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All posts for the month February, 2006

Interesting post from Sam Norton. A thoughtful Christian positioning on recent “blasphemy furies”. Amongst other things I was taken by this quote from Rene Girard.

“The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer witch-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented. The scientific spirit … is a by-product of the profound action of the Gospel text.”

Seems difficult to reconcile that with the image of subversion of scientific texts dramatised in “The Name of the Rose” and assorted bonfires of the vanities – but yet again we are really talking about the difference between enlightened understanding of a belief system vs misguided things done it its name – not to mention subsequent misguided reactions to such belief systems based on misunderstanding it on the basis of those very things done in its name.

On a very brief reading of the Girard reference Sam provides, I can also feel a parallel between his avoidance of “taking offense” and Follett’s integration of differences (as opposed to resolution of differences). Not to mention Argyris’ avoidance of giving and receiving embarassment, and his distinction between “espoused theories” and “theories in use” and of course Brunsson’s “necessary hypocrisy” …. I could go on.

Also of great interest is Girard’s use of the word mimetism (mimetic) for “contagion”. Precisely the same mimesis etymological root as “memetic” – artificially re-constructed by Dawkins to rhyme audibly and visually with “genetic”. Mimicry, contagion, replication, infection. Inescapable. So much social-anthropology / evolutionary-psychology (pragmatic-reality, yes even “science”) is to be found in etymology.

Perhaps I should explain, why I’ve hardly posted recently.

I’ve barely had time to read anything except news stories for about two weeks. I’ve been active off-line and face-to-face in Cambridge with a group of people keen to make some real-world progress taking a discussion forum onto a new level, corresponding, preparing for, participating and documenting ideas coming out of that. Several entirely sleepless nights, but too soon to go public.

And I had a long weekend away – celebrating our birthday (Sylvia and I are consecutive days) the big “Five 0″ in my case.

Oh, and we’ve been making preparations for a possible major domestic move, which I can’t say much more about yet.

Clear as mud, no ?

The change at Enlightened Caveman, morphing into Enlightened Living, from Chris Wilson’s personal blog to a new group blog, is somewhat clearer after a recent hiatus.

Latest news on Google in China is about some bureaucratic hiccup, but the censorship story hits the headlines again …

Google, together with other major technology firms, has [] come under fire in the US for helping China censor the internet. Earlier this month, members of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus said four US firms were putting profits before American principles of free speech.

[But] Google’s policy of telling users which pages are censored has also drawn the wrath of some [local] newspapers. “Does a business operating in China need to constantly tell customers that it’s abiding by the laws of the land?” asked the China Business Times, comparing Google to an uninvited guest.

The overt censorship actually reminds the community it is being censored by the laws of the land. Take it from there.

Bio pic of Burt Munro, Kiwi who set the world speed record at Bonneville on his US “Indian” motorcycle. A film which, the lead Anthony Hopkins says, “is the best he’s ever made”.

Looks interesting to Pirsig / Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance fans, on the evidence of the trailers, and not just because of the motorbike connection. The individual driven by a passion from youth, the man and boy relationship, where the boy understands the real man better than others do, living life through immediate experience, a man “from another planet”, the functional quality of improvised (brandy bottle stopper) tank plug based on understanding the engineering more deeply than surface appearances. Anthony Hopkins own affinity with the machine avoiding flooding the sensitively tuned engine. Connotations of the very name “Indian”. All stories ZMM fans will recognise.

Two trailers, one here at the Beeb, another slightly different one here at a New Zealand Entertainment site. And don’t forget to read the interview on this “Senior Journal” site, with Wayne Alexander who built and prepared the bike(s) for the film, which includes the Hopkins anecdote towards the end.

Uncanny how Hopkins looks like contemporary Pirsig too.
(You still working on that film project DMB ?)

[Post Note : I did obtain the film on DVD, and it’s very good, both the story and the Hopkins portrayal. Must review sometime. Is there any other biographical source on Munro ?]

Also from Mark Federman, a piece on research he is doing on organisational effectiveness. The point that interested me, apart from the general parallel with my agenda, and my earlier dissertation is his focus on Chris Argyris “espoused theories” concept – ie the idea that they are different to actual “theories in use”.

Something I’ve since come to equate with Nils Brunsson’s institutionalised organisational hypocrisy. One of the defense mechanisms we have developed as parts of organisations, to overcome the conflict between simple rational reasoned decisions and holistically understood best courses of action. (Equally well mis-exploited the other way round, to post-rationalise why not taking the best course of action was “the right decision at the time”.) Spot on Mark.

A series organised by “General Creative” apparently (broken link ?) [via Mark Federman]. Two interesting editions mentioned …

“Mythdemeanour – relationship between myths, the social construction of our world, and love.”

“Argument – the ways we used to know things, and what the electronic future may hold for us …. tactile reasoning by choreography.”

Some great stuff happening in Toronto.

This BBC report on American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Missouri.

The AAAS president, Gilbert Omenn, says

“It’s time to recognise that science and religion should never be pitted against each other.”

Hear hear.

“The intelligent design movement belittles evolution [and] it makes God a designer – an engineer.”

said George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory. Sanity prevails at the Vatican, as noted earlier.

Mark Gihring, a teacher from Missouri sympathetic to intelligent design, said

“I think if we look at where the empirical scientific evidence leads us, it leads us towards intelligent design. [It] ultimately takes us back to why we’re here and the value of life… if an individual doesn’t have a reason for being, they might carry themselves in a way that is ultimately destructive for society.”

Apart from the logical fallacy in the induction from “scientific evidence”, this really illustrates the problem. IDC is a search for “life purpose”, rather than knowledge. Right problem, wrong solution, which isn’t to say the problem doesn’t deserve a solution.

The problem is clear enough. One [no doubt religiously motivated] legislative bill in Missouri suggests that

“schools should teach only science which can be proven by experiment.”

That of course, would be precisely nothing. Science curricula must be devised by people who at least understand what science is. (Of course it’s all too easy to reach for the rhetorical riposte that perhaps religiously motivated IDC’ists should be constrained to teach only material which can be proven by experiment too – level playing field and all that. But of course that’s why scientists shouldn’t set religious agendas either. We need to recognise metaphors on distinct levels, instead of looking for conflicts on a single level. You listening Dawkins ?)

Anyway, as ever, humour helps – as Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education said

“I think as a [proposed science curriculum], intelligent design is dead. That does not mean intelligent design as a social movement is dead … this is an idea that has real legs and it’s going to be around for a long time. It will, however, evolve.”

:-) Magic.

I guess this is the right place to link that recent “pain” cartoon from Tim Kreider.

Nature.com article reports on Dutch research in Science [via Anecdote]

For [] simple decisions, students made better choices when they thought consciously about the problem. But for [] more complex choice, they did better after not thinking about it, Dijksterhuis and his colleagues report in Science.

At least when making some complicated decisions … the results suggest that we would actually do better to go with our gut … [otherwise] we simply lose the big picture with complex decisions.

Just a holding post for a thought that struck me yesterday ….

At a meeting yesterday discussing XML Languages best suited to modelling semantics, there was given some description of different flavours of OWL (Web Ontology Language ). In general with OWL(Full) and OWL(DL) it is possible to make ontologically impossible assertions – the infamously non-existent “The barber who shaves all people who don’t shave themselves.” (Think about it) ie Russell’s paradox highlighting the limitations of simple set theory concerning the set of sets that includes itself. The idea being that there is nothing to prevent circular networks of taxonomic (classification) relationships that express the impossible. The story is that OWL(FA) where FA = “Fixed-Level Metamodelling Architecture”, in principle forces individuals, classes and classes-of-classes and classes-of-classes-of …. etc into distinct levels in its metamodel.

The argument is actually inconclusive, in the sense that in any variant of the language one can choose how to implement and constrain the entities and relationships modelled, according to your chosen semantic model, but the striking point is that in OWL(FA) the circularity is broken by level-shifting.

This is Douglas Hofstadter’s “strange loopiness” – things that look like impossibly recursive loops, but in fact represent possible realities, because the loops shift across conceptual levels. Illustrated ad infinitum by Hofstadter in his “Godel, Escher, Bach” with “Quined Sentences” – sentences that have themselves as their own subject in mathematical and logical as well as natural languages. Hofstadter’s ultimate point is that things that “work on themselves” (like human minds) have some interesting spiralling evolutionary traits towards consciousness.

Small world indeed – in the same meeting another concept was openly recognised – in a hard industrial engineering context – that information expressed in any language, even a formal semantic one, contains much implicit knowledge that may be inferred, in addition to that objectively encoded, leading to cybernetic / AI / informatic-automation approaches for using such models too.

Great convergence happening.

(Possibly a side issue, but it feels related. My argumentation style, always wants to retain complexity, ie not make overall simplifying assumptions applicable to the whole argument, but to separate distinct issues, which may individually be simpler, whilst collectively complex …. see “only & just”, see exclusive-OR’s, inclusion of opposites, see Follett, see synthesis, see integration, in earlier threads ….)

This article from yesterday’s UK Daily Telegraph (Thursday 16th Feb) “Boot Camp Tactics Won’t Win the Battle” is an interview with Management Consultant / Guru, John Seddon of Vanguard Consulting. It’s right from my own manifesto, summarised in the header – things go wrong when management mistakes itself for a science.

… so much management time wasted doing “the wrong thing righter”
… so much game-playing,
… producing inaccurate and even meaningless numbers.
… origins of this [TQM] approach lay in the work of FW Taylor,
… so-called “scientific management” influenced subsequent generations …

He goes on to outline his preferred holistic “systems thinking” approach. Worth a read.

Personally, as my dissertation conclusions attest, TQM itself is not wrong, just its application to a misplaced focus on things that can be measured objectively with numbers, rather than things that can be assessed more qualitatively in the round.

I need to get this topic at the right level, following the Blackmore vs Midgley outing of yesterday.

Before memes, let’s get the garbage out of the way ….

It was set up as Blackmore vs Midgley, a combative argument – I have (on this very blog) agreed with both Midgley and Blackmore – I expressed disappointment that Midgley was so “dismissive” of memes, thought she was missing the point, missing a trick, despite 99% common sense elsewhere. I’ve expressed disappointment that Blackmore took her “mind is nothing but memes” metaphor so far as to preclude free-will in any common sense view we might have, despite the fact that Sue is a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, and a staunch advocate of open-mindedness towards the mystical and spiritual. They can both be right, if we focus on what they’re actually saying rather than “let’s see who’s right and who’s wrong”. First mistake – the middle is excluded before we start (that’s the most problematic meme here, by the way, and the core of Psybertron’s agenda.) Garbage.

Secondly, given the brief slot, and the fact that it was organised to publicise Sue’s speaking at The Darwin Day event, both of them used their rhetorical skills to stoke the argument. Sue slipped in the pejorative concept of “infection” in connection with the spread of religions, and linked that to the undeniable plethora of highly-charged religious concerns in current global politics. Mary pooh-poohed memes with the idea that “Darwin would never have made the meme mistake” throwaway, as if Darwin were the last word on evolution anyway, totally ignored Sue’s refutation in Darwin’s own ideas on the spread of languages, and further pooh-poohed Sue as a scientist. All good knockabout fun – each dissing the other – in exactly the way the “debate meme” has infected us all. Apparently the idea is to win, and be seen to win at the expense of the other. Garbage.

Thirdly, given the last couple of years debacle over raising such ideas as Intelligent Design Creationism as serious scientific alternatives to neo-Darwinism, there is no doubt that the scientific and philosophical meme camp (in which I include Dawkins and Dennett as well as Blackmore) have seen themselves as fighting a battle “against” misguided religious ideas. This becomes all the more highly charged when so many current world problems do undeniably have a religious source, however misunderstood. Attack being the best form of defence, when the objective is to win, and defeat an opponent, apparently. Garbage again.

Fourthly, “copying of memes” is not about dumb parroting of words, repeating and spreading messages verbatim, or even approximately. That’s the reactionary simplistic rhetoric meme-detractors use to ridicule them. It’s about understanding, believing and using the ideas they contain – and lets not forget Derrida (and Wittgenstein, and Quine, and Foucault no doubt), if we’re going to try and making any metaphysical distinction between the signifier and siginified / word and object / container and information – because there aren’t any.

So where’s the problem with memes. There isn’t one. Like everything else in life (and I mean everything) it’s only a metaphor, just like genes are a metaphor, they’re not really “selfish” in any intentional sense. The metaphor simply uses a causal model of behaviour that treats them as purposeful entities. Secondly the fact that memes may have practical uses in modelling behaviour in which ideas are believed and used, doesn’t mean human behaviour (anthropology and psychology) isn’t the actual issue. That’s exactly what it is; there isn’t anything else in this metaphorical world. How good such metaphors are lies in how useful they turn out to be in predictive and explanatory use – tested by real experience – there is no other test, logical or rhetorical.

Midgley’s worst genuine criticism is “they’re a distraction” from the human behaviour issues. Well that’s her choice. Some of us choose the meme metaphor precisely for human behaviour issues, all of them, including the cultural history up to any given decision point. The real distraction is both pro- and anti-meme debators demonising their opponents (in order to win arguments – that’s the real garbage.)

Let’s focus on the real problem – the real garbage – the hugely popular idea (a meme in my model) that some things are fundamentally right and others wrong, and that they can be resolved by simple logical syllogisms, and operators like “only”.

Life’s just complicated enough.

Brief interview on BBC’s Today programme with Sue Blackmore asked to explain memes (pro), and Mary Midgley asked to respond (con). As usual the disagreement is really just the words “only” and “just”.

Of course conscious minds are not “just” copying machines, you do indeed have to understand the context of people’s experience and hearing in the ideas and information they acquire, ie which ideas they find attractive, but that doesn’t mean the meme model doesn’t provides a tool for understanding how the competing ideas resolve themselves. And … how easy ideas are to copy (understand and use) is at least as much a part of the process as other qualities of their content.

I referred to David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” (GTD) a couple of times before, as not being rocket-science, motherhood even, but simple and practical methods for personal productivity nonetheless.

I see he has a blog, and links to several subtle contributions, on identifying and achieving important work. This is his link to Paul Graham’s essay on procrastination, which itself includes this link to this 1986 Richard Hamming essay on prioritising research tasks.

Via Jim McGee’s musings, which also includes a link to John Perry’s 1995 piece “Structured Procrastination

Structured procrastination sounds like “skilled incompetence” to me. One of those “necessary hypocrisies”. Anyway, I like the idea that creating a to-do list is possibly itself a displacement activity from more important tasks. I also like the idea that to any thoughtful person all these prioritisation methods actually involve subtler psychological tricks, almost deliberate self-deceptions, sneaking up on tasks. ie if you have a really important difficult task to do, go and clean the toilet. I can see how that works on at least 3 or 4 meta-levels. To every simple rule – like most metaphorical adages – there is a completely opposite, but equally valid simple rule.

I think the key is the psychology – right rule in the right context – and the recognising levels as well as scales of importance – hygiene / infrastructure, operational, tactical, strategic, blue-sky levels. My personal method is to cycle the rules. Struggle on with big tasks feeling guilty about overdue simple tasks, use little tasks to displace difficult tasks (and still feel guilty). Take a break and compile a to-do list, that tells you nothing you didn’t already know (and feel guilty again)

In the (a) (b) (c) choice – of do nothing, do the simple tasks you can complete, or do the important tasks that you may not complete. Only the “do nothing” choice is wrong. The right choice is to cycle between the other two. None of this in itself makes the prioritisation any easier – some tasks that look like “do nothing” may really be valuable tasks on some level, and being “honest” about which tasks really are the important ones is full of phychological tricks and self-deceptions (and “category errors” ?).

Hmmm. Strange loops between levels ? Oh, oh, Hofstadter again.

“The world is divided into people who do things, and people who get the credit. Try, if you can, to belong to the first class. There’s far less competition.” (Dwight Morrow)

“People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.” (George Bernard Shaw)

“Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.” (Sir James Barrie)

“A life spent in making mistakes is not only more honourable but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” (George Bernard Shaw)

“One must not confuse thinking with doing nothing.” (anon) Or, in fact “A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is visible labour and there is invisible labour.” (Victor Hugo)

“Time spent thinking outside-the-box is also time spent thinking outside-the-[rewards]-structure.” (Steve Robbins)

“Dialogue is thinking about something with two minds instead of one.” (Daniel Quinn)

Now this really is becoming a displacement activity. Ian. :-)

Post Note : Spookily on “Poetry Please” last night,
Roger McGough presented …

The Old Sailor by A.A. Milne

There once was a sailor my grandfather knew
Who had so many things which he wanted to do
That, whenever he thought it was time to begin
He couldn’t because of the state he was in.

He was shipwrecked and lived on an island for weeks,
and he wanted some breeks;
And he wanted some nets, or a line and some hook
For the turtles and things which you read of in books

And, thinking of this, he remembered a thing
Which he wanted (for water) and that was a spring;
And he thought that to talk to he’d look for, and keep
(If he found it) a goat, or some chickens and sheep.

Then, because of the weather, he wanted a hut
With a door (to come in by) which opened and shut
(With a jerk, which was useful if snakes were about),
And a very strong lock to keep savages out.

He began on the fish-hooks, and when he’d begun
He decided he couldn’t because of the sun.
So he knew what he ought to begin with, and that
Was to find, or to make, a large sun-stopping hat.

He was making the hat with some leaves from a tree,
When he thought, “I’m as hot as a body can be,
And I’ve nothing to take for my terrible thirst;
So I’ll look for a spring, and I’ll look for it first.”

Then he thought as he started, “Oh dear and oh dear!
I’ll be lonely tomorrow with nobody here!”
So he made in his notebook a couple of notes:
“I must first find some chickens” and “No, I mean goats!”

He had just seen a goat (which he knew by the shape)
When he thought, “But I must have a boat for escape.
But a boat means a sail, which means needles and thread;
So I’d better sit down and make needles instead.”

He began on a needle, but thought as he worked,
That, if this was an island where savages lurked,
Sitting safe in his hut he’d have nothing to fear,
Whereas now they might suddenly breathe in his ear!

So he thought of his hut…and he thought of his boat,
And his hat and his breeks, and his chickens and goat,
And the hooks (for his food) and the spring (for his thirst)…
But he never could think which he ought to do first.

And so in the end he did nothing at all,
But basked on the shingle wrapped up in a shawl.
And I think it was dreadful the way he behaved-
He did nothing but basking until he was saved!

I see this story about US Government staff editing (positively and negatively) biographies of various political figures that appear in Wikipedia. A sign of its success I guess.

What is interesting is that when some of the editing was considered to be politically motivated, a Congress spokesperson said “I presume that if they did not want people to edit, they wouldn’t allow you to edit.”

They ? People ? You ?
Talk about missing the point.
Now who’s paranoid ?
What happened to we ?

Still it shows the limitations as well as strengths of Wikipedia. All information is “political” – this way the debate about the words happens in public, until commonly accepted “facts” evolve. Wikipedia will never be perfect, but it will always be getting there.

“Farming Today” story about two different committees of expert advice on crop spraying regulations disagreeing about a safe margin.

When I first heard the 5m margin legislated around the public access edges of farmers’ fields, I kind of assumed it was some statistical tolerance for spraying accuracy, and airborne drift and the like from crop dusters. But nothing of the sort; it’s purely psychological.

Differences of opinion are about the public perception of the margin. Too wide and the public will assume crop sprays (in general) are extremely unhealthy, too narrow and they will perceive them as low risk.

Interesting that the UK police turned a blind eye (initially at least) to the protesters in the Danish cartoon “furies”, where those availing themselves of free speech had extremely explicit organised incitement to hatred, fear and murder (a million miles from any “technical” concept of blasphemy too, or religious disrespect or intolerance).

The initial turning of the blind eye, may prove to be a good move. The outrage in the mainstream press and the affront from moderate moslems voicing “not in my name”, means a sizeable public will have got the message – rather than the negative propaganda coup that might have followed if the police had gone in heavy handed and dragged “peaceful protestors” kicking and screaming off the streets.

Dangerous to assume that was the planned tactic, but well done the Met. (Seems it is normal operational procedure to contain and film, then allow considered response later. No doubt to cover them against mistakes.)

Give ‘em enough rope, so much better than “zero tolerance”, “at all costs” knee-jerks. Delicate balance though, judging by the loss of control at the Beirut embassies.

And of course, the meta-right to satirical-humour in free-speech; the newspaper cartoon that ridicules the police action in ignoring the inciters to violence, whilst booking a motorist for a traffic violation. A healthy sign.

Forget imposed democracy, freedom is a matter of the right to poke fun. Which is where we came in.

Interesting listening to Hama Musa, the Moslem anger at free-speech supporting humourous “insults” against Islam. He accepts that laws (cultural and legislative) in different Islamic and non-Islamic countries have different severities of judging and punishing such “blasphemies”. The fact that in some Islamic countries such offence would be punishable with execution, does not give anyone rights to incite murder or take such actions into their own hands, in any country Islamic or otherwise. Angry reaction yes, free-speech protest yes, incitement to hatred or actual violence, no. So where is the problem ?

The real grievance is perceived double standards in the non-Islamic west, and the special treatment such issues as anti-semitism, anti-zionism and holocaust-denial receive in western legislation. A simple plea in fact; Islam is a “serious” religion of historical significance like Christianity or Judaism, let’s see even handed treatment he says. Same root problem everywhere we look.