Saturday, October 24, 2009

Viva voce: a 20 minute examination of an Oxford tradition

Oxford's examination system, like most aspects of the University, have a long history. This particular history is shaped by the viva voce (oral) examination, which I've been told used to be the main form of assessment. It still features quite prominently and the M.St. in the Study of Religion is no exception - all students have to be examined this way right at the end of the course and as with written papers the formal academic dress of subfusc is compulsory.

Perhaps more interestingly in terms of its ritual symbolism is the tradition of wearing carnations, which is actually optional. For a series of exams carnations are traditionally colour-coded and in gradation: for the first exam, it's white, for the last exam red, and for all others pink. Now for the moment let's assume an anthropological perspective: white often signifies purity and cleanliness - in this context the initiate (think tabula rasa) is like a newborn about to receive an impression as it undergoes a transition. In such a state the initiate is very open, exposed and often undergoing a process in a group where any distinguishing status they might have had before is removed - everyone is in the same boat. So it also conveys isolation and separateness from the rest of the world. Having undertaken the first exam, the transitioning is underway (towards a qualified status). One story goes that in days past the first carnation would then be dipped in red ink to become pink; subsequently it was further immersed and the colour deepened until red right through, symbolising the completion of the experience (and the taking of the final exam). Red is a symbol of life, vitality, coming to fruition.

What I've just written reflects the kind of approach that we studied in the M.St. and I'm sure that a great deal could be written in this vein - if you're keen, then you can explore the research of the likes of Victor Turner - see his chapter 'Betwixt and between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage' from The Forest of Symbols). My take is largely poetic license!

Anyway, all six of us from the M.St. course (Frances, Jeff, Tom, Tristan, Zahra and myself) duly turned up for the viva on Friday 2 October at Examination Schools and took our turns to field questions for just 20 minutes in front of a panel consisting of chair of examiners, a number of internal examiners, the external examiner and members of the examiners board. In our case, no fewer than six in all (so six examiners for six students!) These rooms are large and echoey and I could imagine familiar voices in animated discussion make the room reverberate! Perhaps that combative style of vigorous debate is the Oxford way, but I decided to take a softly softly approach.

One of the panel came to collect me and showed me to my chair, in front of a small desk bedecked with a bottle of water and glass. Before me were three clusters of desks and behind them the academics in their various gowns with the chair of the examiners directly opposite. If this formation is a centuries-old tradition then I can imagine in previous generations, when greater weight was placed on the viva, that sitting there might have felt like being marooned on a tiny island! I think that nowadays, at least for taught courses, a viva is usually an opportunity to improve one's grade, which removes a lot of pressure. I didn't feel nervous, perhaps because I've been doing regular meditation practice, and in fact the panellists created a generally supportive atmosphere. I've had a couple of other academic vivas and in comparison, this was probably the least intimidating of them.

However I really didn't know what my approach should have been and afterwards I couldn't tell how I fared! There's no guide to preparing for the vivas, just a few sentences that basically say that the questions are likely to concern the written papers and/or submissions (essays and dissertation), but the panel is at liberty to ask anything relating to the course. This might seem like they have carte blanche, but in practice the questions would be oriented, I expect, to drawing out more from the candidate that might have been communicated in the written work.

At least, that's how I might rationalise some of the questions that came my way, which were very general. One asked me something like: "What do you understand by mystical experience?" Now here is where I probably overdid the psychology as I knew my questioner's field was science and religion. So I immediately questioned the word "understand," which prompted a short response in which I was asked to "define 'mystical experience'" and I was subsequently asked to compare it with 'religious experience.' With St. Teresa of Avila in mind, the subject of one of my essays, I waffled on about depth [that was a suggestion given me], ineffability, problems of measurement (still thinking about the background of my questioner - but refrained from sharing thoughts from David Böhm's introduction to his Wholeness and the Implicate Order). Instead I threw in words like "numinous" and claiming people's differing horizons (earth, sky, outer space) making it difficult to compare etc. Towards the end I was asked for a definition of 'religion,' to which I claimed that no definition was adequate, citing one attributed to Durkheim "... beliefs and practices relating to sacred things", and indicating the limitation of 'things' when considering internal experience. I said it was better to look at characteristics and expressed appreciation for Ninian Smart's 7 Dimensions. When I offered to go through them, this particular thread was drawn immediately to a close!

Afterwards all the students gathered at Pizza Express and conversations ranged all over the place!


It may surprise people to know that when Oxford students were asked to express an opinion on whether the wearing of subfusc should remain compulsory, they voted 4 to 1 in favour of retaining it. (At the time I was working at OUCS and I set up the voting system (a simple indicative poll) in WebLearn at the request of OUSU. Perhaps subsequently having to wear it myself was the result of this karma. :-).

Monday, October 05, 2009

Social SVG?

A few years ago I was pondering whether SVG could allow more than text-oriented approaches to blogging.

I'm thinking about it again because:

  • more mobiles have touch screen devices encourage doodling
  • updated standard - SVG Tiny 1.2
  • better browser support for displaying and more recently editing SVG
  • Google Wave (and similar initatives) are presenting a more flexible messaging paradigm

SVG has been around a long time now, but in day-to-day online content-creation it remains rather hidden: whether sending an e-mail or contributing to social networking sites, it's generally text, photos and videos that are created and circulated, with other activities bolted on via apps.

And yet there's already software that makes it easy to draw, to doodle, and not consume lots of computing resources (disk space, processing power etc). Berners-Lee conceived a read/write Web, with his Amaya Web editor/browser having a toggle button between browse and edit. Now the latest version has a very nice SVG editor built-in. And gradually momentum has been building for mobile initiatives built on SVG, generally based on open standards, leading to solutions such as Ikivo.

It seems to me that the time is ripe for all kinds of SVG-based communications. With its graphical nature the replies could be more about editing the images you've been sent - so when you receive an SVG message, you can edit it and send it back. A simple example would be a game of Os and Xs, but it can apply to any scenario where people are sketching a design. It becomes even more attractive with multi-touch. For implementation purposes I guess you could have some form of version control both to make it more efficient and to support animations.

So basically this is aiming at a drawing equivalent/extension of SMS, blogs, twitter etc.

Google Wave is obviously developing messaging a great deal and no doubt can demonstrate its potential; already there are efforts to incorporate SVG as a gadget, such as Vidor Hokstad's Google Wave Gadget API Emulator. It reminds me of some promising CSCW research into shared authoring widgets/X Windows toolkits that I saw being carried out at Kingston University in the early to mid 90s by Maria Winnett, a former research colleague (can I say 'colleague'? We were actually we were a diverse group of PhD students sharing a research lab in the Sopwith Building). And it looks like there's been renewed interest that involves the mobile scenario.

However, SVG editing could be as ubiquitous as e-mail so should not be dependent on Google or any other single provider for a transport.

There must be a simpler more universal solution (perhaps there already is ...)

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Avoiding 'Invisible Idiots' in the translation of Vatican documents

The dust is just settling as this course comes to a conclusion. I have some time now to cast my mind back on some particular episodes as a student on this M.St. course.

One of the challenges I faced was finding tantalising references in footnotes, especially those which promised to provide some special insights or even definitive analysis by which to anchor an argument. To what lengths should one go to follow such references...?

Such was the case when I worked on my essay, The Catholic Church and Inter-religious Marriages: Reflections on Pastoral Theology and Practice after Vatican II. I was focusing mainly on those marriages where the non-Catholic party was not a Christian, for which there is a rather unfriendly formal term in Latin, disparitas cultus, though it is rendered more softly in English translation as "disparity of worship." The analysis depends on canon law and Bishop John McAreavey gives a good overview of the this and what it can mean in the parishes where there is an ecumenical union (i.e. marriage with another [baptised] Christian: Mixed Marriages: Conversations in Theology, Ecumenism, Canon Law and Pastoral Practice. In one of the footnotes he refers the reader for a comparative analysis of this case with that of disparity of worship: a paper by Urbano Navarrete, an expert in canon law, who, we are informed, has described this as "a symbiotic relationship."

That sounded intriguing! But the reference in question was an official Vatican publication: L'impedimento di "disparitas cultus" (Can 1086), a chapter in I Matrimonii Misti, a volume in juridicial studies from the Vatican Library. Dated 1998, it seemed fairly recent, but it was also in Italian. I've never learnt Italian...

Libraries at your service

Undaunted, I opened up a Web browser tab and pointed Firefox at Oxford's online library catalogue system. However, no trace of this chapter or volume in the Bodleian. I did find it on sale from a couple of Italian online book sellers, but it seemed an expensive route. So I trundled over to the Enquiries Desk at the Bod and asked about inter-library loans. According to COPAC, there was no copy available in the UK, so it would require an international inter-library loan. I was encouraged to get in touch directly with the Vatican. So I duly wandered over to the Vatican Web site, found its library, which is currently closed to members of the public. In any case, I filled in an online registration and found a way to submit a query. I received a prompt reply indicating that actually the the Vatican Library generally holds works of antiquity, at least the volume I requested was considered too recent.

Back I went to the Bod and steeled myself to request an international interlibrary loan. According to Worldcat, which can list libraries in order of proximity, there were several European libraries that had the title in stock. I cast my eye down the list and singled out a German library, the Bavarian State Library (positive discrimination - Germans are efficient!) And a few weeks later it arrived.

The Bodleian is a reference-only library, so any items acquired through inter-library loans are subject to these constraints. Furthermore, although I could take notes, I wasn't allowed to photocopy anything myself - that had to be done by the library staff and according to copyright law they could only do this for one chapter. Accordingly I requested the copying of Cardinal Navarrete's chapter, but I became interested in another chapter on pastoral issues - Matrimoni misti e problemi pastorali by Agostino Montan. This meant I had to take notes - in Italian - from a chapter of 30 pages! This is where I was confronted with not having learnt Italian. What to do? Fortunately, my situation wasn't desperate (timewise or linguistically). I had studied French, Spanish and Latin at secondary school and could gain the gist of a paragraph. From this I could see several sections that seemed particularly useful, including some stats about the religious make-up of marriages carried out in Rome, and some interesting pastoral initiatives in some Northern Italian towns and cities involving groups of couples getting together in marriage preparation. It was these that I copied - sloowly, word for word, like a boy in primary school!

In possession of one nicely produced scan of one chapter plus some notes from another, I now needed more accurate translation of the most relevant bits. I pinned up notices in College - Sai leggere l'italiano? and received a resounding zero responses. :-( I started asking any friends who had even dabbled in the language and was offered translations of selected passages at the rate of 1 word a minute! More promising was a kind offer of assistance from one of my father's polyglot friends from church, Tim O'Sullivan, who is competent in most European languages, who knowing my technological leanings offered a particular word of caution...

We may have the technology, but watch out for 'invisible idiots'!

Whilst trying to find a person who could help I was also exploring an automated technological solution. I first had to generate an electronic version of the texts that had been copied and transcribed and I was given a boost as the library-generated photo-copies were nicely done, clear and uniform, enabling very accurate optical character recognition (OCR) translations - even the footnotes were generally accurate, when all I needed really was the body text. Once in possession of an electronic copy I then proceeded to try machine translation, initially through Babelfish. Although I had used Babelfish quite often before for words or short phrases, I had not really tried far more substantial passages of text. Alas, in this case I found it seriously deficient and discounted this tool as an aid.

However, no online search is complete without Google ... and Google's offering impressed me immediately in being so accommodating, happy to consume large chunks of text and produce translations for the whole lot. More importantly, it was a world apart in quality. Why? I think there's a combination of reasons that make it a good match. It uses statistical methods, trained on large corpora of texts. The core texts in question (see e.g. Wikipedia for discussion) were UN documents - they are formal, rambling, extensive and translated into many languages. And Vatican documents are ... likewise! There are few colloquial idioms used. Even so, word combinations can be parsed and interpreted in so many different ways that it's easy to get the wrong end of the stick, as we might say.

Mr. O'Sullivan was keen to relate to me a story that he had heard in the 1960s concerning English-to-Russian translation (when we met it was topical coming shortly after Hilary Clinton 'pushed the wrong button' on a state visit, but at least both sides saw the funny side!). The story, which was probably very popular at the time of the Cold War, ran along the following lines: boffins produced a computer program into which you could input one or more words. Enter a single word and out popped the correct Russian equivalent and vice versa. However, they next tried "out of sight out of mind" and after a slight pause there emerged the Russian equivalent of "invisible idiot"! I gather that it is actually apocryphal, traceable to an earlier period in which scientists were speculating about possible issues - anyway John Hutchins debunks the myth and offers to explain what was actually going on. Even so, you can still catch out many tools by entering a phrase and translating it back again. This is where, I guess, statistical methods are very useful. In any case, where a translation looked odd in a particular context, I would break it up into smaller chunks and translate those separately, repeating the process until it became clearer or made sense.

At the end of the day I read closely perhaps a dozen pages and quoted from just a few paragraphs. That must seem a very poor rate of return on such efforts, but in this instance I'm going to claim it was how I got there that was more informative and entertaining!