Monthly Archives: January 2012

Self-Representation and Self-Revelation

There was a mock-up of an advertisement going around Facebook the other day, purported to be part of a new campaign for the Episcopal Church in the US (I’ll keep stipulating its national orientation, even though it legally renounced that in favour of ‘The Episcopal Church’, for convenience’s sake; here in Scotland, the US version is not The Episcopal Church). The ad depicts an ordained woman, a gay couple with cute multiracial children, and a young man with a martini glass, each captioned ‘I’m Episcopalian’/‘We’re Episcopalians’. Beneath the photos are three lines of type: ‘The Episcopal Church / Resisting Fundamentalism Since 1784 / Like Jesus resisting the Pharisees since the First Century!’ Evidently this poster went down well with a umber of my Episcopal friends; I saw it under a number of people’s status updates. I was deeply troubled by it, though, and (rather than leave a comment under one person’s post) I thought I’d explain how profoundly wrong-headed I think the poster is over here on my own turf.
First: I fully support the ordination/consecration of women to all orders of ministry. I fully support the incorporation of gay couples in the sacramental life of marriage (not yet realised, but still pushing). And if hot young men want to drink martinis, I suppose I support that too, though I don’t care much about it.
If all the poster did was to make the point that Episcopalians ordain women, are mostly OK with gay relationships (though not yet to the point of marriage), and don’t forbid martinis, I would be unimpressed. These are not the reason someone should go to the Episcopal Church; plenty of other denominations can say the same. Still, if you already know that you want to go to a church and you have been burnt by a Christian body that limits women’s participation in ordained leadership, that rejects same-sex relationships, or bans martinis, it would be useful to know that the Episcopal Church doesn’t fall into the above categories — though it would be more honest if the poster did so in a way that conveyed varying degrees of dissatisfaction within the Episcopal Church relative to those three characteristics.
But the poster then goes on to assert that the Episcopal Church has been resisting fundamentalism since 1784. I’m not sure how to construe that as a truthful claim; what eighteenth-century ‘fundamentalists’ were the colonial Episcopalians resisting? I’m not aware that there was a fundamentalist movement at all until the controversies of the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries. The poster can’t truthfully mean that Episcopalians have been resisting ‘conservative theology’ since then, because from the eighteenth century till today there have been conservative Episcopalians as well as liberal Episcopalians. Moreover, the various Christian bodies that do not ordain women, or discountenance same-sex relationships, or forbid consumption of alcohol, are not in any sane way subsumed under the heading ‘Fundamentalism’. It’s hard to see this tagline as something other than a historically ungrounded cheap shot directed indiscriminately at conservative Christians, some of whom are indeed… Episcopalians.
The closing line submits that the Episcopal Church, like Jesus, resists Pharisees. That one just leaps out and grabs me by the throat for its misbegotten bigotry. Jesus certainly quarrelled with first-century Pharisees, as did Sadducees, Essenes, ordinary nonpartisan Jews, and Pharisees themselves. But the claim that Jesus resisted them conveys the sense that those wicked Pharisees were trying to ram something down people’s throats, and Jesus led a liberation movement against them. That is a possible, popular, interpretation of the New Testament — I think reads selectively and reflects an unsatisfactory appreciation for what Pharisaism was and where it stood in first-century culture — but it’s very far from being a self-evident historical datum. And when it’s conjoined in a comparison of Jesus with the Episcopal Church in a battle against fundamentalism, it can hardly escape the implication that both the Episcopal Church and Jesus stand over against Judaism (the ongoing currents of which draw in great part on Pharisaic traditions) in mocking derision.
To sum up, the poster strikes me as ‘lite’ on a very charitable reading, and perniciously false and spiritually toxic if it be taken at all seriously. A promotional campaign that advances ideological appeals as more signifcant than truth cannot be healthy for anyone involved. What the poster says to me is: ‘The [US] Episcopal Church: ignorant, smug, self-congratulatory, and condescending’. Since I know well that a great many Episcopalians are none of the above, the poster offended me as a misrepresentation of the Episcopal Church at its best, and as a misleading signal to onlookers who might think that the ad truly represents the Episcopal Church [USA].

Science, Facts, and Public Discourse

In the Guardian on Thursday, Martin Robbins (sadly, not Marty Robbins — that would be cool) writes about the paucity of actual scientists in BBC reporting on, errr, science. The column is strong and outraged, as it might well be. As he observes, ‘All political questions lie at least partly within the domain of scientific or empirical study, but the idea that policy might actually have something to do with “facts”or “evidence” is one of the biggest taboos in modern politics.’ Hear, hear!
My cavil — and you knew there would be one — arises just at the point where science and its allies want both to be represented in public discourse, and to have a privileged prerogative to determine what counts as a fact. Wait, wait: I’m not defending creationism or climate-change deniers. I am, though, underscoring the problem that the status of ‘factuality’ is never quite as clear-cut as one might like, especially with regard to controverted facts, especially when lay mediators have to report on these matters of scientific fact. And especially especially when a particular, limited cadre of people hold the letters patent to determine which are the facts that must be reported, and which the follies that should be ignored.
There’s no need to trot out the cases in which scientific knowledge underwent convulsive change (nor to explain that in every such case, it was actually scientific process that brought about the convulsive change, so it’s all really okay, not a problem). The principle is simply that a polis is poorly served by the notion that a particular limited body of spokespeople determine the facts. Who would have been credentialed to name the facts in the days before the Great Recession began a few years ago? The received wisdom from Those Who Should Know held that there was no need to worry, and they had the facts to support their conclusion.
Again, I believe that climate-change science is both sound and urgently important; I am no creationist (old-earth, young-earth, or otherwise); and I encourage a greater representation of articulate, engaging scientists in the media. Go, team!
But at the same time, let’s seek out more than one angle on facts, especially when those other angles have the backing of more than one scientist, especially when the other angles have track records of being grounded in broader scientific reasoning. ‘Scientist’ isn’t a synonym for ‘infallible oracle’; they make mistakes, they change their minds, and so do reporters (who are not less fallible than scientists).
And much the same could be said about theology and theologians, where (in part through an atmosphere cultivated by some spokespeople for science) just about anyone with a cockamamie notion can get coverage, as though their sentimental fancies and conspiracy theories were as noteworthy as a Regius Professor’s deliberations. Scorn from the cultured despisers notwithstanding, there are distinctions in the quality of theological discourse, just as in scientific discourse.
It doesn’t befit the advocates of making those distinctions in one field to disregard them in another.*

* Not accusing Martin Robbins here, but simply taking his column as a point of departure.

Blogarian Retronautics

For my first blog, I used Blogger’s engine while hosting the pages in my webspace at Seabury. At the time, it seemed the most prudent course; who knew how long Blogger would last, and what they might do with my entries if they were stored on Blogger’s servers?
As it turns out, my data would have been at least as safe in the memory of Blogger (then, after the buyout, the bowels of Google) than any other host I could have arranged. I certainly did not imagine that I would be exiled from Seabury, and my digital record expunged; at the time, I thought it would help heighten awareness of what an active web presence could mean to a seminary. Eventually, in part as a mark of gratitude and solidarity after Ben and Mena’s visit to Seabury (how many students made it to that event, when you could have hobnobbed with future digital superstars?), I switched over to Movable Type (wheee! Comments!) and indeed, Trevor and the Disseminary still operate from our MT installation. I got tired of the comment spam I was attracting, though, and MT was modulating from an open-source, user-oriented community to an enterprise solution; one day, my MT database got really direly, deeply corrupted — so corrupted a cadre of fine MySQL gymnasts couldn’t untangle it — and rather than restart with MT, I jumped to WordPress. Excellent comment spam filtering, still open source, and still soundly based in good HTML/CSS web design.
All of which is the long way round to saying that, in recognition of my tenth, I’m pulling my earliest posts out of the archives, dusting them off, and re-entering them (date-adjusted) in the WP database. I’m reassigning the comments, where there are any, and eliminating the spam. Eventually I’ll be all caught up. But sometimes, it it seems s though I”m not posting anything new at this end of the archive spectrum, it may be that I’ve just pushed forward on the ancient end.
Plus, it’s a way to evade work on the James commentary. (Srsly, I am actually working my way through the final-before-submitting draft; Jonathan, my research assistant, has gone through the alpha version and noted areas that want expansion, and I’m going through and amplifying them. The end is near.)

Ten Years

For some reason — some not-so-very-hard-to-guess reason — I thought that my blogiversary was 26 January. That would be today. When I turned back the hand of time, though, to link to my very first post (now resuscitated and spruced up onto this blog, here), I discoverd that it had been posted on 23 January, which makes this blog three days more than ten (and makes me three days forgetful). It was called Peri Doxês back then — ‘about general opinion’; I think it changed to ‘Random Thoughts’ when I switched from Blogger to Movable Type. Ten years is a long time, even for an old geezer such as I’m becoming, and it’s a lot of words. To those of you who’ve been patient enough to keep reading all along, even through my recent lapse of Blogarian productivity, many thanks.
Thanks, too — and especially — to the early crowd of bloggers with whom I very quickly wound up in conversation. David Weinberger, Jeneane Sessum, Chris Locke, Doc Searls, Steve Himmer (has ‘One Pot Meal’ disappeared altogether?), Halley Suitt, Tom Matrullo (vale! Commonplaces), Gary Turner (so many former sites and brilliant ideas), Shelley Powers (likewise), Euan Semple, Joi Ito, Phil Cubeta (and the Happy Tutor), Frank Paynter, two Dave Rogerses (only one of whom is still blogging, I think — where are you going when Apple closes Homepage?), and Liz Lawley, among others, taught me so much, kindled so many wild ideas, elicited from me more interesting thoughts than I’d have cooked up on my own. If on this occasion I may be excused a little nostalgia, the internet was very different back then. It actually made a certain kind of sense for us to argue about the ethics of having advertisements on your blog, or whether ‘the blog’ constituted a literary genre, or about whether online interaction bespeaks a space, a place, or something altogether apart from familiar dimensions. When Daypop or (later) Technorati counted hits and links and visits, they weren’t comparing commercial heavyweights, but mostly just regular people. It looked, for a few weeks, as though this might somehow shape up differently from (say) commercial vs community-access TV. And it has, to some extent; just not as much as would measure up to our more idyllic, optimistic, hopeful visions.
Blogaria’s been very, very good to me. You, readers, have been very good to me. Thank you very much, all of you. You’re my heroes, I’m honoured, and it’s deeply wonderful to be intertwingled with you.

The Syllabus of My Imagination

Every now and then I muse about the required reading for a seminar in the sort of rhetorical/pragmatic/semiological hermeneutics I advocate. This morning, the reading list would include

And, of course, sundry things that I’ve written. Sorry that some of these items are so expensive.
What have I left out? Some of you know me well enough to be able to remind me.

iBooks Author Wrap-Up

Kelvin and I had a digital conversation, John Gruber has been posting the dickens out of the ramifications of the iBooks Author EULA since last Thursday’s announcement of Apple’s iBook (not ‘ePub’, not ‘eBook’) authoring tool, and Ryan Stevens has shown us what the output might look like. After the cheering, booing, foot-stomping, and so on, I’m set to propose a series of tentative assessments of the EULA and its controversy.
First, Dan Wineman (via Gruber, and see Gruber here) is 100% right that Apple needs to take stock and clarify the precise force of its EULA (and make some changes, if need be). State in plain language what the EULA reserves, what it permits, and stick with it. ‘Uncertainty’ is more than a third of FUD, and Apple’s a strong enough company that it can sustain profits by being the best at what it does; no need to be sleazy.
Second, the idea that iBooks author is primarily iBooks Author, not any-other-kind-of-digital-pub Author, is pretty well established. Apple has produced a free app (a very excellent one, from what I hear) the purpose of which is to produce Apple iBooks publications. Got it. There’s nothing nefarious about producing such an app, nor releasing it in the wild, nor adapting an open standard toward the end of profit for one particular company. Apple iBooks Author exists in its current form for the sole purpose of developing non-ePub-standard output files. If it be granted that such a thing may exist (and other epublication file types exist uncontroversially, so there shouldn’t be a problem with Apple having one, too), then making it easy and attractive for publishers and authors to produce works for that file type should not only be a positive step, but should be understood as a generous step on Apple’s part. I don’t remember Amazon developing and distributing for free a Kindle-pub generator.
Third, I don’t see a great proportion of the ePub market needing the enhanced Apple widgets that differentiate .ibooks files from .epub files. If Trinity College wants to publish a digital edition of Bunayn’s Pilgrim’s Progress without animations, soundtrack, interstitial ads, or whatever else the widgets enable, no one’s going to miss the bells and whistles. So Apple has developed a very sweet app for producing digital texts whose range and impact will be unnecessarily limited by the EULA and output file combination (since only Apple supplies apps that can read .ibooks files). That’s a limitation that adversely affects Apple’s prominence and influence, without a compensatory benefit.
So fourth, it’s still early enough in the aftermath of the announcement for Apple to issue an expansive clarification and redefinition that wouldn’t put the least dent in their business model. Tim Cook meets David Pogue, Walt Mossberg, and a couple of other reporters and says: ‘That EULA was too complicated and too aggressive — so here’s what we’ll do. The next iteration of the EULA will say that if you produce a book/file with Author, you have to offer it to us to sell if we want. You can’t use our format and our free software and then cut us out of the deal. Second, if you want to give it away, knock yourself out. No restrictions at all. Go to town. Third, we’ll incorporate an Export option in the next version that enables you to use Author to produce a vanilla, standards-compliant ePub file, or a PDF, or a plain text file if you want — but as with any other work generated by iBooks Author, you have to allow us to sell it if you’re selling it elsewhere. This doesn’t hurt you — we’ll be your best vendor anyway — and if you want to give it away, again, you’re OK to do that. Partners.’ That preserves Apple’s marketplace model (‘make it with Author, sell it through AppleBookStore’), allows free distribution of publications with Apple’s software (still runs only on the Apple OS, and probably says ‘Made With Author’ in the XML) thus extending Apple’s reach without costing itself anything — those would be free anyway and their presence and good looks in the marketplace underscore Apple’s prominence.
No consulting fee from me, Tim; you’re free to do with my advice whatever you want. I just want to make handsome, clean, accessible digital documents.

More Commonplaces

Yesterday. the scintillating* Alan Jacobs’s first post went live on The Atlantic website (from Atlantis to Atlantic — one letter makes a big difference, eh?), on a topic that many of my former students, and many former denizens of the web circles in which I started out, would probably recognise. Alan connects the commonplace books of days gone by to Tumblr, Evernote, Instapaper, and so on. He’s not the first to notice this, of course; our brother Tom Matrullo started his Commonplaces blog way, way back in olden times, when was free hosting via the Radio platform. And I used to require students in some of my classes — particularly in the Early Church History class — to maintain a commonplace book for storing the noteworthy quotations from their readings.
Alan also notes that Warren Ellis’s guest columnist Jess Nevins discusses Lord Byron’s participation in the commonplace-book culture ( = proto-fanfic culture) of the early nineteenth century. (And still later, Alan tweeted that he was thinking about hand-writing his favourite quotations and posting photos of those to his Tumblr.)
So if a long time ago I gave an assignment to keep a commonplace book, or to write a pseudo-Pauline epistle (an even earlier example of fanfic!)… pedagogical idiosyncrasy doesn’t entirely explain what-all was going on. You were keeping alive literary genres that went millennia back in history, and which have particularly flourished with the advent of digital media.
* ‘Groucho, use “scintillate” in a sentence.’
   ‘Lucy flirts and teases all evening, but she doesn’t scintillate.’

No Idle Regulation

Christopher pointed to the sort of story that haunts low-budget expats such as Margaret and me. We were looking at flats with more than one bedroom late last year, thinking how nice it would be if we could offer shelter to travelling children and friends in a more grown-up setting than the fold-out couch in our lounge — but it’s a good thing that we didn’t overcommit ourselves that way. The minimum doesn’t kick in until 90 days before my visa expires — that is, beginning in early July — but this is a minimum we can’t afford to drift anywhere close to. It was a drag when we had headaches getting our visas to enter the UK when we were in the States, but that would be nothing compared to how dreadful it would be to be deported from here. My sympathies to Dr Ahmad.

iBooks Author Follow-Up

This technical piece does a fine job of articulating the problems (from a standards-compliance perspective) with the output files from iBooks Author. The catch, of course, is that Apple has deliberately decided that they don’t want to support a standards-compliant ePub format: ‘The reason why Apple chose a non-standard layout model is probably because the ones currently standardised and proposed by the W3 cannot deliver the designs Apple is aiming for’.
So, in order to make a sizzly, animated, multimedia iBook, you need to break standards; I understand that, and I understand that Apple wouldn’t want its pitch to primary/secondary to be limited by the protracted process of getting standards approved. That stands to be a very lucrative market, for better or worse (I’m not convinced that primary/secondary education will be best served by increasing investment in glamourware) — but it bears relatively little relation to a greater eBook market, to which iBooks Author pays no particular attention. I doubt that Apple thinks ‘no one wants to read Don DeLillo’s novels or Dominic Crossan’s non-fiction works’; more likely, they think there’s much less money to be made by accommodating the production of those works. To repeat the general point that I was trying to make yesterday, the sustainable ecology for Apple’s glamour eBooks should extend to low-profit general fiction and non-fiction works (remember, low-profit isn’t no profit, and at the same time it’s low cost), in order to support the great carnivore, high-profit glamour iBooks. Kieran Healy appositely compares those enhanced textbooks to the multimedia CD-ROMs of days gone by: ‘Ironically, the best iPad apps for reading things — like Instapaper — work to make the iPad more like a simple, static, easily-read book or article, not less. If the iPad is going to make new inroads in education, let along transform it, I think it will be by way of specialized apps like these, and not through an augmented-textbook model that reanimates the corpse of Microsoft Encarta.’ I don’t think Apple is wrong to have gone big-game hunting — but I think they’d have been cleverer, and more foresighted, and better-attuned to the actual on-the-ground practitioners of education, to support more modest, flexible, inexpensive, standards-compliant, cross-platform eBooks.

Mixed Blessings

Well, there we are. Apple announced a very positive step toward destabilising the textbook industry, check; they offered a free authoring tool for producing textbooks, check; their software, iBooks 2 and iBooks Author, is available immediately through the Apple online store, check; and they’ve announced a sort of courseware for autodidacts, check. Aye, but what’s the good news?
The announcements yesterday were both more and less than I hoped. I had expected to have to pay for a textbook authoring tool; I would have paid, gladly, for such an app. The there’s no such thing as ‘free’, either — iBooks Author will only run on OS X (that’s not astonishing), the latest version of OS X (that’s a little surprising; the functions of an app for generating EPUB files is no big deal, but apparently the sparkly things Apple added to the textbook recipe depend on features in Lion); and the End User Extortion Agreement forbids selling files produced by Author anywhere but through the Apple iBooks store (oh, come on, Apple). You can give away Author-ed EPUBS, but you can’t sell them anywhere but Apple. I don’t think that’s a DRM issue, Kelvin, if I understand the format correctly — the limitation isn’t baked into the output file — but a contractual issue.
It would make a great deal more sense to me if they’d approached the business model a few degrees differently. The app runs on OS X, that’s probably non-negotiable. The latest version? Well, if I must (I haven’t, yet). The file output matter plays precisely to Apple haters (haters gonna hate, sure, but there’s no need to feed trolls, either); if Apple is moving to the front line of textbook creation and vending, why inhibit people who are already using Apple software (OS X and Author) and hardware (to run those, and to read the iBooks) from exporting and selling the textbooks they produce? The Apple iTextbook store would still have the advantages it already enjoys: convenience, confidence, ease of access, integration with everything else in the iUniverse. The move to strong-arm authors into an exclusive relation to Apple smacks of uncertainty, as though they doubted they could continue their leadership if authors weren’t locked-in. Contrariwise, it looks to me as though by setting their file outputs free to inhabit the ebook ecology without constraint, Apple could set the standards by which etextbooks are recognised, read, and produced — more or less ensuring that they’d have a dominant share of the market without the sort of lock-in that makes some possible buyers hesitant to commit. Ironically, the closed model Apple is pursuing seems to me to intensify the impetus for competing proprietary or FOSS alternatives (InDesign, Scribus, calibre, Sigil (for the stout of heart), PDF export from your word processor of choice — anything I’m forgetting?) (Yes, Lyx.)
So that’s me: positively impressed by what they seem to have envisioned, disappointed by the limitations they’ve constructed into their model, eager to see how Author works (when I eventually get around to upgrading and trying it out), and still, always excited to see what happens when people who understand technology, education, publication, media, and so on can put their efforts together toward open models for distribution and dissemination. That’s what I thought ten-plus years ago when I began banging away at academic administrators about this; that’s what I thought eight or nine years ago, when we got enough funding to start-up the Disseminary site (but not enough support from administrators, funders, or paid participants actually to give it any momentum); that’s what I still believe.

Return To Light

To celebrate the restoration of a full repertoire of digital-media entertainment and instructional services, I call your attention to two old favourites of the Adam family.
First, Glider Classic for the iPhone/iPod/iPad brings back to functionality a game that Si (certainly) and maybe Nate and Pippa enjoyed as they were growing up. It’s great to see this simple, non-violent (except for cat predation) game back; lovely notions such as this shouldn’t be abandoned when technology changes. (now, to get Barrack back — be sure to go and tell Ambrosia that you want an iOS version!)
As if that weren’t enough joy (and it’s more than one gets on most days, isn’t it?), I reconnected with one of our beloved sites from way back. It turns out hi! monkey has moved around and ended up on a WordPress blog. I just subscribed to hi! monkey in my RSS reader, and will follow the world’s leading terrycloth primate in Twitter and Facebook as well. You can never get enough hi! monkey, it says here.