Bibliography in Zotero and BibLaTeX

Continuing through the tools I’m using for writing, for bibliography management I’m using Zotero. The basic reason for Zotero is that I can import records from Oxford’s library system easily. The UI is a bit rubbish, mainly because it’s a cross-platform app rather than a real Mac app, but it’s OK.

These days, Sente is defunct, as is Papers until it gets reintegrated into ReadCube, leaving BookEnds as the only other real contender. I find that BookEnds doesn’t quite work for biblical studies, with its rather complex formats, not so much for the secondary literature (though e.g. treatment of commentary volumes and similar is lacking), but because it can’t do the specialised handling of primary texts that the SBL Style Handbook requires. BookEnds is also less good at importing records from the library website.

This is where it all gets a bit complicated, and I’ve set up a few addons. The only tool I’ve found that really implements all the detailed SBL requirements is BibLaTeX-SBL (and hence doing document processing in LaTeX). This means getting the bibliographic data out of Zotero and into a BibLaTeX file.

For this, I use the Better BibTeX addon for Zotero, which sorts out most of the details of the process, and means that I get an automatic export of the .biblatex file whenever my database changes. (I also have a CSL JSON export with identical citekeys for faster native pandoc-citeproc processing.) Better BibTeX also has cool features for overriding or adding fields, which I particularly use for the extra details needed in SBL style, such as tagging commentary volumes correctly.

I also use the Zutilo addon, because it has a very useful macro to create a book part correctly (e.g. a book chapter in an edited volume).

Finally, I use the ZotFile addon to put all my PDF files in a separate folder, all renamed to a sensible naming format (author, date, title). This folder is in my iCloud Drive, so that I can read and markup the PDF files from my other devices, and index the folder in DevonThink Pro. Eventually I’ll add some scripting to auto-extract the annotations to a DevonThink Markdown document, probably using the Highlights app now that it’s back in active development.

Getting all this setup has been painful, but I’ve ended up with quite a nice workflow. I can also move relatively easily to another system if necessary, because the work I’ve done to separate the PDF files from Zotero’s own storage and the setup of the automated exports means that I have a complete copy of the whole bibliographic database in two open formats. My PDF review process is also completely independent of the particular apps I’m using.

Writing in Scrivener

During my recent masters degree, I wrote my long essays and dissertation in a few different applications, largely because I had become frustrated with some aspects of Scrivener. In particular, while Scrivener allows snapshots of individual sections of a document, it does not have a way of keeping snapshots of the entire structure of a document.

I’ve ended up going back to Scrivener for my doctoral thesis. There are a few reasons why:

  • most importantly, I realised that I did my best writing in Scrivener. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation in Scrivener, and I was able to publish it in an A-ranked peer-reviewed journal. The main thing I notice going back and reading that article is that my progression of thought and argument was clear. Scrivener doesn’t make it easy to write, but it does make it easy to organise the ideas in a long piece of writing.
  • one aspect of this is its outlining tool. For my masters writing, I used a separate outliner. A specialised tool is always easier and better, but the problem is that the writing and the outline are never in sync with each other, because as I write my idea of the outline changes. Scrivener’s builtin outliner is very good, not as good as a specialised tool but still excellent — and because the outliner, synopsis, and notes tools are attached to the sections in the document hierarchy, they never get divorced from the actual thesis.
  • version 3 of Scrivener introduces excellent support for Markdown and other markup-based formats, by allowing the conversion of its styles to markup. This is a game-changer for my use (processing via Pandoc).

I’ve already written quite a bit in my new Scrivener setup and I love it. There are still frustrating aspects: the lack of a proper snapshot system for the whole document, the sloooow compile (export) process, and the limitations of the styles/markup system. But overall I’m very happy with it.

The real test will come in a few weeks when I submit my first major piece of work for assessment.

Site update

I’m in the process of updating this site after a long absence. I will be adding some posts and resources based largely on my DPhil research. The main reason for this post is to test out the update process.

Shopping trucks

An unusual aspect of finance in New Zealand is that you’ll occasionally see a “shopping truck” around the place. These pull up at your house, and let you buy various household, electrical, and furniture items immediately.

What I didn’t realise at first is that they do this on credit—often very expensive credit. They prey on the poor by providing the transport and immediacy poorer people often need, at appalling financial cost.

New Zealand’s Commerce Commission has fined two of these companies a total of $171,500:

For example, Goodring has been selling branded hoodies to customers for $159, well in excess of in-store prices, and one Betterlife customer purchased an iPhone 5C for $2,401 to pay off in instalments when these phones typically retail for around $600.

Six companies have been fined so far this year.

Along similar lines, a payday lender, Twenty Fifty Club, has been convicted for failings in their lending practices.

Both of these decisions make me proud to live in a civilised society where unethical lending practices are dealt with, and vulnerable people are protected.

Democracy and experts

Over on the excellent Project Syndicate, Jean Pisani-Ferry outlines a reason not to simply dismiss the rejection of experts by populist movements. He is spot on when he points out that policy experts tend not to pay sufficient attention to the effects of change on individuals or groups within society, as long as benefits accrue in aggregate:

As Ravi Kanbur of Cornell University pointed out long ago, economists (and policymakers) tend to look at issues in the aggregate, to take a medium-term perspective, and to assume that markets work well enough to absorb a large part of adverse shocks. Their perspective clashes with that of people who care more about distributional issues, have different (often shorter) time horizons, and are wary of monopolistic behavior.

Of course, the (perceived) needs of the few versus the benefits accruing to the many is a moral question, not simply an quantitative one.

From a Christian ethical viewpoint, negative effects on the few matter a great deal, if those few are poor or powerless. Think, for example, of the socially progressive concerns reflected in Deuteronomy or the Old Testament prophets.

But even if we can agree on this, who gets to speak for the poor?

At the moment, the progressive elite and economic experts are united in their focus on aggregate effects. One suspects that this is partly because those aggregate effects also provide personal benefits to both groups—because both groups are generally well-educated, and as a result often well-off.

But these aggregate effects often fail to reflect the real negatives faced by many individuals, and indeed many groups within British society. This is especially true of many communities in the North of England and on the fringes of major cities, for people who are not recent immigrants, or for skilled workers.

I have been frustrated to see well-off, well-educated EU supporters projecting their legitimate distress over EU exit onto those poorer people who voted to leave. These comments have often been extraordinarily patronising.

But to me, the vote to leave had at least one real positive. It showed a great benefit of democracy: when an elite (and the Bremainers are part of the elite) can no longer hear and understand the concerns of the very people they devoutly want to speak for and protect, the elite are compelled to listen through the exercise of universal franchise. Many left-wingers have suggested that Parliament could overrule the decision, which is technically true, but betrays a deep-seated inability to hear from others.

Thankfully, democracy can give voice to the voiceless, no matter how unpalatable the message is. And in terms of Christian ethics, that is a valuable part of our society’s structure.

Kenneth Rogoff on Tobin taxes

Ken Rogoff has a great article in The Guardian on financial transaction taxes (FTTs). Sometimes people refer to FTTs as Tobin taxes, after an early advocate. They’ve had a fair bit of airtime from people recently, including Bernie Sanders. Rogoff explains why they might not work as well as people hope, in The overselling of financial transaction taxes:

The fundamental problem with FTTs is that they are distortionary; for example, by driving down stock prices, they make raising capital more expensive for firms. In the long run, this lowers labour productivity and wage levels.

Economic indicators website

One downside of not working at a big financial institution is the lack of data available, at least in an accessible form. The Trading Economics site comes to the rescue:

Trading Economics provides its users with accurate information for 196 countries including historical data for more than 300.000 economic indicators, exchange rates, stock market indexes, government bond yields and commodity prices.

Installing R on my Mac

This guide to installing R was very useful:

…if you have a thick skin and can be somewhat self-sustaining, Homebrew is a superb alternative to setting up your R environment (and other things) on your OS X system.

The Billion Prices Project

This is an amazing MIT project:

The Billion Prices Project is an academic initiative that uses prices collected from hundreds of online retailers around the world on a daily basis to conduct economic research.

As Tim Harford points out, the project arose from Argentina’s official determination to prevent inflation data being reported:

But one economist found a way to publish plausible inflation statistics without being prosecuted. His name is Alberto Cavallo, and he realised that by gathering price data published by online retailers, he could produce a credible estimate of Argentine inflation from the safety of Massachusetts. Cavallo’s estimate averaged more than 20 per cent a year between 2007 and 2011; the official figure was 8 per cent.

So began the Billion Prices Project and its commercial arm PriceStats, both collaborations between Cavallo and fellow MIT economics professor Roberto Rigobon. “Billion Prices” sounds hyperbolic but that is the number of prices collected each week by the project, from hundreds of retailers in more than 60 countries.

Defined benefit pensions

John Towner has posted an excellent article (HT: Moyeen Islam) suggesting that the BHS collapse is a bellweather for the rest of the defined benefit pension world. I agree.

As he points out,

In their inquiry into BHS, Parliament will surely ask tough questions: how did this happen, where was the Regulator, what were the trustees thinking, what were the Scheme Actuary, the auditor and other advisors saying? These are important questions, but I also hope that the inquiry will probe what changes can be made in the pensions industry to avoid this situation being repeated and ensure that the estimate of another 1,000 pension schemes entering the PPF does not become a reality.

The situation with BHS highlights a couple of the ethical challenges around pension funds.

One is that oversight is hard. It seems obvious that investors should not have been able to strip cash from a business with crushing pension liabilities. But it didn’t happen in a vaccuum. Pensions are highly regulated, company boards have obligations beyond their shareholders, and BHS’s financial situation was publicly visible. It doesn’t seem plausible that a trivial solution will prevent similar things happening again (although the suggestions in the article seem sensible steps).

The second is that our society is still unwilling to face up to the ethical challenge of the unaffordability of the previous generation’s pension arrangements. People contributed to defined benefit pensions in good faith, and not unreasonably expect the obligations to them to be met. But demographic changes (and inherently generous final salary arrangements) have meant that the entire defined benefit system needs to change. It’s not clear who should pay, but it is not obvious to me that pension scheme contributors are entitled to be paid out in full by a system they in aggregate constructed on flawed in assumptions. The problem is that very few individuals could have realised how flawed their system was, and so on the flip side it seems unfair to penalise some for the sins of an elite few.