All posts for the month August, 2006

Nice article linked by Johnnie Moore. A New Yorker article by James Surowiecki, via Rob May (Business Pundit) whose subscription newsletter I really must read more closely and often.

You can see my comment on Johhnie’s post, but this is another cause vs explanation confusion, where attributing cause looks like reason, but is really just culturally evolved short-hand for more contextual, complex (emergent) reality

Terry Bristol, Director of ISEPP (University of Oregon) introduced the concept of reality as Engineering into the Friends of Wisdom environment, which caught my imagination, because I’m an engineer and came to this space through engineering. (Notice, Linus Pauling and Bob Ulanowizc connections BTW.) And, having been inflicted by Pirsigian Metaphysics of Quality before noticing Dennett’s engineering view of evolution as nature’s problem solving ingenuity imagine my surprise when this turned up. [Hat tip to Anon for now, thanks by the way.]

Spookier still because I was just using Authur C Clarke / Stanley Kubrick’s 2010 fantasy to illustrate on MoQ-Discuss how the future of the cosmos really is in the hands of intelligent life – the intelligence behind the TMA replicates itself and turns Jupiter into a second star in our solar system.

And spookier still, because the first comment refers to Atlas Shrugged !?! Given recent threads on that subject.

The alternative to coincidence is paranoia, surely ?

Interesting also that Terry makes some interesting East v West comparisons of the engineering profession on Friends of Wisdom.

My god it’s full of engineers !

Ben Goldacre, over at the Grauniad-based “Bad Science Blog” does a good job exposing pseudo-scientific tosh.

Anyone who cites Deleuze and Guattari as their main references and uses “fascist” as an adjective to describe ” evidence-based [science]” is on a hiding to nothing, though to be fair Dr David Holmes et al (Ottawa and Toronto) opens with “We can already hear the objections …”

Ben rises to that “challenge”. All I hear (in the comments supporting Ben’s put down) is closed minds with blind-faith in “evidence-based” objectivity – hyper-rationalists. If you’re looking for something more down-to-earth and less “PoMo” against a narrow scientific view of “medicine” try Dr James Willis. Fortunately, those practitioners with good bedside manners, recognise that there is far more to medicine than “science”. (Ironically “House” is playing on the TV in the background.)

The example of the “myxobacter” species of bacteria was used in a presentation I saw a couple of years ago at David Gurteen’s 3rd Knowledge Management Conference, at which David Snowden’s management of complexity was a main theme. [Blogged earlier]. I couldn’t be sure who’s presentation it was and I was unable to track down the original slides, so I did a bit of web research myself. Someone over on MoQ-Discuss wanted a real life example of “emergence” …. this is what I posted a few days ago …

Is it a bacterium, is it a worm, is it a mushroom ?

In an earlier thread when I was trying to explain emergence, I made a passing reference to a particular bacterial lifecycle that produces some very strange emergent effects from many “atomic” individuals, that look very much a higher form of purposeful life. Those bacteria are a group called Myxobacter, and there are several different species that all exhibit variations on this lifecycle.

(1) As bacteria, their normal single-celled life is to sit around in their nutrient medium and multiply individually (vegetatively) by cell division. Drop a few specimens on an agar Petri-dish, and they grow into a spreading slimy mass on the surface. Situation normal.

(2) When they hit limits to nutrients (ie they “sense” starvation) “they” do some funny things collectively.

(3) They start to “collaborate” – they start to “move” in blobs en-mass – sometimes the motion is wavelike – like a flat caterpillar – sometimes sliding like a slimy worm or slug – as if looking to find more nutrients.

(4) If they continue to starve, they (collectively) try a different strategy. They stop travelling and form fruiting bodies and lift them up on stalks – like a mushroom made of zillions of collaborating individuals – they individually start to specialize in their roles in the collective whole. When ready, the fruiting bodies burst and release spore-like individuals into the environment.

(5) Some lucky individuals land somewhere moist and nutritious, and the cycle starts over again from (1)

The question that seems to raise itself is … Clearly the single celled-bacteria are already alive in our biological sense, but as individuals have have no complex structures like brains, nervous systems, or even primitive limbs for locomoton, such as we might find in higher order living things.

Is that purposeful quest for nutrition, and the strategies for moving and dispersing to find it, inherent in each individual, or is it emergent from the complex arrangement and interaction of the collection ?

As one commenter pointed out that behaviour is very close to that of the developing human zygote, rather than that of single-celled individuals.

It’s about time I finished off my Randian piece from earlier.

I’ve finished reading “Atlas Shrugged” a few days ago. Actually I gave up about 300 pages from the end (of 1000), after Galt’s speech to his “troops” in their secret Utopian Atlantis, and could only bring myself to skim the rest including his speech to his “fellow Americans” across the public air-waves. 

I guess it’s a book of its times; hopelessly McArthyist and US-centric in its early 50’s outlook, and no surpise that Rand’s main message is about the good of the individual vs the bad of the collective. I really tried, but I could not discern any argument to support that, or any basis of what makes good other than progress in some sense. No Pirsigian would argue with that, but the whole basis just looked like alien straw-men to me. The whole first two thirds of the book, about the rise of self-made industrialists and then their demise under collective “bad government” is a great argument for the value of “freedom” and a case for needing “good” government, but absolutely no basis for defining either freedom or good, or concluding that any form of collective government is necessarily bad.

Those first two thirds are just so fictionally implausible, not to mention wretchedly written as Alice pointed out, that the final third set in that Utopia where entrepreneurs have withdrawn their services from society at large is just too naive to swallow. A germ of an interesting idea ruined by a dreadful book. I just could not suspend disbelief for 1000 pages.

OK, so why after that does Rand’s “objectivism” look just like evolutionary psychology too ? Let’s be honest here, even Pirsig was writing about society’s values going to the dogs in the 50’s – in our time. Chalk or cheese, it’s still the moon we’re looking at. The trouble is Rand ends where Pirsig started – and what is “good” Phaedrus.

Rand’s objectivism is summarised in her own words “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason his only absolute.” The only clue as to why she sees this as “objectivism” is in the metaphysical foundation of reason. The real clues are in man, his, his, his ….

In fact she further summarises her philosophy as follows :

1. Metaphysics – objective reality
“Nature to be commanded must be obeyed”

2. Epistemology – reason
“You can’t eat your cake and have it too”

3. Ethics – self-interest
“Man is an end in himself”

4. Politics – capitalism
“Given me liberty or give me death”

The confusion here is the implied “man” – the species. She doesn’t say individual, but she does say me, me, me …. (Elsewhere it is clear she abhors any collective concepts.) Clearly she sees man as part of nature and mind as man’s defining tool. Although she doesn’t say it in so many words – she shares the Pirsigian view that the biological and social must not limit the intellectual.

Though logically irrelevant I can excuse her anthropocentric presumption of “man” as the pinnacle of reason (so far). Despite her abhorrence also of determinism – god given or otherwise- she ultimately fails to see that her “absolute” view of the existence of reason and mind places them outside the nature of creativity and progress she holds so dear in other aspects of reality.

Trapped in a psychology that doesn’t recognise its own evolution.
Phew ! May I never have to suffer reading her words again.

[Post note : to follow-up – man’s aim, happiness. Mill, utilitarianism, Heylighen.]

Times are a’changin’, but there is a generalised perception of Americans as somehow ignorant of of global ecological issues, and politically / geographically insular where their direct energy resource interests are not involved. Generally speaking I’m more interested in the perception than the presumption that it might in fact be true or worse still, some “evil conspiracy”.

I’ve seen a fair bit of the globe in my time, spoiled and unspoiled, and having been resident in the US for 4 months now, we’ve travelled a fair bit of this country too. A thought keeps striking me, as we explore rural backwaters, that might give some sense as to why its citizens could easily be blind-sided (media aside) to the world as one interdependent socio-eco-system.

The place is big, with plenty of space (kinda obvious, but not actually all that big considering the distances that can be travelled easily on freeways in a day … don’t talk to me about air-travel). The point is that space, however big it is, is teeming with (a) life, and (b) diversity, and what’s more despite the manicured beautification of sub-urban living, and disneyfication of park attractions, there seems little “respect” for spoiling it. Even the most remote (but road accessible trail-head) trails host discarded food and drink containers at regular intervals.

The quantity and variety of the natural world here constantly amazes me, grasses, flowers, trees, spiders, butterflies, insects and invertebrates of all sizes, birds, snakes, and countless other reptiles and amphibians, before we even get to the larger mammals, and how could I forget the fish. Man’s presence is evident, but any negative impact on the eco-system is hard to imagine. You could easily imagine the garden of eden lives on.

The Positively Pirsig post below referred to an upcoming book by David A Granger of SUNY. David Harding posted a link on MoQ-Discuss to a David Granger paper on Dewey and Pirsig published on the scholarly journal site “Project Muse”.

Turns out to be an excellent paper. Right to the point about Pirsig’s indirect teaching approach to Quality in his Bozeman days being a real example of Dewey’s later ideas on aesthetics leading science. Shared the link with Friends of Wisdom too.

Art, [Dewey] tells us, is best seen more liberally as “a quality that permeates an experience,” whereby, in any number of life contexts, the meanings of objects and events become “the matter of a clarified, coherent, and intensified or ‘impassioned’ experience” …

Modern preoccupation with science and with industry based on science has been disastrous; our education has followed the model that they have set. It has been concerned with intellectual analysis and formularized information …

It is disastrous because it has fixed attention upon competition for control and possession of a fixed environment rather than upon what art can do to create an environment …

It is disastrous because civilization built upon these principles cannot supply the demand of the soul for joy, or freshness of experience; only attention through art to the vivid but transient values of things can effect such refreshment.

Very promising stuff. Look out the re-release publicity for Pirsig’s “Lila”, and the later publication of the Granger book.

Saw Muse on Sunday night at the Tabernacle in Atlanta. (Was due to see them last weekend in Chicago too, but Tornado weather meant our 500 mile flight to O’Hare was delayed, cancelled, re-routed and re-scheduled via Dallas and Des Moines took 32 hours and an overnight stoppover, so I missed the gig.)

Their Atlanta set was

Take a Bow
Supermassive Black Hole
Butterfies and Hurricanes
Forced In (?)
Feeling Good
Soldier’s Poem
Plug In Baby
New Born
Stockholm Syndrome
Map of the Problematique
Time Is Running Out
Knights of Cydonia

Significantly different from the Chicago playlist. Great final six, all anthemic for maximum audience participation with projected chorus lyrics for Cydonia. Not my favourite of the new numbers, but it worked. The highlight had to be Map and TIRO. Map is firmly my current favourite, can’t stop hitting the repeat button, particularly as the next number on the CD is the low key Soldier’s Poem.

Sound not too good, plenty loud and plenty of gut-curdling sub-bass, but the lead guitar and synth / keyboard voices and vocals too indistinct in the mix. Pretty static audience until the final six. Another excellent performance though.

Ant tipped us off that Robert Pirsig had been interviewed for The Times to coincide with the re-release of Lila in the UK, and the upcoming publication of David Granger’s book “Dewey, Pirsig and the Art of Living“. Here is the Times Online article by John Freeman.

Excellent optimistic interview ““I think this philosophy could address a lot of the problems we have in the world today” he says, leaning forward, tapping the pad of paper. “Just so long as people know about it.” Says Bob.

(Lots of the biographical summary looks straight from my pages, and in fact Bob confirms John Freeman did his homework using the timeline.)

(I think I blogged this earlier review of 60’s & 70’s that mentions ZMM, Bob’s first book.)

A riveting read, the recordings and transcripts from the Norad Tapes (North-East US Air Defence) during the 9/11 attacks, annotated by Michael Bronner producer of the movie “United 93”.

Truth is so much better than fiction or spin in this case. Should leave conspiracy-theorists with little doubt about cock-up-realities. Restores your faith in humanity, all except Cheney’s “dark bravado” that is. BTW where is he right now ? 

Vanity Fair via Robot Wisdom

Upgraded to WordPress 2.0.5 yesterday and installed Akismet comment-spam-killer today. And it all seems to be working. Long overdue, I was running at 70 odd per day, and it was getting very tiresome to filter by hand before allowing comments through.

One observation on the arrangement, I use WordPress s/w from WordPress.ORG hosted at Dreamhost.COM, but Akismet requires registration with services from WordPress.COM ? Anyway, as I say it seems to be working.

Following links in no particular order …

I noted Pirsig location links in Chicago at the weekend (Navy Pier etc.) and also noticed the Adler connection – the Adler Planetarium specifically, and wondered at the Robert Maynard Hutchins / Mortimer (Jerome) Adler “great books” and classical philosophy connection behind Pirsig’s nemesis at that Chicago University location, “chairman” Richard McKeon. Anyway, no direct connection between Mortimer and Max (Adler) other than a common name, common amongst Jewish immigrant fathers of their generation.

Anyway given that that was a dead end …. the interesting point was another cross-link to J S Mill – very influential on Adler (Mortimer) – and ahead of his time I suggested recently.

Couldn’t resist a cross-link to Intellectual Whores. Plenty of irony and humour in the site, but I daren’t stick my neck out and suggest this piece is a spoof. Serious or spoof it highlights the excluded middle.

Evolutionary psychology may explain how all real life (above and beyond theoretical physics and repeatable laboratory experiments) actually works and how it came to be that way, but that does not suggest how any individual or class of human(s) can “exonerate” itself from responsibilities. Understanding how and why those responsibilities evolved can indeed re-inforce why they are important and what makes some more important than others.

This is the usual explanation vs causality confusion IMHO.

This just in … a quote from Steven Pinker “An evolutionary understanding of the human condition, far from being incompatible with a moral sense, can explain why we have one.” … Even if it cannot reliably predict causal outcomes – but who can ? [Quote from John Brockman’s “Intelligent Thought” reviewed in Nature and publicised via his “Edge” site.]