Anniversaries have helped me reflect on what my religion meant to me, and today marks a significant anniversary. Seven years ago I spoke at BibleTech:2010 on “Improving User Annotations in Bible Software”. Let me tell you a little about it.
My involvement in Bible software development started in late 2007 with new and different ideas about how Bible note-taking could be improved. I had added a first version into my brother’s software, refined the concept a bit, and ended up the principal maintainer of BPBible. And I had plenty more ideas for what could be improved, most of which weren’t progessing as fast as I liked.
What could be better than speaking at the upcoming BibleTech conference? I had strong opinions about usability which flowed into my opinion of the best way to do Bible software. I also had new ideas that I hoped would radically improve Bible study. It was important to me that Bible software become a tool which could help me organise and sift out the truth of the Bible in my own way. And I hoped to inspire others with that vision too.
That led me to submit the following abstract:
For generations topical verse lists, notes, highlighting and other annotations have been a key part of the Bible student’s toolbox. Adding notes and highlighting to the text helps the user to engage with the Biblical text and make it truly relevant to them, while topical verse lists also allow users to discover and present what scripture says on a topic and to see how any particular passage relates to the whole scriptural message.
While Bible software has made a wide range of relevant resources more accessible to users, these resources cannot replace the need for people to draw their own conclusions, to record them easily, and to refer back to them. Bible software has the potential to integrate these user annotations and make them more useful to the user (and most software has to some extent), but for various reasons many people still prefer to use pen and paper or their word processor.
In this talk, I plan to discuss the goals and benefits of supporting user annotations, as well as what users expect from these annotations. I will present some of the problems faced by users of current Bible software and suggest solutions for these problems, as well as presenting ideas for how Bible software can be used to make user annotations more useful to Bible students. The ideas presented in the talk will be illustrated by examples from the current implementation in BPBible and from work in development.
Soon it was accepted, and all I had to do was deliver!
This talk was probably a bigger deal for me than for most of the presenters. Not public speaking itself: I had been a lay preacher for a number of years, though this talk would be before an audience who didn’t know me. But I feared my religious background could cause problems. I was a Christadelphian, part of a small group that might be considered heretical by some attendees for its rejection of the Trinity. Yes, we shared a belief in the importance of the Bible, and that belief was the basis of my talk, but it could cause issues.
It was also the first ecumenical event I had been part of, and I was concerned that would be criticised by some of my fellow Christadelphians. I had been involved in many discussions on the CrossWire mailing lists over the last few years, including some mentioning the Trinity, but this was another step up.
As I’ve found many times since, fears are often worse than reality: no-one at the conference questioned my beliefs, and the many Christadelphians who spoke to me about it thought it was a good step.
But it was still somewhat intimidating how experienced and capable the other presenters and attendees were. There were people with degrees in Biblical studies, people with seminary qualifications, and people with doctorates. Where some of my fellow Christadelphians thought they could draw deep scriptural insights from a cursory study of Strong’s Numbers and Hebrew and Greek, these people could actually draw on the latest lexicons and a deep knowledge of Hebrew and Greek.
Who was I? A hobbyist Bible software developer. Yes, I had a reasonable knowledge of the Bible, but was I the odd one out? The passionate but self-deluded amateur playing in the wrong league? I continued to think some of their fundamental beliefs wrong, but perhaps it was a little harder to maintain those thoughts when talking with exceedingly friendly people who were both more eloquent and more knowledgeable than I was. Fortunately, nothing went wrong. The entire conference was filled with great talks, great conversations, and great food, and I don’t think I felt out of place once.
One final factor was the feeling of independence visiting a foreign country. At the time I was 22 and still lived with my parents. This was the first overseas holiday I had ever taken on my own. Since San Jose was so far from my native Melbourne I felt it would be a waste to fly straight back. Instead, I added a couple of weeks to visit natural wonders like Yosemite, Zion, the Grand Canyon, and Big Sur. I was hiking long distances, finding waterfalls everywhere, and seeing snow for the first time in years. And, beautiful as these places were, maybe the independence mattered more than the places. I had chosen my own path, surprising family members and work colleagues alike, and even if that path was hard I was sure it would be rewarding.
So, with all these expectations and fears, how did the talk go?
My memory of it is that it was something of a fiasco.
Firstly, I had not been able to develop the prototypes I wanted. Setting a deadline was supposed to help with motivation, and it did, but unfortunately that motivation didn’t really change the end result. So I was down to presenting concepts (some of them never realised) rather than a solution.
Secondly, I had put too much into my abstract, felt obligated to cover it all, and had been struggling up till the morning of the talk to figure out how to focus it. I have always had difficulty keeping to time in talks, and in this case I wasn’t even close. I think some of the early points went well, but suddenly it was time for the next speaker to set up, I was nowhere near finished, and the expected question time hadn’t happened. I hastily tried to make a few concluding points (though that never goes well), then I retreated into the audience and sat down rather embarrassed.
Seriously, I look at the abstract now, and don’t see an easy way to cover all the different topics in the 45 minutes I had available. I made a valiant attempt, and re-reading my notes I still agree with most of my points, but I really needed to forget the abstract and narrow my focus.
That said, I come to realise through life that while my greatest moments are not as great as I might hope, my worst moments are not really as bad as I fear. Sometimes by the end of a talk or a blog post I come to loathe the content that I have spent days, weeks, or months refining. But where I am relentlessly self-critical, others are usually much more positive.
My memory of this particular talk is dominated by embarrassment at time-management failures, and I don’t think I was ever brave enough to go back and listen to the audio. Looking back, though, I can see that those who listened viewed it more positively than I did, and it sparked some lively discussion on Twitter during the presentation. I don’t know if my talk had any lasting impact, but most of my core message got presented, and I can’t ask for much more.
Leaving aside the talk, I had a great time at BibleTech. I learned a lot and met many wonderful people, some of whom I remain in contact with. Comparing notes in 2011 with a close friend, we both felt it had been a high point in our year. We are now both unbelievers. Go figure.
In fact, given I have records of doubts stretching all the way back to mid-2010, this conference was possibly the last time when I was completely comfortable with my faith. That is not to say I lived in a state of crippling doubt for 6 years before quitting, because I didn’t. But belief was much simpler in the BibleTech conference rooms than it was in the real world.
In the next few days I’ll try to write about the general usability problems I found with Bible software, and the specific solutions I was working towards in BPBible. The kind of things that would already be in a blog post if I had had a blog in 2010.