How can you innovate without research?



Yesterday I went down to Google HQ to see Secretary Foxx hold a fireside chat with Erich Schmidt to discuss DOT’s new 30-year plan Beyond Traffic.  I’ve never been to an event like this before, and it seemed the audience was industry more than the usual transportation wonks (though we were there).  There was a very active back channel on #BeyondTraffic on Twitter, connecting people in the room to those watching it online.

Foxx discussed the funding issues, MAP-21 won’t lasts much longer and in the last 6 years Congress has passed 32 short-term measures to extend funding because they can’t actually pass long-term funding.  Yesterday Foxx announced the White House’s ambitious $94.7 billion transportation investment plan.  I’m not holding my breath.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we get back down to the wire in May when the Highway Trust Fund runs out of money. That’s politics. (This is also something I know the general public, like Eric Schmidt, doesn’t know a whole lot about but it’s vital.)

The whole Beyond Traffic blue paper is also politics: bold proclamations, neat infographics, but light on the details. Foxx hit most of the high points that appealed to the Silicon Valley crowd – UAVs and connected/autonomous vehicles, and regulations for them. I did appreciate that Foxx said that promoting multimodal transportation system is about providing choices for people. He also stressed the important of land-use on transportation, which is hugely important in sustainability. (Which also lead to Schmidt extolling the success of Google buses, ignoring their role in perpetuating terrible land-use patterns in the Bay Area.) Bike/ped stuff was largely absent from the discussion.

Also largely absent was talking about research.

Research is inherent to all of these innovations. How do you improve and develop new practices without it? The problem is that funding allocated to research keeps dwindling. Politicians want to fund highways, (and maybe) rail, self-driving cars, but not the research and required research infrastructure to get there. Which is why we have to constantly advocate for communicating the value of research when it should be self evident.

So I asked Foxx about this, about funding research and the required data and IT infrastructure to facilitate collaboration across modes. He replied like a true politician, that DOT is “bullish” about research despite funding cuts, and it’s still a priority. Not really an answer but as much as he could give. I mostly asked the question because I wanted to make sure it got on record that people do care about research funding (namely people working for research bodies) and to make sure there was at least some women represented in the question queue. (Two out of ten or so? That’s pretty shabby, but also another blog post.) Judging from the response of many of my colleagues on Twitter, they appreciated having the issue elevated.

Transportation has some unique funding issues, such as the failure and inability to raise the gas tax to sustainable funding levels, but this issue of funding research is happening across disciplines. Money talks and subject that can garner private sector investment, such as self-driving cars (hey Uber and CMU!), but what about topics that aren’t financially lucrative but no less important, such as rural transit? And what about paying for the infrastructure to conduct research, such as data centers and libraries? We have to constantly advocate and push for our cause even though the immediate ROI might not be evident. This new funding model and philosophy is very pragmatic, but also pretty short sighted. Which is why I’m worried about these long range 30-year plans. Research programs and libraries have helped have that long view and memory to make sure we progress effectively and don’t duplicate efforts, but nobody wants to pay for it. I don’t think Beyond Traffic alone is going to change that.

All slow pop songs sound the same? On Fair Use and some such.

Have you heard Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”? You must have. It’s all over the place. Everybody loves it. (Even if you can’t really dance to it.) Some people pointed out the chorus sounds a lot like another ubiquitous pop song of yesteryear – Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”. Not sure? check this out:

Now you might say, “Oh, there’s nothing new under the sun! Chords are chords! Any similarity is incidental!” And you might be right. Smith was born three years after Petty’s song was all over radio, so he has some plausible deniability, maybe.

But this week it emerged that the two settled out of court in October and that Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne would receive song writing credits and royalties. If the song wins a Grammy this year, does this mean Petty and Lynne are included? We’ll see.

These sorts of lawsuits are fairly common, though Robin Thicke’s pre-emptive lawsuit against the estate of Marvin Gaye was a new twist. The remix of the two songs is pretty good, and really with enough drugs is everything a remix? In a somewhat ironic twist of fate, one of the most well known lawsuits of this kind is Bright Tunes Music vs. Harrisongs because George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” sounds an awful lot like The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”. What do you think? Harrison (as seen in the video) sang and played guitar on Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”.

Fair Use with music is interesting because of the laws on what can and cannot be covered by copyright and the artistic intent. A counter example I’ve been obsessing over is the song “Respect”. The original 1965 version by Otis Redding is a stomper, driven by Al Jackson’s drumming and peppered with the Memphis Horns. It’s so clearly a Stax song. Of course the 1967 cover by Aretha Franklin is iconic – an anthem for women all over. It’s also a very different song, so different I think it’s foolish to compare the two. (I tried for most of 2014.) The words and the basic melodies are the same, but the arrangements made them stand apart. Check out the Ike & Tina Turner cover which is a pretty perfect combination of the two.

Lots of covers differ much from the original that they could be considered completely different songs, but as long as the melody or the lyrics are used, then they need permission. The words are obvious – as evident from “Respect” even though the music doesn’t fully match up. In the Smith/Petty case, it’s a little bit more uncertain but there’s enough there. What’s this mean for librarians? Nothing new really, but it’s interesting when the lines are less blurred. (Pun intended.) Of course, there could be a whole follow up on sampling.

SOPA and the Research Works Act: Evil master plan or do publishers think so little of us?

This week there’s been some interesting and disgusting things going on within scholarly publishing. Most of the internet is up at arms about SOPA, the ludicrous Stop Online Piracy Act. Earlier this week I stumbled across an interesting blog post Why The Movie Industry Can’t Innovate and the Result is SOPA. I think the same could be said for any of the content publisher – books, music, video games, not just film. Look at the list of SOPA supporters. Along with the usual suspects (major lables, the big 6, etc), you get Elsevier and Wolters Kluwer. Nice to know they’re against net neutrality. Cameron Neylon wrote an excellent post on how SOPA will affect scientific research. You need to read it. Loud library advocate Andy Woodworth is making a list to talk to vendors at ALA Midwinter next month. Good on him. I was thinking about talking to some folks at SLA later this month, but then something else caught my eye…

The Research Works Act (H.R. 3699). A post from the SPARC OA forum distils it:

“No Federal agency may adopt, implement, maintain, continue, or otherwise engage in any policy, program, or other activity that — (1) causes, permits, or authorizes network dissemination of any private-sector research work without the prior consent of the publisher of such work; or (2) requires that any actual or prospective author, or the employer of such an actual or prospective author, assent to network dissemination of a private-sector research work.”

Not surprisingly, publishers think this is a great idea.

The Research Works Act will prohibit federal agencies from unauthorized free public dissemination of journal articles that report on research which, to some degree, has been federally-funded but is produced and published by private sector publishers receiving no such funding. It would also prevent non-government authors from being required to agree to such free distribution of these works. Additionally, it would preempt federal agencies’ planned funding, development and back-office administration of their own electronic repositories for such works, which would duplicate existing copyright-protected systems and unfairly compete with established university, society and commercial publishers.

This is just bullshit. Especially in light of the publishers’ healthy profit margins often on the work of academics paid in prestige. The need to publish in these big, expensive journals for a lot of faculty is the only way they can attain tenure. The only way they can fund their work is to get federal (or other publicly funded) grants. Tax payers can pay for the research, but then they can’t see the results. It’s a great racket for the publishers. (Sounds sort of like the vicious cycle of federal student loans and the for-profit colleges, which is pretty much any university these days.)

Publishers are still upset about the NIH Public Access Policy. UC Berkeley professor Michael Eisen yesterday blogged about Elsevier paying NY Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney to promote the bill. Jason Baird Jackson from Indian University asks who else is Elsevier lobbying for this bill?

It’s outrageous that in a time when everybody’s budgets are being squeezed, the big scholarly publishers are getting more creative about making huge profit margins. If the government is going to fund research, they need to also fund the publishing because that’s the only way the public will have access to the information and data. The funding for publishing has always been an afterthought or meant to be a cost recovery tool, which explains how NTIS and the National Academies “function”.

I’ll be in DC a couple of weeks for the TRB Annual Meeting. (TRB is part of the National Academies.) It’s where the transportation research agenda is discussed, research that will be funded by the taxpayers. I’ll try to get some answers.

The Research Works Act is seriously bad news, as is SOPA. Maybe it’s because I just watched all of the Bond films, but I really hope this isn’t just general incompetence but a master plan from SPECTRE to take over the world by destroying scientific research and scholarly publishing. Blofeld, Largo, Dr. No, and their henchmen are off springing the mousetrap. We just need James Bond to stop them. Or us.

Fetishizing the container obscures the content, obviously.

vinyl library, originally uploaded by Luke Pineda.

Last night on LibPunk Radio we were talking about that #hcod drama. You know, the Harper Collins-Over Drive debacle.

Lots of stuff has been written and said about the whole affair and I’m not really going there. The thing I’m focused on is the “content vs. container” issue and how it really fits into this but hasn’t really been brought up as such. It’s clear that the current model is not sustainable, but I also think libraries are in a painful transition where we’re all coming to terms to the shift from the physical to digital… just like music did 10 years ago. David Lee King touched upon this a while back when he asked what’s a real book?

I think it’s time for us librarians to get over our paper fetish.

Content and container – the two are really, truly, different. Books are stories or a largish chunk of non-fiction text – novels, biographies, histories, etc. The format or container? This tends to change (though it hasn’t in a long time).

I think we all agree that physical books have to be treated somewhat different than ebooks, but it has to be reasonable to all involved, not punitive. We can all get behind Librarians Against DRM, but I don’t think we’ve moved to the shift yet. It’s not gonna happen overnight. I mean, look at how long we got to where we are with music.

I remember when Napster came on the scene. I remember how exciting it was and how nobody really thought about the legalities. Now, as the landscape has matured, it’s clear piracy won’t go away, but it’s also been shown that a lot of piracy is a reaction to crappy options. Until the publishers/labels/studios make a fairly priced, accessible, and convenient product, lots of people will continue to pirate. It’s obvious.

What’s this got to do with fetishizing the container? Well, I think the publishers and librarians are still doing it with the books. We haven’t accepted that an ebook/PDF is not the same thing. I mean, we know they aren’t but all parties involved aren’t really sure how to proceed, which has left to this #hcod debacle. So I really think we need to look to music. The only problem is that I don’t see how libraries can insert themselves into the solution.

People love iTunes and the Amazon MP3 store. eMusic has been a legal option for a long time. Labels have gotten into the game with offering download codes. What’s happened? Well, in 2010 vinyl had a 33% jump in sales. Now, of course it’s not to say that piracy is dead, but there are user friendly options that aren’t adversarial. Instead, they make people enjoy the product. It’s made it all easier for me to get back in love with vinyl. The sound, the feel, the collecting them like Pokemon. I’m all about it, but I think it’s easier for me to choose because I’m also subscribed to MOG.

So we need to work with the creators and the publishers to find the happy ground where we all benefit. We need to speak for the users.