Tug-o-war over Mass Bay Charter: Harbinger of things to come?

Tug-o-war over Mass Bay Charter: Harbinger of things to come?

Summary: While reading yesterday's Boston Globe, I read with great interest a story about the tug-of-war over the Massachusetts Bay Charter.  Written in the early 1600's, the Massachusetts Bay Charter came from the throne of England and gave the settlers rights to create their own government.

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While reading yesterday's Boston Globe, I read with great interest a story about the tug-of-war over the Massachusetts Bay Charter.  Written in the early 1600's, the Massachusetts Bay Charter came from the throne of England and gave the settlers rights to create their own government.  You can't read the story online unless you're a Globe subscriber (a bad idea which has been beaten to death -- usually to no avail -- in the blogosphere).  The State must take extraordinary measures to minimize any and all barriers to permanent document accessibility. The tug-of-war involves the current curator of the document -- the Salem Athenaeum -- and how it plans to auction the document to the public.  According to the Globe's story, the document could fetch more than $10 million. 

Meanwhile, now that there's a chance that such an important public document could fall into the hands of a private citizen, all sorts of alarms are going off (and stories are being written).  Why write about it here? Because there's relevance to the OpenDocument Format controversy that has still yet to completely resolve itself here in the Commonwealth.  I'm not going to rehash the details of the controversy other than to say that I agree with those who see this important historical document as a document that should now and forever be accessible to the public.  It represents one of the most defining moments for the state as well as for the country and for it to end up on the wall of someone's house (I'm exaggerating; it needs special storage systems to properly preserve it, but you get the picture) would be a travesty.  Simply put, this is not a proud moment in Massachusetts' recordkeeping history and it's not a history that should be repeated regardless of the relative triviality of the documents being generated today vs. that of the Massachusetts Bay Charter.  To add an element of surrealism to the story, in an extremely strange robbing Paul to pay Peter twist of irony, the Salem Athenaeum has said that it will use the proceeds to repair its collection of crumbling books. 

What lessons can be learned from this?  Is there a point in the future where written works -- private or public --  will be irretrievably lost?

So, looking at the State's existing policies for electronic storage and retrieval of its public documents, it's clear that in order to keep history from repeating itself -- in other words, to keep public documents from becoming inaccessible to the State's citizenry in perpetuity -- the State must take extraordinary measures to minimize any and all barriers, technological or otherwise, to permanent document accessibility.  The same should be true for every local, state, and federal government and there's a limited amount of room for commercial interests in the issue.  It's not about money. It's about history and free society.   The Massachusetts Bay Charter is nearly 400 years old.  Are we foolish enough to believe that any of today's file formats or their purveyors will be around in 400 years? These values inevitably lead us back to the debate of what is open and what is not.  But how about what is transparent and what is not?

Today, there are two office file formats competing for the hearts and minds of governments.  Both can trace their roots back to specific products whose code was primarily overseen or developed by one software vendor. Although Microsoft's formats are are behind in the race to become ISO-ratified standards, both formats (Microsoft's and the OpenDocument Format) have ultimately found their way into the stewardship of a multivendor consortia.  The OpenDocument Format is at OASIS and Microsoft's Open XML format is at Ecma.  Backers to both formats have pulled out all the stops more recently forming additional promotional alliances to drive adoption.  Last month, backers of the OpenDocument Format led the formation of the ODF Alliance. Then, while I was out getting back surgery, Microsoft led the formation of openxmldeveloper.org which launched with 39 members including Florida's State House of Representatives. Proving how important this beachhead is in the industry, the organization's formation was announced by Bill Gates at Microsoft's Office Developers Conference. Worth a bit of hype-busting was some text in the press release that says that the Open XML file formats were developed by Ecma.  Says the release:

The Open XML Formats Developer Group is being formed as a community for developers to exchange information with each other regarding the usage of the Ecma-developed Office Open XML file formats. The community will serve as a technical resource for Open XML developers to submit and answer technical questions and to share tools and ideas around Open XML Formats-based solutions. 

To say the formats were developed by Ecma is almost as laughable as saying that the OpenDocument Format was developed from the ground up by OASIS.  Refined by OASIS?  Sure.  Developed from the ground up?  Not. Is there a later date at which either specification may have more consortia blood in them than not?  Maybe.  And thus my comment about transparency.  Assurance to governments that their electronic documents will now and forever be available to their peoples lies directly in the stewardship and public domain nature of the specifications in question.  From a legal perspective, open source code is often confronted with the same challenge and in response, open source developers have improved their diligence in developing code that's free from potential proprietary ties.  It's not enough for governments to know that the specifications in question are open enough to the point that they can take over their development should they one day be left to whither on the vine while hundreds or thousands of public documents remain encoded in those formats.  Governments need to know more than the fact that the formats are open and stewarded by organizations with lots of paid vendor members who can often be little more than silent partners or sycophants.  They need to know that those members are not just behind the specification, but actively involved in their development so as to assure all customers that, at the heart of the matter, there aren't just one or two driving forces under the hood.   When strong, vibrant developer communities are truly and actively engaged in specification development, that's what gives those specifications their real sea legs and that's what gives governments as well as other organizations the assurances they need in order to identify the least riskiest direction to go.

I am not condoning or condemning either format.  What I am saying is that for the backers of either one to better make their case now and in the future, they must be prepared to very clearly demonstrate how the specifications are truly the work of an actively engaged community rather than specific vendors with undeniable motive.   I'm not sure how something like this is done.  But the innuendo, embellishments, and exaggerations do nothing more than to undermine trust.  At some point, the specifications and the processes behind them must do the real talking and speak for themselves.

Topic: Software Development

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  • Waywardness.

    That Microsoft's formats were "Ecma-developed" was a feeble attempt to mislead. So, were you trying to one-up Microsoft when you wrote:

    I am not condoning or condemning either format.(?)
    EoQ

    The closest parallel to your approach in my experience is the insistence of some (many) paleontologists that a privately owned fossil does not exist.
    If the various examples of archeopteryx did not belong to museums, the first-found, strongest single piece of evidence of a connection between birds and dinosaurs would be rigorously ignored.

    Why? Because private ownership is wrong, in their view.

    True, there's an attempt to justify this principle by saying that the fossil might not remain available, despite any possible legal assurances to the contrary by the owner. And despite the fact that a number of acknowledged fossils have subsequently been lost or destroyed. Paleontologists work from mechanical and written records.

    No, it's only a wayward refusal to accept private ownership of anything of public interest.


    The arguments in favor of ODious (sorry, ODx) formats are of comparable weakness.

    A couple of examples of internally challenged arguments:

    It's not enough for governments to know that the specifications in question are open enough to the point that they can take over their development should they one day be left to wither on the vine while hundreds or thousands of public documents remain encoded in those formats.
    EoQ

    The issue is whether proprietary formats can be read by public agencies in the distant future, when use of those formats has long since ceased. That's the point of using the 400 year old document comparison.

    Will those proprietary formats be readable? They can be! Game set match to the proprietary formats. The issue has been resolved.

    Though "take over their development" is an odd way to describe reading obsolete formats. Are these government agencies to do something entrepreneurial with the formats?

    In fact, apparently some further development of obsolete formats is imperative:

    Governments need to know more than the fact that the formats are open and stewarded by organizations with lots of paid vendor members who can often be little more than silent partners or sycophants. They need to know that those members are not just behind the specification, but actively involved in their development so as to assure all customers that, at the heart of the matter, there aren't just one or two driving forces under the hood.
    EoQ

    The statement continues on to say that obsolete ODf formats will still have a vibrant developer community, which to me seems odd.

    The issue doesn't concern what happens while the formats in everyday use, but what happens afterwards. An obsolete ODf format will have as little developer interest as an obsolete proprietary format.

    And then government interest is supposed to extend to how many people or organizations there are working on the formats. Not applications, formats.

    Formats are used by applications, though.

    If the Microsoft formats are used by 1,250 non-Microsoft applications, wouldn't that be enough to say the formats will be well cared for?

    If the ODx formats are used by a total of 20 applications, all of which are no longer being actively developed, would you say that ODf formats have many advantages?

    The logic of this argument does not seem to me to be very compelling.


    More important than anything about formats, I hope your surgery was successful. This issue can be argued in comfort for years, but pain is always urgent.
    Anton Philidor
    • Blah Blah Blah..

      Anton, you have really turned into such an MS shill and dweeb. What happened to you? The author specifically stated he did NOT want to open the can of worms re:ODF and the ABMer camp. And yes, private ownership of public antiquities is wrong. Guess you support those folks who pillaged Peru too?
      nomorems
      • Legal and illegal.

        Governments make decisions about what people may legally do and not do.

        I own several fossil ammonite shells, purchased at museum stores. I assume that no laws were violated by making them available to me. Are you arguing that I did something wrong even though it's legal for me to own these fossils?

        In the past more than at present ownership of finds at archeological digs was legally provided to those who did the digging. These legally owned items are sold publicly. Would you say I'd be doing something wrong if I bought one of them?

        Me, I don't think of following the law as being an extreme position.

        I also don't think there's anything wrong with a state using Microsoft formats. Are you really arguing that I could not possibly have good reason for such a decision, and must therefore be dishonest or foolish?

        I don't usually answer such accusations, but we've had reasonable discussions in the past. And I hope to again.
        Anton Philidor
    • anything about formats

      http://www.analogstereo.com/vacuum/miele_s5210_vacuum.htm
      uk_forum
  • The Debate is All Hype

    Who cares which electronic document format is chosen? First, it's crazy to assume that any electronic file format from today will still be in use 400 years from now. So why debate a plan for it? Anything thought of today will be garbage 10 years from now -- proprietary or open format.

    Second, there will always be conversion software that converts from one format to the next one along the way. The best that you can plan for is: (a.) which electronic format works best for your current audience? (b.) which one works best as far as interoperability between the platforms of your current audience? (c), which one works best for the foreseeable future (like 5-10 years off).

    The only document format that will ever have the hope of lasting 400 years will be etchings in paper, stone, metal, etc. Especially if DRM can set policies to prevent all electronic copies from ever being viewed, or even continuing to exist. DRM can also prevent me from viewing the documents unless I'm a subscriber, or limit the number of times that I can access the document. And DRM applies equally to both proprietary and open format.

    If your goal is to keep public documents public, the underlying file format matter less that all the hype suggests. The only safe way is with multiple physical copies that can be read using human senses. DRM can revoke all access to public documents with a single clickity-click. Multiple paper copies aren't as easy to eliminate. If the Mass. Bay Charter was published in book form, it would always be available.
    coffeenite
  • What about media?

    I can still read WordStar and AutoCAD files I created in 1985, but only if I transferred them to 3-1/2" floppy from their original 360K 5-1/4" floppies. Maybe it's not as interesting talking about media since MS isn't involved (it might also indicate that OpenDocument advocates have an anti-MS agenda when they focus only on the file format rather than the larger archival picture). But, taking Berlind's 400-year argument, I would be much more concerned about the media than the file format. I've got plenty of 10-year old backup tapes and 5-1/4" floppies that I no longer have any way of reading because the devices that created them are long gone or aren't supported by new hardware. This is assuming that they are even readable, i.e., that the media itself hasn't degraded. Moving files to successive generations of harddrives has its problems also. I've often found files that have been corrupted over the years, either through file transfer or by some other mechanism. While the CD seems firmly entrenched as a universal medium, we might find in the near future that our new blue-laser drive won't read some of our 1st-generation CD-R disks.

    I'm sure the Library of Congress already has discussed and maybe addressed the media issue, but IF archivability is an important need for state governments, it should have a much higher profile in the OpenDocument debate.
    Rodney Davis
  • So where is the problem.

    Office XML is very easy to work with. If you fear the state won't be able to open their documents 400 years from now I will write you (them) a parser with complete documentation. That way in 400 years someone can "take over" it's use. Pfffttt... no big deal.
    No_Ax_to_Grind
  • Sounds like laziness and bad planning.

    It really doesn't matter what format or media it is on at the present moment. All data must be upgraded to the new formats and media over time. It is a never ending process and thinking one format for all time will be the last is delusional. Change is inevitable. Get used to it.
    osreinstall
  • I propose the GIF file format....

    For documents which are only going to be archived, viewed and printed why not juat make them into simple bitmaps?

    The computer code for reading a GIF file is a couple of pages long and it compresses text documents really well. All you need is a program to convert your office documents to high resolution GIF images and they should be readable forever.
    jinko
  • What will be 'lost'?

    The original document (the piece of paper and ink) could eventually be lost if not protected, regardless of who 'owns' it. I believe the original should remain in public view, assuming it can be preserved.

    The main issue is the content of the document. That is, or should be, in the public domain. This is true of photographic reproductions of the original. While we should want to preserve the originals as long as we can (e.g, the Dead Sea Scrolls), what is really important are the words, meaning and intent of what the document says. That is what must not be lost. That is the real issue of freedom.

    Hard copies of the text, in plain text format, printed or typed on special low-acid paper should last for several hundred years. Photographs done on special paper should also last more than a 100 years if well maintained. I suspect both of these could outlast any electronic media we currently have. Sometimes, the old-fashioned ways are still the best. Let's don't make a problem harder than it has to be.
    brucegil9