More comments on Google+ and names

I’ve been seeing a lot of the same things get asked/said repeatedly so I thought I’d cover a few of them here.

“Why not just change your Google+ name to Kirrily Robert? That would get your account reinstated.”

Honestly, if Google’s support people tell me that’s what I need to do, I will do so. They have not yet told me that I need to do that. I’m playing dumb for now, and seeing how it plays out, because I’m interested in the review/appeal process.

If I do change my Google+ name to Kirrily Robert, I will (presumably) get my account back, but I won’t use it much any more. It will become like my Facebook or Quora accounts, two other services where I have an account but seldom use it because it feels weird to be using an identity at odds with how most of my friends know me.

“You knowingly violated the TOS, what did you expect?”

Sort of. The so-called “Community Standards” say, “Use the name your family/friends/colleagues know you by”. I am abiding by the rules as stated, though I admit that I am doing so in the knowledge that policy that’s actually enforced by Google differs from what they have published.

So yeah, I knew I would probably have my account suspended. I’m not too worried by that, because I’m not all that invested in the platform. And I thought it would be interesting and educational for someone who understands the system quite well (my recent ex-Googler status helps with this) to poke at it from outside and see how it appears to work.

My goals were, firstly, to help highlight the problems with the policy, and secondly, to test out and document the processes around it. This seems to be going well so far.

“People are losing access to all their Google services when their account is suspended!”

A lot of people are talking about this so I wanted to address it.

As far as I know, people are not losing access to all their Google services simply for using a name that Google doesn’t like. I have not yet heard of a single documentable case of this. (A documentable case would involve a G+ profile page that looks like this and contains the words, “we determined that the name you provided violates our Community Standards.”)

What I have heard is that many people are losing access to all Google services for some form of ill-defined “violation of our Terms of Service”. This is getting conflated with the names issue, and it’s not surprising. Google’s communication is weak, and they don’t tell you exactly what TOS you broke, so it’s easy to think it must be the name-related thing you’re hearing about happening to other people.

Some other considerations:

  • Google+’s TOS forbids a range of content including “spam”, “hate speech”, “copyright”, and so-called NSFW content but nobody’s quite sure where the lines are or how it’s enforced, so it might be that you’re getting shut down for content violations you didn’t expect.
  • Google+ allows anyone to report an account for abuse. While it’s unclear how those reports are escalated or how many of them are needed to lead to account suspension, if the bar is set too low (as it seems to be), this can lead to many capricious suspensions. (If you thought DMCA takedown notices could be used inappropriately to harass or intimidate, consider that Google+ only requires someone — anyone, not even the copyright holder — to click a button that says “copyright” to achieve the same effect.)
  • Google+ has no facility for “warnings” prior to suspension. Other services (even Google-run Youtube) typically freeze/hide/take down specific content, or send you a warning telling you that you must do so yourself, rather than suspend an entire account with no warning.
  • There is no clear understanding of the scope and range of TOS enforcement. Does TOS violation on one Google service result in losing access to that one service, or to multiple services? This doesn’t seem to have been well thought through.

The last point is an important one. As Google encourages people to consolidate more and more of their online lives in Google services, it’s going to be increasingly important for Google to maintain separation between services when it comes to TOS enforcement. You shouldn’t lose access to your email and documents just because you posted a risque picture on Google+ or a fan video to Youtube, any more than you should have your car towed for not paying your phone bill.

So, to sum up: as far as I can tell, people are not losing access to GMail and other services for using the wrong name on Google+, but they are losing access to those services for a cluster of other reasons which relate closely to the names problem.

“Their service, their rules.”

I’ve heard a number of people say that restaurants, retailers, and other businesses can put up signs that say, “We reserve the right to refuse service for any reason,” so why can’t Google? The thing is, businesses can say that all they want, but they if they attempt to not serve someone because they’re black, or queer, or disabled, they can expect public criticism and, in many cases, prosecution under anti-discrimination laws.

Sometimes, when businesses discriminate, they do so indirectly. “We don’t discriminate against women,” they say, “just against people who care for children,” or who have long hair, or any of the myriad other traits strongly associated with being female, or part of some other class. Indirect discrimination is discrimination nonetheless, and in some jurisdictions is just as illegal as direct discrimination.

(And just to make it completely clear: using a name other than that which appears on your legal ID is strongly correlated with being a member of one or more marginalised or discriminated-against groups. See: Who is harmed by a “Real Names” policy?)

So no, first of all, businesses can’t just say “our service, our rules”, if those rules are considered discriminatory under the law. Secondly, even if the law does not recognise their practices as discriminatory, it’s still valid to complain about them. This is especially true when it relates to an institution in a position of widespread power and ubiquity, rather than a niche or specialised service.

“It’s only a field trial, you can’t expect perfection.”

I believe this field trial went out too early, and that policy and communication strategies around the names issue — which Google knew would be a big deal — should have been in place before they went live. While I don’t expect perfection, I do expect something at least halfway usable, and the names policy, its enforcement, and the review/appeal process aren’t anywhere near that. (The same goes for gender privacy, too — now fixed, but shouldn’t have been launched in that state, in my opinion.)

That said, I have sympathy for the developers who are trying to do a lot under a great deal of pressure. We know to expect bugs, and we’re giving them a lot of leeway as we test out the system, send feedback, and generally kick the tires. People are being pretty good-natured about the rough edges, on the whole, and either let them slide or sent feedback. (I even sent feedback on the feedback tool, asking for a counter to show how much feedback I’ve sent.)

It would be nice if Google would provide the same sort of understanding toward us, by erring on the side of caution when wielding the banhammer, as we try and figure out how the system works based on, quite frankly, very little clear information.

4 people with names written on their hands

Party nametags from my couchwarming party, September 2010, at my house in San Francisco. Three of four people shown -- who I know offline, and interact with face to face -- are using names which would not be permitted on Google+.

I’ve been suspended from Google+

So, just to backtrack and fill everyone in on the details:

  • I’ve been a strong advocate of pseudonymity for a considerable time. Hacker News and pseudonymity is a good example of my writing on the subject, from June last year.
  • The startup I worked for was acquired by Google in July 2010.
  • I left Google last Friday, July 15th, one year after the acquisition. My reasons are described, in part, here.
  • During the time I was at Google, Google was working on the project that would become Google+. I was not involved directly in that project, but I did try to keep myself informed of their planned policies regarding pseudonymity, and advocated strongly in favour of Google+ allowing it. Obviously, that advocacy wasn’t successful.
  • My first tweet upon leaving Google, posted from the BART station about ten minutes after walking out the door, was to state my belief that Google+’s anti-pseudonym policy was harmful and discriminatory. (I didn’t say so publicly before then because, as an employee, I couldn’t really publicly criticise my employer. Once I’d left, I felt more able to do so.)
  • Because I knew Google’s policies pretty well (as much as anyone can, when they’re so unclear), I knew I was at risk of my account (under the name of “Skud .”) being suspended. I prepared this page about my name gathering evidence and testimonials from people who know me primarily, or solely, as “Skud”.
I KNW SKD

Viral shows off his home-made "I know Skud" button, on my second-last day at Google

So today, I got off a plane this afternoon to find a pile of tweets, emails, and blog comments asking whether it was true that my Google+ account had been suspended. When I managed to get some wifi and check, it turned out that it had been.

I know there’s a lot of people wondering what happens when you get suspended, so here is my experience so far.

Gmail works fine, I can check my email. There’s no official notification that my Google+ account has been suspended, though.

When I click on “+Skud” in my Google toolbar (top left), it takes me to Google+, and I can see my stream, and that 16 new people are following me. When I click through to my own profile, though, I see this:

notice of suspension

Your profile is suspended. After reviewing your profile, we determined that the name you provided violates our Community Standards. If you believe this profile has been suspended in error, please provide us with additional information via this form, and we will review your profile again.

Note, by the way, that the Google+ “Community Standards” (actually linked as Content Policy at the bottom of most pages on the site — just one of many inconsistencies) says:

To help fight spam and prevent fake profiles, use the name your friends, family or co-workers usually call you.

I had been pleased when I originally saw these terms, thinking that they would allow people with long-standing pseudonyms, or who regular use names that don’t match their state-issued ID, or who have unusual names, to use the service without difficulty. However, we’ve seen multiple cases of people having their accounts suspended despite this.

Anyway, I clicked through the form, which looked like this:

Appeal form

Our Community Standards play an important role in insuring a positive experience for everyone using Google Profiles. As part of our standards to help fight spam and prevent fake profiles, please use the name that your friends, family, or co-workers usually call you. [...] If you believe that we have mistakenly suspended your profile for having an unauthentic [sic] name, please fill out the form below.

It then asks me for my name (uh, don’t you know that already?), email (ditto), link to my profile (ditto), and asks me to provide documentation. I can either give them a scan of my photo ID (obscuring “personal information”, whatever that means), or links to places on the web that demonstrate that this is my name. They suggest using Facebook (the site that allows Google founder Sergey Brin to go under a pseudonym, and whose own founder has a page for his dog) as evidence. I have something better, though, because I expected this to happen and I had already collated my evidence. I linked to that page and submitted the form.

The result was this ill-formated, uninformative page:

feedback received

Thank you for sending us your feedback about Google Profiles.

No further word on what the appeals process looks like, how soon I can expect to hear back from them, or anything like that.

So, while I’m suspended, it appears that:

  • I can view my stream, including posts to “Limited” circles that include me
  • I can add people to my circles using the tool in the right sidebar
  • However, it says I have 0 people in my circles, on my profile page
  • When I go to my circles page, it says “People who’ve added you (undefined)”
  • I can’t comment on anyone’s posts
  • I don’t think anyone can add me to posts explicitly using +Skud/@Skud
  • I can send feedback on Google+ (though I don’t much feel the urge to)
  • ETA: I can’t use Google Takeout to export my profile and stream (screenshot).

People have been asking whether this suspension is in relation to me criticising Google’s hiring practices yesterday, or publicly criticising Google+’s pseudonymity policies over the past week or so (you can bet I’ve been criticising them privately, as an employee, for much longer than that). For the record, I don’t think these things are directly related, but I do think it is probable that my profile was reported by someone who disagrees with my pro-pseudonymity activism. Unsurprisingly, the very policy that was meant to make Google+ “a positive experience for all users” is easily used as a griefing tool against those expressing non-mainstream views. Who could have foretold that? (That sound you hear is is my head hitting my keyboard.)

Anyway, I will attempt to keep you all updated on the appeal process, with screenshots and so on. Hopefully if I can bring nothing else to this steaming pile of bullshit, I can bring documentation.

Also, if you’ve made it this far, you should check out the community-curated list of groups of people who are harmed by this policy and accompanying blog comments over at Geek Feminism.


Update, July 23rd

Email from Google, received at 3:23pm PDT, a little over a day since my suspension:

Hello,

Thank you for contacting us with regard to the name in your Google
Profile. It looks like you have deleted your Google Profile, and thus we
are unable to take further action on your request for us to review the
name in your profile.

Sincerely,

Ricky

The Google Profiles Support Team

Um, no, I never deleted my account, though I did have the privacy settings locked down fairly tight. I’ve contacted them and advised them to try again. (Unrelatedly, I also made my profile slightly more visible, because I like the idea of adding “Banned from Google+ for using the name everyone knows me by” to my “bragging rights”.)

Update, July 24th

Please see my followup post where I talk a bit more about some of the issues.


Update, July 25th

Another email from “Ricky” (if that’s really his or her real name — I suspect it’s not):

Thank you for contacting us with regard to the name used in your Google
Profile. We have reviewed your appeal and need more information in order
to verify that the name entered Skud . is your common name.

Please reply to this email with a copy of your government issued ID, which
we will dispose of after review. Once we receive this information we can
review your appeal and come to a final decision.

Here is the reply I sent:

My government ID does not demonstrate that “Skud” is my common name — it only demonstrates the name by which the government calls me, and unless you expect me to “circle” border control guards or people from the DMV, I don’t see why that is more relevant than the name by which my friends and colleagues know me.

My website, to which I have already linked you, demonstrates that “Skud” is my common name. Let me link it again, in the hope that you will actually read it this time: http://infotrope.net/bio/my-name/

It’s now been three days since my suspension. Tomorrow I’m having lunch with my old colleagues at Google. I’ve tried not to escalate this process through unofficial channels because I want to see what the suspension and appeal process looks like to someone who doesn’t have my insider knowledge and contacts. I don’t doubt, though, that my case is being discussed a lot inside Google, and probably today or tomorrow will be when Google starts treating me differently from most people who’ve been suspended.


Update, July 26th

Yesterday afternoon (the 25th) I got this email from “Ricky”:

Thank you for contacting us with regard to the name you want to use with
your Google Profile. After further review, we have determined that your
name is within our Community Standards policy. Thank you for your patience
while we reviewed your profile name.

I mentioned this on Twitter but didn’t get too excited, as my profile page wasn’t actually reactivated yet. I emailed them back and said:

How long will it take for my profile to be reinstated now that you
have approved my name?

Time passed, and this morning I got the following email:

It seems you have edited your name back to “skud.” and your account was
blocked. You have to keep the edited name as your common name or your
account will continued to be blocked. Every time you edit your name it is
automatically checked by our system for violations.

Now, I didn’t edit my name. I didn’t touch it. And it is my common name, as I’ve shown through repeated documentation. But this documentation route is getting a little silly, so I decided to change tack:

Ricky, I never edited my name on my profile page — it has remained as my common name (the name my friends and colleagues know me by) since I first signed up for Google+.

But do I understand you correctly — if I were to edit my name to something else that looks more like you what think is a common name, you would unblock my account? Would “Kathleen Richards” be acceptable, for example? Is it permissable to include my common name, the one everyone knows me by, as a middle name in quotation marks, like Brian “Fitz” Fitzpatrick (the Google staffer responsible for Google Takeout) does? If so, I would be willing to change my name to Kathleen “Skud” Richards, just to have my account reinstated.

I’ve updated my profile to match. Let’s see what comes of this. [Later: I switched back to Kirrily "Skud" Robert -- while I'm temporarily amused to troll them with a fake (but real-sounding) name like Kathleen Richards, I don't actually want it on my profile.]

In other news, I had lunch with my old colleagues at Google’s San Francisco office. This is the visitor badge that Google issued me with:

google visitor badge with Skud on it


Update, July 27th

Had drinks with Doc Popular and aestetix last night in San Francisco. They introduced themselves as “Doc” and “aestetix” respectively, and that is the name I know them by “in the real world”.

This morning, another useless email from “Ricky”:

The name you use in the name field must resemble your First and Last name. Any other name you use can be placed right below the names field in the nick names field where other users can still recognize you by that name.

Here’s my response:

Ricky, it has been five days and I am starting to lose patience. Please can you answer the following questions clearly, without evasion and without copy-pasting form letters:

1) I have repeatedly demonstrated that “Skud” is the name by which I am known by the vast majority of my acquaintance, through the webpage at http://infotrope.net/bio/my-name/ This page shows that I am known by Skud by my friends, co-workers, co-habitants, conference organisers, and Google itself (where I was an employee until July 15th). In what specific way does this fail to meet your standards of documentation?

2) If you won’t let me simply use “Skud” as my name on Google+, how would you advise me to edit my name to meet your requirements? I wish my common name, “Skud”, to be visible on all my posts and comments, but am prepared to use other names alongside “Skud” if it will help get past your rules. I suggest using: Kirrily “Skud” Robert. Is this acceptable?

(Please don’t bother telling me to use the “nickname” field, as it does not show on my posts and comments.)

3) If it is not acceptable for me to include the nickname “Skud” in quotation marks in my Google+ name (as, eg, Kirrily “Skud” Robert), due to punctuation marks being disallowed, can you please explain why others, such as Google engineer Brian “Fitz” Fitzpatrick (********@google.com, responsible for Google Takeout) are allowed to do so, and by what method a member of the public can gain a similar exemption.

If you cannot answer the above questions by yourself, please escalate this to your supervisor.


Update, July 28th

Yesterday a Googler friend of mine pointed out that the case I’ve documented in this blog post looks rather like this xkcd comic (click through for full size strip):

This morning, “Ricky” emailed me again to chirp, “I’m a server!” yet another time:

Hello,

To edit your name to comply with our Community Standards Policy can be
done so rather easily. Place the name Kirrily Roberts in the name field
and right below place your nickname”Skud” in the nick name field. Both
names will be visible to users and it solves the issue of complying with
our policy. If you wish to edit your name to comply please email me back.

Thank you,

Ricky

So now I’m pulling out the big guns. Everyone knows (don’t they?) that the only way to get support from Google is to contact people you know inside the organisation and get them to advocate on your behalf. I’ve held off from doing so until now because nobody should have to do that. It’s not fair on Googlers who have to deal with begging from friends who need help with stuff the Googler knows little about, and it’s not fair on customers that a company that provides such vital services as email, website hosting, and phone service should be able to cut services off without offering a clear and usable path to resolution.

But since it seems to be the only way, I emailed the following back to Ricky, and Cc’d Vic Gundotra (SVP Social), Bradley Horowitz (VP Product), Michael Hermeston (who I believe is in charge of G+ customer support), Natalie Villalobos (Google+ community manager), and a few others I know who work on Google+ identity issues (all of whom know me as Skud). I also Bcc’d it to a number of my friends at Google, encouraging them to disseminate it widely inside the company.

Ricky, this is now the sixth day without resolution.

Yesterday I asked you three questions, and specifically asked you to answer them clearly, without evasion, and without copy-pasting form letters — or if you weren’t able, to escalate to your supervisor. You didn’t answer them, so here they are again:

[redacted for brevity]

I am now escalating this to Google+ management and [redacted] in the hopes that my questions will be answered and my account reinstated, under my common name (“Skud”). Nobody should ever have to rely on Googler acquaintances to get them customer support, but since that does seem to be the only way, I’m taking it.

You need to fix this harmful, hypocritical policy and allow people to actually use “the names by which they are known”. Not just special-cases for celebrities and people who have friends at Google, but for everyone — transgender people, those from non-Western cultures, people with only one name, even people whose names you think look silly. Google shouldn’t be telling me what my “common name” is or isn’t. It should be supporting me and validating my identity, so that I can use its services happily and encourage others to do so as well.

Yours,

Skud

A note to Google recruiters (and on Google hiring practices)

Writing this in part to let off steam, and in part so I can point the next recruiter at it.

Time from my leaving Google til getting the first unrelated contact from a Google recruiter: 6 days.

Interest I have in going through Google’s hiring process again: zero.

When Metaweb/Freebase was acquired by Google last year, we came in as part of the Search team. As a community/developer relations person, Search didn’t really have a place for me, but they brought me in on a fixed term offer, giving me a year to figure out how I might fit in at Google, perhaps by transferring my work to a more appropriate group or finding another role that made more sense.

I’m going to handwave a bit, but in short, we shuffled things around so that I could continue doing my job by moving to a more appropriate part of the organisation. And then I got to interview for my own job.

Now, I’m 100% confident that Google wouldn’t have hired me straight off the street. I knew when Metaweb was acquired that that was the only way I was likely to get in there, and I certainly appreciated the opportunity, but I wasn’t fooling myself: I’m not the sort of engineer that Google usually looks for.

You see, I don’t have a computer science degree from an elite university, or indeed any degree at all. I don’t have any pretensions toward being a computer scientist, though I’m familiar with enough of the concepts and terminology to be able to work with them. I’m more the type to know and use tools — preferably popular free and open source tools — that other people have built, but of course Google’s not very interested in that. I’ve also spent a lot of my time in the tech field on teaching, mentoring, encouraging software teams to adopt best practices, building relationships with other teams and with users of our software, advocating openness and transparency, and so forth, none of which Google’s hiring practices care about or look for. It’s all algorithm pop-quiz, and I’m crap at those.

I guess that’s why when I interviewed for my transfer, I was told I was “not technical enough” to do the job I’d been doing for 3 years already, supporting the Freebase community.

(True story: in my interview I was asked how I would extract entities from an HTML page. I suggested using OpenCalais (a free-as-in-beer API that does just that, and returns Freebase identifiers). If someone in the Freebase community wanted to do something like that, that’s exactly what I would have recommended. But the interviewer wanted to know how I would implement it myself. I told him I wouldn’t — that that’s why I was leaving the Search group for Developer Relations! Wrong answer, apparently.)

Look, it’s Google’s privilege and prerogative to hire whomever they want. And when your data centers are as huge as Google’s, and CPU time is quite literally more valuable than engineer time, hiring people who can optimise an algorithm to the Nth degree makes sense. (At least in core engineering roles; whether it’s necessary for developer relations, product management, or any of the many other roles where Google generally wants computer science grads is much less clear.) There are plenty of fresh-faced kids from Stanford and MIT and whatever other elite universities are on Google’s preferred list, who can solve stupid puzzles and tell you the O notation of anything you want. Go hire them. They’ll have a great time working for you. They’ll probably be so excited to interview at Google that they won’t even care that the people interviewing them aren’t the people they’ll be working with, that they won’t be told what projects they’ll work on, or that their passions and interests and abilities outside of solving Sudoku in linear time will be flattened out by a hiring process that represents them as interchangable cogs in the machine.

But if you are a Google recruiter, and you want me to interview for SWE or SRE or any role that has an algorithm pop quiz as part of the interview, if you want me to apply for something without knowing what team I’ll be working on and whether it meshes with my values and goals and interests, if you want me to go through your quite frankly humiliating interview process just to be told that my skills and qualifications — which you could have found perfectly easily if you’d bothered to actually look before spamming me — aren’t suitable for any of the roles you have available, then just DON’T.

If you’re any other recruiter, then you should read the following:

Mural: Capitalism is over if you want it

ObMural: a new one in Clarion Alley (Mission District, San Francisco), spotted a week or so ago, though I don't know when it went up.

Announcing the ozmusicrescue saveaussiemusic mailing list

In re: yesterday’s post about saving Australian music from obscurity, I have now set up the saveaussiemusic mailing list so we can start discussing the project.

I posted the following in my welcome message, laying out the shape and scope of the project as I see it, and I’m including them here for easy reference (and so this post is more than a paragraph long).

1. The scope of this project is “independent and hard-to-find Australian music”. (My current personal interests are in the indie/alternative/punk/post-punk/etc sort of genres, but I see no reason to limit it to that.)

2. The goal is to make information about this music, and (eventually/hopefully/ideally) the music itself available as freely and openly as possible, to maximise the possibility of people being able to spread the love. To this end we will release everything we can under open source and open content licenses — ideally CC-0 for content and a permissive open source license for any code we create.

3. I want us to use existing infrastructure where possible, rather than creating our own. To that end, I think we should be putting structured data into repositories like MusicBrainz, encyclopedic content into Wikipedia, digital archive material into the Internet Archive, etc. We should give strong preference to data/content repositories that are run by long-term stable non-profits, whose data/content is accessible via open APIs, and whose data/content is widely used by third parties. This will make our material more accessible to the world at large, and won’t wear out our volunteers on maintaining our own servers and databases.

4. This project needs to work within the bounds of copyright law as it currently exists. I personally think said copyright law is deeply deeply flawed, but I also don’t want to be sued into oblivion. So when it comes to media archives, we need to think innovatively and come up with legal ways to do it.

5. We should partner, where possible, with other projects and organisations with similar goals. This can range from public libraries and archives, to groups like Creative Commons, to (just a blue-sky example) crowdfunding organisations like pozible.com.au. Partnering will get us more exposure and awareness of our project, and also save us from reinventing the wheel.

6. We need to involve people from a range of backgrounds: musicians, fans, librarians and archivists, coders, journalists and zinesters, everyone. I want us to share knowledge/skills and make this something that all sorts of people can take part in, regardless of technical background, profession, or degree of indie cred.

Another thing I would say, as a sort of high-level description of the project, is this: librarians talk a lot about preservation and access. This project needs to consider both of those, plus awareness. We should be making people aware of Australian music, and of the set of issues that prompted this project in the first place.

Anyway, if that sounds interesting to you, please join the saveaussiemusic mailing list.

ObRandomPhoto: stencil art on the sidewalk near my house in the Mission District, San Francisco. I was wearing exactly the right sneakers that day.

It’s like textfiles.com for Australian indie music

EDITED TO ADD: Please see this followup post, and subscribe to the saveaussiemusic mailing list if you’re interested in this project.

So I’ve been thinking about this project for a while, and it doesn’t have a name, but I wanted to tell you about it anyway. At least I have my startup-style it’s X for Y pitch: it’s like textfiles.com for Australian indie music.

Tweet by mendel: @Skud "Like what for Australian indie music?" "Like the Web Archive of BBS era text files, for Australian indie music." "The web what?" :D

Yeah, well, let me explain.

For background, I’d better start by saying I was pretty terminally uncool, music-wise, in the 80s and early 90s. My family weren’t big on following popular music, I lived somewhere with no decent record stores, records were priced out of my range, and even at school the kids I hung with weren’t hip enough to make mix tapes of anything much but Top 40 stuff. Despite this, I somehow got exposed to a certain amount of Australian indie and alternative music. I say “somehow” because I honestly don’t know where I heard most of this stuff. I guess 3XY and EON-FM, early on. Later, I listened to a lot of Triple J, and watched Rage.

These days, of course, I get most of my musical knowledge and exposure from the Interwebs, and the availability of digital downloads and information about musicians is really helping me backfill a lot of the older Australian music I wish I’d known better at the time.

Like, for example, The Go-Betweens, a Brisbane indie band that I was only faintly aware of until a few years ago, when Grant McLennan died and many of my friends online were expressing sadness at his passing. Of course I quickly figured out that they were part of the soundtrack of my childhood and teens, I just didn’t know them.

The Go-Betweens were pretty well known, and it’s not hard to find their albums, but a lot of equally important Australian music from the 70s to 90s is no longer readily obtainable. Much of it’s not available for (legal) digital download. In many cases CDs are out of print, or there may never have been a CD release, and the only version is vinyl mouldering in someone’s garage. Even information about older Australian music is hard to find: now-defunct labels and publications don’t have websites, and bands that would otherwise pass Wikipedia’s notability guidelines often don’t have articles because it’s so hard to find sources/citations. Only a handful of hobbyist websites and generous-hearted bloggers are keeping vast swathes of our musical heritage alive.

So why did this happen? Well, obscure music is always hard to find. That’s what makes it obscure. But in Australia even a bunch of pretty well known stuff, stuff I grew up on in my no-hipster-cred-whatsoever suburban youth, is rare as hen’s teeth now. For some reason, music that was released on the Mushroom and Festival labels was particularly likely to have this problem. So I asked around, and learnt that those labels, which had released some of the best music of my adolescence, had been consumed first by News Corp and then by Warner, who didn’t care enough to keep the back-catalogs available. I don’t even know how many smaller labels were caught up in this, but I’m guessing plenty.

(The good news is that this seems to be clearing up a little now. More stuff seems to be available in iTunes since last time I checked, and I hear that Warner recently sold back Flying Nun Records (NZ) to the original owners. So there is hope.)

So here’s what I want to do. I’d like to start a project for people — techies, music nerds, archivists, whoever — to come together and work on projects to preserve and disseminate (information about) Australian music, in as free and open a manner as possible: open source code, creative commons licenses, non-commercial and optimised for maximum sharing and reuse.

First project (something I’ve been meaning to do anyway) is to extract pertinent facts about artists, albums, and labels from a variety of online sources (such as, for example, the archived website of The Encyclopedia of Australian Rock and Pop) and use it to update MusicBrainz (and from there, hundreds of sites and apps that use MusicBrainz’s data).

Then I’d like to make sure that any Australian musical acts that are sufficiently notable have Wikipedia entries. In many cases this will mean grovelling through pre-Internet dead trees publications, but I’m going to be in Australia and probably unemployed through the summer and I hear that libraries have air conditioning and Internet access these days, so that actually sounds quite pleasant. Along the way, I hope to make a resource list for other Australians who’d like to do the same thing: which libraries have useful collections of music periodicals? Who’s got zines or clippings they’ll scan if you contact them? What online archives already exist for you to trawl through? That sort of thing.

Those two projects are pretty simple, but they’re important because free, open-licensed online resources will be the foundation for later projects. I don’t even know what these later projects are, yet; I just know that having the information out there will make them easier.

So, I’ll take a shot at MusicBrainz and Wikipedia regardless of whether anyone else is interested. I suspect that lots of people are interested, though, and that with a sufficient number and variety of participants there are a lot of other, more ambitious things we could try.

So I’m looking for coders, open data nerds, Wikimedians, librarians and archivists, scholars, music journalists, zinesters, fans, broadcasters, copyright law experts, free culture advocates, and past and present musicians, producers, promoters, and label folks who might be interested in this project. I’m planning to set up a mailing list and/or website for it, so leave a comment below with your email address (which will be hidden, not shown to the public) and I’ll let you know when there’s something to join.

Also, still looking for a name. Ideas welcome.

EDITED TO ADD: Please see this followup post, and subscribe to the saveaussiemusic mailing list if you’re interested in this project.


Image credit: the image used on the front page of infotrope.net to link to this post is a collage of clips from Party Fears, a Perth music zine from the 80s-90s now archived online by its creator, David Gerard.

Backup advice sought

The serious sysadmins of my acquaintance may wish to avert their eyes from the following, or risk being horrified by my heretofore laissez-faire attitude to backups.

For the past mumble years, my backup needs have been minimal. I have had a small amount of personal data that I cared about on my Macbook, my email (in GMail), a web hosting account with my websites and some other crap on it, and source code to certain coding projects (mostly open source). Thus, my backup solution has been:

  • offlineimap to regularly pull down copies of my GMail to my laptop
  • rsync backup of my web host to my laptop
  • source code kept in version control systems somewhere on the interwebs (currently in the process of moving most of my stuff to GitHub, using a private account for the non-open-source projects)
  • Time Machine backup of my laptop to external hard drive

This has suited me just fine. Of course if my house burns down, taking my laptop and external hard drive with it, I’ll lose some stuff — the music I have in iTunes, some fanvids I’m working on, years and years worth of collected porn — but whatever, it’s all replaceable, none of it’s mission-critical. The most important things to me are my email, websites, and source code, and I feel pretty comfortable about where they’re at.

Now I’m moving into an area where my work is going to take up more space than source code does. I recorded some demos for a band a while ago, just a couple of hours of stuff, and the folder where I’m keeping the project is 4GB. A larger recording project could easily take orders of magnitude more space than that. And unless I want some nasty surprises, I’m going to want to back it up properly.

I’m also going to be in Australia, land of overpriced, download-capped Internet (sample ADSL+ plans from a decent Australian ISP; I’m likely to share something in the middle of that range with a housemate or two). So, given the amount of data I’m likely to have, I don’t think cloud-based backup options will work well for me. I mean, imagine a situation where I have to do a full restore of half a terabyte of data or something — it would be completely infeasible.

So, in my situation, what would you do? Remember that I’m going to be on a student-ish budget for the next couple of years.

I’m thinking I’ll just get a couple of larger drives for Time Machine, keep one at home and one somewhere else, and switch them every so often. Additional to this, maybe a smallish cloud-based backup solution for “current projects” — hopefully just in the tens of GB at any given time, costing under $20/month. What do you think?

art wall near 23rd and Valencia

Random photo du jour: art wall near 23rd and Valencia. I photographed this a couple of weeks ago, and two days later, the whole thing had been painted over by some asshole taggers.

Music links of interest

A few weeks ago I asked around for recommendations of twitter people to follow who were at the intersection of tech and music. Consider this a set of “people to follow” recommendations if you’re interested in the same thing, as well as some highlights of recent things I’ve found via them.

(As an aside, can anyone suggest a good way to read a twitter list such as this one in such a way that it includes new-style retweets? It seems like Twitter itself screws this up, unfortunately.)

Wendy Hsu (@wendyfhsu) on LA’s Chinatown, the punk wars, and race:

I’m strangely attracted to this topic. But I’m not sure what my attraction entails. I know that it’s definitely related to my fascination with LA and excitement for moving to LA. I also think that this could be a seed for a new digital project. The KCET’s project can be a start of what I conceived as an in-depth interactive investigation of the interconnections between music of the “underground,” immigrant communities, and place, to unfurl the hidden discourses behind the often-times white-centered punk rock narratives.

Via @debcha, Unhearit:

Got a song stuck in your head? Unhearit promises to unstick it for you. The catch? It does so by replacing it with something equally sticky. A Faustian bargain if I’ve ever heard one.

Deb also asks, who will gather type specimens of music, as the Internet Archive is now doing for books? Good question.

Brewster decided that he should keep a copy of every book they scan so that somewhere in the world there was at least one physical copy to represent the millions of digital copies. That safeguarded random book would become the type specimen of that work. If anyone ever wondered if the digital book’s text had become corrupted or altered, they could refer back to the physical type that was archived somewhere safe.

From @theleadingzero, a video tutorial she made about audio processing with Python (the beginning includes a good intro to digital audio for laypeople, too):

And to wrap it up, have a death metal parrot:

Please donate to the Ada Initiative’s “Seed 100″ campaign

TL;DR version: please go to http://is.gd/adaseed100 and donate $512 (or more) to fund vital work supporting women in open technology and culture.

The Ada Initiative Seed 100 campaign: donate in June to support women in open technology and culture

Longer version:

In May 2009 I was invited to keynote the O’Reilly Open Source Convention (OSCON) speaking about two open source projects that had large numbers of female contributors. I was asked to make the talk “positive” and offer constructive suggestions other projects could follow, rather than focusing on the problems women face in open source, so that’s what I did. But I knew that no matter how positive my spin, people would take issue with what I said, and that I could expect negativity, trolls, and harassment for my pains. I knew, too, that I would undoubtedly burn out, but that I could probably manage a year of being the go-to woman on the subject before I had to withdraw for my own sanity.

The person who taught me most about burnout, back in 2009, was Valerie Aurora. Valerie is a Linux kernel hacker who, in 2002, wrote “HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux“. When I met her — at the same OSCON where I gave that keynote — she was burnt out on “women in open source” activism and had decided that the best way for her to encourage women was simply to be an awesome kernel hacker and a good technical role model.

Then in late 2010, a mutual friend of ours was sexually assaulted at an open source conference, spoke up about it online, and received further abuse for doing so. After that, Valerie decided that simply being a role model wasn’t enough, and that she needed to wade back into the “women in open source” fray. Only, this time, she was going to be smart: instead of trying to fit a second shift of activism around an already busy software development workload, she quit her job at Red Hat and, together with Mary Gardiner, founded The Ada Initiative, a non-profit focused on helping women in open technology and culture.

One of the Ada Initiative’s most successful initiatives to date is their work on conference anti-harassment policies, which Valerie started even before the Ada Initiative had officially been launched. Their anti-harassment work isn’t just about empty words, but about helping event organisers develop and communicate policies that actually make conferences safer and more welcoming for women and others. So far conferences including linux.conf.au, Ubuntu Developer Summits, and all Linux Foundation events including LinuxCon, Linux Plumbers, etc, have adopted policies based on the Ada Initiative’s work, and at least one conference this year has managed to respond effectively to an incident because they had the policy in place. There’s more information about anti-harassment policies on the GF wiki.

The Ada Initiative do not charge for consulting on these issues. However, they’re not a volunteer organisation. They know, as I do, that volunteer activists burn out quickly, as they try to balance activism (and dealing with the harassment and abuse the receive for that activism) with their jobs as software engineers, sysadmins, etc. Instead, the Ada Initiative employs full time staff (read their bios) who can devote themselves to projects that require more time and energy than busy volunteers usually have available.

To support this work, and other projects they have planned, they need funding. They already have a number of corporate sponsorships, are planning a general fundraising drive for smaller donors, but right now they’re reaching out to those people who’ve said “I really want to help, what can I do?” and asking them — especially those who are well-paid tech industry people themselves — to contribute $512 or more to their work. 100 “seed” funders at this level will help the Ada Initiative through their startup phase and support the next phase of their work.

I don’t know what each of you is paid, but based on the after-tax pay I get from my tech industry job, $512 is about 2 days’ work. I’ve put in at least 3 months’ solid work on this issue since 2009, so when I think about that, 2 days doesn’t seem like much.

Lots of people — equally senior people in the tech industry — have said to me, over the past couple of years, “I’d love to help but I don’t know where to start or where my contribution would be most useful.” To those people, I say, please donate to the Ada Initiative.

Music: Girl in a Coma, Venus in Furs, and Sarchasm

Went to see Girl in a Coma play the High Noon Saloon in Madison, WI the other night, supported by Venus in Furs (warning: auto-playing music) and Little Red Wolf.

Girl in a Coma were great — hard to describe their musical style, but if I tell you that they’re on Joan Jett’s label Black Heart Records and that she plays guitar and sings backup vox on their recent album, that’ll point you in the right direction. Every website I’ve seen describe them takes the mashup approach: punk-alternative-latin-rockabilly-blues-rock, or some such thing, which isn’t inaccurate. Worth a listen anyway. I picked up two of their albums, “Trio B.C.” and “Adventures in Coverland”; from the latter I particularly liked their version of Joy Division’s “Transmission”, which starts out wistful and a little girlish sounding, but soon gets into some serious guitars-and-wailing type noise, and more than does justice to the original.

Much as I liked Girl in a Coma, my pick of the night were actually the first openers, Venus in Furs, a local Madison surf-punk trio. Their drummer Marlo was the best I’ve seen in a while (not that I’m an expert, but she really drew my attention with her tight beat, smooth handling of tempo changes, and use of the whole kit) and their bassist Nat had that over the top rock star demeanour that always makes for a fun show. Between the shirtlessness and the Gene Simmons tongue action she gave me some good photo ops for my new camera. I’m still working on how to make it do its best in low light but I threw up what photos I’ve got this Flickr set. Venus in Furs don’t have an album out yet but you can hear some of their stuff on their website.

Venus in Furs

Venus in Furs at the High Noon Saloon, June 1 2011

The other thing I wanted to mention is Sarchasm, a local kids’ band who regularly play at 924 Gilman St where I volunteer as a sound engineer. A few weeks ago I helped them record a bunch of songs live at Gilman, which they’ve now put up on their Myspace page. If you listen to one song, make it their punk-rock cover of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl”, which I guarantee will get you smiling. Their EP, “Take #924″, recorded by yours truly, is available for $5 from the band in person or drop them a note on Facebook and they can probably get it to you somehow. They have a show on Sunday June 5th, 6pm, at Ashkenaz in North Berkeley. Check them out!

WisCon Vid Party / Space Girl

Last weekend I attended WisCon, an annual feminist science fiction convention held in Madison, Wisconsin. Along with my friend Gretchen, I ran the now-annual WisCon Vid Party. We showed five hours of fan-made video, including an hour on the theme “vids with a message”, an hour of premieres and nearly new vids (released since the start of this year), and an hour of singalong vids with subtitles. Two of my vids, which I’ve previously posted here, were shown: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (women in historical dramas) and So What (Sherlock Holmes 2009 movie).

I’ve posted our playlists: Premieres and nearly new, and the rest. All the vids we showed are available for download and/or streaming online. If you only watch one vid, watch the one that opened our Premieres show, Charmax’s “Space Girl”:

(If you’re reading this on Facebook you may have to click through to infotrope.net to see the embed.)

Charmax’s vid is a celebration of women in science fiction as well as a criticism of their portrayal. “My momma told me I should never venture into space, but I did, I did, I did.” By the end, our heroine finds her superman — and it is herself. It was amazing to see this vid play live, for the first time, in a group of feminist (and mostly female) science fiction fans, and I’m sure we’ll be playing it again next year.

If anyone is interested in participating in next year’s vid party at WisCon (as an attendee, volunteer, or vidder), I encourage you to follow the Dreamwidth community where we post announcements and information throughout the year. It’s available via RSS, but if you’d like a Dreamwidth account I have a bunch of invite codes at present, so leave your email address and I can send you one.

Offline.

I spent today offline. I wrote something. I post it here fully recognising the irony inherent in doing so.

Offline rant 1 (see transcript below)

Offline rant 2 (see transcript below)

Offline rant 3 (see transcript below)

Transcript:

OFFLINE. Sitting on my front step in San Francisco’s Mission District. May 19th 2011. I am taking a sick day from work, and since I don’t actually have much to do at work it’s a real SICK DAY not “working from home”. I’ve resolved to stay offline til tonight. It’s sunny out and why not enjoy that? I lay in bed til early afternoon sleeping and reading a book about the history of the Riot Grrl movement. It got me thinking about zines and zine culture. I only discovered zines AFTER I got online (1993 or so) and I saw them as a dead/dying art form. Why wouldn’t you make a website or set up an email newsletter or use the internet SOMEHOW??? To me, paper zines seemed self-consciously retro, pig-headedly anti-tech, when tech and the Internet seemed like the most effective way to communicate (with certain caveats, obviously, about communities who were not online — the “yet” was implicit.) But today I am thinking about creation rather than communication. My new year’s resolution was “be an artist” and wen I set that resolution it wasn’t so much about producing artifacts (ART-ifacts?) or showing them to people as it was about a mindset. I wanted to be open to beauty and wonder and all that bullshit and while I sometimes feel it when I’m in front of a computer mostly I’m just numb, and even the truly awesome doesn’t make me stop and feel my heart and mind expand… instead I am switching windows to tweet it blog it repost it share it plus-one it so that everyone will be impressed with how cool I am to have found whatever it is or to be hanging out with the cool kids who tweet the witty one-liners or the best blog posts. Right now I’m thinking about blogging this, whether to scan or photograph the pages, I drew a copyleft symbol at the top of the page so I can say that this rant (which I’m writing on my knee in a moleskin notebook (so hip!)) is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license so you can quote it and link back to ME ME ME MY BLOG MY TWITTER. Yes, I have officially just disappeared up my own arse. But what would happen if I really went offline? If I wrote my thoughts on paper and (whoa…) didn’t post them at all? I haven’t done that, not really, since I was about thirteen, and I devised my own sad little cypher to stop anyone reading my diary. There’s always an audience, always publication, always communication. Is it communication without an audience? Would I find any point in doing it at all? I bought this Moleskine to do just that, to do “The Artist’s Way” 3 pages a day thing, and I never use it for that. I want/need an audience. ME ME ME. I want/need to connect with people. US US US. Sometimes I hate the filters I put up, the gags I speak around, online — every word an effort to make myself clearly heard, knowing people will misunderstand everything and then tell me about it again and again until I’m scared to say anything without even MORE care and drafts and beta readers and sleeping on it and WordPress sitting open in a tab saying, “Do you dare?” What if… what if I slowed the fuck down and stopped feeling like I had to post all the damn time? What if I wrote on paper where I couldn’t self-edit or hit backspace or close the browser tab because I hate my own words or I’m afraid of what people will say? And what if… what if I distributed it offline, on paper, and if you want to comment you do it the same way? Is that just pretentious? I’m shit at snail mail, how would it even work? Maybe… maybe I just need to sit on my front step in the sun with the afternoon wind off Twin Peaks blowing the page around under my pen so my writing’s a fucking mess, and be here now enjoying the daylight and the guys down the block working on their bikes and the sharpness of the shadow of my hand on the cream paper (I wish I could trace it and show you but it keeps running away) and my pasty hairy white legs stretched out on the gritty sidewalk, and not be in too much of a rush to get this online and hit reload reload reload waiting for affirmation and love and more Twitter followers. What if I started a zine like it’s 1992 and I don’t even have a blog and if you want to read my shit you send me $1 and some stamps? What if I paste screeds on walls and paint them on sidewalks and hand them to people as flyers and do it outdoors in the street face to face in the weather and the noise and the city air that smells of traffic and food and piss, instead of in front of a Macbook in the dim dull indoors? What if I quit my job (wait, I am!) and go sit on a beach (yup!) and don’t blog/tweet/give a shit? Would you still love me? Would you send me $1 and some stamps for my zine?

(end transcript)

Quick, quick, hit post before I think too hard!

Comment policy: I would like you to comment via the same medium. Get offline, write your comment or create it somehow away from your computer, then send it to me. Scans/photographs are fine. You can link them in comments below. Comments not in this format will be deleted.

The Plan (NB: use ominous voice when reading post title)

Look, I may as well post about it. I’ve been planning it for months, and a whole swag of people already know, but this’ll make it official.

Sometime around early September, I’m planning on heading back to Melbourne, Australia, whereupon I hope to spend a few months bumming around on people’s sofas/the beach/relatives’ farms/etc, before going back to school in 2012 to study sound engineering.

Q&A time…

So I’m leaving Google, then? Yup, that’s the plan. I’ll have done a year there since Metaweb’s acquisition, and I’ve got a lovely new replacement, Shawn, who started a couple of weeks ago and who’ll be supporting the Freebase developer community going forward.

Why sound engineering? Because it gets me away from the tech industry, from sitting in an office all the time, and from the mind-boggling ennui that’s started to attack me whenever I think about software and the development thereof. It’s well past time for a change. And I’ve been enjoying myself so much volunteering at Gilman St that it seemed like something I’d like to pursue more seriously. Plus, it’s a field that’s at the intersection of technical/creative that really works for me, and I suspect that with the increasing digitisation of sound production my computing background will serve me well.

What sort of work do I want to do, then? I’m not going to commit to anything at this point, but stuff with a “startup” feel to it (to use the tech industry term), that harnesses grassroots participation and encourages disintermediation between artists and fans really appeals to me. You know the stuff I like — open culture, remix and transformative works, online collaboration and crowdsourcing, micro-entrepreneurism, activism, connecting people together. If I can’t find a way to mix that stuff with a background in Internet technologies and a fresh education in the tech side of music production, I’ll be very surprised.

Why Australia? Why not go to school in the US? Short answer: tuition in Australia is about 5% of what it is in the US for similar sorts of courses, and I won’t need a visa for it.

What school? What program/course? I’m looking at a Certificate IV and Advanced Diploma in Sound Production, which is a 2 year course offered by various TAFEs (Technical and Further Education institutions — UK readers please think “Polytechnic”, US readers please think of a cross between a community college and DeVry). RMIT’s course description gives a pretty good overview of the program. I’m also considering NMIT. If anyone happens to know anything about those two institutions/courses and can offer advice or opinions, they’d be very much appreciated. (Yes, I’ve emailed the faculty/admissions for both; no, I can’t make it to Open Day at either.)

Will I be doing X before I leave? (For values of X usually including certain conferences or places to visit.) I’m attending WisCon in Madison, WI in just over a week, and will probably be in Portland in late July during OSCON though not attending (I do hope to catch up with a bunch of my friends there, though). I am not planning to attend any other conferences/events between now and when I leave, nor do I have plans, or much time, for other travel at this point.

Will I be coming back to the US after completing my study? Maybe. The sort of work I want to do (see above) may lead me back to the Bay Area, if the visa-granting gods smile on me. Who knows? It’s also likely that even if I don’t move back here, I will visit occasionally if my budget allows.

And this is definitely definite? Well, it’s about 90% definite at this point. It’s possible that something might happen to completely change my mind in the next couple of months, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for it.

So here’s where I ask you for stuff.

  • If you read this and thought, “ooh, that reminds me of $person who works in that field” or “I know a startup that’s doing stuff like that” or “I bet Skud would love to hear about $project”, I would love an introduction. That goes double for anyone/anything in Australia.
  • The courses I’m applying for are quite competitive and have an application/interview process where they want to know about your previous experience in the field. So I’m interested in picking up any related work I can between now and the end of the year. Do you know anyone who needs a hand or wouldn’t mind me tagging along while they work live shows, record demos, go into the studio, or whatever? Any kind of live or recorded sound work would be of interest. Volunteer/unpaid would be preferred for now — I can’t do paid work in the US outside of my primary employment, though of course I wouldn’t turn down paying gigs once I’m back in Australia.
  • Know anyone who’s looking for a housemate in Melbourne later this year? I’m thinking of splitting a 3br house in Melbourne’s inner north (Preston?) with one other person, but I’m open to other suggestions too. Looking for a grownup who pays their bills on time, but who’s also fun to hang out with. I keep odd hours and am a bit strange, but I’m pretty considerate and reliable as a housemate, as well as being a good cook.
  • Got a spare room or need a housesitter between September and, say, Decemberish? Mostly thinking Melbourne here, and more “need someone to feed the cats for 2 weeks” than “you can crash on my sofa for a night or two”, but any and all offers would be welcome.

Please feel free to email me (skud@infotrope.net) if you can help me out with any of the above!

Mural showing a car driving on a highway, about to pick up a hitchhiker carrying a guitar.

Mural, on Treat St near 24th, in San Francisco's Mission District.