Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Why I Shouldn't Pursue a PhD - Part III

Let's draw the trilogy close with a realization I made last Friday, while participating in a seminar session for PhD students. Let's link for the last time to The Chronicle of Higher Education and Thomas H. Benton's three columns suggesting that people should not pursue an academic career, unless they are willing to live in relative poverty, insecurity and misery for the rest of their lives, or they are one of those privileged few with the right connections, wealth, and/or independence without a need to support anyone else.

Previously, I had presumed that there are some differences between university systems in the United States and in Europe. I was, however, speaking nonsense as it turns out that there are no real differences. Students in the graduate school do teach undergraduates in Europe. Graduate programs in Europe do seem to be "structurally dependent on people who are neither privileged nor connected", to borrow Benton's disturbing observation, evidenced in Finland by the need of PhD students to work as adjuncts, doing whatever odd jobs they can find at the university or anywhere else to support themselves. And as I have now personally witnessed, given enough time, all of this does turn PhD students into cranky, disillusioned, and depressed lot, both in the USA (according to the link 54 percent of graduate students felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning during the previous year) and in Finland (according to the linked study 26 percent of all university students, both graduate and undergraduate, had problems with their mental health; English summary of the study begins on page 70).

At least I finally know why I wanted to continue my studies:

PhD Comics November 8th, 2000
Link to the original

Come Easter, and I try to write more cheerful posts next month.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Bermuda Shorts of Morton Smith

The newest issue of Biblical Archaeology Review prints two letters to the editor, both dealing with the character of Morton Smith (and articles of clothing he has worn). Spotted them at stephan huller's observations, kindly transformed to computer-understandable format by Stephan himself:



Bravo! In the past you fought the good fight for the release of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Now you've taken on the issue of 'the Secret Gospel of Mark' and Morton Smith.

I studied with Morton Smith at Columbia University (while attending Barnard College) from 1957 to 1960. He was an inspiring, brilliant and intellectually honest mentor.

In 1958 he told me of his experience at Mar Saba, where he found the Clement letter. Working around the monks' sleep-and wake schedule was difficult. At times he couldn't access the library. The atmosphere was one of secrecy. The food didn't agree with him either. The first night at dinner, he was the guest of honor. The monks floated a live baby squid on top of his soup, which he was obliged to eat! The food got worse after that!

About Morton Smith's "alleged homosexuality" - he dated my mother Miriam Chesterman from late 1957 to 1958. She was a recent widow, British-born, beautiful, vivacious and highly intelligent.

I strongly support your efforts to reach the truth about Secret Mark and clear Morton Smith's reputation.

Ethne H Chesterman
Pompano Beach, Florida



My favorite vision of Morton Smith is this bowlegged little guy in Bermuda shorts clambering up the side of Mt. Tabor, looking for evidence that Jesus was a magician and how he managed to pull off the Transfiguration. It was on a trip in 1965 when I guided him to the Galilee.

I loved Morton: I admired him as a genuine historiographer. Morton would be delighted with your efforts, and he would revel in the vilification as well as the praise.

As for his homosexuality, I think he was just spoofing the trend that had begun back in the 1960s and 1970s to find gays in all the great Biblical literature. As for himself, I suspect that he was just an Anglican clergyman who had had an unsuccessful love affair and afterward condemned himself to bachelorhood. (Professor) David Flusser told me that, in 1941, Morton had a Jewish girlfriend in Jerusalem, probably a student at the Hebrew University. Flusser is dead so we can't get more details.

Anson F. Rainley
Emeritus Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Semitic Linguistics
Tel Aviv University, Israel


The picture from Nov/Dec 2009 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, illustrating the articles on Secret Mark. More on the picture, more on the articles.

On occasion, Morton Smith did wear Bermuda shorts.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Kari Mäkinen - New Lutheran Archbishop in Finland

The election yesterday was surprisingly close, 593 votes for Kari Mäkinen, while Miikka Ruokanen had 582. News media in Finland celebrated the winner as "a reform-minded liberal" or as "a reformist". I am pleased with the result, as Mäkinen would have been my candidate also (i.e. lesser evil of the two), had I been eligible to vote.

Some interesting tidbits:

* Mäkinen becomes the archbishop on June 6th, 2010.

* The people eligible to vote numbered 1,226 - two-thirds were ministers or deacons, one-third laypeople. Most were from the geographic area of the archdiocese.

* Turnout was 96% - 1,175 votes were casted.

* There are c. 4.3 million members in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. That is some 80% of the whole population.

* According to the international edition of Helsingin Sanomat, Ruokanen commented on the razor-thin election with the following quip:

“Half now feel that the church should operate according to public opinion, and the other half feel that the church should be faithful to its teachings.”

[Fuck Yeah, because the progressive theologians are just going with the "public opinion", while the other side remains "faithful to the church's teachings". Insert here the obvious below-the-belt retort known to most Finns who have followed the election debates.]

* The new archbishop reminds that the church is not of "one opinion and one truth only", that the dialogue that began during the election process should continue.

"I wish to search for more open, more honest, and more authentic discussion, that is mainly not about being right, but about sharing."

* The above means that Kari Mäkinen will be a better archbishop than I would. With these thoughts, congratulations!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Archbishop Election Today

The second round to elect the Archbishop of Turku and Finland, for the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, takes place today. The old archbishop, Jukka Paarma, retires 1.6.2010. The two candidates, Kari Mäkinen, the current bishop of Turku on the left, and Miikka Ruokanen, the current professor of Dogmatics in the University of Helsinki on the right, are the favourites of the liberal wing and the conservative wing, respectively. Mäkinen seems to have had his fill of the opponents of the ordination of women, while Ruokanen would not dream of giving his blessing to homosexual relationships.

Of course, the situation is hardly that simple. Ruokanen is not really loved-to-death by the most conservative members, since against the clear words of Jesus (e.g. Mark 10.9), he accepts divorce, while Mäkinen... Mäkinen is actually a good candidate, holding many theologically progressive ideas, even on my scale. If I were entitled to vote, I would not hesitate to cast it for him.

In any case, Mäkinen would be 'lesser of the two evils', as the saying goes, when Ruokanen proclaims opinions like "the general welfare experienced in Finland today is all due to Christian ethos" - an insult to the working class movements of the early 20th-century in Finland, the real ideological power behind the change of society (for better), with atheistic tendencies, as everyone knows. If the Church, opposing everybody and everything that wanted to change the status quo, would have had its way, we would still have serfdom (i.e. slavery) and death penalty, with little democracy and a horrifying class society to weigh us down.

If one feels I am exaggerating, one has not read enough ecclesiastical publications from the period.

And if the election goes bad - from my point of view - I can still comfort myself with the fact that archbishop in my church is only primus inter pares i.e. "first among equals", and not in the same position as pope in the Catholic Church.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Why I Shouldn't Pursue a PhD - Part II

According to an older PhD student, it is better to get used to letters of rejection right from the start. Here's my latest:

[name withheld] has decided on the recipients of the young researcher's grants at a board meeting held on March 2nd 2010. Unfortunately You have not been awarded a grant in this year's application round.

The silver lining is found in the fact that no letter of rejection could be as depressing as Thomas H. Benton's columns in The Chronicle of Higher Education, like The Big Lie About the 'Life of the Mind', and - even though I am in much, much better position than the people described by Benton (or found in the comments section underneath), having no need to pay enormous tuition fees since University of Helsinki has none - the long-term consequences Benton hints at, the thought of having to invent a good cover story for the dozen or so years spent at the university instead of gaining something of worth to put into my CV.

(That was a long sentence. Obviously, I have used all of my short sentences writing a first draft of an article/chapter I intend to get published once it is ready.)

The questions I have to ask are these: 1) am I writing a dissertation merely because I have been indoctrinated/socialized into believing that someone with my leanings and interests should be working in a university setting, and 2) have I stayed at the university merely because I have no idea how to do otherwise since the current PISA-efficient schooling system in Finland is all I know about?

(There is, of course, the Church in which I have even worked for some time, but let's not go in there. I believe that every time I consider getting myself ordinated, a random conservative member sees vivid and terrifying nightmares the following night.)

Of course, if funding remains unavailable, I will not have to come up with an answer myself.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Alexa Ratings and BiblioBlog Rankings: Where's the Fun?

As an undergraduate, I remember stumbling upon April D. DeConick's blog The Forbidden Gospels by pure chance. The year must have been 2007. Not long after I learned that there were many other of those so-called biblioblogs around, and that some sites, like Biblioblogs.com, were doing a good job collecting the blogs together. The Biblioblog Top 50 in its various incarnations was the most comprehensive of the bunch, and I found many entertaining and interesting sites browsing through its collection of blogs.

Nowadays, the legacy of Top50 is continued by Jeremy Thompson at his Free Old Testament Audio Blog. One of the funnier aspects of the listing is the organizing of blogs according to their Alexa rating, with the lowest rank receiving #1 spot, implying that it is the most popular of all biblioblogs. My own blog, Salainen evankelista (the one you're reading right now) reached its all time high position, #23 in February 2010. Considering that my blog deals with a really niche subject even among the biblioblogs, it is curious to receive Alexa ranking of 619,284. How did this come to happen?

Dispelling the myth of Alexa rating

Let us start with the basics. Contrary to popular belief, Alexa rating has practically nothing to do with people visiting a given site. Even if certain conspiracy theorists believe that Internet is monitored by the FBI, the U.S. Government, or by extra-terrestrials, there is no evidence that Alexa would be capable of managing such a feat. When the constant monitoring of all the internet traffic for all the sites out there in an effort to rank their popularity is out of the question, Alexa does the next best thing: monitoring the internet traffic of a select few, and ranking sites based on the small-scale sample.

Want to join the test group? Install Alexa Toolbar to your browser, and Alexa will know every site you land upon. For more privacy, with extended functionality, I can recommend SearchStatus, available for Mozilla Firefox internet browser. The requirement of a specific browser add-on, sure enough, means that those sites that attract the most techno-savvy audiences will do much better in the rankings.

How to gain a higher Alexa rating: a true story

I confess freely that from February 1st, 2010 onwards I did a number of small tweaks that I knew would transform my Alexa rating for the better.

1) I decided to post frequently. Producing quantity over quality ensures more absolute hits - that is, real people visiting my blog - since people will at least skim my posts through, even if they end up skipping the actual reading bit.

2) I decided to post quality. Yes, I just stated that quantity beats quality, but quality does not hurt, either. On the contrary, quality posts get circulated and commented more, turning into more absolute hits. And even if one cannot post quality, one can always try to be witty. People love to laugh: just look at the top 50 biblioblogs closely, very few of them are done entirely without a humorous touch here and there.

3) I decided to utilize my social networks. There are lots of friends who are not actively reading my blog since my target audience is pretty niche; people interested in Clement's letter to Theodore and the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark it has two extracts of. So I hinted that everyone was welcome to stop by and check out a post or two, inviting other people to do likewise. Some of my friends seem to have taken this suggestion quite seriously, as my normally international audience (judging by the origins of IP addresses) was c. 97% Finnish past February. Thanks, and you can lay it off now, guys!

4) I decided to get people to link to me. This one was really a question of luck, but James D. Tabor gave a flood of hits when on February 2nd he gave his approval of Roger Viklund's work on the photographs and other reproductions of the Theodore-letter (original here, shorter blog version here). Or, as Tabor himself put his words down:

"I consider these forgery charges to be utterly baseless, and frankly, slanderous, and I am pleased to note that Roger Viklund has just recently published a very persuasive paper, “Tremors, or Just an Optical Illusion? A Further Evaluation of Carlson’s Handwriting Analysis”"

Having a link in a prominent blog was good, and even better was the presumed fact that most of the new visitors went through lots of other posts, as well, including the (almost) complete English translation of my Master's Thesis, A Conspiracy of the Secret Evangelist.

But, the absolute popularity of a site is not enough. In order to get a high Alexa rating - and a low Alexa ranking - we want to ensure that every real visitor to our site gets noticed by Alexa. Obviously, I cannot convince the majority of visitors to install Alexa Toolbar, or SearchStatus, or make them change their current browsers to Mozilla Firefox. I can, however, place Alexa Traffic Widget somewhere on my blog.

5) I decided to place Alexa Traffic Widget on the bottom of my blog. There it is, at the bottom of every page in this blog. It transforms every real hit into Alexa hit, giving me an enormous advantage over those biblioblogs not using one. For statistics, of the top 10 blogs Bible Places (#4), Kingdom Living (#6), Dave Black Online (#8), and Participatory Bible Study Blog (#9) do not have Alexa Traffic Widget installed. Should they put one in place, we would likely have a new #1 for March 2010.

How to gain a higher Alexa rating by cheating

So far, everything has been pretty legitimate, right? But you wish to reach that #1 position? It is time to label black & white as different shades of grey.

For every situation there is always the option to cheat. Alexa rating is quite forgiving in this regard, as it is practically impossible to get caught red-handed. Whether one utilizes commercial software (link withheld), community-based efforts (link withheld), or simple scripts that utilize anonymous proxies for generating unique hits IP address wise (link withheld), it is certainly possible to gain a very low Alexa ranking. The legitimate means can easily get you under 1,000,000, as happened with this blog. It is an educated guess only, but I believe that it is possible to get a ranking that is under 20,000 by cheating, or even lower if one is prepared to spend some cash on the commercial software designed to do the trick. Ranking less than 20,000 would mean that the current biblioblog #1, Joel L. Watts' The Church of Jesus Christ, with Alexa Rank of 79,210, would be beaten by a wide margin.

Why would you want to cheat? Is the #1 spot really that important to you? I will just leave these links here, for everyone to decide themselves what is at stake here:

John Loftus is not a Biblioblogger by Joel L. Watts (#1 in February 2010)

An Open Letter to All Bibliobloggers by John W. Loftus (#3 in February 2010)

(Pre-emptive strike: people may claim that it is not about rankings but eligibility to the list of biblioblogs Watts & co. and Loftus & co. are arguing over. I agree that that's what it looks like, at face value.)

Where's the Fun?

The FUN is in the fact that everyone currently listed in the top list of biblioblogs can claim the #1 spot this month, March 2010. And if you do not mind an ounce of grey thrown in, so much the better (for your ranking, not your soul). Act quickly, before everyone puts these tricks into action and it becomes a level playing field once again.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Correct Tools of Trade

Recently I have learned the importance of using correct tools for the endeavour at hand. When a PhD student spends a lot of time sitting in front of a keyboard, it is only common sense that the chair she is using should be as ergonomic as possible. Unfortunately, the requirements for common sense kept me from improving my own situation for a number of years, resulting in i.a. pains on my lower back. Well, not anymore.

A wood artesan friend of mine, Väinö S. Forss who blogs in Finnish over at his personal site Väinölä, built a chair that ensures I have an ergonomic position while writing. The change this chair has brought to my general well-being is so enormous that I fail to see the reason we ended up sitting in our regular office-chairs in the first place. The workmanship is professional, and the colour and material of the cushion blends well with the other furniture of my "office". Great many thanks, Väinö!

The other tool I utilize right now, some 15 kilometres from my home, is something completely different.

Samsung NC10 Mini Notebook has likewise proved its worth during the past two months of my PhD studenthood, enabling me to work with Clement's letter to Theodore in previously unacceptable places, including the public library in Jakomäki where I am sitting right now, going through the scholarship on the composition history of the Gospel of Mark. The question of syncing my documents when working with two computers has been handily solved with the free personal cloud service, Ubuntu One, requiring zero input from myself after I had configured the service properly. The only problem with the improvement of my working conditions is the running out of excuses for not getting anything done.

Oh, and Salainen evankelista reached #23 at the grand list of BiblioBlogs for February, a sure signal that something is deeply wrong with the way Alexa rating is formed. No, I mean seriously, there is something deeply wrong with Alexa rating, but I will write more on that topic tomorrow. The bottom line is, however, that anyone can top the BiblioBloggers list, just by employing a few quick techno-tricks, most of which could not even be consired cheating.