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Sticky: Becoming mobile-friendly

There's currently a lot of excitement among web designers about Google's announcement that they will penalise sites that don't work well on mobile devices. I've decided I need to comply with this although with less than total enthusiasm. Nearly all my pages now meet Google's new criteria (the only exception is my cycling pictures.)

The disadvantage of the change is that if you read my pages on a desktop or laptop the lines will be long (unless you adjust the width of your browser, of course). Perhaps I should have alternatives for people who are using those devices, though that would mean more complication and difficulty in maintaining both alternatives. And the variety of ways that web pages can be viewed has increased enormously, so it isn't possible to cater for all of them. Probably it's no longer a good idea to specify the width of one's lines as I did previously.

I'd be grateful for feedback on this.
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Last modified on 2015-08-15 16:13

Sticky: Changes to the blog

There has recently been a major update of the software I use for this blog (Serendipity). In the process of upgrading I had problems with the (pretty old) frontend theme I was using previously, hence this new one. It's plain and functional, which I like.

More important, it will now, I hope, be easier to search and navigate the blog. I'm particularly pleased to have the list of tags in the right-hand margin; relevant tags are listed at the end of each entry. I tend to come back to certain topics over the months and years but up to now I didn't have any easy way of linking posts on the same theme together.
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Last modified on 2015-11-25 14:55

Book review: A Ship of the Line, by C.S. Forester

This is a sequel to The Happy Return. It begins at a fairly slow pace which quickens progressively as the story goes on, to reach a highly dramatic and disastrous climax.

When the book opens Hornblower has just been given a commission as Captain of the seventy-four gun ship Sutherland. He thinks this may be thanks to Lady Barbara Wellesley, with whom he is in love. They had almost become lovers at the end of the voyage in the Lydia, as described in the previous book, but that had ended badly and Barbara has now married Admiral Sir Gilbert Leighton, under whom Hornblower is going to serve. [More]

Book review: Count Bohemond, by Alfred Duggan

Bohemond was the nickname that Robert Guiscard gave to his eldest son, Mark, because of his size. (Bohemond was a legendary giant.) Like his namesake, Bohemond grew up to be of huge stature and strength and a famous warrior. He was one of the principal leaders of the First Crusade and that is the centrepiece of this novel. [More]

Thought for the Day, with Catherine Pepinster

In her Thought for the Day last week, Catherine Pepinster, Editor of The Tablet, was talking about the recent financial scandals at the Vatican. She mentioned the business of canonisation and said that there might be a case for abandoning the process of declaring people to be saints, which has led to allegations of bribery. But one reason to retain the practice, she thought, was that knowing of the lives of saintly individuals may help people when they "struggle to believe".

Surely the idea of struggling to believe is an odd one. It at once reminds me of the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, who boasted that she had believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Belief seems to be particularly valued in Western Christianity, where there is a centuries-old history, going back to Constantine, of the defining of doctrine and the denunciation of heresies.

Note added 25 November 2015: The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has admitted that the recent terrorist attacks in Paris made him doubt the presence of God. His predecessor, Rowan Williams, said in an interview with John Humphrys that he could only "just" maintain belief in the face of human suffering.

Book review: Jung: A Biography, by Deirdre Bair

There have been many biographies of C.G. Jung, written from different viewpoints. Some, notably Richard Noll's The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement, have been strongly hostile, while others written by Jungian analysts have naturally taken a diametrically opposite position. Some less committed psychiatrists, such as Anthony Storr, have been broadly sympathetic although not unreservedly enthusiastic.

Bair differs from many of her predecessors in not being a psychiatrist or psychoanalyst. As far as I know she has not undergone a Jungian analysis either; she is a professional biographer and writes about Jung without having adopted a prior position either for or against. While she does not shirk describing Jung's ideas her main focus is on events and personalities. She gives us the fullest account I have seen of his life and relationships. She has had access to a large amount of material, much of it unpublished, and has had many conversations with members of Jung's family and others who knew him, although some of these spoke only on condition of anonymity. [More]

Why I'm using OpenBSD rather than Linux

Actually, I do still have Linux (ArchLinux) on one laptop, mainly because I might possibly want to run Flash or Skype, neither of which work on OpenBSD. But after using Linux for many years, in the last year I've switched almost entirely to OpenBSD. This has happened more or less by accident. I first installed OpenBSD largely from curiosity, not dissatisfaction with Linux. But the more I used it the better I liked it.

OpenBSD is often praised for its security but that wasn't what attracted me initially. I didn't think myself to be particularly vulnerable, but I've changed my mind somewhat now in view of the increasing quantity of internet fraud and the number of ISPs and other holders of data whose security has been breached (TalkTalk is the latest example as I write). OpenBSD gives me a degree of confidence, though I hope not complacency.

There is a different kind of security that I also care about: what to do if everything goes wrong. Recently I stupidly managed to delete my /etc directory, thus rendering my system unbootable. I regularly backup /home both to tarsnap and to another computer on my local network, but of course I needed to reinstall the system. OpenBSD is the easiest OS to install that I've ever used, so reinstalling took only about half an hour. I still needed to fetch the third-party packages that I use, but I keep a list of those so I knew what I needed to get. Best of all, I didn't even need my backup of /home; OpenBSD helpfully sets up a separate /home partition by default and I didn't need to overwrite this during the reinstall. Recpvery from my mistake was therefore relatively painless.

I could have done all this on ArchLinux too, but installing that is more complex than installing OpenBSD and takes longer, at least if you are not doing it frequently and need to refer to the manual.

Using OpenBSD on a daily basis
I find that OpenBSD works well as a desktop OS. Any disadvantages? I've already mentioned Flash and Skype, both of which have security risks so you are better off without them if they are not essential. Arch has more packages than OpenBSD but in practice this hasn't made much difference to me. Arch is more bleeding-edge than OpenBSD. even the -current version I use, but again that hasn't been a problem. And I like the *BSD concept of having a unified base system which even includes X.

None of this is meant as a criticism of Arch, which is my preferred Linux distribution. In fact, Arch is said to be the most BSD-like version of Linux, which is perhaps why I found the transition to OpenBSD not too demanding.

There's a lot more to say about OpenBSD as a desktop OS, including why I find it works better for me than does FreeBSD but I have other posts about that and I won't repeat myself here. Please use the tags to read more.

Academic publishers want it on the cheap

Academic publishers are notoriously stingy and often not only don't pay their authors but may even expect said authors to pay for the pleasure/honour of appearing in their august pages. I accept that in some cases, when a journal is being published at a loss, this may be justified. I've published many papers on that basis myself. But textbooks are not the same as journals in that respect; textbooks are published to make money.

In the last few weeks I've twice been approached by textbook publishers who wanted me to contribute chapters. The first actually asked me to pay €670 to be printed! I didn't bother answering this, but another intrigued me enough to make me ask for more information.

This was a large organisation that publishes many books and journals, some quite technical and mostly expensive. I was told I could submit a book or edit one, in which case I would get some royalties if there were any sales. I could also submit a chapter for inclusion in a planned book. For this I would receive a free e-book on publication. The publishers said their terms were "standard for academic publishers". Here is my reply.

Thank you for your reply. I would not be prepared to submit or edit a book so these remarks relate only to the proposed chapter.

I don't agree that your terms are "standard for academic publishers". It is true that some of these don't pay their authors but others do. I have written three chapters this year for two well-known academic publishers who offer either payment or a copy of the (expensive) hardback textbook in which my contribution is to appear. While I accept that in some circumstances writing an academic piece might be done pro bono, that would not be the case here since your organisation is a commercial enterprise.

I cannot see that a free e-book is adequate recompense for the large amount of work that would be entailed in writing a chapter for you. Accordingly I must decline your invitation.

Yours sincerely,

Anthony Campbell

This sort of thing really makes me angry. Many young professionals and academics are anxious to be published in almost any form because they hope it will advance their careers. Publishers take advantage of this to get them to work for nothing. It doesn't apply to me, of course, because I retired a long time ago, but for those who are just starting out it's a different matter.

Book review: The Happy Return, by C.S. Forester

This is one of the novels in the Hornblower series about the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars. Britain is at war with Spain. Hornblower is the captain of a frigate, the Lydia, sailing in the Pacific, off the coast of Central America. Hornblower opens his sealed orders and finds that he is to assist a rebellion against the Spanish headed by a local landowner, Don Julian Alvarado, with the aim of getting Don Julian to enter into commercial treaties with the British Government once he is successful. [More]

Book review: The Man Who Loved China, by Simon Winchester

Joseph Needham's name will be for ever linked with the extraordinary achievement of Science and Civilisation in China, the multi-volume opus that transformed Westerners' view of China in the twentieth century. Yet although he was a Cambridge academic he had no formal qualifications as either a sinologist or a historian; his background was in biochemistry and embryology. But this breadth of interest was only one aspect of his astonishingly wide-ranging character. He was a Communist fellow-traveller, a nudist, a singer, a Morris dancer, a womaniser, and - perhaps most unexpected of all - a committed Christian. [More]

Book review: The Art of Medicine in Early China, by Miranda Brown

The title of this book is perhaps slightly misleading. Brown explicitly tells us that, unlike many previous authors, she has not written a study of how medicine was practised in ancient China or of the medical theories that existed then. Such matters are touched on only peripherally. What she writes about is how representations (her emphasis) of ancient healers have been reinterpreted in both Europe and China. In other words, she focuses on how previous writers have shaped our view of ancient Chinese medicine rather than on ancient Chinese medicine itself. This is a book about Chinese medical historiography.

I have to say that when I first read this I thought that the book would be of interest only to a scholarly audience and not to someone like me who mainly wants to try to understand how modern Western acupuncture relates to ancient Chinese ideas. But as I read more of the book I realised that it does shed light on this question, even if indirectly. [More]