Thinking about oral history

My wife does some work on the side as a research assistant for a local university professor. (Details and podcasts here!) She is helping her write an oral history book. That is, the source material is largely interviews, the relevant information having been rarely written down much. One question they wanted to ask going into it is, what does this sort of history book look like? When other people have tackled projects like this, what have they looked like when finished? What did the good authors do to expose their material and keep it interesting and integrated into a larger story? Is writing a book drawn largely from oral history different from ones based on old texts?

To answer this, they checked out several similar books from the library to poke around in. One of them was about folk music revivals in America and my wife wondered if I was interested in reading it. I decided on whim to do just that and (slightly, haphazardly) document my discoveries, not only about this corner of music history but specifically about the kind of writing and research involved in this sort of work.

First, before touching the book, I will write down a few preconceived ideas that I had about “oral histories” and their value.

It seems that when most people talk about oral history, it is in the context of some primitive non-writing people or culture. Where have I been exposed to it before? Interviewing native American Indian tribes people discussing their old customs and telling stories about their grandparents. The same goes for history of peoples in Africa where a written language either doesn’t exist or the bulk of the people involved do not write anything down. In this first case then, the knowledge is almost completely inaccessible except by talking to real people who may have transferred memory of the events, or digging around as an archeologist. Ethnomusicologists tramping around Appalachia or Zimbabwe with tape recorders are doing work on this level as well.

The second way I’ve seen oral history approached is to use interviews to flesh out an event and fill it with personal anecdotes and insider details that may not be known in the widely known accounts. It’s not that there ISN’T a bunch of written material about the time or subject at hand – there is. But the written material may only show one viewpoint, or it may have been written to address a bigger story. The interviewer is trying to dig up more curious details and so render a higher-resolution picture of what happened. Many large facts are known, but the small facts have fallen through the cracks, despite their relevance.

The third way I’ve seen oral history used is through contemporary projects such as Story Core, heard on NPR. Some folks from the Smithsonian travel around the country in a trailer and listen in as one person (usually a friend or family member) gets another person to talk about their life or tell a story from their past. The best ones make it on the radio, but thousands of them are archived every year. I believe that searchable transcriptions are also made of everything. This is sort of a preemptive oral history – anticipating a loss of knowledge in the future. What if the most important things about our culture were not written down? Sure, we have Wikipedia, which is fantastic, but think of how many people DON’T ever contribute to it? It seems like the researcher’s goal is to give things a highly-person feel – relating each story to just one individual. Self-absorbed memoirs not withstanding, the fact is that most writing done today is going to be much more abstract than a personal interview. This is another way to enrich what we have in print.

So it seems to me that a writer working with a collection of oral history should endeavor to draw out smaller details and then fit them back into the large picture of what is known through writing. In this way, the existing story can be made much more potent (and even accurate) via the contribution of facets that were overlooked by the earlier distant writers. In particular, it seems likely that the most useful contribution is going to be from the types of folks who would never write anything down to begin with. It’s a case of the peasants verses the scribes. With a written history, you’ve got the scribes telling the story. With an oral history, you can also get the peasant’s take on it as well. Maybe their story was already well-represented by the empathetic and knowledgeable scribes, but maybe not.


Greed by osmosis

Both Tolkien and Lewis wrote stories where a powerful lust for treasure is transferred from dragons to people via physical contact.

In The Hobbit, even after Smaug is dead, his treasure still has an aura about it that “rubs off” on the dwarves. They are already disposed to love beautiful gold things, but the dragon’s recent presence amplifies their desire to hoard it. Thorin in particular becomes very grumpy and protective – unwilling to make a deal with the neighboring elves or men.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace discovers an old dragon’s treasure stash and takes a nap upon the pile. In his sleep he is actually transformed into a dragon, such was it cursed. It is hinted that the previous dragon was also a man who suffered such a fate.

It appears that in both their minds, greed has an unhealthy effect both on the hoarder and the observer. Sounds like imitative desire to me – which has been proven to often seem “magical”.

The green great dragon

I first tried to write a story when I was about seven. It was about a dragon. I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out that one could not say ‘a green great dragon’, but had to say ‘a great green dragon’. I wondered why, and still do. The fact that I remember this is possibly significant, as I do not think I ever tried to write a story again for many years, and was taken up with language.

-Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, #163 (to W.H. Auden), 7 June 1955

I still wonder the same thing.

I’ve been reading The Hobbit to the kids every night for a couple weeks. 2nd time through. We are nearly done. The questions they ask are so fun:

Daughter: Daddy! There are so many black birds. Black Birds, Ravens, Crows, the Thrush. They are all black.

Son: Daddy, what were those big things from before they went over the mountain? (Goblins?) No, no. There were three of them. (Oh, trolls. They were trolls) Yes. They are fat. (Yep. Usually.)

Daughter: Daddy, who is the guy (Bard) talking to? (He’s talking to his arrow, the Black Arrow.) Um, why is he talking to his arrow? (He’s talking about how cool it is and how he’s going to use it to kill the dragon.) Why? (To tell us about it, so we know how cool it is.) Hmmm, OK.

Youngest Daughter: Daddy Read Chappa! (Chapter)

Youngest Son: ROOOOAAAAARRRR!!!! (Are you a dragon?) YES!


The glue that holds us together

One of the foundation pillars of modern thought and contemporary Western identity is the myth of our hyper-individualist autonomy.

Let me say that another way. We think we are very special and unique and that we make all our own decisions about what we like and don’t like thank you very much.

Now, various theories try to put some constraints on that. Marxism and socialism phrase everything in terms of class warfare or some similar playing field. Still, the underlying assumption is that, except for how much money you have (or don’t have), you are pretty much autonomous. Break this one piece of the framework and all our “predestination” falls away and we are free. In this sense, Capitalists (via the free market) and Socialists (via wealth distribution) are trying to achieve the same sort of “freedom” through different means.

Except that this is all a silly story we tell ourselves. We are born into a myriad of constrains that shape who were are, how we think, and what we do for our years on earth. And these constraints are often a good thing – they are what keep us glued together. We NEED each other to survive. But what keeps us glued together? The very things that keep us glued in place and immovable.

One problem with sectarianism in the church (predominant in contemporary Protestantism, but showing up everywhere), is that it tries to use long creeds and confessions to build a “community of like-minded individuals”. You’ve probably heard that phrase before or something like it. But “a people held together by the relative homogeneity of their theology” is no way to build a family. You may say that this is decent indicator of other things since so much springs forth or is implied by theological distinctive, but I think the case for that is nearly always WAY overstated. Presbyterians are really not so different from Pentecostals or Roman Catholics as they insist. Sure, our theological distinctive keep some of us together, but there are so many other things, perhaps more powerful than that.

What keeps us stuck to each other in communities?

  • Proximity as glue (geography, space or lack of space, the great uniter)
  • Culture as glue (that’s kind of vague, sorry)
  • Formal theology as glue (creeds, confessions, institutions)
  • Folk theology as glue (“Jesus take the wheel”, pseudo-karma, “Believe in yourself”, etc.)
  • Visual likeness as glue? (race, faces, clothes, appearance. This glue is thinner than in past centuries.)
  • Promises as glue. (Marriage vows, church membership covenants(!), promises of care from parents to children)
  • Slave –> Master as glue? (Not much anymore. But very real when the New Testament was penned.)
  • Borrower –> Lender as glue. (This one is hugely dominant today and it usually feels like a cage.)
  • Language as glue. (So ubiquitous, it’s often forgotten. The words we use keep even the most bitter enemies so very close to each other.)

With so many different avenues, we ought to be able to find a hundred things to help us relate to people that are still very different from us in two or three areas. I’m arguing for a more holistic approach to relating to our Christian brothers and sisters. Don’t gloss over your formal theological distinctions – they are real and significant. But don’t inflate them into something larger than life. Doing so only serves to divide us from our neighbors – make them more difficult to love.

Photo credit

On not stretching the text too thin

Next month I’m supposed to preach on John 21. I’m undecided as to whether I want to deal with the passage directly (the appearance of the risen Jesus in Galilee and the reinstatement of Peter) or whether to just use it as an excuse to pull out a bunch of N.T. Wright’s material on the centrality of the resurrection. Hmmmm.

What is funny is that I’ve come across a lot of studies and commentary on John 21 – most of it focusing on the three “Do you love me?” questions that Jesus asks Peter. It turns out that different combinations of Greek words are used for the six occurrences of “love” in the conversation. Entire sermons are written around this fact, trying to dredge up some hidden significance to the use and timing of “agape” and “phileo”. At one point I went back to an old go-to source from my youth, the NIV Study Bible notes. What did they have to say? The scholars there briefly point out that John seems to use the two words interchangeably and that it’s probably just part of his writing style and has no deeper meaning. Ha ha! Oh no, we can’t have that. We’ve got to be expository preachers and yack about this verse for 40 minutes! Come on! There’s got to be something else there. Errr, maybe not. Let’s stop trying to stretch the text so thin all the time.

I think my favorite verse in the passage is where Peter asks about John and Jesus tells him to mind his own business (John 21:21). I think of this verse every time Aslan tells someone in Narnia that “no one is told any story but their own”. I am certain this is the passage Lewis had in mind then.

Back to the books. Hopefully I can come up with an outline soon that isn’t too wonkish.

A measure of psychological health

I have discovered that the Archive link sidebar in WordPress to be an interesting and accurate self-history of sorts. It shows the last six years, broken down by month with a number in parenthesis indicating how many blog posts I wrote during that ~30 day period. Some are in the high twenties. Those are usually months I was happy, excited about life, loving to learn, etc. Even if I wasn’t reading anything particularly good during those times, other thoughts just seemed to spill over regardless.

The bad months? When work is hard or being married is hard or being a father is hard or when adopting foreign child with special needs that can’t speak English is hard – on those months I can’ bring myself to write hardly a thing. My head can barely make it through the day. Ugg. What kind of month it was is marked right there on my blog, serving as a sort of psychological health history.

June 2008 – Moving the family to a new house, 3 posts.
June 2009 – Settled down, only 2 kids, read Humphrey Carpenter’s Inklings bio and more, 56 posts! (Yeah!)

October 2010 – Must have blotted whatever happened this month out of my memory, no idea, 1 post.
January 2011 – Wrote a bunch of poems out of nowhere, read some fantastic stuff, 18 posts!

March 2011 – African red tape purgatory, adoption paperwork hell, 6 posts.
October 2011 – Traveling to Ethiopia, 25 posts!

April 2012 – Child surgeries and attachment challenges, 1 post! (yikes)
July 2012 – 9 posts, things must be getting better

A curious metric. Who knows what blogging will look like after 20 years of this? You may be able to learn something by looking at others’ archive counters as well.

Golden ages and garbage

That Rocks and Minerals book I loved so much as a kid was from 1957. The Polya book I just read was from 1953. So many of the best Inklings works were from about then too. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles were written from 1950-57. The integrated circuit, to which I owe my career, was first successfully built in 1958. I could go on and on.

The 1950s were a pretty damn cool time for science and productivity, but they grew OUT of an earlier age which was then abandoned – their own children (the boomer generation) grew largely into philosophical and spiritual mushiness. What went wrong? Somehow, our parenting and catechism went to pot while we were paying attention to something else, or paying a lot of money for something else. We built a rocket to the moon, but our society was running on fumes. Now the gas is all gone. Our generation has to dig up all the treasure again. So many of the jewels got mistakenly taken out with the trash. The ancient texts and traditions are our landfill. Time to raise a golden city from the garbage.

Gemstone illustrations (better than photos?)

In the coffee shop recently I stumbled across an old copy of the Golden Nature Guide to Rocks and Minerals, a small pocket-sized handbook from the 1950s.

At some point, one of these was laying around the house when I was I was about 8 years old and I absolutely devoured it. Just like kids get interested in cowboys or ninjas or space or pirates, I went through a very serious gemstone phase. I begged my dad to take me opal hunting on one of the nearby mountains where there was a mine. He took me to the house of an acquaintance who was a rock hound. He was an old man with his own diamond blades for cutting gems and polishing stones. We also revived an ancient Geiger counter from the back of the shop and for a while I used to haul it around looking for Uranium. (I don’t think it actually worked anymore or it should have gone off in Pop Tart aisle in the grocery store, right?)

That was over 20 years ago. Looking back at the book though (I purchased the used copy on the shelf), I am amazed at how well-presented the information is. Is it just childhood nostalgia, or do they not make books quite like this anymore? I think the thing about this guide that REALLY sold me was how wonderful and artistic the pictures were. It contains no photographs. Everything is a watercolor illustration by a guy named Raymond Perlman. He spent his whole life drawing rocks and they don’t just look great, they look more than great. Through the artist’s eyes, they actually look way cooler than real rocks! Does that make the book inaccurate? Wouldn’t photo’s be more true? Maybe, but not for communicating the care and enthusiasm of the subject. For that, these work much better.

Whenever the next year I imagined the jewels on the hilts of Glamdring and Orcrist (from Tolkien’s Hobbit), these are what came to mind. Seeing the Star of India years later was probably still the highlight of my visit to the Smithsonian. It actually lived up to expectations.

I’ve included a few example pages I scanned in. This thing is old and out of print and not even in Google Books.


Remaining notes on Polya

The dregs of my notes on Polya’s Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning, Volume I:

Polya discusses the 1595 work titled Mysterium Comographicum by the astronomer Johannes Kepler. Kepler believed that the orbits of the planets could be described as a series of standard solid geometic figures nested inside each other. It turns out that he was completely wrong, but his work and the way he TALKED about the problem was instrumental in leading others to the correct model later. He was in the middle (not the end) of breaking away from certain medieval ideas.

To modern eyes Kepler’s conjecture may look preposterous. We know many relations between observable facts and mathematical concepts, but these relations are of a quite different character. No useful relation is known to us which would have any appreciable analogy to Kepler’s conjecture. We find it most strange that Kepler could believe that there is anything deep hidden behind the number of the planets and could ask such a question : Why are there just six planets ?

We may be tempted to regard Kepler’s conjecture as a queer aberration. Yet we should consider the possibility that some theories which we are respectfully debating today may be considered as queer aberrations in a not far away future, if they are not completely forgotten. I think that Kepler’s conjecture is highly instructive. It shows with particular clarity a point that deserves to be borne in mind : the credence that we place in a conjecture is bound to depend on our whole background, on the whole scientific atmosphere of our time.


This is good. This is an example of someone who looks at people in history and does not immediately assume they were behaving like a bunch of drooling idiots. They must have had good reasons for what they were doing. We just don’t understand their context. Perhaps our own context prevents us from seeing the silliness of our own ideas. What will people, especially scientists in our field a hundred years from now, think of what we are doing today?

If we examine a little the sequence of these numbers, we are almost driven to despair. We cannot hope to discover the least order.


Geesh, that’s what I always feel when I look at a sequence of numbers that I’m supposed to find some secret pattern in. That stuff drives me nuts. I love patterns, but not in pure numbers. Give me context or give me death!

And since I must admit that I am not in a position to give it a rigorous demonstration, I will justify it by a sufficiently large number of examples.


Again, an example of real intellectual honesty. Let’s have more of this and less B.S.

By the way, our example is quite rewarding (which is also typical). It leads to a curious relation between binomial coefficients.


What? This interjection is in the middle of several thick pages explaining a number theory experiment (which I found utterly boring). It’s clear that he is finding delight in it! Different things float his boat than mine.

Do not ask unanswerable questions.


Do you know what a “parallelepiped” is? I didn’t. You may know it by its name in the common tongue: a box.

Here is a hidden gem in the middle of a list of problems and examples for the reader to work through. The example discusses the probability of different eye colors appears in overlapping sets of girls.

You may try the experimental approach by looking into the eyes of several girls.



Could be good advice to someone who reads too many books like this one.


More on problem solving, guessing, and descriptive language with Polya

Some further notes, a bit more miscellaneous this time, from George Polya’s Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning, Volume I:

Polya often uses the phrase “Patterns of …”. It sounds like he uses it in the same way Bukvich does when he says “In the style of …”. This is how you really learn stuff – hard work with an aim toward mixed imitation.

Flex you music composition muscles by rewriting this Telemann Sonata in the style of Theolonius Monk’s ‘Round Midnight. What are you waiting for? Go do it. Class dismissed.

Stuck on this engineering problem? Try manipulating it in the same way that Euler did when he hit upon such and such a useful trigonometric manipulation. You might discover something you hadn’t noticed before.

To be a good mathematician, or a good gambler, or good at anything, you must be a good guesser. In order to be a good guesser, you should be, I would think, naturally clever to begin with. Yet to be naturally clever is certainly not enough. You should examine your guesses, compare them with the facts, modify them if need be, and so acquire an extensive (and intensive) experience with guesses that failed and guesses that came true. With such an experience in your background, you may be able to judge more competently which guesses have a chance to turn out correct and which have not.


I’m going to rewrite this paragraph for musicians.

To be a good pianist, or a good violinist, or a good trumpet player, you must be a critical listener. In order to be a critical listener, you should, I think, have naturally good pitch and rhythm differentiation to begin with. Yet, to have a naturally good ear is certainly not enough. You should examine what you hear, compare them with recordings and with what your teacher says, modify your expectations, and so acquire an extensive (and intensive) experience with listening and attempting to reproduce sounds. Sometimes you will fail sometimes you will succeed. With such an experience in your background, you may be able to judge more competently when you listen. You will have a better chance of being correct with rigorous practice.

Be careful with your analogies!

An analogous case. The problem is to design airplanes so that the danger of skull fractures in case of accident is minimized. A medical doctor, studying this problem, experiments with eggs which he smashes under various conditions. What is he doing? He has modified the original problem, and is studying now an auxiliary problem, the smashing of eggs instead of the smashing of skulls. The link between the two problems, the original and the auxiliary, is analogy. From a mechanical viewpoint, a man’s head and a hen’s egg are roughly analogous: each consists of a rigid, fragile shell containing gelatinous material.


This immediately brought to mind a recent episode of MythBusters where our heroes were trying to simulate the smashing of a beer bottle on a person’s skull. They devised a type of plaster to stand in for the bone in the forehead. I kept thinking the entire episode that the plaster looked too fragile – real bone is probably tougher than that stuff. The same goes with eggs. You may learn something via the analogous experiment, but I would be careful not to infer TOO much. An egg shell is not so much the same as a head. To move an analogy in another direction, a psychological experiment involving a small sample set cannot be safely construed to a large population. This happens WAY too often.

I like this definition of what constitutes a “good” example:

A case is instructive if we can learn from it something applicable to other cases, and the more instructive the wider the range of possible applications.


In a good novel, you can see yourself or someone you know in the characters. In a bad novel, they are utterly unique. (Hint: This is what is usually going on in bad sci-fi or fantasy literature.)

Against “genius”:

“He was a genius!”, some people will answer, and of course that is no explanation at all. Euler had shrewd reasons for trusting his discovery. We can understand his reasons with a little common sense, without any miraculous insight specific to genius.


And now, for some genius anyway:

“… a stone that is projected is by the pressure of its own weight forced out of the rectilinear path, which by the initial projection alone it should have pursued, and made to describe a curved line in the and … at last brought down to the ground; and the greater the velocity is with which it is projected, the farther it goes before it falls to the earth. We may therefore suppose the velocity to be so increased, that it would describe an arc of 1, 2, 5, 10, 100, 1000 miles before it arrived at the earth, till at last, exceeding the limits of the earth, it should pass into space without touching it.”


This quote is from Newton. It is stunning. Really! In a short space, he goes from throwing rocks over the hill to throwing rocks into deep space. In a tiny jump he discovers and describes what we call “escape velocity”. (This happens to be 25,000 MPH for earth.)

You should not forget, however, that there are two kinds of generalizations. One is cheap and the other is valuable. It is easy to generalize by diluting; it is important to generalize by condensing. To dilute a little wine with a lot of water is cheap and easy. To prepare a refined and condensed extract from several good ingredients is much more difficult, but valuable. Generalization by condensing compresses into one concept of wide scope several ideas which appeared widely scattered before. Thus, the Theory of Groups reduces to a common expression ideas which were dispersed before in Algebra, Theory of Numbers, Analysis, Geometry, Crystallography, and other domains. The other sort of generalization is more fashionable nowadays than it was formerly. It dilutes a little idea with a big terminology. The author usually prefers to take even that little idea from somebody else, refrains from adding any original observation, and avoids solving any problem except a few problems arising from the difficulties of his own terminology. It would be very easy to quote examples, but I don’t want to antagonize people.


Ha ha! Fantastic. Everyone is required to read the previous paragraph over again.

A severe test. The last remark adds considerably to our confidence in our conjecture, but does not prove it, of course. What should we do ? Should we go on testing further particular cases ? Our conjecture seems to withstand simple tests fairly well. Therefore we should submit it to some severe, searching test that stands a good chance to refute it.


A severe, searching test? Yes! People are always skipping this part! (Especially in economics?)

I goes into more detail in pages 78-79 on this. Always test extreme cases first. Get the nasty ones out of the way earlier to make sure your idea is worth pursuing.

This next passage is especially pertinent to journalists:

How strong is the evidence? Your question is incomplete. What do you mean by “strong”? The evidence is strong if it is convincing; it is convincing if it convinces somebody. Yet you did not say whom it should convince — me, or you, or Euler, or a beginner, or whom?


What has all this work produced? It has changed the words we use – just a little bit – but the differential in meaning is huge.

Adaptation of the mind may be more or less the same thing as adaptation of the language; at any rate, one goes hand in hand with the other. The progress of science is marked by the progress of terminology. When the physicists started to talk about “electricity,” or the physicians about “contagion,” these terms were vague, obscure, muddled. The terms that the scientists use today, such as “electric charge,” “electric current,” “fungus infection,” “virus infection,” are incomparably clearer and more definite. Yet what a tremendous amount of observation, how many ingenious experiments lie between the two terminologies, and some great discoveries too. Induction changed the terminology, clarified the concepts.


And remember, do not neglect vague analogies. Yet, if you wish them respectable, try to clarify them.


Hooray for wild guesses! But don’t expect them to be “respectable” (taken seriously) without additional hard work.