SansBlogue  
Thursday, March 04, 2010
  Why the cost of online resources matters
Under the title "Why online resources matter" John posted an email like many we have all probably recieved:
My name is . . . in China. I am asked to write an essay for my M Div on the subject of "what is Isaiah's Contribution . . .?" I surf the web and read Isaiah 1:2-20 Bibliography you wrote and with your expertise in that field, would you give me some insight relating to the my subject or introduce any books or articles that might be of help? I can't excess the needed resources for my essay because of the nature of the country I live and serve in.
My only quibble, posted as a comment to his blog also is to add a qualification to the headline: "not behind (inaccessible) pay to view barriers". Many of the resources needed for an MDiv student are online already on the sites of the great and wonderful academic content aggregators (like EBSCO and ATLA).

But the cost is too high for this person's institution, and is too high for most individials. There is an increasing global digital divide is between those with institutional subscriptions and those without (whether because they have no entry to an institution, or because their institution is not wealthy enough).

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Friday, February 26, 2010
  Funding the volunteer web
Photo by Jemal made available freely under a CC licence :)
The web has become a funny place. Despite its ethos of volunteerism and culture of free, increasingly volunteer effort and time are not enough for worthwhile projects. Meanwhile borrowed money, cosmetic surgery, pornography, and other essentials of modern life can finance themselves, and even enable others to make a modest income from blogging.

The latest illustration of this strange situation is Librivox. LV is a huge volunteer effort that In a mere four-and-a-half years, has made thousands of free audiobooks for anyone to enjoy. The site gets 400,000 visitors every month.One recording I did has already passed 10,000 downloads. Yet LV is appealing to its volunteers to donate money as well to pay for the system that enables all this. LV is deeply committed to the dream of free culture, so all its recordings are placed in the public domain. This ethos sits uneasily with advertising, otherwise a combination of Amazon links and/or Google Adwords would ensure an annual income of far more than the $20,000 that they are seeking (in the hopes it will cover the next few years of opperation).

There is a strange logic here, even a tiny payment from a few of the users who download and enjoy the books would cover the cost. Yet LV asks the producers of the content (well at least one group of them, the authors and original publishers are mostly dead, so they are not contacted by the appeal). So it is the readers, prooflisteners and project coordinators who must pay.

Perhaps in the gift economy and the culture of free this is the way it should be, with people covering the cost of publishing their work. But how does this fit with academic publishing? Academics (with a few, over the 20th Century a dwindling few, amateur scholars as exceptions to the rule) are mercenaries, we undertake our scholarship for pay. Yet even in this realm of "workers worthyof their hire" (we hope) publication has usually been free!

No, books and journals have not been free, but authors have most often given them away, it is usually only the commercial publisher of the work who makes any significant money (and then often barely enough to meet their costs) royalties on the average book (or even well above average like your latest one) are barely cover the coffee consumed in its writing.

There's the real paradox of digital publishing, a sector (somehow in this over-managed world we are always part of a "sector") that traditionally gave away its (or at least this) product is wary of the new culture of free and hides its work behind the firewalls of commercial publishers. Apart from hidebound inertia and fear of the new what explains this strange reality?

[See also this old post by Mark Goodacre.]

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Saturday, January 16, 2010
  Snippets on how the Internet is changing us
There is a brilliant collection of short essays at Edge, edited by Jonn Brockman in which several digerati reflect on how "the Internet" [a term the first contributor, computer scientist, W. Daniel Hillis notes is not unproblematic] is changing us. They are all good, but here are my highlighted snippets.

Hillis suggests print enabled "the enlightenment" the Internet enables the "entanglement". In the enlightenment we became independent, in the entanglement we are becoming interdependent:
In an Internet-connected world, it is almost impossible to keep track of how systems actually function. Your telephone conversation may be delivered over analog lines one day and by the Internet the next. Your airplane route may be chosen by a computer or a human being, or (most likely) some combination of both. Don't bother asking, because any answer you get is likely to be wrong.

Soon, no human will know the answer. More and more decisions are made by the emergent interaction of multiple communicating systems, and these component systems themselves are constantly adapting, changing the way they work. This is the real impact of the Internet: by allowing adaptive complex systems to interoperate, the Internet has changed the way we make decisions. More and more, it is not individual humans who decide, but an entangled, adaptive network of humans and machines.

He illustrates this discussing Internet Time Protocol the system that allows software to know what time/date it is now, so saving humans from needing to enter the time and date on bootup. The system depends on multiple networked devices, and few if any programmers understand it, we all use it. We are interconnecting not only when we are aware of it, but also and particularly when we are not.

One item only from Hans Ulrich Obrist's (Curator, Serpentine Gallery, London) partial and multiple alphabet of an answer:
D is for Doubt
A certain unreliability of technical and material information on the Internet brings us to the notion of doubt. I feel that doubt has become more pervasive. The artist Carsten Höller has invented the Laboratory of Doubt, which is opposed to mere representation. As he has told me, 'Doubt and perplexity ... are unsightly states of mind we'd rather keep under lock and key because we associate them with uneasiness, with a failure of values'. Höller's credo is not to do; not to intervene. To exist is to do and not to do is a way of doing. 'Doubt is alive; it paralyzes certainty.' (Carsten Höller)
Yes! Now, can we encourage students to begin to understand this?

The ever stimulating Clay Shirky, Social & Technology Network Topology Researcher, provoked me most with this Contrarian gem:
Rabbi Avrohom Osdoba (photo by goldberg)
It is our misfortune to live through the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race, a misfortune because surplus always breaks more things than scarcity. Scarcity means valuable things become more valuable, a conceptually easy change to integrate. Surplus, on the other hand, means previously valuable things stop being valuable, which freaks people out.
This is the lesson Big Music is beginning to learn, the moving image industry has begun to face, that is freaking the publishers, but will change higher education beyond belief (one day, soon?). [See my Back to the Future: Virtual Theologising as Recapitulation especially the first section "Return of the Rabbi" 115-121.]

And, I am only about half-way through the articles :) What a cornucopia of stimulating thinking!



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Tuesday, October 20, 2009
  Ethics and "Christian" Publishing: Case of Thomas Nelson
On my 5 Minute Bible podcast a recent post "Ruth is from Moab, but Boaz is from Bethlehem" attracted an anonymous commenter, who failed to interact with the audio, or the text material in the post, but did advertise a commercial audio Bible published by Thomas Nelson. (I am not linking to them here as I find this practice of comment spamming despicable and have no intention of promoting the company as a result.)

I am writing to ask in general if you are aware of any other dubious ethical practices used by this publisher, and in particular if anyone else has seen examples of comment spam from them?

For the record if the person who wrote the comment, even had they chosen to hide behind anonymity, had interacted with my material or other comments in some way I would NOT have deleted the comment. As it is I intend to cease recommending any works audio or print published by Nelson to students and churches if a viable alternative exists from a more ethical publisher.

Addendum: [in case you do not rerad the comments] this comment is posted below, in fairness to Thomas Nelson I am copying it here so that you can read it with my post:

Michael Hyatt left a comment:

I am the CEO of Thomas Nelson. We do not encourage or promote comment spam. Like you, I hate it. I spend more time than I would like deleting it from my own blog.

If you have an IP address or other information from the person who commented, I will be happy to take the appropriate action.
Blogger, unlike WordPress :( does not seem to collect (or at least does not offer bloggers a chance to see) the IP addresses of commenters, and this one was "Annonymous" but I am glad to hear that such behaviour is not approved, though puzzled since another biblical studies blogger has had similar experiences advertising your company's products. I do NOT object to anyone linking to your product pages, IF they are relevant and add something to the discussion.


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Monday, October 27, 2008
  Vernacular resources: watering the desert of books II
I'm just back from a long weekend away, and teaching tomorrow, so before I respond specifically to comments on the post below, I'll respond to some of the frequently asked questions in other conversations about the idea.

Won't the translations be inaccurate?

Oh yes! But this is part of the attraction of the project, as well as being rendered in the mother tongue the out of copyright texts are also adapted (a little more than is usual in a translation – for all translations are also to some extent cultural adaptations) this makes them more useful. But it may mean that some sort of peer review process should be built in, to ensure that undesirable errors do not creep in. I doubt this needs to be formalised. Since the new “text” is semi-oral and since semi-oral cultures have a flexibility to adapt their texts, the pastor would rework and improve any chapter that their colleagues question.


How will we ensure that busy senior pastors actually find time to do the translating?

First, not a lot of time is needed, just read a chapter, then reread it a paragraph at a time and speak it in their mother tongue. Say two hours for a chapter, once they have done a couple during a training day, and done the first few more slowly on their own. Second, the laptop itself is a carrot. It stays under their authority as long as they produce an agreed number of chapters – becoming their possession after an agreed period. Third, the fact that they are producing this resource is a source of honour (mana etc.) and the fact that it is in their voice will also add to their authority in other things.


Senior pastors won't be able to master the unfamiliar technology!

How many senior pastors do you know who do not have children (and/or grandchildren, nieces, nephews...) in their household. How much training do you think those guys will need? But it is true not all will be able or willing to support the project. Many useful medicines cannot be tolerated by some patients, Penicillin is a well-known example, this does not stop their use among the rest of the population!

Sometimes you have to really hunt for that mobile phone signal.
Photo by MikeBlyth

There will be a lot of new technology to break down and support!

Not a lot. Most of the distribution can be to existing mobile phones or MP3 players. So, for each district you are looking at one laptop (the OLPCs are designed to be rugged and if they are becoming the possession of the families there is an interest in protecting them) and perhaps several MP3 players (they are also very rugged and now quite cheap <$20 retail). You would naturally use the laptop model that is that is chosen for the national education system, or one for which support should be available. And anyway, how much does it cost under the old print system to get books to pastors? And they are culturally inappropriate books, in foreign languages!


This scheme gives the power to the local church!

Yes! Great isn't it :) Print allowed foreign missions, missionaries and ministries to produce “great” resources for the poor people people of the land. This way they get assisted to produce resources for themselves. If they start out doing Matthew Henry in Kisangali, how long do you think it will take before some pastors also produce their own “texts” dealing with locally raised issues? Where has print ever achieved that degree of localisation?


This scheme will reduce the motivation for literacy in places with low literacy rates :(

First, get your priorities right! What are you about? Helping people become clones of the West? Or deepening their understanding? Second, if you think this little project will have a bigger impact than radio, TV and mobile phones you have a higher view of its potential than I have ;) Literacy as we have known it for 500 years is under threat, but this project will not contribute much to the change, though it does work with it rather than resist... “Literacy” and “books” are not idols to be worshiped but a technology and skill that are no longer as dominant as they once were – do not make the dominant technology of the past a fetish object!

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Friday, October 24, 2008
  Watering the "Desert of Books"
Following on from my previous post The "book" of the future Theologians Without Borders has converted a comment to a stimulating post in Transferring Knowledge in a Desert of Books Jennifer Turner puts the experience of teaching in Africa where "libraries were very sparse, due both to shortage of funds and lack of materials in the local language" with the sight of an OLPC laptop, to generate the dream that we might "skip to the next generation of knowledge transfer" by putting a library on such a machine for village pastors.

How about we put these two posts together, and then tweak the results a bit?

At selected centres (like theological colleges) someone provides a laptop stacked with out of copyright or e-texts for which permission had been given. Senior pastors with a good command of the "imperial" language (English, French or whatever) then read selected works a paragraph at a time into the built-in microphone, translating into their mother tongue as they go. It would not be an accurate translation, and it might well include explanation, but that would just make it more useful!

It is in the senior pastors' interest to help, because they get to base a laptop at their home (their kids will nag them into it) and the churches they are responsible for will respect them even more.

These audio books get loaded onto mobile phones (or MP3 players) for village pastors and others. The result semi-literate (and lets face it in much of the world village pastors are often either semi-literate or less than fluently literate) pastors get real solid stimulus and information for a fraction of the cost of print.

It is in the village pastors' interest to listen because they will seem better educated, without all the hassle and risk to their status involved in moving from partial to full literacy.

Do the maths! For a district with say 20 local churches:
  • cost of one laptop, loaded with "books" $250
  • plus 20 MP3 players @ $30 = $600
Round it up to allow for labour $1,000. This provides all the pastoral workers and anyone else who is interested with all you can eat access to all the "books" on the laptop for (say, on average) five years. Compare this with printing "real" books, the same money probably buys 100 paper books!

All we need are:
  • enough people to catch the vision
  • publishers of texts like the Africa Bible Commentary to be willing to see their print editions reach extended twenty-fold
  • people to "sell" the idea to senior pastors
  • a bunch of Western agencies to give up their fetish for print!
Which of the above bottlenecks do you think will scupper this vision? Or can you see other problems with it?

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Thursday, October 09, 2008
  Fun with footnotes
The NZ Journal of History style guide is mandated for essays in the History department at the University of Auckland. An excellent student [declaration of interest: she is my daughter, <brag>her brother not long ago got first class honours from the same department </brag>] and I cannot make sense of one section. It reads:
Footnotes
Print all page numbers up to and including 99 in full, e.g. 16–18, 94–99; for 100 and upwards use the least number of figures, e.g. 322–30, 522–3; but write 116–18, not 116–8; 210–11, not 210–1 (where confusion might otherwise arise).
Now most of this makes perfect sense, "Print all page numbers up to and including 99 in full, e.g. 16–18, 94–99" gotcha "for 100 and upwards use the least number of figures, e.g. 322–30, 522–3;" gotcha, "but write 116–18, not 116–8; 210–11, not 210–1 (where confusion might otherwise arise)" UH? What confusion might arise if I wrote 116-8? because from their own previous example if it was 116-128 I would have written 116-28.

Now I admit the bright student and I are mathematically or scientifically minded, not really arty types, but where pray NZJH is your confusion?

If you are an arty type and can explain the cases to us so we can understand we'd be delighted :)

[Incidentally anyone who thinks footnotes and bibliography are not really fun should watch this short video ;) ]

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  Superb photos of a beautiful place
Mike Crudge has walked the Abel Tasman track, one of NZ's most stunning natural beauties, every year since he was a mere child. Every year he takes friends along. Every year I wish I'd organised for us to go with him. Mike is also a very good photographer, and he has put some of the best of his Abel Tasman photos into a book, The Abel Tasman Coastal Track: The best bits of New Zealand the book has reproduced the photos superbly and it would make a nice present for anyone who has been there, or who might enjoy beautiful coastal scenery, NZ bush or unspoilt places.

I wish his website looked less "commercial" and I wish I could provide one of his photos here to show you how good they are. But to compensate for his uptight attitude to intellectual property Mike's book is thoroughly green, locally printed on paper made from sustainable forests ;)

Mike, if you give me permission, and I can choose a suitable photo, I'll do another post advertising the book in a week or two (even closer to Christmas).

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