Baffled by this. Same issue on two counts.

(1) That the common House / Tree Sparrow is logged as the most commonly seen UK garden bird.

(2) The Dunnock (aka Hedge Sparrow) doesn’t even make the top 10.

Are people just reporting “sparrow-like” birds and are the RSPB not differentiating what is reported. Dunnock and House Sparrow are not just different species they’re quite different types of bird. In my experience of several gardens in different locations, Dunnocks are much more common these days than Sparrows.

[Also incidentally - no Coal Tit ? At least as common as the Blue and Great Tits surely? And Goldfinch increasingly common yes, but no Greenfinch?]

This evening Nick Maxwell presented “How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World” launching his latest book of the same name. Alan Sokal and and Philip Ball provided responses.

Some 50/55 in the theatre as the UCL Grand Challenge on Human Wellbeing is introduced.

Nick describing his main theme that science has enabled the technologies that have contributed, even created, many of the global problems we face, but blaming science is the wrong response. Obviously science and technology are to be credited with immense positive progress. The problem is a damagingly irrational conception of “enquiry” that dissociates the pursuit of knowledge from how we apply technologies to achieving what is of value in the world.

The idea that Human Well-being is seen as a grand challenge by an academic institution like UCL is an indication that some part of the necessary revolution is already under way. But the rationality of Wisdom Enquiry is not yet recognised as part of this. The problem is that Knowledge Enquiry excludes value-based aspects of problem definition and problem solving – objectivisation and even hyper-specialisation often, without any interaction with the values and aims of the bigger picture. And that’s true even though the concern with the bigger picture may be exercising the minds of the same participants in their wider social world, evenings and weekends.

If you’ve read Nick’s earlier works, the continuing arguments are well recognised and rehearsed. (From Knowledge to Wisdom and Is Science Neurotic for example.) His 7-level model of Aim-Oriented Empiricism / Rationality. In fact as Nick concludes, it’s the same message he’s been pushing for over 40 years.

Feeding AOR into “Social Life” –  the task is social methodology or social philosophy, not social science. Methodology notice, philosophy of action, about doing not theorising

Dr Philip Ball responds, mainly to the book itself. Science is much less methodical that it appears, than it might formally admit (Maxwell’s scientific neurosis?). Trend to have to define and justify (funding) aims in terms of economic benefit. (But must aims be economic – bean-countable?) Dr Ball sees the solutions as essentially economic, even if they may require alternate market models and incentives. The recently recurring reminder that Adam Smith was a moral philosopher before and above his position as an economist. (Very Benthamite – reducing all issues to cost-benefit, even justifying art projects on relevance and benefit.) Democracy is not a necessary part of scientific progress. Agree focus must shift from knowing, but to doing.

Alan Sokal responding;  Science does make metaphysical assumptions, even though it would deny it. Scientists take weekends off, but we all know when non-unified scientific hypotheses are crazy. Nick’s work on the hierarchical AOE/R are important contributions to the philosophy of science, but the lack of “Wisdom Inquiry” in academic institutions is not really the fundamental problem preventing progress, rather than say economic incentives. Nick’s wisdom inquiry claims are probably more targeted at the social sciences than the natural sciences. (Quite the opposite in fact.)

My take is this.

Alan Sokal is well known for his fighting on the side of strict rationality against social constructivism, and yes we can all shoot PoMo Social Constructivists like fish in a barrel. Nick Maxwell’s “Aim Oriented Empiricism” basis for wisdom is however at that interface of rational knowledge with the social.

Yes, the rationality of the processes of gaining and applying knowledge may be strictly objective, logical, scientific. But, the rationality of aims is more than that. It’s also about what we value and how we agree what we should value. That is philosophical, even subjective and clearly social. They’re “problematic” – the task as Nick says is social methodology or social philosophy, not social science - requiring more than rational knowledge to manage and solve. Wisdom.

So, does Alan Sokal believe there can be more to applied wisdom than strictly logical, objective, scientific rationality and knowledge? Apparently not.

Ultimately disappointing, the discussion drew out into very general criticisms of “too hard”, and wider questions of national, resource and conflict governance – the arithmetic of democracy not excluded (*1) – well beyond academe. In fact both respondents really failed to pick up on the social values aspect of Nick’s “Aim Orientation”, slipping too easily to see aims as quantifiable economic goals (*2).



(*1) Sure, the one man one vote emancipation, epitomises the importance of the value of any human, but we’re talking here about methodology and doing, We can’t all take equal roles in every action, let alone deciding every action by popular poll.

(*2) Sure, technology is universally recognised as the main driver of global economic activity, and science as the main enabler of technology (Kondratiev, Schumpeter, Kuhn, you name them). But as well as enabling, what we do needs enacting, requiring populations of people with hearts and minds, hopes and fears, that ultimately determine what is achieved; Hiroshima or Hinkley.

Tiff Jenkins in The Scotsman today, writing on the problem of the “Quantified Self” movement. Short, sweet and to the point, so no excuse not to read. A reflection of the danger of applying new app / tech possibilities to exaggerate the slippery slope of giving privilege to those aspects of life that can be objectively quantified.

In summary – outsourcing (value) judgement to (quantifiable) calculation – doesn’t make judgement any easier, rather it bypasses, disconnects judgement from real empirical experience – making it easier to shirk the personal responsibility for applying judgement. What we should really be doing is making it easier for humans to connect to reality and take responsibility for it. Log personal “data”, sure, but treat it as audit / reality check for that human, not as an independent app, or a competitively shared “game”. Judgement is not a popular-voting – bean-counting – democracy.

Guidance of the wise, enslavement of the foolish comes to mind, again.

[Reminds me of the two cases noted earlier, of the UK MP and US Representative, counting the tweets in their inbox before voting on house motions. And - listening to BBC R4 Today interviews by Sarah Montague at the Tory conference - as old as the 20th century (and probably more) - the "cost of living" being objectified - something we can reduce to an index, as one interviewee warns - it's not some free floating "object". What matters can't be measured, etc. Turning "objectives" into "measures" destroys their value .... and a thousand more.]

[Post Note : Another response here.]

The need to blog is fairly intense at the moment, not just many interesting things happening in the world to comment on, and significant things happening in my world to write upon, but also multiple communication initiatives that look like opportunities to turn talk into attention and opportunities into progressive action:

I am a fully-fledged grown-up adult,
I’m trying to make a dent, I’m trying to get a result
I’m holed up in a Hollywood hotel suite,
with tequila to drink and avocado to eat.
[Loudon Wainwright III]

My Left Knee – the story of my knee replacement surgery. [Truly inspiring life experience - to me anyway - in which I have been fortunate to come into contact with many wonderful individuals making the NHS work - and it ain't over yet. In draft based on text notes and name-checks.]

Where Soul Meets Body – a stream of consciousness vignette within the above. [Based on the anaesthetic-and-morphine-fuelled immediate post-op euphoria, paying attention to the music collection on my Android phone whilst exercising my leg under the covers in fearful anticipation of the true pain level kicking-in. Rolling like thunder - that's why they call it the blues - is not in that playlist, but much Roy Harper in there. Draft in chaotic notes.]

Leadership – an essay on what is really missing from society’s decision-making structures. [Prompted by a Facebook exchange with Martin. Near complete draft; a bit rambling and losing it's way towards the end. Needs at least one good editorial session.]

Greatest [Currently Most Famous] Thinkers – revisiting the April 2013 Prospect Magazine poll on World Thinkers. I’ve expressed disappointment before, more than once, at the popular confusion between famous scientists and great thinkers, but thought it worth analysing the comment thread on the original article, in the light of the recent Comments in Crisis piece on the destruction of valuable debate. Also want to dig up that piece on how far most readers get beyond the headline – if at all – yet still immediately comment, share, like, link, embed, you name it. Meme’s in action. [Draft in mind only.]

The Cyprus Connection – transitioning from reading Sir Ronald Storrs’ Orientations – where he ended up as the first British governor of Cyprus, having been the first such governor of Jerusalem and Judea / Palestine post-Balfour pre-Herbert Samuel – into Mak Berwick’s Langkawi Lair, whose opening scenes witness an atrocity associated with the 70′s Makarios revolution in Cyprus. [Draft in mind only.]

‘Twas Ever Thus – the latest in a series of dozens, in which I often quote Horace explaining the impression, reported at least as long ago as 4000BCE, whereby ubiquitous and continuing aspects of human enterprise, are invariably dressed up as the latest problem “of our times”. Here goes ….

Prompted by reference to Terrence Rattigan’s falling out with John Gielgud – a topic on BBC R4 Today this morning – when “Johnny” elected to play the Dickensian anti-hero Sydney Carton, rather than appear in a production he’d already been working – fully cast and rehearsed – with “Terry”. An archetypically camp Cambridge gay set lovers’ tiff. Quite sweet to hear contemporary recordings of the luvvies actually, and I’m a fan of Rattigan, but the conversation brought up how significant Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was, still is, to our times (yet again).

Tale of Two Cities is apparently my mother’s favourite book, or was until she started reading the Russian classics more recently. And, it’s a book I know I should know. It’s been on my reading list for ever. I’ve owned a copy for years. It’s been on the bedside cabinet and the desk beside me where I work, dozens of times before. I’ve read the opening chapter, and got up that muddy south London hill in the horse-drawn coach more times times than I can count, made the Dover meeting and the channel crossing several times, I’ve even got to meeting the heroine’s father in the Paris garret a once or twice, but …. I’ve still not got through it. No idea why.

Anyway, It’s one of those books – like Anna Karenina, similarly I’ve never completed – with mythically famous opening lines. So famous Sylvia and I lay there trying to recall them as we listened to the radio. Nope? OK …

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,

And, in one long sentence, it goes on, ….

it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,
we are all going direct to Heaven,
we are all going direct the other way
in short, the period was so far like the present period,
that some of its noisiest authorities insisted
on its being received, for good or evil,
in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Sound familiar ? Plus ca change, ’twas ever thus.

Not only is science a branch of economics, so now is art.

See: BBC Story and Guardian piece.

In fact if you think about the current scale of funding into fundamental physics, actually science is the branch of culture being funded for it’s own sake. Mad. The world turned upside down. (Follow @TiffanyJenkins)

Full transcript here.  Lees bleak than the journalists’ selective headlines.

Terry Eagleton & Roger Scruton on “Culture” (Hat tip to David Morey on FB)

[Post Note : The price of everything and the value for nothing.
Deputy London major Munira Mirza, via @TiffanyJenkins]

Dan Pink’s “Drive” caught on as a best seller in the last couple of years in promoting the concept of “Motivation 3.0″. Of course, the terminology catches the fashion of the internet generation, and good luck if the brief readable book, with its “Toolkit” of ideas does lead to more management catching on in more organizations. (Hat tip to Robin for bringing up Pink’s Drive in a business call.)

Some may resist its obviously “faddish” looks, and some will be attracted precisely by that latest-fashion aspect, but like all good messages, there is nothing new under the sun. Absolutely nothing, and that’s why you can tell it’s good, despite the tag line “the surprising truth” – nothing could be less surprising. The core idea is very simple, far from rocket science, and not difficult to implement providing one overcomes the fear of letting go.

In a word – Autonomy.

People perform better if given a reasonable degree of autonomy. The hard bit is working out for your own particular case how much is reasonable, but even then, Pareto’s 80:20 rule of thumb says, anything less that 20% autonomy ought to be considered suspect, 32% autonomy a normal case, and 80% autonomy about as good as it gets. Go figure. No need to read on if that’s self-evident already.

Anyway, between then (F.W.Taylor and Abraham Maslow say) and now (Dan Pink say) there have been a thousand management gurus plying their trade in the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st. Each standing on the shoulders of giants, though as I often point out, in order to do that, you have to recognize the giant. Even the original Psybertron agenda (About >> Agenda) includes recovering from the status quo where “management mistook itself for a science” – a thinly veiled allusion to the errors of Taylorism. Very old news. (Gurus that spring to mind, all referenced in this blog, include; Taylor, Maslow, MacGregor, Ouchi,  Argyris, Parker-Follett, Drucker, Handy, Peters, Godin, Gladwell, Ariely, Pink to name but a few, and not to mention the myriad of empirical anthropologists, behavioural-psychologists, scientists and philosophers of mind on whose research they depend. You no doubt have your own favourites.)

If we go back to Maslow, we can superimpose quite easily the evolving story that management gurus are trying to communicate to us. In fact he has been much maligned and, as I already blogged, there is a significant movement to rehabilitate Maslow in the “positive psychology” school.


Naturally, the first three levels of Maslow, are pretty much accepted as basic human rights anywhere in the developed and developing world, so they quite rightly look antiquated as motivators these days. They remain important of course, if you understand the hygiene rule. And like all generalizations, exactly what motivates / demotivates in each band varies by individual and circumstance; any general rules implied are “for the guidance of wise men and the enslavement of fools“. And, as Theodore Zeldin reminds us we all have limits to our own competencies whatever our motivation. In the modern “professional” world most people find themselves somewhere through Motivation2.0, with diminishing returns on, even seemingly-perverse negative responses to, extrinsic rewards as motivators. As Pink highlights, we’ve been struggling with variations of Motivation2.x (ref any number of management gurus) on our way to recognising Motivation3.0 for what it is.

The other main thrust of Drive is Engagement.

Once properly motivated and empowered (yeuch!) by autonomy, the point is that people can properly engage with tasks, achieving a sweet-spot in performance. Zen and the Art … of doing what you do well … Optimisation is achieved when the task and the person effectively become one – there are no extraneous distinctions between the task and the person – what a radical empiricist / monist like James or Pirsig might call “dynamic quality” – or kinetic quality, relationalism, inclusionality, you name it – what has become dubbed “flow” these days.

And finally for now, this is all closely tied to the movement that suggests we all recognize the difference between our life’s work and our day job. Or to express that the other way around, the closer our day job – the one that pays the bills – comes to our life’s work – that which we find intrinsically valuable to our purpose and meaning in the world – the better for all of us.

[Post Note - Oh and look, the following day Dilbert is on topic too:

Post Note 2 : This from Gaping Void


Further Reading ?

If any of this looks  new or unbelievable to you,
or you can't imagine how you would apply it in real life,
then read Dan Pink's Drive, it's an easy read with practical advice.

Pink has his own list of further reading, so I won't put a spoiler here;
suffice to say Peter Drucker is amongst them.
In this up to date context, Drucker is interesting and impressive;
generally recognized as having been the guru of management gurus,
he himself acknowledged his own debt to Mary Parker-Follett.
(Drucker and Parker-Follett jumping off points already linked above.)

If you want some deeper background on the psychology,
or more generally on "how the mind works" in these contexts,
my recent favourites are Haidt, Kahnemann, Kauffman and McGilchrist.
Not to mention recognizing the "flow" in the "peak experiences" writings of
James and Dewey, much used by Maslow.]

An underused word (like the word “grace”). Nice piece from Hugh McLeod at Gaping Void (hat tip to tweet from Dave Gurteen). Message to the next generation to notice the difference between a life’s work and a career in a day job. In this case, based on the advertising business, but good for bringing in this Joe Campbell quote too:

“Follow your bliss.
Find where it is,
and don’t be afraid to follow it.”

Joseph Campbell - The Power of Myth

A common message from the wise to those starting out. Here my favourite plea from Richard Russo in his 2004 commencement address.

“While you search for this work, you’ll need a job. [It's] a fine thing to be good at your job, as long as you don’t confuse it with your work, which it’s hard not to do.”


Interesting listening to the excellent BBC R4 documentary “Lawrence of Arabia – Man and Myth by Allan Little. I’m a long time fan of TEL as a humanist moral philosopher and poet, but amazing to hear that his opus Seven Pillars of Wisdom was regularly used by the Americans in Iraq, Gen Petraeus no less, “virtually every briefing meeting” even. Wow.

Good to see the significance of TEL being realized at many levels in modern middle-east geo-politics. (And an excellent documentary, BTW.)


Many interesting points, re Armenians, Kurds, Arabs and Iraqis, but one in particular. Palestine as envisaged by TEL was to be for the Palestinian Arabs. Yes, he knew there were plans to grant a zone for Jewish settlement rights – a “homeland” – but the (explicit) point was for Jews to integrate with the natives in their state, not create an independent Israeli state with a Jewish majority dominating and/or excluding the locals. Effing Balfour!

Fascinating piece from Errol Morris on NYT Opinionator today.

Picked-up from a cross hit on Psybertron for David Deutsch. One of his quotes is used as an example, but in fact it is tangential to the subject of the article – why the experienced quality, value and truth in a text depends on the font used. Not new clearly, font selection always affects the character of the communication but a fascinating, thorough example.

(I have a recollection of the referenced Phil Renaud article The Secret Lives of Fonts from an earlier encounter, but can’t find my link.)

This is surreal and ironic on many levels.

Sam is probably my second favourite amongst the four horsemen, a real moral philosopher. No prize for guessing my least favourite, but it was he who tweeted the link picked-up by Ricky. (Dan, Sam, Hitch and the Dawk in that order in case you’re interested.)

Fact : internet enabled comment on blogs directly and via social media is a major source of miscommunication – an insidious spread of misinformed ideas. (aka The Memetic Problem). Apart from comic entertainment value – most are without value or with meta-value only or, more importantly, with negative content value, unless they can be editorially moderated. Life’s too short.

Weird : Sam reckons PZ Myers “shepherd of trolls” (Pharyngula Blog) to be odious. PZ is clearly on the side of (evolutionary) science in the god debates, so you might think an ally of Harris, along with the other three horsemen. But I’ve noted before the “baying mob” mentality of PZ and his commenters (similar to Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and many Guardian “Comment is Free” contributors.) Makes intelligent debate hopeless. The baying mob is odious – see the memetic problem.

As I say, I have a lot of respect for Sam, but I have taken exception to some of his “narrow” rationality – a recent example here. I am really intrigued as to the reality of Sam’s take on PZ. Must have missed a significant spat or irony here?

The Memetic Problem ? Sam says:

The Internet powerfully enables the spread of good ideas, but it works the same magic for bad ones—and it allows distortions of fact and opinion to become permanent features of our intellectual landscape.

I say, it’s even worse than that, because the ideas that spread more easily tend to be the inferior ones. Too simplistic, too reductionist, too comfortable fit with existing prejudice and fashion, etc. all make such ideas easier to communicate and receive and re-communicate, and “stickier” when received. Evolutionary fidelity and fecundity both benefit from simplistication of the message and its fitness.

Great piece by Jonathan Ree in the New Humanist reviewing the work of Bruno Latour particularly his latest “The Modern Cult of the Factish Gods” (Hat tip to David Morey on Facebook)

But who in this great brawl is really believing naively? Not the religious believers, according to Latour, but the modern atheists, afflicted as they are by the “naïve belief … that ignorant people believe naively”. Indeed the much-loved contrast between the so-called “facts” that provide a foundation for enlightened knowledge and the “fetishes” that animate the beliefs of fools is itself a superstition – a delusion which Latour proposes to commemorate with his new hybrid word “factish”.

Factish, in short, is what happens when our own “facts” turn out to be fetishes, and the “fetishes” of others turn out to be facts.

But who is the image-worshipper at this table? Not the believers, surely, because however much they treasure their icons, they know very well (most of the time at least) that they are human artefacts. If superstition is at work here, it seems to be on the side of the idol-smashers, however modern they may be and proud of their dispassionate rationality; otherwise how could they get excited about destroying something that is after all no more than an image? Icons are thus the idols of the iconoclasts, making a cult of their anti-cultism.

(My emphasis) Has all the feel of a Foggy-Froggie / PoMo – he is French, but look at that jacket! Indeed he was one of the targets of the great Sokal hoax, but he has nailed the superstition – the psychological disease I call scientism – the delusion he calls factish and Maxwell calls scientific neurosis.

Value-free science is a superstition.

(PS Looks like the New Humanist / Rationalist Association is the antidote to the naivete of the BHA. Time to switch subscriptions.)

Saw this clip the other day – Craig Bellamy being interviewed about being in the GB Olympic football team – and thought as well as being surprisingly articulate, his school-boyish enthusiasm and all round good humour made such a change from all the usual earnest and corporately correct punditry and commentary.

I wasn’t the only person to notice.

[Post Note - And ironic that Welshman Bellamy should score the opening goal, only to have the Daily Express report him scoring for "england".]

One in a long series, but here an example that’s new to me.

Faster frame rate TV and Film, cameras and projectors, and interpolation of additional frames to smooth slower frame rate media – may make images more “real”, but not necessarily better.

Here : Home vs showroom vs cinema settings generally.
Here : Slumdog as a cinematic example.
Interesting recommendation that plasma is better than LED, and otherwise unsurprising difficulty in truly comparing TV’s in a showroom setting – tried hard to compensate for this before.

Hat tip to Matt of WordPress.

Good to hear James Purefoy in the role of Bob / Phaedrus in Peter Flannery’s dramatisation of Robert Pirsig‘s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on BBC Radio4′s Saturday Drama. It’s there to listen again in BBC Radio4 iPlayer’s “Most Popular” . [Only available until next Saturday 30th June 2012.]

The characterizations, tone and atmosphere were dead right, and despite the need for selective editing to fit the 90 minute format, all the main aspects of the narrative, the back-stories and the underlying chautauqua on quality and mental illness came through. Many original scenes re-ordered and combined, and some dialogue recalled in the mouths of others, to get all the ideas and the marquee quotes in, without losing the context or intent, and still maintaining the overall sequence of the journey. An excellent production.