Are you an academic who vandalises Wikipedia? Then stop it!

Af hverju er þetta blogg EKKI á Íslensku?
Af því að það er langt og ég er of upptekinn í dag: afsakið! En ég hlakka til að uppfærsla aftur á íslensku snemma!

Day 80

How popular is Charlemagne?

How many visits, per day, do you reckon the English Wikipedia entry for Charlemagne gets? 150? 400? 2000? I’ve been asking lots of (medievalist) friends lately and these tend to be the sort of guesses they give. (Though they ranged from 5 to 3,000,000, so perhaps the main conclusion is that no-one really has a clue!) It’s actually 4,000: about 3 per minute; 130,000 visits per month. And no, it’s not because people are hoping Charlemagne will run for the EU parliament: Charlemagne has a steady track record (with a slight dip on weekends: even Holy Roman Emperors need time off!).

To me, 4,000 visits per day is quite a lot. Infamously, I once wrote a book about elves, which for an academic book has sold pretty well (even though you can download it for free here and here): about 900 copies over seven years. The English Wikipedia entry for elf, however, gets 950 visits per day—and unlike my book is also available in 48 other languages. Obviously an encyclopedia is a different sort of thing from an academic monograph, but as Dorothy Kim writes in her ad for the Medieval Feminist Wikipedia Write-In at Kalamazoo, Wikipedia has become the way to get feminist (or any other) scholarship into the mainstream.

Are you an academic who vandalises Wikipedia?

But you didn’t need me to tell you that Wikipedia has revolutionised access to information. If you’re reading this blog, there’s no question that you use the sixth most visited site in the world, that runs on a smaller income than the Faculty of Arts at the University of Leeds. And even if you somehow never read Wikipedia itself, you read journalism, information on Google Maps, books, or a heap of other things that are all better because of the information it provides.

If you’re an academic, you also won’t need me to tell you that it’s annoying when students lift chunks from Wikipedia instead of getting educated. Nor that despite their ostentatious Guardian-waving, academics are generally a conservative and occasionally reactionary bunch, and often take pride in dissing Wikipedia (while, of course, using it all the time). I don’t generally bother arguing with these people: while I would love it if they contributed to Wikipedia, it’s continually getting bigger and better without them. And while I also wish they would publish their research free-access, ultimately they are harming themselves by keeping it locked away.

Last week, though, I was checking Facebook and what should I see but a fellow scholar proudly posting a screencap showing how a colleague of theirs—a well established academic at an elite institution—had anonymously vandalised a Wikipedia entry with a puerile ‘Queen Eliabeth, also known as Lizzy’ type comment. The lecturer had made this edit in front of their students to demonstrate that any old idiot can edit Wikipedia. Six minutes (and perhaps twenty views by innocent encyclopedia-readers) later, of course, some upstanding member of society fixed the page (which to me is the real take-home point for this individual’s students). But what the Facebook post and my subsequent conversations (online and real-life) revealed was that several other academics at this elite institution and others like it have also vandalised Wikipedia to demonstrate to their students that any idiot can write crap on it.

I’m used to Wikipedia being vandalised by, for example, mischievous schoolkids, bigots, or agencies trying to hide the bad press deservedly accruing to certain rich people and companies. These are all serious problems, but no cause for surprise. Moreover, on the whole, Wikipedia proves better equipped to resist capture by propagandising oligarchs than large-scale print media. But I was shocked to find academics—people whose job is supposed to be the promotion of knowledge—messing it up. This is not big and it’s not clever.

Some of the people I’ve talked to suggest that it’s okay to vandalise Wikipedia to make a pedagogical point: that the ends justify the means. Implicitly the inconvenience to a few (or, as the case may be, more than just a few) readers and editors is legitimate collatoral damage in the pursuit of the lofty goal of undergraduate education. I have a few objections to this, but my main one is the selfish solipsism this view implies—one which I see around me, in different forms, every day in UK universities. When it comes to accessing scientific knowledge, being a native-speaker of English with internet access already puts you in a pretty privileged position, but being at a UK or US university with a decent library (in hard copy and subscriptions to online resources) means you have better access to knowledge than almost anyone else on the whole planet. How is it ethical to degrade a source of knowledge for everyone in order to benefit these few? Moreover, of course, vandalising Wikipedia in front of students encourages not a sense of critical engagement, but a sense of disrespect for the efforts of millions of hard-working, mostly anonymous editors (4,000 in Charlemagne’s case); people like the late, fantastic feminist editor Adrianne Wadewitz.

So stop it.

Wikipedia as part of the research-writing process

I could go on about the discussions I’ve had about academics vandalising Wikipedia (further arguments for this practice have included ‘it’s okay to vandalise Wikipedia because Wikipedia makes it possible for me to’ and ‘seeing obvious mistakes reminds people that there may be hidden lies’), but I hope I’ve made my point.

I would, however, also like to talk about how integral Wikipedia-editing has become to my research.

I made my first Wikipedia edits in 2005, just after I put my PhD thesis online, before I even had an account, on a few small points where I was confident I had finally become a world expert. One of the first entries I created, ‘History of mentalities’, has since been edited by 26 people, and gets 25 hits per day—perhaps 20,000 over the life of the article. It’s no Charlemagne biography, just a little explanation of what the term means, but I hope it does a reasonable job.

Once I’d learned how to do it, of course, my compulsion to correct every bit of bad punctuation I ever see was gloriously fulfillable. (If only I could do it on the Guardian website…) Then, when there was a fact I was looking for but couldn’t find on Wikipedia, I’d add it once I found it: not much extra effort for me, but it saves people (usually including me) effort later. (Mostly this happens when I’m preparing teaching or doing research, but I’m perhaps most proud of adding the data on the greenhouse gas emissions of aircraft). As I started to learn about Wikipedia’s systemic biases—a lack of coverage of women, and the non-Western world, for example—I started making a habit of creating new entries for women if I found one missing (e.g. Mrs Brown of Falkland or Ida Gordon), and in the last year or so have developed a bit of a hobby of making biographies for Arabic-language women writers. I’ve even decided to teach about a few of the medieval ones next year (e.g. Ḥafṣa bint al-Ḥājj ar-Rakūniyya and Nazhun al-Garnatiya bint al-Qulai’iya). Haukur Þorgeirsson is now one of my research collaborators (and generally favourite people), but he is someone I first encountered via his online teaching resources—and he first got to know me via my Wikipedia edits.

My point here is to explain how, without me noticing it, editing Wikipedia became an integral part of my research-writing process. This was an accident, but it was a happy one, and I wouldn’t go back.

So here I am, working on the Icelandic financial crisis and trying to get my head around various issues, people, and texts: businessfolk like Björgólfur Guðmundsson and his son Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson or Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson and his wife Ingibjörg Stefanía Pálmadóttir; historical figures like Thor Jensen and Tony Jonsson; authors like Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl and Bjarni Harðarson; phenomena like Islam in Iceland, Iceland–Palestine relations, and Icelandic constitutional reform, 2010–13; novels like Gæska; and lots of other things that I haven’t done entries for yet! I could just be storing notes on all these on my computer (or even on pieces of paper), and obviously I still have lots of notes that aren’t appropriate to Wikipedia entries (but don’t worry! I’ve been putting them online since about 2006). It certainly takes extra time to make notes in a presentable and balanced format as encyclopedia entries. But I find that I save time in the long run, because editing encyclopedia entries pushes me to organise my thoughts and references properly, and because they’re easy to find again later. And because on a good day my efforts attract the efforts of others, they’re even an investment.

Meanwhile, I know I’m helping other people; maybe not very many, but a lot more than none (and more than 900!). Very often I’m making information available that’s only accessible in subscription-only journals, or making available in English information that’s only accessible in Icelandic. One example is my entry for Iceland’s (probable) first person of colour, Hans Jonatan.

I’ve been making all my scholarly publications available free-access for years now (cf. blogpost), increasingly by publishing in dedicated free-access journals, and whatever I publish from my current research will be no exception. I haven’t quite worked out how I’m going to do it yet, but I’m planning to make the citation of (selected stable versions of) Wikipedia entries a pretty central part of the referencing in this work. Very often they are the best encyclopedia entries on these subjects in existence; they have also been central to my research. They deserve citing as much as any other work that I or others do. And who knows, maybe it will nudge a few people into paying a bit more respect to the efforts of all those people.

Hey, this sounds useful! Or at least worthwhile. Can I do it?

See a typo in an article? Just click ‘edit’ at the top and fix it! And little by little, you’ll get used to being a Wikipedian.

To make editing REALLY, even-your-granny-can-do-it easy there are a couple of simple steps to take first. These are available out of the box in some languages (like Swedish), but not presently in English.

1. Go to Wikipedia and click ‘create account’ top right.
2. Then, when you’ve created your account, either follow this link or click on ‘preferences’ top right and choose ‘Beta features’.
3. Tick the box on ‘VisualEditor’ to enable it.
4. Scroll to the bottom and click ‘save’!

This ‘Visual Editor’ option makes editing Wikipedia as easy as writing a Word document. Now when you want to edit a page, don’t click ‘edit source’ but click ‘Edit beta’ and, lo and behold, you can just click on the entry and fix those typos just like you’d fix a Word document you were writing.


Are you a white, western, male Anglophone techie who prevents people from working on Wikipedia? Then stop it.

If you’re wondering why this even-your-granny-can-do-it option isn’t available automatically in the English-language Wikipedia, it’s Wikipedia politics. The problem with running an encyclopedia democratically is that (a) most people don’t like change and (b) the people who in this case don’t like change are mostly white, western, male, anglophone techies, who’ve found a mode of knowledge dissemination that suits them and don’t want other people to start disrupting it. Sound familiar? Yeah, ironically they are in their way the same kinds of people as academics who smugly vandalise Wikipedia because they already have a mode of knowledge dissemination that suits them and don’t want other people to start disrupting it.

So if you’re one of those people, stop it!

And if you aren’t one of these people, start editing Wikipedia!

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Bananalýðveldið Íslands | The Banana Republic of Iceland

Af hverju er þetta blogg svo illa skrifað?
Af því að ég er að læra íslensku. Enda ég veit að opinber vansæmd er, því miður, beinasta leið til fullkomnunar. Ef það verður of leiðinlegt að lesa bloggfærslur á illa skrifaðri íslensku þá er það alltaf hægt að lesa bloggið á ensku neðri! Og leiðréttingar eru alltaf velkomnir: bara skrifaðu neðri.
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Dagur 51

Það kemur upp í hausinn minn að ég er nú búinn að vera á landinu næstum tvo mánuði og ég hef ekki skrifað neitt ennþá um rannsóknina um hrunbækur sem ég er kominn hingað til að gera. Ég verð að byrja að segja hvað ég er að pæla í! Og það væri mjög áhugavert mér að heyra ef niðurstöður mínar þykja líklegar…

Síðasta viku komu auga mín á grein í DV um viðtal Steinars Braga við sænska dagblaðið Dagens Nyheter. Viðtalið var um bók hans Hálendið (sem ég hef ekki lesið ennþá, en ég hlakka til þess). Títillinn greinarinnar er: ‘Ísland er „norrænt bananalýðveldi“ ’. Og þannig stendur í DN (21.3.2014, bls. 5):

När man läser Steinar Bragis böcker och talar med honom om hemlandet förefaller han vara den sämste isländske turistambassadören sedan Eyjafjallajökull.

(Augljóst hefur blaðamaðurinn ekki heyrt um Sigmund Davíð.)

Han får Island att framstå som en nordlig bananrepublik med en liten skräpvaluta som snarast borde kastas i havet och ersättas med euron.

Cover of GæskaLíklegt hefur Steinar Bragi rétt hjá sér, en það er orðatæki ‘nordlig bananrepublik’ sem finnst mér áhugavert. Í sömu viku byrjaði ég að lesa Gæsku eftir Eirík Örn Norðdahl, og á bls. 14 lesum við um Alþingismenn:

Þeir skakklöppuðust einhvern veginn áfram yfir að Alþingishúsinu, pípandi, æmtandi og skræmtandi, andsetnir á heljarþröm vanhelgra daga einsog smákrakkar í spreng eða apakettir að bítast um síðasta banana lýðveldisins.

Ég varð að viðurkenna að þótt bókin þykir mér mjög vel ort, málið sitt er ekki auðskilið, og ég er ekki búinn að lesa bókina. Ég ætla alls ekki að fordæma hana! En þótt þessi er ljóslifandi gagnrýni á þingmenn, samt varð ég vandræðalegur: ímyndin er of lík gömlum og alkunna rasískum ímyndum af fólki í Afríku. Og svo vildi ég skilja betur hvað er að hér. Stutt rannsókn í bendir til þess að Ísland var kallaður bananalýðveldi í fyrsta sinn árið 1981.

Og Ísland er ekki bara bananalýðveldi. Ég man að þegar ég heimsótti landið árið 2009 reyndi einhver að útskýra mér að Ísland var ‘Sikiley norðursins’: lítil ey þar sem raunveruleg yfirvöld eru mafían. Sjálfsagt er þessi máltæki skemmtilegur orðaleikur: það er eldgömul og ansi fáránleg ferðamálahefð að nefna borgar í norðurlöndum ‘einhver norðursins’. Sankti Pétursborg er ‘Feneyjar norðursins’ (eða er það Stokkhólmur?), Tampere er ‘Manchester norðursins’, Tromsø er ‘París norðursins’ (!), og svo framvegis. Þannig er hugtakið að Ísland sé ‘Sikiley norðursins’ áhrifamikil: stutt, innihaldsrík, og fyndin. Það er ítarlegt dæmi hér eftir Val Gunnarsson (sbr. þetta) og ímyndin birtist í Meltdown Iceland eftir Roger Boyes (bls. 49, 220). Elst dæmi sem ég fann í kemur frá 1993. Þannig grunar mig að flestir hafa heyrt orðatækið. (Hef ég það rétt?)

Cover of Reykjavík Grapevine, October 2008Og það er líka til hugtakið að Ísland hefur verið undir valdi ‘fjölskyldnanna fjórtán’, sem er orðatæki sem upprunalega var notað um El Salvador. Loksins má geta forsíðu blaðsins The Reykjavík Grapevine frá október 2008: ‘Welcome to Icelandistan’.

Þannig er það augljóst að það er hefð hér á landinu að gagnrýna stjórnvöld með því að bera saman Ísland við önnur lönd sem hafa ekki verið eins heppin í sögu þeirra, sérstaklega lönd sem voru nýlendur: í sovétríki, Afríku, eða Rómönsku Ameríku. Þess konar orðatæki eru vitaskuld ekki notuð bara á Íslandi (sbr. Absurdistan til dæmis) en þau sýnast mér að vera mikilvæg hér. Kannski geta þessar notkunar verið kraftmikil og gagnleg gagnrýni, en mig grunar að eitthvað annað er (líka) að. Orðatæki sem ég týndi eru áhrifamikil og meira eða minna fyndin. En þau eru áhrifamikil af því að þau koma óvænt. Það er augljóst að lífið á Íslandi er einmitt alls ekki eins og að búa, til dæmis, í Hondúras, eða Austur-Kongó, eða Túrkmenistan, eða jafnvel Sikiley. Og notkunin bendir til útlendingahaturs: til að segja að Ísland er eins slæmt ríki og El Salvador er að kasta rýrð á lífið (og þjáning) fólks þar.

Og svo grunar mig að orðatæki eins og bananalýðveldið Íslands og ‘fjölskyldurnar fjórtán’ eru ímyndar sem maður notar (kannski óviljandi) til að láta svona að gagnrýna Ísland án þess að gagnrýna hana í alvöru. Formlega séð er það gagnrýni að kalla Ísland ‘en bananrepublik’, og er vonað að lesendur í DV verði reiðir að Steinar Bragi hæði landið svona. En þótt sem Ísland hefur oft treyst á fáar stórar tekjulindar (til dæmis fiska, Bandaríska hermenn, eða fjármögnunarfélag), það er eins augljóst að landið er ekki í rauninni bananalýðveldi og að Steinar Bragi er ekki í rauninni ‘„versti sendiherrann fyrir íslenskan túrisma“ erlendis síðan Eyjafjallajökull gaust’. Heldur þýðir máltækið að Ísland er nákvæmlega ekki bananalýðveldi—eins og lesendur í DV vilja heyra.

Ef ég er réttur, þá held ég að Katrín Loftsdóttir útskýrir þessa notkun vel. Hún hefur skrifað margar fínar greinar um íslenska menningu og efnahagshrunið, og segir til dæmis að

simultaneously with resisting their position as a Danish dependency in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Icelanders participated in perpetrating and enforcing stereotypes of colonized people in other parts of the world, positioning themselves very carefully as belonging with the civilized Europeans, instead of the uncivilized “others”. (2012, 57)

Hún hefur rætt um það að þetta er ennþá mikilvægt efni í íslensku sjálfsímyndinni (t.d. 2010). Kannski getum við sagt að ef Steinar Bragi vill hvetja landsmenn hans til að gagnrýna eða endurbæta landið sitt, enda hæða ekki önnur fórnarlömb heimsvelda, ætti hann að segja eitthvað annað en að Ísland er bananalýðveldi. En kannski er ég bara rangur: mér væri áhugavert að heyra um skoðun þína!

Mér þykir að Bjarni Bjarnason hefur verið að pæla í málið þetta í bók hans sem heitir Mannorð, og ég vona að skrifa færslu um hana snemma…

Day 51

Eek! I’ve been here nearly two months now and still haven’t actually posted anything about this research on post-financial crisis literature that I’m supposed to be doing. So here’s a post on some of what I’ve been musing on. Comments would be very welcome: it’d be interesting to hear if any of this sounds plausible…

Last week my eyes lit on this article in one of the papers here, DV, about an interview with the Icelandic author Steinar Bragi that appeared in the Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter. The interview was about his book Hálendið (which I have yet to read but which I’m looking forward to). And the article’s entitled ‘Ísland er „norrænt bananalýðveldi“ ‘ (‘Icelandic is “a northern banana republic” ‘). Sure enough, DN (21.3.2014, p. 5) says

När man läser Steinar Bragis böcker och talar med honom om hemlandet förefaller han vara den sämste isländske turistambassadören sedan Eyjafjallajökull. Han får Island att framstå som en nordlig bananrepublik med en liten skräpvaluta som snarast borde kastas i havet och ersättas med euron.

When you read Steinar Bragi’s books and talk to him about his homeland, he seems to be the worst ambassador for Icelandic tourism since Eyjafjallajökull. He portrays Iceland as a northern banana republic with a minor and useless currency which ought to be chucked into the sea and replaced with the Euro.

Cover of GæskaSteinar Bragi may well be right, but it’s this phrase ‘nordlig bananrepublik’ (‘northern banana republic’) that caught my eye. The same week I started reading Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl’s novel Gæska. It seems to be really good, but it’s also bloody hard to understand, so I hope my translation here is in the right ballpark! Page 14 descibes how the Icelandic MPs

skakklöppuðust einhvern veginn áfram yfir að Alþingishúsinu, pípandi, æmtandi og skræmtandi, andsetnir á heljarþröm vanhelgra daga einsog smákrakkar í spreng eða apakettir að bítast um síðasta banana lýðveldisins.

careered down the road across to the Parliament, shouting and squawking, perched on the precipice of violated days like little kids bursting to piss or monkeys scrapping over the last banana in the republic.

I haven’t finished the book yet and have no wish to prejudge it, but while this image is a vivid critique of Iceland’s MPs, I also found it uncomfortably close to well established and well known racist images of the good people of Africa. So I wanted to understand better what’s afoot here; a quick look on suggests that Iceland was first called a banana republic around 1981.

Nor do local commentators only present Iceland a banana republic. I remember coming here in 2009 and someone trying to explain to me that Iceland is the ‘Sikiley norðursins’ (‘Sicily of the North’): a little island where the real people in charge are the mafia. This is a fun turn of phrase: there’s a surprisingly ancient and rather ridiculous tourist-bureau tradition of calling northern European cities the ‘somewhere of the North’. Depending on who you ask, St Petersburg or Stockholm are the ‘Venice of the North’; Tampere is the ‘Manchester of the North’ (funny, I’d always thought that Manchester was the Manchester of the North); Tromsø is the ‘Paris of the North’ (!); and so on. So the image of Iceland as the ‘Sicily of the North’ is arresting: short, resonant, and amusing. There’s a detailed example by Valur Gunnarsson here (cf. the Icelandic version here) and the image appears in Roger Boyes’s Meltdown Iceland (pp. 49, 220). The earliest example I found in is from 1993. So I suspect that most people here will be familiar with this phrase. (Can anyone tell me if I’m right?)

Cover of Reykjavík Grapevine, October 2008And then there’s the concept that Iceland has been under the control of a mafia-like group of ‘fourteen families’, a phrase borrowed from commentary on El Salvador. And how could we forget the front page of the October 2008 number of ‘The Reykjavík Grapevine: Welcome to Icelandistan’? (To an English-speaking audience this probably looks like it’s aligning Iceland with Islamic terrorism, so it’s worth noting that the paper was published before Britain used anti-terrorism legislation to freeze Icelandic assets: the image The Grapevine was aiming at was more bankrupt ex-Soviet oligarchy.)

So it’s clear that there’s an Icelandic tradition of criticising the country by comparing it with other countries which have been less fortunate in their history, and particularly ex-colonies, whether in the Soviet Union, Africa or Latin America. And of course this kind of usage isn’t just found in Iceland (check out Absurdistan for example). But it seems particularly prominent here. And perhaps it serves as a powerful and effective critique; but I suspect that something else is (also) afoot. The phrases I gathered up above are striking and to a greater or lesser extent amusing—because they’re unexpected. Fundamentally, it’s obvious that life in Iceland is very different from living in say Honduras, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Turkmenistan—or Sicily for that matter. The usage is predicated on xenophobia: saying that Iceland is as bad as El Salvador is to be ruder about the people (and their tribulations) there than about Iceland itself.

I suspect that phrases like ‘the banana republic of Iceland’ or ‘the fourteen families’ are actually used (perhaps unconsciously) to make a display of criticising Iceland without actually really criticising it. Superficially, calling Iceland a banana republic is a criticism, with the expectation that the readers of DV will grow suitably indignant at seeing Steinar Bragi dissing their country. But although Iceland has indeed been over-reliant on a few large sources of income (fish, the Cold-War airbase at Keflavík, and finance), it’s as obvious that Iceland isn’t actually a banana republic as it is that Steinar Bragi isn’t actually ‘the worst ambassador for Icelandic tourism since Eyjafjallajökull’. (I can think of plenty worse than either!) So actually what the phrase really says is that Iceland is precisely not a banana republic—which is what the readers of DV ultimately want to hear.

If I’ve got this right, then I think Katrín Loftsdóttir has a good explanation for the usage. She’s been one of the leading cultural commentators on the crash and says, for example, that

simultaneously with resisting their position as a Danish dependency in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Icelanders participated in perpetrating and enforcing stereotypes of colonized people in other parts of the world, positioning themselves very carefully as belonging with the civilized Europeans, instead of the uncivilized “others”. (2012, 57)

And she’s discussed how this is actually still an important theme in Icelandic discourses (e.g. 2010). I’m inclined to suggest that if Steinar Bragi wants to impel his countrymen to a critique or improvement of their homeland—and to avoid making light of the sufferings of the victims of imperialism elsewhere—he’d do better using another turn of phrase.

I also think that the author Bjarni Bjarnason handles this issue interestingly in his novel Mannorð, so I’m hoping to get a blogpost up about that soon…

References (both of them!)

Kristín Loftsdóttir, `The Loss of Innocence: The Icelandic Financial Crisis and Colonial Past’, Anthropology Today, 26.6 (December 2010), 9–13, DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8322.2010.00769.x.

Kristín Loftsdóttir, ‘Belonging and the Icelandic Others: Situating Icelandic Identity in a Postcolonial Context’, in Whiteness and Postcolonialism in the Nordic Region: Exceptionalism, Migrant Others and National Identities, ed. by Kristín Loftsdóttir and Lars Jensen (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), pp. 56-70.

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Reikult og rótlaust stemma | My first conference paper in Icelandic!

Af hverju er þetta blogg svo illa skrifað?
Af því að ég er að læra íslensku. Enda ég veit að opinber vansæmd er, því miður, beinasta leið til fullkomnunar. Ef það verður of leiðinlegt að lesa bloggfærslur á illa skrifaðri íslensku þá er það alltaf hægt að lesa bloggið á ensku neðri! Og leiðréttingar eru alltaf velkomnir: bara skrifaðu neðri.
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Dagur 30

Hér stendur stærsta bloggfærslan sem ég hef skrifað hingað til á íslensku. Ég vona að hún er ekki eins illa skrifað og hún er stór…

Í dag, í framhaldi af árangri mínum að tala á íslensku á útvarp fyrir tveimur vikum, hélt ég fyrsta erindið mitt á íslensku. Spennandi! Eða spennandi mér í öllu falli. Kannski ekki svo spennandi fyrir þau sem áttu að hlusta á það. Og svo ákvað ég að skrifa um sviðið hér til að æfa mig. En vonalega er það líka áhugavert… Erindið þetta kemur frá rannsókninni sem við Ludger Zeevaert og margir hanritanemendur gerðu í the Arnamagnæan Summer School in Manuscript Studies síðasta ár: þú getur lesið drög af greininni sem við skrifum á ensku hér.

Hvað er rótlaust stemma?

Hvað er stemma, og hvað, meira að segja, er rótlaust stemma? Orðið stemma í íslensku getur verið kvennkyns og sjálfsagt þýðir hún ‘kvæðalag’. En orðið getur líka verið hvorugkyns, og það er vísindalegt lánorð sem þýðir ‘handritaættartré’. Áður enn fólk voru með prentaðar bækur, þá áttu þeir sjálfsagt að skrifa handrit. Og ef ég skrifa sögu, og þú vilt eiga hana, svo eigir þú að lána handritið mitt og afskrifa það. Og ef vinir þínir vilja líka eiga söguna sem ég setti saman, þá eigi þeir að lána handritið þitt. Við getum sagt að handritið mitt er eins og ‘amma’, og handritið þitt er eins og ‘móðir’, og þau handritin sem vinirnir þínir skrifuðu eru ‘dætur’: og svo höfum við handritaætt.

Alaric í Stemma meeting roomNánast enginn afskrifar sögu án þess að breyta hana, stundum óviljandi, en oft viljandi (líklegt, í þessu dæmi, af því að ég skrifaði sögu mína svo skelfilega illa). Þannig eru afritin nánast aldrei samhljóða; í hverju handriti er einstök gerð af sögunni. Afritin, sem vinir þínar skrifuðu, innihalda breytingarnar sem þú gerðir, og hver bætir öðrum breytingum við. Mörgum árum seinna safna sögufræðimenn handrit þessi, og þá geta þeir getið að handritin vina þinna eru líklegast dætur handrits þíns og ekki míns, og svo geta fræðimenn handritaættartré gert. Og við köllum það stemma. Hvorugkyns.

Og tré verður að vera rótfast, og í hefðbundinni rannsókn gerum við stemma til að uppgötva hvað handrit stendur (eða hver handrit standa) næst frumgerð sögunnar: til að uppgötva hvar liggur rótin. Eins og Einar Ólafur Sveinsson skrifaði árið 1953,

in the present work I intend to examine the text of the parchment manuscripts of the Saga. Besides these, there are many paper copies, which have been studied only in part. Most of them will presumably not contribute much to the understanding of the problems, though there is always the possibility that some of them might fill gaps in the textual history of the Saga, but that task awaits another investigator.

Einari Ólafi sýndist það ekki mikilvægt að rannsaka handrit sem voru ekki sjálfstæð vitni í töpuð frumgerð sögunnar. En, eins og einn af forverum mínum við Háskóla í Leeds skrifaði,

He was interested in roots and beginnings; he dived into deep pools; he burrowed under trees and growing plants; he tunnelled into green mounds; and he ceased to look up at the hill-tops, or the leaves on trees, or the flowers opening in the air: his head and his eyes were downward

—og þetta er ekki alltaf svo góð vera.


Hver gerð er áhugaverð. Og svo skrifuðu Deleuze og Guattari í bók þeirra Mille Plateaux (Þúsund sléttur, eða Þúsund flekar, eða jafnvel passlega Þúsund lög) að „við erum orðnir leiðir á trjám“. Þeir sögðu að, heldur en að hugsa um tré, þar sem rætur eru mikilvægari en greinar, verðum við að hugsa um rísóm eða rótarflækju. Gott dæmi af rísóm er þangin í ættkvísl Caulerpa, sem gerir netkerfi þar sem hvert rísóm er jafn mikilvægt og hitt. Og svo getum við talað um reikult og rótlaust stemma: hver handrit inniheldur eins mikilvægan texta og hitt.


Ég er ekki alveg sammála Deleuze og Guattari.* Mér finnst gagnlegt að skilja framþróun og svo er það gagnlegt að rótfesta stemmu—en ekki til að uppgötva eða endurgera frumgerð sögunnar, heldur til að læra hver var að afskrifa texta af hverjum, hvenær, hvernig, og kannski jafnvel af hverju. Stemmað verður ekki bara handritaættartré en líka myndrænt uppsetning yfir félagsnet.

Flott, en hvað hefurðu lært um Njálu?

Við skoðuðum bara gögn frá kapítula 86: annars hafi það verið of erfitt að klára verkefnið! Og við gerðum geðveika rótfasta stemmað sem stendur hér.

Stemmað sýnir hvað flókin er Njáluhandritaætt. Og sýnir bara kapítula 86! En við vitum áður að stemmað var flókið. Þannig er mikilvægasta uppgötvunin okkar að flest pappírshandrit eru í ætt týnds handrits sem við vitum var Gullskinna nefnd. Sjálfsagt bendir nafnið til þess að Gullskinna var skinnhandrit. Hún var sjálfstætt vitni í frumgerð Njálu, og er nú týnd. Frá 17. öld til 19. höfum við 27 handrit í ætt Gullskinnu (og 10 sem mun hafa verið til), en bara 16 í ættum annarra skinnhandrita (og eitt sem mun hafa verið til). Ef maður var að lesa Njálu í Íslandi í tímabili eftir miðöldum og fyrr en Ólafur Ólafsson gaf út Njálu árið 1772, maður var líklegt að lesa Gullskinnugerð.

Hún er umtalsvert styttri en önnur Njálugerðar frá miðöldum. Við getum hana borið saman, til dæmis, við Oddabók:

Oddabók (AM 466 4to)
Nu snýr Kári í moti Melsnata jarli hann skaut spjóti til Kára. Kári skaut aftur spjótinu og í gegnum J[arlinn]. Þá flýði Hundi j[arl] en þeir ráku flóttann allt þar til er þeir spurðu til Melkólfs Skottakonungs að hann dró her saman í Dungansbæ. Átti Jarl ráð við vini sína og sýndist það öllum ráð að snúa aftur og beriast eigi við svo mikinn her. Snúa þeir þá aftur og er Jarl kom í Straumey skipti hann þar herfangi. Siðan fór hann norður til Hrosseyiar. Njálssynir fylgðu honum og Kári. Jarl gerði þá veislu mikla…

Kári snýr þá á móti Melsnadda jarli og skaut spjóti í gegnum hann. En Hundi jarl flýði þá. Þeir ráku þá flóttann allt til þess, er þeir spurðu að Melkólfur dró her saman. Sneru þeir þá aftur til Straumseyjar og skiptu þar herfangi. Fór jarl þá til Hrosseyjar og gerði þar þá(?) veislu…

Þannig getum við lítið lært frá Gullskinnu um hvað Njáluhöfundur skrifaði í 13. öld. En ef við viljum skilja viðbrögð þeirra manna sem skrifuðu um Njálu á átjándu öld (til dæmis Magnús Einarsson, skáld og prestur í Svarfaðadali sem annar forveri minn, Andrew Wawn, hefur verið að rannsaka), þá verðum við að lesa Gullskinnugerðina.

Við vitum ekki af hverju var Gullskinna svo vinsæl. Var það bara að hún var stutt? Menntaskólanemendur sem eiga að lesa söguna væri kannski sammála að Njála geti verið styttra! Eða hefur ástæðan samhengi við það að Gullskinna er töpuð? Kannski hún var lesið og lánað og loksins töpuð meðan önnur handrit voru bara geymd í skápum? Við vonum að við getum þessar spurningar svarað, smátt og smátt, með því að rannsaka handritaætt og uppruna handrita.

Eitt gott dæmi er ættin handrits sem heitir Vigursbók (NKS 1220 fol). Hún var afskrifað árið 1698 fyrir Magnús Jónsson í Vigur, sem var kannski ríkasti maðurinn á Íslandi í þeim tíma. Vigursbók inniheldur Njálugerð sem sameinast Gullskinnugerð og Oddabókargerð:

Kári snýr þá á móti Melsnata jarli. Hann skaut spjóti til Kára [en] hann henti á lofti og skaut því aftur og í gegnum jarlinn [en] Hundi jarl flýði þá. Þeir [ráku] nú flóttann allt þar til þeir spurðu að Melkolfr skotakonung dró her saman í Dwngalsbæ. Átti J[arl] þá ráðstefnu við vini sína og sýndist það öllum ráð að snúa aftur og berjast eigi við svo mikinn líðsmun. Sneru þeir þá aftur til straumseyjar og skiptu þar herfangi. Fór Jarl þá norður til Hrosseyjar og gerði þar veislu mikla liði [sínu].

Og við getum séð frá stemmaútdrátt hér að handrit þetta stendur í áhugaverðu félagskerfi. Við vitum ekki hvar Gullskinna var skrifað, en við getum séð að NKS 1220 fol notar Gullskinnugerð sem er tengd við Vestfirði, en líka Oddabókargerð sem var notað sunnanlands en kom seinna til Vestfjarða. Það er miklu meira sem maður vilji læra um fólk sem afskrifaði og átti handrit þessi, en vonalega er það augljóst að stemmað bendir á þess sem við þurfum að rannsaka.


Rótlausar vinnuaðferðir

Og svo getur það verið skemmtilegt að nota stemmu til að rannsaka félagskerfið í þátíðinni og til að skilja betur bókmenntir og bókmenntasögu.

En eins spennandi mér var það, að við gerðum stemma okkar með því að nota rótlausar aðferðir. Hver nemandi við sumarskólanum uppskrifaði handrit af kapítula 86. í toflureikni á Google Docs, þar sem allir nemendur bætti afritum við. Allir unnu saman til að undirbúa tóflureikninn til að nota forritið til að gera stemma. Við Ludger áttum að vinna ansi mikið síðar til að staðfesta og bæta stemmað, en það er ólíklegt að við höfum unnið so hratt án þess að nota gögnin sem við nemendur skipulögðum.

Þessa reynsla bendir til þess að við verðum að reyna ‘crowdsourcing’ (kannski ‘fjölvistun’?), eins og the Transcribe Bentham project eða Phylo. Það getur verið róttækt rótlaust stemma.

Day 30

So having appeared on the radio in Icelandic, I moved on to giving my first conference paper in a foreign language. Woo! It was no doubt pretty grisly to listen to (and in a country where everyone can speak English better than I will ever speak Icelandic, mostly done for the sake of showing willing, and for the challenge obviously), but everyone was very nice about it, and I came away with my pride mostly intact. When your ambition is usually to be interesting at minimum, and at best inspiring, being pleased with merely being comprehensible is in a way a bit of a comedown! But still, I was pleased.

I was also very impressed with the conference, which perhaps goes with the theme of the merits of small universities (and their importance in small communities) discussed on Day 17. The University of Iceland has this annual event called the Hugvísindaþing, or Humanities Conference, where anyone around the university in the humanities business can give a paper. It’s a really nice way to find out what different people are up to across the University. I went to an interesting paper about the emergence of Arabic women’s writing in the Ottoman Empire, for example, which inspired me to do some work on the pretty rubbish Wikipedia coverage of these women. Moreover, while I saw plenty of staff and students around, a large proportion of the random people I met over the two days of the conference turned out to be civilians: probably graduates of the University once upon a time, but just back for the conference out of interest. I reckon we’d struggle to get this kind of turnout at Leeds; but then it doesn’t help that we’d probably be trying to wring cash out of people rather than just spending a hundred quid out of petty cash to lay on some bread and cheese and kleinur and opening our doors.

And I met another of the authors I’ve been working on. Funny business, writing about people who aren’t dead. Nice though.

Alaric í Stemma meeting roomThe actual paper was about these damn stemmas I’ve been posting about ever since about 2009 (cf. this post). I’ll spare you further gory details, but if you’re really interested, a working paper on the research, this time about the stemma of Njáls saga is up here, and the current stemma itself here.

There’s a reasonably interesting story behind the research itself though. My hosts here at the Árnastofnun and their counterparts in Copenhagen have for a decade or so now been organising the Arnamangæan Summer School in Manuscript Studies, which brings crazy people together from across the globe to learn how to read and research these tatty old manuscripts which are stacked up in the libraries of Iceland. In summer 2013 they roped me in to help, which I felt quite honoured by given that I’ve never actually turned up to the summerschool myself, and me and my noble partner in crime Ludger Zeevaert took on teaching the poor lambs how to make stemmas. Ludger’s in the midst of this project that’s going on here called The Variance of Njáls saga. Njáls saga is, like, the most canonical of all these medieval Icelandic sagas—so much so that it even wins a rather astute allusion in episode 27 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as Njorl’s Saga (the saga features a lot of courtroom drama…). But despite its fame, no-one’s really looked at what happened to the saga as people copied it from the end of the Middle Ages into the nineteenth century, changing it as they went, so the project’s been analysing the saga’s many post-medieval manuscripts to see what was what.

me_at_summerschoolBut what was really fun about the summerschool was that the project team and the summerschool folks were able to set things up for the students to work collaboratively, with each other and with us, so that they not only learned how to make stemmas, but also produced new research. It was pretty spacy watching twenty people all transcribing manuscripts live into a shared online spreadsheet and preparing the data for software analysis, watching new readings flicker into life on the data projector screen in the classroom. Six hours but about 120 man-hours later we had the first ever nearly-complete stemma of Njáls saga. With some effort, me and Ludger have over the last six months or so built on our findings to get a proper article together, which we’ll publish as a co-write by all the participants. A nice souvenir, we hope, for the people who, from their various directions, traipsed across the Atlantic to come to the summer school.

It also makes me realise that we could make a proper fist of doing crowdsourcing of manuscript transcriptions and analyses. People at UCL have been doing this in the impressive Transcribe Bentham project, and there’s this cool computer game to crowdsource data comparing the DNA of different species Phylo. Mostly this kind of crowdsourcing is a pretty lost cause for people in medieval studies because you need a lot of specific linguistc skills to be able to read medieval manuscripts. But if there’s anywhere in the world where Joe Public can read medieval texts, it’s Iceland. Moreover, they’re probably ahead of almost everywhere in digitising their manuscript collections and making them available to allcomers, via the brilliant So I’m sort of trying to start plotting some kind of citizen science thing here. Not sure what will come of that yet, but I’m quite excited by the idea.

But I’m also quite excited that, having got through my first ever paper not in English, I might actually be able to turn my attentions to learning to be a folklorist at last. (Depends a bit how much the doctoral students are writing back home in Leeds…) We’ll see how I get on!

* Raunar hvöttu þeir mig til fyrstu vísu minnar á frónsku. Sem er sjálfsagt mjög pretentious en vonalega passlega svona. Þótt má geta að bókin þeirra er kannski réttara talið ansi gott prósaljóð heldur en ansi geðveik heimspekiritgerð.

Deleuze—oui—je délire:
ton livre descend comme givre
quand feuilles sont vertes en fleurs,
il fend, s’en prend aux arbres.
Tes plateaux brumeux taisent;
les montagnes gagnent, je crois.
J’évite d’être ton Gylfi.
C’est la vie, Guattari.

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Aftur á Íslandi. Og í útvarpi. | Back in Iceland. And on the radio.

Af hverju er þetta blogg svo illa skrifað?
Af því að ég er að læra íslensku. Enda ég veit að opinber vansæmd er, því miður, beinasta leið til fullkomnunar. Ef það verður of leiðinlegt að lesa bloggfærslur á illa skrifaðri íslensku þá er það alltaf hægt að lesa bloggið á ensku neðri! Og leiðréttingar eru alltaf velkomnir: bara skrifaðu neðri.
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Dagur 17

Jæja. Ég ætlaði að blogga önnur hver viku (eða meira…), og ég hef ekki skrifað neitt í sextán daga. Kannski geti ég mælt þessu bót, því ég gerði ekkert mjög bloggsvert fyrr en á fimmtudag. En ég geti ekki vonað að bæta mig á íslensku án þess að skrifa eitthvað…

Og ég ætti sem minnst að hafa sagt hvað það er flott að komast aftur til landsins! Mér finnst skrýtið, en rosalega gaman, hvað það er orðið auðvelt að bara rölta inn í Árnastofnun, og fólk segir bara hæ, velkominn aftur, og ég fæ mér te og spjalla, og síðan bara byrja að vinna, eins og ég hefði aldrei farið þaðan. Þrátt fyrir að ég var svoldið hræddur þegar ég fór þangað í fyrstu: Guð blessi Róbert Cook, sem alltaf tók eftir nýkomið fólk. Ég er ánægður að Árnastofnunin er svo hrifin af gestum: við Leeds eigum við alltaf að spyrja fyrst og fremst ‘getum við hagnast á þeim?’ Eins og við eigum að spyrja um nemendur líka.

Íslenskt orð háskóli tæpir ekki á því, en orðið universitet bendir til þess að háskólar umfaðmi öll rannsóknarsvið. Mér finnst þetta spennandi hugtak, en meir spennandi í rauninni er oft að vinna við heimsins miðpunkt einhvers sérstaka sviðs. Eins og við Skotlandssagnfræðideildina og Keltneskudeildina við Háskóla Glasgow (uppáhaldsdeildir mínir í heiminum!)—eða Árnastofnunina eða þjóðfræðisskorina hér. Að vera stór fiskur í litlu vatni virtist mér frábær vænting í lífinu. Íslenskfræði er sjálfsagt lítið vatn, en í þessu vatni er allt í gangi hér: fyrirlestrar frá fræðimönnum frá mörgum löndum; áhugavert fólk að spjalla við; margir meistaranemendur sem, meira að segja, koma til fyrirlestranna; flott bókasöfn, og svoleiðis. Ekki als gott ef maður vill lesa um eitthvað annað en íslenska bókmenningu eða eldgos, enn vafalaust frábært fyrir mig.

Það hjálpar, auðsýnt, að fólk við Stofnunina hittast daglega yfir kaffi. Nú hef ég reynt tvær annir að safna starfsfólk við enskudeildina í Leeds til að borða saman bara einu sinni í viku, en án árangurs. Ég kann að meta samstarfsmenn mína, en lífið þar er svona að við eigum alltaf bara að éta yfir lyklaborð. Eða í fundum. Og hér býður fólk bjór í stað fyrir heimsfrægvond vín eftir fyrirlestra.

Og veðrið hefur verið ofsalega fallegt. Þegar ég var í Indlandi yfir jól sá ég næstum ekkert veður nema heiðbláa sólríka vindlausa himna, sem var frábært en ég viðurkenna að eftir sex vikur byrjaði ég að sakna raunverulegt veður: Vind og skúrar og snjó og regnboga og svoleiðis. En ég kom hingað til lands breytilegasts veðurs í Evrópu og ég hef séð ekkert meira en þrjú snjókorn í tvær vikur: bara meira sólríkt, fallegt veður. En maður ætti ekki að kvarta yfir því! Og norðurljós hafa verið ljómandi.

Og sjálfsagt er það risaflott að hitta vini og vinkonur og flytja aftur til Mávahlíðar. Uppáhaldsfyrirlesturinn mánaðarins var Hauks Þorgeirssons ‘Bragtaka og brageyra’, meðfram af því að fyrirlesturinn var svo áhugaverður, en líka af því að hann var haldinn í stofu Íslenska esperantosambandsins, síðast endurnýjað kannski 1960. Kannski ætli ég að læra esperanto hér bara til að hanga þar!

Þá var Dagur 14 mjög áhugaverður, fullur af nýjum reynslum. Ég hélt fyrirlestur við Miðaldastofu um skáldsögur sem tengjast efnahagshrunið 2008, sem var sjálfur minn fyrsti fyrirlestur um nýbókmenningu, en líka hélt ég viðtöl við Útvarp Sögu og RÚV. Fyrsta beina útsending mín, fyrsta viðtöl á íslensku. Ég var ánægður, en ég man ekki hvenær ég hef verið hvumpnari! Ég talaði eins og fífl við Útvarp Sögu, en hann Markús sem ég spjallaði við var ofsalega þolinmóður. Og ég talaði svoldið betur við Sigríður Stephensen hjá RÚV, og eftir hún klippti viðtalið gat ég ekki vonað að hafa hljómað betur. Fyrirlesturinn virtist að hafa gengið vel, þótt einn höfundur var við hvers bók ég ræddi um. Eek! Á íslensku! (Ík?) En við samþykktumst að hittast í þessari viku. Skemmtilegt. Og önnur tengingar hafa byrjað líka frá fyrirlestrinum. Dagur 14 var góður dagur!

Day 17

Okay, so I promised to update this blog every week or two, and now it’s Day 16 and I still haven’t. I might try to excuse this by muttering that until Thursday (Day 14) I didn’t do anything blogworthy anyway, but the bottom line is that if I don’t post on the blog then I’m never going to force myself to practice my written Icelandic…

And in any case I should at least have said how cool it is to be back here! As I think I’ve said before, it’s kind of strange, but certainly very pleasant, how easy it is just to turn up at the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, the Icelandic language and literature institute here, and people are just, like, hey ho! Nice to see you again! And I wander in and have a cup of tea and just settle down to work as if I’d never been away. Even though I did used to be a bit scared of the place when I first came here: God bless old Bob Cook, who always used to take newcomers under his wing. I’m lucky they’re so fond of having guests here: in Leeds, the first question you always have to ask about having an academic come and stay is ‘can we make a profit on it?’ Same with student recruitment.

So the etymological meaning of the word university, right, is all about bringing every research area under the sun into one place of study. Or at least it is in English: in Icelandic the word is háskóli, which, less ambitiously, means ‘high-school’. And I find the concept of the university a really amazing one: kind of like a real-life version of the Internet. But in practice, it’s often actually more exciting to be somewhere which focuses on something ridiculously specific, but which is a real world centre for that thing. That’s one reason why my favourite departments I’ve ever hung out in were the Celtic and Scottish History departments at Glasgow. And the Árnastofnun and the folklore departments here are much the same. If there’s one thing being an academic has taught me, it’s that being a big fish in a small pond is actually a pretty great way to spend your time. Icelandic studies is definitely a small pond (or, as it more optimistically comes out in the Icelandic version of the phrase, lake), but there’s no question that the University of Iceland’s a world centre for it, with the liveliness you’d expect. Papers from visiting scholars from around the world; interesting folk to talk to; lots of MA students who, moreover, tend to turn up to these papers; groovy libraries; etc. Admittedly the place is less good if you want to study something other than Icelandic literature or volcanos, but I can’t deny that suits me okay.

Of course, it helps that the folk at the Árnastofnun all convene twice a day for coffee. I have worked pretty hard for two semesters now to get my colleagues in the School of English at Leeds to hang out together for lunch once a week, and have totally failed. We’re a good bunch, like, but lunch at Leeds seems irrevocably to be a crumbs-on-the-keyboard or sandwich-during-meetings affair. It doesn’t help that after research seminars, the UK custom is to break out some really bad wine: here they sensibly offer beer.

And then the weather’s been amazing ever since I arrived. When I was in India over Christmas, I really started to miss weather. Six solid weeks of clear blue skies and no wind is amazing but, well, it’s not weather! So I was actually (improbable though it might seem) looking forward to Icelandic weather: wind and squalls and snow and rainbows. But here I am in arguably the most weatherous country in Europe and I don’t think I’ve seen more than three snowflakes and the odd picturesque cloud for two weeks. Not that I should complain! And there have been some brilliant northern lights.

Most of all it’s been great to catch up with old friends here, and move back to my old haunt on Mávahlíð. My favourite paper of February was Haukur Þorgeirsson giving this paper on how children learn metre—partly because it was itself really interesting; partly, I must admit, because it was in what I fear I can only describe as the front room of the Icelandic Esperanto Society (!), which appears last to have been redecorated in about 1960. It was great! I may have to take up Esperanto while I’m here just to have an excuse to hang out there…

And then Day 14 was quite special: a day of firsts for me, which here at the midpoint of life’s path doesn’t happen so often. I gave my first paper on literature by people who aren’t dead, about novels relating to the 2008 financial crisis, at the Centre for Medieval Studies here. I was asked to speak on a couple of radio stations, starting early in the morning with both my first ever live interview and my first interview in Icelandic. Eek! I haven’t been so nervous in years. Fortunately the interviewer at the aptly named Radio Saga, Markús, was very patient and helpful; I still talked like an idiot though. Fortunately I’d got my act together a bit by the time I did the next one a couple of hours later for the national station, and with a bit of editing my interviewer Sigríður made it sound as good as one could have hoped for. And the paper seems to have gone okay too (after all that radio stuff I was reminded what a difference it makes talking in your mother tongue…). But in another first, it was not only my first paper about living authors, but my first paper which a living author has actually attended. Eek! But I seem to have got away with it (so far). We’re meeting later this week. And other connections have arisen too, so regardless of how good the lecture actually was, it’s done me good service. Day 14 was a good day!

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Ferðabloggið Alreks byrjar aftur! | The Travelblogue is Back!

Af hverju er þetta blogg svo illa skrifað?
Af því að ég er að læra íslensku. Enda ég veit að opinber vansæmd er, því miður, beinasta leið til fullkomnunar. Ef það verður of leiðinlegt að lesa bloggfærslur á illa skrifaðri íslensku þá er það alltaf hægt að lesa bloggið á ensku neðri! Og leiðréttingar eru alltaf velkomnir: bara skrifaðu neðri.
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Síðan fór ég til Íslands í 2009 hef ég stundum bloggað um ferðirnar mínar á landinu og annarstaðar. En nú fer ég aftur til Íslands til að búa þar frá 13. febrúar til ágúst og, meira að segja, til að rannsaka íslenska menning. Þótt sem ég sé í rauninni sérfræðingur um miðaldir… Og ég ætla að blogga um rannsóknina hér.

Ástæðan fyrir því að rannsaka nýíslenska menning er sú, að ég var ánægður að fá rannsóknarpeninga frá The Leverhulme Trust (borið fram eins og ‘lífahjúm’). The Leverhulme Trust er bresk rannsóknarsjóð (tengd við fyrirtækið Unilever) og er þekkt fyrir að styðja góða, hefðbundina rannsókn sem virðist einfaldlega að verða áhugaverð. Slóðin veitir styrki sérfræðingum til að fara útanlands og, meira eða minna, bara læra að gera eitthvað nýtt–einmitt það sem breska ríkisstjórnin styrki aldrei 😉

Og svo lofaði ég að koma til landsins og verða þjóðfræðingur (við þjóðfræðisskor hjá Háskóla Íslands) og svo að fara aftur til Leeds, þar sem ég (reyna að) kenna íslensk mál og menning, sem sérfræðingur í íslensk fræði (!). Og ég lofaði líka að endurgera íslenskunámskeið sem ég gerði fyrir þremur árum. Ég er þakklátur að margt gott fólk hjálpaði mér að skrifa umsóknina, meðal annars Terry Gunnell, Matthew Driscoll, Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir og Andrew Wawn.

Ég veit ekki örugglega einmitt hvað eða hvernig ég ætla að rannsaka, en það verður örugglega skemmtilegt að uppgötva. Ég lofaði upprúnalega að rannsaka kreppuna en ég veit ekki örugglega ennþá. Ég hef verið að lesa skáldsögur um hrunið og frá þeim birtast frekar margar óvæntar spurningar: af hverju, til dæmis, eru íslamskir hryðjuverkamenn frekar oft getið í kreppuskáldsögum? Mér finnst áhugavert að svo mörg börn fæddust í kreppunni: á móti tilhneiging í Evrópu. En mér finnst umhverfismál líka mjög áhugavert. Og álfar líka—og þó að ég er þreyttur að vera þekkt sem álfafræðingur, þó grunar mig að ég geti eitthvað áhugaverðara sagt um álfa enn er venjulegt… Og þá heyrði ég að eftir kreppunni þrefalðuðu þjóðfræðinemendur á landini. Áhugavert.

Og ég hlakka til að halda áfram með rannsókn um söguhandrit frá miðöldum við Árnastofnunina og Landsbókasafnið líka.

Ég vona að uppfærsla bloggið hverja (eða önnur hver) viku, og ég vona að það verður skemmtilegt að fylgjast með! En ekkert mál ef það er of leiðinlegt. Ég veit sem minnst að ég bæti mig á íslensku!

~ ~ ~

So, I’ve been accustomed on and off to write travelblogues, inter alia about my trips to Iceland. Maybe you’ve had the dubious fortune of being accustomed to reading them. But I haven’t written a dwellingblogue before. Now, however, is the time, because on February 13th I will start living in Iceland again for the first time since 2010. Woo! Moreover, rather than my usual diet of dusty manuscripts, I’ll be there to study modern Icelandic language and culture.

The explanation for this departure is that the Leverhulme Trust, a foundation noted for being willing to fund good old-fashioned ‘just because it sounds interesting’ research, has this brilliant funding scheme that basically pays for UK academics to go abroad to learn to do things they don’t already know how to do. Which is totally cool, and exactly the kind of thing that (as all my friends have heard me say before) government-funded schemes would never pay for.

So, being keen to get back to Iceland, I conjured up this plot to learn to be an ethnographer and, instead of studying dead vikings, study living Icelanders. And the Leverhulme paid up! (In no small part because of the efforts of the noble Terry Gunnell, Matthew Driscoll, Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir, and Andrew Wawn.) I’ve promised to return to Leeds in August having remade my beginners’ Icelandic mp3 course, and generally transformed into an all-singing, all-dancing teacher of modern Icelandic language and culture. (Whereas at the moment my metaphorical singing and dancing is at about the same level as my literal singing and dancing.)

I’m not actually sure precisely what I’ll research or how I’ll go about it, but I’m looking forward to following my nose and working it out. I originally said I’d study the financial crisis, but then there are lots of other unexpected areas that have caught my eye. I’ve done a lot of reading of Icelandic novels relating to the crisis, but they provoke some unexpected questions: they have a quiet but odd and rather insistent interest in Islamic terrorism, for example. Or then there’s the curious fact that Iceland’s crisis witnessed a baby boom, which is the opposite of what most European countries have seen. Icelandic environmentalism is pretty interesting too. And the inevitable elves, which I have long been trying to leave behind me; but they get around and I think I might not be able to resist weighing in on the subject once more, in a new context. Or what about the curious fact that with the crisis came (I hear) a trebling of enrolments at the University of Iceland’s folklore department (my imminent and honourable hosts)?

And of course I’m also still looking forward to nosing around some dusty manuscripts on the side at the Stofnun Árna Magnússonar and the National Library.

I’m hoping to update the blog every week or two. And I hope the adventure proves interesting enough for some other people to read along!

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Life in Greenhouse: my carbon footprint

I put quite a lot of effort into trying to live in a way that reduces my contribution to global warming. But it can be hard to feel you’re making much of a difference, or to know where you should focus your efforts, especially since good quality information about carbon footprints is so hard to come by.

So when the brilliant Leeds institution Bettakulcha came to the spacy eco-building where I live, Greenhouse, I decided it was not only time I gave a Bettakulcha presentation, but high time that I worked out the carbon footprint of one of the inhabitants.

Here’s the actual presentation, but you’ll probably find it quicker and better to read the written version below. I know I’m no expert in this stuff so I’ll welcome any feedback in the comments! But I hope it’s an eye-opening post all the same.

Knowing the carbon footprint of the human race is pretty easy: count up how much coal, oil and gas we burn per year (we have pretty good figures for that); work out how much forest we’re destroying and methane our waste and agriculture is releasing (trickier but pretty guessable); and throw in a few other factors, and you’re roughly there: about 50 billion tonnes carbon-dioxide equivalent (CO₂eq) per year above and beyond what the earth would be putting into the atmosphere if there were no humans around.


But working out a more specific carbon footprint is trickier. What’s the UK’s carbon footprint, for example? Again, it’s pretty easy to measure how much greenhouse gas we produce here (a billion tonnes CO₂eq per year). But a lot of oil is burned abroad on our behalf, producing food, cars, TVs, or whatever for us to import. European and American government figures tend to omit this and pretend that the emissions are on China’s tab, but obviously it belongs on ours.

All things considered, it looks fairly clear that the UK’s carbon footprint is about two billion tonnes CO₂eq per year: about 16 tonnes each. At the moment, though, the average which might be sustainable without changing the climate drastically seems to be about two tonnes per person (as, for example, in India).

But I don’t just want to know the average carbon footprint of a denizen of the UK: I want to know my carbon footprint, and then measure whether I’m reducing it.

That’s much harder to work out: while it’s easy to see how much oil the human race burns overall, it’s much harder to work out how much is to be accounted to each item produced or individual person. Take a fifteen-second powerpoint slide at Bettakulcha for example. (Yes, even a powerpoint slide has a carbon footprint!)


The slide’s carbon footprint is not just the electricity used to project it. It’s the electricity used while making the slide—and not just the electricity for my laptop, but the electricity powering the internet servers I used when researching it; a share of the energy that went into making my laptop; a share of the energy that went into making my breakfast; even a small share of the energy that went into making the software that I used. The fact that I showed the slide at a Bettakulcha event which people paid to attend probably even means that the slide contributed to economic growth—and in our world, all economic growth means more energy consumed, which means more carbon emissions.

The same problems go for working out a person’s carbon footprint: where do you draw the line in deciding what emissions they’re responsible for? So it’s really hard to work out precisely what an individual person or item’s carbon footprint is.

This also shows how deeply interconnected our carbon footprints are. I can’t unilaterally reduce my carbon footprint to 2 tonnes CO₂eq per year, because it’s actually the consequence of so many other greenhouse-gas emitting activities that are out of my control.

But I can make a reasonable overall guess about my greenhouse gas emissions, using a methodology suggested by Mike Berners-Lee, How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything (London: Profile, 2010) (from which I derived the figures above). I know (more or less) what I spend my money on, and I can find out roughly the carbon emissions per pound spent in different sectors of the UK economy. So I went through a year’s worth of bank statements (October 2011–2012) and came up with…


Of course this is still going to be a pretty blunt instrument. I usually make quite a big effort, for example, to buy food with low food-miles or environmentally-friendly consumer goods, but the measurements I’m using are just sector averages. Nor was I quite sure what I spend my cash on (though it’s mostly spent in pubs…). So this graph isn’t hugely revealing, but it’s a start.

Your expenditures almost certainly doesn’t look like this: I don’t run a car; I don’t have kids; I live in a groovy eco-flat; maybe you actually save money rather than just paying off your mortgage; etc. But hopefully you can guess from this what your picture might look like.

Now here’s how these different expenditures contribute to my carbon footprint:


Perhaps the most striking thing here is that the monetary cost of something is a pretty rubbish guide to its carbon cost (except, as it happens, in the case of goods and food). The next most striking thing is that one return flight from the UK to the US makes a HUGE difference (for these figures I followed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reckoning that aircraft emissions have 2.5 times as much effect as the same emissions at ground level). Other travel and energy use are also pretty significant.

Something this graph omits is the carbon footprint of Greenhouse itself—the emissions caused by making the concrete and steel, running diggers, etc. (I’ve only included the mortgage. Yes, mortgages have carbon footprints! They include things like the energy used by banks’ servers, the flights their executives take to broker money-laundering deals with Mexican drug-barons, etc.) It’s really hard to get good data on the carbon emissions entailed by building (and alas, the developers didn’t work out figures). And obviously a building that stands for a long time has a smaller footprint per year than one that stands for a short time, but it’s hard to predict how long a building will stand for. Greenhouse is partly renovated from a 1930s building and is partly new build. After some surfing around I got figures suggesting that a new-build 50m² ecotastic flat might have a footprint of 10–50 tonnes CO₂eq. Let’s say the building stands for 100 years: if so, that’s 0.1–0.5 tonnes per year.

Then there’s where I work, Leeds University. We don’t know the University’s carbon footprint, but for comparison, Berners-Lee reckons Lancaster Uni’s emissions at 8 tonnes CO₂eq per staff member/student per year. In the mode of accounting I’ve used, none of Leeds University’s carbon footprint is really my problem: it goes on the tab of the people to whom I sell my labour—once the taxpayer, but these days mostly my students. (As if £27,000 of debt (and counting) wasn’t disincentive enough to come to university!) But of course I still have a moral responsibility to reduce carbon emissions at work. (Actually, some of the train travel which I counted was on university business, which for this year probably cancels out the tab of building my flat.)

And finally there’s the government. Assuming that each citizen deserves an equal share of the carbon footprint of the NHS, armed forces, schools, rubbish collecting, etc., that’s another 1.8 tonnes or so per person.

So all told my carbon footprint for October 2011–2012 was up to about 15 tonnes CO₂eq, a shade under the UK average. I did well with zero-emissions commuting, low domestic energy use, and low expenditure on goods, which just about absorbed the impact of doing REALLY BADLY on flying.

So what can I do?


before you ask, offsetting, whereby I pay a company to plant trees or invest in low-carbon technology is almost certainly a rip-off (cf. Delta Airlines’ greenwash and Amtrak’s greenwash).

Obviously transport and domestic energy are the biggies. In my case, cycling saves me a lot of emissions. In theory I can make a huge difference by avoiding flying. This is hard in a job where international travel wins you prestige, and hard when you have a far-flung family, and when prices are so low relative to environmental cost. But I definitely need to campaign for less flying in professional life.

Cutting domestic energy use is hard for me because I’m already living in a building that’s more or less as green as you can get in the UK, and I use markedly less energy than the average for a one-bed flat even in Greenhouse. But ridiculously, Greenhouse doesn’t use a green energy supplier, so I’m working on changing that. If you live in any normal sort of UK accommodation, much bigger savings will be possible (and necessary) in your energy efficiency.

The finding I expected least is that if you’ve got money to burn, on average you’re better off spending it on services than goods. Don’t go shopping to pass the time: go to a film or a gig. Don’t buy an i-pad: employ a house-cleaner for 40 hours. Don’t buy five Primark jumpers: pay someone to knit one special one. Directing consumption from goods to services would probably be good news for the UK in lots of other ways too.

I can be careful in my choices of consumer goods, and I must switch my mortgage to an ethical bank. And I can adjust my diet: a thoughtful vegan diet might yield a 25% saving on a UK average diet (and a lot more if the agricultural land saved by this more efficient way of eating was reforested), so since moving to Greenhouse I’ve embraced veganry (and even some admittedly rather ineffectual but very low-carbon allotmenteering).

Doing all these things is important and worthwhile, even though there aren’t many big wins: I might hope to get my emissions down to 9 tonnes CO₂eq per year if I can only get out of those damn planes.

But the other really big thing I can do is to convince you to make similar incremental changes. Because that way we will start to have a networking effect: if I cycle to work, that’s less carbon on my students’ tab; if, when my students graduate and become bankers, they cycle to work, that’s less carbon on my mortgage. Everyone wins!

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Days 12-14: Aarhus-Andalusia, and the carbon footprint

Oh no! After all my smug desciptions of the ease of international train travel, in the interests of being less environmentally disastrous, it went kind of all wrong when I tried to get from Aarhus to Andalucia! And, I regret to announce, I won’t even be able satisfactorily to conclude the tale of my earlier encounter with the useless!

The travel

Heading back south, I get the train from Aarhus to Kolding (didn’t see much of it, but it was sunny and had a nice lake, so fair play); the Cologne train rumbles in and I step into my compartment, and explain in Bad Swedish, Bad German, and English, who I am. You know, hoping just to put people at their ease. And these five women who are already in there all just stare at me like I’ve just beamed down from the Starship Enterprise. I actually thought I must have accidentally booked into a women’s only compartment or something. But the conductor, when he comes by, doesn’t kick me out, and gradually it dawns on me that nearly everyone in the carriage is Dutch, and the train’s ultimate destination Amsterdam, and bit by bit they thaw until around lights-out we’re actually at the point of having an actual conversation. Maybe the Bad Swedish derailed them. I realise the next morning that the other person’s French, also changing in Cologne, and once we’ve got that sorted out we get on fine, with me dredging up my best Small Talk French for the occasion. The conductor switches to French to talk to her too; ‘Blimey, hard work talking in French when it’s, like, your fourth language’ he says to me afterwards in German, except that he says it in about four times as many sentences with, to judge from his expression, much greater elegance and wit. Lost for a suitably witty response I simply nod with the enthusiatic wryness of a total idiot.

What the conductor was explaining to the French passenger is that we’re four hours behind schedule; we have to get out at Dortmund (hello Dortmund! I have now seen platform 11 of your railway station!) to get a different service to Cologne; but I’ve got plenty of slack in the timetable, and they put us on a new train to Paris, and I’m still feeling pretty train-smug. And at somewhat less than 12kg of CO2-equivalent emissions from Aarhus to Cologne, I’m not doing too badly. I get talking to a Rwandan footballer-turned-football coach with an enormous cardboard box in addition to a superfluity of large sports bags, whose legs, as he tries to fold them under the table where we’re sitting, look long enough to belong to a giraffe.

The train grinds to a halt in Eschweiler. No, I hadn’t heard if it either. Apparently there’s a forest-fire, which the German lady at the opposite table says could only be due to arson (‘I mean, this is Germany, you just don’t have forest fires in Germany’); and we’re going to have to get out and wait for some coaches to drive us to Aachen so we can carry on. At this point my train-smugness is diminishing.

Though I do kind of like it when train-services go to pieces. One of the first times I took a long train journey in the UK, I was delayed and I was sitting there going ARRRGH, I’m going to be LATE. ARRRRGH! And then I realised that the beauty of train travel is precisely that if you’re running late, you can’t do anything about it. It’s one of the few situations where I really manage to sit back and let life take its course. And it’s when you get down to properly hanging out with people. Emboldened by my 25% comprehension of the German conductor earlier in the day, I attempt to ask if anyone would like some of the nuts I’ve got stashed away as emergency supplies. ‘Oh, I love nuts’, says the German lady, and goes on to eat them all. I am too polite, and embarrassed at my own language-hubris, to intervene. I help the footballer move his stuff off the train and chat to a French school-leaver about François Hollande and Scottish devolution, and in a couple of hours I’m on a new train in Aachen (hello Aachen! I have now seen your railway station!) and on my way again.

By the time I fetch up in Paris, my Eurolines coach from Paris to Madrid–no, Eurolines never did reply to my emails, or call me back–is long gone. So I never did get to rave at them in Bad French until they let me onto the bus. Last time I took a European trip this long–when I went to Hungary–I got an interrail pass and just told my host in Budapest that I’d arrive somewhere with a 48-hour window. This time I had a more specific appointment and found myself squeezing, heavy-hearted, into a metro train to Charles de Gaulle airport to try and get a flight to Málaga, along with an American postgrad making a desperate, low-budget bid to catch her flight home from Madrid so as not be stranded, penniless, on the wrong side of the Atlantic. It wasn’t that expensive to fly to Malaga nor that difficult to arrange it, even at such short notice; and as for my Madrid-Malaga train journey, although the Spanish train company website is RUBBISH, you can, bless them, cancel your ticket and get a lot of the money back. But it was a sad defeat of my environmentalist efforts. Lesson learned: give yourself more slack on two-day European train journeys!

The carbon consequences

The journey I should have had:

journey distance CO2-equivalent emissions per passanger-kilometre
(click on link for source)
emissions, CO2-eq putative 2.5 multiplier for high-altitude emissions
Paris-Madrid (coach) 1,253km (shortest route on Google Maps) 20g 25kg 25kg
Madrid-Málaga (train) c. 550km (based on Google Maps) 26g (p. 8) 14.3kg N/A
grand total 39.3kg N/A

The journey I actually had:

journey distance CO2-equivalent emissions per passanger-kilometre
(click on link for source)
emissions, CO2-eq putative 2.5 multiplier for high-altitude emissions

Madrid-Málaga (plane) 1456km (Mapcrow) 155g) 226kg 565kg

The average UK citizen has an annual CO2-eq footprint of about 12 tonnes per year–and my flight probably accounted for about half a tonne of emissions. The sustainable carbon footprint per person might be up to about 2 tonnes–so this flight alone probably accounted for a quarter of my annual allowance.

Why was Alaric going to Andalusia anyway?

Well, for various reasons I wound up on a traditional, sedentary holiday. I did a few travelblogueworthy things, but not that many! But it was fun. If I had fewer emails to deal with I’d tell you more, but for now I’d better leave off bloguing. Look out, though, for an assessment of the year’s carbon footprint around the end of September!

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