Ohio STRS Pension Reform: The Death Benefit

STRS Ohio, the state faculty retirement system under which I live, sought to strengthen the financial standing of the retirement pension system without imposing any costs on the institutions. The proposal, under Governor John Kasich’s guidelines, was that all increases in funding and reductions in benefits would coming directly from the participants. Some of the highlights, according to the STRS, are the following:

  • Member contributions from 2013 to 2016 will increase from 10 to 14 percent of salary, and stay there.
  • One skipped Cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for current retirees, and no COLA for future retirees (after 2023) until 5 years after retirement date
  • Now need 35 years of service for full benefit

I have a humanities PhD, and in my particular situation a few details about how long, on average, it takes humanities PhDs to finish degrees are relevant.

  • Earliest age to start PhD (21)
  • Average time to PhD, 11.8 years
  • Average age to achieve tenure, 39.5 years (pg. 12)

Assuming a 5- or 6-year tenure track appointment, most professors start working at a faculty position at approximately 34 or 35 years old. Supposing they start working in Ohio today, they must work 35 years before receiving full retirement benefits. If they retire at 70, they can receive full benefits with no cost-of-living adjustment for the first five years. And then, at ripe old age of 75, they can start receiving COLA adjustments.

I’m an English professor and not so good at math, but I’m beginning to realize that the real heavy lifting is not being done by any of this shaving around the edges: the actuarial tables that define life expectancy have real teeth. So here’s the key fact: life expectancy today in the United States, according to CDC, is 78.5 yrs. Eight years after retirement begins, you can expect, on average, to have received three cost-of-living adjustments—by then on average you can be expected to be dead.

Of course, individual lives may vary. Take mine. I started a PhD program late in life, at 33. I went through PhD program in a hurry, 4 years. After two years in a post-doc, I started a tenure-track position in Ohio at ripe old age of 39. And if tenure case goes well, I can hope to earn tenure at 45. By the time that I could retire with full benefits, I can expect to be 74. In the revised plan, I will contribute 11 percent of salary to retirement system for 7 years and an average of 14 percent of salary to STRS for 28 years. If my employer match contributes 14 percent for 35 years total contributions between myself and employer will be about 10 times my average salary. So I’m pretty close to the ideal employee for the new benefit regime in Ohio. Under this reform it is now reasonable to suppose I and my employer will make more in contributions than I will receive in benefits, because I’m almost guaranteed be dead before the break-even point. Since I can be expected to die within 4.8 years or reaching retirement age, there’s little doubt that I will be contribute more into the system (in real dollars) that I will receive from it. I’m just guessing, but I suspect I could expect the same results if I could opt out (I cannot) and put my annual contribution in a safe deposit box. There is one caveat here. Should I die well under average number of years, a degree of financial protection will extend to my spouse.

Meanwhile, my Ohio treasurer refers one to some exorbitant estimates of Ohio’s liability. When Buckeye Institute is accessed from the Ohio Treasurer site, it offers a projection of pension liability for me. You can look me and my salary up. According to their estimate, the estimated liability for me is $783,000. How do they get that figure? Well, they assume a lifetime expectancy of 18 years in retirement. That will be correct should I live until 92, 14 years longer than actual life expectancy for me. They calculate how much higher Ohio pension estimates are than Social Security by assuming person could retire at 65 for social security but will retire with big fat pension instead at 60. In other words, Buckeye Institute just makes shit up to over-inflate the projected pension liability.

Currently, employees have a choice at time of hire whether to join the STRS defined-benefit or a 401k-style defined contribution system. If we assume future faculty hires can do math, anyone who starts working after age 38, most folks with PhDs, will have to make a choice. The math in favor of defined benefit was reasonably close when I started. One was taking a guess about market performance. The changed after I was locked into system.

Provided that Ohio limits new hiring and provides an opt-out choice to all future employees, I suspect that the defined-benefit plan will be dead within two decades–unless the next generation of employees is filled with do-good liberals who would be happy to harm their own persons. The main factor redefining STRS pension plan is mostly silent, life expectancy: the most recently enacted pension reform has almost without question destroyed the Ohio pension system for public employees. I’m inclined to believe that reduced faculty hiring and diminished pension benefit will kill it.

I’m not a trained actuary. I’m an English major. But that’s what the writing on the wall looks like from my perspective. That’s why I think of pension reform as the death benefit. I’ve a fairly good chance to die before I could benefit, which is now the plan for Ohio pension reform, I suppose.

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Overpaid, Underworked Professor Meme

Perhaps it is the narrowness of my perspective, but I cannot understand why the overpaid, underworked professor meme has such cultural resonance. I am a professor, and it looks like bunk to me. One incarnation quoting statistics from February 2012 was David C. Levy, whose byline cited his experience as an executive education consultant, cultural institution president, and as a chancellor, which he claimed entitled him to speak knowingly about how hard executives work, 40 to 50 hours per week. I’ll take his word for it. In contrast, he found university professors to be overpaid and underworked, and in response to the question that headlines his essay, “Do college professors work hard enough?” he answered that professors typically work only “12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks” and so spend “only 360 to 450” hours working per year.

The only “work” that counts as work in his analysis is time spent in class while pulling down salary figures that he cites in the range of “$80,000 to $150,000.” Do note his qualification, that his salary figures represent only of “senior faculty at most state universities.” The title that he cites, “senior faculty,” is intended to raise the average. His salary numbers do roughly match the survey data provided by AAUP, which are posted in a convenient chart in the Chronicle of Higher Education. But Levy is engaged in rhetorical sleight of hand. Yes, senior professors in some fields—law, engineering, and business—can aspire to $150,000 and higher, though top salaries and the overwhelming majority of public institutions are far lower. Only 5 state institutions nationwide have salary ranges that average $150,000, but that’s out of 466 colleges. The mean is pretty near 80,000.

But if we dismiss what he makes up that can be disproven by facts, I do have new news for Levy: nobody made it to senior professor working 12 to 15 hours per week. Heck, very few make it to senior professor at the 50-hr.-per week he cites as tops for executives. And suppose that someone does in twilight years make it to such a lofty salary: at least two decades were spent at a lower salary. My experience as a university professor is so far from Levy’s norm that I have no doubt that he, not I, is living in a fantasy world. First of all, this assumption that everything else one does, like preparing for class or research, is not work is just mind-bogglingly offensive. I am not unaware of world outside academia. Before I went back to graduate school, I was a technical writer in software industries for almost a decade. After a decade of “real work” in a humming economy, 40 to 50 hours per week, I decided to go back to graduate school in 2002. At that point, from my technical writing job I was pulling down a salary close to $60,000 per year while actually working 45 or so hours per week, like an executive. When I indicated to a professor that I was considering going back to graduate school, he warned that I would be unlikely to earn the type of income as an English professor that I would and could earn as a technical writer. He was a smart fellow, and he was right.

After graduate school and two years in a post-doc, described in another post, I find in this a professional position that Levy and his ilk inform readers in a paper of record is the picture of cushy living. I typically spend 9 to 12 hours per week in class, but I generally prep for class at least as many hours as I am in class, so my average hours of week for class-prep and in-class work is a bit different from Levy’s estimate. With grading I spend at least an average about 30 to 35 hours per week. For example, the day before I first prepared this draft, I spent about 6 hours in non-work that will include meeting two students, consulting with a librarian about class project, and coordinating a departmental committee. Other non-work consisted of reading a dissertation chapter, and reading and grading the remaining 8 student papers out of sets of 35 and 20 submitted two weeks ago. I average close to 7 hours per day on class-related non-work. But, funny thing, the university won’t grant me tenure for the 12 to 15 hours of work-work and the fifteen hours of non-work-work that I do each week. The baseline work that is needed to keep my job beyond the tenure period is known as research, which has to come out of how much I can work in addition to the 30 hours of work and non-work work each week. My service burden is comparatively light because senior colleagues are kind and don’t demand too much service–yet.

During the academic year, outside of service work on committees, I struggle to devote 15 or 20 hours per week to research, which brings my weekly total of work hours always into the 60 hour per week range. Saturday and Sunday are just shorter work days. In summer, so I can continue to service debt that I accrued as graduate student and fellow, and so I can do useful things for economy like pay for the third car that my family has purchased during past 18 years, I apply for research funding or teach. So in last five years, I have spent every summer working the equivalent of full time on research or teaching. In the past 7 years, I have not taken any vacation longer than a day trip and never traveled anywhere except for research purposes or for conference purposes or to visit family, the last one a trip of about 5 or 6 days per year, about half of which is spent at work.

I’m not complaining because I like my work. But I resent it when a chancellor and executive who works 50 hours per week calls me out for earning $80,000 and working 15 hours per week when in fact my salary over the past four years as an assistant professor has been more than $25,000 less than the figure he cites. My salary for six years as a fellow and graduate student was less than half the figure he cites. In five years I have received three raises of two percent each from my starting salary. So in last 10 years I’ve worked 20 percent more hours than Levy imagines and been paid an average of 40 percent fewer dollars than the favorite rich professor meme he cites. A decade ago I worked 30 percent less and was paid 30 percent more in the private sector in a job that demanded far fewer skills and required only a BA.

Yet I am still pretty close to the definition of the privileged university professor. If I continue to work hard and achieve tenure and promotion, I hope, perhaps in the final decade of my career, to earn a salary close to the range that Levy considers “average.” If I fail to earn tenure, it will be to be another household finance disaster and probably will take a bankruptcy to make way out of it. Guess I’ll figure out something. But there would be no way in hell I could get within shouting distance of reappointment, promotion, or tenure by working 15 hours per week. And even if I do achieve tenure, as far as eye can see, it’s 70 or so hours per week for the next decade as I crawl out of grad school debt and housing collapse debt. The beauty of it though is that I’m going to work 70 or so hours per week on work that I LIKE doing. But who knows what the future will bring?

No, I am not a victim. I made an unwise financial choice. After a decade in the private sector as a documentation developer and technical writer, I attempted to become a university professor. If I had not landed a position—I received first interview for full-time position in three years after about 170 applications—I probably would have forced to abandon profession five years ago. No, I was not lazy and applying too seldom. In years that I was applying, the number of available positions in English was in the 500-per-year range. Because research consists of many specialties, I only actually qualified for about 5 to 8 positions per year. But I’m not a victim. The victims are my colleagues who do the bulk of the teaching work at universities, the adjuncts and part-timer teachers who are paid about a third or half of what I am paid and work about twice as hard on teaching. On the backs of their labor is how I get the opportunity to do research. There but for luck of employment lottery go I.

But what really burns me up is that the public discourse about university professors is often misleading or deliberately false. You can look up my salary (Wesley Raabe) at http://www.buckeyeinstitute.org/higher-ed. You will notice there my pension liability according to state treasurer. Last I checked, they calculated the state’s cost for my pension liability at $783,000. That figure originates in the assumption that I can retire at age 60 and have 18 years of pension.  But in fact, that figure was pulled out of some actuary’s ass, one who has no clue how long it takes to earn a PhD or to qualify for full retirement in Ohio. (Note: This post was drafted about 4 years ago. Now, when I check again, it appears Buckeye Institute lost interest in tracking university professor salaries after their made-up figures helped to get pension system “reformed.” For more on that, see Ohio STRS Pension Reform: The Death Benefit.)


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This is perverse, but I’m going to do it anyway

For my dissertation, when creating an edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that was based on the National Era newspaper appearance, I organized it by installments. Now I am creating a scholarly edition, which will report all substantive variants. I had long thought I would organize it by chapter so as not to distress scholars who are familiar with the chapter-based organization, though I would sometimes make jokes about re-organizing entire edition by installments.

But now I have decided to go with my gut and organize entire edition by installments, the key upon which I will base chapter and line numbering for collation. That is, the infrastructure of edition will reflect the importance of Era text. The Era version will be the reading text, and so the entire edition will be organized by installments, chapter complications be damned (and in fact, there are serious complications). It’s the right way to do it, I have to do the work, and I am the editor; therefore, I get to decide. Someone shall write an angry review which complains that I messed with his or her world by this perverse decision, at least I hope so. I’m going to release the source files publicly, so anyone else who wants to build another edition according to another organizational scheme is welcome to have at it.

The revised title will be the following: Uncle Tom’s Cabin: A Scholarly Edition of the National Era Text. I’ve gone too far in this direction now, and I’m not turning back.

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What does ProQuest EEBO cost Libraries?

UPDATE (Tweet appears within minutes of finishing this draft):

ProQuest, in a move that has been hashtagged #ProQuestGate and #EEBOGate, abruptly cancelled Renaissance Society of America member access to Early English Books Online. For scholars of the English Renaissance and through the 18th century (or early America, for that matter), the lost subscription will mean lost access to perhaps the richest online resource for studying literary and cultural history from the period.

Why would scholars lose access? The most privileged scholars won’t, because they work at institutions that pay subscription fees. The scholars who are likely to suffer from lost access are at regional public universities and smaller private colleges–or are not employed, often known by the terrible euphemism “independent scholars.”

I think the only way to put real pressure on ProQuest is for scholars who are employed at institutions that subscribe to EEBO to hit ProQuest where it hurts, in the pocket book. ProQuest negotiates subscription agreements, and these agreements vary according to what the market will bear. So I would be surprised were there not several institutions paying 20 or 30 percent more than comparable peer institutions. I do know that ProQuest has two subscription types, 1) a one-time massive charge with small renewal fee, or 2) annual renewing subscription. (I have learned, since posting this, that prices are thoroughly byzantine, that rate may differs if institution purchases transcriptions from EEBO-TCP, phase 1 or 1 and 2, or is a partner institution with EEBO-TCP). My hope is that institutions with renewing subscriptions are easily able to compare what others are paying in annual subscription rates, they should be able to negotiate for lower costs.

You, if you are a member of an institution that subscribes, should contact your library department representative to find out what your institution pays. According to my local university librarian, these subscription fees are part of payment records that by law are open to the public. I am at a public state university in US, with open records law. If you’re at a private university not subject to open records law (or outside US) you may consider civil disobedience. However, given ease of electronic surveillance, the risk may be real in event of legal suit, etc. So don’t do it unthinkingly: consider your jurisdiction.

I’ve created an open-access Google spreadsheet, where I’ve posted Kent State University’s cost for access to ProQuest EEBO database. I remember gasping at the cost when we purchased this 5 years ago. Now, I gasp again at $27,000 for MARC records. I believe Kent State received a significant discount because it was purchased with year-end moneys, allocated funds for library purchases that are pooled and then used to bargain with library vendors. Please contact your librarian, and, if your library’s cost for EEBO is subject to open-record law, you can help us figure out which institutions are overpaying. I have no objection to ProQuest making a profit. And it is true also that ProQuest has continued to revise ESTC metadata. But I do think EEBO is being sold at near extortion rates. And your efforts may help libraries save 10s of 1000s of dollars in subscription rates.

Will this cause ProQuest to relent and resume offering member access to Renaissance Society of America? This won’t, as ProQuest changed it’s mind while I was drafting this. But I do believe that gathering about 10 or 20 examples of what libraries pay could very well expose massive differences in cost. Then universities that have annual subscriptions can start driving hard bargains, and hit ProQuest where it feels the hurt, in the pocket-book.

Below is a bit more on why EEBO matters to Renaissance scholars. (PS: I’m not actually an English Renaissance scholar. I appreciate corrections). ProQuest EEBO is an electronic interface built on the back of generations of scholarly labor, including the Pollard & Redgrave’s Short-Title Catalogue, 1475-1640), 3 vols., and Wing’s Short-Title Catalogue (1641-1700), 4 vols. James L. Harner in Literary Research Guide (a go-to-handbook for literary research) describes RSTC as “the indispensable resource for identifying and locating extant works” and “one of the truly monumental reference works,” and he explains that EEBO is “captured from the microfilms that up Early English Books, 1475-1640 and Early English Books, 1641-1700.” The digitization of these resources has enormous benefit to scholars–Harner calls it an “incomparable resources.” A far more comprehensive history of EEBO is at http://folgerpedia.folger.edu/History_of_Early_English_Books_Online. TCP is also a complex thing, which you can read about here. It is “transcribed by hand,” it advertises, but many of the hands that do the transcribing–“at Apex CoVantage, Spi Global, Aptara, and AELD, and especially their teams of developers, taggers, keyers, and managers based in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Manila” (link)–go unnamed. Other hands, including librarians at Oxford and Michigan, reviewed the transcriptions. Also, over time, the transcriptions will be released into the public domain.

But to continue, much of the labor that makes EEBO valuable is the accretion of labor provided over decades by scholars and scholarly societies and public moneys. And one of the things that keeps building it is outsourcing. The built-up reservoir of material in one interface makes it difficult to compete against it. I think #frEEBO is a nice idea (see John Overholt post here), but I think it underestimates the magnitude of the labor and scholarship already sunk into EEBO. Maybe, over time, #frEEBO could compete. And I don’t want to be cynical.

But I’d like here to see if we can crowd-source a tool that would allow college and university libraries to negotiate more successfully with ProQuest, and maybe use moneys that ProQuest is currently vacuuming up to spend on other priorities. Any one who could advise on what to do with this information if several institution rates are gathered, please contact me or comment.

3 November Update: Thank you to Ian Gadd, Professor of English at Bath University and President of SHARP, for notifying me that ProQuest has updated metadata, that TCP transcriptions were also checked by scholars at Oxford and Michigan, and that TCP transcriptions will be released to the public. He is responsible for those three corrections but of course not for any errors, which remain my own.

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Another Python Week

Okay, not just Python, but a lot of it.

My happiest time was spent working thorough Adam J. Crymble and William J. Turkel’s Python lessons on Programming Historian at http://programminghistorian.org/lessons/. Thanks to Adam Crymble and William J. Turkel, and a shout-out to Twitter and CLIR colleague Miriam Posner, who tested lessons to ensure they worked… I also prepared a spec for what my UTC conversion routines need to do.

I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with switching between Python 2.7 and Python 3.4 in my Anaconda and iPython Notebook environment. I’ve also spent a few hours with Al Sweigert’s Automating the Boring Stuff with Python and several hours reading Mark Lutz’s Learning Python. Also, I recently started going over Mark Summerfield’s Programming in Python 3. Library Safari Online books are really helping. Think I’m finally making my way out of my For Dummies phase. One of my struggles has been with sticking a variable counter in a replacement routine. So you have no idea how happy this code snippet (from chapter 2 of Summerfield’s book) has made me:

>>> element = "Silver"
>>> number = 47
>>> "Element {number} is {element}".format(**locals())
'Element 47 is Silver'

Cause I edited it as follows:

for paranumber in range(50):
    "Paragraph number is {paranumber}".format(**locals())

Almost started crying. After I recovered, tried again, alternate way:

for paranumber in range(4):
    print("Paragraph number is {paranumber}".format(**locals()))

Not sure why you need ** before locals. Still trying to figure that out.

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Learning Python (Week 4)

After last week’s distressing discovery, that CollateX is now only available as a Python module, I decided to hunker down and get serious about learning Python. I’m an educated person: I can learn a programming language, even if the only reason to do so is so that I can use CollateX. Should it prove that I CollateX is not suitable for my work, then I console myself that automating regular expression routines–I use RegEx extensively within text editors–will itself be worth the investment in time and the new skill.

Below are the ways that I’m studying Python:

  • Learning about managing two different environments, Python 2.7 and Python 3.4, on same machine. First, download and install Anaconda Python. And then take the 20-minute Test Drive, which explains how to switch between environments.
  • I need two Pythons because the Python course I’ve been taking from edX, Introduction to Programming and Computation, is version 2.7, and CollateX is supported under 3.4. I keep returning to course, even though I’m using it in archive mode–on week 4 of 8-week course that ended several weeks ago, because one still has access to lectures and auto-graded exercises.
  • Three other course/tutorials I’ve been working through or sampling from are the official Python Tutorial, Learn Python the Hard Way (also a book), and Automating the Boring Stuff with Python (also a book). PS: Book history types, they’re both rather interesting to think about as book-course combos.

With another serious week of Python study (Python all the time for last few days) under my belt on top of this summer (when I spent 3 semi-serious plus one desultory week with Guttag-Grimson-Bell course before teaching responsibilities kicked in), now I turn back to figure out how to run CollateX with Python because that’s the option that remains available. I’m an English professor. If you wonder why I’d put myself through this, it’s kinda-sorta Digital Humanities but for the most traditional of purposes, because I’m a philologist and want to learn how to use CollateX to help automate editing. For my initial panic, see CollateX, Python, Anaconda, Oh My: Or, What Have I Done? (Week 3 Reflections).

What’s next?

  1. Review Birnbaum’s Obduron instructions for importing files, and review Python instructions for manipulating files with RegEx and saving results as another file.
  2. Learn to read JSON and Dictionaries
  3. Encode UTC transcriptions as XML, preferably with and sentences and verse lines individually numbered. (PS: I always think of that as turning Uncle Tom’s Cabin into a Bible. Book-chapter-verse numbering is an amazing invitation. Philosophy texts are often numbered by book and section, and scholarly versions add numbering to paragraphs for reference purposes.)
  4. Re-learn XSLT (for the nth time)
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CollateX, Python, Anaconda, Oh My: Or, What Have I Done? (Week 3 Reflections)

Somewhere in previous two or three posts I explained that I want to engage more sophisticated collation tools, which for me includes CollateX. Therefore, I decided this past week to get really engaged. Upon turning to the site at CollateX.net, I find that there is no longer a Windows or Mac command line version, as there was in CollateX 1.5. Now with version 1.6, it’s something else, a Java archive, and I’m not really sure what that means.

I play a DH scholar on TV (I’ve encoded texts in XML, published peer-reviewed scholarship on Scholarly Editing and the Whitman Archive, and done some XSLT development for Blake Archive), but I’m still an English major at heart. Mostly I read things, so this is distressing to me. But, okay, I have the enormous privilege of a research leave semester. If I’m going to learn something new and technical, it’s going to be when I have intensive time to devote to it. So I may as well. Take a few deep breaths, and here I go.

First I tried figuring out what the heck to do with the new CollateX download. Being the naive sort, I went to directory and tried a version of what worked with Version 1.5. This command worked in CollateX, version 1.5, when one had the files one wanted to compare in the bin directory:

./collatex wit1.txt wit2.txt > wit1wit2compare.txt

I wondered whether (but doubted that) it would work with CollateX, version 1.6, this new Java version. But I’m not expecting much cause there’s no longer a “bin” directory.

java -jar collatex-tools-1.6.1-jar wit1.txt wit2.txt > wit1wit2compare.txt

The result? not able to access jar file. OK, so that’s not going to work. A command displays the documentation:

java -jar collatex-tools-1.6.1-jar -h

This is what the “documentation” looks like:

Screen Shot 2015-09-20 at 10.03.39 PM

I try what documentation says, so:
collatex wit1.txt wit2.txt > wit1wit2compare.txt

And I get…nada. Command not found. I realize that there shall be more floundering in a technical hellscape. Then I recall something that Ronald Dekker had tweeted in reply to one of my Twitter questions:

I had started studying Python this summer. I’m glad I did, because now it looks like I may have no choice. I know the people who put together these tools are wicked smart, and when academics I’ve found them to be genuinely nice people, but (as I said) my English major heart is having palpitations.

Surely, I’m not the only one with this trouble. Isn’t Google search my friend? Yes, so I search for “collatex install” and hope for the best. Surprisingly, half-way down the first page of results is “Python 3 and CollateX installation instructions – oo.” The “oo” is a bit worrisome, but it is on the Obduron server, which I recognize. And I know the scholar from other work, his “Even Gentler Introduction to XML,” which I have assigned to students: it’s David Birnbaum. Alright, despair, away with ye for now.

I followed the Python and CollateX install instructions (this is not a namby-pamby version but serious geek tools, “an enterprise-ready Python distribution for large-scale data processing” called Anaconda. It’s not “clickable,” so to the command line. And I apparently have something called Pip, which is like HomeBrew or MacPorts, a command-line install routine (not so bad, I’ve been around this kind of block with LaTeX and installed Gimp with MacPorts). More Pip for Levenshstein (harmless process, will read about that later), and then GraphViz both as separate program (had that, now updated) and something called Python bindings for GraphViz. No idea, just need to do it, but almost skipped that step. Some 3 hours later (minor problems with XCode install having hung, Python 2.7 showing up on iPython Notebook, moments of about Python 3 requirement interfering with Python 2.7, reading Anaconda documentation), I have CollateX installed andrunning in iPython Notebook.

Now, I’m trying to get my head round fact that I now have industrial strength Python distribution (farewell Monty Python and Eric Idle jokes), what possible reason I need to launch a web server to run iPython Notebook, what iPython Notebook is, and where on God’s green earth (though I suspect in my file system) the files that I want to collate should be.

Side note here: I’m not trying to save the world. I’m trying to collate 5 very accurate transcriptions, transcribed by myself and others typing and read aloud to proofreading, in a very arts-and-crafts sense. I’m a bookish person: I treasure books as individual physical objects, and I gather up the fragments and put them in little baggies when old bindings or paper fragments crumble and totally sympathize with others who do same thing. I need computers to automate my editorial work, not do it for me. But I’m spending an awful lot of time trying to figure out whether computers can do the work that I need them to do.

Now, time to begin the CollateX tutorial. Cause of course all that’s not the actual work, just the setup to be complete before the work can begin. An afternoon I spent working my way through this. Ooh, step by step with iPython, I think can do this. This is all well and good, but my trouble is in 119, when transcribed texts are inserted into Python script and viewed on screen. That’s weird: no one would do that except a computer person teaching a tutorial for demonstration purposes. What I really need is collating exterior files. And yeah, I see exterior files, sample collation files from Barbara Bordalejo’s neat Darwin Online project. But how do you pull in external files? This is what tutorial says:

Part 3: Reading multiline input from files (watch this space)
Part 4: Creating XML output (watch this space)

You can expect me to be watching this space daily for the next two months. Enough for one day. Then, on Monday, I wake up and remember there’s email. So I (with hope) send David Birnbaum an email message. Not 30 minutes later–I kid you not; I just walked dog around block after sending–he replies with new instructions posted to GitHub, at https://github.com/ljo/collatex-tutorial/tree/master/unit5.

This is where my weekend work ended, perched between hope and fear, as I needed also to do other work, to demonstrate class project at library and to write a letter of recommendation. Maybe I’ll figure out how to do this, with its 180 lines of Python code, and maybe I won’t. And what will I do with JSON output, when I don’t even know what that is.

The project that I had to finish up on Monday is the Drupal publication of letters of Alfred Chester, which students in my DH course got into near-publishable state at end of class. But we had to wait for permissions from Chester’s executor Edward Field, which he provided last month. Today I tried very much to figure out how to publish letter images with TEICHI Framework, but I was ultimately stymied. I don’t feel like I can go back to that, as it may take several days, and I need to focus on this Python CollateX work.

I am nervous and anxious again, especially after reading “Computer-supported collation of modern manuscripts: CollateX and the Beckett Digital Manuscript Project,” in which the idea is that automated collation is supposed to solve all kinds of problems for technically sophisticated projects. The projects that are imagined are well-funded and technically supported, not the work of a lonesome scholar at a regional state university. Gonna have to get more imaginative here, as I have no desire to be Boxer the horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm. I know, maybe I’ll use my annual $500 travel budget and travel as luggage and sleep on the street in Europe the next time that a CollateX seminar is offered. Or raid my high son’s college fund?

Caution (Profanity with Sexual Innuendo Follows)

You don’t have to keep reading, as no further information about collation follows.

And yes, it’s bawdy, but it’s really funny: Alfred Chester is a riot. And now that his letters are published online with the permission of his estate, I can share the funniest line, from his 22 May 1964 letter to Norman Glass, “Why do you grease your asshole if there is no one there to fuck it?” Since reading that letter, I have no longer cared about a tree falling unheard in the forest. Now, I think instead of Chester’s line (and chuckle to myself).

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