Thursday, September 05, 2013

This post brought to you A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z, and all that numbered stuff as well

Lists, you would think, are simple affairs. For a long time it seemed to me that if you wanted to make a list and separate the items out in that list, you would use letters or numbers. If you ran out of letters - there are only twenty six of them - before you ran out of things to list, you would switch to numbers. If you ran out of numbers before you ran out of things to list, then you would have a problem - but you were not likely to run out of numbers, unless you had an infinity of things to list*, and even then you'd probably run out of time before you ran out of numbers.

When I used to transcribe media items, I'd hear people get confused over simple lists a lot. "Well, there are four things to say about that," one interviewee would say. They would list the first item under a number or letter - "a", or "one", or maybe "firstly". After that it all became a bit of a free-for-all, so an "a" could be followed by a "secondly", or sometimes by a whimsical "firstly", or maybe even by a "b". By the time they got to the third item on the list, they would usually have got so carried away they would forget to list it under a number or letter altogether, and possibly have forgotten the question they were answering in the first place, to say nothing of the forlorn fourth item in the list. With public speaking, it's definitely a good rule to make all your lists no more than three items in length, so it is no wonder James Diaz had such a problem with the first item on Tony Abbott's six point plan for Australia.  On the other hand, some politicians, instead of confusing themselves with their own list, just opt to confuse others: "I'll take the three points in your question," Kevin Rudd said in one press conference, "and answer them in reverse order...."

Anyway, as  I said, I had thought that the itemising of, um, items on lists would be just confined to letters and numbers. Now, as it turns out, with me doing the odd legal transcript here and there, I may have completely underestimated the cataloguing capacities of language. Why have a simple lettered and numbered list when you can catalogue it by clause and sub-clause and capital and lower-case with several nuances in between? "If I may draw your attention to 154A (i) (b) at (2)" murmurs a lawyer unassumingly, only to be picked up by their colleague on a comma that contradicts them at 147BK (iii) IV (ii) - (viii). What these items would be, I do not know: I just made them up. But frighteningly, that's what politicians do with laws all the time: they just make them up....

A while back I tossed the idea back and forth of a robot possessing emotions all neatly categorised in a series of numbered sub-routines, which ended up with this. I still think there's something in that, but then again, I also get excited about the expressive nuances of capital letters.  But it's pretty obvious now, numbers and letters aren't nearly as expressive and nuanced and impressionistic and sensuous as the little curly loops and angular symbols that precede a series of laws. They could be used to express virtually anything, although it must be said, laws are so vast and voluminous that whatever they do express, it could be hidden virtually anywhere in aforesaid vast and voluminous laws. But just imagine what would happen if a practical-minded lawyer got hold of, say, an airport car park: you'd park your car several brackets, nine capitals, four dots and three dashes from the end on floor 5.2.2 and end up wandering in a daze between one close parenthesis and another (a daze is always the best way to appreciate such nuanced and expressively-impressionistic-impressively-expressionistic artworks, I find).

There's very little chance of this glorious thing happening, more's the pity. In the meantime, we will just have to content ourselves with filling out gigantic lists of people we don't like, which we'll get another opportunity to do when presented with the Senate paper on the weekend. As an activity it doesn't quite have the magniloquent grandeur and aesthetic vision of, say, a clause of a sub-division of a division of a little known amendment to an unknown act enacted in 1936. Still, it's getting there.

*Or, possibly, an infinitely infinite infinitude of infinities to list - though Gregor Cantor seems to get a little confusing on this point.


flipsockgrrl said...

Gotta make your own fun -- I used Roman numerals on my ballot papers. (The AEC's Scrutineers' Handbook says that's OK, as long as the voter's intention is clear.)

TimT said...

Roman numerals. That's awesome. I'd be tempted to go really obscure and vote with a binary counting system but that might just confuse everyone.

Email: timhtrain - at -

eXTReMe Tracker

Blog Archive