I always class myself as a rationalist-atheist-humanist-secularist, and support as many such-minded organisations through subcription, membership and participation as practically possible. Sometimes I can come across a bit luke-warm when the campaign of the day is explicitly anti-theist, anti-religion, preferring to consider more nuanced arguments and to remind humanists that religious theists are humans too. I tend to reject the binary received-wisdom of critical-thinking focussed on finding fault with what we’re against. I’m defined by what I’m for.

So let me say without qualification that the Freethought Report 2016 is an unmitigated good. Now in it’s fifth year, it is a tremendous piece of work to compile and publish in collaboration with all manner of international organisations through the UN.

It’s all too easy to abbreviate the applicable UN rights as freedom of religious belief, an impression compounded in acronyms, handles and hash-tags with variations on “FoRB”. The full UN mandate covers freedoms of expression, thought, religion and belief, including non-religious belief. The shortest possible form being FoRoB or FoR&B maybe, that is

Freedom of Religion and/or Belief.

Ahmed Shaheed’s foreword highlight’s this point that we do the non-religious a disservice if we overlook the inclusive nature of the freedoms defined.

The positive side of what we non-religious might believe has been fraught with the fact that the word belief is itself contingent. Saying the contingencies are in science and objective evidence is fine for 20:20 hindsight, but can’t fully do justice to all our human futures. The blurrier contingencies of more subjective beliefs and values are often left unspoken but in any event, intellectual debate is no substitute for committed action.

The Freethought Report is unflinching in documenting all cases of abuses of free thought and expression and, by totting-up scorecards, presents national governments and local activists with clear and inescapable evidence in a public UN context. It takes a great deal of bravery and determined effort to produce.

The report has previously been available electronically, but now Freethought Report 2016 is fully indexed and searchable on-line. There is no hinding place for delinquent governments. Well done to Bob Churchill, the IHEU team and all their international collaborators.

In between writing, reading and filleting good books on topics of the day as far as my social-knowledge and decision-making research agenda is concerned, I like to catch up on the great books. They’re great books for a reason, and the reason is often timeless.

It’s three weeks since I posted for some reason. I cleared my decks in order to attend the Meaning 2016 conference in Brighton, drafted a very long post of reflections of that. Good, positively recommended, but at the same time disappointing. Needs a bit of editing before I post publicly. See, the new business and economic models are genuinely exciting, yet nevertheless timeless. Innovation is overrated – there’s really nothing new under the sun. The excitement is that pockets of people pick-up on their value and resolve to work towards them, not that they’re new.

In fact, my main agenda is to address why pockets of goodness do not generally spread. The memetic effect, that simplified “received wisdom” spreads much quicker and more easily than good ideas.

Even behind the great firewall of China again, as I was on business earlier this week, I had full VPN access to the rest of my world this time, but still barely posted, even on social media. Didn’t even snap and share any selfies walking around the old town parts of Chengdu, all bejazzled for the Christmas tourists. Pandas anyone? When I wasn’t being over-fed by the hospitality of my hosts, I was reading.

Anna Karenina is one of those great works, like Tolstoy’s other magnum opus, that I must have started, even read up to a handful of chapters, half-a-dozen times. Already familiar with his “unhappy families” and even Vronsky at the horse race – but always too distracted to read on through the patronymics, familials and informals to actually get the point of greatness. And of course I must have seen two or three film and TV dramatisations over the years, not to mention the meme of recalling Anna everytime I’ve set foot on a snowy windswept railway platform, typically for some reason at Slependen, Oslo, in my memories. Meme upon meme.

I’ve just finished reading the Penguin Classics Pevear & Volokhonsky translation, whose cover blurb includes:

“[T]he vividly observed story of Levin, a man striving to find contentment and meaning to his life – and also a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself.”

We probably all know Tolstoy as a “devout Christian” and of course I’m an atheist, rationalist, humanist, so it would be easy to be prejudiced against Levin’s (ie Tolstoy’s) enlightenment. But it’s an enlightenment I feel I share.

I know in fact.

The word may translate as God, but it is God as in “the good” – no superhuman, supernatural, omniscient, omnipotent, causal agent here. Church too, but not as organised religion or ritualised superstition, simply as socially shared knowledge of the good. And knowing that it is good in the collective action of individuals and not in any disembodied rational conception of scientists and philosophers. Beyond words. Rationality is our most powerful tool, but love is greater, being neither thing nor tool.

Good philosophers know this. Good people enact it. The good man Jesus and Christ the scoundrel anyone? Jeez – even good humanists know this.

A lot of agriculture and “what about the workers?” Oh, and – spoiler alert – sadly, Anna doesn’t make it through her paranoia. Too great to do justice in any actual review or selection of quotes.

Simply, a great book.

There’s no view from nowhere.
[Via PressThink Top Ten Problems.]

That’s not just a lesson for science (after Nagel) it’s also true of objective journalism. Objective journalism is in danger of being politically-correct, false-neutral, bogus-balance “platforming”. Perversely, the more scrupulously neutral (I’m talking to you BBC), the bigger this problem.

No-platforming is not censorship of free-speech, it’s a publishing and retailing choice. [BBC and John Lewis] If you’re going to give a platform to hateful bollox, it needs to be in a context of explicit challenge, not reasonable openness.

You can help me sing the song
And it’s all right, baby, it’s all right
They can tell you what to do
But they’ll make a fool of you and it’s all right
Baby, it’s all right
We’re on a road to nowhere
[David Byrne]

The core of this post I almost drafted some months ago, but thought it might have been a bit sour grapes, a bit jealousy even, certainly patronising. Honestly patronising. Whenever I’d have written it, it would have been honest, but sometimes you have to ask yourself, speech may be free but is it always worth it. Keep counsel, choose your time, choose your battles.

Triggered to post today because I found the same person is guilty of sharing/liking fake information on social media and, as I write this, not having noticed or retracted, not even acknowledged, let alone apologised. I’m not bitter or anything.

A young mum of twins, post-doc science researcher making her way in some branch of particle physics. Drawn to her originally because of her catholic taste across many different branches of science, already rubbing shoulders with a few “greats”, focussing on public “sci-com” blogging it seemed, already being picked-up and quoted in other media. Good luck to her. Seriously, I wish her well. Patronising, I know. No, I’m not bitter.

Recently as well as her “Back Reaction” blog feeds into her social media channels, she also has a personal channel where she post and links political and social content. You know – liberal, anti-Trump – aren’t we all? This is the context where today’s fake-post gaffe arose. So, interestingly, within minutes of her re-tweeting this post:

She liked the fake tweet version of this story:

I replied pointing out her gaffe, but as I say, no ackowledgement so far.

However before today, I had already stopped trying to interact with her – over a year ago – on alternative physical and philosophical views of particular science stories, when it became clear her echo-chamber was reinforcing her (scientific) prejudices, and her attention was drawn to her own growing audience. The accepted position was received wisdom. Total scientistic rejection of the value of any philosophical thinking or questioning. No point my simply being a pain in the ass. Only so many hours in the day to address “somethings wrong on the internet”. And I’m not bitter.

Having withdrawn when I did, I missed this “Talk to a Physicist” move. She had some freetime between assignments, so she set herself up as an on-line consultant to answer lay-person questions – for a fee – on physics. Great creative entrepreneurial move. Other “experts” should do it. There is of course a platform – Quora – built on exactly this idea, but without the fee. I would have taken her up on it, since I am prepared to put my money where my mouth is, to get a few moments of quality-time attention. Quality attention matters. I have skin in this game too. The game of honest science, and good knowledge generally. But I missed it. Bitter, who me?

It was when she posted the “findings” of her expert-for-a-fee exercise that I very nearly made this post. Aparently all autodidacts with alternative physics and philosophy ideas are sad middle-aged white guys with sheds, and so their ideas are without formally publishable objective evidence, and are worthless. I made just one passing reference to her “autodidact” report, here. Really, I’m not bitter.

Nothing personal, but this is archetypal, prejudiced, self-reinforcing, confirmation-biased, echo-chamber garbage. She is no expert in any valuable sense of the word. Also today she’s just shared this (and I responded):

And she’s just the example I’ve picked to illustrate the problem – seriously, nothing personal. Science really is as politically compromised as any branch of entertainment, political or cultural media. As compromised as any win-lose debate. As compromised as any election.

The expert is dead, long live the expert.
What we need is love, and trust.
Come on Sabine, we can sort this out.

That information and communication are fundamental properties and behaviours of the universe, human and cosmic, has kinda been part of my worldview since I started this blogging project, but it’s one of those “facts” that becomes ever more clearly defined. And I don’t believe it’s just the self-reinforcement of echo-chamber and confirmation-bias. If anything, it’s a view I hold despite not many others who admit to holding.

My most recent confirmations, in just the last couple of weeks, are here;
Valuing Difference (human, cultural, political) and here,
Rovelli’s Quantum Loop Gravity (cosmic, physical, metaphysical)
Significant Bits are the fundaments of the entire universe.

A recurring web-meme is people posting “Maslow’s Pyramid” (*) of human needs, with internet connection (technology, apps and/or power, whatever) as an additional foundation layer.

Image result

It’s so wrong, it’s right or maybe vice-versa. I love it and loath it all at once.

The pyramid itself has been regularly subject to debunking and re-habilitation many times. I happen to hold it as capturing some important generic truths, even though as a simple-picture-painting-a-thousand-words it is (obviously) subject to much debate about details and contexts of applicability [see the (*) footnote].

Today Erin Noonan posted the above version on Facebook, and I was moved to respond (expanded and clarified here for the blog context):

I love this meme, because it is so wrong.
Couldn’t be more wrong.

WiFi (connectivity in the world) has to be the biggest “proof” that the rest of the pyramid (based on Maslow’s work) is 100% right – complete AND consistent.

Communication runs right through the pyramid. It’s not just an additional foundation layer in the direction of the human motivation axis. It’s independent of, and fundamental to the whole fabric of the pyramid (and everything else) from a completely orthogonal direction

So working up from the bottom of the pyramid:

Physiological – The air we breath to be able to talk and listen, is our most basic communication, not to mention the other physical senses and signalling.

Safety & Security – Protecting our physical well-being from threats also depends being able to communicate, whether it’s interpersonal (having friends check on each other or hit the alarm when threats are perceived) or institutional (who ya gonna call, 999 / 911 / 112 in emergencies).

Social Needs – The term social-media says it all.

Esteem – The fact social media runs on likes and follows, feeds our own extrinsic social worth back to us.

Self-Actualisation – The enabling power of electronic media, social or otherwise means that we’re can all be creators of intrinsic value now, whether blogging communications for their own sake or doing so as part of some other creative enterprise.

It’s no coincidence that an important feature of the pyramid of drivers is that they do indeed range from the most basic physical to the most conceivably creative.


(*) The “pyramid” is of course a 2D triangle and it’s not actually Maslow’s. But apart from that, it’s simply the evolved result of scholars of behaviour and management summarising Maslow’s work. If you ever pin down an original source, I’d like to hear from you. As something I value, I have maintained and updated my own piece on it’s current state in the world, here.

During the recent US election night I followed the BBC coverage from Times Square, backed-up by the real-time New York Times dashboard, and all the social-media feeds I could handle. (So did Robbie.)

The BBC coverage was excellent, probably second to none. Andrew Neill, Katty Kay and Emily Maitlis are as good as journalism gets, so we can maybe forgive the utterly naff virtual-reality graphic fills dumbed-down by Jeremy Vine, adding absolutely nothing to the proceedings. Emily had everything at her fingertips already, even if the content and the ticker strapline was sometimes cautiously behind the real-time chatter out there. Validation and verification is the reason we have mainstream media after all. And I repeat, it doesn’t come much better than this team.

For most of the night, at the left side of the panel sat Norman Ornstein. A political science commentator with about as much credibility and authority as anyone could have in that role. My main agenda, aside from the politics of the US election itself, is the less sexy topic of epistemology. Knowledge itself – how do we know anything and how do we decide to act and/or communicate based on what we think we know.

I posted this Facebook (and Twitter) comment, early on, ie before the prediction graph flipped (below).

“Norman Ornstein sounds like a real expert.
I so hope he’s right.
(Nothing to do with US election –
just on behalf of experts everywhere.)”

Part of it is statistics – still less sexy – how we handle and interpret the data we do have, and my authority of choice there would be Nassim Nicholas Taleb. But part of it is even deeper than that – the origins and basis of each individual “bit” of data – the models and methods and tools being used by the surveyors and the surveyed. You know they say garbage in garbage out, but we’re dealing with the psychology of game theory and the like here. Where’s the garbage? Good voters are no more beyond a good joke than a good journalist. Where’s the skin in the game. It’s not simply a matter of more tools and more analysis, it’s more a matter of the right data and the right analyses. Less may be more.

It’s possible Ornstein is, in Taleb terms, an “Intellectual-Yet-Idiot” but I sincerely doubt it. But, we are all idiots if we don’t carefully unpick what’s going on here.


One from Ed Yong in The Atlantic a couple of weeks ago, on Cambridge Neuroscience research by Jon Simons. Here the original blog post by Simons.

The refreshingly credible aspect is the multiple independent dimensions to memory – a “3-way fork” of precision, correctness and confidence – not simply “storage”. Like all things memory is relative – relations between multiple brain activities – not simply objects to be stored.



Interesting to see today’s news on standardisation of units of measure, that time, distance and mass are now to be unified through the Caesium clock with application of the speed of light (c) and Planck’s constant (h). (Hat tip to Jim Al-Khalili on Twitter). Fascinating article in itself, however yet more evidence that the accepted standard models of physics are ever more solid and dependable. The scales of everyday life really are gounded in quanta.

I say interesting, because the cosmic gravitational scales of relativistic space-time nevertheless remain disconnected from such models. Quantum gravity has been the holy grail of physics for several decades, ever since the two extremes seemed sound in themselves despite failing to communicate with each other.

Interesting today particularly, because last night I finished Carlo Rovelli’s latest “Reality is Not What it Seems – The Journey to Quantum Gravity” and was already composing this post.

I’m sympathetic to Rovelli’s outlook, have been for several years, because I appear to share his metaphysics. As I said only in my previous post – on the topic of gender, race and religious identity politics, not physics:

“Significant differerence”
is THE fundamental “particle” of the universe,
the source of all information and all things.

Rovelli’s hero, from beginning to end, is Democritus. The original source of the idea that the universe is made of bits of very small but finite size, points of close but finite separation.

One thing I did learn from Rovelli’s latest is that the “loops” of quantum loop gravity (QLG) are closed curves in space-time around which solutions to the fundamental maths of physics have well-behaved (non-infinite) solutions. The other thing is that in the limit – the smallest curves around individual or small finite numbers of quanta – the values of these solutions resolve to multiples of the half-integers of “spin”.

As an aero-engineer myself, I couldn’t help but see the parallel with intergrals in aerodynamic flows aound the infinities of (virtual) sources and sinks used to model circulations (vortices) imposed on otherwise steady flow fields. In fact the QLG posits that all fields are quantised – in all the material particles and force fields in the standard model in space-time there are no zero properties or dimensions involved.

To cut to the chase, the fundaments of Rovelli’s QLG physics are information; small, finite, significant, differences of possibility. Claude Shannon is in there with the more expected heroes of physics and natural philosophy. Information is the key. The Ontology of reality really is limited by the epistemology of what can be known. What can be known is in the limit of quantised physics.

“A vision of reality
entirely independent of the observer
is impossible.”

Rovelli dismisses many hopeless fallacies around fundamental physics, string theory in its entirety being one of them, but also popular conceptions around the collapse of the Schroedinger wave function, often used to gloss over the observer-world interactions.

Time and causation are root problems in understanding how fundamental physics works. Time, says Rovelli, doesn’t exist. He means it doesn’t exist as some fundamental thing underlying the behaviour of the rest of physics. An independent fundamental variable – a part of “space-time”. Like the rest of physics, it’s an emergent, quantised and relative property. Time is within the QLG model, like everything else.

As we already knew, time is the direction of increasing entropy, in general, on average. Life is the efficient local means of reversing entropy and increasing or maintaining form and order. The more intelligently evolved life, the more efficient the entropic processes.

Positing a physics based on forces relative to points of finite separation also sounds a lot like Boscovich, an early influencer of Mach and hence Einstein.

I’ve said before, one of the things I like about Rovelli as a scientist is that he has time for philosophical thinking, and cites many early philosophers. He’s pretty scathing however, about the qualitative aspects of Plato – what is for the best:

How completely off track the great Plato was here!

But on the whole he takes a sympathetic reading of the intended thinking of many ancient philosophers from Anaximander to Spinoza. He doesn’t cite any modern or present day philosophers. Rovelli’s pedigree comes in part via Lee Smolin with whom a lot of this metaphysics is shared. Smolin of course published an important major work recently in collaboration with political philosopher Roberto Unger. I’d be really interested to see some current philosophers take on Rovelli’s work. I’m thinking of you Dan Dennett, Rebecca Goldstein, Julian Baggini and Massimo Pigliucci?

(Aside – Would also love to tie up Rovelli’s take on QLG with Deutsch & Marletto’s thinking on constructor theory, and with Mersini-Houghton, but I digress.)

After his exposé on QLG, itself preceded by a potted history of physics to date, Rovelli ends with several short qualifying chapters on where we stand and what needs to be done. He is particularly careful about what makes for science and evidence. He is at pains to reiterate that the unknown is much greater than the known, but creativity needs to be based on clues in or problems with what is believed to be known, rather than flights of complete fantasy into the unknown. Empirical disconfirmation remains the key distinguishing feature of science – taking its exams – whatever the process of arriving at hypotheses.

In some sense I think he doth protest too much in his final warning against arguments from authority and ancient wisdom, since his whole book proceeds step-wise from what was previously hypothesised to be known. All steps are relative, nothing is cast in stone, but every step needs a foundation, even one that redefines or undermines previous foundations. That the great thinkers and scientists are proven wrong, doesn’t stop them being great. It’s what makes them great. Not being provably wrong is science’s biggest problem. It’s belief without explanatory understanding that risks reification into dogma.

An absolutely excellent book. So many more notes on topics I’ve not mentioned here: cosmic expansion and multiple sequential big-bounce universes, black holes and Hawking radiation and the hype over Higgs and Super-symmetry as examples. Rovelli’s own selection of important people in the history of natural philosophy is itself interesting. Great read and I suspect will turn out to be an important book in the history of fundamental physics.


[Post Note: “It from Bit” – More on the informational basis of reality – New Scientist from earlier (May) this year, and Erik Verlinde’s “Entropic Gravity” from 2010. Hat tip to Jaap van Till. Interesting that Verlinde is a string theorist, so the time <> entropy <> gravity relationship is a deep issue for all sides here. Rovelli says “Time isn’t real”. Verlinde says “Gravity isn’t real”. They seem to be saying the same thing. Nothing is fundamentally real other than quantised information, all else is emergent in higher level patterns. If it works with quanta, not sure why we need strings, but hey.

Information (significant differences)
and patterns (negative entropy)
have been Psybertron’s focus since 2001.


[Post Note: See also this review of James Gleick’s History of Time Travel, by John Lanchester in the New York Review of Books. Hat tip to Massimo Pigliucci on Twitter. A long read on the inescapability of time; everything from Joe Campbell’s monomyth to fundamental physics via H G Wells. Metamyth.]