All posts for the month October, 2005

According to US-based OCLC worldwide survey of books held in libraries – ie ranked acording to the library purchasing vote, as they put it. [Thanks to Georganna for the link.]

Bible, Quran, Bhagavad Gita and Tao Te Ching all near the top, and the top 100 stuffed with Shakespeare, but the whole 1000 makes an interesting catalogue of books and authors we should presumably know. I see Pirsig’s ZMM makes it at No. 910, whereas neither Wilber nor Campbell are in there. Baum’s Wizard of Oz up there with Plato’s Republic. Some odd modern popular numbers in there with the classics.

Although they don’t go so far as to comment on significant omissions, Georganna points out that the Factoids page, and the the comparisons with other lists, also make interesting reading.

A BBC News story on some research on the letter writing habits of scientists of old, vs current day e-mail habits, finds the scale and patterns of communication are much the same. Twas ever thus. The technology is (almost) irrelevant.

(I’ve also commented before that blogging is very like – notekeeping / index cards used by authors preparing theses / books. )

Americans that is … Just done a long round trip to Auckland NZ, via LA. I’d forgotten that there is no such thing as international “transit” in US airports, so had the edifying experience of going into and out of the US both in each direction, immigration, baggage, customs, check-in, gate security, the lot. Spitting feathers at the mind-numbingly bureaucratic “security” measures seemingly designed to use an excess of disinterested cheap labour, backed-up by beaming portrait photos of Bush, Cheney et al, not to mention cheesey welcome announcements, to piss off the travelling public and bore would-be terrorists to death – both by attrition alike. Oh look, another queue to join a queue.

Anyway, after having bought from a charity vendor a little stars and stripes button, in a cynical attempt at a smoother passage, I have to admit, I found in the bookshop, not just multiple copies of Pirsig’s ZMM, but also Ken Wilber and Joe Campbell, amongst a well stocked philosophy section (!) not to mention some great bar service whilst I waited three hours for my UK return flight. So having completed Barbara Tuchman’s “Bible and Sword” on the outward leg, I got through both “A Theory of Everything” and “The Power of Myth” on the return leg.

Tuchman’s story of the intertwined histories of Palestine and England is educational and a good amusing read, even for those who already recognise the British responsibilities for the state of the middle east. Can’t help thinking US President Wilson’s plea for “self-determination” was singularly unhelpful at a critical moment in a delicate political situation, but that’s history for you. “The March of Folly”, another of her titles I’ve previously read, says it all.

[Interestingly, after that comment about British responsibilities for Israel / Palestine, I noticed this report on the Iranian president’s recent anti-Zionist speech. Striking is that his war on Zionism concludes with “Once we have defeated the Anglo-Saxons, the rest will run for cover.” The explicit rhetoric is chilling, but I wish these guys would address what their real grievances and expectations are here and now, beyond warlike vengence for injustices of history. If he’s looking for the Anglo-Saxons to condemn a pre-emptive strike by Israel and a lack of public opinion to defend them against Arab retalliation, he may be proven right, but it’s one hell of a dangerous (not to say immoral) game of provocation to play with his own people, let alone the rest of the world. The particular web site is dedicated to encouraging moderate Iranian’s to be represented in government. Link via Sam at Elizaphanian.]

Wilber’s theory of everything, suffers from some inconsistency in his “evolutionary psychology” criticism of parts of western culture for believing it has personally invented the correct view of life the universe and everything – but on the whole I find his summaries mostly common sense with little to actually disagree with. The Graves, Beck, Cowan based spiral of evolution through levels (colours) of thinking looks just like Maslow / Pirsig to me. The spirals evoke both Pirsigian “dynamic quality” and Hofstadter’s “strange loopiness”. (His only mistake for me is in ridiculing both string theory and evolutionary psychology, without realising they are just different metaphors for the same whole.)

Campbell – need to read more of, but on the strength of this 1991 interview with Bill Moyers – I don’t find earth shattering, again mainly common sense – Myths exist for good human development (evolutionary psychology) reasons in the context of our place in the world, and the myths themselves mustn’t be confused with the metaphors, the various specific traditional symbolic representations of them frozen in “religions” in different cultures.

Just a holding post to capture a search cross-hit on Peter Marcer’s name [See recent Quantum Information post], with W Ross Ashby and “requisite variety”, and Stafford Beer, and Koans (!), and more ….. the common link being Cybernetics and this page of the British Cybernetics Society. This is a shrinking world – the great convergence really does seem to be happening.

They have a meetings agenda I must investigate.

Saw the Hamsters on their Mad, Bad and Dangerous tour at the Putney Half Moon on Tuesday, with John Otway and Wilko Johnson in tow.

Great show, 19:45 to 23:10 with only one short break in proceedings to switch the drumkit around.

Otway’s set the usual mad guitar “virtuosity” exchanges with sidekick Rick, and milking his 20 year chart hits history for gags. Did everything except the “House of the Rising Sun” spoof, including disco hits “Burn Baby Burn” and “Crazy Horses”. Rick is a great comic foil in his own right, not just the straight man; Otway perhaps overdid the theremin on too many numbers there.

Wilko his usual thousand yard stare, staccato strutting and guitar machine-gunning (psycho-duck-walking) self with the wonderful Norman Watt-Roy on manic bass. Apart from the highlight “Back in the Night” I have to say I didn’t recognise many, at this distance of 28 years, perhaps Wilko’s voice is just a bit flat to do justice ? Entertaining sounds though.

Hamsters did what was for the most part their standard set – just crowdpleasers Banner / Watchtower and Sharp Dressed Man as you’d expect from their Hendrix / ZZ-Top repertoire. Hamsters highlight was a number I didn’t recognise – must enquire. Someone reminded me that it’s not just Slim’s guitar, but his voice that makes the Hamsters’ great sound.

The gig wasn’t quite Mad enough (Otway aside) – don’t know why but I expected more mayhem and integration of the personnel than distinct sets – highlights were Otway and Rick on stage with the Hamsters several times and finally the whole lot crammed on the small stage for a couple of numbers. Only quibble is that Slim’s amplification swamps the other two guitars, when all on together. Bunsen Burner, Born to be Wild, and a big hit from Norman’s past to conclude – if you don’t know it I won’t spoil it here. Finished on a real high.

“One of the strangest portents of the end of progress is the recent discovery that humans are losing their ability to come up with new ideas.” says Bryan Appleyard in this Times article. Thanks to Sam at Elizaphanian for the link.

I’m not sure the specific argument measuring “innovations” holds up to much scrutiny, but the whole article is a reminder that all markets can go down as well as up, even the Darwinian one. The direction of “progress” is driven by morals, not technology or science (or nature) in its broadest sense. In fact the Metaphysics of Quality would suggest the natural direction is towards ever more “sophisticated” intellect – winning memes. Whatever that means, it probably means we should not expect to recognise new innovations by the standards of the old. Technology has progressed beyond the “physical” already, or at least its centre of gravity has; or rather physics has progressed beyond the material.

Clear as mud ?

I must have passed over the Anthropic Principle quite some time ago, because it leaves me unmoved. The reason to mention it is the debate about physical fundamentals of the universe and the recurring intelligent design debate, where I have also gone beyond debate to peremtory dismissal.

I got a combative comment on my report about the quantum information developments at BCS / CASYS below. “Crap”, to quote the comment in fact. The anonymous commenter “Island” runs a web-site called “Anthropic-Principle.Org“, and a blog called “Uncommon Ascent” with the URL “evolutionarydesign” under blogspot.

Also picked up via a Google / Technorati cross-hit a link to a blog by Melbourne student Will G with some extended Christian reasoning on the subject that Island liked. It includes this erroneous application of Occam

1. The universe has the appearance of design
2. There are no simpler explanations of design with evidential support
3. I am justified in believing the universe is designed

Very simple (not), except the absence of any explanation of the existence of the design itself, or any agent behind use of the verb “designed”. Just moved the “first cause” problem.

Unfortunately neither can I take seriosuly anyone who dismissess neo-darwinism with the rhetorical summary “where everything somehow happens this way for no good reason”. Of course Darwinism supplies plenty of “good reasons” and “explanations” – just not a teleological design from any intelligence higher than nature itself, with any pre-planned outcomes.

Anyway Wikipedia restored my belief that weak or strong the Anthropic Principle is just a truism that can explain nothing. Anyway, Island’s case on a brief read looks like “evolutionary design” – where design exists in nature itself, and the natural laws in this universe, but to me that design is a recipe for possible processes not a blue-print for an outcome of intelligent humans with any further pre-ordained destinies. With that spin, I wouldn’t argue against design. Design = Physics = Evolution in fact.

I might actually largely agree with Island.
Choose your metaphor for the fundamental existence of a universe containing these particular laws of physics.

This caught my eye on a Google cross hit. Spooky given Jorn’s HTML vs XML joke earlier about a cinema fire, that I hadn’t noticed this Snowden & Kurtz reference to a theatre fire in their example of organisational triggers that create meaningful instances from chaotic situations. [Snowden and Kurtz IBM paper – cached copy]

A transition from the chaotic to the complex is a matter of creating multiple attractors, or swarming points, around which un-order can instantiate itself, whereas a transition from the chaotic to the known requires a single strong attractor. For example, if one were trying to evacuate a panicked crowd in a theater on fire, it would make more sense to shout out “the blinking orange lights are above the exit doors,” which is a complex swarming-point trigger that relies on local knowledge only, than to shout out “come towards the back of the theatre,” an ordered trigger that relies on global knowledge which may be unavailable.

Of course in this context the idea of an attractor is very close to Pirsig’s “seed crystal”. The right point of organisation (seed-crystal) dropped into a chaotic meta-stable situation (super-saturated solution) can create order in the whole. Quality from chaos.

… When you can achieve altered states of consciousness by dialogue alone ? Interesting report by Julian Elve [Synesthesia] of an “out of comfort zone” event hosted by Johnnie Moore and others using “Dialogue”. That’s right you heard, dialogue.

Interestingly, Johnnie’s review refers to critics of the book (by Ellinor and Gerard) kinda complaining that it’s just market exploitation of something that’s part of everyday life – I also like Johnnie’s highlighting the paradox of simplicity vs complexity too.

Anyway simple or complicated, novel or old-hat, Julian reports that the conversation does indeed appear to take on a “life of its own” even becoming trance-like. Count me in guys, if another experimental opportunity arises.

Whilst we’re here … a couple of other good posts from Johnnie.

The paradox of silence in forum style communications – I agree with the dynamic value of the uncertainty generated, but at the same time am frequently frustrated by those silences that actually mean complete agreement. In a couple of other discussion forums I’ve been advocating “me too” posts occasionally, contrary to received netiquette wisdom – the alternative can seem like shouting into the void. Silence is golden but on the other hand you can have too much of a good thing.

Relationships before content (ideas) is one of Johnnie’s mantras he says. I know what he means. Actually it’s another of those paradoxical pairs – you can’t really have one before the other either way – what’s really needed is strange loopy “co-evolution”.

Interesting review of issues around ontologies and tools for “social tagging” posted on KnowledgeBoard by Silverio Petruzzellis. Not digested the quality of any analysis yet, but it’s comprehensive with a plethora of links (naturally) including Clay Shirky’s “Ontology is Overrated”.

As I keep saying it’s not ontology that’s overrated, but the idea that it’s fixed or pre-ordained. What social tagging does is allow an appropriate ontology to evolve. The best kind.

The theme of altered states of consciousness – drug induced or otherwise – keeps cropping-up in debates about consciousness in general and enlightenment in particular. Came across this Psychedelic Library whilst following up Aldous Huxley in my ever growing reading list. In this Huxley Paper (from 1963 Playboy !) “Culture and the Individual” I loved this quote …

In my utopian fantasy, “Island”, I speculated in fictional terms about the ways in which a substance akin to psilocybin could be used to potentiate the nonverbal education of adolescents and to remind adults that the real world is very different from the misshapen universe they have created for themselves by means of their culture-conditioned prejudices.

“Having Fun with Fungi” — that was how one waggish reviewer dismissed the matter. But which is better: to have Fun with Fungi or to have Idiocy with Ideology, to have Wars because of Words, to have Tomorrow’s Misdeeds out of Yesterday’s Miscreeds?

Idiocy with ideology.
Misdeeds of yesterday’s miscreeds.
Fun with funghi ?

Nice ring.

Crossed paths with Pirsig, under McKeon at Chicago. [Obit via NYT] [via Henry] CHICAGO (AP)

Wayne Booth, a prominent literary critic and professor whose books are required reading at many universities, died Sunday. He was 84.

Booth died at his home from complications of dementia, said Josh Schonwald, a spokesman for the University of Chicago, where Booth was a faculty member for more than four decades.

Booth’s ”The Rhetoric of Fiction,” published in 1961, is ”the single most important American contribution to narrative theory — a book that continues to be read, taught and fought about,” Bill Brown, chair of the English department, said in a statement.

Other works include ”A Rhetoric of Irony” in 1974 and 1988’s “The Company We Keep, The Ethics of Fiction“. His book ”For the Love of It” was a memoir about how he became an accomplished amateur cellist, starting at age 31.

Booth joined the University of Chicago in 1962 after teaching at Haverford College and Earlham College. He also served as dean of the university’s undergraduate division from 1964 to 1969. He retired in 1992.

I continue to be fascinated by the developments at the British Computer Society Cybernetic Machine Specialist Group (BCS Cybernetics Group or BCSCMSG for short) despite the dense specialist jargon making proceedings all but unintelligible to any lay reader like myself. Here is the synopsis of papers presented at the BCSCMSG Symposium 10 as part of CASYS’05 (Computing Anticipatory Systems 2005 Conference) in Liege in August earlier this year.

My principle fascination, and reason for following proceedings over several years (and blogging many previous references), has been the apparent fundamental nature of information underlying reality itself, as part of my specific interest in modelling and communicating information about reality, at least in so far as humans can know and communicate reality.

Paraphrasing … the BCSCMSG current mission is to establish the Evolutionary ‘Anthropic’ Semantic Principle, by which the fundamental physical foundations of computing as used in brains, can be realized. The human brain is a universal computational semantic machine and [the Diaz-Rowlands re-write of the Nilpotent Dirac Equation of] quantum physics provides a natural model and modes by which human natural language is realized to allow the human race to comprehend the evolutionary cosmos. No less.

The philosophy of mind and mind-matter angles, of what can be known about reality (epistemology), the processes of knowing of it (consciousness et al), and what any independent reality might be (ontology), is clearly relevant to the modelling of information about reality. Suspending disbelief it is also possible to accept that quanta (as the smallest significant differences that can exist between anything) are probably the most fundamental building blocks of information as well as the building blocks of “matter”.

Despite also accepting mind (consciousness) as emergent from brain physiology (matter & processes) what is mind blowing is the idea that the emergence (clearly complex and multi-layered) can have a causal and direct reductionist explanation that is also based on quantum mechanics. (Why not ? says Josephson. Yes, “microtubules” say Hammeroff and Penrose. No, “that’s mere pixie-dust” say the Churchlands, Blackmore and Dennett. Sceptical says Deutsch. Who needs reductionism and causality say Deutsch and Chalmers.) Quantum mechanical effects in brain-mind processes, not to mention in the wider DNA-life processes themselves – how weird can this get ?

OK, so holographic universe (Talbot); multiple interfering universes (Everett / Wheeler / Deutsch); are believable at the quantum scale, universes or states with small differences, small departures from coherence. OK too, non-locality, action-at-a-distance, anticipation, future actions travelling ahead faster than light, can also be credible at similar quantum scales and near coherence maybe ? (Even the practicioners working with these “models” struggle to accept these as everyday “paradigmatic” world-views.)

It’s all there to be read about. Quantum mechanics based mathematics behind everything from seemingly abstract things like fundamental number theory and mathematics itself and theories of computation, through physics naturally, to large-scale coherence in processes in brains and macro-cosmological feedback loops in the cosmos itself.

And if that’s not weird enough, it even comes with a bootstrapping mechanism to create something (ie everything) from nothing.

The nothing that is, that is.

Watch that space.
Hope these people also turn up at Tucson2006.

Thanks to Matt Poot on MoQ-Discuss for picking up this Toronto Globe and Mail best seller list from Sunday 9th October.

Well, well, well. Robert Pirsig’s ZMM is a non-fiction best seller in October 2005, sharing the list with James Frey, Jared Diamond, Bill Bryson and Malcolm Gladwell. (Dan Brown is top of the fiction list fortunately, or unfortunately, depending how you look at it.)

(Interesting, searching for Pirsig / best-seller I find the Wikipedia page is well linked with current Pirsig material, including my own.)

(This June 2005 page from the American Association of Booksellers also has ZMM in their best seller list – perrenial they say – though it’s under travel books !)

(And an interesting current reading list from Zug, a “comedy” site (!) includes Douglas Adams, Aldous Huxley and Scott Peck as well as both ZMM and Lila – dense with ideas they says – Comedy ?)

After a week away, I’m back in the UK, and heard BBC’s Start The Week for the first time in ages; Andrew Marr introducing Robert Fisk, Bjorn Lomborg, Simon Winchester and Clare Carolin. An excellent edition.

Ostensibly focussing on natural disasters like the current Pakistan earthquake, and the place of humans in the grip of nature, in fact Robert Fisk started on about his new book “The Great War for Civilisation”. Specific interest for me, apart from Fisk’s own insights including three interviews with Bin Laden, is his view of Balfour and Sykes-Picot and the history of Middle East conflict. Understanding background to the Balfour Agreement is the reason I’m reading Barbara Tuchman’s Bible and the Sword, and of course Sykes-Picot is a main thread in my obsession with hero T E Lawrence.

Much maligned Lomborg is focussing on priorities in the way we address global natural and economic issues, in obtaining “value” for our efforts, rather than diving headlong into a too negative reaction to “global warming”. 40,000 dead in one telegenic earthquake is just two days worth of curable, communicable diseases in East Asia, for example.

Winchester’s book “A Crack in the Edge of the World” concerns persistent human occupation of dangerous natural locations, and the long learning curve before peoples abandon untenable locations like New Orleans, Beirut and San Francisco, and on the contrary the pull of these locations whose beauty stems from being close to the edge. (Another angle is the religious / political response to handling natural disasters – blaming theistic wrath vs employing pragmatic management … Lisbon, Christians and Voltaire, Krakatoa and Moslems, San Francisco and Rationality included … interesting.)

Spookily I was flying over central Pakistan and Afghanistan local time Saturday morning. Anyway, lots of grist to the connectedness of values applied to both nature and culture. Which is the main contribution to the loss of 40,000 in Pakistan – the natural earthquake or the cheap construction of public schools – and how much of the latter is corrupt conspiracy or ignorant cock-up ? Twas ever thus.

BTW – Travel is Torture – etymology of travel, travail (hard work), trapalium (instrument of torture)
(Exhibitions bring the world to people, so they don’t have to travel the world.)