Archive for the 'Rhetoric' Category

Economic models as fables

PNM-logoDifferent knowledge disciplines mean different things by the verb “to understand”.   For economists and physicists, a domain or a problem is not understood unless and until it is modeled, and often only by a particular type of model.    For most economists, for instance, agent-based models do not provide understanding, because they only show sufficient and not necessary conclusions.    For mechanical engineers, understanding usually only comes from a physical prototype.  For computer programmers, understanding happens through and with the writing of a software programme for the problem.  For legal scholars, it arises with and from the writing of a narrative text reflecting on the problem and its issues.

Here is economist and game theorist Ariel Rubinstein on models in economics:

Continue reading ‘Economic models as fables’




Political invective

I’ve long been a fan of good political vitriol.   Here was a catalog, compiled by journalist Mungo MacCallum,  of words used by Paul Keating in the Australian Commonwealth Parliament to describe his opponents.    With such a past, it is good to see that some folks are still hard at work keeping standards of vitriol high:

Here is Telegraph financial journalist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, skewering (and rightly so) that smug and arrogant architect of our common European Economic Disaster, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble:

I apologise personally to Mr Schäuble for calling him a dangerous mediocrity: arrogant, shallow, narrow-minded, provincial, and unscientific in equal degree. This was shockingly rude. It brings shame to Fleet Street.”

And here, on David Cameron, is Jack Davis, aka Topiary, who has not lost his way with words since being the tweet-face of Anonymous and LulzSec:

David Cameron is an absolute wet-lipped Eton-spawned fleshnugget with no actual perspective on global policy. I hate the Tories with a burning passion reserved for the Westboro Baptist Church. The fault of cyberbullying lies with the parents, like all fault for everything, especially the troubles in Syria.”

 




Oral culture

For about 300 years, and especially from the introduction of universal public education in the late 19th century, western culture has  been dominated by text and writing.  Elizabethan culture, by contrast, was primarily oral:  Shakespeare, for example, wrote his plays to be performed not to be read, and did not even bother to arrange definitive versions for printing.   One instance of the culture-wide turn from speech to text was a switch from spoken to written mathematics tests in the west which occurred at Cambridge in the late 18th century, as I discuss here.  There is nothing intrinsically better about written examinations over spoken ones, especially when standardized and not tailored for each particular student.  This is true even for mathematics, as is shown by the fact that oral exams are still the norm in university mathematics courses in the Russian-speaking world; Russia continues to produce outstanding mathematicians.

Adventurer and writer Rory Stewart, now an MP,  has an interesting post about the oral culture of the British Houses of Parliament, perhaps the last strong-hold of argument-through-speech in public culture.  The only other places in modern life, a place which is not quite as public, where speech reigns supreme, are court rooms.




Honeywell International Inter-varsity Debating Festival 1978

On 17 July 1978, the ABC TV current affairs programme, Monday Conference, held a Parliamentary Debate at Sydney University with participants from the Honeywell International Inter-varsity Debating Festival, then being held in Sydney: universities represented included Auckland, Cambridge, Canterbury (NZ), Columbia, Glasgow, Harvard, Nairobi, Oregon, Oxford  and eight Australian universities.  Particularly memorable performances were given by Nicholas O’Shaughnessy (age 26) from Oxford and David Pash (age 19) from Harvard.  Pash, speaking of O’Shaughnessy’s speeches, remarked:

They fall into three categories:  the witty, the stirring, and the vast majority.”

Pash also said:

Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Or, in Latin, Nil combustio sic profumo.

Pash is now an attorney in LA, and O’Shaughnessy Professor of Communication at Queen Mary, University of London. Ewan Sutherland, a participant from Glasgow and now a telecommunications consultant, has a short report of the Debating Festival here.

Following the Festival, the student newspaper of the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, Woroni, reported on a visit to ANU by the Oxford University Union Debating Team (issue of 1 August 1978).   This report (with obvious typing errors corrected, one ellipsis added, and one misplaced line – shown by [ ] – re-inserted appropriately) is here:

Complete with jokes generously supplied by the FitWilliam [sic] Museum of Antiquities in Cambridge, the  Oxford University Union Debating Team visited Canberra for four days at the beginning of second semester.  The team was in Australia along with teams from Cambridge, Glasgow, Harvard, Columbia, Oregon, Auckland, Canterbury and several Australian universities including ANU for the first Honeywell International Inter-varsity Debating Festival in Sydney.

Despite the fact that all four members of the team are part of Margaret Thatcher’s shock troops (she was described by one of them as Attila the Hen), they were almost human.  Nicholas O’Shaughnessy wants to be Viceroy of India and developed an accent to match.  John Harrison . . . found solace in the company of Greg Carman.  Marie-Louise Rossi replaced at 4 hours notice a past president of the Oxford Union, Vivienne Dinham.  Mark Sterling, in between drams, managed to defeat the cream sherry of ANU Law School mooting talent, Tom Faunce and Lee Aitken.

There were two debates in Canberra.  The first, on 19th July, was against ANU, ably represented by Andrew Byrnes, Steve Bartos and Vivienne Bath.  The subject was ‘That Only God can Save the Queen‘, which Oxford negated.  By any standards it was a good piece of comedy, though not perhaps describable as a debate.  Oxford were rather the worse for wear, having staggered off a plane from North Queensland just 1.5 hours before the debate began.

On 20th July there was a highly successful debate in the Albert Hall against a team from parliament.   It proved very difficult to get any MPs at all.  Most of the  ALP were overseas on their compulsory annual junkets.  Many Liberals were [  ] discreetly elsewhere on the date of the debate.  No member of the National Party could be found who could string more than about three words together before collapsing in in exhaustion.  In the end we found Michael Baume, Jim Carlton and Michael Hodgman, who turned on a very entertaining performance.  They admirably proved that talent is in inverse proportion to one’s chances of becoming a minister.

On July 21 the Law School staged a moot and lost.  Oxford left for Melbourne on July 22, having only managed [to see Canberra  in the wet.  Every time] that a trip was planned, the heavens opened.

On a marginally more serious  note, the success of the Oxford visit has prompted the Union to try and re-establish Union Night Debates on a regular weekly basis.  These debates are an established and popular feature of many English and Australian universities, and were common here until a few years ago.  If anyone wants to help on the Union Debates Committee, go and talk to someone in the Union Office.

The article was accompanied by a photo of the 19 July debate participants, showing seated (left-to-right) under a portrait of the Queen and a British and an Australian flag: John Harrison, Marie-Louise Rossi, Nicholas O’Shaughnessy, Greg Carman (MC), Vivienne Bath, Steven Bartos and Andrew Byrnes.




Bam’s rhetoric

Posting about one of Bam’s 2008 campaign speeches reminded me of the analysis undertaken by The Guardian’s arts correspondent, Charlotte Higgins, on the Roman and Greek rhetorical devices in his major speeches.   Relatedly, textual analyses of Bam’s 2008 Presidential election victory speech can be found here and here.




Bam and sweet potato pie

Here’s a story from Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign which I meant to blog when I read it.   From an article by Mark Danner:

Everything else they [election commentators and bloggers] would never see. It existed only for the several thousand cheering people in Vernon Park on that bright morning in Germantown. They would never see, for instance, Obama’s riff on sweet potato pie. It came as he told a story about his campaigning “the other day in a little town in Ohio, with the governor there,” about how he and the governor suddenly felt hungry and “decided we’d stop right there and get some pie.” Now here began a little gem of a story, which had at its center the diner employees who wanted to take a picture with Obama, not least because, as they told him, their boss was a die-hard Republican and “they wanted to tweak him a little with that picture.” All this was heading toward a carefully choreographed finale, where the owner appeared personally with the pie for candidate and governor and Obama looked at the pie and looked at the pie-carrying die-hard Republican owner and “then I said to him”—perfectly elongated pause—“How’s business?”

This brought on great gales of laughter from the crowd. For the joke turned on a point already precisely made: How can even the most die-hard of die-hard Republicans, if he is thinking of his self-interest, how can he vote Republican this year? “If you beat your head against the wall,” Obama demanded of that faraway Republican with his pie, to a blizzard of “oh yeahs!” and “you got that right!” from the crowd, “and it hurts and hurts, how can you keep doing it?” But it was those two words, ”How’s business?”—that casual greeting thrown at the Republican diner owner that showed that there simply could be no other choice this year—that showed the case proved, wrapped up, unassailable.

And yet what struck me in this little model of political art was a tiny riff the candidate effortlessly worked into it from his banter with the crowd. When Obama launched into his story with “Because I love pie,” a woman out in that sea of cheering, laughing people shouted back, “I’ll make you pie, baby!” and to the general hooting laughter the candidate returned, “Oh yeah, you gonna make me pie?” Then, after a beat, amid even more raucous laughter, and several other female voices shouting out invitations, “You gonna make me sweet potato pie?” More shouts and laughter. “All you gonna make me pie?”
“Well you know I love sweet potato pie. And I think what we’re going to have to do here”—and the laughter and the shouting rose and as it did his voice rose above it—“what we’re going to have to do here is have a sweet potato pie contest…. That’s right. And in this contest, I’m gonna be the judge.” The laughter rose and you could hear not only the women but the deep laughter of the men taking delight in the double entendre that was not only about the women and their laughing, teasing offers and about their pie that that lanky confident smiling young man knew how to eat and enjoy and judge, but even more now, amazingly, as people came one by one to recognize, about something else. To those people gathered in Vernon Park that bright sun-drenched morning, it was an even more titillating and more pleasurable double entendre, for it was most clearly about something they’d never had but hoped and dreamed of having and now had begun to believe they were within the shortest of short distances of finally tasting. “Because you all know,” their candidate told them, “that I know sweet potato pie.” “

Reference:

Mark Danner [2008]:  Obama and Sweet Potato PieNew York Review of Books, 23 October 2008.




Vale: Stephen Toulmin

The Anglo-American philosopher, Stephen Toulmin, has just died, aged 87.   One of the areas to which he made major contributions was argumentation, the theory of argument, and his work found and finds application not only in philosophy but in computer science.    

For instance, under the direction of John Fox, the Advanced Computation Laboratory at Europe’s largest medical research charity, Cancer Research UK (formerly, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund) applied Toulmin’s model of argument in computer systems they built and deployed in the 1990s to handle conflicting arguments in some domain.  An example was a system for advising medical practitioners with the arguments for and against prescribing a particular drug to a patient with a particular medical history and disease presentation.  One company commercializing these ideas in medicine is Infermed.    Other applications include the automated prediction of chemical properties such as toxicity (see for example, the work of Lhasa Ltd), and dynamic optimization of extraction processes in mining.

S E Toulmin

For me, Toulmin’s most influential work was was his book Cosmopolis, which identified and deconstructed the main biases evident in contemporary western culture since the work of Descartes:

  • A bias for the written over the oral
  • A bias for the universal over the particular
  • A bias for the general over the local
  • A bias for the timeless over the timely.

Formal logic as a theory of human reasoning can be seen as example of these biases at work. In contrast, argumentation theory attempts to reclaim the theory of reasoning from formal logic with an approach able to deal with conflicts and gaps, and with special cases, and less subject to such biases.    Norm’s dispute with Larry Teabag is a recent example of resistance to the puritanical, Descartian desire to impose abstract formalisms onto practical reasoning quite contrary to local and particular sense.

Another instance of Descartian autism is the widespread deletion of economic history from gradaute programs in economics and the associated priviliging of deductive reasoning in abstract mathematical models over other forms of argument (eg, narrative accounts, laboratory and field experiments, field samples and surveys, computer simulation, etc) in economic theory.  One consequence of this autism is the Great Moral Failure of Macroeconomics in the Great World Recession of 2008-onwards.

References:

S. E. Toulmin [1958]:  The Uses of Argument.  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 

S. E. Toulmin [1990]: Cosmopolis:  The Hidden Agenda of Modernity.  Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press.

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Pommes frites with everything

A Guardian editorial from 1989, published followed news that the French Government Official Dictionary of Neologisms had decided whether to adopt or discard over 2400 foreign words from the French language:

This concern with linguistic purity is clearly inspired by France’s envy of Anglo-Saxon practice, which, as is well known, sets its face like flint against all overseas importations.  Regular visitors to London report with awe on the capacity of the English of all social classes for keeping the language clean.  From the blase habitues of the London clubs – raconteurs, bon viveurs, hommes d’affaires – with their penchant for bonhomie and camaraderie, through the soi-disant bien pensants of the passe liberal press to the demi-monde of the jeunesse doree, where ingenues in risque decolletages dine a deux, tete a tete and a la carte with their louche nouveau riche fiances in brassieries and estaminets, pure English is de rigueur, and the mildest infusion of French considered de trop, deja vu, cliche, devoid of all cachet, a linguistic melange or bouillabaisse, a cultural cul-de-sac.

The English want no part of this outre galere, no role in this farouche charade, no rapprochement with this compote.   They get no frisson from detente with diablerie.  And long may it remain so.  “A bas les neologismes!” as you often hear people cry late at night on the Earl’s Court Road.”

Source:  The Guardian Weekly, 1989-01-08 (London, UK).

And here is a story about the French Member of the English Language Committee of the International Mathematics Olympiad.

And here it’s Flugtag for Denglisch.




Next, the Literature Nobel

Robert Draper has an interesting essay in GQ on Barack Obama the writer.  As I noted before, Obama shares this characteristic with Teddy Roosevelt (and with no other US President).  And like TR and JFK, Bam is also a cosmopolitan urbanite.

“I think he sees the world through a writer’s eye,” says senior White House adviser and former Chicago journalist David Axelrod. “I’ve always appreciated about him his ability to participate in a scene and also reflect on it. I mean, I remember when we were meeting clandestinely with the guys who were vetting the vice presidential candidates. There was this courtly southern gentleman who was doing the vetting. The president said to me, ‘This whole scene’s right out of a Grisham novel.’

“I also have to say, one of the great thrills is to watch him work on a speech. It’s not just the content—he’s very focused on that—but more than anyone I’ve ever worked with, he’s focused on the rhythm of the words. Like, he’ll invert words. He’ll say, ‘I need a one-beat word here.’ There’s no question who the best writer in the [speech-writing] group is.”

Winston Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature (in 1953, after writing – or perhaps supervising the writing of – his History of the English Speaking Peoples), so there’s hope yet for Bam’s next Nobel.

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Public lectures

I expect that Bertrand Russell is the only person in history to have given public lectures to both TS Eliot (in lectures given at Harvard University) and Mao Tse-Tung (in a lecture series given in China).  With youtube and the web, we are in danger of forgetting how special an occasion a public speech can be.  And so I decided to list the people whose public lectures I have heard.  I’ve not included lecturers and teachers whose courses I attended, the most influential (upon me) I have previously listed here, nor talks given at conferences or in academic seminars.

Kenneth Arrow (2000), Michael Atiyah (2008, 2013), PK van der Byl (1985), James Callaghan (1980), Noam Chomsky (2003), Thomas Clayton (2012), Joan Coxsedge (1979),  Don Dunstan (c. 1977),  Steve Fuller (2008), Dov Gabbay (2012), Leszek Gasieniec (2004), Leslie Goldberg (2009),  Joe Gqabi (1981),  Tim Harford (2011),  Bob Hawke (1980), Xavier Herbert (1976), Wiebe van der Hoek (2003), Anahid Kassabian (2009), Michael Kearns (2011), David Kilcullen (2013), Hans Kung (c. 1985), Kgosa Linchwe II Kgafela (1983), Bill Mansfield (1976-1980, several times), Robert May (2011, twice), Mobutu Sese Seko (1981, at gunpoint), Moshoeshoe II (1982), Robert Mugabe (1981-7, numerous times), Ralph Nader (c. 1977),  Robert Oakeshott (c. 1985),  Christos Papadimitriou (2009), Joseph Rotblat (2002), Rory Stewart (2009), Oliver Tambo (1987), Edgar Tekere (1981), Rene Thom (1979), John Tukey (c. 1979), Moshe Vardi (2010), Gough Whitlam (1975-8, several times), Gerry Wilkes (1975), Elizabeth II Windsor (1980), Michael Wooldridge (2003), Andrew Young (1979) and Mick Young (1979).

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