Categorized: Digital

The University of California Press, or Another Case of Why Academic Publishing is Doomed in the Digital Age

I’m currently reviewing Hollywood, 1938, written by Catherine Jurca and published by University of California Press, for adoption in the American Film Industry course that I sometimes get to teach.

Since I am low on space and constantly on the move, I requested an electronic book. UC Press used the Vitalsource platform for this particular electronic book. I see the logic in using this platform for review copies since it allows them to control the distribution of the book. For example, should an instructor not adopt the book, the publisher can revoke access—or more likely, set an expiration date—so that the instructor doesn’t get a free book. Notably, UC Press sent me a DRM-free review copy of Precarious Creativity, but that book was licensed by a Creative Commons license and did not have “all rights reserved.”

I’ve been an outspoken critic of how academc publishers misuse electronic books. More often than not they commit one of two crimes:

  1. They saddle to book with so many digital rights management restrictions that the book is unusable. One common scenario is when the ebook application requires an internet connection to access your library, but because you are—for example—flying in airplane or trapped in a subway train, you can’t read a book that you paid for.
  2. They merely reproduce the pages of the print edition and put those on your device. That usually works except on a mobile device, such as a smartphone. I could be wrong, but I think there’s a few college students that own smartphones. I wonder if they wouldn’t mind reading their textbooks on a device they own.

In this case, the University of California Press committed both.

First, they using Vitalsource, a platform that makes it difficult as possible to open a book because it imagines every possible scenario where “unauthorized access” might occur. They should obviously take the opposite approach: imagine every possible scenario where someone might want to use your product. Even a seasoned veteran encountered an issue where I had to deauthorize my old iPad Air so I could read this book on my new iPad Pro. It wasn’t a difficult task, but it was certainly inconvenient.

Second, the book is unreadable. To their credit, whoever adapted this book for electronic distribution seemed to consider that the most natural way to advance through text is through vertical scrolling, as one does when reading a webpage or when looking through a social media feed. Instead of flipping virtual pages, you can advance through the entire text of a chapter by scrolling vertically. However, the text of this book is so small it is unreadable.

An entire nine-line paragraph is a mere two-and-a-half centimeters tall. Thankfully, you can enlarge the text. There’s a hidden menu that allows you to resize the text.

Can you find how to enlarge text?

Increasing the size helped a little bit, but it didn’t add any room to the tightly spaced text, as one can do with the EPUB format. Yes, I wear glasses, but I feel I still have pretty good eyesight. However this ebook strained my vision to where I couldn’t read beyond the first paragraph.

There was one function however that did make “reading” the book much easier. Vitalsource will allow you to speak the text. Some reading apps, such as Instapaper, have the same feature. It works for short works, such as news articles or blog posts. However, having a computer voice read to you for extended period of time ruins my experience of imagining the author detailing the historical moment and constructing an argument about Hollywood in 1938. And when you’re being read to aloud by a computer, it also elicits some confused and puzzled looks on the faces of various passersby.

The above link to Amazon is an affiliate link. Shopping through that link will kick back a referral fee to me, which I feel I deserve after having to endure reviewing this terrible ebook format.

Title II > Title I

It’s been an exciting week for Internet advocacy in the United States. To put it in crude, succinct, and kinda androcentric-and-infantilizing terms, the Federal Communications Commission grew a pair and ruled to…

  1. regulate ISPs as a Title II Common Carrier instead of a Title I Information Service Provider.
  2. prohibit restrictions against community broadband, such as those in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina, where they get faster and cheaper Internet access than in New York City.

Everyone has gone gaga over the first ruling, but I think the second one is just as crucial. Why? If net neutrality is “Obamacare for the Internet,” community broadband is the “public option” we didn’t get with the Affordable Care Act. It subjects commercial ISPs to competition that is primarily concerned with serving its citizens rather than enriching its shareholders.

The commercial ISPs have complained that if they were subject to Title II common carriage regulation, they would be less inclined to invest in their infrastructure. They would be less likely to expand access, and they would be less likely to increase broadband speeds in the coming years. In other words, they would act like a telecommunications monopoly with little incentive to improve their product. Guess what? They already behave that way.

Most of the country lacks access to viable broadband. For many of those who do have access, they face a Hobson choice when selecting Internet service providers. As for average broadband speeds, at 11.5 Mbps, the United States is hardly in the lead. We rank somewhere between Taiwan (9.5 Mbps) and Singapore (12.2 Mbps) among Asian nations and between Israel (11.4 Mbps) and Finland (11.7 Mbps) among EMEA nations.1

Throughout the twentieth century, AT&T, the telephone monopoly in the US, improved the technology to connect local and long-distance calls more efficiently, but the end-product was more or less unchanged for seven decades. AT&T held a monopoly over US telephone service beginning in 1913, under the Kingsbury Commitment, until 1984, when it was forced to fragment and sell its local exchanges into seven regional Baby Bells. In that time, there were very few functional improvements to the telephone receiver.

Comparing two receivers—one from the 1930s and one from the 1980s—it’s hard to tell what specific improvements there were. Both receivers consisted of a dial and a corded handset, and you could have one in any color you wanted… as long as you wanted black. Why was there no speakerphone? Where is the touchtone keypad? Why couldn’t someone put a call on hold or mute the receiver? If someone missed a call, why couldn’t the phone indicate so with a notification? And, why could someone not walk around any further than the length of the receiver’s cord?

Carterphone

The Carterphone from the late 1960s allowed telephone users to bypass the telephone cord.

The key reason why AT&T did not innovate and improve its product for the consumer was not because it was closely regulated as a utility and that it had to provide universal access, it was because it was a monopoly and no had little incentive to innovate. It was not until the 1980s that consumers were finally able to connect foreign attachments to their telephones, such as answering machines and modems, purchase their own phones, including cordless and touchtone devices, and choose their own long-distance telephone provider and calling plan.

Touchtone telephone

Touchtone “dialing” finally arrives in the 1980s. Was that really so hard?

In other words, with viable competition in underserved markets, commercial ISPs will be forced to, in the words of countless entrepreneurial free-marketeers, “innovate or die.”

Updated because the new WordPress for iOS app turned my Markdown into HTML. Yuck.


  1. This is based on Akamai’s State of the Internet report for the third quarter of 2014. http://www.akamai.com/dl/akamai/akamai-soti-q314-infographic.pdf 

A Sad Journey through My Web Browser’s Bookmarks

As a man of a certain age, I have been an active Internet user for over twenty years, beginning with email and USENET. I have also been using the graphical web since about late 1995 or early 1996, around the time I figured out how to set up a dialup SLIP connection at home. As someone initially intimidated by computers, getting my Quadra on the Internet via a phone line—without a commercial service like AOL, Prodigy, or Compuserve—was an initial step in becoming the lonely, over-inquisitive technophile that I am today.

Over that time, I have collected (and lost) a bunch of web bookmarks. We all have. In my days of doing desktop support, my users bemoaned getting a new computer because they feared losing their documents, which we diligently transferred, and their bookmarks, which we also migrated to their new browser.1 Each user’s bookmark collection was like a box of digital heirlooms.

Some of my own bookmarks are really, really old. They have migrated from one browser to another—Netscape to Internet Explorer to Safari—and outlasted about a half-dozen Macs, starting with a PowerMac G3. Over the weekend, I was typing some address in the Safari web location bar. After a few keystrokes, the auto-complete feature suggested something long-forgotten, though kinda-familiar: The Standpipe Gallery at http://standpipegallery.com. Don’t bother following that link because it’s dead. In fact, after clicking through my other bookmarks, especially those dating from when I still organized them into folders, very few sites still exist today. That was kinda depressing.

Here’s a sampling:

Site What was/is it? Status
NZ English to US English Dictionary My friend Nina, a Kiwi, talked funny. I used this to understand her. Alive
Pulpculture Don’t remember Dead
Voice of American Pronunciation Guide I once thought I was a cosmopolitan and wanted to learn to pronounce everyone’s name right. Alive
Plan 59 Cool midcentury commercial art. Great for slide decks. Alive
Geneva and Aron’s Wedding Page A website for my friends’ wedding. Dead, though they’re still happily married
Baseball Strategy Guide for baseball strategy, I guess. Dead
Dodger Blues A frustrated Dodger fans making me laugh. Alive, but dormant since 2012
Bike Summer NYC A group/event I followed back in 2003. Dead
Pike 2 Bike Tunnel Trail A bike trail in Pennsylvania that Sarah and I were going to ride one day Dead, and we never rode it
Cosmic Baseball Association: Bolex Poetics An imaginary baseball team comprised of experimental filmmakers Alive, shockingly
DVDxDV Handbrake before there was Handbrake Alive
Independent Student Media Project It might have been related to the Iraq War Dead
Commanderson Communication Studies professor Tim Anderson Dead, though the professor still lives
Count Smokula Accordion-playing clown for the hipster set Alive, but dormant since 2005
Contaminated Records A record label, I guess Dead
Dot Dash NYC Rock ‘n’ roll music promoters Dead
Siberia Bar Dive bar and music venue near Port Authority Bus Terminal Dead
dINbOT Musician Dead
Quarterslot Music performer named Jessica-something. Also, I was her TA Dead
Bloody Panda Dark metal band that had its day for a while. Dead
Nineteenth Century Slang Dictionary A fun resource, probably where I looked up the term “grass widow Dead

I’d go on, listing more of them, but I already feel old and sad enough without plunging any further. At one time, my bookmark collection, and the sites collected therein, meant something to me. They either provided some utility, some insight, or even a laugh, but now, years later, they’re gone. And had I not impulsively followed one of them, they would all have been forgotten, too.

There’s some truth to the claim that the Internet never forgets, a fact that makes me think twice before I post something here. But there’s something else that’s also true about us and our digital artifacts. Someday, we will all be dead. And once our domain registrations expire and our hosting plans don’t renew, our web sites will be dead, too. Just like us.

As for the Standpipe Gallery that initially piqued my curiosity and triggered this post, I figured out that it was a gallery founded by Alison Pierz, the wife of a grad-school colleague. Much like the website, the gallery no longer exists. However, there’s an “archive” available of the work shown there over the years. It survives as a Facebook page.


  1. If I remember correctly, for a time, there was even some issue with browser lock-in. Your Netscape bookmarks would not easily transfer to Internet Explorer, or vice-versa, or maybe, I’m just making that up. 

Lapdogs Unite Against Net Neutrality

Next Thursday will be a big day for telecommunications policy in the United States. The FCC is scheduled to vote on whether it will reclassify broadband Internet service as a common-carrier utility (Title II) instead of its current destination as an information service (Title I). Classifying broadband as a utility would allow the FCC to enforce regulations aimed at prohibiting discriminatory and preferential treatment of Internet traffic. In short, under Title II, the FCC could institute and enforce net neutrality rules for an open Internet.

Because these rules threaten the status quo of telecommunications companies, particularly the MVPD (“cable companies”) that dominate the broadband market in the United States, there is an offensive designed to turn public opinion against net neutrality.

One unexpected place for this anti–net neutrality discourse came from the FCC itself. Earlier today, the FCC posted a press release on its website titled “What People Are Saying About President’s Plan to Regulate The Internet.” The document is a selection of quotes that oppose net neutrality, characterizing it as a regulatory burden on the innovative broadband industry.

According to some veteran communication lawyers who monitor the FCC, it is unprecedented for the FCC to release a preemptive, partisan position, such as this one, especially since this is a collage of quotes rather than an actual announcement. Press releases are intended to give news agencies content to reproduce or adapt for their publications. By releasing a series of quotes without any background, this release could serve as the basis for anti–net neutrality news articles, in the coming days, on the eve this potentially historic vote. This is especially troubling since, under the banner of the FCC, it sounds like a quasi official endorsement of these positions. Moreover, the title of the release includes references to “people,” giving the position a folksy, common-sense tone, and to the “president’s plan to regulate the Internet,” which not only sounds like a top-down executive decision but also a push to impose burdensome regulations on “our Internet.”

If this language–of President Obama threatening free-enterprise with regulation–sounds like a tired-old Republican talking point, that’s because opposing net neutrality is a tired old Republican position.

The FCC has five commissioners, each is appointed by the president. In order to ensure some political balance, no more than three commissioners can be from the president’s political party. The source of the press release referenced above is Brendan Carr, a staffer for Commissioner Ajit Pai. Commissioner Pai is one of the two FCC Republican-party commissioners and a net-neutrality opponent.

Another one of Commissioner Pai’s staffers, Matthew Berry, has been active on Twitter promoting Pai’s appearances on conservative talk shows decrying net neutrality and also childishly referring to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler as a lapdog. for following the call of President Obama—and nearly four million comments from the public—to reclassify the Internet as a utility.

Even former chairman Robert McDowell (yes, another Republican) has chimed in comparing Obama’s push for net neutrality to the actions of Saudi and Russian dictators. Throughout his seven-year tenure at the FCC, he dogmatically opposed communications policies like net neutrality, universal access, and reviving the Fairness Doctrine. It’s nice to see he has been keeping busy since stepping down from the Commission in 2013.

It’s been over a decade since I’ve last lived with a dog—a small Tibetan Spaniel named Capella—but I think I know what a corporate lapdog looks like.

Update: The press release now indicates that it was issued from the office of Commissioner Ajit Pai.

Every Three Years

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a sweeping piece of legislation passed in 1998, prohibits the circumvention of copyright controls, known as Technological Protection Measures (TPM). The aim of this prohibition is to prevent users from defeating TPMs to infringe on copyright. There are various measures in place, especially as newer media technologies emerged since 2000, and cracking them is not only difficult, it is actually illegal, even if you don’t infringe on any specific copyrights.

Every three years, the Librarian of Congress decides which uses are non-infringing and permits specific exemptions to the anti-circumvention provision. I first became involved with this triennial review on the eve of the 2006 rule-making process. At the time, media scholars and teaching faculty were legally hamstrung in extracting short clips and screen captures from copy-protected DVDs for teaching film and television classes at a college or university level. DVDs offered a better source than a film print or a videocassette for two major reasons: efficiency and fidelity.

  1. DVDs offered a convenient package for us to extract clips and frame grabs. With a DVD, we would use a computer’s optical drive to extract clips. We could easily skip to a scene and take what we needed in a short amount of time. In the few times I took frame enlargements from a 16mm print, the process could take as little as a few days but would often take over a week. It would also be expensive because I had to buy 35mm film, pay to have it processed and printed. With a DVD, I could grab what I needed in a matter of minutes at almost no cost.
  2. DVDs offered higher fidelity than what was available on videocassette and on some film prints. Not only does a DVD offer many more lines of resolution than a videocassette or look better than a beat-up film print, extracting a clip or a frame is an entirely digital process. We don’t have to resort to an analog conversion and the attendant generation loss. The image would look as sharp as it did on the DVD.

Well-written laws need to respond to their current historical moment. For example, college and university faculty have received an exemption from TPM on DVDs since 2006 for making clips, but today, most of us look online first for videos.1 We need to expand the exemption to allow us to circumvent online video, as a public interest group, documentary filmmakers, librarians, and educators have all argued.

Moreover, the EFF (aka the “good guys”) have filed several briefs on behalf advocating for additional exemptions. Most of these exemptions account for emerging technologies that seemed fantastic fifteen years ago at the dawn of the millennium but are very real today. Some of the exemptions the EFF is seeking to secure include:

  • Accessing onboard computers on vehicles for research and repair.
  • Creating video remixes from locked videos on disks and from streaming sites to upload onto video sharing sites.
  • Jailbreaking phones and tablets.
  • Modifying video games so that they need not “phone home” to an authorization server when the server is offline.

While it is cumbersome to constantly reapply for these exemptions, it is important to continually update our laws. They should not only keep up with new emerging technologies, but also with our own ever-evolving culture.


  1. We may have been exempt before then, but I was a scofflaw in this regard in 2006. 

Andy Warhol’s Amiga Art: Wait, What’s an Amiga?

Almost six months ago, I sported a white wig to class. It was Halloween, and we were covering Andy Warhol, among other New York–based experimental filmmakers. When I wrote about my “costume” I said that Andy Warhol was an “was an artist who didn’t actually make any art.” To illustrate that point, I embedded a video of Warhol “painting” a portrait of Debbie Harry using a Commodore Amiga, a personal computer that was ahead of its time in graphics processing.

Aside from painting the Blondie lead singer and star, Warhol made many more images using the Amiga. Although not common, it’s not unusual for a technology company to supply artists with equipment to make art. For example, video artist Bill Viola received early video equipment from Sony in the 1970s as part of a residency with the Japanese electronics maker.

Commodore Amiga computer equipment used by Andy Warhol 1985-86, courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.

Commodore Amiga computer equipment used by Andy Warhol 1985-86, courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.

Because Warhol had created these works using an obsolete computer system and saved them on deterriorating storage media, his digital art was thought to be irretreivably lost. Over the last two years, a very determined and resourceful “team of new-media artists, computer experts, and museum professionals” rescued these works from their digital tomb, including this image of a Campbell Soup can.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s, 1985, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visuals Arts, Inc., courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.

Andy Warhol, Campbell’s, 1985, ©The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visuals Arts, Inc., courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.

The problem with a lot of digital art is that it requires the original equipment to retrieve it. The Commodore Amiga was state of the art in 1985, but it is almost forgotten today. Moreover, the media used to store those files are nearly thirty years old, and have become brittle with age. Even trying to read those disks with a fully functioning Amiga computer and disk drive set up could irreversibly damage those disks, making those files lost forever.

It was not known in advance whether any of Warhol’s imagery existed on the floppy disks-nearly all of which were system and application diskettes onto which, the team later discovered, Warhol had saved his own data. Reviewing the disks’ directory listings, the team’s initial excitement on seeing promising filenames like “campbells.pic” and “marilyn1.pic” quickly turned to dismay, when it emerged that the files were stored in a completely unknown file format, unrecognized by any utility. Soon afterwards, however, the [Carnegie Mellon University’s Computer] Club’s forensics experts had reverse-engineered the unfamiliar format, unveiling 28 never-before-seen digital images that were judged to be in Warhol’s style by the [Andy Warhol Museum] experts. At least eleven of these images featured Warhol’s signature.

Warhol is an important artist, and it’s great to see a preservation effort succeed in recovering his digital art. But for every successful recovery of a high-profile artists, I wonder how many more artists‘ works are lost to digital rot.

Evergreen Subscriptions are Perennial Pains

Magazines make money in two ways: consumer sales and advertising. Since advertising revenue has been steadily declining over the last two decades, magazines are likely to push sales numbers higher by pushing evergreen subscriptions.

An evergreen subscription is one where you provide a credit card number when you subscribe. It’s framed as a convenience since you don’t have to mail a check[1], and you can continue to receive your magazines without interruption. This way there won’t be any gaps in that rack you keep by the toilet.

As convenient as this is for you, the true beneficiaries of an evergreen subscription are the magazines themselves. This provides them with a steady stream of income since most people forget to cancel their subscriptions. And they have your credit card number.

I fell for this ploy when I subscribed to the cooking magazine, Saveur, last year. It was a one-year digital subscription for $5.00. The print issues are lovely. They have great looking layouts, beautiful photographs, and some great recipes. However, the digital version is shovelware. It’s nothing more than a digital reproduction of the print magazine. And everything—the text and images—are all graphic files that eat up a ton of storage space on my iPad. The experience does not translate.

The digital version of Saveur is difficult to read.

The digital version of Saveur is difficult to read.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the promotional rate was just a way to convert me to an evergreen subscriber:

Continuous Service Program: I understand that unless I tell you otherwise I will receive uninterrupted service and delivery of these digital magazines, and my subscriptions will be automatically renewed at the end of each subscription term, at the rates then in effect. I authorize that you send my information to the applicable publisher to fulfill my subscription and charge the credit/debit card provided. I won’t be bothered with any renewal notices; instead I will receive clearly marked reminder notices with the then current rates at least 45 days before my credit/debit card is charged or I receive an e-bill. I may opt out of the automatic renewal at any time and receive a refund on all remaining issues by contacting the applicable publishers’ customer service at supportticket@bonnierstore.com.

When I signed up, I fully understood the terms. I would be receiving a cheap promotional rate to start me as a reader, and since I had provided a credit card number for the subscription, they would charge me full price after the promotional period had lapsed. At the time, my plan was to stop the subscription before it renewed. However, since they were going to notify me at least 45 days in advance of the renewal, I didn’t bother to create an OmniFocus task reminding me to cancel this subscription.

But there was no such reminder.

This week, I saw a charge for emagazines.com on my statement. After some investigating, I determined that this was indeed a renewal for Saveur. In all fariness, the renewal rate was not predatory: $19.99 for nine issues over the next year, which is reasonable. However, I didn’t want to pay for the digital issues because, as I mentioned earlier, the iPad version of this magazine sucks.

After writing customer service, I received this reply:

The $19.99 charge was associated with an automatic renewal of a subscription to Saveur magazine, ordered 3/26/2013. Due to a processing error, many custoemrs[sic] did not receive the renewal reminder email- due 45 days in advance. We have canceled this automatic renewal, and issued a $19.99 refund to the card used in the original purchase.

Even if I don’t know what a “processing error” is, we did resolve this like adults. They’re refunding me money, and I’ll be made whole. But evergreening (if that’s even a real word) works because most people are lazy. What if I didn’t bother to spend fifteen minutes poring over my bank statement, investigating the charge, and kindly requesting a refund (and then spend about 700 words blogging about it)?

I’d still be out $20 and still be getting issues pushed to my iPad. And it’s not like I can put those “issues” in the bathroom magazine rack.


  1. A check is a transfer of funds from your bank account to another party. Crazy, huh?  ↩

FCC’s Moment of Clarity

Former FCC commissioner Michael Copps (2001–2009), writing about media consolidation, in an editorial published in Columbia Journalism Review:

I would be spending untold hours listening to big media tell me how their latest merger proposal would translate into enormous “efficiencies” and “economies of scale” to produce more and better news. Meanwhile, everywhere I looked, I saw newsrooms like yours being shuttered or drastically downsized, reporters getting the axe, and investigative journalism hanging by the most slender of threads. Instead of expanding news, the conglomerates cut the muscle out of deep-dive reporting and disinvested in you.

The whole piece is worth a careful read as he confirms everything public interest groups warned would happen if his agency approved the accelerated consolidation of media outlets: diminished newsrooms, lack of competition, a suppression of news covering media ownership.

He also warns that without network neutrality, the Internet has no chance to liberalize journalism and media industries as a whole. This also echoes the years-long warnings of public interest groups, such Free Press, and scholars, such as Tim Wu.

Finally, he recommends reforming the FCC so that it doesn’t favor the interests of media corporations at the expense of public interest.

Obama, can you reappoint him, please?

EFF Activist Bundle – iFixit

The Fifth of November has been observed in England since the plot to bomb Parliament in 1605. Activists have reclaimed this day and Guy Fawkes to stand against unjust state and corporate power. Techies can commemorate this day and rebellious spirit with iFixit’s EFF Activist Bundle:

EFF Activist Kit

This 5th of November, iFixit is teaming up with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) to empower technology users (AKA everyone) to take their digital stuff back from government interlopers and corporate money mongers.

What are we reclaiming? Common sense and fair use. iFixit is fighting for your right to repair your stuff. And the EFF is fighting to protect your right to use that stuff without the NSA—or anyone else—peeking over your shoulder.

For $60, start repairing your own digital gear. It’ll pay itself very quickly, as well as raising some funds for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Computers are Stupid

When teaching a class on digital media, I start the lesson by telling students that “computers are stupid” that they can only “understand” two things: on and off. This episode from the 1980s animated series, Scooter Computer and Mr. Chips centers around this important fact. Scooter thinks that Mr. Chips is smart, but in fact, Mr. Chips lets his pal in on a little secret.

Having grown up in the 1980s, I remember the series, and the melody of the theme song has remained in my brain since I was a child. I don’t remember this particular episode, even if its story, dispelling a widely held belief that computers are autonomous, informs my thinking about computers.

This was a particularly resonant for the early 1980s. Well-heeled consumers were bringing personal computers into their homes, and their children could learn that their computers were not thinking machines. All they did was execute instructions, faster than any thinking person could.