When it comes down to economic principles, I’m quite market liberal. You know, I work and get paid for my work; the better I do my job and the more I work, the more money I make; and preferably nobody gets in my way of doing so. This is a neat idea that works on a microscopically but falls apart on several points when you take it to the macroscopic level. Non-linear motivation and the unjustified disproportionate income across professions are some examples. Social security is another. I shouldn’t be a big fan of welfare systems out of the aforementioned principles. But truth be told I’d rather live in a society where people care enough about each other to provide the essentials of living no matter what, than in one where people are driven into, say, crime just to survive. To paraphrase Wolfgang Grupp, I think of my social security taxes as contributions to a more crime-free, drug-free, poverty-free, police-free environment. Something that makes my own life more pleasant.

The same lesson can be applied to intellectual property and I can’t believe it’s taken me years to figure it out.

Five years ago I wrote a book. Back then Creative Commons was around already, and I knew about it because Mark Pilgrim had published his excellent Dive Into Python book under a CC license. I didn’t do the same for mine and I still can’t understand why. I had been an active OpenSource developer already at that time and I should have known about the benefits of open works. But instead I chose to look for a publisher. I’m very grateful Springer-Verlag took me on as an author but in retrospect I wish they had rejected me. It wasn’t money that I was after when looking for a publishing company—the royalties are pathetic. I went with a publisher because I wanted the book to be professional. I wanted it to have an ISBN and a pretty cover and a price tag and an entry in the Library of Congress. It was really my ego that wanted satisfaction.

Hey look at me, I’m a published author. And with Springer, no less.

Did it make me write a better book? No.

On the contrary. I had some of the best programmers and writers from the community review my book. But had I made my book open content from the start, I could have had essentially the whole community do reviews for me. So predictably, when the book went into print, it was still full of typos and errors. I made some money writing the book but had I set up a “Pay for an (already free) ebook” button on the website, I bet I would’ve made about the same amount of money. People still ask me whether it’s possible to purchase an ebook version. And who’s to say that a publisher still wouldn’t have decided to print it, even if it were available for free online? After all, Apress eventually printed Mark’s Dive Into Python.

Of course, having published a book did not only work out well for my ego, it also generated lots of business for me as a consultant and trainer. But would that have been different if the book had been CC-licensed? Very unlikely.

So here’s my argument: Getting paid for each copy of created works of intellectual property is a neat idea. This model does work and has its merits. But as both a creator and consumer, I would rather live in a society that allows content to be exchanged openly (at least when used non-commercially), than in one where copyright laws seem to benefit publishers and distributors more than creators. I don’t want to live in a society where copyright laws prohibit bands from playing their own music on their website, stop children from remixing popular culture and demand to cut someone’s internet connection because they’ve exchanged some copyrighted material with others. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating piracy. But it’s a fact that the internet has changed the way creators and consumers can interact dramatically. The consumers have embraced the ways of the internet already, but many of the creators still haven’t. I hadn’t when I wrote my book, and it meant I produced an inferior work in an analogue world.

As Lawrence Lessig puts it in his excellent talks, we’re not going to be able to revert the internet revolution, we can only drive it underground. Society is changing because of the internet and we need all of society to adapt accordingly, including copyright laws. This is nothing we can do overnight. We must be patient. It took me a while “get it,” just imagine how long it’s going to take them.

Fixing Thunderbird’s UI

December 11, 2009

For a while I’ve been unhappy with my current email client situation—I shall be outlining why and how exactly in a future blog post—enough to get me seriously thinking about writing my own client. So when Thunderbird 3.0 was released the other day, I gave it a shot and have been using it ‘in anger’ since, just to find out what it’s like.

Previously Thunderbird was a dog, especially the UI. Awkward, old-fashioned, slow and a horrible search feature. Thunderbird 3 fixes a lot of these problems. I like the new toolbar design: less icons, more text. Looks like Aza Raskin got his way there—good! I also like the placement of the Reply, Delete, etc. buttons. Archiving and tagging is great too, though I haven’t yet figured out how to find all emails belonging to a tag.

Of course, there’s still a lot wrong with the UI. I don’t like the window vs. tab inconsistency. I wish they had gotten the email composer to work in a tab (instead of a separate window) for the 3.0 release. To be honest, I’d prefer if there was no separate window or tab feature at all. Take the search functionality, for instance. Both Thunderbird and Gmail get it wrong by diverting me to a completely different page for search results. At least in Gmail the results page looks like a regular folder view.

There are many other niggly little faults. For instance there’s this pathetic Windows-inspired Tools menu that does indeed contain brilliant tools, but sadly also the access to the Preferences, Account Setting and Add-ons dialogs (at least on the Mac they bring Preferences round to the Thunderbird menu where it belongs.) To my mind, all these are settings and should be part of the Preferences dialog. That’s where I always go first, just to remember that Thunderbird makes you go somewhere else to change the account settings.

I have toyed with XUL, the XML language that Thunderbird’s and Firefox’s UIs are written with, in the past. Combined with JavaScript, it’s a horrible, horrible development environment. But is it more horrible than spending hours on end coming up with my own mediocre IMAP client? I don’t think so. Plus, Firefox, Thunderbird and millions of extensions do speak for themselves. And Postbox, a commercial email client built on Thunderbird, shows what’s possible.

So I’ll be giving a shot, customizing the heck out of Thunderbird until it meets my needs. I will start out with the UI, improving among others the things I’ve mentioned above. Last night I hacked together an extension to fix the Preferences dialog malarkey: PrefsNotTools. It’s 1.0 which in my nomenclature means “it works which is not to say it doesn’t need improvement still.” Here are some screenshots:

PrefsNotTools moves the account manager into the Preferences dialog

PrefsNotTools moves the Add-on manager into the Preferences dialog

Let’s see how far I get with the little UI faults. If that turns out to be going anywhere, I can move on to the meat. GMail-style conversations anyone?

Moving to the UK

December 10, 2009

A little over two months ago I moved to the UK. Here’s a random collection of tips I have for anybody doing the same. (Disclaimer: I moved to Glasgow, so some of the stuff below may be specific to Glasgow or Scotland.)

Looking for a flat

A few weeks before actually moving, spent five days in Glasgow to look for a flat. This involved looking for listings on the internet and then phoning up the respective agents to arrange a viewing and then going out to view the flats. Very stressful.

For me the best websites for flat listings were:

You could also try browsing the classifieds on http://www.gumtree.com if you prefer to hire from a private landlord or want to share flat.

Postcodes

Obviously you should decide in where in town you want to live. Find out the postcodes for these areas, this helps a lot when looking for available flats.

UK postcodes are quite brilliant. They are alphanumerical and consist of two parts, the outward and inward part. The outward part starts with a letter or two, giving the general area or city, e.g. G for Glasgow. The number that follows specifies a smaller part of that area or a part of town, e.g. G12 for the area around the University of Glasgow campus. The inward part narrows it down to about a dozen houses or so. University of Glasgow even has its own, G12 8QQ.

When looking for flats, get a list of postcodes (outward part only, e.g. G12) of the areas where you’d like to look for flats and feed these into the search engines.

Letting Agents

In general I recommend smaller agencies. The nicest agent I met was self-employed. She even offered to pick me up and drove me to two flats in her Mercedes. Sadly none of them were to my liking.

Big agents will typically arrange bulk viewings where three or four people view the same flat at the same time. If more than one person is interested in the flat, whoever gets their name (and reservation fee payment) down at the agent’s office first, gets the flat. So always write down the agent’s office address and phone number before viewing a flat and be prepared to take a cab there–what’s a few pounds in cab fare if it can shorten the flat war by a few days. Maybe also carry something like £200 in cash for the registration fee as they might not accept cards. And be on time.

Credit check

Even big letting agencies are often stumped when you tell them that you haven’t lived in the UK before. You might wonder why this matters. It matters because of the credit check. You have no paper trail with banks, phone companies, etc. Therefore by their irrefutable logic your credit check comes out negative.

As a result, my agent wanted to know how much I made. I showed her a written statement of how much my PhD grant was. According to her spreadsheet, it wasn’t enough for the flat. Because of that, and the fact that they couldn’t credit-check me, they wanted me to pay six months rent in advance. Plus the deposit of month’s rent. Clearly this was unacceptable to me. In the end I only had to pay three months rent plus the deposit in advance.

Basically, as a foreigner expect to encounter difficulties when it comes to credit checks and all that, at least with the big agencies. And by the way, if you’re coming to the UK as a PhD student, don’t ever tell them you’re a student. Many landlords don’t let to students. Tell them you’ll work for the university as a researcher. Or something.

Council Tax

When you live in a flat or a house in the UK, you generally have to pay Council Tax. This tax pays for services provided by the council, e.g. rubbish collection. The amount is determined by which of the eight or so bands (A-H) the property is in. That in turn is based on the value of the property. Typically this means the value in 1993 when the tax was introduced, but you can get properties re-evaluated as well. When you rent a flat, the landlord or his agent will report this to the council so you will get a bill automatically.

Single people can get a 25% discount, full-time students are exempted from Council Tax. To apply for the exemption, check your local council’s website. In Glasgow they have a form that you must fill out and get confirmed/stamped by the university’s administration. In Glasgow (and perhaps the rest of Scotland?), they also bill water together with Council Tax. So if you’re exempted from Council Tax, you also have free water service.

Banks

I couldn’t be bothered looking for the best deal for a bank account. I just went with “biggest is best” and got a bank account with RBS. Apparently banks are a bit fussy opening accounts for foreign students (or maybe all foreigners or all students). Either way I first had to get a letter from the university’s administrative department confirming I was a matriculated student.

To open the account, I had to fill out an enormous form. Which then of course had to be processed elsewhere which meant the opening of the account took several days. So don’t count on it being opened right away in case you’re in a hurry. Debit card and online banking came through without a problem, though despite my regular income I wasn’t allowed a credit card. Probably because of my student status. No matter, I still have a few German credit cards that I can use. So if you’re a student, don’t count on getting a credit card (though your debit card doubles as a VISA card so you can use it for online shopping and flights etc.).

National Insurance

National Insurance is the collective term for pensions and unemployment insurance. If you want to be employed in the UK, you need to have a National Insurance Number (NIN). To get one, you need to apply for one by arranging an interview over the phone.

As so often in the UK, you need to bring at least three items of identification to this interview: a photo ID (e.g. passport), proof that you live and work in the UK (e.g. a student card, driver’s license, etc.) and a proof of your address (e.g. a council tax bill or bank statement with your name and address on it). The more, the better is what they tell you on the phone. Although when I showed up they just wanted to see my passport and the letter confirming my appointment that they had sent me earlier.

Health Care (NHS)

The UK has national health care which means you need not sign up with a health insurance company. Basically you don’t need to do anything until you get sick. When you do get sick, you simply go down to the general practitioner (“GP surgery”) or accident & emergency (A&E) clinic of your local area where you will have to register. In this registration process you will automatically be assigned an NHS number. Make sure you bring enough items of identification with you, including proof of address. If you’re a student, bring your student ID card. (When I registered they were only interested in the latter, not even my passport!)

It does make sense to register with a GP before you get sick, however. Probably because you won’t have the hassle of registration then. But also because the GP surgery might not be accepting new patients at the time. Most importantly however because you need an NHS number to get an European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). You need this card when you go to Europe and happen to need medical care there. After having received my NHS number, I immediately ordered my EHIC online. It arrived within a week.

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