Responsive redesign of the Institute of Intellectual History website

I’ve been interested in responsive web design since reading Ethan Marcotte and then Scott Jehl on the subject in the excellent A Book Apart series, but this summer has afforded me the first chance to put the principles into practice with a redesign of the Institute of Intellectual History website, which is the research centre I am associated with at St Andrews.

I first cobbled together the design for this website, which runs on WordPress, over a period of about three days in late 2013 and, in my opinion, it has aged really badly. With the redesign, I wanted to achieve a few things:

  • a responsive design that worked on mobile and small screens (25% of traffic is from these sources, and they were previously served the desktop site)
  • an integrated events management system that could display a calendar and automatically add previous events to an archive (replacing a tiresome manual process)
  • much better functionality, such as pure-CSS drop-down menus and a full-site search
  • as small a CSS file as possible, taking into account the principle of DRY
  • not use !important in anger

The new design is now online. The WordPress theme itself is based on _S, while the events management is handled by the Events Organiser plugin, created by Edinburgh’s own Stephen Harris. The CSS comes in at about 14kb minified.

New IIH site on laptop and mobile
Corny promo shot

This was also one of the first projects where I tracked development using GitHub, and you can see all the code that makes up the initial release in the repository.

Using Exclusion Dictionaries in Word for Mac 2016

Like (I suspect) many others, I use Microsoft Word for my academic writing and also for most of my note-taking. Microsoft’s rollout of Office 365 has recently led to my institution offering both students and staff the new versions of Word, Excel, and the like for free. I’ve recently started using these on my Mac.

When I write in Word, I don’t have Autocorrect running and instead rely on the red underlining of the as-you-type spellchecker to spot any mistakes. I also have a fairly extensive custom dictionary which has words I use a lot (‘Utilitarians’ is a favourite!) but which don’t appear in the main dictionary. What I’ve recently found annoying, however, is my tendency to make typos that are not misspelt words, but are obvious mistakes in the context of what I’m writing. My most frequent one is to write ‘fro’ instead of ‘for’.

What I thought I needed was some kind of reverse custom dictionary, where I could list words that are not misspellings, per se, but which I want Word to underline anyway to make checking easier. Fortunately there is a feature for this, called Exclusion Dictionaries, and even more fortunately it seems that, in Word for Mac 2016, getting it to work is a lot easier than it seems to have been in previous versions.

Here’s the gist:

1. First job is to call up ‘Spelling & Grammar’ in the Word Preferences (⌘ + ,) pane:

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 12.41.34

2. Next is the ‘Dictionaries…’ button:

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 12.42.00

3. In the ‘Custom Dictionaries’ pane that appears, click ‘New’:

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 12.42.33

4. I’ve put my Exclusion Dictionary in the same folder as my Custom Dictionary, which is in ~/Library/Group Containers/UBF8T346G9.Office/. Yours may be in a different place and, in fact, it doesn’t seem to matter where the new file actually goes. If your Library folder is hidden, remember to press ⌘ + Shift + . to reveal it in the Save dialog pane. It’s important to change the file format to Speller Exclude Dictionary (.dic).

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 14.49.09

5. We’ve now created our custom Exclusion Dictionary. Hit ‘Edit’ to start adding words to your list. You’ll receive a notification stating that ‘Spell check will turn off’, just click OK as we’ll re-enable it in step 7.

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 12.43.42

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 12.43.46

6. Here’s my new dictionary, to which I’ve added the word ‘fro’. You can enter other words to flag up on additional lines. Close and save when you’re done, after which you’ll be returned to the original document you were working on.

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 14.59.45

7. In step 5, spell check was turned off in the process. We now need to turn it back on in the ‘Spelling & Grammar’ pane (as in step 1, to get to the Word Preferences pane we press ⌘ + ,):

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 12.44.46

8. And here is the Exclusion Dictionary in action, marking ‘fro’ as a typo in this document of notes I’m currently working on:

Hope this helps!

Review of Bentham’s The Book of Fallacies

A few months ago I wrote a review of the new edition of Jeremy Bentham’s The Book of Fallacies, edited by Philip Schofield and published by OUP.

I was intending to write a more in-depth post about this very intriguing book, specifically whether it has any modern-day relevance to political debate (Fallacies is essentially a manual for how to get parliamentary reforms through the reactionary British establishment of the early nineteenth century), but alas time has slipped away from me over the Christmas holidays.

Nevertheless, you can read the full review online. It will eventually appear in the History of European Ideas journal.

Academic podcasting, or how to boost research seminar attendance by 3,400%

In the three research groups that I have been a member of in the course of my academic career (the Sussex Centre for Intellectual History, UCL’s Bentham Project, and now the St Andrews Institute of Intellectual History) I have often recorded (with permission) the various lectures and research seminars held under their auspices and published them online. I’ve done this for over six years now, with my first recording being Quentin Skinner’s lecture on ‘Word and Image in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes’ at Sussex back in 2009. The lecture itself was great, everything else was a disaster. I couldn’t even get the projector working until about 2 minutes before the start, the speaker’s microphone fed back constantly, and I used a cheap dictaphone to record from where I was sitting, with predictably terrible results.

Over time I’ve (thankfully) refined how I record and produce the events. I bought new equipment, gathered the recordings into discrete podcasts and had them listed on iTunes, and, at the start of this year, began paying a dedicated hosting company to serve downloads. It’s this last development that’s spurned the writing of this post, because one of the great things about Libsyn (‘Liberated Syndication’), that now host the recordings, is the detailed statistics they give of how many people are listening in (known in the parlance as ‘subscribers’). Before this year I was ambivalent about such figures. But in a world where academic impact is increasingly important, these stats have become a revelation. From January 2015 until now, there have been 26,774 downloads of the podcast Lectures in Intellectual History. That’s an average of a little over 3,000 downloads per month.

Libsyn download stats by month
Monthly download stats for ‘Lectures in Intellectual History’

Since I’ve been at St Andrews, my institute has been running a successful seminar programme which invites a range of speakers (and not just intellectual historians) to discuss their research. As each seminar starts I normally do a quick headcount of attendees. In 2015, the average attendance has been 21, which I think, for a (typically) Tuesday evening in Fife, is a very decent return. I’ve recorded eight of these seminars for the podcast, and measured how many downloads each recording got in the calendar month following its publication (usually the day after the event). The average number of downloads for these eight seminars is 738, but most add about 100 downloads each in the subsequent months following publication. That is to say, there’s a big spike in downloads as soon as the new recording is posted, and then downloads level off to about 100 per month after that. Our most popular recording, which was only published in May of this year, currently has over 1,700 downloads.

There’s a marked difference between the numbers that actually attended the event and the ‘virtual’ attendance, in the form of downloads in the month following the event. In fact, this virtual audience is over 3,400% larger than the actual audience! But there’s more than a few caveats to supply when thinking about these numbers. For one, attendance is obviously not the same: the virtual audience cannot participate in the post-paper discussion (in fact I don’t even record the question and answer session). I’ve also no idea whether someone gets to the end of the particular recording they downloaded (nor, even, if they actually start listening). It’s entirely plausible that some downloads are by content-aggregators rather than real-life people. And my headcounting skills are not infallible. But even so, I still had no idea posting the recordings of events online was amplifying their reach to such a vast extent. Indeed, this 3,400% figure has now become my main argument both for convincing speakers to allow me to publish the recording of their paper online (naturally, some are not keen, and some understandably reserve the right when their research is very new or still a work-in-progress), and advocating that other research institutes, universities, etc. record their own events and publish them in a similar vein.

How might one go about this? There’s actually only three major things that need to be considered.

First, the equipment necessary to record the event. At Sussex, most of the time I was able to make use of the lecture theatre’s own sound recording facilities, which allowed me to retrieve an MP3 of the event a few hours after it took place. Your mileage may vary at your own institution, but the quality of the audio I could achieve at Sussex was usually very high. At St Andrews, such facilities are not yet available in the room where most of my institute’s events take place. Here, I have used a modestly priced Olympus dictaphone (a VN-8500-PC, now discontinued, but a similar model is available on Amazon) and a cheap lapel mic (also from Amazon) and have been pretty pleased with the quality. Very recently, however, I have bought the rather futuristic looking Zoom H4nSP. The quality from this device is just fantastic, it delivers really clear audio of the speaker’s voice, and is much less intrusive than the lapel mic.

Second, a place to host these recordings online. Libsyn, who I currently use, offer a decent package that includes download statistics and costs the equivalent of about £10 per month. Soundcloud seem to offer a very similar service and price, although I’ve no experience of it. Prior to using Libsyn I hosted recordings on various university servers. This is a perfectly acceptable solution, but I found it much harder to get decent statistics on downloads from this approach (hence my switch to Libsyn at the start of the year).

Libsyn graph
Libsyn graph depicting downloads over several months

Third, a strategy for promoting the recordings. This can be as simple as posting links to the recordings to your website (as I do at my institute’s website, as the Bentham Project does here, and as Sussex do here), to promotion via social media (I often tweet a link from my institute’s account to each recording as it is released), to getting the recordings listed in various podcast directories. The latter requires writing and maintaining (i.e. hosting somewhere) a simple RSS feed. I followed Apple’s instructions for this and, after submitting it to the iTunes Store, my podcast was listed in the History category in under a week. Libsyn can also automatically generate your RSS feed for your podcast, although I still maintain mine manually (feel free to use it as a template).

We’ve just announced the events programme for intellectual history at St Andrews for the forthcoming term and it is as busy as ever. I’m therefore looking forward to adding a good chunk of new content to the podcast, and hope that the subscribers, whoever and wherever they may be, stick around to download it!

Saving John Stuart Mill’s library

I learnt early last week of a campaign, led by members of Somerville College, Oxford, to preserve the library of John Stuart Mill, much of which is now in a state of disrepair:

Somerville is home to the Library of the great Victorian liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill: an extraordinary collection of about 2,000 volumes, many of which record irreplaceable annotations that are currently a hidden treasure largely unknown to academics. The collection was a gift to the College in 1905 by Mill’s stepdaughter Helen Taylor, as Mill had asked the scientist Mary Somerville to be the first signatory on his petition to Parliament regarding women’s suffrage in 1867.  J.S. Mill holds a very important place in world history, and is considered by many to be ‘the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the nineteenth century.’

The campaign initially sought to raise £10,000, but has already surpassed this target and is now hoping to raise £13,000 by next week. The money will be spent on restoring the most delicate volumes in the collection. The total cost of saving the library is expected to be in the region of £50,000.

I’m delighted that these steps are being taken as the Somerville College collection is not only important to the intellectual history of J.S. Mill, but of his father James Mill, too. Many of the books in the collection originally belonged to the senior Mill, and some contain his underlinings, marginalia, and other annotations.

In the course of my PhD research on James Mill, I published online a transcription of his commonplace books, four ledgers of manuscript material held in the archives of the London Library which were donated by J.S. Mill sometime in 1872. The commonplace books were transcribed by the late Robert A. Fenn of the University of Toronto in the 1980s and 1990s. When I recovered Fenn’s transcripts from his old Macintosh computer in 2009, I discovered that he had also gone through the Somerville College collection fairly exhaustively, transcribing the passages Mill marked and the notes he had made. In total, Fenn identified 66 different works containing material belonging to James Mill, including books by William Blackstone, Ralph Cudworth, David Hume, James Harrington, John Milton, Adam Smith, Jonathan Swift, and Voltaire.

I am making available to download Fenn’s transcriptions in the hope it will be of interest to others. As ever, I remain indebted to Julia Fenn and Larry Johnston for permission to publish this material.