All posts for the year 2008

Posted verbatim from Laurie Taylor’s Thinking Allowed newsletter …

Welcome to the Thinking Allowed Newsletter – Doctor Dyt and Wittgenstein

Wednesday 17 December 2008 –
Repeat Sunday 21 December 2008

I had a university tutor in psychology who was popularly known as Doctor Dit.  For a couple of terms I assumed along with my fellow students that this was an innocent nickname.  But then one day I was told by a postgraduate that it was really an acronym.  It was not DIT but DYT and the letters stood for Define Your Terms.

It was a very appropriate designation.  Whereas other tutors would positively encourage some debate in their seminars, the man known as DYT would immediately bring any such discussion to a halt by a demand for definitions.  It was not unlike being repeatedly hit over the head ‘Right.  Taylor, what is value of optical illusions in the study of perception?’ ‘Well,’ one would begin, ‘When your eyes are deceived it could be that the deception is the inappropriate application…’ ‘Not so fast, Taylor.  You said ‘deception?’ ‘That’s right’ ‘Define your terms.  Define your terms.’

Over coffee in the basement canteen we’d wonder about the nature of Dyt’s home life.  We’d construct scenarios in which Mrs Dyt turned to him over breakfast coffee one morning and announced her dissatisfaction with the sexual side of their marriage.  ‘We don’t make love any more.’  That would really get Dyt going.  ‘Make love?  Make love?  Define your terms.  Define your terms.’

Now that I look back on my time with Doctor Dyt, I feel more sympathetic to his intellectual crusade.  What he wanted to do was purge the world of all ambiguity and ambivalences.  He envisaged a time when people only used terms with precise definitions, a time when every flower in his intellectual garden would be precisely labelled.

Only when we reached that happy state, when the undergrowth of uncertainty had been cleared away, would we be able to arrive at hard and fast truths about the world.

But, of course, Dr Dyt’s enterprise was doomed to failure.  Words simply won’t sit still and have precise definitions hung around their necks.  Their meaning slips and slides: it is determined as Wittgenstein maintained by their many uses:

“Think of the tools in a toolbox: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screwdriver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws.  The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.  (And in both cases there are similarities.)  Of course, what confuses us is the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken or meet them in script or print.  For their application is not presented to us so clearly.”

I’ve plucked that quotation from the introduction to Key Concepts in Education, a new book by Fred Inglis and Lesley Aers which doesn’t so much offer clear-cut definitions of such familiar educational terms as Assessment, Citizenship, Curriculum, Literacy and Pedagogy, as show how such terms have been variously used by people with different material and philosophical interests.  Dr Dyt would not have approved.

Join me and Fred Inglis at four o’clock today or after the midnight news on Sunday or on our readily down-loadable podcast.

Also in today’s programme. Why the Chinese economic miracle may already be a thing of the past.


NB:Key Concepts in Education by Fred Inglis & Lesley Aers (Sage Publications Ltd – ISBN 9781412903158)

Ah, slippage.

This New Scientist article on the Intelligent Design crowd reinforcing the dualism of mind stuff distinct from material stuff, as part of a theism vs Darwinism debate passed me by in my recent move a couple of months ago.

I’m pretty clearly a physicalist, a non-reductive materialist … both material-stuff and meaning-stuff arising from the same physics, but even the most scientific metaphysics requires its “first-cause” somewhere in the loop, ie even if the loop of existence has no beginning or end it has to “arise” out of something, some causal explanation. I’ve said many times that causation (in general) is the weirdest elusive thing in this whole stack of turtles.

P Z Myers Pharyngula blog on this article was picked-up by David Chalmers in his Fragments. David is one of those undoubtedly “clever” philosophers I’ve never quite “got” what his distinctive point is. As I type this I recall where I got stuck on his “supervenience” angle on causation, in fact reminded of that because as I perused his latest taxonomy of philosophy I couldn’t help noticing that “Causation” was the first entry under metaphysics with many topics under it (OK so C is early in the alphabet) … but I keep coming back to the point, whatever your metaphysics, your logic of causation has a hole in it somewhere … a first (or “necessary” injection of) cause.

David like most people in this debate, me included I guess, are keen to distance any intelligent designer God vs Darwinian explanations of emergence of complexity and design, from any mind-matter dualism debate.

David … a dualist in this regard … seems quite happy with his “Matrix” model … our whole world could be a (computer) simulation idea. Logically it’s as good a way as any to plug the hole in your metaphysics, even if it sounds far-fetched sci-fi, to posit a god-like software programmer .. but that sounds like a pretty intelligent designer to me, and a very weak way to suggest this is not really still about a theist / Darwinist deate too.

Whether you subscribe to a large measure or negligible measure of the intelligent teleological-looking design arising in Darwinian ways or not, there is a always a small measure of first-cause or pre-existence of the matrix itself … even if, as in my current case, that matrix is just the chaotic void pre-existing either mind or matter.

So far as I can see, pragmatism is the only response to this missing link. Reaching for a fantastical sky-hook is only ever a stop-gap, a Jamesian holiday from intellectual effort, even if it is a very long-lived, useful and therefore very valuable stop gap.

[PS – Aside – Distinguishing explanation from causation .. compare with Dennett on distinguishing physical determinism from morally free will.]

Being sold on e-Bay, Nancy Pirsig’s motorcycle jacket.

This leather jacket belongs to the ex-wife of author Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), whose married name was Nancy Pirsig. She is selling it because she doesn’t need it, since she now lives in a warm climate and no longer rides a motorcycle.

It was purchased around the late sixties or early seventies, and worn on many motorcycle trips – day or weekend trips in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

In the photo, taken in the Pirsigs’ St. Paul driveway in the early seventies, you can see Bob Pirsig in the background.

Proceeds from this sale will go into a college fund for Nancy and Bob’s grandson.

The e-Bay seller on Nancy’s behalf is Ted Pirsig, son of Bob & Nancy, father of said grandson.

List from the Beeb. White Lies sound like the pick of the bunch, but Little Boots and Empire of the Sun (feat Luke Steele, ex Perth WA) err … interesting.

Saw local bands Kill Your Darlings and Hallucinations the other night at Cafe Kaos. Both different but good, though incredibly short sets. Hallucinations technically accomplished amplified-acoustic bluesy-folk-rock guitars and vocals with a locomotive rhythm section driving em on, and virtuoso harmonica thrown in. Kill Your Darlings with intro loops and grungey heavy guitar, maximum effect for minimum technique, decent vocals, inventive beats and a really entertaining drummer.

Having moved twice in recent years, with a growing library of books, I recognize a lot of these issues / traits. I do have a few “unread” and a few “incompletely read” but I doubt that’s more than 2%. So many different ways to organize the reasons for keeping different selections of books, though in my case a large proportion are all relatively recent acquisitions, but I would never dump a book because I didn’t approve of it … it seems I need to own any book I have an opinion about … an opinion based on having read it that is :-)

The hardest category are those that seemed important to know, but ended-up partly read after leaving me cold, no real opinion either way … kept just in case I will see them differently in some future context.

[Post Note Dec 7th : Had to add this link to a piece by Clive James, touching on very similar material about his disorganized writing space, but also bringing in Clausewitz and the chaos of entropy (the fog of war) from which order often emerges. Also had to add it because his previous week’s magazine piece … on the recently released film of the Bader-Meinhof story … was equally witty, but a little too pontificatory for many of his readers.]

Just capturing this modern version of the Quadrivium from Wendy Ellyat … (in Inclusional correspondence) …

Arithmetic – numbers in themselves
Geometry – numbers in space
Music – numbers in time
Cosmology – numbers in space and time

Maybe (after Kline) the last two are both in space & time but one is natural the other is applied, but Wendy’s statement is better ?

Seems I’m not alone in being annoyed by Limelight Networks LLC. Seems both Akamai and MIT sued them, and so did Level 3, the largest Tier-1 network provider underlying so many major ISP’s. LLNW on the other hand are a big media content service provider with their own dedicated networks, but only a very small 1% or 2% of their delivery involves the any-to-any long tail (a million audiences of one) of the internet cloud.

I have no idea how their business model involves constantly hitting my site, I had guessed (wrongly – post note – correctly in fact) they were some web-crawler gathering links (associated maybe with the Uni of Ariz at Tempe) but I could never see any pattern in their hits or any resulting consequences, beyond the hits themselves. Had a big surge in their hits in the last few days, beyond almost random single post / zero dwell time hits, the hits now involve many multiple post / page hits with total dwell times of many minutes (up to 40mins). I would say for any periods I have monitored, there have been ten times as many LLNW hits as any other (even Google users).

What is going on Limelight ? You are skewing my hit stats beyond anything useful, unless I know how to account for yours. My content is miniscule beer compared to yours.

[Post Note – This has been the subject of much blog correspondence. and 

And here is the explanation

So it is a crawler (a spider called Charlotte) which uses LLNW in Tempe, AZ, from a Mountain View, CA address of , which explains another rash of hits.]

Mentioned to Island in the comment thread about the Multiverse below, the problem that otherwise credible stories in physics are accompanied by mathematical theory near incomprehensible to laymen such as myself. I had this feeling previously when trying to understand the “Dirac Nilpotent Rewrite” behind the Rowlands and Diaz work in quantum information theory.

Reminded of this, I took a look at the latest BCS Cybernetics Group page and followed the link to Peter Rowlands 2007 book “From Zero to Infinty” and browsed the index, preface and first chapter on “Zero”. I think two facts did strike me in the maths.

Firstly, the “zero sum game” effect of creating something from nothing, where that something is plus & minus, real & anti stuff in physics … those mysterious perturbations in the vacuum. The potency of zero.  Of course potency doesn’t explain how, just the possibility, so that’s a different story.

Secondly, “re-write as algorithm” and the emergence of patterns within patterns not present in the original algorithm, simply by repeated application of the algorithm, to the zero in this case. Not just something from nothing, but something complex and interesting from nothing. Hofstadter (patterns within patterns)  and Dennett (evolution as algorithm) and of course Wolfram (ANKOS) jumped out at me as I read pages 12 to 16 of Chapter 1.

Plenty of promise in the preface too …

Obviously, no one expects to succeed instantly with a theory that will simply explain everything. What we would hope to do is to find a process, a systematic way of proceeding with strong indications that we were on the right track. This is what is being aimed at in this book. Positions that are rejected from the outset in the search include model-dependent theories of any kind; the aim of the work is resolutely abstract.

Again, we must reject the idea that a single cosmic creation event has structured the laws of physics in a particular way, and that they could have been different in different circumstances. The idea could, in principle, be true, but then we would have no abstract subject of physics, no generality, no absolute mathematics, and no meaningful concept of conservation, the process which makes physics universal. The very idea that we could discover a unified theory of physics is impossible in such a context. Physics is fractured in the very act of creation. In addition, such explanations have the habit of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. We simply refer difficulties to special conditions that occurred in the ‘early universe’, and deprive ourselves of understanding fundamental physical phenomena which ought to be valid at all places in all epochs.

Am I seeing a pattern ?

I intuitively like this sticking to the fundamental nature of physics, rather than allowing variations in different postulated universes, … as if. Didn’t I also recall something in both Chalmers and Deutsch (quite separate work in separate fields) about nothing being possible in a “virtual” world that wasn’t also possible (ie didn’t violate fundamental physics / metaphysics) in the real world ? As if impossible and inconceivable were really the same thing. Am I digressing ?

Thanks to Piers Young at Monkey Magic for the link to this article from Discover.

A good summary of issues based on interviews by Tim Folger with working scientists in the field, many of whom I’ve quoted before on psybertron. Strange how the multiverse idea is still seen as the most convincing solution to the fine tuning problem – it was David Deutsch and quantum information people that first alerted me to that. Like if string theory is no explanation (because it simply supports just about any empirical outcome) multiverses are really just the same solution. An explanation of “anything” is not a theory of everything, it’s a theory of nothing. Infinitely many possible universes to account for the “coincidence” of finding ourselves in this Goldilocks (just-right) universe by chance. No wonder people prefer “god” to the “oops” argument.

Still think the problem is the view of the appearance of coincidence and the scientific knee-jerk to explain that coincidence objectively, whereas there is a subjective, anthropic angle to the perceived improbability in the first place. What we should really be looking for is an existing mistake in explanations of what has already been perceived and “accepted” as proven science … Island, I believe you are onto something. See previous “anthropic” threads.

This is just the usual conspiracy vs cock-up perception. When “low quality” things (bad things with bad explanations) look well organized and “intentional”, there is invariably a cock-up or two behind the scenes, and the embarassment factor in exposing cock-ups invariably leads to actions that “look like” intentional cover-up. A double-whammy for the conspiracy theorists. Pretty basic organizational behaviour theory in my book. Science is made of people, like anything else, and one thing people are very badly programmed to do is learn from mistakes.

So it goes … roll on wisdom.

Had one of those transatlantic (twelve hours of sunset) opportunities to get a bit of reading in last week, a week in Boston. (Incidentally encountered Steven Pinker in the hotel bar, though left him undisturbed deep in conversation with another, having just explained he was my second favourite evolutionary psychology / linguistic philosopher, after Dan Dennett whose Dangerous Idea I had just recently finished re-reading.) Anyway, departing Gardermoen, I picked-up a double anthology of Kurt Vonnegut, his “Welcome to the Monkey House” and “Palm Sunday” collections of short stories, articles, speeches and auto-biographical sketches.

Wonderful stuff, such varied material with such uniform wit. From the Mills-n-Boon-esque piece entitled “Long Walk to Forever” by the women’s magazine that published what turns out to be the true story of how KV met his future wife, to the sci-fi offerings of “The Barnhouse Effect” and “The Euphio Question”. Lots of material drawn from his Cape Cod home experience, the scripted romance of “Who Am I This Time” and the wonderful punchline to “The Hyannis Port Story”

Apart from the intriguing family-life back-story to his own biography, my favourites are the “Nazi Sympathizer Defended At Some Cost” (Celine) and its counterpoint “Nazi City Mourned At Some Profit” (Dresden – the subject of best-selling “Slaughterhouse Five”). Turns out my Vonnegut readings, all since his death last year, Cat’s Cradle and the latter he rates as his 5 out of 5 efforts. Blogged reviews of both. A lasting impression of Slaughterhouse Five is “So it goes …” as individuals die along the way, but I hadn’t noticed the “…” and affectation of my own punctuation I seem to have avoided so far …

Turns out to have been a feature KV had picked-up from Louis Ferdinand Celine … someone new (1894 – 1961) to add to my reading list.

Blogging a lot of links to Peston’s Picks these days. Same subject, but for a change this one has an optimistic silver-lining tone after so many panic-stations downers recently.

Be interesting to see what Goodwin does with his wealth and knighthood, once he goes (if he goes). Might he stay on as the manager who “serves” his people – wishful thinking ? But I’m watchin’ fella.