Room 34 presents On This Day: a WordPress plugin

For a while now, I’ve had a sidebar widget on my site that displayed posts published on the same date in previous years. It’s a fun way to look back on your own blogging history and to revisit topics from the past.

I didn’t really have it set up as a proper widget though; it was just code stuck directly into my sidebar template. Today I decided to rebuild it as a proper plugin, which you can now download and use yourself!

It’s really simple to use. Just extract the zip file and place the contents in your wp-content/plugins directory. Then go to the WordPress dashboard. Activate the plugin (under Plugins), then edit your widgets (under Appearance) and drag the “On This Day” widget where you want it to appear.

You can customize the title and the “no posts” message (which gets displayed on days when there are no historical posts).

Room 34 presents On This Day is now available for download in the WordPress Plugin Directory.

Testing new CSS

Aside

I’m working on a modified version of the default WordPress “Twenty Eleven” theme. I’m keeping the templates more-or-less untouched, but I stripped the CSS down to nothing and am rebuilding it. It’s not done yet, but it’s far enough along for now… and I needed to get it rolled out before my MacBook Air ran out of battery charge. Enjoy!

What I Wish Wikipedia and Others Were Saying About SOPA/PIPA

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What I Wish Wikipedia and Others Were Saying About SOPA/PIPA
Writing for ReadWriteEnterprise, Joe Brockmeier gets to the heart of why this kind of legislation can even exist in the first place:

What I wish Wikipedia (and others) were saying: “Today, we’re going to an extreme to notify the public of bills that threaten the Internet. We’re doing so because this was the only way to get your attention. The mainstream news media was not going to tell you about SOPA or PIPA. Many of your elected officials want to push through harmful legislation because their supporters demand it, and they know you’re unlikely to hold them accountable. It’s vitally important to stop SOPA or PIPA from passing, but what’s even more important is that you start paying attention and demand better from your government. Even if we stop SOPA, the larger problem continues. Tomorrow we’re going to go back to business as usual, but it’s up to you whether Congress does.”

Recalling my brush with the DMCA, and how SOPA/PIPA would be immeasurably worse

This MetaTalk post concerning some erroneous DMCA* takedown notices reminded me of an episode from my personal experience that I had almost completely forgotten. It’s a good illustration of how even the DMCA — copyright holders’ current legal blunt instrument to wield against infringers, but nowhere near as powerful as SOPA/PIPA would be — can be used in harmful ways, either maliciously or mistakenly.

A geek, not a criminal

You see, I’m a geek. In particular, I’m a video game geek. I have a huge collection of 1980s video game antiquities. Over a dozen vintage consoles, hundreds of game cartridges. I even have a box full of instruction manuals and those catalogs Atari used to pack in with each game. And for a time earlier in the 2000s, I ran a website chronicling this obsession. I had meticulously compiled a spreadsheet of all of the games in my collection, and turned that into a page on the site, where visitors could (for some unimaginable reason) learn all about the contents of the bins full of 20+ year old plastic and silicon that I kept in my basement. It was harmless (if somewhat ridiculous) fun.

But, you see, there’s this thing called emulation. People have written computer software that emulates the hardware of these old game consoles. And people have also developed ways to “dump” the ROMs (programs) of those games as files that can be run in these emulators, allowing you to play long-lost vintage console and arcade games on your computer.

The nature of the Internet makes it very easy to share these emulators and ROMs. Except, under copyright law, it’s illegal. The emulators themselves are not illegal, and as I understand it, if you own the original cartridges, dumping their ROMs is fair use. But possessing the ROMs without owning the physical game is against the law, and sharing the ROMs online definitely is.

So, the copyright holders in these old games, at least the ones like Nintendo who still have lots of money and actually care about protecting those copyrights, have teams of lawyers scouring the Internet for sites that are illegally distributing ROMs. Under DMCA, they can demand that owners/hosts of infringing sites take down the infringing content, or face legal action.

And that’s where my dumb little video game collection site comes in. I never shared a single ROM on that site (and would never be stupid enough to try). But Nintendo’s lawyers didn’t bother to figure that out. They simply saw an HTML table full of the names of old video games, some of which were Nintendo’s IP, and they contacted my web host at the time, who also happened to be my former boss.

He called me on the phone (a rare occurrence) and was noticeably agitated. He couldn’t believe I was doing something so stupid. Because I wasn’t. Once I reassured him that Nintendo’s lawyers were barking up the wrong tree, his tone changed. He’s a Ron Swanson-esque libertarian, and was ready to fight back. And that’s the last I heard of it.

You’ve probably encountered some DMCA takedowns yourself. YouTube is the most common place to find them. Have you ever clicked a YouTube link, but instead of seeing the video, you were presented with a black box with a message explaining that the video had been removed at the copyright holder’s request? That’s the DMCA at work.

Much worse

Under SOPA/PIPA, YouTube itself could be taken down**. For that one infringement. Any any sites that were linking to that one infringing YouTube video could be taken down as well.

For a couple of years (up until word started spreading about SOPA), I was running another site called “Hall of Prog: A Curated Exhibition of Progressive Rock on YouTube.” Every post on that site was a link to a YouTube video. And given that it was all copyrighted music, most of the videos were probably infringing. Indeed, over the time I ran the site, a huge percentage of the videos on it (especially ones featuring Robert Fripp) were replaced with YouTube’s generic DMCA takedown message. When it started to look like SOPA might pass late in 2011, I decided it wasn’t worth taking any chances, so I took down the entire site. Now it’s just a redirect to americancensorship.org.

I was not making money on that site. There were no ads. And I was certainly not trying to deny the artists/copyright holders (which should be the same thing, but rarely are) their right to revenue. In fact, if anything, I was giving them free advertising. Yes, people make that claim whenever they share something. But I made sure to include links to both the artist and album page on Amazon.com for every video I posted. (YouTube sure doesn’t do that.)

Copyrights (and patents) stand at odds with the free exchange of information. There’s no way around that. As a creator myself, I deeply defend the rights of people who produce creative works to benefit financially from their efforts and to decide how and where their works are distributed. But those rights also have to be balanced with the greater societal good to be gained from freedom of speech and sharing ideas. For decades, if not centuries, means of communication changed very slowly, and copyright law could adapt (or not even bother to adapt) with them. But the Internet has changed everything, and old school copyright holders (especially corporate behemoths like the movie and music industries) have scrambled frantically for the past decade and a half not to lose their foothold — no, make that their stranglehold — over copyrighted content.

I personally believe copyright, as it is currently written, doesn’t work. (That’s why I release my work under Creative Commons licensing.) It doesn’t help that Congress keeps extending the lifespan of a copyright so Disney won’t lose control over Mickey Mouse. (No, seriously… Google it. Tomorrow***.) But I respect the law enough that I make a concerted effort to ensure that the things I do online do not infringe copyright, or are covered by fair use. I cannot, however, just sit back and let the entertainment industrial complex steamroll over my entire livelihood and way of life simply to fight (spurious claims of) piracy.

It’s not too late

The point of all of this is: we already have a law designed to allow copyright holders to take action (before resorting to legal recourse) against copyright infringers, the DMCA. And even that has already been shown to pose the risk of abuse. But the scope of damage the DMCA can inflict is at least mitigated such that it cannot significantly impede the free exchange of information and ideas so critical to making the Internet what it is — something that so many of us depend on every day. We cannot risk what SOPA/PIPA would do to our age of information. (See what I did there?)

Get involved! Go to americancensorship.org to learn more.

Notes

* That’s a Wikipedia link, so you’ll have to wait until after the SOPA/PIPA blackout to look at it.

** SOPA/PIPA is only supposed to apply to sites hosted outside the United States, but this would be hard to enforce, and could easily end up affecting U.S.-hosted sites as well.

*** Yes, I know Google’s “blackout” isn’t really a blackout. It was a joke.

Participate in Wednesday’s SOPA strike

Looking for an easy way to participate in tomorrow’s SOPA (and PIPA) strike? The SOPA Strike website has some code you can use to automatically load this page.

I’ve set up my own customized version, which you’re welcome to use. This does not completely black out your site. Instead, the page loads with a black screen. Then after a few seconds, the words "STOP SOPA" with a "Learn more…" link appear in white. The black box then fades to slightly transparent and animates to the upper left corner of the screen. It then stays fixed in the corner as the user scrolls around. The site is still usable, but the “STOP SOPA” message is ever-present. (Be forewarned: as I did not take the time to set up cookies, the entire process also repeats on each new page load.)

If you’d like to see how it works, I set up an awesome fake site to demonstrate the blackout animation in action.

If your site is already using jQuery, simply copy the code below into your page, ideally just after the <body> tag:

<script type="text/javascript" src="http://atomic.room34.com/sopa_blackout.js"></script>

If you’re not already using jQuery on your site, you just need to include it from Google Code first, like this:

<script type="text/javascript" src="http://ajax.googleapis.com/ajax/libs/jquery/1.7.1/jquery.min.js"></script>
<script type="text/javascript" src="http://atomic.room34.com/sopa_blackout.js"></script>

If you’re using PHP, you can even use this code to automatically make it appear at 8 AM EST and disappear at 8 PM EST. (Update the times as needed to represent your time zone, and remove the Google Code line if you’re already using jQuery.)

<?php
if (time() > mktime(8,0,0,1,18,2012) && time() < mktime(20,0,0,1,18,2012)) {
?>
<script type="text/javascript" src="http://ajax.googleapis.com/ajax/libs/jquery/1.7.1/jquery.min.js"></script>
<script type="text/javascript" src="http://atomic.room34.com/sopa_blackout.js"></script>
<?php
}
?>

Note: As indicated above, I built this quickly, and have not done a lot of cross-browser testing. It’s pretty basic, but it may not display correctly in some older browsers, especially earlier versions of Internet Explorer. Use at your own risk… just like the Internet itself!

The Rise of the New Groupthink

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The Rise of the New Groupthink
Susan Cain, writing for the New York Times, explores the correlation between introversion and creativity, along the way profiling one of the great introverts of our times, Steve Wozniak. Quoting Woz in his memoir:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

(Via Charles Hennen.)

Facing the 2012 RPM Challenge

February is just a couple of weeks away, and as I have every year since 2008, I’ll be participating in the RPM Challenge.

What’s that? It’s simple: produce an entire album (10+ songs or 35+ minutes) entirely during the month of February.

My concept this year is a bit different than in the past. This time around, I will not be using any instruments… just my iPhone. I’ve assembled an interesting collection of music creation apps (which I will detail in a future post, but for now will represent with a pair of screenshots, below), and these will be the only tools I will use to generate sounds. I may sample my voice, found sounds and instruments using my iPhone’s microphone, and I’ll do final mixing and post-production on my MacBook Air, but as much as possible this will be an album produced on the iPhone. Given the nature of some of the apps I’ll be using, I also expect this album to be a lot more experimental/avant garde in style than most of my recent solo work.

I am tentatively calling the album i. And I am also considering producing a companion album, called The Way Out Takes, that will consist of unedited versions of the more experimental tracks that end up on i.

Stay tuned for more details as I think them up.

SOPA is DYING; its evil Senate twin, PIPA, lives on

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SOPA is DYING; its evil Senate twin, PIPA, lives on
Cory Doctorow brings us some good news over on Boing Boing concerning House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s decision to shelve SOPA (for now). Cory also hits on just why fighting this legislation is so important:

[T]he net is more than a glorified form of cable TV — it’s the nervous system of the information society. Any pretense that is used to build censorship and surveillance into the network will touch every part of networked life.