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 (1956-2014), Nicholas O’Shaughnessy, Greg Carman (MC), Vivienne Bath, Steven Bartos and Andrew Byrnes. I attended the debate on 19 July 1978.

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.” “

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 local
  • A bias for the general over the particular
  • 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 graduate programs in economics and the associated privileging 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.
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.

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.

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), David Coltart (2016), Joan Coxsedge (1979), Don Dunstan (1976), Steve Fuller (2008), Dov Gabbay (2012), Julia Gillard (2016), Joe Gqabi (1981),  Tim Harford (2011), Bob Hawke (1980), Xavier Herbert (1976), 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), Malcolm Rifkind (2016), 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), Andrew Young (1979) and Mick Young (1979).
Continue reading ‘Public lectures’

Speech acts

Thanks to Normblog, I have seen Terry Eagleton’s recent interview on matters of religion, in which he is reported as saying:

All performatives imply propositions.  There’s no point in my operating a performative like, say, promising, or cursing, unless I have certain beliefs about the nature of reality: that there is indeed such an institution as promising, that I am able to perform it, and so on.  The performative and the propositional work into each other.

Before commenting on the substance here (ie, religion), some words on Eagleton’s evident mis-understanding of speech act theory and the philosophy of language, a mis-understanding that should have been clear if he tested his words against his own experiences of life.  His statement concerns performatives — utterances which potentially change the state of the world by their being uttered.  Examples include promises, commands, threats, entreaties, prayers, various legal declarations (eg, that a certain couple are now wed),  etc.  But mere propositional statements (that some description of the world is true) may also change the state of the world by the mere fact of being uttered.
Continue reading ‘Speech acts’

Myopic utilitarianism

What are the odds, eh?  On the same day that the Guardian publishes an obituary of theoretical computer scientist, Peter Landin (1930-2009), pioneer of the use of Alonzo Church’s lambda calculus as a formal semantics for computer programs, they also report that the Government is planning only to fund research which has relevance  to the real-world.  This is GREAT NEWS for philosophers and pure mathematicians! 
What might have seemed, for example,  mere pointless musings on the correct way to undertake reasoning – by Aristotle, by Islamic and Roman Catholic medieval theologians, by numerous English, Irish and American abstract mathematicians in the 19th century, by an entire generation of Polish logicians before World War II, and by those real-world men-of-action Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Alonzo Church – turned out to be EXTREMELY USEFUL for the design and engineering of electronic computers.   Despite Russell’s Zen-influenced personal motto – “Just do!  Don’t think!” (later adopted by IBM) – his work turned out to be useful after all.   I can see the British research funding agencies right now, using their sophisticated and proven prognostication procedures to calculate the society-wide economic and social benefits we should expect to see from our current research efforts over the next 2300 years  – ie, the length of time that Aristotle’s research on logic took to be implemented in technology.   Thank goodness our politicians have shown no myopic utilitarianism this last couple of centuries, eh what?!
All while this man apparently received no direct state or commercial research funding for his efforts as a computer pioneer, playing with “pointless” abstractions like the lambda calculus.
And Normblog also comments.
POSTSCRIPT (2014-02-16):   And along comes The Cloud and ruins everything!   Because the lower layers of the Cloud – the physical infrastructure, operating system, even low-level application software – are fungible and dynamically so, then the Cloud is effectively “dark” to its users, beneath some level.   Specifying and designing applications that will run over it, or systems that will access it, thus requires specification and design to be undertaken at high levels of abstraction.   If all you can say about your new system is that in 10 years time it will grab some data from the NYSE, and nothing (yet) about the format of that data, then you need to speak in abstract generalities, not in specifics.   It turns out the lambda calculus is just right for this task and so London’s big banks have been recruiting logicians and formal methods people to spec & design their next-gen systems.  You can blame those action men, Church and Russell.

Science and poetry

The Asian scholar Arthur Waley once wrote:

All argument consists in proceeding from the known to the unknown, in persuad­ing people that the new thing you want them to think is not essentially different from or at any rate is not inconsistent with the old things they think already. This is the method of science, just as much as it is the method of rhetoric and poetry. But, as between science and forms of appeal such as poetry, there is a great difference in the nature of the link that joins the new to the old. Science shows that the new follows from the old according to the same principles that built up the old. “If you don’t accept what I now ask you to believe,” the scientist says, “you have no right to go on believing what you believe already.”   The link used by science is a logical one. Poetry and rhetoric are also concerned with bridging the gap between the new and the old; but they do not need to build a formal bridge. What they fling across the intervening space is a mere filament such as no sober foot would dare to tread. But it is not with the sober that poetry and eloquence have to deal. Their te, their essential power, consists in so intoxicating us that, endowed with the recklessness of drunken men, we dance across the chasm, hardly aware how we reached the other side.”    (Waley 1934, Introduction, pp. 96-97)

Arthur Waley [1934]: The Way and its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and its Place in Chinese Thought. London, UK: George Allen and Unwin.