Institutional Memory

Knowledge is a slippery thing. If we don’t take care we can lose it. Organizations loose it when members leave or retire without passing it on to their replacements. Suddenly the organization does not know how to do part of its job and has to spend time and money finding out again. Sure, sometimes new blood brings fresh ideas which work better, but more often the organization just makes painful mistakes until the lost experience can be regained.

Human societies experience the loss of Institutional Memory when one generation fails to pass enough of what it has learned on to the next.

As a child in the 1970’s I watched family dramas on TV. By “family” I mean that they showed children growing up, having adventures, and dealing with situations in life which were new for them. I particularly remember The Swiss Family Robinson. The children often approached difficult situations by doing what they had seen their parents do. When things did not work out they often discussed the problem with their parents and then tried again.

These shows were entertainment, not instructional films. The writers were not primarily conveying lessons to children. They were creating dramatic tension and having their characters resolve it in the tradition of the Western story arch. Getting advice from persons with more experience (often parents) was a natural part of the story.

Back then TV sets still broke down frequently. Sometime around 1980 our TV broke down again and this time my parents either couldn’t or didn’t repair it. This was for the best since we children were addicted to it. There was no program so boring that we would not watch it. But that is another story.

Several years went by during which we would see TV only at other people’s houses or occasionally when we stayed in a hotel.

joker card with boyish character on it

On one such occasion we saw a situation comedy called Mr. Belvedere. The episode we watched centered around a pre-teen boy. This child held everyone else in contempt and made non-stop wisecracks at the expense of the adults in his life. His parents were either unable to deal with him or too self absorbed to fulfill their parental roles and so left him in the care of of the title character who was the family butler. This butler is a decent character who lets the abuse roll off him and tries to mentor the boy as best he can.

At the time I was in my teens and simply saw the show as amusing in a silly way. My parents found it shocking. They were shocked by the contempt which the boy showed for adults. Today I find it shocking too.

What changed it for me was my own transition into adulthood. I found at that being an adult is hard. There is a lot to learn and it is much easier if you can receive timely knowledge transfers. I saw peers get into serious difficulties by repeating age-old mistakes.

It is not wrong to question the views of one’s parents if there is sound reason for doing so. But children like the boy in Mr. Belvedere question (or rather mock) everything just because they can. They hold institutional memory in contempt and pay a high price.

liturature, society

Fire Dogs

This following story is from Lev Tolstoy’s First Russian Reader of 1875. This is my translation. As far as I know it has never before appeared in English. (You can read the original at

Fire Dogs
A True Story

It often happens that when there is a fire in a city that children remain in the house and it is impossible to pull them out because they hide in fright and do not make a sound while the smoke makes it impossible to see them. In London they train dogs for this purpose. These dogs live with the firemen and when a house catches fire the firemen send the dogs to pull the children out. One such dog in London has saved twelve children. He is called Bob.

Once a house caught fire and when the firemen arrived at the house a woman ran out to meet them. She was weaping and saying that a two-year-old little maiden remained in the house. The firemen sent Bob. Bob ran up the stair/ladder and disappeared in the smoke. Five minutes later he ran out of the house and in his teeth he bore the little maid by her shirt. The mother threw herself upon her daughter and wept with joy that her daughter was alive. The firemen petted the dog and examined him to make sure he was not singed, but Bob strove vigorously to reenter the house. The firemen thought that there must still be something alive in the house and let him go. The dog ran into the house and soon came out with something in his teeth. When the people were able to see what it was the he carried all laughed heartily for he carried a large doll.

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liturature, russian

Electrical Power and Power Loss

Basic Electrical Units

A volt is a unit of electrical potential. Electrical potential in turn is the force
which a power source (such as a battery) applies to a connected device in order to push
electrons through it. Electrical potential (voltage) is comperable to the presure which
a pump applies to a plumbing system in order to push water through the pipes.

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Communicating Clearly About Computing

Those of use who work in IT are frequently called upon to explain our work to people who are less familiar with computers than we are. It should be our goal to speak and write as clearly as possible. To do that we must avoid jargon, slang and expressions which are easily misunderstood. We should not write to be understood. We should write so as not to be misunderstood.
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english, writing style

BIND and Invalid Zone Files: a Lurking Problem

It looks like Webmin lets you create DNS entries which BIND 9 does not like. When it sees one it refuses to load the whole zone and keeps what it has in RAM. This may go unnoticed for months until the server is rebooted. BIND then restarts with that zone completely empty!
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dns, system administration

Draco’s Policies were Draconian

Have you every wondered why we call a harsh policy “draconian”? This is one of those words which comes from the name of a famous person.
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I have been grieving ever since Voicepulse canceled its flexrate program and been looking for a new low-price provider with good quality.
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asterisk, voip

Reducing Echo in Telephone Handsets

A common source of echo in VoIP phone systems is the telephone handsets. Of course, non-VoIP phone systems have this source of echo too, but it often is not so evident because without the buffering the echo delay is not as long.

Old Bell 500 series telephones have a wad of cotton wool in the handset to prevent sound from traveling from the receiver, through the hollow handset body, to the transmitter. But, many modern telephone handsets lack this important component. Here I show how I added cotton wool to the handset of a Linksys SPA-841 in order to reduce echo.
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telephone, voip

How to be a Good VoIP Provider for Asterisk Users

There is more to being a good VoIP telephony provider for Asterisk users than simply offering the best balance of price and reliability. Usability is also very important. Here are some things which make for a service more convenient for Asterisk users.
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asterisk, telephone, voip

Is open source telephony a serious option?

I was recently asked whether anyone would every really consider replacing a tired old PBX with an open source system and whether we had any experience with Asterisk. Here is the answer I wrote, based on our experience here at Trinity College.
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asterisk, opensource, telephone