Monthly Archives: December 2012

Still In Suspense

By the way, we haven’t gotten anywhere in our humans-vs-ISP struggle to reconnect our flat to the interwebz. You’ll know when we do; for now, we rely on cafés, work, and our iPhones. Fun!

Buying vs Building

Every few months I read about another exciting new enterprise software package that some university or another has licensed, that’ll have such-and-so amazing effects on the academic environment — and reduce cavities, too! As an academic technology enthusiast, I would love to see one of these that I believed in, but I’m strongly inclined to suppose that almost all of these awesomesauce enhancements to university culture amount to a sad misallocation of funds.
In the first place, universities — properly understood — are the enhancement for which these high-ticket purchasers are looking. If you want to improve the atmosphere, encourage thinking, reading, listening, writing, and so on, then invest in teaching and learning. And if that’s not sexy enough for you, invest in learning and teaching. If you must, invest in sexy learning and teaching, teaching and learning, but us homely academics feel dowdy enough as things stand (and failing a ‘sexy’ standard would be a detrimental side effect. If you’re worried about our appearance, buy us new clothes). Did I say ‘learning and teaching’? Good, ’cos that’s what I meant, that and ‘teaching and learning’.
If there’s no way to invest more in improving the conditions for teachers and learners (hint: you can always spend more to support teachers), and if you really must spend scarce funds on a technological widget, make dead sure to have someone who knows something about software design and coding look over what you’re bidding on. Most administrators know less than zero about software, and a number of companies have gotten rich from seductive brochures advertising gussied-up databases as the solution to all your ed-tech fantasies. Don’t spend without a coder saying, ‘Yeah, looks like value for money’.
So, assuming you’re determined to spend a few hundred thousand pounds and you’re actually about to buy (or license) something sensible (not just an elaborate executive-suite shell game), why buy or license a for-profit company’s product? If you’re a learning institution, why not make it an internal priority to develop such a product for your own institution, on your own terms? Sure, some of you will end up with kludgy unattractive interfaces that don’t actually change campus culture much — but your students and staff will have learned through the process, and besides — if you license the software, you will very likely spend that sum on attractive interfaces that don’t actually change campus culture much. That sounds like 100% loss to me.
Almost all universities, and many other higher-ed institutions, have the staff and students to design and implement most software packages designed for moderate-security online purposes. Why pay licenses to for-profit corporations for packages that don’t quite do what you want (or that do something you didn’t think you wanted till a salesperson pitched it to you), when you can support staff-student partnerships to develop educational software tailored toward actual campus needs (and that you might be able to license to other institutions)?


Twenty-six years ago today I was ordained to the priesthood (that is, ‘the order of priesthood that I didn’t renounce last summer’). Twenty-six years ago, Nate was two, Si had not yet made his outward appearance, Pippa had not yet gleamed in anyone’s eye, and Margaret and I had been married just four years. (Were we ever married only four years? That’s hard to imagine.)

Ordination to the Priesthood


Over those years I have served in New Haven, Durham (NC), St Petersburg, Princeton (and New Brunswick), Evanston, in Blogaria and other digital realms, and now in Glasgow (and Clarkston) as a pastor, a teacher, a friend, and a listener. As far as I can tell, I haven’t left too many muddy footprints behind for others to clean up (but thank you for helping with what I can’t see). Dear people in everyplace I’ve gone have trusted me and opened their lives to share with me, in ways that reach further than just the bounds of shared interests or coincident sentiments: not just pals, but sharers spiritual and carnal as well in a sort of transfusion of life and truth. That’s a bigger offering than I’m equipped for living up to, and yet I have been forgiven for my shortcomings, my inattention, my short-sightedness, my stubbornness, and — well, it would be self-indulgent to extend a litany of my limitations. My sisters and brothers have offered me grace upon grace, for which I will always give thanks.
Morning will not gild the skies here for another hour or two, but in the darkness before dawn’s promised light that grace sustains me, and if priesthood consists in anything more than charades in outlandish robes, it consists in receiving and honouring and passing along ever further the gifts of trust and love and forgiveness that come through you all, from a source distant and intimate — a receiving and honouring and sharing that knows no end. Who could ask for more?

iT Goes To Eleven

I upgraded to iTunes 11 a few days ago. I tend to upgrade slowly, waiting for horror stories, so I didn’t jump the moment it was announced. I did, however, see promises of faster and more coherent interface design, and that sounded awfully good to me.
I’m not dissatisfied with most aspects of the interface redesign, and I haven’t had any problems with processing speed. I’m content with those (some interface quibbles to be described later).
I’m mightily exasperated, though, that Apple has eliminated iTunes DJ (formerly ‘Party Shuffle’) from the application. (We should have taken the naming indeterminacy as a sign of possible problems.) I listened to iTunes through that function daily, often for hours a day. Some users have been complaining that they used to hold parties at which guests could use their iPhones to vote for the playlist of dance music. You can probably imagine how heavily we relied on that function. More pertinently to my dissatisfaction, iTunes used to permit users to set up a playlist which would play higher-rated songs more often, only among songs that had not been played in the most recent few weeks. The newest functions in iTunes will shuffle the contents of any playlist — good enough, lacking a better alternative — but not weighted by rating. That’s a big letdown: it means that I’ll hear Patience and Prudence sing ‘A Smile and a Ribbon’ just as often as I’ll hear
Eddie Head and his Family sing ‘Down On Me’. That’s… suboptimal.
In a past iteration of the application, I asked for even more fine-grained weighted control over shuffled results. Only being able to weight music on a zero-to-five ‘rating’ is a gross control; why could the automated DJ not weight selections by how recently they were added to my collection, by genre, by year of release, by beats per minute, and my rating? After all, iTunes is mostly a glorified database; multivariate weighted distribution is the kind of thing databases are for.
I’m not frothing at the mouth about the disappearance of iTunes DJ. I’m shuffling randomly in a pool of all songs rated two stars or more that I haven’t heard in the past 6 weeks, and that’s a viable makeshift. The new ‘Up Next’ window even improves on the old miniplayer in some ways (though I miss the convenience of being able to see the star rating in the window, and change it in one click). But I’m puzzled about why Apple would remove a relatively low-computation function (not like the animated cover display), one that turns out to be more popular than I imagined, with no obvious benefit. I rate iTunes 11 three stars.

False Start

Margaret got an email this morning announcing the inaugural issue of a glossy magazine dedicated to linguistics, to be called Babel. We’re interested enough in linguistics that it didn’t seem to be misdirected; I was a little uneasy about a linguistics journal directed to a mass audience — doesn’t that just seem to be begging for the kind of faux-linguistics that populates the peevological columns of conventional newspapers and magazines? — but it seemed to have reputable scholars on its Board of Advisors, so Margaret clicked on the ‘free PDF of first issue’ link, to our mutual disappointment.
The issue begins with an editorial whose first words run:

In the Biblical story of the tower of Babel, God punishes his people for their pride by destroying the enormous tower they have been constructing as a monument to their own greatness. And as if this isn’t enough, he ‘confounds’ their single common language, breaking it up into a myriad of languages and dialects, presumably on the grounds that this act will make it difficult for them to organise themselves to perform such hubristic acts in the future. The myth of Babel is designed to explain the number and variety of human languages. Moreover, it suggests that, for humans, having many thousands of languages is much worse than having a single shared language. One thing we do know about the Babel story, then, is that whoever thought it up was obviously not a linguist.


News flash! Babel myth not accurate about academic linguistics! Woah, my world is shaken! (As students in the New Testament Intro class that I once TA’ed used to say, ‘That existentially confronted me!’)
In less than a printed paragraph, the editors have signalled multidimensionally that they’re off to a bad start. First, the adjective ‘biblical’ should be set with a lower-case ‘b’. Second, in the biblical story of the tower of Babel, God does not destroy the tower. Third, although you might well think that human hubris triggers God’s action, the biblical account itself says nothing about punishment or pride. Fourth, the ‘as if that weren’t enough’ clause is entirely pointless, since the only thing God seems to do in this story is confound people’s languages. Fifth, the ‘presumably’ sentence expresses a discordant hesitancy, since the authors have just firmly asserted several imprecise claims; here they say something that’s more or less just what the Bible seems to say itself, and they feel the need to qualify it with ‘presumably’. Presumably, they didn’t bother to look at the Bible before they start writing. And finally, of course, they make the stumbling transition to linguistics by asserting that the story they have just called a ‘myth’ doesn’t reflect the reality of linguistics scholarship. That’s as opposed to all the three-thousand-plus-year-old origin myths that do accurately divine the origins and effects of linguistic difference.
We’re not so annoyed by ‘wrong about the Bible’; hey, presumably it’s not their specialty, and anyone can say silly things about other people’s areas of expertise. The breezy, fatuous glibness does set off my ‘Danger, Will Robinson!’ alarms, though, and in a zone characterised by so very much fatuous glibness that runs contrary to reasonable linguistic scholarship, I’m not inclined to trust these editors to be sticklers for accuracy in their presumed area of competence. No subscription sold at this address, guys.



* I did have a student once named Will Robinson. I think I managed to go through our entire pedagogical relationship without making any Lost In Space jokes. At least, I hope so.



Two days with nothing whatever marked on my diary! I love the first weekday after lectures end — the very abrupt relaxation of the schedule, before people catch on to the notion that there’s suddenly more time in which to schedule late committee meetings, before the exams come in for marking, before final course planning for the next semester gets urgently inevitable. Even with the two cm of snow overnight turning into slippery mush this morning, it’s a beautiful and refreshing day. I could get used to this, had I an opportunity.
I’m turning away from putting anything even vaguely substantive on Facebook now; I’ll watch it to keep an eye on others’ posts, and I’ll leave birthday greetings and so on, but the problematic aspects of Facebook — its non-searchability, its claims relative to material published there, its commercialisation of our social networks — leave an increasingly unpleasant, metallic taste in my mouth (as though I held a used twopenny coin on my tongue). Thais means getting back into the habit of using my own blog, hosted here, with my own comments, hosted here, over which I control all the relevant rights (which are Creative Commons non-commerical-by attribution-no derivative works, in case you’re curious) (and I’ll happily enough allow derivative works in almost every case, but just want to be aware of what’s going on).
Now, back to work. I’ll post yesterday’s sermon sometime, and maybe my SBL talk on meaning and Relevance Theory, and comment on version 11 of iTunes, and maybe even get back into the habit of blogging in general — but from now on, when I’m tempted to say something, it’ll be here rather than on FB.