Reasonable Doubt

I like this story to explain reasonable doubt. (From Sam Leith’s wonderful “You talkin to me?“)

“A man is in the dock, accused of murdering his wife. Although the body was never recovered, all the evidence points to the defendant: his car boot was filled with baling twine, bloodstained hammers, torn items of his wife’s clothing and suchlike. He had abundant motive – as the cashing in of a huge insurance policy taken out on the eve of his wife’s death demonstrates. And no sooner was his wife reported missing than he was holidaying in the Maldives with his pneumatically enhanced twenty-three-year-old mistress, his Facebook page filled with photographs of him in a pair of Speedos and a snorkel, grinning his murderous head off.

Nevertheless, his lawyer at trial pulls off a remarkable coup de théâtre.

‘Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,’ he says. ‘The prosecution has presented you with a mountain of evidence that tends to show that my client is guilty of the crime with which he has been charged. But that evidence means nothing. For not only is my client not guilty of his wife’s murder, but no murder has in fact taken place. My client’s wife is alive and well. And I can prove it. It is now five minutes to midday. At precisely midday, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, those doors over there will open –’ he indicates the main doors into the courtroom with a flourishing sweep of the arm – ‘and my client’s wife will walk through them into the court.’

Gasps, naturally, go all round. For the next five minutes, the eyes of the presiding judge, the jury and every functionary of the court are glued to the main doors. Eventually, the heavy hands of the courtroom clock tick round to midday and a solemn bong is heard. The doors remain tight shut.

‘Well?’ says the judge. ‘Your promised miracle has not materialised.’

‘Indeed not,’ replies the defending barrister. ‘But every single one of you was watching those doors in the expectation that it would. In the absence of a body, that is surely an object demonstration that there remains a reasonable doubt over my client’s responsibility for his wife’s disappearance.’

‘Very good,’ says the judge. ‘However, I ask the jury to note that the only person in the courtroom not watching the doors was your client.’”

Toffler, The Trivium & The Holy Trinity

I’ve been having an interesting conversation on Twitter with Martin Robinson and Carl Gombrich (a big thank you to both).

Two things had been bouncing around recently: Toffler’s ubiquitous “Learn, unlearn, relearn” and the Trivium, in no small part thanks to Martin’s excellent Trivium 21C. I wondered, slightly loosely, whether they were connected, along the lines of this diagram.

Rather vague wondering
Rather vague wondering

Carl did not see any obvious connection and (sensibly, I think) warned against numerology/seeing patterns in 3 and the like and, broadly, I think I’m coming to the conclusion that he’s right in that the two are not interchangeable (as I’d initially thought). That said, I do think there is a connection. If nothing else, they are sibling concepts in that both are born of the idea that knowledge is fluid and changing.

There are two differences that Carl’s doubt and Martin’s questions highlighted for me. First, the Trivium is not quite so overtly pro-“change for its own sake”. While the unlearning phase seems fairly wholesale under Toffler, the Trivium’s dialectic is more even-handed. Critique doesn’t have to shatter one’s beliefs or force you to reject what you have learned; it can strengthen them too. Second, for my money, the Trivium deals with the social aspect of learning in a more sophisticated, group-oriented way. Toffler’s “learn, unlearn, relearn” works on an individual level (as it did for Carl’s drumming), but the rhetoric phase of the Trivium works at both individual and social (whatever you think you’ve learned, you can’t have learned it until you’ve persuaded someone else of it).

Anyway, enjoyed the tweets. Especially discussing the holy trinity of Xavi, Messi and Iniesta on a Sunday morning. Seem to remember Maradona talking about Messi playing with Jesus, which sort of begs a question …

New literacies

Interesting article @ Wired.  [Thanks Stephen for the pointer].

“Of course, good teaching is always going to be crucial, as is the mastering of formal academic prose. But it’s also becoming clear that online media are pushing literacy into cool directions. The brevity of texting and status updating teaches young people to deploy haiku-like concision. At the same time, the proliferation of new forms of online pop-cultural exegesis—from sprawling TV-show recaps to 15,000-word videogame walkthroughs—has given them a chance to write enormously long and complex pieces of prose, often while working collaboratively with others.

We think of writing as either good or bad. What today’s young people know is that knowing who you’re writing for and why you’re writing might be the most crucial factor of all.”

Explaining that this type of writing is valuable is the hard part.

Notes on Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy #2

(Following on a little tardily from May’s notes)

Chapter 2: Modern discovery of Primary Oral Cultures

Early Awareness of Oral Tradition

  • Tradition of writing down sayings longlived:
    • Ecclesiastes 12:9-10

      “Besides being wise, Qoheleth taught the people knowledge, and weighed, scrutinized and arranged many proverbs. Qoheleth sought to find pleasing sayings, and write down true sayings with precision.”

    • By the Middle Ages, many (e.g Erasmus), got their sayings not from spoken utterance but snipped them from other writings.
    • Then there was the Romantic Movement’s concern for folk culture and their working over of parts of oral/quasi-oral tradition (e.g. Thos. Percy, Brothers Grimm, James McPherson, Francis James Child
  • And by the early 20th Century, writing was predominantly seen to represent spoken language in visible form (e.g. Saussure) (though Prague Circle did note some distinctions.)

The Homeric Question

  • Homeric question highlights what’s new in our current understanding of orality
  • Since classical times, Iliad/Odyssey have been seen as the most exemplary poems in western heritage.
  • And since classical times, each age has tried to show how these poems did what their own poems were aiming for, but better.
  • An awareness slowly grew that Homeric epics might actually have been a bit of a hodge-podge:
  • Vico (1668-1744)thought that Homeric epics creations of whole people not just one man
  • Robert Wood (1717-71) suggested that Homer not literate, and that memory played a key role. Homer populist rather than learned.
  • The Analysts of the 19thc saw epics as combinations of other poems/fragments (and tried to analyse what came from where). But strikingly they still assumed that poems/fragments all written texts.
  • The Unitarians, echoed the whole Paley and the God as watchmaker idea, by suggesting that big old Homer’s works were so well structured and uniform that could not be a succession of disorganised contributions but had to be the work of one single creator.

Milman Parry’s Discovery

  • Parry (apparently unknowingly) fused a lot of extant work (e.g. Ellendt’s, Duntzer’s, van Gennep’s, Murko’s, and Jousse’s) to create his own vision
  • And his groundbreaking discovery was this:

    virtually every distinctive feature of Homeric Poetry is a result of the economy enforced on it by oral methods of composition.

  • In other words, oral poets have an abundant repertoire of epithets. These are used to fit cope with any metrical exigency that arises as the poet stitches the story together. And the poems are different at each telling, since oral poets tend to memorise verbatim, but use these epithetic building blocks.
  • It doesn’t sound much but it’s got some BIG ramifications. For instance, the role of the poet was itself called into question. Poets were not “meant” to use prefabricated materials, but to be original and inspired. e.g. for the Romantics, “the perfect poet should be like God himself, creating ex nihilo”. That Greek word rhapsodein (to stitch together) became more and more ominous.

    “Instead of a creator you had an assembly-line worker”


  • Cliches became things of value:

    “Homeric poems valued and somehow made capital of what later [literate] readers had been trained in principle to disvalue, namely, the set phrase, the formula, the expected qualifier – to put it more bluntly, the cliche.

  • Eric Havelock showed how fundamental the cliche was, not just to poets, but to the entire oral thought process.

    “In an oral culture, knowledge, once acquired, had to be constantly repeated or it would be lost: fixed, formulaic thought patterns were essential for wisdom and effective administration.”

    [My note: as per proverbs, too many cooks, what’s good for the goose, etc…]. Writing, and stored knowledge, and especially interiorised alphabetic literacy freed the mind allowing it more original, abstract thought. Hence Plato forbade poets in his Republic – their reverence for thought meccano ran agin everything the philosopher was trying to build.

  • Oral thought habits continued in literate ages till at least the Tudor ages in the West through the teaching of classical rhetoric, only really being obliterated by the Romantic movement in the 1800s.
  • Many literate societies still rely heavily on formulaic thought/have never fully internalised alphabetic literacy: e.g. Arabic culture,

    Kahlil Gibran has made a career of providing oral formulary products in print to literate Americans who find novel the proverb-like utterances that, according to a Lebanese friend of mine, citizens of Beirut regard as commonplace.”

Consequent and Related Work

  • Parry’s work has affected a range of fields from literary history to anthropology.
  • Literary studies: e.g. Havelock (above); e.g. study of Serbo-Croatian oral performers (Lord); e.g. looking at African Epics (Isidore Okpewho) in this new light.
  • Anthropology: e.g. shifts from “magic” to “science”/prelogical to logical/Levi-Strauss’s “savage mind” to domesticated thought can be more economically explained as shifts from orality to various stages of literacy [Jack Goody(quicktime)]
  • McLuhan and ear-eye contrasts: the medium is the message.

Amazing really how much one takes for granted, in terms of how one thinks, and how others think. And how prevalent that “cliche” idea is in oral media like music (mixing, refrains, what have you). Anyway, the next chapter is about the different psychodynamics of oral and literate cultures, and is great. Will post some notes when I get a chance.

On Bullshit

Slightly alarmingly, as part of Princeton’s 100 Years of ExcellenceH.G. Frankfurt is interviewed about his book “On Bullshit”. (There’s a video of it which is worth watching, though the interviewer seems to need the bathroom)

“One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, nor attracted much sustained inquiry.

In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit, mainly by providing some tentative and exploratory philosophical analysis. I shall not consider the rhetorical uses and misuses of bullshit. My aim is simply to give a rough account of what bullshit is and how it differs from what it is not–or (putting it somewhat differently) to articulate, more or less sketchily, the structure of its concept.”

I like the idea that truth, while it may be difficult or even impossible to pin down, should not just be ignored and ridden roughshod over willy-nilly.

Tone Matters

Jonathan Dresner at Cliopatra hits the nail on the head.

I don’t think any of us can be objective about our own claimed objectivity. — Daniel Okrent, NYTimes, 4/24/05

There are three categories of common arguments in blogspace:

* Principles
* Facts
* Tone

I don’t mean to categorize posts, or bloggers, but disputes. Of these, I think the first two categories are pretty self-evident, but the third needs some explanation. It might look, to a casual observer, that Tone is an epiphenomenon, coloration rather than substance, the least important and/because the most emotional. But Tone includes subtexts, implications, style and inferences; it is where the issues of audience and the active agency of readership become central. Tone matters.> [My emphasis]”

Feeds & Faces

If blogs really are about conversations, then why not make them more like human conversations and add a face or two to the feeds?

All the aggregators I’ve tried to date are text based. They have (broadly) 3 panes – an “all your feeds” list, a “selected feed’s titles” lists, and a “selected title’s post or excerpt”. My “all my feeds” list is growing inexorably bigger and at some stage, it’s going to be long and unmanageable. In my experience, some people are better at remembering names and some people are better at remembering faces. (Personally I’m better at faces – names I’m normally fine on, but there will be hideous blanks now and then.) But aren’t the aggregators slightly skewed towards people who are better at names?

It’s just a thought, but I’d be really curious to see what sort of a difference adding some sort of small visual cue (e.g. passport photo, Technorati profile photo, group logo) to that list would make. So, instead of having a load of “Bill’s Blog about Everything” feeds whose value to me becomes harder to distinguish as time goes by, I might get a little picture of Bill and then the title of the feed/blog. Perhaps it might help sort through unwieldy subscription lists?

(And er, I realise I don’t have a picture of me on this blog, but [sigh] I will soon – just let me comb what hair I have left, lance this unsightly boil, and get my dentures back from next door’s Alsatian….)

Burke’s Unending Conversation

Seem familiar anyone?

“Imagine that you enter a parlour. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.”

– Source 110-11, Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941.

The Six Tendencies of Persuasive Blogs

There are apparently 6 basic tendencies of human behaviour that come into play when generating a positive response to a request. [Source: Scientific American/Special Edition: Mind]. What I thought was interesting was how these can be applied to group dynamics generally, and getting people to join in (and , erm, maybe even link to your blog).

Anyway, here are the six tendencies, and some tentative translations to the blog world

Echo Chambers & Rhetoric

Hairy Eyeball on Echo Chambers and Rhetoric

“Echo chambers exist. If you don’t think so, subject yourself to the comments section of Little Green Footballs sometime, or watch some Fox News.

And it takes some work to swim against this current. Classical rhetoric offers a solution: simply put, a well-considered opinion is one that anticipates possible counterarguments and prepares a response.”

Yup. Nod. Agree.