Putting the vanity into publishing

Jim West has taken time off from noticing that the human race is spoilt, broken and twisted, and has a fine rant about Print on Demand vs. Big Name Publishers asking which form of dissemination truly feeds on vanity. True Vanity Publishers, and the Authors who Feed Their Egos is much more fun than the usual stuff about yet another corrupt politician or televangelist. Apart from the grace of God humans are corrupt. Brill and other prestige publishers demonstrate that basic fact…

Reconsidering Gender

Last night we launched:

Reconsidering Gender: Evangelical Perspectives
Edited by Myk Habets, Beulah Wood

and two other books edited by my colleague Myk. The man is a book production machine!

I have a chapter in the Gender book: “The Image of the Invisible God: (An)iconic Knowing, God, and Gender”

The publisher describes the book thus:

Questions related to the issue of gender remain insufficiently acknowledged and explored in contemporary theological literature. These issues form the basis of significant unresolved tensions among evangelicals, as evidenced in debates over the nature of the Trinity, Bible translation, church practice, choice of language, mission leadership, decision-making in homes, and parenting, to name but a few examples. The essays in this volume are not meant to provide a monolithic evangelical theology of gender, but rather to provide evangelical perspectives surrounding the topic of gender. To further this aim, each of the main essays is followed by a formal response with an attempt at a concise and lucid perspective on the essay and pointers to further areas for investigation. Some contributors are complementarian while others are egalitarian, although who is what is left to the discerning reader. Regardless of one’s position on the issue, all will benefit from the contributors’ commitment to the further exploration of gender issues from the perspective of a broadly conceive evangelicalism.


Image from BecomingJewish.Org

Jonathan (my always stimulating, still just, but soon moving on, colleague) of ξἐνος pointed me to a piece in the NY TImes by Lisa W. FoderaroIn a Digital Age, Students Still Cling to Paper Textbooks“. This may be, and much of it reads like, the traditional claim that “books won’t disappear anytime soon”, digital technologies and books are different, and the new cannot replace the old… Cant that has been around at least since the first enthusiast on the other “side” proclaimed with equal evangelical fervour the death of the codex. It is different from the run of the mill in a couple of ways.

First it is based on research. Among other things this gives hard figures. For example: “three-quarters of the students surveyed said they still preferred a bound book to a digital version.” Which of course is a resounding vote of confidence in the codex textbook, especially in view of the fact that a couple of years ago the figure would have been over 99%.

It’s the implied competition and contrasts between e-textbooks and paper ones that interested me.The three paragraphs I quote below came, in reverse order (with just one paragraph from the original left out) which I think enable me to make a reverse case.

“Students grew up learning from print books,” said Nicole Allen, the textbooks campaign director for the research groups, “so as they transition to higher education, it’s not surprising that they carry a preference for a format that they are most accustomed to.”

This familiarity factor is gradually diminishing as students come into the system with less familiarity with print codex works as a major part of their previous study. Already some of our first year students (younger than the average, and straight form school) only use print books if we encourage them to. Most of these students’ assignments are written using resources available on the Web, if I am lucky through Google books. But often from websites of pastors sermons, or reprints of devotional classics.

Many students are reluctant to give up the ability to flip quickly between chapters, write in the margins and highlight passages, although new software applications are beginning to allow students to use e-textbooks that way.

But of course the very things these students are reluctant to “give up” are precisely the things that any decent e-text should make easy! Non-sequential access is what hypertext is all about, commenting and user annotation are easier and more flexible in an electronic environment, and highlighting is basic. It is only publishers rushing shoveleware onto the market repurposing existing titles into containers that are designed to mimic a dead tree that makes current e-textbooks unresponsive and equally dead!

“I believe that the codex is one of mankind’s best inventions,” said Jonathan Piskor, a sophomore from North Carolina, using the Latin term for book.

Duh! Of course it is. It revolutionised the world almost as much as the invention of writing. That’s why we may expect that the next big step forward, e-text, will be equally (or at least nearly) as revolutionary.

So, who is interested in a Free Open Source Old Testament Textbook?

He who paid the piper, can not hear the tune without paying again

Evan and Jim have responded vigorously to my post below: Secret societies: biblioblogging in Religion Bulletin. Evan points out that:

An annual individual print subscription to the journal is 35 USD in North America, 17.50 GBP elsewhere. What’s your trouble? Do you get TIME magazine for free or something? How is this set-up any different than most any other publishing situation out there

Oh, I agree, if scholarship is a commodity to be bought and sold $35 a year is a snip.

Except, who paid for the writing? Who pays the scholars who did most of the editorial work? In both cases the answer is: “Not the ‘publisher'”. Often the answer is taxpayers and/or church members, with a contribution from students. Shouldn’t such people, let’s call them the general public (for want of a more specific general term ;) get to actually see the results of the work they paid for?

Zotero gets freed from Firefox

Don’t get me wrong, Firefox is still my favourite browser, the only one I use regularly, but it is brilliant news that Zotero will (thanks to a new project Zotero Everywhere) become available for the other major browsers, and as a standalone app. This is a significant step, and makes a flexible, simple yet powerful, free bibliography manager even more free :)

Zotero already works on PC, Linux and Mac. It already cooperates with Open Office and MS Word, and I believe in Linux (at least) with a LaTex front end. Now it is becoming even more platform agnostic. Great news!

Secret societies: biblioblogging in Religion Bulletin

Secret Society, after Harold Lincoln Gray by Mike Licht NotionsCapital.com

Jim West and a number of other well known bloggers on biblical studies related topics have “published” articles about blogging, they appeared in Religion Bulletin:

  • Blogging the Bible: A Short History  Jim West
  • Biblioblogging Our Matrix: Exploring the Potential and Perplexities of Academic Blogging James McGrath
  • The Benefit of Blogging for Archaeology Robert Cargill
  • Why Do I (Biblio)Blog? Roland Boer
  • Biblioblogging, ‘Religion’, and the Manufacturing of Catastrophe James Crossley

You can find it here. However these articles are “published” in the technical academic sense, that is they are announced, but not made available, except to a privileged select few. In this case subscribers to the journal in question or those willing to pay per article.In such specialised usage “to publish” means something close to the opposite of its everyday usage, referring as it does to secret arcane gnosis shared only with a circle of initiates and patrons.

Recently this secrecy that shrouds academic “publishing” has weakened many journals are now collected in substantial electronic journal collections and available through libraries. Sadly. as far as I can see Religion Bulletin is not available in R&P (Religion & Philosophy), ProQuest Religion, or Academic Search Premier. So I can’t see these probably fine articles, and therefore I cannot comment on their content.

Thus academe seeks to protect its sacred and secret arcana from profanation. There is an irony when the topic of the “publication” is a medium as open to public review and scrutiny as blogging is “published” in this way ;)

PS: As part of academic systems that play the secret society game, and reward scholars from hiding gtheir work from the public, I do not blame these bloggers for “publishing” in this way, we all play the games we are employed to play. But it is, I think, worthwhile pointing out from time to time how bizarre and ritualistic the academic game has become in the early 21st centrury. When publishing technology offers the potential to make “publish” really mean “to issue publicly”!

Microsoft nightmares and Linux dreams

Ever since I got this laptop (a lovely light, if a bit too big, Acer 4810T) I have struggled with the operating system. Microsoft Vista is a nightmare made real. However, until last week my gripes and Vista’s delays were never quite enough to drive me to attempt to install a new OS with which I have no experience. (I have two decades of extensive Windows use behind me, and another few years of MS OSes before that.) Last week however, Windows Explorer threw a tantrum, if I tried to send a file to the recycle bin, or to change its name the dialog box would remain open until either I rebooted the system, or Windows Explorer crashed and was restarted by the system – which happened happily often.

For the last few days I have been doing half my work running UberStudent, a Linux (Debian, Ubuntu variant) OS designed for students. I have been suing it from a USB stick, to test, but it has been a dream. Out of the box it supports Firefox with Zotero, Open Office (or if I want to get really sensible in my writing – i.e. uses styles properly and write by function more than appearance – LyX which also integrates with Zotero) and loads of other nice programs and features. It took minutes to add my other Firefox add-ons, and not long to change the look, and put the bars on the sides of my widescreen (thus giving me effectively more vertical space – widescreens are a gift to laptop designers, but a pain for users).

Three things I need were missing:

  1. a good audio editor (I did not need to download drivers for my external soundcard/preamp like I had to in Windows, in Linux such extras seem to work straight out of the box :)
  2. a way to sync my phone diary with a calendar program on the laptop
  3. Dropbox which I can’t now live without, syncing my using files to the cloud is just SO handy and such an easy backup scheme (admission of interest: this Dropbox link will get both and installing the free program will get both of us a bonus of extra storage space)
  4. BibleWorks (yes, I must try one or more of the Linux free Bible programs, but I do appreciate having the Westminster Morph Hebrew text available)

It took a wee while to learn how to get new programs in Linux, but soon I had Audacity installed, and discovered that the OS came with a utility that is on the whole better than Nokia’s phone syncing program (though I still have to discover how to get the diary syncing with Thunderbird). Dropbox also installed easily, the only tricky bit is that the folder needs a different name in Linux and in MS Vista (but that will cease being a problem once I give Vista the heave ;)  That just leaves BibleWorks, and I’m told that’s a simple install under Wine (which again comes preloaded).

I expect that with a couple of hours more playing I’ll happily be dual booting, and probably only seldom returning to the sad difficult and frustrating world of Microsoft.

Free Open Source Old Testament Textbook again

Back in July a bunch of us began (following AKMA’s reply to a Facebook post by Brooke1 ) talking about the possibility of a Free Open Source Old Testament textbook.2

The ideas, of course, were not entirely new ;) There are other scholars, as well as us biblical people, who think of these things, not least in the marketing field ;) So it should have been no surprise that there already exists a specialist publishing house that exists to produce and promote such textbooks.

Flat World Knowledge, I love the name :) Now, should we be pitching the itea of a FOSOTT to them, or what?Any volunteers to write chapters, help edit (for surely a group needs so produce guidelines so that the resulting chapters have some consistency…)

HT: Flat World Knowledge’s “Freemium” Textbooks Gain 140,000 Users, Average $34 Per Sale

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  1. Who eventually blogged about the topix here: Open Access Intro to OT []
  2. My posts, with links to the others I was aware of are here, though with some other mainly older posts. []

Write tight

Flabby writing loses readers and marks, write tight!

Photo by Dick Rochester

In the real world flabby writing loses readers. For students, it’s worse flabby writing loses marks. Learn to write tight and gain marks!

In our intro class, students write a summary of the message a biblical text had for its intended audience. This should be one or two sentences and less than 50 words.

Writing a summary is like packing for a journey, some people want to take everything! Then it is an exercise in writing tight. Most students write much as they speak. In speaking we include padding – unneeded words and phrases that allow us time to think. Writing tight involves removing the padding.

Googling “tight writing” produced lots of advice, but many writers could not practise what they preached. (Several high ranked hits were written on contract. A higher word count means more pay for the writer ;)

So, here’s Tim’s guide to writing tighter

Don’t repeat yourself

If a word occurs several times in a paragraph some uses may not be needed. Using two words where one will do (tautology) is wasteful: “tightly stretched” only says the same as “stretched”.


Writers should have something to say. They should say it. Often, though, we also want to say other things. Tight writing omits such diversions. It keeps focused. The asides that often pepper this blog in brackets or as footnotes are examples that I should cut! (Except that I like the effect, and am not trying to save words, and anyway I try to help the reader by using parentheses to mark digressions off from the body text ;)

Don’t be passive

Good Grammar checkers (like MS Word used to have) hate passives. They are correct. Passive sentences are longer, and usually less clear: “The ball was kicked by John” vs. “John kicked the ball”

Cut conjunctions

Long sentences usually waste words, needing extra coordination. Several short sentences work better.

Very that

“That” is often unnecessary. It can often be pruned, it sometimes signals other words that1 can be pruned. Extra adjectives are also an easy target “very” for example usually adds little. Karen Luna Ray offers this sentence: “See how many unnecessary words that you can remove from this very lengthy sentence that I am writing..” Which becomes: “See how many unnecessary words you can remove from this sentence.”

To be or not to be

The verb “to be” often encourages wasted words. Compare: “She is a powerful writer” with “She writes powerfully.”

Avoid adverbs

Often we employ adverbs when a stronger verb does the job better. Suzanne Lieurance compares:

Flabby: She smiled slightly at the photographer.
Fit: She grinned at the photographer.

Above all, rewrite right

We seldom manage to write paragraphs, and even sentences, right first time. Edit cutting the flab. Read your text aloud. Read it silently. Each reading will show fat to prune.

Have a sit-down and a nice cup of tea

After a break (better a good night’s sleep, but a cup of tea will do), edit again. Cut again!

  1. Though notice sometimes it IS needed ;) []

Literacy rates and culture

Traces of the 16 and 12 characters of the two Wadi el-Hol inscriptions (Wikipedia)

Chris Rollston has a fascinating post “The Probable Inventors of the First Alphabet: Semites Functioning as rather High Status Personnel in a Component of the Egyptian Apparatus.” On the whole it is clear and convincing. But I want to take issue with a side issue. In section II. “Literacy in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean” he is concerned to show that the inventors of the alphabet were most likely to have been members of the elite. Among his arguments he seeks to show that literacy was never a mass phenomenon in the Ancient world. In doing so he poo poos notions that the introduction of the alphabet expanded the availability of literacy so widely as to be able to be seen as a social revolution.

Some have suggested that with the invention of the alphabet, literacy rates rapidly became quite high, with both elites and non-elites writing and reading (note: these two skills are related, but quite different). For example, during the middle of the twentieth century, W.F. Albright stated that “since the forms of the letters are very simple, the 22-letter alphabet could be learned in a day or two by a bright student and in a week or two by the dullest.” And he proceeded to affirm that he did “not doubt for a moment that there were many urchins in various parts of Palestine who could read and write as early as the time of the Judges” (Albright 1960, 123). At the beginning of the twenty-first century, R. Hess made similar statements. For example, regarding ancient Israel, he states that there is “continually increasing evidence for a wide variety of people from all walks of life who could read and write.” In addition, he states that he believes “the whole picture is consistent with a variety of [literate] classes and groups, not merely a few elites” (Hess 2006, passim 342-345).

Now, the Albright quote is wildly exaggerated, and Hess’ claims are probably also over-optimistic. But the literacy estimates quotes show that:

for Egypt, literacy rates are often estimated to be at ca. one-percent or lower, and confined to elites (see Baines and Eyre,1983, 65-96; note that even at Deir el-Medina it is elites that are writing). For Mesopotamia, Larsen believes that one-percent is also a reasonable figure (see Larsen, 1989, 121-148, esp. 134).

While the rates he quotes for societies using alphabetic scripts his estimates are between five and fifteen percent:

Rather, the evidence suggests that the vast majority of the population was not literate. Note, for example, that W. Harris (1989, 114, 267, 22) has argued that literacy rates in Attica were probably ca. five percent to ten percent and those in Italy were probably below fifteen percent (note: within this volume [passim], Harris has cogently critiqued those that have proposed high(er) rates of literacy).

If, as an approximation, we took the middle of this range, the result is that the move from Cuneiform or Hieroglyphic may have merely increased literacy by a factor of ten, or by one thousand percent! My guess is that an increase in literacy levels this dramatic, or even at the lowest level Rollston’s figures suggest (a factor of five or five hundred percent), is quite high enough to produce exciting social consequences.