Syndicating annotations

Steel Wagstaff asks:

Immediate issue: we’ve got books on our dev server w/ annotations & want to move them intact to our production instance. The broader use case: I publish an open Pressbook & users make public comments on it. Someone else wants to clone the book including comments. How?

There are currently three URL-independent identifiers that can be used to coalesce annotations across instances of a web document published at different URLs. The first was the PDF fingerprint, the second was the DOI, and a third, introduced recently as part of Hypothesis’ EPUB support, uses Dublin Core metadata like so:

<meta name=”dc.identifier” content=”xchapter_001″>
<meta name=”dc.relation.ispartof” content=”org.example.hypothesis.demo.epub-samples.moby-dick-basic”>

If you dig into our EPUB.js and Readium examples, you’ll find those declarations are common to both instances of chapter 1 of Moby Dick. Here’s an annotation anchored to the opening line, Call me Ishmael. When the Hypothesis client loads, in a page served from either of the example URLs, it queries for two identifiers. One is the URL specific to each instance. The other is a URN formed from the common metadata, and it looks like this:

urn:x-dc:org.example.hypothesis.demo.epub-samples.moby-dick-basic/chapter_001

When you annotate either copy, you associate its URL with this Uniform Resource Name (URN). You can search for annotations using either of the URLs, or the just URN like so:

https://hypothes.is/search?q=url:urn:x-dc:org.example.hypothesis.demo.epub-samples.moby-dick-basic/xchapter_001

Although it sprang to life to support ebooks, I think this mechanism will prove more broadly useful. Unlike PDF fingerprints and DOIs, which typically identify whole works, it can be used to name chapters and sections. At a conference last year we spoke with OER (open educational resource) publishers, including Pressbooks, about ways to coalesce annotations across their platforms. I’m not sure this approach is the final solution, but it’s usable now, and I hope pioneers like Steel Wagstaff will try it out and help us think through the implications.

Really, AT&T?

We woke up this morning in Santa Rosa to smoke and sirens. Last night’s winds fanned a bunch of wildfires in the North Bay, and parts of our town are destroyed. We’re a few miles south of the evacuation zone, things might shift around, but at the moment we’re staying put.

Information was hard to come by. Our Comcast service is down. Our AT&T phones were up and running though, so I turned on my mobile hotspot and read this: “Cannot turn on hotspot, please visit att.com or call 611.”

WTF?

Here’s what happened. Last month we started hitting data overage charges. That hadn’t been an issue before, but we dropped by the AT&T store to review our options. The sales rep pushed hard for an upgrade to an unlimited data plan for an extra $5/mo. Not really necessary, we’re almost always on WiFi, but OK, sure, five bucks, why not?

Turns out the rep neglected to mention that the upgrade removed our tethering capability. This is not something you want to find out while breathing smoke, hearing sirens, and trying to make sense of the latest evacuation map for your burning city. According to the rep we spoke with today, this critical fact about tethering is often omitted from the upsell pitch.

We’ve got it turned back on now. I’m awaiting a callback from a manager’s manager about the additional $30/mo they plan to charge to restore a capability they hadn’t told me they were taking away.

This is a small thing. We are, of course, infinitely luckier than a bunch of folks in our town who will return to the charred foundations of what were their homes. We’re mainly thinking about them today. But while we’re waiting for the ash to settle, I just want to say: Really, AT&T?

Welcome to the Sapiezoic

The latest Long Now podcast, by David Grinspoon, takes a very long view indeed. As we transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, he thinks, we’re not just entering a new geological epoch, as shown here:

That alone would be a big deal. But epochs are just geologic eyeblinks a few million years in duration. Grinspoon thinks we might be entering something way bigger. Not just a period or an era. We might happen to be alive now at an eon boundary, as shown here:

There have only been four eons so far. Each was a major transition in earth history — a shift in the relationship between life and the planet. Life first emerged at the beginning of the Archean era around 4 billion years ago, when things cooled down enough. Around 2.5 billion years ago, cyanobacteria learned to photosynthesize. They bathed the world in oxygen, caused mass extinction, and deeply entangled life with the physical and chemical workings of the planet. At the boundary between the Proterozoic and Phanerozoic, around 500 million years ago, life went multicellular, plants and animals appeared, and the modern eon began.

Will our descendants look back on the Anthropocene as the dawn of a fifth eon? Grinspoon makes a compelling case that they might. The Archean cyanobacteria that poisoned the environment couldn’t know what they were doing. We can. Our infrastructure is taking over the planet as surely as the oxygenated atmosphere did. But it is, at least potentially, under our conscious control. The hallmark of the Sapiezoic eon he envisions: intentional re-terraforming.

Grinspoon cites one shining example: the Montreal Protocol that will, if we stay the course, reverse manmade ozone depletion. “We are as gods,” says Stewart Brand, “so we might as well get good at it.”

I’ve listened to all the Long Now podcasts, some more than once. This one rates very highly. It’s a great talk.

Fact-checking Naomi Klein’s “No Is Not Enough”

So my conclusion is that Klein, who says she wrote this book quickly, to respond to the current moment, with less attention to endnotes than usual, is generally reliable on facts.

The way in which I reached that conclusion is a pretty good example of the strategies outlined in Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, and a reminder that those methods aren’t just for students. All of us — me, you, Naomi Klein, everyone — need to build those muscles and exercise them regularly.

On a hike last week I heard an excellent episode of Radio Open Source, featuring Naomi Klein, David Graeber, and Pankaj Mishra. One of the segments of interest that stuck with me is this remark by Naomi Klein:

We need to examine the way in which politics has been taken over by the logic of corporate branding, which is not something Trump started. Trump was just better at it than anybody else because he is himself a fully commercialized brand. So the table was set for Trump, he just showed up and said, “Well, I know this game better than you jokers, I’m the real thing, I’m a reality TV star and I’m a megabrand. Step aside!”

(If I could, I would link you directly to that segment in situ, that’s something I had working a long time ago, but since audio quotation still isn’t a ubiquitous feature of the web, here’s the compelling minute of audio that contains that quote.)

I was previously aware of Naomi Klein but had never heard her speak, had read none of her books, and was only slightly familiar with her critique of corporatized politics. Her conversation with Chris Lydon on that podcast prompted me to read her new book, No Is Not Enough, published just a few weeks ago.

I was also slightly familiar with criticism of Klein’s views. So, in a moment when the president of the United States had just tweeted a video of himself performing a mock attack during his time as a reality TV personality on the pro wrestling circuit, I was curious to know her thoughts but also prepared to take them with a grain of salt.

Here’s the book’s table of contents:

The first section elaborates on the above quote. Human megabrands are, Klein points out, a relatively new thing. She writes:

People keep asking — is he going to divest? Is he going to sell his businesses? Is Ivanka going to? But it’s not at all clear what these questions even mean, because their primary businesses are their names. You can’t disentangle Trump the man from Trump the brand; those two entities merged long ago. Every time he sets foot in one of his properties — a golf club, a hotel, a beach club — White House press corps in tow, he is increasing his overall brand value, which allows his company to sell more memberships, rent more rooms, and increase fees.

I hope we can agree across ideologies that this kind of thing is unhealthy. In the audio clip I cited above, Klein notes that the antidote is not a liberal megabrand, not Zuckerberg or Oprah. Conflation of brand power and political power is just a bad idea, and we need to reckon with that.

The rest of the book builds on arguments made in her earlier ones: Capitalism’s winners exploit natural and man-made crises to consolidate their winnings (The Shock Doctrine); climate change presents an existential challenge to that world order (This Changes Everything). Since I haven’t read those books, and have only just now read a few reviews pro and con, I lack the full context needed to evaluate the arguments in No Is Not Enough. But that’s exactly the right setup for the point about fact-checking that I want to make here.

How reliable is Naomi Klein on facts? I came to No Is Not Enough with no strong opinion one way or another. I raised an eyebrow, though, when I read this passage about Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin:

Even among Goldman alumni, Steven Mnuchin has distinguished himself by his willingness to profit off misery. Afer the 2008 Wall Street collapse, and in the middle of the foreclosure crisis, Mnuchin purchased a California bank. The renamed company, OneWest, earned Mnuchin the nickname “Foreclosure King,” reportedly collecting $1.2 billion from the government to help cover the losses for foreclosed homes and evicting tens of thousands of people between 2009 and 2014. One attempted foreclosure involved a ninety-year-old woman who was behind on her payments by 27 cents.”

The last sentence sent me to Google, where I quickly learned it had been debunked in a tweetstorm by Ted Frank in January 2017. He works for a libertarian think tank, and I doubt we’d see eye to eye on many issues, but his takedown of the 27-cent claim was accurate. Politico, for example, corrected its version of the story.

This is unfortunate because everything else in the above quote seems to check out. And you don’t have to be a liberal snowflake to worry legitimately about the Goldmanization of the US Cabinet.1

I went on to spot-check a number of other claims in No Is Not Enough and again, so far as I can tell with modest effort, everything checks out. So my conclusion is that Klein, who says she wrote this book quickly, to respond to the current moment, with less attention to endnotes than usual, is generally reliable on facts.

The way in which I reached that conclusion is a pretty good example of the strategies outlined in Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, and a reminder that those methods aren’t just for students. All of us — me, you, Naomi Klein, everyone — need to build those muscles and exercise them regularly.


1. On another episode of Radio Open Source, in a remarkable dialogue between Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader, the arch-conservative Buchanan aligned with the arch-liberal Nader on that point:

I agree completely with Ralph, I did not know we were going to make the world safe for Goldman Sachs, and I am a little surprised to find three or four or five of these guys, one or two might have been OK.

Thoughts on Audrey Watters’ “Thoughts on Annotation”

Back in April, Audrey Watters’ decided to block annotation on her website. I understand why. When we project our identities online, our personal sites become extensions of our homes. To some online writers, annotation overlays can feel like graffiti. How can we respect their wishes while enabling conversations about their writing, particularly conversations that are intimately connected to the writing? At the New Media Consortium conference recently, I was finally able to meet Audrey in person, and we talked about how to balance these interests. Yesterday Audrey posted her thoughts about that conversation, and clarified a key point:

You can still annotate my work. Just not on my websites.

Exactly! To continue that conversation, I have annotated that post here, and transcluded my initial set of annotations below.


judell 6/27/2017 #

using an HTML meta tag to identify annotation preferences

This is just a back-of-the-napkin sketch of an idea, not a formal proposal.

judell 6/27/2017 #

I’m much less committed to having one canonical “place” for annotations than Hypothesis is

Hypothesis isn’t committed to that either. The whole point of the newly-minted web annotation standard is to enable an ecosystem of interoperable annotation clients and servers, analogous to comparable ecosystems of email and web clients and servers.

judell 6/27/2017 #

Hypothesis annotations of a PDF can be centralized, no matter where the article is hosted or whether it’s a local copy

Centralization and decentralization are slippery terms. I would rather say that Hypothesis can unify a set of annotations across a family of representations of the “same” work. Some members of that family might be HTML pages, others might be PDFs hosted on the web or kept locally.

It’s true that when Hypothesis is used to create and view such annotations, they are “centralized” in the Hypothesis service. But if someone else stands up an instance of Hypothesis, that becomes a separate pool of annotations. Likewise, we at Hypothesis have planned for, and expect to see, a world in which non-Hypothesis-based implementations of standard annotation capability will host still other separate pools of annotations.

So you might issue three different API queries — to Hypothesis, to a Hypothesis-based service, and to a non-Hypothesis-based service — for a PDF fingerprint or a DOI. Each of those services might or might not internally unify annotations across a family of “same” resources. If you were to then merge the results of those three queries, you’d be an annotation aggregator — the moral equivalent of what Radio UserLand, Technorati, and other blog aggregators did in the early blogosphere.

Dumb servers for personal clouds

I’m delighted to hear that my daughter and her best friend will be collaborating on a blog. And of course I’m tickled that she asked my advice on where to run it. I noted that Ghost is the new kid on the block, and is much simpler than what WordPress has become. But they want to do it for free, so WordPress it is.

Then she surprised me with this narrative:

I heard it’s better if you self-host, so that’s what we’ll want to do, right? I think self-hosting is good because you don’t have the website name in your blog URL. Also, more importantly, I think it’s how you ensure that it’s actually yours.

It turns out that she’d conflated self-hosting, i.e. running your own instance of the WordPress software and database, with the simpler method my own blog exemplifies. I use WordPress.com precisely because, although I do run my own servers, the fewer the better. I’m happy to rely on WordPress to host my blog for me. I’m also happy to pay them $13/year to connect jonudell.wordpress.com to blog.jonudell.net.

So that’ll be the solution for my daughter. But I’m left wondering how many others conflate self-hosting with domain redirection, and how that affects their thinking about control of their own digital identities and data. I suspect it’s often unclear that, whether you run a blog on WordPress.com or on another provider’s server, your data is equally under your control. Likewise, use of a personal domain name is equally possible in both cases. What is the difference? With self-hosting, you can use arbitrary WordPress plugins and themes, and/or modify the software. Sometimes, for some people, that matters. Often, for many, it doesn’t.

That said, I agree with Mike Caulfield’s plea to make servers dumb again. In my ideal world, I’d not only outsource the management of the blog software to WordPress, but would also connect the software to my personal cloud, which would be implemented by my chosen storage provider.

I got this idea from Gorden Bell’s MyLifeBits, and riffed on it to imagine cloud-hosted lifebits. Jim Groom ably summed up the argument here:

Will we ever get there? It has to happen sooner or later. Maybe, as Doug Levin suggests today, it’ll be sooner.

Celebrating Infrastructure

When cycling in forested New England countryside I sometimes wondered about the man-made forest built along the roadside — telephone poles, power lines, transformers — and thought someone should write a book about the industrial landscape. It turns out that someone did. Brian Hayes spent many years traveling around America, researching and photographing the infrastructure that sustains our civilization. The book he produced, Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape (2005, 2nd ed. 2014), is everything I imagined it would be.

(I found the book by way of a comment that Brian Hayes left here on this blog. “Couldn’t be that Brian Hayes,” I thought. But his signature led me to his blog and thence to Infrastructure‘s home on the web. I’m passing it along here in part to remind myself that my favorite books often aren’t new or well publicized. I find them serendipitously after they’ve been around for a while.)

My father and his twin brother were students of nature in a way I’ve never been. Their knowledge of plants and animals was encyclopedic and ever-expanding. But for most of us, the natural landscape is not an expanse of unnamed and unknown objects. We recognize egrets, crows, hummingbirds, oaks, pines, and maples. The same isn’t true of the industrial landscape. More often than not, driving along some industrial corridor, we’re likely to ask the question Brian Hayes’ daughter asked him: “What’s that thing?” Infrastructure answers those questions for her, and for us.

Chapters on mining, waterworks, farming, energy production and distribution, transportation, shipping, and waste management follow a plan that “traces the flow of materials, information, and energy” throughout the web of industrial networks. We learn how industrial processes work, and how to identify the structures that house and implement them. Not all of us encounter quarries, mills, dams, refineries, or power plants on a daily basis. But water towers, roads, bridges, power lines, and data cables are as much a part of our landscape as what nature put there.

Hayes invites us to know more about the names, appearances, and workings of the industrial landscape. He also challenges us to reconsider how we feel about that landscape.

I stood by the side of a highway near Gallup, New Mexico, looking on a classic vista of the American West: red sandstone buttes, rising from a valley floor. … In front of the cliffs, and towering over them, were several cylindrical spires that I recognized as petroleum fractionating columns; off to one side was a grove of gleaming white spherical tanks. … I suspect that most viewers of this scene would consider the industrial hardware to be an intrusion, a distraction, perhaps even a desecration of the landscape.

Guilty as charged. But I’m provoked by this book to reconsider. Celebrate infrastructure, don’t hide it, Stewart Brand tweeted today. “It is civilization’s metabolism and should be its pride..