Archive for March, 2012

From my diary

I’ve spent some time messing around with perl yesterday and today.  I’ve been trying to find a way that I can edit a page using FrontPage — my usual HTML editor — and do footnotes inline, using <ref>…</ref> tags, just as if I were in Wikipedia.  A perl script then reads the file, strips out the references, inserts a [1], [2], and dumps all the footnotes at the end. 

It’s sort of working.  It’s not that complex a script, although if I didn’t hate perl so much it would probably be done by now.  The language always fights you, unless you immerse yourself in it, which of course occasional users like myself never do.

It still needs a bit of work, tho.

Texas Christians raise money to pay medical bill for atheist protestor

I was impressed by this:

A Texas atheist who earlier this year fought to ban religious symbols on government property in his town is reportedly “flabbergasted” that Christians have offered to help him pay his bills.

The Tyler Morning Telegraph is reporting that Christians in Henderson County have raised around $400 to help Patrick Greene, an atheist who is at risk of going blind in one eye due to a detached retina.

Greene, a former Air Force officer and taxi driver who was forced to retire due to his eye condition, wrote a letter to members of the Henderson County Commissioner’s Court in February threatening a lawsuit if they did not move a Nativity scene from court property, the Malakoff News reported. …

Greene eventually did file suit, but when doctors told him about his eye condition, he decided that he could no longer pursue the lawsuit and dropped the case. At that point, he had been forced to retire from his job driving a taxi and was facing mounting medical bills.

So when local Christians wrote him a check for $400 to help him pay his living expenses, Greene was more than surprised.

How not to preserve Norwich’s city walls

A sunny day and a trip to Norwich.  While standing in the W.H.Smith’s in the market, an item in the Norwich Evening News catches my eye.

Norwich City Council faces an ongoing battle to preserve the much-loved walls, with water, road salt and plants causing damage throughout the year.

Now officials at City Hall are in talks with English Heritage about making it easier to patch-up the early 14th century structures.

It is hoped the deal, known as a heritage partnership agreement, will prevent permission being required from English Heritage every time the council wants to carry out repairs on the walls.

Officials say this can be a time-consuming and costly process. …

He said: “We would like to make sure that the money from the city council is delivered to where it really needs to be – maintaining the monument so it survives.

“That’s the important thing rather than spending on paperwork and management. I think that’s a good aspiration.”

(emphases mine)

You could have no finer illustration of why Great Britain is ceasing to function; that an annual process of routine maintenance is snarled in pointless paperwork taking a year to process, and that the council has to have talks simply to do its job. 

This, friends, is what the Third World looks like.

From my diary

I have to go back to work in a week, so whatever holiday I can cram in happens now.  And the weather has turned summery here, so I propose to take advantage of it! 

I notice that Akismet does not seem to be stopping as much comment spam as it did.  It is frustrating, the amount of time that I have to spend on deleting crude commercial stuff.  When will we get an effective law that allows us to turn these people in?

Going back to work will be a shock.  I’m rather nervous about returning to work after so long a break, in truth, particularly when it’s a bit of a pig in a poke, and I don’t know much about the job.  I’m also trying to change the way in which I do these jobs, to address some of the spiritual and practical issues that became clear to me over the last 3 months.  Pray for me, or wish me luck!  It’s hard to get out of the rut.

Stupidity in Colorado prison administration

An amusing item was posted by Professor Edith Hall on the CLASSICS-L list yesterday, which came into LT-ANTIQ as well:

Meanwhile, proof has arrived of the potency of our subject. One of my PhD students, Katie Billotte, sent a copy of a scholarly book I published as a sedate OUP monograph in 1989, “Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy”, to her penpal currently housed in a Colorado gaol. This is the letter she has just received from the Wardens’ Office–Crowley Correctional Facility (pictured here):

‘We are returning to you this shipment made to Inmate #90704 currently held in the Colorado Department of Corrections. We have determined that Inventing the Barbarians by Edith Hall constitutes contraband under the State of Colorado’s Revised Statute. It has been determined by the wardens of this facility that the primary or secondary purpose of the author was to compromise the good order and efficient operation of a facility under the jurisdiction of the Colorado Department of Corrections. Please note that any further attempts to introduce this item into any facility currently operated by the Colorado Department of Corrections will be referred to the Office of the Attorney General.’

Phew! No wonder people want to close Classics down!”

The stupidity of petty officialdom is one reason why the number of petty officials should be kept as low as possible.

UPDATE: I’ve found a webpage for the prison here, and forwarded the email on CLASSICS-L to their PR man with a note that it is going viral.  It will be interesting to see how they handle the matter.

Library.nu has been shut down

So I learn, from an article by Prof. Christopher Kelty at — of all places –aljazeera.com.  Kelty’s article is required reading: READ IT!  A couple of snippets:

 Last week a website called “library.nu” disappeared. A coalition of international scholarly publishers accused the site of piracy and convinced a judge in Munich to shut it down. Library.nu (formerly Gigapedia) had offered, if the reports are to be believed, between 400,000 and a million digital books for free. 

And not just any books – not romance novels or the latest best-sellers – but scholarly books: textbooks, secondary treatises, obscure monographs, biographical analyses, technical manuals, collections of cutting-edge research in engineering, mathematics, biology, social science and humanities.

And so it did — books that one never knew even existed could be located there.  Not that the site actually hosted any books; it provided links to places on the internet where the books could be found, and a search tool.

To the publishing industry, this event was a victory in the campaign to bring the unruly internet under some much-needed discipline. To many other people – namely the users of the site – it was met with anger, sadness and fatalism. But who were these sad criminals, these barbarians at the gates ready to bring our information economy to its knees? 

They are students and scholars, from every corner of the planet.

We need hardly ask if the judge required the plaintiffs to show evidence of loss of income.  And why was it a German judge? 

A search on Google News turns up almost no hits, and all in fringe media.  TheMinaretOnline gives more details.

On Feb.13, 2012, a judge in Munich granted an injunction against Library.nu and iFile.it. Seventeen different publishing companies in the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany have accused the two websites of illegally sharing online book files. Each publisher listed 10 illegally copied books in their injunction. One illegal book copy can lead to a 250,000-euro fine or six months in prison.

Even this pro-publisher site thinks the penalties are draconian.  The DailyActivist rightly points out that the main losers are people in search of learning who could never afford the ridiculous prices demanded for academic books anyway.  The Hindu is Mourning an ‘illegal’ treasure trove.

There is an angry, disgruntled buzz in several universities across India as students discover that their rock of refuge during research has been shut down by the order of a court in Munich. …

While Tom Allen, president and chief executive officer, Association of American Publishers, considers the injunction “a significant step in shutting down two major rogue websites stealing content from publishers and others”, and an indication of the need for additional tools to expedite such action, the ends achieved by the injunction remain suspect.

Library.nu, for innumerable users, was a source of otherwise inaccessible research material. The claim of publishing houses that this e-book piracy was leading to mammoth losses is, therefore, questionable. Shutting library.nu only makes a huge mass of research inaccessible to a global audience.

Precisely.

Some of the guilty firms are named in this article at law.com.  They include Wiley, McGraw Hill, and Pearson Education.  An injunction was issued in the regional Landgericht Munich court in Germany, because “German case law gives courts clear jurisdiction over share hosters”, which is not the case elsewhere.  The site turned out to be based in Ireland, but “European Union enforcement directives enable enforcement of German-issued injunctions in Ireland”. 

So the excesses of German copyright law, which has rendered the web a German-free zone, are now to be exported to the rest of Europe via some directives by the (very unpopular) European Union? 

Varsity.co.uk comments:

 In February of this year library.nu (previously known as Gigapedia) was shut down by a coalition of publishing companies (including Cambridge University Press) for copyright infringement. The site hosted more than 400,000 e-books for free, but the content focused on scholarly texts, not best-sellers. Library.nu’s catalogue was the world’s most extensive free collection of online academic works – encompassing everything from agricultural manuals to the latest philosophical monographs.

The closure of library.nu was met with dismay in online communities, drawing heart-felt comparisons with the burning of the Libraries of Alexandria; scholarly lawbreakers consoled each other with promises of terabytes of books, downloaded and whisked away to personal hard-drives before the site closed forever. A review of Twitter mentions for library. nu reveals an international user base; tech-savvy would-be scholars of all ages, who might have pursued academia had economic expediency not forced them into other careers.

The problem is the publishing industry’s business model and prices. Academics and institutions need to make money to continue their research, no-one denies this – but this system restricts scholarly research to an academic elite. The global middle class – not the European or American middle class who comprise the economic 1%; but residents of Latin and South America, Africa and India – simply cannot afford access to materials.

Their academic input may come to nothing but who cares? They represent the values that all academic institutions preach: read and learn; expand your mind; better yourself and improve your community.

Cambridge University Press is another culprit, then. 

A report (in German) shows the head of the German booksellers association, one Gottfried Honnefelder, apparently claiming that there can be no culture without copyright.  If so, it is disturbing that German booksellers can’t find an educated man to represent them.

I learned of this in the week when this story ran; that the owner of The Hobbit turned out to be an unattractive-sounding American named Saul Zaentz, who demanded money under threat of legal action from a small pub in England of the same title.  Zaentz backed off when faced with massive negative publicity.

We all know how the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings came into being.  They were composed by an Oxford academic so poor that he couldn’t afford to hire a typist, and published by Allen and Unwin.  How in the world did these texts come to be the property of Mr Saul Zaentz, whoever he might be?  And what creative input did the agreeable Mr Zaentz bring to these works?

The answer to the first is that probably the “rights” — the copyrights — were traded around various rich men for ever increasing sums of money, none of which went to J. R. R. Tolkien, the creator.  The answer to the second is a monosyllable: none.

How, precisely, does the copyright law as it has now evolved benefit the creator?  Have we not reached the stage where copyright in books — I am not discussing the special problems of movies or music — is now damaging the public interest?

Let’s give Dr Kelty the final comment:

In reality, however, the scholarly publishing industry has entered a phase like the one the pharmaceutical industry entered in the 1990s, when life-saving AIDS medicines were deliberately restricted to protect the interests of pharmaceutical companies’ patents and profits. 

The comparison is perhaps inflammatory; after all, scholarly monographs are life-saving in only the most distant and abstract sense, but the situation is – legally speaking – nearly identical. Library.nu is not unlike those clever – and also illegal – local corporations in India and Africa who created generic versions of AIDS medicines.

Why doesn’t the publishing industry want these consumers? For one thing, the US and European book-buying libraries have been willing pay the prices necessary to keep the industry happy – and not just happy, in many cases obscenely profitable.

Rather than provide our work at cheap enough prices that anyone in the world might purchase, they have taken the opposite route – making the prices higher and higher until only very rich institutions can afford them. Scholarly publishers have made the trade-off between offering a very low price to a very large market or a very high price to a very small market.

But here is the rub: books and their scholars are the losers in this trade-off – especially cutting edge research from the best institutions in the world. The publishing industry we have today cannot – or will not – deliver our books to this enormous global market of people who desperately want to read them.

Instead, they print a handful of copies – less than 100, often – and sell them to libraries for hundreds of dollars each. When they do offer digital versions, they are so wrapped up in restrictions and encumbrances and licencing terms as to make using them supremely frustrating. 

To make matters worse, our university libraries can no longer afford to buy these books and journals; and our few bookstores are no longer willing to carry them. So the result is that most of our best scholarship is being shot into some publisher’s black hole where it will never escape. That is, until library.nu and its successors make it available. 

What these sites represent most clearly is a viable route towards education and learning for vast numbers of people around the world. The question it raises is: on which side of this battle do European and American scholars want to be?

Reading George Barna, “Revolution”

A friend handed me a copy of this book, which basically suggests that Christians need not belong to a local church, and that to do so is empowering.  There is a review of it all here

I’m committed to read all the way through it, but I have some questions after only 30 pages.

To me, it smells of brimstone.  Let me explain.

One of the things that I am forced to do when browsing online is to see atheist literature, and I always notice their flaws.  These items always rely on tricking the reader, combined with flattering him for his knowingness in “seeing through” that which he does not wish to believe anyway.  After a while, you learn to spot the points at which the writer switches the meaning of a word, or deliberately confuses two things together.  So I tend to read all books with an eye for these tricks.

Few are aware that the devil puts out books from time to time, which are supposedly designed to help Christians but in reality are designed to deconvert them.  The authors, indeed, may not be aware of what they are doing, or may have no such intention.  That isn’t the point. 

I have a feeling that putting out these books is a standard Satanic ploy.   But I haven’t researched it enough to know. Here are a few ideas, off the top of my head.

Tertullian ca. 215 AD references a similar idea in the opening words of “Adversus Praxean”.

Manifold are the ways in which the devil has sought to undermine the truth.  He is now trying to crush it, by pretending to defend it.

Some will remember John Robinson’s “Honest to God” from the 1960′s, in the middle of the permissive revolution, which apparently convinced many that abandoning Christianity was the right thing to do, and that they should go off and indulge in the vices being promoted in that period. 

Others may remember Dave Tomlinson’s “The post-evangelical”.  Now I don’t know what effect that had in general, but I do remember a girl who was tottering in her faith being recommended it, and losing her faith and her morals immediately afterwards, and indeed worse followed.  She at least thought that the book helped her along the road to ruin.

Knowing that such things exist, and that the devil really does want Christians not to go to church, I have a feeling that ”Revolution” may well be one of these nasty items. 

You see, I notice that the first 30 pages consist almost entirely of flattery of the reader.  There were a number of points at which he attributes specifically to his “revolutionaries”, for no apparent reason, things which are generally true of all Christians, as if to suggest that not going to church is the only way to Salvation.  He doesn’t actually say that; but the reader is led  to believe it.  God doesn’t use these techniques, but Satan does.

Now I have no idea how much “tricky” literature most of us get to read, but I thought that I would put people on their guard.  I’m not writing the book off; but something is not right here.  We’ll see what the remainder of the book looks like.

UPDATE: Well, I’ve read the rest of it.  And … it doesn’t contain an argument.  It really does not.  Instead it relies on the methods of persuasion familiar to us from advertising: show us something, use loaded language to suggest sub-rationally that it must be good, bark a bit at the “fuddy-duddies” who try to resist, and adopt a tone of piety.  The purpose, remember, is to say that not bothering with church is a good thing, or at least an indifferent thing; but he doesn’t actually say so directly.

I’m a simple soul.  If someone wants to persuade me of something, I want to see his argument, laid out fair and square with no weasel-words or loaded language, and the evidence for it.  Then I can evaluate his case.  When an author doesn’t do this, I get mighty suspicious.

The proposition of the book seems to be that (a) millions of US Christians are abandoning the churches, (b) they call themselves — or he calls them (he is vague on this) — revolutionaries (no loaded language, then), (c) abandoning the local church is a good thing (nowhere stated, contradicted at least once, but inferred throughout), (d) if you abandon the church you will be moving positively forward with God (despite bit tacked on the front portraying, as an alternative, a backslider), and (e) if you try to resist, you must be deficient or angry or threatened (recognise the ad hominem argument in this, and the attempt at emotional manipulation of a reluctant reader who senses something is wrong but not what). 

The reader is led to suppose — it isn’t stated — that this is all happening, therefore it must be good.  I’m sure we all recognise the classic fallacy of “this happens=this is right”.  Quite a lot of things happen, in the way of trends, which are disastrously wrong.  I admit to utter disinterest as to whether “millions” (who counted them? did they fill in a form?) of Americans are all now Barna-ian “Revolutionaries” (do they all get vetted for quality?  By whom?), or indeed whether they all dance the hokey-cokey.  In matters to do with God, I want to know whether something is right, not whether it is popular.  And this question is simply not addressed.

Throughout the book plays fast and loose with the reader, by talking about things that every Christian should expect, as if they are only things that people who don’t go to church can experience.  This is very naughty. 

It’s filled with great quantities of irrelevant material.  I want to see the argument; I want to see the evidence.  Instead I find things like chapter 5 (Spiritual transitions in the making) which has no apparent relevance to the question at all.  Likewise the material in chapter 6 (God is active today) is true, whether or not going to a local church is a good idea, a bad idea, or the kernel idea for a mini-series on NBC about mud-wrestling.  In other words, it’s irrelevant to the thesis being advanced.

One element of Chapter 6 amused me, cynic that I am.  Barna suggests starting on p.53 that “mini-movements” are important, and show how obsolete the church is getting.  But … they’re so important that he only describes them in one sentence on p.54!  I was left wondering what he was on about.  Clearly they are NOT important to him!  If he was enthusiastic about them, he’d have said more.  Based on number of words devoted to each, this said to me that it is getting rid of the local church that matters, not whatever these mini-movements might be.

Let’s step back a bit.  It is absolutely right to notice that some committed Christians get bored with their local churches, and tend to stop going.  Many of them remain fervently committed to Christ.  It would be a very good thing to find some way to linking these up in such a way that they can get fellowship in whatever ways work for them.  Local churches certainly can be awful places.  We can all agree on this.

But … Barna’s book goes a very long way beyond this.  A reasonable reader will suppose that the local church is actually a barrier to spiritual development.  The book seems designed to inculcate this message.  The object is to get Christians to think that they are moving forward with God, simply by sitting at home on Sunday morning (for no concrete proposals are offered for anything else).  And that is not merely nonsense — it seems pretty clear whose agenda that statement serves.  It isn’t God’s, of that we may be sure.

I find myself rather angry, in truth.  This is not an honest book, in my opinion.  It’s a piece of contrived poison.  How on earth did a Christian publisher put this out?  Have they no duty to their readers? 

I fear that George Barna has unwittingly acted as an agent for Hell here.  If so, of course, he needs our prayers.

A bibliography of scholarship on Gregory of Nyssa

A correspondent has drawn my attention to a treasure online: a site maintained by Matthieu Cassin, which consists of a bibliography of articles about Gregory of Nyssa, in reverse date order.

What makes this special is that some of the articles are linked.  This includes translations of texts by the man himself:

M. Cassin, « Grégoire de Nysse, Sur la divinité du Fils et de l’Esprit et sur Abraham », Conférence 29, 2009, p. 581-611.

and this interesting article, which also discusses the titles and chapter divisions of Gregory’s work against Eunomius.  Whether the chapter divisions are authorial in late antique texts is a discussion which remains to be clarified, but the paper contributes to it.

M. Cassin, « Text and context : the importance of scholarly reading. Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium », dans S. Douglass, M. Ludlow (éd.), Reading the Church Fathers, Londres, 2011, p. 109-131 et 161-165.

There are other treasures too:

P. Géhin, « Fragments patristiques syriaques des Nouvelles découvertes du Sinaï », Collectanea Christiana Orientalia 6, 2009, p. 67-93.

P. Géhin, « Manuscrits sinaïtiques dispersés II : les fragments théologiques syriaques de Milan (Chabot 34-57) », Oriens christianus 91, 2007, p. 1-24.

although some of the links are just to pay-journals, unfortunately, or to Google books.

There are further interesting items linked from his CV, among them:

A. Binggeli, M. Cassin, « Recenser la tradition manuscrite des textes grecs : du Greek Index Project à Pinakes », dans La descrizione dei manoscritti : esperienze a confronto, éd. E. Crisci, M. Maniaci, P. Orsini, (Studi e ricerche del Dipartimento di filologia e storia 1), Cassino, 2010, p. 91-106.

Impressive!

40 days of prayer – an online Lent meditation

I came across a blog run by Community Church Derby — about which I know nothing — here.  The blog is a set of daily thoughts on Psalm 23, for Lent. 

The item for Sunday 18th March struck me particularly:

Sunday 18th March ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me, your rod and staff they comfort me.’

God, our Shepherd, wants to guide us. The question is will we allow him to guide us? Will we allow him to be our compass, our reference point in life? Christianity is not a system of beliefs that we choose to sign up to the try our best to live up to, it’s a call to a radical new way of life which involves making a daily decision to allow God, our Shepherd to lead us and give our life direction, meaning and purpose.

The Sheep: Pray for someone you know who is self-employed and for those who work mostly alone during the day, maybe in the home. Pray against feelings of loneliness and that they would know God’s presence with them in the hours of work.

There are a lot of lonely people out there, you know.  There are a lot of people also, whose work prevents them from really meeting people, even if they sit in an office.  I’ve encountered a number of these over the last couple of months, and I have been struck by how alone most people are. 

Giving our life meaning, seeking every day God’s will in our decisions … what does this mean, in practice?  Or do we just drift on, doing what we always do, and asking for His help only in crises?  The answer, surely, will differ for each of us.  We can, at least, all ask God how He wants us to play this.

Note that the church in question uses “radical” in its proper sense, of returning to the root (radix) of Christian teaching in the New Testament.

What do you do, when swindled by a “Christian company”?

An interesting ethical question reached me today, and although it has never happened to me — mostly because I don’t do much business with Christian businesses, I suspect, it raises all sorts of issues.

Someone purchased a subscription for a service from a Christian company back in February. But he finds, now the first month’s materials have been delivered, that they aren’t fit for purpose, because of a condition unmentioned in the advertising. Basically he’s lost his money, and what they are sending him, although perhaps useful to someone else, is no use to him.

He could perhaps go to the credit card company, and ask for redress.  He could also go to the Advertising Standards Authority and complain that he wasn’t told.  (The ASA is the body that recently decided that mainstream Christian group Healing on the Streets were not allowed to say on their website that God can heal, by the way).  In short he could bring the Christian company before the authorities.  If he was dealing with someone like Amazon, he would do just that.

But should he do this for a business which provides Christian services for Christians?  What about 1 Corinthians 6:7:

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?

ἤδη μὲν οὖν ὅλως ἥττημα ὑμῖν ἐστιν ὅτι κρίματα ἔχετε μεθ’ ἑαυτῶν. διὰ τί οὐχὶ μᾶλλον ἀδικεῖσθε; διὰ τί οὐχὶ μᾶλλον ἀποστερεῖσθε;

Perhaps so.  Perhaps the best thing to do is ask politely for a refund; and to bear the loss patiently if necessary; and to hand the company over to God and think no more about it.  The sum is large, but bearable.

Or does this verse refer to circumstances rather different than those envisaged here; more to disputes between individuals rather than modern  business methods?  Or is there some other reason not to take this view?

Note that possibly there are extenuating circumstances also that have not reached me.  But  imagine that there are not, just for the sake of argument; and that the Christian company has got greedy.

What do you think?