Ebooks and ethics in the New York Times

When Chuck Klosterman weighed in on the ethics of downloading ebooks last month, he became the third writer for the New York Times ethicist column to do so in the last four years—starting with Randy Cohen in 2010, and continuing with Philip Corbett in 2012. I’ve enjoyed some of Klosterman’s writing a lot, but I’m not thrilled with his work as Ethicist. This answer follows that trend, forgoing ethical insight for a rigid application of contractual terms.

The question comes from a reader who has purchased the hardcover edition of a book, and then downloaded another copy without authorization for convenience’s sake. Klosterman says he’d prefer that a book purchase were a license to read a book in any format the purchaser likes, but that publishers disagree and they write the rules. From his column:

The publisher ultimately decides if buying a physical copy of my book entitles you to automatically own it across multiple platforms. And in almost every case I’ve encountered, it does not. Publishers tend to view the electronic version of a book as a separate entity.

That’s some awfully shallow analysis: that defying the wishes of a publisher is per se unethical—and despite an ethicist weighing in that it should be otherwise. It stubbornly subordinates readers’ rights to the profit-maximizing goals of publishing companies, ignoring the many ways they have attempted to control secondary uses. (Would a turn-of-the-century Klosterman say it was unethical to sell a copy of The Castaway for 50 cents? What would Klosterman have said last year about re-selling a book bought overseas?)

Contrast that to Randy Cohen’s 2010 answer. Despite being four years old, it works almost perfectly as a response to Klosterman’s recent answer. Cohen:

It’s true that you might have thwarted the publisher’s intent — perhaps he or she has a violent antipathy to trees, maybe a wish to slaughter acres of them and grind them into Stephen King novels. Or to clog the highways with trucks crammed with Stephen King novels. Or perhaps King himself wishes to improve America’s physique by having readers lug massive volumes.

So be it. Your paying for the hardcover put you in the clear as a matter of ethics, forestry and fitness training.

Good answer. An ethicist that won’t prize ethics over non-negotiable one-sided boilerplate rights-grab agreements isn’t much of an ethicist at all.

NASA proposes free software exception for contractors

NASA just submitted a proposed update to its acquisition regulations, specifying that contracting software developers may request to retain their copyright in order to release their software as part of a free software project. This is a good update, and parallels earlier language that allowed contractors to request to retain their copyright to use in commercial software projects—obviously more choice for free software is nice.

Here’s the language of the proposal:

[1827.404-4(b)](2) The contracting officer may […] grant the contractor permission to assert claim to copyright, publish, or release to others computer software first produced in the performance of a contract if:


(ii) The contractor has identified an existing open source software project or proposes a new one and states a positive intention of incorporating identified computer software first produced under the contract into that project, or has been instructed by the Agency to incorporate software first produced under the contract into an open source software project or otherwise release the software as open source software;

Of course, in the absence of such a provision, NASA could get assigned the copyright and choose to release it into the public domain or under a free license itself. But a developer interested in continuing work on the project would probably do a better job, so it’s good to see they now can request the right to do so.

This proposal is open for comments for the next 60 days, in case anybody is interested in weighing in.

Berlin’s Fernsehturm and Sutro Tower

I realized today that despite spending a lot of time looking at each of them, I didn’t know which was taller: Berlin’s Fernsehturm or Sutro Tower. Quick answer is the TV Tower is quite a bit taller if you don’t take into account the elevation of Mount Sutro, but in order to visualize it better I stuck them next to each other, at scale.

sutrovberlinfixedIn order to do that, I had to first find silhouettes of the two structures. Fortunately there’s a public domain version of the TV tower available on Wikipedia as an SVG. I simplified and vectorized the version that Sutro Tower, Inc. uses in its antennae diagrams.

Chalking “STOP NSA SPYING” on Snowden’s old street

IMG_20140825_133947While I was on vacation in Hawaii, my friends and I took a trip to Edward Snowden’s former house in the Waipahu area. Not much to see—it’s just a house in a residential neighborhood—but we were nearby and thought it’d be fun to make the trip. Here’s a picture of the five of us posed out in front (from left to right, that’s me, Sarah Jeong, Marcia Hofmann, Kashmir Hill, and Trevor Timm).

We hatched an idea to come back with sidewalk chalk, and on the day I left for the airport we stopped by and I took to the street. Here are the results.


Rick Perry, meet Warby Parker

As I just announced on Twitter: it turns out the mugshot from Rick Perry’s recent indictment works just fine in the Warby Parker virtual glasses try-on tool.