Monthly Archives: July 2011

Digitising letters

I was talking to Valerie Aurora and others on Twitter over the last day talking about Ada Lovelace’s letters, and whether there are copies freely available publicly.

The short answer is no.

The long answer is that many/most letters by historical figures are held in private collections. The collectors are often not doing it for the sake of public history: they are either doing it for family history, or collecting letters in the way one might collect artwork, including for monetary value. Access might or might not be granted by the owners to people wanting to use the letters as source material for biographies and so on. Sometimes a volume of letters (or diaries) might be directly published (eg Juliet Barker’s The Brontës: A Life in Letters, which contain excerpts ordered and edited for biographic interest, or Margaret Smith’s The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, which I think is a more complete edition), however the editor of the letters will assert copyright, not unreasonably perhaps given the editing chores and the addition of footnotes, context and so on.

Lovelace’s letters themselves are out of copyright, if I understand correctly (in the US, which is likely to be the strictest, it seems unpublished works authored prior to 1978 are held to the author’s death+70 years rule) but a public domain resource would need to be typed up from the letters themselves rather than from anyone’s existing editions.

It seems what would be most useful would be high definition scans of the letters themselves, without the scanner asserting copyright, hosted by the Internet Archive or similar. Turning these into high quality text transcripts is not trivial, but probably amenable to the efforts of, for example, Distributed Proofreaders, who now provide most of Project Gutenberg‘s new material. Therefore a campaign encouraging people who own collections of historical letters to allow images to be made available is the missing link. Is there such a campaign, or is one needed?

On addressing bad contributions

This post is inspired by a couple of instances in the last month or so, but I see this happen at least once a week, so you can safely assume it’s directed widely.

I quite often read comment threads and similar that have in some way got out of hand, whether by going outside a comments/list policy or just annoying the owner of the space. And commonly, the owner or moderator says something like “some of the contributions to this thread have been unhelpful/rude, I’d like everyone to mind their manners/think things through/honour my intent/something.” Sometimes there’s a variant that applies to everyone in a cross-space Internet discussion: “I am finding that many people addressing point X are rude and I wish they’d mind their manners.” It’s usually an attempt to be fair, and not embarrass someone or start a fight.

And me? I wish you wouldn’t do that.

What’s this? Mary’s not in favour of moderation or of setting comment/list policies? Has she seen the free-speech-means-her-blog-too light? Why no, no I haven’t. What I’m objecting to is the vagueness of the call-out. “Some contributions”? “Unhelpful”? Basically this either has a chilling effect on the entire discussion, where everyone thinks that they’re violating the unspecified rules, or is entirely ineffective, because everyone thinks it applies to the annoying people, who by definition are not themselves.

Sometimes shutting down the entire discussion is what you want, in which case, just say so and close the thread. If it’s really specific things that you want to stop, there’s two ways to do this better, in my opinion. One is what I’m doing now, which is a more specific description of unwelcome behaviours. (“No calls for violence here please, no matter whether you mean it, or how common the turn of phrase.” “No profanity.” “No mention of your cats.”) That’s probably best done when it’s a common problem or something you anticipate will be a common problem. The other is calling out specific people with a description of their behaviour. (“Suzy’s swearing is really over the line here.” “Bobby’s constantly talking about his cat in technical threads.”)

Public telling off of a specific person does need to happen sometimes: it can seem disingenuous when Bobby’s the only one talking about his cats and you phrase it as if you aren’t targeting him. It can also make others assume the problem is bigger than it is. Saying it publicly is of course inevitably more of a signal to that person that they’re not welcome, you’re at least risking a fight or them leaving. You could do it privately in some circumstances but if their behaviour is sufficiently annoying or egregious, it has a positive effect on the community to say so publicly, otherwise it looks to everyone else like you’re just fine with it.

Gain world-wide fame and adoration*

WordPress has an annoying feature of its spam handling, namely that it shows you the entire spam content in the spam comment interface (where one must venture in order to rescue legitimate comments). This is how it works:

  1. look at first line of spam, agree that it is for sure spam
  2. scroll down
  3. scroll down
  4. … scroll down
  5. oh good, here’s definitely-spam message #2
  6. scroll down…

Two things that would help:

  1. a WordPress plugin that reduced spam to short expandable excerpts
  2. an update to the Akismet Auntie Spam Greasemonkey script to make it work with current versions of WordPress

Consider your path to world-wide fame and adoration laid out before you. (I am technically capable of doing both those options, but I don’t have time for a new path to glory right now.)

* Offer may not be valid to residents of South Australia.

US-based websites and COPPA

Alex Sutherland, who is not yet 13 years of age, told Google+ his date of birth and promptly lost access to his Gmail account.

I’m not posting this to join any obnoxious blamestorm aimed at Alex or his parents: it sucks he lost his email archives and I hope that his parents are able to get it back for him. It sucks he had his trust breached and there’s no getting that back for him.

But I’m mostly posting because people are seeing the provisons of the US Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) for the first time and saying “pfft, not that hard to comply, why ban under 13s at all?” There was an illuminating comment on Making Light that is helpful there:

COPPA has a lot of “common sense” provisions which no doubt sounded great from the point of view of legislators and parents, but which are pretty appalling from the point of view of the operator of a Web 2.0 service. They’re burdensome enough, that, to my knowledge, only sites intended specifically and exclusively for children trouble to implement them. That is, no Web2.0 websites operating in the US permit users under the age of 13, except for specialty children’s sites. Not Google, not Facebook, not MySpace, not Livejournal, not Twitter, not Flickr or Picassa or Photobucket, not any web service here in the US.

Why? Well, you know how when you have a problem with your Gmail, you can pick up your phone and call Google’s tech support line? Ah ha ha ha. Right: no such thing. Well, one of the provisions of COPPA is that there has to be a phone number through which parents can call the service, as well as an email address at which they can email the service. Google doesn’t particularly want to have to pay operators to be standing by. No Web2.0 startup wants to be staffing a phone number open to the general public.

Google also doesn’t particularly want to figure out how to fulfill the provision of writing a statement as to what “information it collects” from (minor) users, since it allows users to type absolutely anything they want into those email bodies. Among sites for children, the open-ended TEXTAREA form field, like the one I’m typing this comment into, are seen as threats; highly structured or brief forms of input — pulldown menus and short text fields — are seen as safer. That prohibits most interesting Web2.0 applications.

Now Google is pretty big, it could afford to solve this if it wanted to, but has decided not to. But I think this is an issue worth knowing about in general: this means that children under 13 can’t participate in the Web as we know it today, essentially, because COPPA means that it’s prohibitively expensive to allow them to use websites that allow free-form content. Opinions might vary on whether this is a good thing (I certainly don’t think so, although I’m also not planning to turn my son loose on Google on his sixth birthday either), but it’s a thing.