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All posts for the month October, 2009

If this were adults rather than children perhaps the “piss-up in a brewery” metaphor might be more apt, but I love the dead-pan delivery of the choices in planning a childrens party from Dave Snowden at Cognitive Edge. I saw Dave do this a few years ago, so it’s good to have the video to share – the point is well made anyway.

“Cross that line you little ba****ds and you die.”

Audience participation for conference speakers ? The common power of the pentatonic scale demonstrated by Bobby McFerrin at the World Science Festival.

After rehearsing just two notes the entire audience is spot on the third – with absolutely no warning of where he’s going next, up or down. And it continues eventually to the tonic / octave via random intervals. Simple but very impressive. (Don’t know anything about WSF - looks a lot like TED – but got the link via StumbleUpon.)

Two ironic points struck me at last night’s Muse gig at Oslo Spektrum. Excellent performance by Matt, Dom and Chris as we have come to expect, and performance is the word.

(1) as Muse repertoire grows, the new stuff slots in with the old quite seamlessly, even though it clearly becomes impossible to experience all your favourites at one gig. The last two albums have been more symphonic, even “themed”, and even they fit the tried and tested Muse pattern – hence the seamless fit – and they’re so damned good at it. BUT … it’s all getting a bit 1970’s overblown pre-punk “concept” album and tour backlash. Don’t go there Muse … back to basics for future variety please, you know it makes sense.

(2) Supporting the audience. Muse have never been great at engaging with their audience, beyond the performance itself (which is of course excellent – see above). If Dom didn’t stop to talk to acknowledge the crowd occasionally – the personal engagement would be zilch. Ironic that when Muse were invited to support U2 recently, Matt noticed that “We must be doing OK, but not as well as them, clearly”. Following that “honour” I have to say Muse (or their tour promoters) need to be taken out and shot for serving up “The Horrors” as a support act to the Muse audience, to any audience.

Interesting edition of Thinking Allowed. Laurie’s newsletter about forgetfulness focussed light-heartedly on the aging process of finding it harder to remember names and faces. In fact the subject matter is more about cultural change and the evolution of greater difficulty in remembering generally – a book by Paul Connerton.

Not simply displacement by overload in the information age – but primarily a loss of a sense of place since the industrial revolution. We cannot mentally attach memory images to stable locations in our environment. Major construction projects used to take lifetimes, and entire home towns and cities our daily locations could be held in view for a lifetime. With construction projects driven by increasingly distibuted economies, locations change and we travel between them so much more day by day, year by year. We are less stably “situated” and have less fixed phsyical hooks in our environment on which to hang mental images that make remembering natural. Interesting idea.

Followed a series of links from Johnnie Moore (on more reflective, indirect approach to “problem solving” when the situation is complex and the “problem” itself not at all clear – reminded me of Terry Eagleton’s “C-Word” reaction to the macho “can do” mentality).

Peter Block …  we have a deeply held belief that the way to make a difference in the world is to define problems and needs and then recommend actions to solve those needs.  We are all problem solvers, action oriented and results minded. It is illegal in this culture to leave a meeting without a to-do list. We want measurable outcomes and we want them now. What is hard to grasp is that it is this very mindset which prevents anything fundamental from changing.  We cannot problem solve our way into fundamental change, or transformation.

Led me to Viv McWaters “Beyond the Edge” – lots of good self-organization / emergence material.

This particular post caught my eye because amongst other things it includes specifc links to the Dutch Road Traffic approach – of removing all instructional road-traffic signs – improving road safety. I frequently quote it, but was beginning to think it was apocryphal, something I’d maybe imagined. Hell no. Wikipedia has the specifics.

The idea of self-organization arising from relatively few simple rules – the old flocking / shoaling “A-Life” simulations – rather than detailed expert instructions on how to achieve some complex end result (which can never work), is fitting with two current threads.

(a) How to handle complex situations, by simplifying the “architectural approach” rather than attempting to simplify the complexity of teh situation itself – which is conserved however you slice and dice “the problem”, (Cue Einstein – “Simple as possible, but not more so.”) and

(b) the “Aha!” moment that this is entirely consistent with the ethical approach to acting local – “tending one’s own garden” – rather than presuming to address a large complex global-scale “crisis” as something with a tractable solution.

(Both also fit another current thread – that ontologies may be a red-herring. Why spend time designing or discovering the best or correct ontology for a given enterprise, and debating which is best, when you can give the means to each player to characterize the ontological relationships with its neighbours ?)

Prompted partly by “And Another Thing” the latest (No.6) in the HitchHiker’s Guide being published, and partly by wanting to remind myself what DNA would really think of Dawkins, I’ve been re-reading the first five parts of the trilogy.

OK, so the film could not do justice to the the constant stream of verbal, philosophically significant gags, since most of them are spoken in narrative by the “chronicler” often by reading the pages of the guide itself – but I say again the film is a good piece of work in presenting a true reflection of the plot and characters of the original.

I’ve been listening to the abridged BBC Book at Bedtime version of “And Another Thing“. True it has the style and many characters & space-time locations and history of the original(s), and the improbability thread, but so far I’m disappointed with the plot content and haven’t picked up any deeper message yet ?

Reading, I’m currently a few chapters into No.5 “Mostly Harmless“.

The original “HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” is uniformly good with a coherent plot we have come to know and love – part of folklore itself now – essentially the earth as a privately commissioned computer just failing in its purpose to solve the “What was the question?” riddle of life, the universe and everything, with a whale and a bowl of petunias thrown out there for good measure.

No.2 “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” is very patchy, and No.3 “Life, the Universe and Everything” is indeed just one long and pretty weak gag on cricket as a universal and deeply significant ritual.

Whilst No.4 “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” makes no sense without the immediately preceding krikket story, it is a much more comprehensive plot, bringing the whole cycle to what might have appeared like a satisfying conclusion … except for the deliberately lame “ending” …

And in an astonishing reversal of normal practice … everybody concerned lived happily ever after. There was a point to this story, but it has temporarily escaped the chronicler’s mind.

But lots of good plot and gags. The rain-god, Fenchurch, the biscuits, the number on the raffle ticket, the flying in Islington, the main dolphin & Los Angeles plot and the unfinished business of Casablanca, which provides that lame ending.

No.5 “Mostly Harmless” is already packed with good stuff. New York, cabs, the hotel, the limo, the reception, the messages and especially the astrology. The reason I paused to post …

Astrologer talking to Trillian (the astro-physicist journalist in the Dawkinsian hyper-rational scientist role).

“I know astrology isn’t a science. Of course it isn’t. It’s just an arbitrary set of rules like British [… jokes deleted …] parliamentary democracy. The rules just got there. They don’t make any sense except in terms of themselves. But when you start to exercise those rules, all sorts of processes start to happen and you start to find out all sorts of stuff about people. In astrology, the rules happen to be about stars and planets, but they could just as easily be about ducks and drakes for all the difference it would make. It’s just a way of thinking about a problem that lets the shape of that problem begin to emerge.” [Post – A “catalytic probe” in Dave Snowden’s complex system terms.]

“It’s like throwing a handful of graphite dust on a sheet of paper … it lets you see the words that were written on the piece of paper above … The graphite’s not important. It’s just the means of revealing [the] indentations. So you see astrology is nothing to do with astronomy. It’s just to do with people thinking about people [and their problems].”

“So, when you got so emotionally focussed on stars an planets [in our earlier interview], I began to think [you’re] not angry about astrology, [you] really are angry and unhappy about actual stars and planets.”

An aside from the Guide [H2G2] on parallel universes …

The H2G2 has, in what we laughingly call the past, had a great deal to say on the subject of parallel universes. Very little of this is however, at all comprehensible to anyone below the level of Advanced God, and since it s now well-established that all known gods came into existence three millionths of a second after the universe began rather than, as they usually claimed, the previous week, they already have a great deal of explaining to do as it is, and are therefore not available for comment on matters of deep physics at this time.

One encouraging thing the H2G2 does have to say on the subject of parallel universes is that you don’t stand the remotest chance of understanding it.

The first thing to realise about parallel universes, is that they are not parallel. It is also important to recognise that they are not, strictly speaking, universes either, but it is easiest if you try and realise that a little later, after you’ve realised that everything you’ve realised up to that moment is not true.

The reason they are not universes, is that any given universe is not actually a thing as such, but just a way of looking at what is technically know as the Whole Sort of General Mish Mash. The WSOGMM doesn’t actually exist either, but is just the sum total of all the different ways there would be of looking at it if it did.

The reason they are not parallel is the same reason that the sea is not parallel. It doesn’t mean anything. You can slice the WSOGMM any way you like and you will generally come up with something that someone will call home.

And speaking of home, later Trillian as a journalist is faced with the scoop of a lifetime when she encounters “aliens” ….

Alien;  looking at the shelves that held her CDs. “Look, Elvis. Some of your people think Elvis has been kidnapped by space aliens.”

Trillian; “What ? Has he ?”

A; “It is possible.”

T; “Are you telling me you have kidnapped Elvis?”

A; “No. Not us. Aliens. It is a very interesting possibility. We talk of it often.”

[Long conversation – fruitless to journalist and astro-physicist Trillian –  in which it transpires the “aliens” don’t really know who they are, where they are from, why they are monitoring earth or who their leader is …]

T; “So what are you doing here on earth then?”

A; “We’ve come to fetch you.” T; “Why?”

A; “Because we have lost our minds. We liked your interview with the astrologer. We see everything. We are very interested in astrology. It is interesting. Not everything is interesting.”

T; “But I don’t know anything about astrology”

A; “We do. Yes. We follow our horoscopes. We are very avid. We see all your newspapers and your magazines and are very avid with them. But our leader says we have a problem. He said someone has to do something around here.”

T; “Ah. Where is here?”

A; “Rupert. Your people call it Rupert. The tenth planet from your sun. We have settled there for many years. It is highly cold and uninteresting there. But good for monitoring.

T; “Why are you monitoring us?”

A; “It’s all we know to do.”

T; “OK. Right. What is the problem  your leader says you have?”

A; “Triangulation. Astrology is a very precise science. We know this. But it is precise for you here on earth. So when Venus is rising in Capricorn, for instance, that is from earth. How does that work if we are out on Rupert? What if Earth is rising in Capricorn? It is hard for us to know. Amongst the things we have forgotten, which we think are many and profound, is trigonometry.

T; “Let me get this straight. You want me to come with you to … Rupert?” A; “Yes.”

T; “To recalculate your horoscopes for you to take account of the relative positions of Earth and Rupert?” A; “Yes.”

T; “Do I get an exclusive?” A; “Yes.”

T; “I’m your girl.” thinking at the very least she could sell it to the National Enquirer.

Just love the multiple levels of irony that the non-scientific methods of astrology are useful in the study of humans, but that the aliens require scientific knowledge of astronomy – from a sceptical scientist / journalist – in order to make use of it from their objective but clueless vantage point.

Not news, but I wanted to capture this 2006 Independent review of Dan Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell – Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.” As a fan of Dennett it was useful to capture a review that made the distance between Dennett and Dawkins clear. OK so Dennett also falls into using the term “scientific” to mean rational in this theological content, and clearly if a theist wants to hold beliefs that conflict with science, then it is the theist’s responsibilitity to make their case scientifically – but then that’s an opinion about science.

For many people,
nothing matters more than religion.
For this very reason,
it is imperative that we learn as much as we can about it.
That, in a nutshell, is the argument of this book.

He does not say,
as some have inaccurately accused him of doing,
that this [religious faith] meme has to act as a malign virus.

Dennett is altogether more “reasonable” than Dawkins. Believing in memes does not have to be accompanied by crass over-reductionist simplification.

Since I see most problems as “evolutionary psychology” at root, you’ll not be surprised that I see a solution looking something like “cultural psychotherapy”, though the jury is still out on how to adminster the treatment.

It was Alastair McIntosh in “Hell and High Water” (Chap 9) that prescribed “cultural psychotherapy” quoted here by Rowan Williams (full transcript and audio). Thanks to Sam for the link. Whether or not Christianity has any monopoly of the kind of “love” needed, Rowan is right when he says

The nature of [any current] crisis could be summed up rather dramatically by saying that it’s a loss of a sense of what life is.  I don’t mean ‘the meaning of life’ in the normal way we use that phrase. I mean a sense of life as a web of interactions, mutual givings and receivings, that make up the world we inhabit

… the ‘specialness’ of humanity turns out to lie in its role as protecting (through the exercise of …. love and intelligence) life overall.

… how we express and activate our relationship with the creator, our reality as made in God’s image.

… what we need is to be reconnected rather urgently with the processes of our world.

… ‘solving’ the problem of climate change as if it were a case of bringing an uncontrolled situation back under rational management, which is a pretty worrying model that leaves us stuck in the worst kind of fantasy about humanity’s relation to the rest of the world.

… we ought to beware of expecting government to succeed in controlling a naturally unpredictable set of variables in the environment or to produce by regulation a new set of human habits.

… our underlying problem is being ‘dissociated’, and we ought to be asking constantly how we restore a sense of association with the material place and time.

My emphases. OK, so instead of “the creator” or “God” an atheist might say “the creative processes” and “creation” but, hey …  it’s the processes all the same. Very consistent with Terry Eagleton and with Alastair MacIntyre. Michael Sandel mentioned too – the great convergence. I feel a longer piece coming on – ever since we came to idolise objects and objectives we’ve lost sight of value in processes of interaction.

I see Operation Noah has been going since 2004. I see also the brief mention of Williams talk also in this news report on the hypocrisy of not tending ones own garden, picks up correctly on the personal attitude & local action focus of the archbishop’s talk.

Only became aware of Imogen Heap recently when I saw a recording of her doing “Coulda Had Religion / Rollin And Tumblin” with Jeff Beck at Ronnie Scotts. Seems, like Stevie Lang, she’s the anonymous female session voice behind so many commercial recordings ? I was intending to check her (and Tal Wilkenfeld) out when I noticed this in the latest TED collection.

I guess to appreciate why the rockin of rollin and tumbling is so knock-out you have to have just heard Imogen do her own Blanket (featuring Jeff Beck) in the same session at Ronnie’s. Voice meets rock.

Nice story in the NYT on the Higgs Boson and other Large Hadron Collider myths.

“… a funny thing that could make us to believe in the theory.”

“… craziness has a fine history in a physics …”

“We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question that divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.” (Bohr)

“an effort to show how the universe as we know it, with all its apparent regularity, could arise from pure randomness”

Why does the latter self-evident fact need further demonstration anyway ? Crazy.

With a few days of enforced rest, and no new unread books left, I’ve been dipping into an odd mix of earlier attempts – Dante’s Inferno, Hitchhiker Trilogy, Heisenberg, Cluetrain Manifesto to name a few. Spurred by the latter no doubt, I checked out what Dave Weinberger is blogging these days :

As we come out of the Age of Information, it’s a good time to ask what information was and what it did to us. In fact, if you ask most people, they can’t actually give you a definition of information. That’s not because they’re stupid in a “ Jay Walk” sort of way. We’ve named an Age after it, and we can’t even say what it means. We as a culture glommed onto  Claude Shannon’s precise, mathematical take-over of the word “information” and applied it non-mathematical ways to everything from music to minds to the cosmos. What was so damn appealing about that word? What did we see in it?

I’m going to “argue” — more accurately: suggest, hint, gesticulate, wave my hands and hope I distract people — that we embraced information because it reinforced and extended some old metaphysical ideas — representationalism, mainly, i.e., the idea that we experience the world via inner mental representations of it. As of tonight, I plan on taking as an example the informationalization of the idea of communication — seeing communication as the transmitting of encoded messages that are decoded by the listener — and will argue (see above qualifiers) that it hides most of what’s important about communication.

The misguided “conduit” metaphor of communication – as if content, meaning, representation and communication were all separate and distinct. And most recently a summary of Larry Lessig’s “Against Transparency” with Dave’s Objections

Transparency is not necessarily good. Especially bad is “naked transparency” … To be helpful, information has to be incorporated into “complex chains of comprehension.” Tansparency leads to untruth. Mere correlations … do not tell us … anything.

Objection: But, revealing those correlations does no harm.
Yes it does! Once the correlation gets in our head, we can’t get rid of it.

Objection: More information will chase out the bad info.
No it won’t! Our attention spans are shot. You can see this everywhere.

The memetic argument. Ideas with mimetic qualities – “easy” communication and fit with received (prejudiced / stereotypical) wisdom – necessarily dominate higher quality ideas that don’t. The more transparant and immediate the communication, the worse the effect.

In no particular order, just to share the passion and power of expression.

The idea …. that Islamic radicals are envious of western freedoms is about as convincing as the suggestion that they are secretly hankering to sit in cafes smoking dope and reading Gilles Deleuze.

A small cabal of dogmatists occupied the white house and proceeded to execute their well-laid plans for world sovereignty like characters in some second-rate piece of science fiction. It was almost as bizarre as Scientologists taking over 10 Downing Street or Da Vinci Code buffs patrolling the corridors of the Elysee Palace.

As president Eisenhower once announced in Groucho Marx style “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious belief – and I don’t care what it is.”

“An excess of light can result in darkness.” – Edmund Burke

“A surplus of reason can become a species of madness.” – Jonathan Swift

I “guessed” in the previous post that Eagleton was a Marxist Christian. He puts that right …

A “congenital Skeptic with mild Baptist leanings”

Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God ?

As well as love, Eagleton is also fond of the word grace. Me too. Here a very long sequence of extracts that just sums up my non-theist view. (In a nutshell – Strong views, lightly held. Binary opposition excludes middles and creates self-reinforcing extremes. Scientific objectivity can be as grotesquely faith-based as any religion. Hyper-rationality is a neurosis.)

Some of those these days who dislike religion do so because they are suspicious of conviction as such … In a pluralistic age, conviction is thought to be at odds with tolerance, so that one would not exist without the other. Postmodernism is allergic to the idea of certainty and makes a great deal of theoretical fuss over this rather modest, everyday notion. As such it is in some ways the flip side of fundamentalism which also makes a fuss about certainty … Some postmodern thought suspects that all certainty  is authoritarian. It is nervous of people who sound passionately committed to what they say. In this, it represents among other things and excessive reaction to fascism and Stalinism. The totalitarian politics of the twentieth century did not only launch an assault on truth in their own time; they also helped to undermine the idea of truth for future generations. The line between holding noxious kinds of belief, and holding strong beliefs at all, then becomes dangerously unclear. Conviction is itself condemned as dogmatic.

Certainties may indeed destroy. But they may also liberate … Liberals hold the conviction that they should tolerate other people’s convictions. On the whole, they are more concerned with the fact of other people’s convictions than their content. They can even be more zealous in the cause of other people’s convictions than their own.

Our age is divided between those who believe too much and those who believe too little – or as Milan Kundera would put it, between the angelic and the demonic. Each party draws sustenance from the other. The age is equally divided between technocratic reason which subordinates value to fact, and a fundamentalist reason which replaces fact with value.

Faith – any kind of faith – is not in the first place a matter of choice. It is more common to find oneself believing something, than to make a conscious choice to do so. – or at least to make such a conscious decision because you find yourself leaning that way already. This is not, needless to say, a matter of determinism …. It is not primarily a question of the will, at least as the modern era imagines that much fetishized faculty.

Such a cult of the will  characterizes the United States. The sky’s the limit, never say never, you can crack it if you try, you can be anything you want: are the delusions of the American dream. For some in the USA, the C-word is “can’t”. Negativity is often looked upon as a kind of thought crime. […]

The Christian way of indicating that faith is not in the end a question of choice is the notion of grace. Like the world itself from a Christian viewpoint, faith is a gift. This means among other things that Christians are not in conscious possession of all the reasons why they believe in God. But neither is anyone in conscious possession of all then reasons why the believe [their beliefs]. Only ultrarationalists imagine that they need be.

Because faith is not wholly conscious, it is uncommon to abandon it simply by thought. Too much else would have to be altered as well. It is not usual for a lifelong conservative suddenly to become a revolutionary because a thought struck him. This is not to say that faith is closed to evidence … or to deny that one can change one’s mind about one’s beliefs. We may not choose our beliefs the way we choose our starters; but this is not to say that we are just helpless prisoners of them. Determinism is not the only alternative to voluntarism. It is just that more is involved in changing really deep-seated beliefs that just changing you mind. The rationalist tends to mistake the tenacity of faith (other people’s faith, anyway) for irrational stubbornness rather than a sign of certain interior depth, one which encompasses reason but also transcends it. [Conversion] involves a lot more than  just swapping one opinion for another. This is one reason why other people’s faith can look like plain irrationality, which indeed it sometimes is.

Copyright (c) Terry Eagleton Reason, Faith and Revolution p136 .. p139.

I need a more conventional theist response to Eagleton ? Anyone ?