All posts for the month January, 2006

Struck by this quote from last week’s BBC news story on the Iran nuclear programme resumption – referred to the security council this week. I still see this whole world-energy / economy / consumption story tangled up in the same web as the mid-east / Israel story, whether we’re talking Chinese energy needs, Iranian nuclear ambitions, Hamas election victories, Declared anti-Zionist aims, and so on. One reason I scoffed last week at the “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” rhetoric.

The mix of brinkmanship and good-cop / bad-cop negotiation games goes on, fortunately …

China’s work behind the scenes seems to be focussed on trying to keep the diplomacy alive.

China’s most obvious interest is energy. Three years ago, when Iran was already supplying 13 per cent of China’s oil needs, the two governments signed a major deal which included Chinese development of Iranian oil fields. It is a source of supply of growing importance for China – one it doesn’t want disrupted by politics.

China also has a deeply-engrained reluctance to takes sides with the US against a fellow non-Western nation.

It’s a complex game, needing a steady nerve and the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time. Interesting, given the outward appearance that expanding China has bought the western consumerism “dream” that the “deeply engrained” east-west cultural difference comes into play, even in the diplomatic dealings.

“We” – fellow non-western nations, notice.

I’ve been avoiding this, at least partly because it’s a misappropriation of the concept of a meme, but partly cos I can never think what to say … anyway, Sam tagged me so here goes …

Four jobs I’ve had:
1. Waiter / Barman
2. Labourer (Market garden / Construction site)
3. Aircraft dynamics analyst / test-engineer
4. err em, Engineer/ Manager / Consultant in various Oil& Gas&Process industry guises.

Four movies I can watch repeatedly:
(Too many to mention …)
1. Lawrence of Arabia
2. 2001
3. Pulp Fiction
4. Cabaret

Four places I have lived
(Excluding where I grew up and where I live now):
1. Kew, London
2. Shetland Isles
3. Olso (Nesbru / Sandvika)
4. Perth, Western Australia

Four TV shows I like to watch:
(Tough one – I actively avoid the box)
1. Friends
2. West Wing
3. Question Time
4. South Bank Show

Four places I have been on vacation:
1. Whitby, North Yorkshire
2. Greek Islands
3. Grenada
4. Jordan

Four favourite dishes:
1. Fresh Baked Bread – unbeatable
2. Oysters – fresh, with lemon only
3. Bean Salad
4. Tom Yam – Hot Thai Soup

Four websites I visit daily:
1. BBC News (Feed direct on my home page)
2. MoQ-Discuss
3. Robot Wisdom
4. Bifurcated Rivets

Four places I would rather be right now:
1. Portland Bill (anywhere by a restless sea, actually)
2. Travelling (to the coast) with the lid off (with the Hamsters at full volume)
3. The broody summit of Great Gable (looking across at the crowds on Scafell)
4. Any great cathedral (marvelling at the power of will)

Four people to tag:
1. Leon (go on, you know you want to blog)
2. Paul
3. Georganna
4. Alex

Talking of “offers you can’t refuse” as I was earlier … Mark Federman’s McLuhan Blog has some interesting items …

This story about US Telco’s considering charging the likes of Google a premium for “expedited” comms service. Interesting thoughts, though I’m guessing Google’s muscle and distributed content will give ’em flexibility of channels ?

And in another story on the threat of blackmail Mark quotes this McLuhan definition of libel “The greater the truth, the greater the libel.”

Thanks to David Morey over at MoQ-Discuss for picking up these links to papers mentioning Pirsig’s work. (I’m guessing partly prompted by the observations from Sam and Ant about the Ram-Prasad “Great Divide” article decrying the dearth of links between Eastern and Western philosophy – lets’ not overlook Pirsig and Northrop.)

A Hubert Dreyfus paper on Albert Borgmann’s Heideggerian thesis on the “affirmation of technology” which makes only a passing reference to Pirsig, but seems to include significant further parallels between Borgmann, Heidegger and Pirsig. Also includes confirmation of the idea that “technology” is the irresistible driver of most progressive change.

Jeremiah Lewis “reconciliation of opposites“, bridging eastern and western philosophies drawing significantly on Pirsig, as well as William Barrett and Fritjof Capra (Nothing against Capra, but I really must redress the Capra / Talbot balance).

John J Emerson’s “Pirsig and Buddhism” response to the Baggini / Pirsig interview inlcuding references to Magliola (Derrida & Nagarjuna), Frederick Streng, Stephen Toulmin and Michel Meyer. (Just starting reading Magliola’s “Derrida on the Mend” and Jay Garfield’s translation of Nagarjuna’s “Mulamadhyamakakarika – The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way”). Emerson includes some pretty succinct summaries of the essence of buddhist thought in that there can be no exhaustive metaphysical ontology, best illustrated in a few of his own words …

The anti-ontological view does not deny the reality of things or of the world, but doubts the value of the attempted verbalization and classification of reality represented by ontology. To a Buddhist, all ontologies probably have some good in them, but they all miss and misrepresent some things, so the choice of ontologies is a choice of evils.

Any system of ontology is a set of answers to a certain set of questions, but ontological writing does not express the originary questions, but instead states its answers in absolute form. Were the questions made explicit, readers would understand that a different set of questions would produce a different ontology.

What Pirsig seems to have produced is a philosophy of qualities without substances. This seems tolerably close to the Buddhist or the Taoist view …

Emerson’s “idiocentrism” appears somewhat indigestible, but his observations are incisive.

Whilst I’m in the mode of grabbing links for later digestion …
… I also today read …

Ant McWatt’s earlier paper on “The MoQ and Time” – not sure the analysis of the scientific view of time is exhaustive, but it does illustrate that any dynamic model of reality has some important assumptions about time and causality at base – seriously weird concepts when you research beyond common sense – a recurring issue of mine. (And the point, like most of the links in this post – pragmatically, the culturally determined common sense metaphors are probably as good as it gets – we probably shouldn’t wait around for a temporal plug to close up our metaphysical holes. As Dave Bowman finally notices “Wow, it’s full of holes.” Get used to it. Wishful thinking BTW – Bowman actually says stars, not holes.)

Paul Turner’s “Notes on the Tetralemma” – excellent short piece which again re-inforces the “integration of opposites” and the fact that no exhaustive ontology can exist, but that is readily accepted by buddhism, and need not represent a problem to a pragmatic framework for reality. As Emerson says above, “When Rorty says that pragmatism, rather than offering a new theory of truth, offers reasons why we do not need a theory of truth, he approaches a Buddhist view.” (Note also comparing Lewis above with Mary Parker Follett, that “integration” of opposites incorporating difference is a better metaphor than “reconciliation”, implying compromise and elimination of difference.) [Post Note – As indicated in his comment, Paul has another related article entitled “alterity” on his Twelve Links blog.]

Dave Pollard picks up on The Edge 2006 Question response from Kai Krause, and adds quite a detailed take of his own.

The original Krause analogy is a good one. If you take a memetic view of cultural ideas, that drive our day to day decision making, the crises that occur (those that don’t arise from unpredictable natural causes, we couldn’t have prepared for) are pretty akin to system crashes. Conflicts that interrupt smooth running of the program – irrespective of whether the current program was actually productive, valuable or in any sense good.

Generally despite my fundamental informational / computational view of physical reality, I don’t subscribe to everyday “computer” analogies of behaviour. Social “programmes” are quite different to typical digital computer software. That said, the cultural bases of decision making are certainly software of a kind.

Dave makes a good point. He says

“We have ‘forgotten’ how to [respond to quantitative objective evidence] because we have been taught to ignore and suppress our instincts [until it gets personal].”

This is the failure of objectivity I’ve been banging on about. Without the subjective, the objective is (literally) meaningless. It’s also what I believe is behind the Brunsson “hypocrisy” of management decision making. Provided we can show evidence of objective rationale, we can do the downright wrong.

Perhaps, as MoQ-Discuss has suggested, it’s not that objectivity is for the birds, more that we need to learn a “new-objectivity”, that incorporates the meaning of instinctive personal subjective involvement with the merely (otherwise deliberately detached) objective.

When the road is paved with good (but soft and subjective) intentions, rather than hard objective facts, we’re maybe more likely to notice when we’re sleepwalking towards the freight train at the rail crossing ?

Oh well, as a fan and user of Google products I guess I too must comment on their Chinese censorship deal, given the other progressive Chinese news recently.

Look, even the BBC are completely blocked in China, so I think Google are probably right to bow to the pressure, as they said “The company argues it can play a more useful role in China by participating than by boycotting it, despite the compromises involved.”

China is not perfect, but it is evolving. Better to evolve with it, than stand outside. With so much connectivity, serious issues of free speech and communication will out, one way or another.

(Interestingly, I have been getting lots of “Baidu” hits in the last couple of years, though nowhere near as many as Google. See story)

Here are a couple of older background articles about the story blogged earlier.

The Chinergy CEO Frank Wu, interviewed in Wired. [via Net127]
A speech by a South African Government Minister.

Quote from the Chinergy article “Let a Thousand Reactors Bloom – China’s nuclear renaissance could feed the hydrogen revolution, enabling the country to leapfrog the fossil-fueled West into a new age of clean energy. Why worry about foreign fuel supplies when you can have safe nukes rolling off your own assembly lines? Why invoke costly international antipollution protocols when you can have motor vehicles that spout only water vapor from their tail pipes? Why debate least-bad alternatives when you have the political and economic muscle to engineer the dream?”

And just to remind us where China are on the nuclear map, remember they are also hosting the next international “tokomak” fusion research reactor too.

Expanding yes, moving forward too.

China (a big factor in overall global economic growth and fossil fuel supply and demand issues) has been involved in development (and safety proving tests) of a new generation of High Temperature Nuclear Reactors (HTR Technology) and the first production power plant project has just started. The technology is inherently safer and more compact than previous generation water and gas-cooled designs. (One reason is the local small-scale containment of the fissile material in carbide “pebbles” (PBMR), the second is the self-limiting physics of its “strong negative temperature coefficient”, which means the reaction slows as it gets hotter. No more Three-Mile-Island or Chernobyl ?)
[See here] [here] [here] [and here].

Pebble bed furnaces ?
Takes me back to my power boiler days at FW ….

Anyway, as most of China’s power generation is coal and hydro anyway, what does this have to do with Peak-Oil ? Well – reading between the lines – it’s like this.

These are high-temeperature reactors, hot enough to do more than raise steam (to drive power turbines), the hot gas can itself be used to drive gas turbines before (raising steam and/or) recycling through the reactor bed. What’s more the heat can be used to gassify coal and drive other hyrdocarbon processes, like Hydrogen-Cracking and Synthetic-Gasoline production – both of which take the load off Oil and Natural Gas fuel and raw material demands. Not surprisingly, South Africa which originally bought German technologies for synfuels and pebble-bed reactors, is a partner with both Chinergy and US Nuclear consortia for next generation (cleaner, greener, safer) nuclear power. [Post note : For the Chinese production projects, the focus, after power, is thermo-electric generation of hydrogen from water, made feasibly efficient at the temperatures involved. See later post.]

The significance of South Africa and Germany ? Both countries that in recent history (second world war and apartheid sanctions), had reason to find real alternatives to not having natural oil and gas supplies available for their industrial and/or military might. Real practical crises, not just hypothetical ones.

It’s an ill wind, etc.

(Vested interest ? The s/w company mentioned in the press-release is my employer, but we’re into all aspects of power and oil & gas, and a lot more, so business-wise we’re ultimately neutral on which energy and feedstock resources, or efficiency measures people choose.)

Sam has a great link to a short video summary of Jeremy Leggett’s story on the looming oil crisis. A good powerful documentary. Notice that the difference between the late (optimistic) and early (pessimistic) toppers may be 2:1 in terms of effective reserves, but the net result isn’t a lot different – given the lead time needed for viable alternatives.

“It’s gonna happen on our watch”

(Full detailed article here.) (Direct link to the ABC Video and transcript here.)

PS – Playing down the need to panic is a fair point, given the global market economies and unstable politics involved, but ignoring the need to plan the transition and invest in the alternatives, and to condition public opinion to the changes needed, is hardly good planning.

Also, love the optimist’s suggestion that the doom-mongering pessimists are the ones with vested interests in this situation. Breathtaking. Don’t you just love rhetoric.

The Jeremy Leggett oil-crisis article is I guess no great surprise, in terms of the discovery, reserves, production, security and consumption of oil & gas supplies. It’s only ever been a matter of when, though as he points out even intelligent public guesswork would be way off the mark on many of the key dates. The consequences of not planning a smooth transition through the crisis don’t bear thinking about. Actually they do, but like Jeremy you feel that perhaps a small disaster soon might be what we need to wake everyone up before a total global economic crash and word war three.

It’s a well researched article and worth the long read. Excellent.

My main interest is in the “facts” – that is my epistemological agenda. I mentioned the Shell overestimation of their own reserves, that led to the fall of their then CEO and Chief Geologist, in my MoQ Conference paper last year. I mentioned it amongst other “accounting” scandals, not to raise the nightmare scenario, but in order to raise the question of “subjective” information “objectively” presented, as part of the normal “hypocrisy” of taking a “scientific” view of complex situations involving behaviour of humans individually and collectively in organisations of any kind. My main agenda.

Before I go there – the other striking “fact”. Is it really true that the full worst-case predicted demand for global energy could actually be satisfied by solar power occupying <1% (less than one per-cent !!) of land area currently used for agriculture ? If that were only vaguely true, nothwithstanding engineering and logistical factors, we could solve the EU Common Agricultural Policy and the world energy crisis in one move. What a missed opportunity for the UK’s year as EU Chair. What a criminal waste if true and known. Except … what are truth and knowledge anyway … therein lies the rub.

I won’t cherry pick the quotes – you can read the article – but Jeremy has so many examples of “rational” distortion and exaggeration of quantitative “facts”, and hypocritical denial and sharing ignorance, and so on. Every trick in the rational logical-positivist objective book.

My urgent agenda – to get us thinking, decision-making and acting with quality instead of pseudo-objectivity – just got its urgency re-inforced. Talk about intent, power and interest – all more significant than any objective “facts”.

Recently read Pauline Graham’s compilation of the works of Mary Parker Follett “The Prophet of Management“. Generally considered by a host of modern management gurus to have written the final word on many important management subjects, back in the 1920’s, when she became well known through her writing, lecturing and consulting. She is often cited (after Newton) as a giant on whose shoulders many of them stand. However she lay practically unknown and unreferenced for the following 30 odd years, as being of no significance, until unearthed in 1950’s by the guru of management gurus Peter Drucker (recently deceased).

(One of my earlier aphorisms, in the mould of reality having to be believed to be seen, is that “you have to believe in giants before you can stand on their shoulders”, but I digress.)

One aspect of her work was in “conflict management”, not only in resolving disputes (eg employers & unions) but in encouraging real differences to be aired (eg in counselling situations), where they would in general be hidden or unspoken. She says “Just so far as people think that the basis of working together is compromise or concession, just so far do they not understand the first principles.”- ie win-win integration is the aim, etc. (And for those advocates of the “False Prophets” view – she of course is not disclaiming management power to enforce its decisions, but she does remind us from where such power comes.)

Anyway, I was struck by the philosophical basis of her ideas, consistent with the agenda here …

“Progressive experience depends on relating. The ardent search for objectivity, the primary task of the fact worshippers, cannot be the whole task of life, for objectivity alone is not reality.”

“I do not see how [opposing tendencies] can be avoided whilst we see reality [exclusively] as either subject or object.”

“[Citing Edwin B Holt’s – The Concept of Consciousness] Reality is defined as some very complex system of terms in relation. Reality is in the relating; in the activity-between … subject and object are equally important and reality is in the relating of these [and] in the endless evolving of these relations. This has been the grain of gold of the profoundest thinkers from Aristotle to the present [1920’s] day.”

“Full acceptance of life as process gets us away from [controversy]. This is neither conventional idealism nor realism; neither mechanism nor vitalism.”

“We have to study a whole as a whole, not only through analysis of its constituents. The whole is determined not only by its constituents, but by their relations one to another.”

“The culture of an organisation has a momentum of its own, but an organisation is not an entity separate from it’s members. Parts and the whole are bound together in dynamic interaction. It is this dynamic interaction that must be influenced in order to bring about change in an organisation.”

“Without difference there is no progress. The value is in the difference. Common thought is not held [after removal of differences] but is produced by the integration of differences.”

“A Darwinist view of progress as evolution characterised by competition alone is too simplistic in ignoring cooperation.” [A prescient comment for the 1920’s given the later “Selfish Gene” view which drops the pure competition metaphors to the genetic level, and fully recognises the neo-Darwinian mixed competitive and cooperative strategies at the individual organism level.]

Interestingly, given the Pope’s recent warnings about “relativism”, this week’s BBC “In Our Time” discussed the topic. We should indeed all be worried by a spin on “relativism” that can be rhetorically interpreted as a wishy-washy “anything goes”. I liked the Hegelian (?) absolute-relativism idea. Very Pirsigian. A fundamental and relatively fixed (if not wholly absolute) framework in which “relations” determine reality and truth. Rebecca recently coined “Relationalism” over on MoQ-Discuss, as an antidote to the pejorative rhetoric surrounding “relativism”.

I could highlight all the key words in the Follett quotes, but I won’t; It’s not about objects, objectively distinct from subjects, it’s about



life-as-process-as-dynamic-interaction, or evolution

One in a long line of holding posts for a link to the subject of psychedelics (Peyote, Mescaline, LSD, etc.) and their role in enlightenment and the study of consciousness. [Link via Ant at] [See also Timeline 1960, and Peyote, and Funghi.]

This is a review of Albert Hofmann, who as creator of LSD was also a pioneer in this area, and has now lived beyond the ripe old age of 100. I wonder what the queen would say in her telegram (if he wasn’t a Swiss resident that is.)

“Dear Mr Hofmann,
Many happy returns.
One wonders what one might consider to be the secret of one’s long life ?”
Love Liz,
HRH, etc … :-)

Post Note : Sue Blackmore attended the celebration and wrote this piece for the “THES”. Interestingly part of the discussion is on that to which he attributes his longevity.

[Note – Local copies of linked articles re-instated.]

Julian Baggini, editor of TPM – “The Philosopher Magazine” and general British media darling of philosophy, has interviewed Robert Pirsig about his Metaphysics of Quality (MoQ), via e-mail rather than face-to-face, and placed the entire transcript [local copy] as well as his own article “Zen and the Art of Dialogue” on-line [local copy].

[Post Note : Pre-2010 TPM pages have gone offline. TPM Copyrights acknowledged.
As noted in the comment below – the exchange says rather more about Baggini trying to conduct the Pirsig  interview by email – resulting in a “standoff” – than it does about the MoQ or philosophy in general

In his neutral role as journalist interviewer, it’s not clear whether Julian had any prior knowledge of Pirsig’s ideas, but clearly Bob’s penchant for avoiding comparative philosophology, between his own work and that of other philosophers past or present, meant Julian had a frustrating experience getting Bob to elucidate. I guess that’s why Bob chose to present his work in the form of his two novels, and avoid any direct involvement in conventional philosophy since. Bob is never going to win friends and influence people in mainstream philosophy, and the old dog will probably not be learning any new tricks at his stage of life.

This article is mentioned by Pirsig in the interview.

A thread of thoughts has developed on MoQ-Discuss.
And a good post from Matt Kundert here, and another one here.

Been discussing the merits of alternatives to simple ontologies based on hierarchical classification taxonomies with Leon, off line. Folksonomies is the latest buzzword, mentioned here and earlier, for heterarchical taxonomies that emerge when users tag objects in the course of using them (for whatever it is they use them).

Dave Weinberger has some interesting recent threads on this subject. [Here] and [here].

Don’t normally do politics if I can help it. Here goes.

There is a long “have your say” thread on the BBC site, of public opinions on Iran re-opening its nuclear plants.

There is a preponderance of opinion attacking US & Western “hypocrisy and arrogance” in expressing opinion and raising the subject on EU and UN agendas, and plenty using the opportunity for digs at US / UK foreign policy history. So many of those threads lead to Israel and ongoing US support thereof.

Civil nuclear power has its risks, but there is no reason to suppose any one developed state is any more incompetent to manage those risks than another. Nuclear power is seeing a global comeback as more people take the peak in fossil fuel reserves, and the lack of any signs of reduced consumerism, more seriously. The fact that Iran’s fossil fuel resource wealth is probably not the most critical in the world, probably does cast doubt on the argument that their intentions are entirely civil. I doubt Iran is dishonest enough to use that argument anyway. It doesn’t need to lie, it’s intentions are publicly stated already.

Military nuclear capability, defensive or offensive, is a different matter, and only such things as moral trust in non-proliferation agreements, or practical trust in the fear of Mutual Assured Destruction and the like, can be held responsible for the minimum actual use of such weapons to date. So there can be little management of military nuclear capabilities without trust. Far from an atmosphere of trust, the world abounds with public declarations and conspiracy theories about Iran (or another Arab state) wanting to terminate Israel, or provoke what is already a nuclear power into a pre-emptive attack against which terminal retalliation might be (slightly more morally) justified. That absence of trust, is not going to be corrected by arrogant threats and sabre-rattling is it ?

Israel cannot be ignored in this. It is still “the middle east situation”. Twas ever thus.

I am an atheist, so whilst I’ll defend any individual or group to hold theistic religious beliefs and practice them in their own houses and churches, I am no supporter of religion being tied to any authority or state governance, if it endangers life in my world. That’s as true of Jewish as Islamic or Christian fundamentalists. Unfortunately all of those hold such authority in many of the states in this “situation”.

Secondly, no easy way to say this, I’m no supporter of Zionist claims to Israel as a state, not beyond their human rights as a recently constituted state, created with the accommodation of its neighbours. There is no more “fundamental” Israeli right here.

Of course, the medium term “security” of fossil fuel supplies from the middle-east (and neighbouring regions) to “western” countries is the other political factor in the situation. A factor which adds to the hypocrisy in many a western state’s declared motives. A trust totally compromised by the national and human security issues in the previous paragraphs. No doubt people on all sides will debate whether Oil or Religion is the prime cause of the difficulties, but that is irrelevant, they’re both in it up to their necks.

Trouble is oil (as a physical resource) seems much easier to talk about objectively, even if states insist on hypocritical double-speak, whereas religion is doomed to less objective, less rational arguments. What is needed is diplomacy, compromise and real trust. If only half of the subject matter is on the table, then no real trust is likely to arise.

There can be little doubt however that Israel and Anglo-Saxon support for Zionism is a key part of the Iranian nuclear power issue.
See the reference mid-way down this earlier post.
We need to be addressing the long-standing hard parts of this problem, (hard as in soft & difficult).

Just a holding post for an issue that keeps cropping up in Dennett (see previous post). Who is me ?

In the sections on will and quasi-altruistic (long term enlightened) self-interest, he mentions something I’ve raised before – often in nationalism / political debates – is the me / we distinction. In considering what is in “your” interest, you can identify yourself with with the individual person or any number of different overlapping “constituencies”, my family, my gang, my team, my company, my industry, my party, my nation, my “hemisphere”, me as part of all humanity, me as part of the whole of nature, etc …

In fact this is a recurring concept with Dennett, when talking about where consciousness resides in me. If you make yourself large enough, you can internalise every issue. If you make yourself small enough, you can externalise every issue. A “control volume” issue I’ve raised before.

BTW – following up on where I’d got to in the previous post. Dennett’s debunking of the “300 millisecond moral void” seemingly illustrated by the Libet experiment as demonstrating the absence of conscious will. I rejected this earlier, for the same reason Dennett explains here. Our consciousness is distributed in space and time, is a complex multi-layered system of processes, some of which are supervisory, some are delegated, and only some of which need be in active conscious awareness at any given time. The tennis analogy, returning a very fast serve, is a good illustration of how we have pre-planned sequences set in motion almost like a reflex, which only need be modified or even stopped by the supervisory control, in higher conscious awareness, just in time. The latter sometimes parodied as “free won’t”. That’s an extreme hand-eye-body coordination example, but we couldn’t even walk and chew gum at the same time, if we had to be consciously aware of deciding every individual action.