Back after three weeks in Southern Italy

I’m back in the Netherlands after a three week journey through Southern Italy. I had plans to travel there already in this year’s spring season, but delayed them because I feared it would interfere with my job applications. Even after the delay It turned out that I missed the opportunity to do an assessment for a traineeship, so I guess that was inevitable.

I finalized my travel plans while I was working full-time at an IT service desk during July, August and September. I booked a return flight with Ryanair to depart from Maastricht to Bari at Sunday 29 September, returning at Sunday 20 October. I paid € 50 for this, it still amazes me they can be so cheap.

Why Southern Italy?

My choice for Southern Italy was motivated the fact that it has a nice climate with comfortable temperatures in October, more so than Northern Italy. Like the rest of Italy it has plenty of cultural heritage and many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This especially applies to the area around Naples. And of course Southern Italy is renowned for the quality of its cuisine. Again the pizza from Naples is in the spotlight, but elsewhere in Southern Italy I also ate interesting dishes which was different from the typical Italian food.

Using the public transport

Like my trip through Sicily last year, I decided to use public transport to get around in Southern Italy. You loose flexibility because the buses and trains don’t operate with the same frequency as they do in the Netherlands, but it was much cheaper than hiring a car.

However, I couldn’t go rafting down the Lao River because it was impossible to get to Papasidero with public transport. I did want to hire a car for one day to go to the Pertosa Caves and Grumentum, but that wasn’t possible because the car rental companies apparently only accept payment with credit cards. I don’t have a credit card and I hate the credit card companies, so that complicates things.

I traveled on my own, but if I had two or three travel companions the balance would have tilted in favor of renting a car. Also realize that if you decide on using the public transport, you’ll have to adapt your daily schedule to the infrequent service and that you’ll need a PhD in public transport planning. The TrenItalia website for trains works reasonably well and is available in English, but there are dozens of local bus companies with awful websites that only provide information in Italian.

In the Netherlands we like to complain about our public transport, but when I got back I thought my country is a public transport paradise. We’ve got the OV-chipkaart, the website and even on Sunday I can take a bus to Utrecht from my small village once an hour, practically the whole day. In Southern Italy I saw trains which still ran on diesel and railroad switches which were operated by hand.

Packing lightly

If you use the public transport it pays off to pack lightly. Ryanair also charges you more if you take along more than your hand luggage. Because I had to carry around my luggage all the time when I didn’t have a place to store it I packed only the essential stuff. I used a small backpack for this which I used daily when I went to university and followed the guides which are available on efficient packing techniques.

I packed a few clothes which I washed by hand during my trip, as well as my dSLR camera, electric shaver, my notebook (plus charger), two small books, travel documents, deodorant, a toothbrush and toothpaste. Don’t forget to take along a converter for using those grounded plugs with the Italian power sockets.

Finally had success with CouchSurfing

In Sicily last year my efforts to find locals who could host me as their guest failed. This time I had more success and was hosted by five CouchSurfers for a total of nine nights. I also met with four others who weren’t able to host me, but could show me around town. All of them were great people to meet. It was thanks to them that I saw many things I would not have seen otherwise. I used to think of myself as introverted and never had much trouble to travel alone, but on some of the days when I had no company I felt bored.

Paradoxically, it was easier to find hosts in smaller towns and villages than it was the largest cities. In Reggio di Calabria, Salerno and Napels I did not find any host, in spite of sending about thirty “CouchRequests” to the CouchSurfers in Naples. That was a disappointment, but it didn’t diminish the success of my CouchSurfing experience. It left me desiring for more, so I look forward to being a host myself for other CouchSurfers in the near future. I hope to do more CouchSurfing when I visit Greece or Turkey next.

Blisters almost spoiled it

I want to use my time efficiently on holidays so I can see as much as possible, which means I was walking long distances every day. My old shoes were close to collapse half way during the trip, so I decided to buy new shoes in Reggio di Calabria to prevent discomfort later. It was the most stupid decision I made during my trip. The new shoes seemed like a nice fit in the shoe store, but a few hundred meters later I already got huge blisters. I couldn’t return them to the store anymore, so I had to ditch them and buy slippers. The slippers worked for some time, but were not exactly comfortable, certainly in the downpour of Salerno.

I then decided to buy beautiful Geox shoes for € 152. Normally I buy two pairs of good shoes with that, but hey, you only live once. They fit nicely in the store, but again they turned out to hurt my feet not much later. By then I was at a low point in my holiday and considered going home, but I managed to keep thinking positively. It was possible to exchange the Geox shoes for a slightly less expensive model and went back to the slippers. Soon I bought better sandals and blister bandages. It’s unfortunate that trivial issues like having good shoes can have such a big impact.

The schedule

  • Sun 29 Sep: after my arrival at Bari’s airport at 15:10 I immediately took the train to Lecce where I met my first host at the train station.
  • Mon 30 Sep: I visited the wonderful historical center of Lecce. Be sure not to miss the Museo Provinciale Sigismondo Castromediano.
  • Tue 01 Oct: from Lecce I made a day trip to Otranto, a seaside town with nice beaches and a small historical center. I tried in vain to take a bus from Lecce, but no one had any idea about timetables or where the bus would stop. I did manage to get there with a train.
  • Wed 02 Oct: I went to visit Brindisi where I was picked up by my second host, who drove me to his home in Ceglie Messapica.
  • Thu 03 Oct: from Ceglie Messapica we drove to Ostuni and Gnatia among others.
  • Fri 04 Oct: from Ceglie Messapica we drove to the Museo Nazionale Archeologico in Taranto only to find out that it was closed for restoration. I said goodbye to my host and went on to Metaponto to see the museum and archaeological site of Metapontum there.
  • Sat 05 Oct: took the train to Policoro to see the ruins of Hereclea and the archeological museum there. I then continued my journey to Trebisacce where I met my third host and visited Timpone della Motta.
  • Sun 06 Oct: from Trebisacce I went to Sibari to visit the museum and archaeological site of Sybaris.
  • Mon 07 Oct: I took the train from Trebisacce to Lamezia Terme, where I met my fourth host.
  • Tue 08 Oct: from Lamezia Terme I took the train to Reggio di Calabria. To my surprise the Museo Nazionale was closed, but it was possible to see a small part of the collection exhibited elsewhere. Met up with a CouchSurfer for dinner.
  • Wed 09 Oct: there is no reason to stay in Reggio di Calabria for more than one day because there is nothing else to see there apart from the Museo Nazionale. Spent this day sending a huge amount of CouchRequests to potential hosts in Salerno and Naples, all in vain.
  • Thu 10 Oct: took the train to Salerno and visited Maratea on the way.
  • Fri 11 Oct: visited Paestum with a bus from Salerno. Again no timetable for the bus, but I got lucky and didn’t need to wait long. Met with a CouchSurfer for dinner.
  • Sat 12 Oct: no rental car to visit Grumentem and Pertosa Caves, visited the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples instead. Met with same CouchSurfer for dinner.
  • Sun 13 Oct: took the train to Naples and then another train to visit Pompeii and the Villa Poppea.
  • Mon 14 Oct: took the metro from Naples to visit Pozzuoli and then a bus to visit Cumae.
  • Tue 15 Oct: took the train from Naples to take a bus from Pompeii to the Vesuvius and then another train to visit Herculaneum.
  • Wed 16 Oct: took the train from Naples to Caserta, met up with a CouchSurfer to visit Capua and visited the palace of Caserta alone.
  • Thu 17 Oct: took the Napoli Sotterranea tour, visited the Roman market beneath the San Lorenzo Maggiore church, the Museo di Capodimonte and the Catacombs of San Gennaro.
  • Fri 18 Oct: visited the botanical gardens in Naples, then met another CouchSurfer to visit the Palazzo Reale, the Castel dell’Ovo, the Castel Sant’Elmo and the Certosa di San Martino.
  • Sat 19 Oct: took the train from Napels to Bari, met my fifth host at the train station.
  • Sun 20 Oct: departed from Bari’s airport to Maastrict at 10:05.

I stayed one more day in Naples than I had planned because I couldn’t find a host in Bari at that time and the hotels in Bari were expensive. As a consequence I was not able to visit the Castel del Monte, the Castellana Caves or Matera. So I’ve got good reasons to visit Southern Italy again in the future.

I find archaeology fascinating, which is why I decided to visit some of the less well-known archaeological sites. I was elated when Dutch archaeologists happened to be around to give me and my host’s family a short tour of the site of Timpone della Motta. However, if you aren’t that interested I’d advise you to stick to the highlights, which include the archaeology museums in Taranto, Reggio di Calabria, Paestum and Naples. You’d better skip places like Metapontum and Sybaris then because there’s not much to see there.

Photos for Wikipedia

Another important reason for me to visit some of the archaeological sites and other locations was to make photos there for improving their respective Wikipedia articles. I’ve already uploaded two photos to the article on the modern town of Maratea and will add some to the Otranto’s article as well, but ancient sites like Gnatia, Metapontum, Timpone della Motta and Cumae have yet to follow. I’m not showing photos in this post yet because I intend to migrate all my photos to Flickr. More on that later.

A formula instead of tax brackets for progressive tax?

Today I’ve taken a look at the blog of prof. dr. Sylvester Eijffinger, which caught my attention since I mentioned him in my post of 5 September. I have some comments on his most recent post which discusses a proposal for a flat tax in the Netherlands. Because comments on his blog are disabled I’ll have to respond through my own weblog.

Tax brackets can discourage earning more income

One of the arguments Eijffinger gives in favor of the flat tax is that the current system of tax brackets in the Netherlands can discourage participation in the labor market. He notes that some people work part time, especially if they have a partner, to avoid higher tax brackets. If they work more they enter a higher tax bracket, which would require them to pay more taxes.

Eijffinger’s comment is rather short because it was a contribution to a discussion in the Dutch newspaper Metro, so I guess he couldn’t afford to give an example. Without an example it’s difficult to understand the problem, so let me give one. The first tax bracket in the Netherlands goes up to € 19.645 and has a tax rate of 37%. The second goes from € 19.646 to € 33.363 with a tax rate of 42%.

Let’s say I work part time to stay in the first tax bracket and make € 18.000. Then I get the option to work more so that I can earn € 22.000. In the first bracket I pay 18.000 * 0.37 = € 6.660. With the higher salary, I pay 19.645 * 0.37 = € 7.268,65 plus 2355 * 0.42 = € 989,10. Then the total tax I pay is € 8.257,75 over € 22.000, or 37,54%. Hardly a steep raise in the effective tax rate because I crossed the limit of the first tax bracket, right?

A solution without resorting to a flat tax

Let’s assume that my example doesn’t fit the point Eijffinger was trying to make. There is reason to believe that the effect can be stronger in other situations, the difference between the third and the fourth tax bracket for example is 10% instead of 5%. Let’s assume that mr. Eijffinger is correct.

In that case, couldn’t we simply use a formula to determine the tax rate for a progressive tax? It’s even simpler than tax brackets. For example, take the linear equation y=15+0.2*x which I’ve plotted here. In this formula “y” is the tax rate in percent and “x” is the income. This fixes the problem of suddenly having to pay much more taxes because the limit of a tax bracket is crossed.

I suggest this because I don’t believe that a flat tax can provide social justice for us. With a flat tax, a millionaire would pay the same percentage of taxes as a cleaner. Instead I think the strongest shoulders should bear the heaviest burden. Aren’t there plenty of other options to reduce inefficiency and bureaucracy in a progressive tax system?

Pre-ordered the Geeksphone Peak+ with Firefox OS

A few weeks ago I pre-ordered the Geeksphone Peak+ with Firefox OS. This will be my first smartphone, I waited for so long because I think all other smartphone operating systems are inadequate. Why, you might ask? Because Firefox OS is the only smartphone operating system which respects my freedom and privacy.

Freedom versus vendor lock-in

If you buy an iPhone or iPad, you can only download apps from Apple’s App Store. Apple decides which apps get approved, but their policy is enforced inconsistently at best. I don’t care about their hypocritical policy however, but about principles. I despise Apple for it’s paternalistic behavior, I demand to have the freedom to decide which apps I want and where I get them.

Microsoft, the third player on the smartphone market after Apple and Google, doesn’t allow competing app stores either. Regular readers of this blog know that I hate Microsoft for it’s unethical business practices anyway and that I’d never buy anything from them.

The issues with Google’s Android

Google’s Android on the other hand does allow competing app stores. Android is also open source, so third parties other than Google can produce derivatives such as CyanogenMod. So far so good, but there are also two crucial issues for me.

Would I trust Google with my privacy? Certainly not, even though I don’t think Apple or Microsoft are any better. Yes, you can still use an Android phone without a Google account, but it’s not as convenient. My smartphone shouldn’t spy on me by default. And yes, I do use Google’s search engine and I’m not so naive to think that my privacy is still immaculate. But that’s not a reason to further the breakdown of my privacy with an Android smartphone.

What’s a more serious issue for me is that Microsoft is extorting producers of Android smartphones. It coerces them to pay royalties for its patents at the threat of lawsuits. This practice has been more profitable for Microsoft than its own Windows Phone OS, with HTC and Samsung paying $10 or more to Microsoft for every Android device they sell. Microsoft defends itself as follows:

Much of the current litigation in the so called “smartphone patent wars” could be avoided if companies were willing to recognize the value of others’ creations in a way that is fair. At Microsoft, experience has taught us that respect for intellectual property rights is a two-way street, and we have always been prepared to respect the rights of others just as we seek respect for our rights. This is why we have paid others more than $4 billion over the last decade to secure intellectual property rights for the products we provide our customers.

They seem reasonable, but in reality Microsoft’s intellectual property amounts to trivial patents. Microsoft is nothing more than a patent troll (see here for the long version of the story). Because I don’t want Microsoft to profit when I buy a smartphone, buying a smartphone with Android is out of the question for me. The situation might change for me when Google grows a spine and sues Microsoft to hell.

The joys of Firefox OS

Firefox OS doesn’t suffer from these disadvantages. I trust its developer, Mozilla, doesn’t spy on me. At least I don’t need an account of some kind to make optimal use of my phone. As far as I know Geeksphone hasn’t signed a patent license agreement with Microsoft and doesn’t pay royalties. It’s not mandatory to use Mozilla’s app store. And Firefox OS has an important innovation: all the apps are web apps.

So there is no need for “native code” anymore which is only suited to a specific smartphone OS, like Android or Apple’s iOS. This makes life much easier for developers, who can easily make their web apps available for Firefox OS or any other platform which is built on web technology. Finally, this attempt to breaki the Android/iOS duopoly is good thing. Especially Google is getting too powerful for my taste.

The Peak+ will ship in late September, hopefully it will arrive before I depart on holiday. More about that later.

Cuts on public servants in the Netherlands?

On Wednesday 28 August the free Dutch newspaper Metro ran an article on the austerity measures of the Dutch government. Two Dutch economists were asked to comment on the government’s policy and to give their own suggestions. One of them, prof. dr. Sylvester Eijffinger, considers the high number of public servants in the Netherlands as a barrier to economic growth. Accordingly he suggested that we cut the number of public servants.

But are there really so much public servants in our country? During my studies for a master’s degree in Public Administration at Leiden University I attended the lectures of prof. dr. Frits van der Meer. He emphasized in his lectures that the alleged large numbers of public servants in the Netherlands are a myth. Interestingly, he and a colleague have published research to prove their claim. See this Dutch publication and take a look at the table on page 21.

The first column includes public servants in health care and education, the second column does not. This data shows that the number of public servants relative to the total population in the Netherlands is far below the average of several other developed nations. Surprising to see that Germany and the Netherlands have a smaller body of public servants than the USA, is it not? Remember this when you intend to make those jokes about public servants at parties.

Mr. Eijffinger doesn’t mention any sources, which is logical considering the short length of the newspaper article. I sent him an e-mail last week to inform him of prof. dr. Van der Meer’s research and asked him if he might have different evidence which supports his claim. Unfortunately I haven’t heard from him yet.

A dubious recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Obama has given the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bill Clinton. To cite the website of the White House:

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.

While Bill Clinton’s efforts for humanitarian aid and other charity work are certainly laudable, I think his actions during his presidency disqualify him for a medal. He is responsible for the Lewinsky scandal: he cheated on his wife and lied under oath. Is this the kind of person who should serve as an example to other Americans and be rewarded with such a prestigious medal?

Oprah Winfrey also received the medal for her philanthropic activities. But what kind of philanthropist wants to buy a handbag for $38.000? So much for humility. A true philanthropist would show more solidarity and make some concessions to their own welfare in order to better the lives of other people. If I would be helping destitute people on one day but reserve my money to buy such expensive luxury goods on the other day, I’d be ashamed of myself.

Public servants versus political appointees

On 1 May Coen Teulings ended his seven year term as the director of the Dutch Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (Centraal Planbureau in Dutch, abbreviated as CPB). During his tenure he faced criticism for his affiliations with the Dutch Labor Party, which was alleged to have influenced his role as a policy adviser for the government. At his departure he was evaluated positively in the media, which noted that the Labor Party had frequently been critical of the policy advice given by the CPB.

This reminded me of a paper I had written for a course I followed during my master’s programme at Leiden University, Politics of Bureacracy. For my argument I summarily investigated political appointees in the USA. American federal executive officials are nominated by the president and confirmed by the senate.

Political appointees in the USA

When Leon Panetta (Democrat) was appointed as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Obama (Democrat), the appointment raised questions if Obama was trying to politicize the CIA; Panetta had no experience in intelligence work. Allegations of partisanship are not new, as even stronger criticism was aimed at the appointment of Porter Goss (Republican), the Director of Central Intelligence under George Bush (Republican).

Lewis (2009) argues (use this link for a PDF behind a paywall but with decent layout) that these political appointments are made for two reasons. They allow the president to control the bureaucracy, with appointees being more responsive to the wishes of the political leaders than public servants. They are also made for patronage, i.e. to reward the members of the president’s party with lucrative positions. He goes on to explain that too many appointees ultimately hurt the performance and control of federal agencies.

Appointees lack the experience of career public servants and stay for short tenures, impeding long term planning. Lower performance in turn makes the agencies harder to control for the president, for example because they are more likely to make mistakes. On the other hand, as outsiders appointees can also give new energy to agencies. It’s a matter of balancing the ratio of appointees to public servants to get optimal agency performance. The USA evidently has far too many appointees, more than 3.500, as opposed to a number between 100 and 200 for other developed countries.

The situation in the netherlands

While I don’t have exact numbers, I assume the Netherlands is in the latter category too. Our General Intelligence and Security Service (Algemene Inlichtingen en Veiligheidsdienst in Dutch) is led by a career public servant. The CPB would even have a serious credibility problem if it would be led by a political appointee, it is imperative that it is an apolitical organization.

I think the difference between the USA and the Netherlands might partially be explained by our different political culture. We have coalition governments instead of the Democrat-Republican duopoly. Even the Balkenende-III cabinet in which the Labor Party didn’t participate had no problem with appointing a vocal economist with Labor Party sympathies like Coen Teulings as head of the CPB.

What I see as a notable exception to the non-political nature of appointments in the Netherlands is the appointment of Piet Hein Donner (Christian Democrats) as vice-president of the Council of State (Raad van State). The cabinet insisted that the procedure was open, but many opposition figures thought it was a farce and Donner’s appointment was predetermined.

The man surely is an expert in law and seems capable for the job, but the appointment had a semblance of politicization to me as well. Just like the CPB advises on economic policy, the Council of State has an important advisory role on law towards the government. All the more reason to make it just as apolitical as the CPB.

Obama and partisanship

What caught my attention regarding the politics of the USA is the appointment of the Republican Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and now Chuck Hagel by Obama. This is different from this discussion of the relationship between the public service and politics because a Secretary of State is always a politician, but related to the partisanship issue. Why not reward a Democrat with position? Obama assures us he chose Hagel because all he cares about is having the right person for the job. Some journalists think it really is a clever plan to screw the Republican Party.

Why I don’t want to use LinkedIn

Over the last months I’ve been receiving invites to join LinkedIn from people I know. It’s certainly a useful professional social network for finding a job. People have told me I should use it too so I can find a job more easily. They’re probably right and for practical reasons I would certainly use it, but for principal reasons I refuse. My reasons are similar to those for not using Facebook.

What if Google decided that you can only send e-mails to other users of GMail and not to users of other e-mail providers? There would be outrage over Google’s anti-competitive move and GMail users would switch to other e-mail providers. Yet this is exactly what LinkedIn is doing: it’s impossible to communicate with users of other professional social networks, such as XING and Viadeo.The key difference between GMail and LinkedIn is that LinkedIn has a very dominant position in the Netherlands, almost 3,8 million members as of November 2012. That’s probably why we tolerate this “lock-in” from LinkedIn.

I don’t like monopolies, dominant market positions or anti-competitive practices. If I would create a LinkedIn account myself I would reward LinkedIn for its behavior and strengthen its dominance on the Dutch market. I’m desperately looking for job, but not desperate enough yet to part from my principles. LinkedIn and its competitors should meet and devise an open standard so I can communicate with users of competing social networks. until then, I want none of it.

The Dell XPS 13 is now available with Ubuntu

After almost a year since it was announced, the Dell XPS 13 ultrabook is finally available with Ubuntu in the Netherlands. Including VAT, it would cost € 1330. On my job at an ICT service desk I’ve had the opportunity to use both the XPS 13 and the comparable Samsung NP900X3C. The A05NL version of the Samsung starts at € 1000 at the moment. Both are very nice laptops indeed.

But how does that compare to other laptops, in particular my Acer TravelMate TimeLine 8371 which still serves me nicely? In the end of 2009 I paid € 532 for the Acer, minus € 70 for the Windows Vista Business license refund and plus the € 187 for the Intel X25-M 80 GB SSD it set me back € 649 total. Obviously there is a large difference in price, but what’s the justification for the much higher cost of of the Dell and Samsung?

Notebookcheck reviewed both the Acer, the Dell and the Samsung, albeit in slightly different configurations than I’ve seen. The key differences for me are that the Dell and Samsung have much higher resolutions: 1920 by 1080 pixels and 1600 by 900 pixels respectively. The Acer has 1366 by 768 pixels, and all three have a 13.3 inch monitor. The lower resolution of the Acer is by no means annoying to me, but I’d appreciate more. Another key difference is the weight: 1.73, 1.4 and 1.19 kilo for the Acer, Dell and Samsung respectively. If you take a laptop with you on holiday in a backpack filled with clothes like me, the difference in weight is notable. Both the Dell and the Samsung also have more durable enclosures than the Acer.

The Dell and Samsung have much faster CPU’s, more RAM, larger SSD’s. The only downside is that the Dell has no ethernet port at all and the Samsung requires an adapter, because both laptops are too thin for a full port. The Dell has DisplayPort and the Samsung has a VGA connector requiring an adapter which is not included. The Acer does have a normal VGA connector and only the Samsung and the Acer have a card reader.

I think I like the Samsung most. Even though the limited connectivity is a downside – Samsung should include a DisplayPort connector too and include adapters for VGA and HDMI – I don’t think it’s a big problem. However, the Samsung shoves Windows 8 down my throat, and I’m not so eager to go through all the trouble to get a refund for the Windows license. Choices, choices! For now I think I’ll keep using my Acer until it’s spent, by that time there will be better hardware in the form of Intel’s “Shark Bay” platform.

I also wouldn’t mind less powerful CPU’s so the price could be lowered. All I want is a laptop which is portable, with a monitor size between 11 and 13.3 inch, a keyboard (no tablets for me), a long battery life and a low price. That might happen in the form of Intel’s “Bay Trail” platform for its Atom architecture. Of course, some competition from AMD would be much appreciated.

Make Open Access publishing mandatory

When I’m writing content for Wikipedia I often use articles from scientific journals as a source. But most of the time these journal articles are not free. For example, if you wish to download an article from the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory for example, you’ll have to pay $25 to read it for one day. For academics this is not an issue because their university library has subscriptions to those journals, allowing them free access. Many ordinary people however do not.

It frustrates me that in practice they can’t check the scientific sources of statements made on Wikipedia or in other media unless they have deep pockets. Especially if you live in a third world country, scientific knowledge is only available to the rich. This is strange, because the scientists who contribute to and edit for scientific journals don’t get paid for their work by the publishers of those journals. The universities where the scientists are employed are funded by the taxpayer. We pay twice, first for scientists who produce scientific knowledge and then to the publishers to acquire that knowledge.

Why scientific journals charge (high) fees

A detailed explanation can be read here, but I’ll summarize. In the past publication of scientific journals was done by scientist-driven organizations and it was rarely a profitable activity. This changed when the Science Citation Index was started in 1960, which measured how many times journal articles were cited to determine the influence of articles and their authors. This in turn gave rise to the impact factor, the average number of citations of all articles in a journal to determine the influence of that journal. As a consequence scientists started to prefer publishing in the most prestigious journals.

At this point of the story the commercial publishers make their appearance. They saw profit, gradually acquired more and more journals and started charging disproportionate prices for the prestigious journals. The prices for subscriptions increased with 215% from 1986 to 2003, while the inflation rose with merely 68%. In the same period digital distribution became popular, which should have led to a reduction of distribution costs according to common sense. Scientists have agitated against high journal prices, especially those owned by the publisher Elsevier.

Open Access publishing as an alternative

But then the concept of Open Access arose to fight this evil, enabled by the Internet. Open Access publication of scientific articles means that they are freely available and carry no restrictions on their use. It has been estimated that 7,7% of all articles published in peer-reviewed journals were Open Access in 2009. And that rate is still growing. The best example for this is the Public Library of Science (primarily natural sciences).

Open Access has found appeal in the Netherlands too: my own university (Leiden University) and several other organizations collaborate on the Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries. A professor of Psychology at Leiden University also recognizes the importance of Open Access publishing. In fact, all Dutch universities committed to Open Access when they signed the Berlin Declaration.

But 7,7% still means that the vast majority of scientific knowledge is locked away behind the paywalls of the publishers. Also, the adoption of Open Access publishing in the Netherlands has been stagnating since 2007. One solution which has been proposed to elevate Open Access publishing is to make it mandatory, just like Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have done.

My stance in this

If research is funded by the taxpayer the taxpayer should have the right to access that research freely, anything else is an injustice. If Dutch universities don’t take action by themselves the government should. But since there is no indication that is going to happen anytime soon, the more important question is what I can do.

Right now I’m at the verge of pursuing a scientific career. I’m soliciting for a PhD position at Leiden University and job as a researcher at Erasmus University Rotterdam, both in the field of public administration. It seems like I’m already getting off on the wrong foot, because I submitted an article for review to the aforementioned Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory just a week ago! This is my master thesis, which I’ve rewritten in the form of a shorter, publishable article.

I keep telling myself this is justified because I’m at the beginning of my career and can afford to be picky in where I’ll publish, but I feel like a hypocrite. I don’t really have an excuse, because there are Open Access journals in the field of public administration. They’re not prestigious and I’m not sure what to do with my article – let’s see if it’s accepted for publication first – but if I do land at a job at either university Open Access publishing will be my first priority.

Veteran Wikipedia editor now

I’ve been looking for a job since early January now and haven’t been invited for a job interview even once, so I had to find something to keep myself occupied. Editing Wikipedia proved to be a productive use of my free time and has even become slightly addictive. I’ve been editing since 30 January 2009 (I wrote about it before here and here) but I spent the most time on it during this month and the last because I have so much free time now. Take a look at my user page to see my activity.

What I’ve done

It started when I decided to look up the article for the e-mail client I use daily, Evolution. The version I encountered before I started working on it was quite outdated, so I’ve improved it considerably to a state which is more or less finished.

As a Classical Antiquity nerd I’m quite interested in ancient Greek and Roman cities, so I ended up reading the article on Sybaris. This article had serious issues, because like many other articles on ancient cities its content was copied from a 19th century dictionary. That dictionary didn’t mention the city was excavated in the 20th century of course. After finding sources about its excavation and figuring out what the obscure abbreviations for references to ancient works meant, I give the article a rigorous update.

But as you can see it’s not finished yet because good photos are still missing. Note that three partially overlapping cities were built on the site and that it’s difficult to be certain which remains are on the photos. I only managed to add one which was sent to me by an Italian scientist I contacted, but the quality isn’t great. I’m playing with the thought of getting a ticket to Bari for € 28 with Ryanair, a second hand Nikon D5100 and the 35mm prime lens to make some pictures of this site and others for use on Wikipedia myself.

There are many more articles of ancient cities and other archaeological sites which need a lot of work. Apart from the Mediterranean world, there are also many articles about cities in Mesopotamia and South Asia. Unless I find a way to clone myself it’s simply too much, so I try to focus on a few articles and make minor improvements to the rest. This includes things such as adding the the geobox river and infobox ancient site templates to articles.

Why I do it and you should help

But why are you doing this, you might ask? Not only is Wikipedia’s mission to spread knowledge freely totally cool, it’s exciting that thousands of people read what you write. You become an authority to them to some degree, you feel like you have some power over them. If you get killed by a lightning strike tomorrow, the information you contributed to Wikipedia will still live on.

Even though I mostly edit the more obscure articles – popular articles don’t have much room for improvement – an article like Sybaris gets 5.000 visitors a month. Babylon on the other hand, to which I’ve made a minor contribution, gets 170.000 a month.

To give a motivation which is less self-serving and based on illusions of grandeur, the desire to contribute is reciprocal for me. I benefit from good Wikipedia articles written by others, so I wish to return the favor. And because I’m slightly perfectionist, it is simply frustrating for me that some articles are so inadequate. Also, contributing to Wikipedia allows me to compensate for having lost the opportunity to do volunteer work in India to some degree.