On the liberation of the postal market

Until 2009 a single company (formerly state owned) had a monopoly on the Dutch snail mail market, to be precise on the delivery of letters and packages lighter than 50 grams. This was widely considered a bad idea and in that year the liberal party managed to get a new postal law passed that made it possible for other companies to deliver mail.

I was one of the fans of the law for all the obvious reasons. Monopolies are a bad thing that damage markets. As it turns out I should have paid more attention to my own blog; when I wrote in 2006 about “the most costly factor: personnel”. Liberating the postal market has led to price competition, which is good, but it has also led to many more companies trying to get a piece of the ever shrinking pie of snail mail. Where there used to be one postman per neighbourhood (usually somebody who had walked that beat for years and was both trustworthy and knowledgeable), now there are many more (often part-timers plucked from a pool where the most important skill is being cheap).

The decreased turnover as a result of a lower mail volume combined and of the higher cost of delivering that same volume had to be compensated somehow, and it would seem that the mail companies simply slashed the salaries of the delivery personnel. Since then the press is rife with stories about postage workers dumping mail in canals, stealing packages, going on strikes and so on.

My suggestion to remedy this situation would be one of two. Either nationalize the expensive part, the delivery (and let the companies buy delivery at a fixed price), or grant the mail companies unique access to neighbourhoods (say: at most three companies operating a neighbourhood). The latter would be not dissimilar to what the government of Iceland did to prevent overfishing. Iceland introduced quotas, making it so that fishing boats would no longer all compete for the same fish.

Newspapers like trolls

OK, so this is not a well thought-out hypothesis and if you prodded a little I’d probably admit that I do not believe in this, but still: newspapers adore trolls.

Here’s what I observed. In the early days of letting people comment online underneath newspaper articles (was this when the papers feared they had to compete with blogs?), a lot of the time you could respond pseudonymously. Then after some time the papers would force you to register and log in. They said this was to stem the tide of trolls. Except this can hardly be true; trolls play a bigger part in online newspaper comment sections than ever before.

Maybe, you’ll say, this is just human nature. Maybe everybody acts like a pig when they can hide behind a mask. The thing is, I know enough blogs that run a tight ship in their comments sections, making sure discussions stay on topic and insult-free. Unlike the aforementioned newspapers these blogs are run by amateurs with much less disposable time.

Your second argument could be that just because newspapers haven’t figured out how to stop trolls, doesn’t mean they like them. So I need a second hypothesis to answer this: newspapers benefit from trolls (and that is why they like them). If you have trolls, it means you are going to get angry retorts. Trolls are very effective in letting people stay longer at a newspaper’s website which in turn means that people are exposed for a longer time to newspapers’ advertisements.

Cory Doctorow says: no more inCaps!

Cory Doctorow wants to stop using weirdly spelled brand names:

This year, I resolve to minimize my use of incaps when writing about commercial products and companies. An incap changes a word into a logo, and has no place in journalism or commentary — it’s branding activity that colonizes everyday communications. It’s free advertising.

So: “Iphone,” not “iPhone” and “Paypal,” not “PayPal.”

When I was blogging for Teleread (or is it: TeleRead?) I did the same. In fact, I may have even normalized my spelling of brand names back in the 1990s when I was an editor for c’t (marvel at the irony).

At some point I gave up the practice for reasons I cannot quite remember, but it may simply have been because iPhone is actually easier to read than Iphone, and once you give up the latter it becomes increasingly difficult to defend other instances of normalized capitalization.

Doctorow has got a list of exceptions that weaken the effect he’s after, but at least it will be him who determines which companies will get freebies and which won’t.

Do we prefer our biomass as gorgeous reef or as Australians?

A footnote from Maciej Ceglowski’s post on the Australian rain forrest:

Farmers and fishermen in Australia test the limits of human empathy. While I was in Cairns, for example, controversy ranged around the recent extension of the Great Barrier Reef marine park, opponents arguing that the expanded ban on fishing would harm the Cairns fishing industry, and proponents arguing that that was the whole goddamn point. If it were up to Australian farmers and fishermen, the Great Barrier Reef would be processed into bags of fish meal, the fish meal spread as fertilizer on land obtained by clearing the remaining rainforest, the fertilized land used to grow sugar, and the sugar used as raw material for some of the least appetizing desserts in the world. The fundamental question is this: do we prefer our biomass in the form of gorgeous reef and rain forest ecosystems, or Australians?

Athletes and the gay-hating Russian Olympics

Imagine you and some friends went to the best club in town and the doorman said one of your friends couldn’t come in because of him being gay. You would probably all walk away. By saying that your friends are not welcome the club is also making a statement about you. Maybe some of you would return later regardless, because, hey, the best club in town!, and some of you would boycott the club until it became inclusive.

That’s sort of the position I gather many of the Olympic athletes find themselves in when they consider the persecution of gays in Russia. Except that the comparison is not as good as it could be. Now imagine that you and your friends go to the exclusive club, but this time as members of an obscure band—you’re there on invitation. Just playing at that club will ensure publicity. Even though the manager knows your lead guitarist is gay, you guys still get to play there, in front of an audience that is either completely straight or pretends to be. What would you do? What will the athletes do?

This to me makes the opening ceremony of this year’s games the most interesting part of the event. I wonder what the consequences would be for an athlete if they added a little rainbow to their attire.

(Anyway, Olympic boycotts in the past, the much publicized ones that is, have revolved not so much about what athletes thought of states but mostly about what states thought of each other, and not necessarily what a visiting state though about the organizing state either. In 1956 the Dutch Olympic Committee boycotted the Australian Games not because of what Australia had done but, get this, because of the situation in Hungary.)

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

balanced-reporting

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.

Incremental e-mail backups with Thunderbird

The Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail client doesn’t provide a back-up tool. It is possible though to use the search function to select only those e-mail messages that are more recent than your last back-up and save them, but this process doesn’t store the folder structure that your messages were in. This is only a working solution if you use only a few folders or none at all. I recently had to restore from a hard disk crash and spent half a day putting e-mails back in folders. (Another option would have been to keep my restored back-up in in its own folder; after all, it’s mostly old mail.)

Looking for back-up tools for Thunderbird, the official Mozilla.org recommendation appears to be to get a program called MozBackup. The advantage of MozBackup is that it creates back-ups of profiles for several Mozilla tools, not just Thunderbird. Unfortunately it doesn’t do incremental back-ups.

Looking through mozilla.org’s support forums I encounter mostly disbelief that anybody would want to do incremental back-ups of e-mail messages and folders. As a web developer I often get sent large files by clients and designers. Lately this has decreased a lot—people store their files in the cloud and send me a link—but it still happens. Before the crash I had about 10 GB in e-mail on my hard disk.

There is a back-up plugin (I believe Mozilla uses the word add-on instead of plug-in) called ImportExport Tools which I think I used before to migrate from Pegasus to Thunderbird but which you can also use for back-ups. (Strangely the plug-in is stored under Miscellaneous at addons.mozilla.org instead of Import/Export.) This contains an option for structured storage, that is to say, storing mails with their respective folders. Unfortunately this option won’t let you select the specific mails you want to export, it only works for all mail at once. It does have an automatic back-up setting which may or may not store the folder structure. I will update this posting once I find out more.

Note also that the author of the plug-in reports that storing folders is at the moment unstable, i.e. may not work.

Back-ups are dangerous if you don’t test whether or not you are able to restore them. As far as the ImportExport Tools plug-in is concerned I can report success in this regard. I created a second account in Thunderbird and imported the back-up of my primary account there. I only performed spot checks, I did not check if all mails were recovered.

Another option would be to store e-mail without attachments. That way I could easily store every mail I ever received on a single CD-R, which would make the whole incremental back-up thing just a little less important. Of course you’d have to find a way to store your attachments first. In case you are using your e-mail client as a sort of document management system this won’t work. Let’s say you receive lots of photos of loved ones via e-mail and then when you want to see these photos again later you view them in your mail client. In this example you never bothered to store your attachments in a separate location, so back-ups without attachments would be less of an option.

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