book – as a forensic investigator in Miami, a scientist specialised in blood spatter. He follows his everyday work and comes into contact with those that need the kind of attention that the police force can not provide. Dexter examines the situation carefully and deals with it – cleans it up, so to speak – in accordance with the code of Harry. His step sister Deborah, who is an officer in the Vice department but hates it and hopes to find a place for herself in Homicide, comes to Dexter from time to time to seek his advice, since he seems to understand the killers’ minds quite well. Dexter has learned to act normal and charming – and he has his place and does a good job without raising anyone’s attention.

What makes the book interesting – especially compared to the TV series – are the ongoing debates Dexter has with himself. A good example of this and the language used in the book is the reflection he has on having caught the attention of detective LaGuerta, an extremely ambitious woman in the Homicide department:

LaGuerta is very very good at kissing ass, a world-class ass kisser. She kissed ass all the way up to the lofty rank of homicide investigator. Unfortunately, it is a job where her skills at posterior smooching were never called for, and she was a terrible detective.
It happens; incompetence is rewarded more often than not. I have to work with her anyway. So I have used my considerable charm to make her like me. Easier than you might think. Anybody can be charming if they don’t mind faking it, saying all the stupid, obvious, nauseating things that a conscience keeps most people from saying. Happily, I don’t have a conscience. I say them.

Now, who wouldn’t like to have written that? It is a very good image of Dexter’s charming pragmatism and pragmatic charm. The case which Dexter works with LaGuerta on is an important theme of the story. As the story progresses, Dexter becomes increasingly fascinated with the way the murders are carried out – the killer’s neatness and cleanliness affect him deeply. I shall spare you you the spoilers.

However unlikely it seems, Dexter has a girlfriend, or what one should call it – Rita, a woman he goes out with, who has an emotionally very rough background and has remained reluctant to get more deeply involved, which, if not for the same reasons, echoes how Dexter likes it. They are not without conflict, however, and once again, Dexter tries to handle it the way a normal person would, even if he does not entirely understand what is going on:

I stopped once more, at a small dark park almost to Rita’s house, and washed off carefully. I had to be neat and presentable; getting yelled at by a furious woman should be treated as a semiformal occasion.
But imagine my surprise when I rang her doorbell a few minutes later. She did not fling wide the door and begin to hurl furniture and abuse at me. In fact, she opened the door very slowly and carefully, half hiding behind it, as if badly frightened of what might be waiting on the other side. And considering that it was me waiting, this showed rare common sense.

The last sentence goes a long way to show Dexter’s perception of himself as powerful and monstrous. The author does a good job with keeping up Dexter’s internal debate through the book, although it also seems he sometimes gets a little carried away with the concept and premise of the book. There are a few short passages, where Dexter’s preoccupation with killing people becomes almost whimsical, a flimsy gag, like in the following passage:

While the coffee brewed, I checked for the newspaper, more out of hope than expectation. It was rare for the paper to arrive before six-thirty, and on Sundays it often came after eight. It was another clear example of the disintegration of society that had so worried Harry. Really, now: If you can’t get me my newspaper on time, how can you expect me to refrain from killing people?

I trust you see my point.

In closing: Darkly Dreaming Dexter is a good thriller based on an interesting idea. Using the Dexter character means a lot of unexpected changes of focus and pace through the book, and this dynamic works quite well. Dexter’s distanced observations are very descriptive and sometimes very funny. As this is only the first book in a still-growing series, it will be interesting to see if Jeff Lindsay can keep up the unique tone in the books to come. I suspect it will either become overly forced or develop into a more distrinct and clearly established style – one can feel in this first book that the author is experimenting with the Dexterverse.

Effort and purposes of the open source and free software movement

Posted by – February 11, 2010

This article is a piece from a previous website I had, called The Technographer.
This site is now no longer active, but the article still makes me think deeper about this issue, so it might as well find a home here.

There is a thing which has been orbiting inside my head (inside orbiting makes sense if you have read or, as I did, listened to Singularity by Bill DeSmedt), which I would like to talk a little about here. The obvious question rarely asked: Why?

What triggered this question (and yes, I shall elaborate) was reading Hackers by Steven Levy (more about it in the Wikipedia article). In this classic, Levy tells the story about the original hackers and their love of technology, hacker ethics – the open access to create elegant solutions. It is also the tale of people obsessed by technology for the sake of technology.
I consider myself a part of the open source & free software community. I am not a programmer – and judging from my programming abilities, it is for the best if I don’t try to contribute – but I have written documentation, reviews, helped people use the software and translated both software and the accompanying documents.
Now, reading this book brings up a question, which is surprisingly rarely asked: Why are we doing what we do?

I mean, obviously people get jobs where they write software. Nothing strange about a developer writing server software being employed by IBM, Novell or for that matter Red Hat itself. But that is the people who do it for a living. How about the rest of us? Personally, I am a geek of office software (also often referred to by the unholy misnomer “productivity software), which is due to my profession, but there is a wide gap between this interest and the concrete tasks I use such software for.
In a recent discussion thread in the Linux Outlaws Forum it was brought up what people find most positive about the FLOSS world. As always, the answers were divided into technical merits and community. If one was to ask Ubuntu Community Manager Jono Bacon, I have no doubt from the opinions he voiced on numerous Lugradio broadcasts that it is the personal relations, the community feel, that makes the difference. I recognize that the community makes it interesting, that you build up a network of people with similar interest. But you would experience the same with model railroad enthusiasts, and they would never attach the level of importance to model railroads that the open source and free software movements attach to development. If any of you have ever taken part in a discussion about software licensing or people marketing the software simply as cost-free, you will know what I mean.

So why is software development important? Again, there are straightforward reasons for that – it is useful. I like to send email, that is handy. As I write this, I am using an open source operating system (Slackware) based on a free software (Linux) kernel to access the open source (Apache) server running a free software operating system (Debian Linux). As you see, this is WordPress, released under similar conditions. So it is nice to have. But important?
If one stops to see the more philosophical approaches to the topic, it is impossible to get around Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation. If you look at the GNU Philosophy page, you will see what RMS is about. A classic text is The Free Software Definition. This text will outline how proprietary software is ethically wrong – in other words, Stallman raises the question as a moral one. The authorized Stallman biography is aptly named Free As In Freedom: Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software. But he is a remnant of the culture described in the abovementioned Hackers – Stallman is mentioned in the book – for whom software and technology have an intrinsic purpose and point, and the focus on releasing source code is a product of his academic upbringing: A mental excersize, an accomplishment should be published for peer scrutiny.
Another important piece of literature is The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Steven Raymond. This other classic defines open source, but more as a methodology and an economic model. The economic model is elaborated in greater detail in The Magic Cauldron. To summarize, the point is to redefine the production of software from a product model to a service model. The logic is that since only a very small part of the industry is engaged in developing software for publication and packaged sale, it makes more sense to engage in creating a collective software infrastructure and selling support and services instead. It is a logical extrapolation of the hacker ethic that it should not be necessary to invent things more than once. And so, after building or extending a piece of software, the code of the program or the changes should be released as well.
One of the interesting aspects of Raymond’s model is that he is quite vocally a capitalist. Stallman has also from time to time had to stress that giving away code is not based on left-wing ideals; but Raymond argues for liberty, and one of the main points of the Cathedral and the Bazaar is how a society based on a bazaar model is more rational than the top-down controlled examplified by the building of a cathedral. Raymond’s approach is based on a meritocracy, that the more efficient and competent service provider will be the successful one.

As I said, this is methodology. It answers the question Why do it like this, if you are doing it – but not Why do it?

Of course, it is tempting to look to socialist ideology for an answer to this. In traditional socialist productivity, the problem is that the amount produced is usually smaller than the amount needed, and the distribution calculation is complex. If one is talking about code and software development, nothing is lost, nothing is wasted and everything can be replicated as needed. If one was to apply a parallel, it would be like everyone contributed only a single brick, but everyone would receive a house. So in software development, a socialist collective approach may be more efficient than when it comes to manufacturing produce.
While it seems less than likely that the open source and free software movements are a huge group of left-wingers, this model at least suggests a motive for putting in the effort.

An interesting suggestion is the philosophical approach suggested by Danish philosopher and technology commentator Tor Nørretranders. In his 2005 book The Generous Man (Det generøse menneske), Nørretranders suggests a darwinistic model for generosity and art. His often-mentioned example is that of the peacock, which has a huge tail which seems to serve no particular purpose and is, in fact, a hindrance for survival. The point is signalling a superior level of strength and surplus of resources, a display of creativity simply for the purpose of doing so.
Now, this seems like a viable explanation, particularly since software development requires a level of craftsmanship which would allow a developer to – dare I say: Show off the size of his tail?