Aaron Swartz was Right!

The current state of academic publishing is in need of big changes. Academic authors are signing over copyrights to the publishers who in turn charge universities exorbitant  fees for access to the work. The publishers have become bottlers of knowledge instead of disseminators of knowledge, releasing to the highest bidders and blocking all others from access. Aaron Swartz  simply decided it was time to take action.

“Those with access to these resources—students, librarians, scientists—you have been given a privilege,” he wrote. “You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not—indeed, morally, you cannot—keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.”

Aaron Swartz was a computer programmer who was involved in the development of the web feed format RSS (Rich Site Summary), which includes full or summarized text. RSS feeds can be subscribed to and readers can receive updates or new posts from their favorite web site(s). Aaron also was involved in the creation of Creative Commons (CC), a non-profit organization devoted to expanding the range of creative works (articles) available for others build upon and to share. Creative Commons has released several copyright-licenses known as Creative Commons licenses free of charge to the public. The campaign Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was founded by Aaron in 2010. All of this and more from a young man born in 1986. The basic premise of much of Aaron’s work was that “Information was power, but like all power, there are those that who want to keep it for themselves…” Aaron Swartz was arrested in 2011 for making academic journals available to anyone who wanted to read them. The story of his arrest was covered by the media. Federal Prosecutors charged him with wire fraud and violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, carrying a cumulative maximum penalty of 35 years in prison. January 8, 2011 Aaron’s body was found dead in his New York apartment. In June 2013, Swartz was posthumously inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame.  The above quote is taken from article about Aaron Swartz by Peter Ludlow, professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University. You can find the complete article here: http://m.chronicle.com/article/Aaron-Swartz-Was-Right/137425/

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Interdisciplinary history of sterilization in 20th century Canada by Erika Dyck

An interdisciplinary history available for pre-order (to be published in November) from the U of T Press is University of Saskatchewan medical historian Erika Dyck’s

FACING EUGENICS: REPRODUCTION, STERILIZATION, AND THE POLITICS OF CHOICE

Cover art by Nick Supina III

Cover art by Nick Supina III

Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada team members, Professor Erika Dyck (author) and Nick Supina (artist) demonstrate their skill and years of work in this upcoming publication.

For more information about the book and how to order go to the original posting here: http://osgoodesocietycanadianlegalhistory.blogspot.ca/2013/06/interdisciplinary-history-of.html

Erotica For Everybody?

It would seem that erotic images really do sell and that they infiltrate our society from all directions.  Aside from the obvious venues for erotic images and films, pictures of handsome individuals in provocative poses are plastered all over our cities and flashed, it would seem, at every conceivable opportunity both on the internet and on television.  However, images are for those who can see, which means that a substantial population is “spared” this constant barrage of depictions.  Questions of morality aside, pornography sells!  In fact, Lisa J. Murphy’s Tactile Mind is one example of how erotic imagery continues to fill newer and more numerous social niches.  Murphy’s Tactile Mind is “a handmade thermoform book consisting of 17, 3-D tactile photographs on white thermoform plastic pages with the visual image and descriptive Braille accompaniment” (see website).  The book is sold for an extravagant $225, but single pages can also be purchased for $25 a page.  Another example of such “niche-filling” is “Porn for the Blind,” which is

a website which purports to offer sexual stimuli for blind people over the internet.  The website is composed of a white background with a list of links to mp3 sound clips of pornographic content contributed by volunteers.  A ‘translator’ will watch preview clips of videos and give a play-by-play of the events.  Contributors are not allowed to use sexual words when describing existing videos and must give purely clinical descriptions of the events. (see citation)

Although, on the one hand, it might be argued that erotic images are inappropriate even in socially sanctioned contexts, it does seem a bit paternalistic to do those who can only read braille a moral favour by denying them access to erotic material.  From my understanding, the two examples I provided above are quite censored as it is.  The images in Murphy’s book lack faces and are featured only in single poses while the mp3 descriptive recordings do not use sexual words in their descriptions.

There is certainly a debate over the appropriateness of pornography (see Natalie Purcell’s “Feminism and Pornography: Building Sensitive Research and Analytic Approaches”), but at least now it’s everybody’s discussion!

Can we protect the privacy of research subjects without blocking access to information?

Several members of the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada project have experienced some of the problems of attempting to get access to personal information from government institutions that create barriers to, or outright denials of, access to information by  citing the need to protect the privacy of individuals to whom the information relates. All privacy legislation in Canada, whether federal or provincial, defines “personal information” as being information about an identifiable individual. There are many simple ways to alter records containing personal information, depending on the type of record and type of information, and this can and should be negotiated with researchers, many of whom have already factored privacy protections into their research as part of the ethics approval process.

An interesting piece in last week’s New York Times focused on just these issues, although in the US. New rules affecting researchers dealing with sensitive medical information will offer the necessary privacy protections to subjects who participate in studies or whose information is otherwise made available to researchers. At the same time, researchers are concerned that the new rules will result in limited access to various types of valuable data, such as census data, marketing research, and various types of statistics. Typically, denials of access to such information are based on the premise that even when personal identifiers are removed from the information, individuals can potentially be identified by matching data obtained from other sources. While this may certainly be a legitimate issue, common sense should prevail when dealing with aggregate data, or with historical documents. Unfortunately, in Canada and the US alike, common sense doesn’t always factor into decision making, since denying researchers access to information is often the result of risk management by the institution holding the information, not wanting to be held liable for making mistakes. Usually, the best approach is to draft a research agreement between the researchers and the institution, shifting the responsibility for protecting privacy from the institution to the researchers. However, this depends entirely on the willingness of institutions to assist researchers in the first place. If they are not willing to assist in this way, it may be up to researchers to resort to using standard access to information processes to obtain information for research purposes.

It is in this context that we should remember that access to information and protection of privacy go hand in hand, and both aspects should be considered together. Information relating to identifiable individuals belongs to those individuals, but information that is not identifiable belongs to the citizens, not to the government. And researchers are finding increasingly innovative ways to utilize information and transform it into new types of data that can be used to provide better government services, all with little to no risk of breaching anyone’s privacy when done properly. Institutions should be trying to find more innovate ways of getting such data into the hand of researchers, instead of creating unnecessary roadblocks.

$500,000 to Build Stronger Communities?!?

AVIVA Community Fund LogoThat’s the pledge made by AVIVA Canada, an insurance provider who has decided to show that they have heart by putting out a cross-Canada call for projects that will improve local communities.  The top 25 projects will have the opportunity to share in a cool half-million dollars.

The competition began on October 13th with the first round of submissions.  A total of three submission rounds were held and the top 20 entries, based on a tally of votes submitted by anyone caring enough to join the website moved on to the semi-finals.  These top 60 entries moved into the semi-finals, where the top 25 submissions would be passed on to the judging round.  At the time this was written less than 23 hours remained.

What does this have to do What Sorts?  There are some great submissions that it would be great to give a last minute boost of support to.  Here are three:

  1. Medically Fragile Child Supported by Hope's HomeHelping Medically Fragile Children & Families Enjoy Better Lives. Hope’s Home seeks to improve the quality of life for medically fragile children in the community as it provides the very first medical daycare of its kind in Canada. Our mission is to help medically fragile children Continue reading

God as one’s moral compass

Creating God in One’s Own Image is great post from Ed Young at Not Exactly Rocket Science on Nicholas Epley’s just published PNAS paper reporting a scientific study of what happens when God talks to some people, perhaps even YOU

God speaks to George W. Bush

Right Here, Lord.

For many religious people, the popular question “What would Jesus do?” is essentially the same as “What would I do?” That’s the message from an intriguing and controversial new study by Nicholas Epley from the University of Chicago. Through a combination of surveys, psychological manipulation and brain-scanning, he has found that when religious Americans try to infer the will of God, they mainly draw on their own personal beliefs. Read the full post from NERS right here.