Copyright and the monetization of science is killing off the history of computing

Why do computer programmers start counting at 0 rather than 1? (As in, why do they count 0, 1, 2, 3 etcetera rather than 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on?)

Apparently there’s a lot of lore out there that tries to explain the why, but one Mike Hoye decided to actually find out. He found the answer.

A thing he also discovered is that a lot of research is hidden behind pay-walls. Which is nice if you’re a rich university, but which is bad for society:

Part of the problem is access to the historical record, of course. I was in favor of Open Access publication before, but writing this up has cemented it: if you’re on the outside edge of academia, $20/paper for any research that doesn’t have a business case and a deep-pocketed backer is completely untenable, and speculative or historic research that might require reading dozens of papers to shed some light on longstanding questions is basically impossible. There might have been a time when this was OK and everyone who had access to or cared about computers was already an IEEE/ACM member, but right now the IEEE – both as a knowledge repository and a social network – is a single point of a lot of silent failure. “$20 for a forty-year-old research paper” is functionally indistinguishable from “gone”.

Having legitimate access to what lies behind a pay-wall does not always help. Earlier this year well-known computer programmer Aaron Swartz, who was responsible for a number of technologies you are using for free this very second, killed himself after being indicted for accessing documents that he had every right to access. The public prosecutor had asked the court to lock him up for 50 years. I still don’t understand that story, I will have to look into it further one day.

Hoye in the meantime was “reduced to emailing retirees to ask them what they remember from a lifetime ago because I can’t afford to read the source material.”

Looking for a definition of a certain advocate within organisations

My usual way of trying to find out about something I know exists but that I just cannot find any info on is to start an entry at Wikipedia. After a couple of years the wisdom of the crowds will have matured whatever seed I planted into something usable—even though by that time I will have forgotten completely what it was I wanted to know.

But for planting a seed you need to have a minimal definition, just leaving a name and the question “build this into something” is frowned upon. So I turn to my readers. (Frown away! Though this is not Wikipedia.)

The Dutch word cultuurbewaker (lit. guardian of [the corporate] culture) is one of those concepts. It is an informal position taken up by somebody within an organization where that person sort of helps to keep an organisation’s past connected to its future.

OK, so that is an incredibly vague definition. Googling for the word got me exclusively links to articles about football. So there is a suggestion that the word is only used in the footballing world.

I can think a number of reasons football clubs have these ‘culture guardians’. One is that turnover within professional football clubs, especially within the playing staff, is rapid. A ‘culture guardian’ may, simply by being there and acting like he always has, impart onto new players ‘how things are done here’. A high turnover among players can also lead to a certain disenchantment among the fans and keeping on one or two players who no longer contribute much athletically can help maintain a familiar appearance of the team. A third reason, if I read between the lines of the articles I found, may be that the position of ‘culture guardian’ is given as a token of good will to a person who has meant a lot for the club. Usually some sort of menial task or unimportant role is invented to justify keeping on that person.

This all suggests that ‘culture guardian’ isn’t much of an active role. These people don’t do, they are, and by being a living artefact they keep some kind of link of the organization with its past intact.

So how you can help me (if you so desire of course)? Well, usually finding the English translation of a word helps. I thought ‘culture bearer’ to be a likely word, but that appears to be a role within tribal societies, and I am not sure that it means the same thing.

There are a couple of related terms that all refer to an advocate within an organization for people or things whose voice is typically ignored or simply never heard:

  • Product owner (in scrum development teams this is the person representing the customer).
  • Ombudsman (in governments for citizens—ironic, yes—, and in newspapers for readers).
  • Sponsor.
  • Advocate.

Also in the worlds of marketing and design people make use of personas, made up persons with all kinds of traits, to help themselves think like an end user or buyer.

Balance in journalism


I had lots of stuff to write about this, but do not have the time for much. If you want to use this diagram, consider it licensed under the following terms:

I hereby release the files balanced-reporting-450×196.png and balanced-reporting.svg into the public domain. Where this is not possible, you may use these files as if they were in the public domain.

Can cutting unprofitable trains lead to decreasing profits on profitable trains?

I heard an interesting economic morality tale the other day. Apparently some time in the past British Rail decided to cut a bunch of unprofitable lines. These lines were often life-lines for the communities they served, but that was ultimately of no consideration to the person wielding the axe.

Applying the rules of modern neo-liberalism the unprofitable lines were promptly cut and then something extraordinary happened. The unprofitable lines turned out to have been feeder lines for the profitable lines and passengers that had travelled the profitable lines now no longer could get to them. Instead they switched to private motor cars, bleeding the troubled rail operator even further.

This is an interesting parable for modern times, especially since it confirms prejudices on both sides of the isle. Both neo-liberals and social-democrats will see a confirmation of their position in it.

Of course, if you look this stuff up, none of it appears to have happened. According to the Wikipedia du jour article on the subject, in the 1960s the Beeching Cuts were thought up by then-chairman of British Railways Dr Richard Beeching. British Railways was losing about 40 million pounds a year, which in those days was a huge amount of money. Dr Beeching proposed to cut 8,000 km of railway line and 55% of all stations, which was calculated to save 18 million pounds a year.

In the end the Beeching Cuts only helped to save a grand total of 30 million pounds and by 1968 British Rail’s losses had accumulated to 100 million pounds a year. Wikipedia also claims that “[although] in some cases closures removed branches that acted as feeders to the main lines and that feeder traffic was lost when the branches closed, the financial significance of this is debatable as over 90 per cent of the railways’ 1960 traffic was carried on lines which remained open ten years later.”

What is lacking in both the urban legend (slash economic morality tale) and the Wikipedia article is the simple but in my opinion true notion that a government should not be run as a capitalist, profit-making business, considering that the goal of a government is for a large part to counter market failures, that is to say to pick up the market’s slack. A railway system haemorrhaging money? That might just be a sign the government is doing it right.