Reading on screens vs. paper: at last some sense

There has been far too much nonsense written contrasting reading on various types of screens1 with reading from paper. Some of the nonsense has been ‘research based’, though most of the research has been deeply flawed or trivial. At last there is a study that collates the data. They examined over 800 studies of which only 36 directly compared screen and paper!

See A Textbook Dilemma: Digital or Paper? for a journalistic noddy-guide to the results. Or read on…

As I hear it, key findings from this elephantine literature review, and so even more mammoth research effort include:

  • reading is faster on screen
  • comprehension is deeper on paper
    • subjects’ estimates of how much they absorbed were reversed (they thought they absorbed more from the screen)
  • most studies investigated linear texts, but hypertexts may be better suited to some tasks

Like so much research, none of this (except perhaps the recognition that people cannot effectively self-assess their information absorption) is a surprise. Once again, research underlines what sensible people have been saying ad infinitum. At this stage of technological development screens (of various sorts and this variability still needs to be properly investigated) and paper books have different advantages and different affordances.

Thinking of my current reading tasks:

  • marking student essays: clearly better on screen as reading is faster (this is a particular advantage for me as I am a very slow reader)
  • marking a PhD: paper is clearly better (as here I need better comprehension and retention)2
  • reading journal articles and book chapters in preparing a course: paper is better for better comprehension (except I find the material online, so waiting for paper delivery would be stupid, even if I had a POD machine)
  • reading a SF novel for pleasure: screen is better as I have no need to retain information

Except: for the PhD the case is more mixed as I have a deep and abiding revulsion to sitting chained to a desk (probably stemming from my sad experiences of education in childhood). The paper copy of the almost 500 page thesis weighs in at 1.25 Kg and is A4 by several cms thick, even printed doublesided, physically this is no easy task and hand strain limits the time I can spend reading. I also have to drop the brick and lift my laptop every time I want to make a note (how much easier to swap windows on my laptop).3

  1. Usually conflated as if screens were all one type of reading and it was the electronic imprint that mattered not the size or reflective vs. light emitting character, let alone how many other functions the device permitted… that mattered. []
  2. But see below! []
  3. I realise this last does not apply to most of you who learned to write easily and quickly with a pen or pencil, but my hand writing is extremely slow and very difficult to decipher later, quite aside from the advantage of cutting and pasting into my report. How I look forward the the time when NZ Universities finally enter the digital age! []

Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible

Review of Craig S. Keener and John H. Walton, eds., NIV, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan/Spokane, WA: Olive Tree Bible Software, 2016).


Comment on 2:6 and start of “sidebar”

This review has been affected by circumstances. Firstly Zondervan did not manage to get a hard copy of the work to me, but gave me access to the Olive Tree Android app on my phone. This means I am only commenting on how the phone app works and how the content appears in that format. Second, various life circumstances got in the way and the review is rather later than planned.

The package is intended as a digital representation of a Study Bible and so includes the text of the NIV. However a phone’s small screen does not allow the notes and text to conveniently appear together on the same screen. Bible references in the body text are linked, and touching the linked reference provides the NIV text in a popup. However, the references at the head of each article are not linked in any way to the Bible text they comment. (I was focusing on Amos in preparing this review, so for example the 1:6-8 that precedes and heads the comment on that passage is not a link.) This seems a near significant flaw. However, the Notes and the Bible text are synchronised, so clicking the “library” icon and selecting the NIV opens the Bible in the right place and the reverse, opening the library and selecting the Study Bible opens the notes for that passage (but this needs four touches instead of two to make the back and forth journey).

Sidebar body

Sidebar body

As just mentioned, Bible references in the text are most usefully links to a popup window. Cross references to material elsewhere in the Study Bible Notes are also links, though in this case the main window jumps. This is probably the best way to handle this, though on one occasion it was most disconcerting when the back button on my phone seemed to have ceased operation. Which meant that my curiosity having got the better of me (causing me to follow such a cross reference) I had to use the Bible browser to re-enter the reference of the passage I was studying in order to return to it.

Pictures and diagrams appear in the text, and when clicked expand to near full screen (and if reading in portrait mode one can turn the phone to see a landscape mode image).

Material that would (I assume) appears as sidebars in the codex edition appears as a block in the body text when the reader reaches the insertion point. It would have offered a more consistent interface to make such blocks links.

So, for example, a lengthy article on “Economic Changes and Social Classes in Eighth-Century BC Israel” appears after the notes on Amos 2:6 while the notes on 2:7 appear only after scrolling through a number of screens of “sidebar” material.

End of sidebar

End of sidebar

The content of the notes is useful, explaining issues that many readers will find helpful. The focus is indeed on cultural questions, though occasionally other aspects are mentioned and “cultural” is happily interpreted broadly. This raises questions about such “specialised” Study Bibles, by not mentioning text and translation issues, questions of genre, history, geography, intertextuality… the resource gives an impression of providing a full background to the passage being read, yet in fact may miss vital information. Perhaps in my home group the other members should be armed with an array of otherly-specialised Study Bibles.

Having said this, happily the writers have understood “cultural” in the broadest way, and so when one is reading the string of rhetorical questions in Amos 3:3-8 the probable impact of the series is discussed. While studying Acts in home group I found the notes useful on several occasions – this is probably a better test of the content than my explorations in Amos or Ruth (the books I had planned to base the review on) as I am less familiar with the first-century background.

The scholar in me cried out for references to indicate the source of the information and ideas that were presented. They were probably omitted for much the same collection of reasons as I only provided a bare minimum in the Amos commentary.1

Start of comment on 2:7

Start of comment on 2:7

I now believe that decision was wrong, and while perhaps in a paper codex Study Bible copious footnotes could have been a distraction in this electronic version they could have been a popup indicated merely by a small icon in or beside the text.

In summary: The work is potentially really useful to most readers of the Bible as a quick easy source of one important sort of background whose lack often impedes full and accurate understanding of biblical texts. The app is a worthwhile addition to any Bible-reader’s phone. It is a pity though that publishers still seem to expend more effort on the design of print codex editions of such works than on the information architecture and interface design of the electronic editions.

  1. Tim Bulkeley, Amos: Hypertext Bible Commentary (Auckland: Hypertext Bible, 2005), []

Getting pictures to illustrate daily life in biblical times

Back in the 20th Century it used to be difficult and expensive for books or websites that seek to explain the Bible to get suitable illustrations (it was even hard to get pictures for classes. For the Hypertext Bible Commentary: Amos “volume” I had to travel to Israel and take photos myself. For an earlier print book Etudions l’Ancien Testament I paid an artist to produce line drawings to illusrate various aspects of the text.

Then with the advent of “Web 2.0” and sites like Flickr and Wikipedia finding photos of places became easy, many with Creative Commons licenses. Photos of ancient statues, wall plaques and other such large and impressive objects was also possible, though few people can take really good shots in a museum. However, since the average Jo or Joe who is visiting a museum is unlikely to shoot everyday tools and the like these are still hard to source.


Model granary with store chambers, grain sacks and scribe, Middle Kingdom (AD Riddle)

I was delighted therefore to read AD Riddle’s Three Things I Like About Egypt in which he writes about the usefulness of Egyptian museums with things like their tomb figures illustrating aspects of life like the model granery with its scribe (above).

I was even more delighted when Todd Bollen in a reply to my question in a comment said Bible Places are looking at producing a collection of such photos!

Legacy texts or e-commentaries?

Because designers of file formats and Bible software that uses them are print-centric in their thinking I seem to face a choice in envisaging a new generation e-commentary. Either I produce something that accepts the traditional limitations of print, but which would work within Bible software and so be available to people when and where they need it. OR I produce a genuinely electronic commentary, with links and media (pictures, video and sound), but that must be accessed apart from the Bible study tool.

In my previous post I expressed some frustration at the lack of tools for conveniently preparing a text marked up in OSIS (Open Scripture Information Standard). In this post I will look at OSIS from a different prespective. I am discovering that, as well as the practical difficulties of producing well-formed valid XML, I have  another deeper problem. OSIS is designed for marking up Bible and related texts, but it is designed for and from the print age. Its mentality is that of words written on a page. It is therefore quite good at rendering manuscript texts (after all print largely mimics manuscript). It is not good at producing e-texts.

To make matters worse, different front end1 designers have different ideas about the importance of non-textual elements (like figures)2 or hypertextual elements (most notably links). Among those who can import OSIS text (often adapted into Sword modules) some support figures (though the ability to size and place images in text seem to be rudimentary), others support links – though learning the arcane methods reguired is problematic and on occasions the results are bizzare (Xiphos3 may jump to an internal link in a commentary module, but seems to reset the Bible text displayed to the start of Revelation each time, not quite the effect I am after!

At present it looks as if I have the choice of aiming for commentary that is as print-like as possible, producing such a print-like commentary augumented by links to Internet based materials outside the commentary itself, or producing an e-commentary that does not work inside Bible software.

If anyone can suggest ways to cut the Gordian Knot, or even a decent compromise, would deserve and recieve my deep gratitude!


  1. Think Bible software or websites that allow you to read and study the Bible. []
  2. Photos, maps, diagrams, charts… []
  3. One of the most developed Crosswire front ends. []

Returning to e-commentary

Over a decade after the peer reviewed citable edition of the Amos commentary was published, and after several false starts and a lot of unproductive work, I am returning to explore the possibilities for e-commentary.

One thing that has changed for the better is that now OSIS (Open Scripture Information Standard) is more firmly established. It will allow the material coded in such a way it can be shared across, and used within a number of Bible software front ends. Screenshot below shows a mockup of some commentary on Amos 1:1.

One thing that has not changed1 is that OSIS is infernally difficult to code and no convenient tool exists to let anyone but a markup geek work with the markup.

I am learning lots, I now know about modern Bigendians and why they are dangerous to meet. I am discovering the delights of disappearing titles and the vagaries of front end designers, more than I ever thought I’d want to know about file formats and relative paths… One detail I learned is that if you put a BOM where you should not everything blows up. But that is not why everything blew up this afternoon, I still have to discover that new piece of information!

If anyone reading this knows of a decent way for a human (who is not a markup geek) to compose text in OSIS markup I would be delighted to hear from you!

As part of my preparation I have been rereading my old papers describing how I envisaged the project a decade or a decade and a half back, in case anyone else would find them interesting I am uploading them to here are the 2004 ones I have been looking at recently:

  1. As far as I know so far. If you know otherwise PLEASE tell me! []

How odd of God, or the LORD works in mysterious ways

Photo by Jim Legans, Jr

Photo by Jim Legans, Jr

Offering a course, and preparing the material and then having no students enroll is not an outcome any teacher desires.Add in the bonus that the course was being offered is about 19h and 55mins from home, and the situation seems set to categorise as a disaster. However, that would neglect events around the time when we were waiting on tenterhooks to see if students would enroll. During the waiting the prospect of a series for Swarga (a local Christian TV station) began to be seriously aired. The series will use the material I prepared for the NZ Baptist articles each month in 2014. This is material I am really keen to make more accessible and useful in church contexts. By shrinking our holiday a little and with hasty preparation while Barbara (she has a chock full class) I should be able to record six half hour programs before we leave.

In conversation with the principal and the academic dean today another project has been added for after I return to NZ. I will prepare an enlarged version of the articles with more practical examples and fuller explanations which people here will take and adapt to the local context. This localised English version could also be translated into Sinhala and Tamil. The material would then form a basis for introductory courses in practical hermeneutics for some of the programs here. This too is so exciting.

The LORD does indeed work in mysterious ways, and from time to time enlivens our staid lives with rollercoaster rides.

Do fiction publishers have a death wish? or Frustrated by the fetishists)



Almost all the fiction I read is now e-books, both purchased and from the lending library. They are in epub format. Neither the format nor the hardware are brilliant, but they do allow hypertext features and even web searches at a speed that is just on the happy side of totally frustrating.

Even with these technical limitations I love the ebook reader. It is light. I can vary the size of the print for lower light conditions (or where the designer has chosen – from my perspective – badly). I can carry as many spare books as I like with no extra space or weight. I can borrow a new book anytime from anywhere. However, the main reason I prefer the ebook is that marvelous ability to search for definitions (in the built-in dictionaries, a dozen or so in various languages as well as both American and English) or the web to check ideas and information of provide context. Reading fiction becomes like reading the dictionary or an encyclopedia was to my childish self.

Yet I am so often frustrated in my reading. Not by the technology (this is no “twitchy little screen” like the ones Annie Proulx feared in her famous and fatuous quote) but by the publishers. They sell me (and others, or the library) these “e-books”. They sell them often after the paper edition has already run its dash and is on the verge of being remaindered at cents to the dollar. They sell them at what looks to be a decent price (any thing over 1/3 of the paperback price seems to me reasonable in view of the savings in material production, stock storage and shipping etc.). Yet their conversion from paper codex to e-book never adds functionality. Why shouldn’t the publisher  spend a little building in links to the glossary, which historical novels often have, or other internal material that would enrich the reader’s experience?

Not only do they staunchly resist the danger of making the e-book better than its paper counterpart, but they refuse to even make them as good. Diagrams and maps are scanned at resolutions that ensure that given a normal page display will not fit neatly nor zoom easily. In this way publishers, I can only conclude, hope to persuade as many people as possible to prefer paper books for as long as possible.

Given the attitudes of the two most avid readers in the next generation of our family, both of whom love their e-readers, and given the flow of the tide of media consumption towards video and away from print, I can only assume the publishers are owned by the Hollywood studios and are set on ending their industry as early as possible!

The next best thing

The Bible Wasn't Written to YouRecently I pointed to the very best book offer ever, the Logos edition of Childs’ masterly Isaiah with all the added features of the e-edition quite free.

Today an offer that the next best thing, David Kerr is creative and provocative, but he’s not a scholar like Childs, his The Bible Wasn’t Written to You is a slim tome, Childs’ is massive. But the price is the same $0! And David’s little book is a good read and thought provoking.

Just use the code: YA52D

Incidentally David’s book came out of blog posts, and he was a cracking blogger. I do hope he does start again. If he does subscribe and comment!

Numbers 20: a reading and some critical readers needed

CaptureThe venerable (I think it is the longest-running religious periodical in NZ) Baptist has had a makeover for 2015.No longer newsprint, and with a web edition that looks pretty good.

The trouble is most of the writers are (to put it politely) experienced, and most of the readers inherited from the old format newsprint are (frankly) old folk.

It needs new writers I’d love to see Carey graduates from 5, 10, 15 years ago take up the keyboard. If any of you read this how about either offering yourselves an occasional piece, or bullying your colleagues into writing?

It also needs new readers, online readers, who will argue back, question or add new ideas… all or any of you who read this might be such…
What Kiwis think about sin could be a place to start… (and let’s hope Dale Campbell becomes a more frequent contributor along with others like Mike Crudge, Thalia Rowden, Nigel Irwin, Johnathan Robinson and many many more… mention those I have forgotten or not thought of in the comments here or an email and I’ll add them…)

Review of the Logos edition of Douglas Mangum et al., Genesis 1–11 (Lexham Bible Guide, Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012).

LexhamCoverThe series of which this “volume” is a part has an ambitious but mixed goal:

The series is designed to be a research tool. Each guide presents a wide range of interpretive issues raised by Bible scholars. These resources meet the needs of those studying the Bible in academic settings, but the broad scope of coverage also makes them useful for preaching preparation. 1

In fact, limitations of referencing (almost?) only works available in the Logos system limits it’s usefulness for scholarship, and so the work is in some ways better suited to the practical needs of a pastor or other seriously minded Bible reader.

Integration of the text with the Logos library system is of course a great strength of such this type of electronic publication, but there are times when the implementation of this integration serves Logos’ commercial ends better than it serves the user. For example when I read: “Mathews uses the analogy of a stained glass window to describe the literary complexity of Gen 1–11…” The name “Matthews” is, as one would expect in an electronic text, a hyperlink. If the user already owns the cited work by Mathews in Logos format, then I assume2 they are taken to the reference. If one does not own the work in Logos format one is offered the chance to buy it. However, if one does not already own the Logos edition, the link to the Logos sales site does inform the user what work is being referred to, enabling a search on a local library catalogue, Worldcat or Google Books.

There is however a welcome but odd inconsistency, when the references are to further reading suggestions offered as bullet points rather than inline citations, they do give at least the title of the work, without need to access the website.3

Hypertext links also provide convenient popup explanations of technical terms, enhancing further the educative possibilities of the text, and making it accessible to a wider range of “lay” readers. They also enable jump navigation within the text, and this is enhanced by a preview popup showing the beginning of the text of the section to which the link leads.

The work offers a neat clear and concise overview of (almost always, but not exclusively, Evangelical) scholarship on the issues and passages treated. This is a superb resource to begin studying a passage or topic, Mangum et al. Offer clear concise summaries of important issues that will be really useful to any pastor or amateur biblical scholar. They are also potentially really useful to students and their teachers, though this usefulness would be enhanced by referencing that included some mention of work not published in Logos format..

Within the limits of works published in Logos format (I have yet to find any reference to other work) these summaries and the suggested readings are very useful. The restriction of the references to the Logosworld generates the restriction noted above to predominantly only Evangelical scholarship, and very predominantly American scholars4 This parochialism is sad!

A byproduct of this limitation is scholarship that is also very predominantly male and white. Since women and non-Caucasian scholars are more likely to have significant work in journals and less likely to have breached the portals of book length works with publishers who make their list available in Logos format.

On the other hand, the fact that such a useful compendium can be offered despite this restriction of horizon to Logosworld is a tribute to the extent (if not always variety) of that world today. Logos is not yet a universal biblical studies library, but it is far closer than one might have expected only a few years ago.

A student today will need to seriously consider whether to accept the limitations of horizon imposed by the choice of Logos as their exclusive supplier, wholeheartedly making Logos their library system, or on the other hand if financial constraints or a desire to be open to a wider world of scholarship will severely limit the usefulness of a work such as this. I wonder how long it is before Logos offers a subscription service modeled on Amazon’s “Prime”?5

Without such a service, or without the financial resources to pay to own an extensive private Logos library, users are given a glimpse of the world of American Evangelical scholarship, but taking a closer look is made difficult by the exclusively in house referencing.

In short this work highlights the huge usefulness and potential of the Logos system (for those rich enough, and selfish enough, to be willing to spend enough on a library devoted to their private use). It also highlights the exclusive nature of this system by making the use of external resources (in an institutional or public library, or on Google books, for example) more difficult even than it would be in an obsolescent print codex.

  1. Douglas Mangum et al., Genesis 1–11 (, Lexham Bible GuideBellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012). []
  2. I have yet to find a reference to a work that I spotted as being included in my Gold collection, or among the other works and texts I have bought. So I could not check this assumption. []
  3. A one step rather than a two step process. []
  4. The JPS series, and the out of copyright ICC commentaries, along with some classic works like Gunkel and Westermann provide welcome exceptions. []
  5. If such a service were cheap enough it could provide mean someone could use the Lexham guide to the full without being restricted to only purchasing biblical studies works in Logos format. []