Order Without Law

Order Without Law is a fantastic book by Robert Ellickson published in 1991. In a way, the book is an in-depth case study of the irrelevance of law. Subtitled, "how neighbors settle disputes," Ellickson shows how people solve complicated problems in an archetypal area of liability law without knowledge of the law. Ellickson shows that even when people know exactly what the law says, they often ignore it in favor of community norms and, in his examples, models of "neighborliness."

Specifically, the book is about how neighbors in northern California settle disputes related to damage caused by roaming cattle, how neighbors construct and share costs of fences, and how, although the law is frequently debated in relation to classifying land as either open or closed to free grazing, the law tends to take a back seat to unwritten norms in the way that problems are actually solved. There is order and a shared understanding of rules in Ellickson’s account; it just has very little to do with the law.

As part of his description, Ellickson goes into some detail about the types of damage that cattle cause. For example, Ellickson describes how bulls, will often break down barbed wire fences and go on rampages impregnating heifers, eating vast amounts of food, and destroying crops and equipment.

When I was on a long bike trip through northern California a few weeks ago, I was sitting under a tree waiting for my cyling partner to catch up. A giant black bull nearby noticed me. Shorting, mooing, and shaking ribbons of slobber from its mouth, it lumbered toward me. Only a rather weak-looking barbed wire fence separated us. All I could think about was Order Without Law.

American Gothic and the Free Culture Imperative

About a year ago, I read American Gothic by Steven Biel and the book has left a surprising lasting impression on me. The book describes the background, history, and life of "American Gothic: America’s most famous painting" by Grant Wood. Even if you don’t recognize the name "American Gothic", you are likely to recognize the picture or the scene. The book is a serious and — as far as I can tell — reasonably comprehensive treatment of the subject that is interesting, insightful at points, and a breeze to read.

Thumbnail of the American Gothic Painting

Of course, the book is not actually about the painting that hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago — although it will certainly teach you more than you probably ever wanted to know about that painting, its subjects, its settings, etc. The book is really the story of how that paining has been received, understood, and used. Nearly half of the book focuses on examples of people who have remixed, reworked, reimagined, and reproduced the painting in myriad forms, formats, settings, and ways. The book contains scores of photographs of celebrities posing in American Gothic style settings, dozens of political cartoons based on the paintings, images of talk shows, magazine covers, Broadway plays, product advertisements, toys, gifts, kitch, and more, done up in recognizeable representations of the basic American Gothic form. There is a very incomplete of references to American Gothic in popular culture at Wikipedia that can give a tiny taste of what is out there.

The last chapter of the book is devoted to these "parodies" and there’s some brief talk of issues around copyright and control of the image. Wood’s sister Nan was the owner of the copyright for much of the second half of the twentieth century and is also the woman in the painting. She famously charged several makers of more lurid take-offs with defamation and successfully blocked a number of remixes. In 1988, Nan transferred ownership to the Visual Artists and Galleries Association (VAGA) which will hold the copyright until 2025. VAGA also claims "rights of publicity" in Nan’s image which will last until 2060. VAGA takes a very expansive view of its copyright claims and argues that it has both veto power and royalty rights to any recognizably similar work. For example, VAGA does not want the American Gothic image used in alcohol advertisements and has successfully had such ads pulled. Biel’s book contains no reference to the amount of money made from licensing the work but one can only conclude that it must be massive. VAGA blocked a plan by Iowa to use the picture on the back of the Iowa state quarter due to licensing disagreements; instead Iowa used a different Wood painting that was clearly in the public domain.

What struck me most about Biel’s book is related to just how deeply ingrained in American culture the American Gothic image has become. The book cites simple surveys that show that almost every American recognizes the painting (although only a small fraction know the painting’s name or who painted it). The thousands of parodies that the book documents are testament to the fact that the painting has become a way of representing something essential about American culture and its values. But in a strange way, the painting’s popularity and incessant reuse has also made it part of the culture that it so effectively captured.

We can think of culture as a set of shared values and references that help us related to each other and to communicate. Just like idioms in language, culture helps us communicate more effectively, certainly, but also lets us communicate messages that would not be communicable otherwise. When Out Magazine, Coors, or any of several dozen others replace the figures in American Gothic with a gay or lesbian couple, they are succinctly sending a message about homosexual relationships and American traditional values that could not be made any other way. In this way, American Gothic — both the painting and Biel’s book — represent a strong argument for free culture.

If American Society has infused American Gothic with so much value, how can it be fair to let one person or organization own it? Are they not owning an essential mode through which a society can relate, experience, and communicate? I can’t help but conclude that it shouldn’t matter if VAGA does not like alcohol, advertisements, homosexuality, or wants to make a some money every time someone makes a cartoon parody. These are trivial concerns next to the importance of our society’s need to communicate about these issues. If doing so requires the use of a shared cultural reference in VAGA’s painting, I find it hard to justify VAGA’s position of control.

We need to be able to reproduce and reimagine American Gothic because it has become part of us. It’s a striking example of the way that art becomes culture and the reason that truly free culture is the only appropriate response. We can’t afford to let our experience of the world and each other — to let ourselves at a very fundamental level — be owned and controlled.

Ubuntu Book Third Edition

Another year has past and another edition of the Official Ubuntu Book has been finished and will be released soon. Over the last two years, the two previous editions of the book have grown along-side Ubuntu. The book has continued to sell very well, received almost universally favorable reviews, and been translated into more than half a dozen languages

While Jono Bacon has mostly been pulled into other projects, Corey Burger stepped up to help play the major supporting role in this version of the book’s production. The whole text was updated to reflect changes in Ubuntu over the last year including a major rewrite of the chapter on Kubuntu and important work on the Edubuntu chapter. If you use either, you’ll understand that there’s plenty of churn to report.

In a sort of experiment, Barnes and Noble will also be selling a custom edition with an extra chapter by Matthew Helmke on the Ubuntu Forums which I hope to include in the next edition of the book. It’s an excellent introduction to the best support resource Ubuntu has to offer that I hope many beginners — the group that always been the book’s audience — will find useful.

You can pre-order the custom edition from B&N or get the book from Amazon or many other sources.

Like all previous editions, the book is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license and soft-copies should be up on the publisher’s website once the book is released. Please support commercial free culture publishing by buying a copy if you find the book useful.

Ubuntu Book Translations

It’s been fun to see a stream of translations of the The Official Ubuntu Book coming in. I now have copies of El Libro Oficial de Ubuntu and Das Offizielle Ubuntu-Buch on my bookshelf. I’m particularly happy about Ubuntu徹底入門 The Official Ubuntu Book日本語版, the Japanese translation. It was coordinated by the Ubuntu Japan community, looks great, and has won me all kinds of brownie points — and a congratulatory bottle of top shelf shōchū — from Mika’s family members.

Dollar Books

One of my favorite weekend activities is spending a Saturday afternoon going through the dollar book carts outside many New York and Boston area used book stores. It’s not only because the books are cheap — although I like that.

The dollar book section is the great equalizer of bookstores. A neglected Dickens or Shakespeare can rub out against a discarded Mary-Cate and Ashley teeny-bopper quasi-romance novel. In the best cases, random shelving creates perfect (if unintuitive and ironic) pairs like Run Run Run about Abbie Hoffman and Fun Fun Fun about other youngsters — a pair I found adjacent in a dollar book section last week.


But you also get to meet books you will never meet in the bookstore sections you normally frequent. The dollar book section at the Strand has introduced me to a whole class of books with intriguing non-fiction sounding titles that I had pulled excitedly off the shelf only to find out that they were, in fact, novels. There are also the books with titles so good you suspect the book will be downhill from that point. The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Being a Model (not, as one might expect, Becoming a model) and this guide to the British pierage are great examples.


Grave Matters by E. R. Shushan

Last weekend I was in New York again which meant that I had an opportunity to engage in what was, while I was living there, tied with Belgian beer for the status of my favorite vice: one dollar books.

One of my more intriguing finds was a Grave Matters: a book consisting wholly of epitaphs. The book was a fun and very quick read In terms of the content, the epitaphs are more than able to speak for themselves. A sampling might include…

There are people who seems glad to go, like Lydia Snow:

Gladly I quit this vile, decrepit clay,
To rise in endless youth, in endless day.
Wellfleet, Massachusetts 1816

There are folks like John Young or Richard Hind whose epitaphs are written by "friends" who were being perhaps a bit too honest:

Those who knew him best deplored him most.
Here lies the body of Richard Hind,
Who was neither ingenious, sober, or kind.
Chestnut, England, c. 1880

There are epitaphs that are just plain confusing like Nicholas Round’s:

Here lies the body of Nicholas Round
Who was lost at sea & never found.
Great Yamouth, England, c. 1790

Additionally, the book is full of warnings and clever rhymes — not of all which seem completely appropriate for a gravestone.

While I still suspect it’s a little premature, I’d like to borrow from Thomas Greenhill at least in part for my own epitaph:

Earth to earth’s shovel up is shut,
A Hill into a Hole is put.

The Enemies of Books by William Blades

While searching for treasures in Widener’s stacks recently, I found a beautiful 1896 edition of William Blade’s classical book on book collecting and book maintenance: The Enemies of Books. The title and driving metaphor of the book won me over right away. Books seem like inert and relatively unobjectionable objects. Many people dislike certain books or do not care for books in general but who could be the enemies of books in general?

Some people may not like books but William Blades is not one of these people. Blades loves books (Caxtons in particular) and has, to say the least, a long list of ways that he wants to see books treated. Anything that violates Blade’s sensibilities becomes the enemy of William Blades. Blades is happy happy to speak for books in general.

Enemies enumerated include both individuals like the "Bagford the Biblioclast", behaviors, occupations, nature, states of beings, children, and most women. There are chapters on fire, water, gas and heat, dust and neglect, ignorance and bigotry, the bookworm, other vermin, bookbinders, collectors, and servants and children.

The book contains something for almost everyone. Blades opens a wonderfully out-of-date section on the danger of gas lighting in libraries stating that, "unfortunately, I can speak from experience on the dire effect of gas in a confined space." Who can’t? Nowhere though, is Blades as worked up as when he discusses the evils done by bookbinders who trim (and who frequently overtrim) the margins of books while binding or rebinding them. Blades explains:

Dante, in his "Inferno," deals out to the lost souls various tortures suited with dramatic fitness to the past crimes of the victims, and had I to execute judgment on the criminal binders of certain precious volumes I have seen, where the untouched maiden sheets untrusted to their care have, by barbarous treatment, lost dignity, beauty, and values, I would collect paper shavings so ruthlessly shorn off, and roast the perpetrator of the outrage over their slow combustion. In olden times, before men had learned to value the relics of our printers, there was some excuse for the sins of a binder who erred from ignorance which has general; but in these times, when the historical and antiquarian values of books is freely acknowledged, no quarter should be granted to a careless culprit.

When collectors’ turns comes up, Blades rants for pages on the evils of collectors who rip out the title pages or colophons of otherwise good books to build large bibliographic collections.

As Mika was looking through the book, the title page fell from the old and rather fragile binding. It seems that we may have a candidate for a new addition to the book. On the other hand, perhaps we have a new distinction: the enemy of The Enemies of Books.

Manhole Covers by Mimi and Robert Melnick

Mika and I went to the MIT Press Bookstore loading dock sale today. It provided what was, by far, the most relevant selection at any bargain book sale I’ve attended. It was two small rooms and I could have easily walked out with 100+ books that I would have read. Even with most books at three, five, or seven dollars (US), my student budget was the limiting factor.

At the sale, I bought a large coffee-table sized book called Manhole Covers by Mimi and Robert Melnick. It offers page after mesmerizing page of black and white photographs of manhole covers of all designs, shapes and sizes. At seven dollars, I felt like it was asking a lot but Mika and I decided that on a per-manhole-cover basis, the price was really unbeatable.

The price was 3.3 cents (US) per full-page manhole cover photograph if you do not account for the small thumbnails of manhole covers that pepper the books front matter.

If you are in or around Boston, you should go to their next loading dock sale — probably in the spring.

Groups: Interaction and Performance by Joseph Edward McGrath

Much of my research at the Media Lab in the next couple years is going to involve me trying to help make collaboration around chunks of text, both code and other types of creative works, more effective and efficient.

To prime myself a bit, I’m participating in a class on Computer Supported Cooperative Work being taught in the the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (!!). This week we’re reading about group theory including the book Groups: Interaction and Performance by Joseph Edward McGrath. The professor suggested that we could start on Chapter 3. Chapter 3 begins:

Science is the systematic use of theoretical and empirical methods to try to increase understanding of some set of phenomena or events.

If the third chapter begins by defining science, I can imagine why my professor thought the first two were unnecessary.

A Blog Entry

Mika tells me that Greg Pomerantz — who still refuses to have his own blog — once bought a book called A History of Mathematics. He was looking for a book like it and this volume was sandwiched between several others sharing the similar name The History of Mathematics.

Greg went with A and he made the correct choice. It’s clear that the authors of the latter books got at least one thing wrong that the former got right.

I recently bought A Tour of the Calculus.

Parts of the Body in the Later Germanic Dialects

While book shopping this weekend I found a copy of Parts of the Body in the Later Germanic Dialects by William Denny Baskett and published by the University of Chicago Press in 1920. The book is in strikingly good condition and could almost pass for new. It’s not nearly as well thumbed as one might expect such an indispensable reference book to be.

The preface reads:

This investigation deals with the words for the body and its parts in the later Germanic dialects. Its object is to show how these words came to have their present meaning rather than to show the original meaning.

The book is merely a list — 139 pages and one per line — of words for body parts in later Germanic dialects. By my estimate, I now have a list of ~150 words for "penis" in dialects of German (circa 1920 of course), several dozen ways to describe double chins, and many choices of ways to describe body parts in later Germanic dialics that I cannot describe in English.

I paid one dollar for the book. A much more worn softcover copy seems to be on sale by an antiquarian book dealer for closer to twenty-five dollars so it appears that I got a good deal. To me however, such a book is priceless.

The Cloisters

If all goes to plan, I’m going to set off to visit the Cloisters today. This is very opportune because, at the book fair yesterday, I just happened to purchase a copy of Instruction on the Contemplative Life and on the Enclosure of Nuns! I’ll be sure to have it with me.

On Email Communities, Universal Qualities Of

I’ve been reading The Media Lab: Inventing the Future At MIT recently. It was written in 1988 by Stewart Brand who created the Whole Earth Catalog and who has said some pretty observant and insightful things about technologies and the way that they are used.

This observation, from The Media Lab, may not be one of them: "The most surprising and consistent quality in e-mail communities is the human warmth they develop."

Maybe things were better before the invention of top posting.