Thursday, December 11, 2014


Trip to Vienna via Frankfurt, so I was able to get my hands on a new one. Couldn't find the winter varieties, though, sadly.

Edel-Bitter mit Edel-Kakao aus Ecuador: 7/10
This is the least Ritter-Sport-like Ritter Sport I've sampled thus far. After the mousse varieties with larger, squishier squares, this one has smaller, harder squares. As a result, and also because of the dark bitterness (at 73% it's much darker than the normal Ritter dark chocolate), it's a slow one to eat, and I savoured it over the space of more than 48 hours. This is in complete contrast to the vast majority of the varieties, where the challenge is really not to polish the whole thing off in one go. Actually a very pleasant experience, but only 7/10 because...  well... it's just not very Rittery.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Coffee & Hazelnuts

The title says it all. I have my estimable colleague Wendell Kimper to thank for this one.

Coffee & Hazelnuts: 9/10
As the first mouthful entered my mouth I knew what I was going to say about this one - or at least I thought I did. "The coffee flavour is too strong!" I'm not sure what happened next. Either the hazelnut came through, or, more likely, I realized that it the hazelnut had been there all along in a magnificent blend of chocolate, nut and coffee. After that? Well, my only complaint was that the experience went by too soon, and I really have no one to blame for that but myself.

I'll be passing through Germany on the way to Vienna this Christmas, so hopefully will get the chance to pick up some more. Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof had better be well stocked!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Ritter Sport ratings 2014

Some more Ritter Sport. The first two I picked up and reviewed in Marburg at the DGfS conference but must not have got round to posting. The next two, Eiscafé and Chocolate Mousse, I picked up myself while passing through Munich on the way to and from Budapest for a conference. The last two were gifts from Tine Breban, who thoughtfully raided a petrol station to fuel my addiction.

Baiser Nuss: 8/10
These very fine, dry, crunchy nuts give one a taste experience akin to walking over gravel, with a warm autumnal aftertaste. Highly recommended.

À la Crema Catalana: 6/10
Not much of a likeness to the eponymous dessert (though there are hints). Again, rather yoghurty, with a strong and cloying aftertaste.

Eiscafé: 8/10
This experience is eerily reminiscent of the Continental caffeinated beverage with ice cream. That combination of warm and cold, in a chocolate bar? No way? Yes way, apparently.

Chocolate Mousse: 7/10
Ritter cleverly divided their square into 3x3 rather than 4x4 "für mehr Mousse-Genuss". That gives a nice squidgy bite to this one and to the below. Ultimately a bit bland, though.

Vanilla Mousse: 7/10
As above, really. Very creamy, lots of vanilla. Straightforward.

Caramel Orange: 9.5/10
Oh. Oh, my. I've carped on in the past about Ritter combining citrussy sharpness with much mellower tones, and this one really delivers the goods. The caramel is dreamy enough to float away on, while the orange delivers a sharp kick up the backside. My life is substantially better after having eaten this one. A rare Winter-Kreation, picked up out of season by Tine, for which I am eternally grateful.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Open Access Linguistics: You're Doing It Wrong

If you're a linguist - any kind of linguist - then you, like me, will probably have received an email from the Open Journal of Modern Linguistics, inviting you to submit your work.

I'm extremely committed to open access in linguistics, and in academia more broadly; here's why. But OJML is doing it wrong, and the rest of this post aims to explain why. The tl;dr list version of this post is as follows:
  • Don't ever submit your work to OJML.
  • Tell your friends never to submit to OJML.
  • If you know someone who's on the editorial board, gently ask them not to be.
So, what's so very wrong with OJML? The short answer is that it is run by the wrong people and threatens to bring the entire, very promising, open access movement into disrepute by charging stupidly high APCs and skimping on quality both in terms of typesetting and intellectually.

The "costs" of progress: predatory publishers

Let's take a look at OJML's guidelines on Article Processing Charges (APCs). It's $600 per article, but only if that article is within ten printed pages: in linguistics, that's barely out of squib status. For each additional page above ten, an extra $50 is whacked on.

This may not seem like much, given that Elsevier charge up to $5000. But for a 20-page article, which is still short by linguistics standards, we're talking $1100. Moreover, this kind of incremental model penalizes thorough argumentation and, in particular, proper referencing. It might even not be so bad if what you paid for was worth it - but I'll argue below that it isn't even close.

The open access community has a name for this kind of publishing practice: "predatory". Jeffrey Beall maintains a list of predatory publishers on his website, along with criteria for inclusion. Surprise, surprise: "Scientific Research Publishing" (SCIRP), the publishers of OJML, are on the list at number 206.

What's in it for them? Large amounts of money, made from academics' naivety. Last year, journalist John Bohannon conducted a "sting" operation by submitting a series of 304 deliberately deeply flawed manuscripts by fictional authors to gold open access journals, many of them ostensibly peer-reviewed. More than half of them accepted the papers, including many that apparently sent the paper out for review, and 16 journals accepted the papers despite the reviewers spotting their damning flaws.

The journal Science, who hosted Bohannon's piece, were keen to trumpet the failure of open access (unsurprisingly, as they represent the status quo that open access threatens). However, there are a lot of problems with Bohannon's approach, which have been ably summarized elsewhere. In particular, since Bohannon didn't include a "control group" of traditional subscription journals, there's no evidence that open access peer review practices are any worse than those. And even if they were, the existence of exploitative behaviour within open access of course doesn't entail that open access itself is a bad thing. But it's clear from Bohannon's experiences and those of others that, where there are new ways of making shady money, there will be crooks who leap to seize them, and that gold open access (and OJML) simply illustrates one instance of this general principle.

Bad production standards

One of the areas where any publisher can claim to add value is in ensuring the formal quality of their published submissions: typesetting, copy-editing, proofreading, redrawing complex diagrams or illustrations, etc. If a publisher does this well, they may merit at least some of the fees that they typically charge for open access. However, OJML's performance in this area shows that they hardly even look at the papers they publish. Here are some examples from Muriungi, Mutegi & Karuri's 2014 paper on the syntax of wh-questions in Gichuka (which, at 23 pages, must have cost them a pretty penny):
  • Glosses are not aligned (e.g. in (6) on p2).
  • The header refers to the authors, ridiculously, as "M. K. Peter et al".
  • There are clauses which contain clear typographical errors, e.g. "the particle ni which in Bantu, which is referred to as the focus marker", on p3.
  • In (17), the proper name "jakob" is not capitalized.
  • There are spelling errors: "Intermadiate", in table 1, p8.
  • The tree on p14 has been brutally mangled.
  • Some of the references are incomprehensible garbage: "Norberto (2004). Wh-Movement."
A quick glance through any OJML paper will reveal that these aren't isolated occurrences, and little of this is likely to be the fault of the authors: at least, any linguistically-informed copy-editor or proofreader should have picked up on all of these points instantly, and any proofreader at all should have picked up on most of them.

Low quality papers

What about the academic quality of the papers accepted? I don't want to pick on any particular paper: in fact, I'm sure that there are nuggets of gold in there (the Muriungi et al. paper mentioned above, for instance, is a valuable syntactic description of an aspect of an understudied language). But I invite you to skim some of the papers and draw your own conclusions.

In particular, the dates of acceptance and revision of the papers aren't exactly indicative of a thorough review process. For instance, the paper by Muriungi et al. was "Received 7 June 2013; revised 9 July 2013; accepted 18 July 2013". Again, this isn't unusual for the papers in this journal. It's certainly not impossible for quality peer review to take place at this speed - and it's certainly desirable to move away from the unacceptable slowness of some of the big-name journals - but it is at least doubtful. And one thing that is extremely eerie is how many of the articles are dated as having been revised exactly one month after receipt, suggesting that the process may have been even shorter and that SCIRP is trying to cover itself, by means of outright lies, against exactly the kind of allegation I'm making.

The fields of linguistics given under their Aims & Scope don't inspire confidence, either, with "Cosmic Linguistics" and "Paralinguistics" among them.

Why is this important?

OJML is symptomatic of exactly the wrong approach to open access. Open access, to me, is about disintermediation, about putting power back into the hands of academics. There are several good open access operators out there: Language Science Press is a prime example in the domain of books, the e-journal Semantics and Pragmatics has been performing a valuable no-fees open access service for years, and the Linguistic Society of America recently took a step in the right direction by making papers in its flagship journal Language openly accessible after a one-year embargo period. These initiatives are all run by researchers, for researchers.

In contrast, OJML is about opportunistic money-making. Here's a quote from SCIRP's About page, in relation to why their base of operations is in China while they're registered as a corporation in Delaware: "What SCIRP does is to seize the current global trade possibilities to ensure its legitimate freedom with regard to where to do what." If this sort of creepy graspingness doesn't put you off submitting to OJML, and the problems outlined in the previous sections don't either, then I don't know what will.

Unless we nip this problem in the bud, then it threatens to damage the reputation of the Open Access movement more generally. Time to boycott OJML, and to spread the word.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

On dieting

There will be aspects of grumpy rant to this post, but in order to contextualize it I'll need to do a little autobiographical sketch first. Please excuse both the self-indulgence and the rant.

I've never been skinny, and I have reason to suspect I never will be (genetics, and also past experience; see below). When I was younger I was always one of the fat kids, though never one of the really fat kids, and because of that I was the butt of jokes. When I came back from my Year Abroad in Germany in 2007 I was like that: a bit flabby, but nothing too noticeable. Over the course of my fourth year I gradually put on a fair bit of weight, causing someone who hadn't seen me for a year in the summer of 2008 to make an oblique reference to "too much good living". There were probably a number of reasons for this: I had a flatmate who was an absolutely wonderful cook, but who indulged me in a lot of carbs, and besides there was the stress of the final year in Cambridge (at one point I wrote 16 essays over an 8-week period, I believe).

During my MPhil year (2008-9), nothing much changed. I was getting on well, but was eating the carb-rich diet I was used to, and sometimes snacking grotesquely. Besides that I was drinking a lot of beer. Towards the end of that year I felt like a change was in order, and I took up a friend's offer to introduce me to the local gym. The guy who did the induction seemed like a nice bloke, and offered some trial personal training sessions afterwards, which (after checking my bank balance) I accepted. At that stage when I stepped on the scales I was 107.6 kilos – well into the 'beached whale' section of the BMI chart.

Things changed. I stuck with my personal trainer, kept a food diary, and completely turned my diet around as well as exercising for an hour three times a week. Between the summer of 2009 and the autumn of 2010 I lost about 30 kilos of weight, which I'm told is pretty good going. Not sure exactly what my lowest weight was, but for a while I was consistently under 80 kilos. I didn't feel skinny, and that's because I wasn't: I still had a belly that jutted out, and some handles that shouldn't have been there. Though I felt pretty good about myself, I didn't have girls queuing up to check me out, and my BMI was barely into the "normal" range (for my height, 5'11", normal is below about 81kg, and obese is anywhere above about 97). Okay, these are both stupid metrics: girls aren't that interested in BMI, which in any case is a terrible measure of healthy body composition. I should certainly have cut myself some more slack: at this stage I was doing 10km runs fairly regularly, and did elicit one or two positive comments about my change of shape from people who'd known me for longer.

I managed to keep this up for... not sure how long. A year? By mid-2012 I was up to ninety-something kilos, anyway. Then I moved to Manchester, stopped worrying about my diet, stopped exercising, and just kind of hoped that living a normal life would cause me to stay at a healthy weight. Unfortunately I hoped wrong. By the end of 2012 I weighed in at over 100kg, so I signed up to the local gym. Time constraints and general apathy meant that I didn't go more than about 10-12 times over the course of the year, though. My weight has stayed pretty much constant since then, at about 111-113kg. I cancelled the gym membership at the end of 2013 - figured it was a waste of money - and instead bought an exercise mat and bench and some dumbbells. My reasoning was this: a) these things will last me for much longer than the year of gym membership, b) I can exercise in the comfort of my own home rather than surrounded by meatheads and scarily-fit old people, and c) strength training was always the part of my gym workout that I actually enjoyed. I would go running too, but the only local options seem to involve canal towpaths strewn with broken glass.

The weight gain is unsurprising: I was stressed with a new job and new place, and started eating pretty badly as well as stopping exercising. I'd like to get fit again, since I feel that my posture is being damaged by my oversized belly and I'm often robbed of breath by things that wouldn't have bothered me three years ago. Plus, who wants to be at increased risk of diabetes and heart disease?

The dieting is going to be crucial here, though, and I need to explain how that works for me. My basic meal structure hasn't changed since the time in Cambridge when I lost all those kilos. It goes like this, when I'm at home or on a normal working day:
  • Breakfast: poached egg; porridge (made with jumbo oats and water); pint of water
  • Lunch: salad (any combination of lettuce, peppers, tomato, cucumber, coleslaw, olives) with chicken, tuna or some other meat; banana; pint of water
  • Dinner: roast chicken (sometimes something else like breaded fish); two green veg (usually broccoli and green beans); small yoghurt or two; pint of water
I know this is a good template. I know that because it helped me lose 30kg of body fat. The problem is what else I do. When I'm at work I frequently buy a chocolate bar, a latte and a muffin as an afternoon snack. And on the way back from work or other events I will buy a bag of Sainsbury's double chocolate chip cookies and scoff the lot, and this is by no means a rare occurrence. I also snack a lot on cheese and oatcakes.

So that's me, and that's where I am today. I'm not my own best friend, sure, but judging by the above you might not expect me to be as fat as I am. (I also walk to work for half an hour every day and back, for instance.) That's bad genes for you, and I've learned to accept that.

This incredibly long confessional was meant to be a prelude to a grumble about dieting. It goes like this: pretty much every piece of dieting advice I've ever seen or heard is bad. The worst are the ones that pretend that you can keep eating the things you love. "It's not one of those faddy diets that require you to give up X and Y! You can keep eating wholesome and nutritious meals that are exactly the things you would eat anyway!" Really? WTF? If I wanted to do that, I wouldn't go on a diet in the first place. My sympathies are actually with the faddy diets, since at least they're not pretending to achieve the impossible. And the science behind the diets seems to be all over the place. The Hairy Dieters state that "we focus on the energy equation: your calories in via food and drink versus your calories burnt through exercise". There must be something to it, because it's a bestselling product, right? But I was told by my trainer in no uncertain terms that calorie counting was a radically misconceived approach to fat loss, since not all calories are equal – and that seems to be the standard line in Atkins-style approaches to dieting.

Something else I have heard on occasion is "dieting is bad". Really? Well, I guess it depends what you mean by dieting. All I mean is a change in diet, and there does seem to be evidence (to put it mildly!) that doing that is useful for weight loss. Certainly in my case it worked (for a while). So dieting can't be all bad.

But dieting is hard. Do you a) give yourself absolute prohibitions against certain foods, or b) acknowledge that certain foods aren't great and therefore resolve to limit your intake of them? The rigid a) approach has been problematic for me, since it leads to cravings of exactly those foods. The looser b) approach has in my experience tended to lead to "food creep" where the consumption of those foods has become more and more common. It seems to be a lose-lose situation.

The one thing that I'd hold up as fact throughout all the bullshit is this: dietary change requires willpower. There's just no way around that. I successfully dieted for long enough that I don't think it can be called a faddy phase that I eventually reacted against. If I had the willpower (and maybe I do?), I could do so again. But dieting is hard, and what I hate about most of the dietary advertising out there is that it pretends that it's easy.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Wine per head of student population

Following the publication of this, giving the amounts spent on wine by the different Cambridge colleges, I thought someone ought to compare it to this, the number of students in each college, and do the maths. Here are the results:

College Number of students Total spent on wine Per head
King's 677 £338,559 £500.09
St John's 912 £260,064 £285.16
Jesus 814 £212,256 £260.76
Trinity 1044 £223,291.98 £213.88
Pembroke 668 £141,692 £212.11
Peterhouse 412 £82,133 £199.35
Trinity Hall 641 £127,186 £198.42
Emmanuel 709 £131,127 £184.95
Sidney Sussex 581 £97,507 £167.83
Corpus Christi 490 £79,254 £161.74
Magdalene 542 £68,192 £125.82
Gonville and Caius 829 £96,994 £117.00
Christ's 614 £71,055 £115.72
Downing 675 £77,798 £115.26
Queens' 987 £111,112.64 £112.58
Churchill 801 £87,685 £109.47
Clare 768 £79,989 £104.15
St Catharine's 695 £62,432 £89.83
Selwyn 583 £49,498 £84.90
Robinson 556 £44,722.39 £80.44
Clare Hall 236 £17,400 £73.73
Murray Edwards 518 £32,917 £63.55
Girton 699 £30,051 £42.99
Wolfson 927 £39,647.10 £42.77
St Edmund's 459 £19,304 £42.06
Newnham 656 £27,263 £41.56
Fitzwilliam 767 £23,028 £30.02
Darwin 674 £17,510 £25.98
Hughes Hall 594 £14,033.58 £23.63
Homerton 1342 £27,974.55 £20.85
Lucy Cavendish 341 na na

Both sets of figures are based on the 2012-13 academic year. Figures per head are rounded to the nearest 1p.

There's no particular reason to suspect that the amount spent on wine would correlate particularly well with the number of students. Other factors are likely to be much more important: perhaps size of endowment, age of establishment, etc. And we shouldn't pretend that the students and staff actually get to drink all this wine for free. Many colleges actually sell their wine to the students for formal dinners. I suspect also that these figures include wine bought to be served at conferences hosted at the colleges, in which case the colleges will likely be making a hefty profit.

Still, when the data are presented like this, some small colleges (Peterhouse, Trinity Hall) come off looking spendthrift, and big colleges like Queens' don't look quite as bad. It's interesting also to note that colleges for a) graduates/mature students and b) women are clustered at the bottom of the table; too bad we don't have data for Lucy Cavendish, which is both.