Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Rant: The closed-source black hole

So despite my best efforts, I seem to have ended up in an actuarial career path. The only question now is how best to get ahead in that path.

As a tech geek, one approach that makes sense is to learn the programming languages and toolkits associated with actuarial science. There are many of these for different tasks.

One common task is asset valuation, and possibly the most popular tool for this is a software package called MoSeS. As far as I can tell, it's basically a new interface and a huuuuuge set of libraries slapped on top of Microsoft Visual Studio.

And that's all I can find out...

I've searched Amazon. Apparently there's no such thing as a MoSeS textbook. There's no such thing as a MoSeS user manual (at least not that they're willing to sell separately).

I've tried Google. There's no such thing as a MoSeS help page or online documentation. The absolute best I can find is a bunch of newsletters on Towers Perrin's website, which at least confirm that MoSeS uses C++ syntax but don't tell me an awful lot else. I can't even figure out how to buy a copy.

In fact, every single line of enquiry I've followed reaches their website and then stops dead.

Why? Because if they provide no documentation, people will be forced to buy their training courses. Because if they provide no purchasing info, they'll be able to negotiate prices on a case-by-case basis (with all the arm-twisting that implies). Because, when you get right down to it, actuarial companies are usually rich enough to pay over and over and over.

Now of course Towers Perrin have every right to do that - it's their product so they make the rules. But as a long-time FOSS user, I have serious trouble getting my head round this concept. I keep thinking "that's a stupid way to behave, if they keep on like that then someone will fork the codebase". And then I remember, oh yeah, it's closed source so no-one can do that.

The actuarial world has always been relatively slow to adopt change. This is a natural side-effect of e.g. working with pension schemes that will almost certainly survive longer than the people currently maintaining them. Sadly, in software terms, it appears that actuaries have gotten as far as 1976 and stopped there. This is a damn shame, especially since I have to work in this industry.

I now have a mission in life: to get good enough at FOSS programming, actuarial science and copyright law that I can help create an alternative to this intensely painful arrangement.

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