One hugely influential piece of modern writing is Eric Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar“:the central metaphor contrasts huge, monolithic, closed-source software developments (i.e. “the Cathedral”) with agile, distributed, open-source software developments (i.e. “the Bazaar”).

Raymond’s metaphor is just a metaphor: but all the same, there are plenty of none-too-subtle quasi-religious overtones at play here, which tend to colour the whole argument in favour of the Bazaar (which is his point, basically).

In the spirit of Raymond’s Bazaar, I’ve been wondering for a while whether I could (effectively) open-source my history research. Because I’m not a tenured academic, I don’t need a steady stream of refereed papers to justify my position to a departmental head: my interest in (for example) the Voynich Manuscript is more or less entirely about scratching an historical itch. And so “going open source” is something that is actually feasible, even if the precise (technological) details of quite how to achieve this are as yet unclear.

What I have in mind would be broadly in the same vein as the Voynich “challenges” page I put up a few years ago, only 10x times more focused. This would take the form of an ever-evolving page of open research challenges, each with references to (and summaries of) any relevant papers and books, and with (here it gets a bit vague) contact details for other researchers looking at the same problem and/or some kind of online forum for discussing each challenge.

Essentially, Eric Raymond’s central claim is that if you raise a daring enough flag, people will follow it: and as I think there are compelling arguments for tackling each of the research challenges I have in mind, this seems like a good fit. However, I find Raymond’s “Bazaar” troubling, as it seems to me to be based on a kind of free-market wheeler-dealer economics model, whereby each of the entities functions independently… as if competitive market trading will always provide an optimal solution to any problem. Applying this kind of superficial economics cant to software development (or even to historical research) is largely nonsensical: it’s just a metaphor, there is no “market” per se to regulate. Besides, as the key problems in large-scale software development are mainly to do with collaboration rather than competition, there’s good reason to think that the Bazaar is a flawed metaphor.

In the real world, I suspect that the actual model opposing The Cathedral is (sadly) far too often instead The Pub Quiz Team – a near-random group of people hoping to work as a team, but only occasionally gelling in anything approaching a purposeful way. And I say this having last night been on a Berrylands pub quiz team that came last by a mile – unsurprisingly, I don’t like pub quizzes much.

Applying this idea to the main Voynich mailing list, what has unfortunately happened over the last five years is that it has somehow turned from something surprisingly close to Eric Raymond’s idealized Bazaar (lots of individual researchers doing their thing within an overall research programme, trading ideas rather than punches) to a bickering pub quiz team, which can’t even agree its team name, let alone the answers to any of the questions.

In just about every important way, then, the VMs mailing list (in its present form) encapsulates more or less all of the things I would like to avoid in an open-source collaborative history project. As with most enterprises, knowing what to avoid is a reasonable starting point, but bear with me while I try to work out those pesky details…

8 thoughts on “The Cathedral, the Bazaar, and the Pub Quiz Team…

  1. Dennis on January 16, 2009 at 5:44 am said:

    Quite an excellent post! I don’t know how the development of open-source software works in practice. I like the comment on how the Bazaar is probably a flawed metaphor.

    As for open-sourcing Voynich research, there’s a great need for some central repository of what’s been done. Voynich research is scattered all over the Web, and in print media to a lesser extent. I’ve sometimes thought that someone ought to redo D’Imperio, and write a summary volume on what’s been done between her and now. Kennedy and Churchill wasn’t too bad a summary of historical research (yours is better, though more focused), but they had hardly anything on the vast amount of statistical analysis that’s been done.

    One idea I’ve had is a print publication of a book collection of the better Internet and print papers on the VMs.

    We re-invent the wheel quite a bit, I suspect! Nothing more than a website with links to all valuable material, and search engines for the whole vms-list archives, would be very useful. Stolfi’s “Who Else Is Out There?” list has the most extensive set of links, but it’s not currently up to date.

    > “This would take the form of an ever-evolving page of open research challenges, each with references to (and summaries of) any relevant papers and books, and with (here it gets a bit vague) contact details for other researchers looking at the same problem and/or some kind of online forum for discussing each challenge.”

    Stolfi has extremely brief summaries. You’d also want to add a bibliography of print publications, as you say. I agree that contact details would be a superb idea. If you and a few others would take Stolfi’s list and expand it thus, along with your “challenges” – and keep it all up to date – that would be splendid! It goes without saying that it would have to cover material in all languages.

    I expect that a big factor in the success of such an undertaking would be publicizing it, and extending appropriate invitations to researchers.

    As for an online forum, there have been a few Voynich wikis that have mostly fizzled, even though wikis seem like a good idea. ISTR a bulletin board at , but I don’t see anything there. A few years back, François Almaleh set up a series of French-language bulletin boards, each dedicated to a subtopic on the VMs. He wanted to organize research in a logical, Cartesian way; researchers would devote themselves to a subtopic. It didn’t go anywhere. One problem with that would be getting an overview. However, you’d have to organize almost anything by topic.

    Incidentally, here’s François Almaleh’s current site:

    He has a “book” on the VMs, which I downloaded. I glanced at it and it looks interesting. He mentions quite a number of things I haven’t heard of before, such as Timothy Ely’s The Flight into Egypt, a book like the Codex Seraphinianus, a conference at Poitiers on the myth of the Potion of Eternal Youth, and several references to ancient authors I don’t remember having seen before. It’s worth a look.

  2. Hi Dennis,

    Thanks for all that! Copyright issues aside, the two biggest problems with producing a “Voynopedia” (whether in print or online) would be (a) maintaining it (it seems to change all the time), and (b) giving form to the torrent of possibly-relevant information without upsetting a load of people to the point that they start openly abusing the project. For an example of the latter, Richard SantaColoma would doubtless argue that his Drebbel hypothesis should merit a whole chapter, while his detractors might well think it could be well-covered in a footnote. Similarly, should John Stojko’s “vowel-less old Ukrainian” theory similarly get its own chapter, or just a footnote in the “hallucinatory readings” chapter?

    My own opinion remains very much as per when I wrote “The Curse” (when I covered the VMs’ history in 13 swift pages): that because the provenance information we (currently) have falls more than a century short of the quire numbers’ 15th century dating, virtually nothing of relevance has been written on the VMs over the years. The two comparisons Elmar Vogt flags would be good starting points for the kind of “stylistic forensic examination” that has signally failed to take place over the years, very much as I discussed in my “Voynich Research 2.0” post recently.

    Brutally put, while I’d love to edit a Voynopedia, I suspect that most of the content that ought to go in it hasn’t yet been written. ;-o

    As far as orchestrating any kind of research effort goes, I suspect that laying things out by topic would indeed be a category error, trying to overlay open source ideas over those strictly-patrolled academic boundaries. What would be more useful (and usable) is a set of research challenges, each with its linked literature tree and its own specific research question to answer.

    Cheers, ….Nick Pelling….

    PS: thanks very much for the link to François Almaleh’s site, I’ll download his book and review/discuss it here shortly…

  3. Dennis on January 18, 2009 at 7:08 am said:

    Hi Nick! I think you are correct about laying down research challenges rather than topic boundaries. One way you could keep a Voynopedia manageable is to make access by invitation only. There are already two invitation-only mailing lists. It would make some people unhappy over being excluded, but I suspect that doing that at the outset might be the best way. If the content hasn’t yet been written, well, that would be the place for it to start being written. 🙂


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  5. Diane O'Donovan on May 6, 2013 at 3:19 pm said:

    One of the most effective models I know for collaborative work occurs in (no, don’t flinch) tribal communities, where the group have a strong investment in remaining a cohesive unit but the social structure remains relatively un-hierarchical.

    In those societies, and as it happens in traditional Quaker business-meetings (English style), the issue is announced. After an interval of significant length, each person speaks his or her opinion on the issue. No cross-discussion, argument or nay-saying. Just as importantly, no ‘yay’-saying either, and no voting – actual or virtual.

    Those present then have time to absorb what each person has said. As a general thing each person gets to speak only once to a topic in a given session – which encourages brevity and further reduces energy being wasted in aggression or defense.

    Because there is no voting, the recorder simply summarises the ‘feeling of the meeting’. If there appears not to be any common way, the issue is left aside – no ‘default’ or ‘majority’ opinion.

    Sounds inefficient, and it is technically, but seems to get there while keeping the peace.

  6. Diane O'Donovan on May 6, 2013 at 3:48 pm said:

    By the way, Nick –
    You could count me in for any Challenges page – I think it’s an excellent way to bring the flock of cats into the same barn,at least.

    Judging by lack of response to a couple of challenges I poste, you might need to invite specific people, maybe.

  7. Diane O'Donovan on May 6, 2013 at 3:59 pm said:

    Dennis –
    Rather sobering to hear that there are two invitation-only mailing lists in Voynich studies.

    Bound to cause problems, I should think. Like football teams – what you gain in esprit de corps you lose in fairmindedness.

  8. Diane O'Donovan on May 7, 2013 at 5:45 am said:

    About the Voynichpedia idea – what’s needed is basically an index of people and ideas. Who said what,when.

    It doesn’t need to be a history of Voynich studies as such -what people want, I think, is ready-reckoner. Comparative tables of plant id’s.

    Index to methods used to try cracking the cipher, and what happened – maybe tables of their stats.

    The chief purpose, i think, would be to end this constant, stupid process of working away for weeks or months only to find it was all said and done yonks ago.

    Once people have the name, and an address online etc. they could find more details as they liked, couldn’t they?

    I still think that selling your blog on CD Rom would be a great start.


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