Cat surveys the great outdoors

The day before the Day, and I can feel all sorts of good intentions swirling around.

Actually I’m looking forward to this. Term ended at Oxford last week, and I am back in Zürich with my husband and my cat, so I had expected a fairly empty day that I was going to have to intentionally fill with theme-appropriate sorts of activities. As usual, events caught up with me. More on that tomorrow.

Slow start

Like most days that lack appointments, today is off to a slow start.

This is probably the most difficult transition from the world of industry to the one of academia – coping with all that unstructured time. Term ended at Oxford last week, and since my family is in Zürich I returned here. Once here, though, I have no office to go to. I can roll out of bed and into my study before I’ve even had my morning cup of tea, and next thing I know I have spent the entire day mindlessly reloading Twitter and Facebook, and looking at pictures of cats with humorous captions on the Internet.

So today’s goal is to try not to do that.

I’ll start with the relatively easy stuff: paperwork. A few posts this morning have mentioned vast piles of paperwork in somewhat unhappy tones, but I find that as long as it doesn’t get out of hand, it is a good way of making myself start actually doing things.

This morning, ordered by increasing difficulty, we have a few things of relevance to my professional life, which may even turn into blog posts of their own:

  • a ‘Short-term Scientific Mission’ acceptance form that needs to be signed and returned.
  • documents relating to the sale of our house in Oxford—putting down roots just to have to pull them up again is a common theme for young academics, and I seem to be no exception.
  • funding applications. This is definitely getting a post of its own.

Another cup of tea, a quick reload of cats-with-captions, and off we go.

That whole collation thing

3pm already. Where does the time go? It has turned into one of those days where I have to shut down all my chat clients just to make myself focus on work. I’ve got through some of the paperwork, so I will pause for some pontification.

The ’short-term scientific mission’ is, as some readers will be aware, a mechanism for giving travel grants to researchers in order to carry out work related to a European Science Foundation COST action. In this case, the action in question is Interedition, chaired by Joris van Zundert; I and a few others will be descending on Florence next month for a ‘hackathon’. Working, available, and reusable text collation software has become something of a holy grail among text scholars who use computers at all; ever since Peter Robinson’s COLLATE was effectively end-of-lifed with the death of Mac OS 9, there has been pretty much nothing, apart from the occasional home-grown hack that works well enough for a single project. I was invited to join Interedition when the appropriate people found out that I’m responsible for one of these home-grown hacks myself.

There is one exception to ‘pretty much nothing’, and that is Juxta, developed by Nick Laiacona and worked on by Gregor Middell among others. Juxta is a great tool for collating variant texts against a single base, and for making visualizations of the results. It is used by a fair number of people, most notably people connected to the NINES project. Unfortunately, it isn’t what I need, over here in the world of medieval history and monastic scribes, for making my own critical edition.

CollateX, the collation tool we will be working on in Florence, is our attempt at finding that holy grail after all. The impetus for CollateX came from Peter himself, and the vast majority of the work has been carried forward by a team led by Ronald Dekker at the Huygens Institute. As it stands now, CollateX works very well for anyone who can fire up Eclipse, download the source code, run a local webserver instance, feed the appropriate format of data into the web form, and have some software of their own ready on the other end to parse the results. Not so useful, that.

So the main goal in Florence is to make CollateX into something that a scholar can use without having to learn Java first. We’ve laid a lot of ground already for what the result should look like, and our ‘Juxta guys’, Nick and Gregor, have been an integral part of these design discussions; it would really be a waste, and something of an insult to the work they’ve already done, to reinvent in CollateX the things that work well already in Juxta.

For me personally, the Interedition bootcamp next month holds the promise of two things. I will be that much closer to being able to trade in my home-grown hack for a collation tool that really works for me, and I will get to do some real live actual programming. After months of being a first-year full-time lecturer, where it seems like I never had time for anything beyond preparing the next bibliography and frantically cramming for my own classes and tutorials, I can’t wait to lose myself in source code for a week.

Coffee time

View from my table opposite Oerlikon station

At a cafe now, near Oerlikon station; much to my pleasant surprise, it is a perfect day for sitting outside. Still a little overcast, but the first genuinely mild day I can remember since the autumn. Spring has sprung, and high time too.

The reason it took me such a long time to do what was fairly trivial paperwork this morning is that, just as I was going to start, I got lured away for a ‘virtual coffee’ by a colleague of mine, Nicholas Cole. Nicholas and I were grad students in Oxford together; he was president of our college’s common room when I arrived. We both got appointed to Departmental Lecturer (read: fixed-term) posts in the history faculty this year, though his (in American history) is for two years against my one. We became friends fairly quickly, mostly because whenever I was around he would start talking about HTTP protocols or ncurses or Python or something equally far removed from historical scholarship, then suddenly interrupt himself to say ‘Stop it! Stop it! You are turning me into a geek! I’m not a geek!’

Fortunately for us all, he seems finally to have embraced my attitude of geek pride.

One of the striking features of Oxonian life is the way a day can revolve around teatime and coffee breaks. Especially in a collegiate university, one’s tea/lunch/coffee/seminar/wine rounds say a lot about who one actually has contact with, and where one actually fits in. Nicholas and I usually fit in one or two coffee breaks with each other per week when I am around. He is often annoyed when I am not around (e.g. when I am home for the term break), but on days like today this turns into a video chat session where we have our mugs on each end. It was mostly spent commiserating about the opaque impossibility of the job market for young academics. I need a new post for this October, and he will need a new post for next October, and neither of us has much idea what the future holds. It gets pretty depressing sometimes.

Since Nicholas knew that I am recording my day here, he did his best to gratuitously fit some D— H— content into our talk, by using a feature of iChat to show me a set of his lecture slides. It worked shockingly well actually. Now I’m idly daydreaming of being able to give my own lectures that way next term, instead of having to go to all that trouble of actually travelling back to Oxford.

On second thought, I’d miss the coffee.

New dimensions of deadline hell

I just received an email from the project manager of the Encyclopedia of Ancient History, reporting that the Encyclopedia is about ready to enter the copy-editing stage, but that my own article on the Armenians is overdue, and if I need a short deadline extension then I should say so.

Trouble is, I’ve never heard of this encyclopedia, and have no idea how they got the impression that I am signed up to write an article for it. It’s a new one on me really, missing deadlines that I didn’t even know I had.

Time for a break

One of the hazards of being a young postdoc (apart from receiving emails about deadlines you never knew about) is the soul-sucking race for funding.

Next up on my todo list today was the second draft of a postdoc application. My first draft had been sent around to some helpful and generous people for feedback, and their comments were constructive all around, and they generally made positive noises about the whole idea. Even so, it feels rather like I have written twice as much marketing prose as scholarly prose since submitting my Ph.D. thesis. This application comes on the heels of another application for which I pressed the ’submit’ button yesterday, and a few more hovering in my future, all insanely competitive and with no promise of an academic future even when they are done.

Meanwhile, peripatetic out-of-term scholar that I am, I made my way to the Google office here (yes, they really do have a fireman’s pole in the office) to meet my husband and his colleagues for dinner. Mike got a little carried away by today’s blogging mission when he made my name badge, but it just goes to show he’s proud of me I guess.

There are several other things I ought to be doing today, but instead I have an appointment with the port & whisky menu of the Widder Bar. More later, accompanied no doubt by spirituous fumes.

Encyclopedic knowledge

The encyclopedia mystery is resolved, mostly—I still don’t know how I got marked as having accepted the commission, but I did find out who put my name forward in the first place, and she had in fact asked a long time ago if I was interested in writing an encyclopedia article but hadn’t given me any details. I suppose the system was supposed to provide the details. Now I just have to decide whether I can turn around 1500 words that quickly.

In fact, for the last year or so (pretty much from the moment I submitted my Ph.D. thesis) I’ve been absolutely swimming in encyclopedia projects. It started innocently enough, with an invitation to write a pair of articles on Matthew of Edessa and on his Chronicle, for the Christian-Muslim Relations project. (I would link to it, but the link seems to be broken. Chalk that one up to pitfalls of our brave new futuristic world.) Then I got wind of the Encyclopedia of the Medieval Chronicle, when its general editor sent a cry for help to a mailing list I subscribe to, and among the unfinished articles was one on Matthew. Next thing I knew, I found myself invited to take over the entire Christian Near East section (that is, everything east of Byzantium and still Christian), and either write or commission a whole bunch of unfinished articles on an insanely short timeframe.

Well, what can I say? I was unemployed at the time. And then I went and landed a job the following month, which may have been something of a tactical error for this purpose. By this time, of course, most of the academic world was thoroughly burned out on encyclopedia projects, so I ended up commissioning almost all my outstanding articles to recent post-docs or late-stage Ph.D. students. By and large their articles were very good, they were happy to do it, and they have a nice publication credit at a stage when we are happy for all the CV-padding publications we can get.

My deadline for the EMC was officially Monday, but it is still one of today’s concerns. Most of the articles got done, but I have one author who spilled coffee into his laptop last week, and as a consequence I’m still missing some of his articles. Meanwhile, I am waiting on a couple of changes that need to be made by the general editor, so that I can finish the cross-referencing job on a set of remaining articles, and submit them.

The encyclopedia glut leads me to the more general topic of online publication. I have had a few conversations now with one of the project managers at Brill, the publisher who seems to be leading the field in terms of sheer volume of electronically-born publications. I met him when I was invited to help with yet another project, for which I provide the necessary Armenian translations, mostly of the Chronicle of Eusebius of Caesarea. He seems shockingly pessimistic about whether publishers might find a good way to earn their living and pay their employees, by providing the electronic publication services that scholars actually want to have. In a way I’m not surprised at all. It is a difficult problem, and Brill seems to be regarded by many people to be vaguely piratical in its charging practices, as well as its author compensation.

On the other hand, when I began to look around for publishers who might be willing to put out an electronic version alongside a paper version of the Chronicle I’m editing, Brill is the only major publisher I have found whose idea of ‘electronic publication’ can mean more than ‘we will sell people a PDF’. One of my major concerns is that my eventual edition be electronically sustainable—that is, I need to know that the searching, the cross-referencing, the ability to let the reader play with text variants as appropriate, and all the other relevant functionality will work as well (or even better!) after ten years as it does the day it is published. Ideally I would even want to be able to update the online version if a new manuscript surfaced. And yes, I still want a printed edition, which more or less ties me to a ‘real’ publisher.

So, I still don’t have a good idea who will publish my edition in the end, or how. On the bright side, by the time it is finally done, maybe we will have an answer to these thorny questions.