T, Theory

In Myers-Briggs terms, I’m a theorist. I’m an INTP, and we do theories. We – well I – make them up. I look for patterns in the world and my reaction to data is to theorize. I usually don’t share my theories widely, because I need (infinitely) more data to make sure the theory is correct. But if you tell me about a problem of yours, my automatic response is to problem-solve it using the current version of my Theory Of The World, the one always under revision that lives in my head. Not everyone wants problems solved using my current TOTW, but sometimes that is what they get. Sometimes I do ask first.

I also collect other people’s theories. Yesterday I read on Twitter the theory that if you are working on a long-form piece of writing, then 5-5-5 should be enough, just keep doing that and the thing should come together. 5-5-5 is 500 words or 5 pages edited, 5 days a week. I am going to test this theory. I will report.

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S, Stories

So in that novel I talked about before, The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland, a multi-verse theory of storytelling is put into the mouth of one of the characters, Rebecca East-Oda. I think I can relate this without it being a spoiler. East-Oda says this regarding “crosstalk” between the Strands of History:

We’ve seen it before in creative arts settings, especially storytelling. If you think about what is going on in a storyteller’s mind when he or she spins a fictional yarn, what they are trying to do is come up with a story that did not actually happen, but that seems as if it might have happened. In other words, it has to make sense and to be plausible. Typically such a story makes use of real places, historical events, characters, etc. but the events of the story itself seem to take place in an alternate version of reality.

The conventionally accepted explanation for this is that storytellers have a power of imagination that makes them good at inventing counterfactual narratives. In the light of everything we’ve learned about Strands at DDO, however, we can now see an alternate explanation, which is that storytellers are doing a kind of low-level magic. Their ‘superpower’ isn’t imagining counterfactuals, but rather seeing across parallel Strands and perceiving things that actually did (or might) happen in alternate versions of reality.

I like this a lot. Storytellers are actually wizards.

In other news, my personal top fictional reads of 2017 all involved playing with the idea of telling stories in some way. They are (in no particular order):

  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salmon Rushdie
  • The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
  • A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

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R = Revisionism

It turns out that I am a revisionist. I rewrite history, correcting the standard view, particularly the standard view of the history of the interpretation of the Bible. Generally I’m all about remembering that women also read, interpreted, and wrote about the Bible. Women also did theology, wrote about it, and their books were published.

Not so long ago, I used the word “revisionist” as a derogatory term for some historical fiction, those that had a character that seemed to reflect twenty-first century views rather than those of the time period where they lived. I need a new word for that, because I think that reading our times back into history is a trap that anyone revisioning the past can fall into. It seems legitimate to revisit our understanding of history as we look at the data differently, as we find new data, and as we see ways earlier historiography was biased. It does not, however, seem legitimate to impose new or late concepts backward in time. It is difficult to avoid this as we read old texts from our present with our categories, with our own understandings of the way the world works. It seems, however, that attempting to avoid imposing our view of the world upon old texts is a key discipline in reading old books well. I refer you to C.S. Lewis The Discarded Image for some thoughts on reading medieval texts well.

In other revisionist news, I’ve just finished this book:


It is wonderful. Quantum Theory. Time Travel. Changing History. Ridiculous Acronyms. What more could you want? And Neal Stephenson. Seriously. Go get the book. Have fun.

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Quiet starts with Q

Five years ago, a book called Quiet was published. It made a bit of a noise in the world at the time, and I heard the noise and picked up a copy that very year. I finally read it in the last few days. To be honest, the motivating factor behind me actually picking up the book and reading it was this blog entry. I intended to use Q to write about quiet, because I’m an introvert, known to be quiet and to prefer quiet zones, known to exit crowded social situations as quickly as possible. I am everybody the book Quiet was written for. But I hadn’t read it yet. Why? Because of a review. Somehow, in my head, I merged the review with the book and thought I’d read the first couple of pages and thought, ergh, this will be more work than it might be worth. But, it turns out, I was mistaken. My memory did tricky things (as memories are known to do) and attributed the review (which wasn’t enticing) with the book itself.

Susan Cain wrote Quiet and she did a marvelous job. The subtitle (The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) suits the material very well. Cain describes the World That Can’t Stop Talking very well, examines why this might be the case, and how introverts get lost in this world. She also looks at reasons introverts should be heard, despite their quiet voices, and the power that introverts have in their quiet ways.

Despite the fact that the book has been on my to be read pile for five years, reading it now has been a good thing for me. I’m presently working from home and many days have no conversation except online or with strangers who are selling me groceries or coffee. In this quiet interval, Quiet provides ways for me to re-think the way I am in company. Do I need to pretend to be an extrovert in every situation? When and how can I best do that? When is the quiet too much? Then there are questions for how I am in my professional world: How do academics (mostly introverts) talk to each other well in all the quiet of their world? How do we teach well, so that both introverts and extroverts learn? So many questions for quiet contemplation.

If you are an introvert living in this extroverted culture, pick up Cain’s book. She’s got things to say. There’s also a TED talk if you want a condensed overview.


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P is for Public (and Private too)

If you’ve lurked around this blog at all, you know that I research and write on women who wrote about the Bible in the past. When talk turns to women and men during the nineteenth century, the words Public and Private often appear in the conversation. Conveniently, both words start with the letter P.

I’ve chosen to use Public as my P-word because it represents the things, it is argued, that women ought not to be. Men dominated public places and spaces, and this was thought to be a good thing. Women had No Place in such spaces, and if they did show up, they were supposed to be silent observers, not active participants. Their place was in the Private, not the Public sphere. These two spheres were separate, and only men, it is argued, could travel between them. This was just How The World Worked.

This basic assumption about the division of the world into two spheres is widely repeated in many places. I’ve done some of that repeating myself. But, the more I read about what women did in the past, the more I doubt the accuracy of this simplified view of the world. I am starting to think that the Public/Private split may be a mid-twentieth century concept projected backwards upon history. Is this a legitimate thing for historians to do? What other maps have we imposed upon the past that distort the landscape of that distant country? Further, the definition of what exactly is Public (the concern of all in a society) differs substantially in various times and places. Can we always accurately map the Public/Private dividing line?

In my work, I am beginning to see that the simple division of the world into two spheres is not helpful in my attempt to understand what women in the past said and did. Now to find concepts that may help understanding.

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Objective starts with O. That is an objective statement that no one can object to. Right? It assumes nothing, shows no bias – except that the beginning of the word is on the left and not the right. It also shows a possible preference for the letter at the start of a word rather than other letters in the word. Why do we alphabetize words using the letter at the start, or left-most edge of the word? Why not write things vertically? Or even ndyrolam?

Ok. In English we have developed a symbol system for language that runs from left to right, and traditionally have organized lists and records based on the first, or left-most letter of words. So it is a traditional system that we are taught and use in common. Why not change it? Well why? Language systems shift, organizational practices change but they tend to do so glacially. Why so slow? Well we might find it difficult to communicate otherwise.

It is hard to be objective, even when making a simple statement about a word. The statement can be unpacked and found to rest on traditional choices made, then propagated by repetition and teaching because common systems make communication easier. Common systems sometimes also make the boxes we live in difficult to see, the presuppositions that we carry with us hard to leave behind. This difficulty means we all bring bias to our work, even work in math or science where things seem more countable and certain. Can we ever get rid of this bias, our presuppositions, our lack of objectivity?

I’m not sure we can entirely ditch bias and become completely objective. But I think a quest for better objectivity, for other ways of looking at the world, for ways to see what kind of box we think inside, is a good idea.

How do we do this? Read widely. Listen. Look. Think. Ask questions. Try different things. If you creep up something from multiple directions, if there is a convergence onto some key ideas from multiple lines of evidence, then you might be onto something. Truth may be nearer than you think. But it is hard work.

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Nuance starts with N

Nuance is subtle. It lives between things. A shade off centre, just off balance, not as simple as you thought, it is the complexity of life.

In Academic Writing, nuance is usually a good thing. Life is complicated. Academics know this, and work hard at fitting all that complexity into their work.


A couple of years ago, Kieran Healy suggested that in his field (sociology) there was too much Nuance. This over-abundance of Nuance tended to obstruct clear thinking. Healy presented a conference paper about this problem with the not-so-subtle title “Fuck Nuance.” In summary, Healy thinks Nuance impedes Theory. Powerful theories need less nuance as theories look for similarities, not shades of minute difference.

Healy makes an interesting case. I was all ready to write about how academic writing could use MORE nuance, not less. Clearly I need to be more precise in my suggestion. Perhaps some aspects of academic writing could use more nuance. Descriptive work, history writing, detailed ethnographic observations, all these need detail and depth. These call for nuance. Theory as it develops from observations needs to shed the detail, to look for patterns and similarities, and so needs less nuance. The theorist needs to decide what the important differences are, pay attention to those. Yes, theory is thus less shaded than description, but perhaps it is more powerful, useful, applicable if less nuanced.

Nuance is also an aspect of writing. Choosing just the right word or phrase and getting it right makes all the difference in the world. The New York Times knows this too.

Nuance: it is a many-shaded thing.

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Methodology refers to the philosophic & theoretical underpinnings of research methods. It is the systematic discussion of research methods, often the methods common in a particular field of study. Unfortunately, in common use, it slides toward use as a synonym for method. When writing up one’s methodology, one discusses WHY one chose a particular method of research. A method is what one actually does in the research process.

When researching history, researchers have to think about what sources to use, and how to handle these sources. I’m reading two books which would claim to be History in some sense. Because the authors are working with different bits of history, they use different kinds of source material, and approach these sources in different ways.

In The Bletchley Girls, Tessa Dunlop’s editor decided that it was best to tell the stories of living women who worked at Bletchley Park during World War II. Dunlop’s research was carried out quite recently, more than 70 years after the beginning of the war and the conversion of Bletchley Park into a code-breaking facility. This meant she was interviewing women in their 90s. It also means that the stories of many women who worked at Bletchley Park were not accessed because those women were dead, or were suffering from memory loss. Deciding to interview living women about their war-time experiences limited the data Dunlop used in her book. Any methodological discussion of this method of gathering history (oral history, interviews of participants long after an episode of their life is concluded) must include a discussion of memory, and how memory is shaped both by later events and later understandings of the past.

In The Resurrection of the Son of God, N.T. Wright discusses the meaning of “resurrection” in the ancient world, and what it might mean that Jesus was resurrected. Wright uses ancient documents, both biblical texts, and texts from times before and after the biblical accounts were written. He attempts to access and understand the different ways the concept of resurrection was understood by different groups of people, including ancient Christians. Wright accesses history primarily through documents. Any methodological discussion of Wright’s work must include reflections on which documents survive from the ancient world, and how to best understand the writings which do survive. Further, if language use shifts over time, how do current readers access ancient use of particular words and concepts?

Methodological discussions of historical research involves all kinds of complications of memory, shifts in language, social changes, and imaginative expectations of historians. How do we best gain access to the foreign country that is the past? Time travel is ruled out at the moment, so a balance of other methods with their inherent difficulties must do for now.

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Language Part 2 – Making Things Odd

In my L-post for this academic alphabet, the one on Language, I noted that I was reading Embassytown, a SciFi book about Language. Did I mention that the author, China Miéville, mentioned Paul Ricoeur in his acknowledgements? No? Well now I have.

In parallel with Embassytown, I was revisiting the universe that Miles Vorkosigan inhabits. As I read and listened to five of the Vorkosigan saga books, I noticed the ways Lois McMaster Bujold uses familiar language to suggest the unfamiliar Not-Quite-Here nature of the Vorkosigan’s universe. Similarly, Miéville also uses familiar language to describe the unfamiliar, and even indescribable nature of the Embassytown’s universe. Both authors talk about similar concepts – the large universe away from the home planets of the point-of-view characters. Bujold uses the adjective “galactic” to describe things that are non-local, and to describe people who have non-local experience. Miéville uses “the out” to indicate everywhere that’s not the planet on which Embassytown is located. Similarly, Bujold uses the concept of wormholes for greater-than-light-speed travel. Miéville uses a concept he calls the immer for the space between local planets and worlds, through which travel is dangerous, and only possible for those who are immersers, who can stay awake for the trip. Miéville’s immersers have brain implants to aid them in navigating the immer; Bujold’s jump pilots have brain implants to aid them in navigating wormholes.

In Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, she also has a trick of using strange language for familiar things to set those things up as different in some way: chrono for watch, comconsole for computer, and so on. This use of strange language for familiar things reminds us that we are not in Kansas any more, but in some completely other place. Miéville’s world is so strange to us that we don’t need this constant reminder. Living walls that can grow ears if needed, biotechnology that is grown on farms, where farms are also living things, all these are constant reminders that the familiar words he uses actually represent completely unfamiliar things.

World building, that essential trick of authors, means using language very well. It may mean making words up. It may mean re-purposing familiar words for unfamiliar things. The trick is to do it well. Bujold and Miéville are masters of this art.

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If it is L, it must be Language

Yesterday I was reading along in my current brain candy book (Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King if you must know) and came upon a felicitous phrase. I stopped and savoured the phrase. “There are only six results, a very small catch in the vast fishy sea of the Internet…” I sat in the coffee shop, sipped my double cappuccino and smiled at the image of “the vast fishy sea of the Internet.” Nice work Mr. King. Well put. Words are fun, and words well connected can be beautiful. I wish more academics tried to find felicitous phrases for their work.

In my (becoming) infamous Epistemology post I talked about Language and how words help us figure out what we know. In that post there is a long quotation from Rowan Williams’s book, The Edge of Words, about the interplay between words and knowledge. That book is one of the best I’ve read on the importance of Language. It is not the easiest book to read – there’s lots to think about. As I read it I had to keep stopping to think. If I was with someone, I’d read out the paragraph that made me stop to think. Not everyone found the ideas as fascinating as I did, but if you like Language, find a copy of the book. Read it.

Recently I’ve read some different books that deal with Language. In the one I’ve not yet finished, one language, an alien tongue spoken by exotics from another world, is always called Language. It has a capital L. Native speakers of Language cannot lie. Humans who learn to speak Language (and only a few humans can actually do so) can lie in Language. Native Language speakers find this ability fascinating, and try to do it themselves. Because Language does not allow for lies, Metaphor is impossible. Metaphors are lies. Similes are possible in Language if the point of comparison actually exists. The point-of-view character in the book has been enshrined in Language as a Simile because she performed an action at one time. One Simile in the book has to repeat his action every week so the verb-tense in his simile is correct. I’m only half-way through, so I’m not sure where this book is going, but lets just say that there is a Language-centred Crisis on the planet in question. If you want more of this, read Embassytown by China Miéville.

In two other books, both by Salmon Rushdie, language games and stories told play a large part in the narratives. Haroun and the Sea of Stories has more language games. The sequel, Luka and the Fire of Life refers to more cultural stories and traditions. Both of these books exemplify the beauties of language in many ways. You should go read them.

Language is an enormous part of who we are and how we think. We forget that sometimes because it is so close to us and obvious. Sometimes books that tell us stories about Language, or play with language, or take us to the edge of words help us remember how vital language is to us, and how beautiful it can be.

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