The choice

Dear Colleagues,

By now you are watching the unfolding developments in Iran, along with many that we have shepherded (or alternatively for some of you – been pulled by) into this world of participatory technology mediated communication.

Clay Shirky is calling this the big one. Umair Hague is welcoming Khamenei to the 21st century and invoking Obama’s election victory in highlighting the political upheaval that the tools have helped foster. Portions of the U.S. Government have recognized the role that these tools play, even asking twitter to delay maintenance during daylight in Iran

Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, and the thousands of other communication tools we created are wresting control out of the hands that those that seek to control, to shape, to suppress, to manipulate information. One of Andrew Sullivan’s readers is convinced this will bring down the current Iranian leaders.

Like Frankenstein, we created them because it was fun, it was cool, it was a tricky problem to solve. And along the way, the tools that we have created are again changing the world.

Smile for the moment, those of you that did these things have earned that smile.

Be forewarned, You’ll be asked to find ways that will facilitate those that seek to manipulate, to control, to shape this medium too. Ostensibly to “solve information overload” – to “determine user intent” – to “make order out of chaos” or many other things that sound plausible, even good, and better yet are incredible technological challenges.

I’m not saying not to do those things, if history teaches us anything, people will find a way to be free, perhaps not themselves, but they will make the information known that will enable the future generations to be free. They will use the tools we create to do that in incredibly surprising ways. Somtimes enabled by us, often in spite of us.

But remember this, current events are showing that the things we build can enable the passionate, the willing, the able, to use them to change the world.

We can enable that, or we can fight it. We’ll be asked to do both. Choose wisely.

Public funded works

I ended my question embargo with a bit of a doozy last week, namely:

Why is not releasing our collected and contributed works under a less-restrictive license to the public? Why are we not granting the public the same rights that we ask our contributors – both individual and institutional – to grant us?

(Background:’s terms of use – and the individual and institutional contributor’s agreements)

I haven’t heard back yet, but that’s to be expected. It’s a tough question best reserved for phone conferences or face-to-face meetings, and not email. I normally need to make sure these things are on staff meeting agendas to get more discussion.

In the process of putting together that post and double-checking the copyright policies of my employer, it turns out that a major change was made to the copyright policies for Cooperative Extension employees in North Carolina in 2008.

By UNC system and NC State Policy, EPA employees, including non-tenure EPA professionals like myself, have a fairly generous Intellectual Property right to “non-directed works”. That is:

“pedagogical, scholarly, literary, professional, or aesthetic works resulting from non-directed effort. Such works may include textbooks, manuscripts, scholarly works, fixed lecture notes, distance learning materials not falling into one of the other categories of this Regulation, works of art or design, musical scores, poems, films, videos, audio recordings, or other works of the kind that have historically been deemed in academic communities to be the property of their creator.”

In my own case that might be “source code”.

Well, “RUL 06.01.01” changed that policy for employees in divisions that come up under the direction of Extension and Engagement and Economic Development, Suddenly, all of my work, and the work of all Extension EPA employees was deemed to be a “directed work”, ostensibly such that “[extension organizations] must have the right under copyright law to copy, distribute, perform, display, and make derivative versions of such works if they are to succeed in their mission.”

Needless to say this is a significant change. I don’t remember one iota of discussion on this issue within the various divisions. While my contract with the University is subject to the University Policies, I have a 5 year contract, last signed in October of 2006, so I haven’t had occasion to revisit the policies. So I am wondering if this might qualify as a breach of contract. It’s a pretty significant benefit to my employment.

Now, before you get too far into this, and start thinking to yourself “Wha??!?! This moron works on my tax dollars and expects ownership of things he creates with my money?!?”

No. Absolutely not. Let me make it as plainly clearly as I can:

Public-funded intellectual property belongs to the public. No excuses.

No questions. End of story. You paid for it, you should own it. Everyone should own it. Not me, not my University. You.

The only reason I want ownership of my Intellectual Property – paid for by the public, is to give it back to the public.

With that goal in mind, my boss and my colleagues and I have proposed that our department be allowed to release all our intellectual property under a Creative Commons and/or GPL license.

It fulfills the mission of Cooperative Extension, it aligns with our values, and now we wait and see what comes of it. I’m hopeful that our team might be able to be the example for how this should work.

And that perhaps, begs the question, why isn’t all taxpayer-funded work released back to the public?

Inquiring minds want to know.

The Conference

A few days ago, I walked into a bookstore looking for a magazine, or some kind of book that I could take with me on a plane trip to a conference. I was geared toward finding a magazine about current events, something non-technology, a bit of a change of pace.

The targeted marketing table for some kind of theme that I don’t remember caught my eye, and I picked up the essay collection from the This I Believe series from NPR. I thumbed through a few, liked what I read, like how the 3 pages each fit into my short attention span. And I put the book down, I wasn’t really planning on buying a book – my shelves and nightstand are already littered with too many half-read tomes that probably won’t ever get read.

But then I flipped through again, and read Jason Sheehan’s essay about barebecue, and I knew I had to have it, I don’t think that I could have the temerity to leave behind a book that talks about both belief and barbecue.

I’ve half-read this one too, but that’s only because I was limited to reading it on a 2-hour plane trip – half the time with mind wandering to my own set of “this I believes”. My thoughts at first led to if I were to write my own, that I’m sure it would have been about asking questions.

When I landed, I did something I never do at conferences, I walked into the hotel, saw a colleague from Iowa State. Actually, scratch that. I ran into my friend, Brian Webster, who was meeting a crowd for dinner, and I asked him if he could wait 5 minutes, long enough to drop my things off in the room, and join the crowd too. Two doors down from my room, my friend Greg Parmer is coming out of his room to head down to join Brian, MyFriendFloyd, MyFriendJohn, and many other MyFriend[Name]s.

There’s a kind of a funny story about when I first starting using twitter. It was sometime Kevin Gamble remarked at ACE/NETC in 2008 that Anne Adrian had said something to the effect that “man, that Jason fellow was pretty quiet, we weren’t sure he ever said much at all, but now on twitter, you can’t get him to shut up”.

I think that there’s a bit of Kevin-for-Jason translation on Anne’s quote. But Anne did have all her twitter updates sending her SMS messages, I quite imagine I had a few days there filling up a few SMS inboxes.

I guess to bring these disparate threads together, my loquaciousness, and 17 years of working confidence in my ability to do what I do belie a introversion that runs deep in me. I have no problems standing in front of a room of dozens or even hundreds of people that I have never met, and giving an introduction, or saying a few words about something I know a little something about, or speaking up in a panel conversation on a subject I know. But I’ll be quieter than a church mouse in a social forum around people I don’t know.

It takes a long time for me to warm up. But this is the fourth NETC conference for me. And with the three prior, I’ve said my public words, but kept the social conversation mainly to myself or to those I knew in my own organization.

But this time is different. Sure there’s been three prior NETC conferences that I’ve gotten brief chances to meet and speak with folks, but more importantly, what is now almost 2 years of twitter, facebook, tumblr, friendfeed and more have given me glimpses into the lives of people that my introversion would have never given me the chance to know.

I’m not big on company travel, I miss my wife, and walking my dogs, and the comforts of my home. But there’s some excitement coming to this conference and seeing each of them again. It’s like seeing old friends that you haven’t seen in quite some time, but have kept up with as time as gone by. I find myself even missing seeing people I’ve never actually met, but have had the honor and fortune of getting to know them in those other ways.

And maybe that is really where this comes together. The true power in social networks isn’t marketing, or follower count, or reach, or impact. It’s about turning colleagues into friends, and introversion into excitement.

This I believe.

Why questions matter

When it comes to blogs (or any website for that matter), at least with my cursory glance at my own analytics, answers are king. If you are building traffic – you can do one of three things – be incredibly funny, be incredibly opinionated (especially if you discuss exorbitantly controversial or vacuous topics), or answer questions that people really have. They’ll ask their question in the google search box, and hopefully you’ve written a bunch of things up that will answer questions, and have answered questions, and people will link to your answers. And… lather rinse repeat.

You could also be a spammer, or someone trying to seriously pimp their “SEO” Or own the niche market

I don’t really try to do any of the above. I just write things that I care about that day – and it’s usually rambly enough that people consume it, but don’t really link to it. I’m only marginally funny, and while I’m pretty opinionated, I don’t opine on too many controversial subjects, and sadly I don’t spend as much time as I could or should writing up informative posts that might answer questions. I’d rather post funny faces from pups

My single most popular article ever was the one I wrote about my decision to vote for the President – which happened to catch the twitter eye of Tim Bray – and drove traffic on it through the roof. That was nice, not so much for the traffic, but because I respect Tim Bray a great deal.

But that post was just for a moment, a small period of time where it was relevant, and quickly becomes lost in everything else that was just for a moment, which is a lot when it comes to politics, it’s nary seen a single hit since.

Nope, the most popular articles I have are one about the direct positive preset in Lightroom (Lightroom 1.x) and creating your own gem server – both of which go about answering questions (well, the lightroom one is more illustrative than much of an answer) that people ask in search.

Thus far, you might think this post is mistitled – it should have been “Why answers matter”

Nope, because occasionally – you can get away with just asking more questions, those reflective posts, where you don’t really answer anything. I once rhetorically asked a series of questions about my own industry’s responsibilities in building IT systems – that has landed me on the front page of a Google Search for “IT Responsibilities” And I guess that job hunters, or position writers, or HR departments are finding that post in their search for lists of responsibilities to include in resumes and position descriptions. I doubt very many read it, it’s long and rambly and just poorly written in general and on top of that its introspectively difficult for people in my field to deal with, particularly “business IT”.

But if just one person reads that while applying for jobs, or one person reads it when hiring “eye-tee” – well, that makes everything I do worthwhile.

Questions matter.

Asking questions of ourselves matters even more.

Twitter to speech

It all started when my colleague Joe Z. twittered:

NETC filler session idea: hear me read my tweets, in order, from day one on Twitter. Feel free to steal this.

Which of course, had to be done:

curl -s | sed -ne '/<text/s/</*text>//gp' | say -o twitter.aiff

And a quick run through Audacity (because I don’t have a command line lame install) yields an mp3 – thanks to ‘Alex’ the Macintosh voice – though James Earl Jones would have been much better.


Bye, bye Mr. Questioner Guy

noquestions I so wish I had some modicum of musical talent. I think that the last time I was exposed to any kind of music education was 1st grade, maybe kindergarten. While I’m not completely tone deaf, I only rarely experience that feeling of matching the human voice to some kind of external sound, and I can’t make my voice do it. I don’t really have the readily apparent motor skills to play the guitar or the piano.

But I do so wish I had some musical talent, because I’d spend my life doing whatever I could to be the next Weird Al. Or Flight of the Conchords. Writing parody songs for the rest of my living years.

For those that know me, asking questions is fundamentally core to how I work and how I live – particularly why? – I even joked last week that my name should be legally changed to an interrobang.

But sometimes the working life conspires in such a way that you have to change directions. Even for those that know me, you might be surprised that I expend the vast majority of my questioning energies on myself. That won’t and can’t change. I couldn’t turn that off if I wanted. But maybe for a time, I can stop the external questions.

You might think, ok, well that opening was certainly random. Well, I spent part of the weekend replaying Don McLean’s “American Pie” in my head in an attempt to parody the lyrics in the form “Bye, Bye, Mr. Questioner Guy” I didn’t get very far, it probably should be crowd-sourced.

So instead, I leave you with something far more entertaining. Years ago I once went to my local Kroger, only to find that they had moved the Little Debbie rack somewhere I couldn’t find it anymore. And well, the rest is history.

Bye, Bye, Oatmeal Creme Pie

A long, long time ago… I can still remember how
That creme filling would make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance,
That I’d never go to the south of france
If it meant I’d be without them a while
But that April day made me shiver,
Almost tempted to cry a river
Bad news at the kroger…
I don’t know I can go there

I can’t remember if I tried
My indignation that day to hide
But hunger rumbled down deep inside,
The day I found no pies.

Soo..Bye, bye Oatmeal Creme Pies
Drove my Ford to that store but the shelves was dry
And good ol’ boys were having RC and moon pie
Singing this will be the day that I die
all gone are the Oatmeal Creme Pie