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All posts for the month September, 2012

richarddawkins.net appears to be US focussed.

The mission of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science is to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and suffering.

That mission is encouraging for two reasons, despite the focus on critical-thinking and evidence-based understanding.

(1) It acknowledges Reason AND Science are two different things.

(2) It’s against religious fundamentalism specifically, but not against faith, theism or religion or any other philosophical positions generally.

Ultimately with this debate (when we make progress with sensible exchanges) it falls back to so what counts as Reason, Critical-Thinking and Evidence-Based, without being overly (fundamentally) scientistic about it. Not everything that counts can be counted or objectively measured necessarily. What counts is about values.

From BlueGiantBeer – The Diary of a Beer Tourist

One thing I have learnt about writing a blog over the past couple of months is that less is more. I have therefore dispensed with the reams of nonsense of the previous “About” section. It was written with the best of intentions but embodied the over elaborate, egotistical, drivel of blogging that I’ve come to thoroughly dislike.

Last week I was in Cask Pub and Kitchen in Brighton banging on to an unassuming couple about the “science” behind milk stout. They seemed to appreciate the impromptu beer lesson. When I explained that I was from Bristol they concluded that I must be some kind of beer tourist. It’s a good description of all the good beery people I’ve come to meet recently. Striving to try as much good beer in as many different locations as possible.

BlueGiantBeer is part diary, part resource and part self massaging ego stick. I hope you enjoy it.

“Beer. Now there’s a temporary solution.”
– Homer J Simpson

Rang a chord with me, although as fellow beer tourist, I clearly went to BlueGiantBeer for the BrewDog story initially. My own blog has had a “Manifesto” since its inception (there weren’t ready-made about pages back when I started) and have several times edited down the over pompous verbosity – and still each time I look at it, I know I could do better, even now. It’s not that the aims were wrong, though clearly they do evolve, and their expression is refined to the essentials.

Less is more is a common thread here, but it’s also about simplification, which can only be done after understanding; after the journey through the process from naive to wise. Simplistication can be done anytime to fit a snappy 140 character sound-bite, but that doesn’t make them any good.

[Manifesto is a pompous word to claim in itself – but it does own up to there actually being an agenda – I have retained the link to the cringe-worthy original, along with the (slightly) improved latest text so that I (and you) can compare progress. Of course my footnote on every page also owns up to the contrast between undoubtedly lofty agenda vs admittedly puny individual contribution. ]

Hat tip to David Gurteen for the link.

Been thinking about people like Ricky Gervais and Frankie Boyle, and “rights” concerning insult and offence generally. If you are the court jester and your audience recognizes you as such, then being offensive is not just your right, but your duty – it’s in the job description (*), and traditionally you’d be given a silly hat or costume to wear just in case the it wasn’t  clear in the context that you are the jester. Different cultures have different distinguishing roles, for poets and mystics / shamans too, but the idea is the same. Limits are then simply matters of taste  between you in that role and your audience; a gratuitous stream of offence without apparent wit or irony, art or craft, or any point other than to offend, wears thin pretty quickly too.

There are two sources of confusion.

One, when such jesters start to appear as spokespeople or journalists on issues – like atheism in Ricky’s case, or any topic when writing in a mainstream publication in Frankie’s case. No doubt about Ricky’s commitment, and his right to express his imperfect knowledge and opinions on his subject, but there can be a blurring between his rights of expression as an individual and rights (duties *) as the court jester.

Secondly,  whilst people would normally agree no-one has a right never to be offended by anyone else, this does not however correspond to an individual human right to offend anyone else, anytime. Confusion arises when people trying to be funny when exercising their rights of expression, ironically or accidentally giving offence, also start to take advantage of increasing ease of publication via blogging / micro-blogging / youtube channels. It’s the audience that makes you the court jester. (In the same way as Breivik speaking for his perceived cause, doesn’t make him the spokesperson for an actual shared cause.) By definition the jester is in a socially controlled minority position, we can’t all adopt that role.

Not only is there no general right to offend, there is no general right to use angry violence either to perpetrate the offence (in Breivik’s case) nor in response to the offence taken (in the radical Moslem reaction to the recent YouTube offence – the point of the piece above.) Ironically I have just begun reading Joseph Anton, starting with the original fatwa against Salman Rushdie, another misappropriation of Moslem lore.

Specifically, being atheist doesn’t give anyone the right to offend a theist just because you disagree with their (apparent) position so much you think they must be mad or deluded. The right is to challenge and disagree, negotiate and debate for sure, but not to offend. Offence may be a last-resort attention-grabbing rhetorical weapon used sparingly, (more than sparingly if you are the relevant court-jester like Christopher Hitchens) but cannot be a basis for general discourse.

(*) One reason it’s a duty to offend by poking fun, is that since such behaviour is inappropriate for general and formal authoritative channels, it provides just such a channel for expression of the otherwise inexpressible. Whilst the king was looking down, the jester stole his thorny crown.

Another hat tip to David Morey; we have a dialogue going between emails, Facebook and the blogs, and David keeps picking up excellent source references. Here the latest example: A conference speech from the Bank of England analysing the banking crisis.

The Tower of Basel metaphor is about less is more – a few simple rules are better than a stack of complex regulations (a recurring theme in itself). Why ? Well, the opening quote says most of it:

Catching a frisbee is remarkably common. Casual empiricism reveals that it is not an activity only undertaken by those with a doctorate in physics. It is a task that an average dog can master. Indeed some, such as border collies, are better at frisbee-catching than humans.

So what is the secret of the dog’s success? The answer …  is to keep it simple. For studies have shown that the frisbee-catching dog follows the simplest of rules of thumb: Humans follow an identical rule of thumb.

I’ve used the tennis player returning a fast serve before (the example quoted from Wegner) but the principle is the same. In reacting to dynamic situations (like living life, for example) it doesn’t pay to rationally analyse and calculate every objective variable involved, not forgetting all questions of predictability. Remember in the tennis example, there are two humans involved – add in game theory – not just one dog / human and an inanimate ball / frisbee. I’ll let you decide which is closer to economic behaviour. But, to succeed, it pays to have a minimum number of heuristic rules of thumb that can be applied instinctively.

This isn’t to say that objective, scientific analysis and empirical testing of all variables doesn’t add to knowledge of the situation (obviously), nor that heuristic rules shouldn’t be updated in the light of feedback from both theoretical and practical knowledge (again, obviously) – but remember, that dog isn’t actually doing calculations, even with simple rules.

The rules regulating reality should remain simple heuristics that can be applied instinctively – without rational objective analysis and calculation as part of the process of regulation.

“It’s not reality but it works better.”

To quote McGilchrist.

[Post Note : For the Wegner and McGilchrist references – see indirectly via this previous post, also bringing Dave Snowden into this whole agenda – the latter in particular is closest to this business management consulting context in recognising important pitfalls around simple and simplistic, chaotic, complex and complicated.]

I often feel people misunderstand when I don’t join the mob campaigns … demanding prosecute the bankers, prosecute the police, prosecute the politicians, ban faith schools, ban the lords, etc … It’s not that I don’t see the wrongs, or I’m too lazy to engage my one voice with the larger mob, it’s because I feel I’ve moved beyond that to attacking the root of the problem: Redressing the “western” illusion of reality that pervades all organized and institutional human activities, and how that illusion is the natural result of the evolution of mind.

The really worrying sign of how deeply engrained the problem is, is that its realization as the problem is as old as human history, at least 4000 BCE, and yet still we plough on. Each cycle of fashion in philosophy or governance seems to be ratcheting inexorably in the wrong direction. Massive good and progress within each cycle, naturally, but the general trend, the net results … oh dear. Darwin’s dangerous idea is as true and inevitable as the sun rising tomorrow, more so in fact (one day the sun will not rise tomorrow), but it doesn’t “learn” from history, as we imagine (hope) humans might – it’s “inhuman”. It’s going to take more than hope.

Another of David Gurteen’s cycle of quotes is this one from Thoreau.

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.
Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)

Is that the arrogance of an individual ego “I’m wiser than the mob” ? Guess it could be, there are enough quotations around about lone nuts and prophets in their own lands, the child who sees the emperor or the boy with his finger in the dyke, but at root it’s a genuine plea to the many and their institutional edifices.

Interesting to look at the sociology of friends & followers linking via Facebook and Twitter. Some people set great store by their numbers (millions) of likes, friends and followers. Certain public politicians and entertainers in particular.

The mighty Muse have a free charity gig at the Camden Roundhouse on 30th Sept, just a couple of weeks away. The official page promoting that gig has a link to the competitive ballot process for tickets “coming soon”. There are 77 likes, 4 tweets and 39 shares, which have been static for at least an hour, on that page. Presumably no-one is sharing the link – until their own name is in the ballot. Who me ?

Amazing that both Muse (Matt Bellamy and co) and PiL (John Lydon and co) are in the TV studio together for the first show of the new Jools series Later on BBC2.

Muse the musically-and-entertainment-wise excellent-but-probably-past-their-best OTT stadium prog rockers, and PiL the original post-punk new-wave been-to-hell-and-back riding the crest of their third (and currently their best) wave. The two bands (incidentally) mentioned most in the life of this blog.

Matt, Chris and Dom could no doubt learn a thing or two from John, Lu, Scott and Bruce. Here’s hoping.

Eric Pickles writing in the Telegraph today.

When in office, New Labour’s spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, declared: “We don’t do God.” By contrast, I think this Government does. We are committed to the right of Christians and people of other beliefs …

Non-sequitor. Being Christian and believing in God are entirely different. Jesus is a much mythologised good-life / life-style prophet with a love of fellow man on which a great deal of western culture is built. Fact. I/we are part of that culture. Does the narrative of a “good” culture depend on a Jesus – no, but that does’t change the historical fact. God on the other hand, a personal, sensible agent on which the workings of the world literally depend, is part of the mythology, simply one myth too far.

The mythological history of our culture is a fact, the contents of the mythology are, well, …. mythological, a mix of practical common sense and experience, tangled up in communicable parables and stories of doubtful origin involving mythological beings along the way of its evolution.

As an atheist / humanist I wouldn’t identify myself, define myself in terms of being, “a Christian” but you’d need to be an ostrich to deny the culture you come from.

[Post Note : responding indirectly to Sam’s comment below – even the top jew refers to the top atheist as a “christian atheist”.]

First in the new series of In Our Time, on The Cell. Steve Jones as one of the panel of three enthusiasts talking about what they know best. Origins of life, via Schroedinger to RNA, DNA, membranes, mitochondria and chloroplasts and so forth on what cells are, how they came to be and how they work.

Early on, to illustrate the proportion of human cells to bacterial cells in a human body, Steve suggests; think of one leg filled-up to just below the knee with human cells – the rest is bacteria.

[Post note ; unconnected to this programme, but just now – two weeks later – I’m reading Stuart Kaufman’s “Reinventing the Sacred” and it majors on the wonders of cell complexity – how we have become hooked on the digital information simplicity of DNA/RNA/Genes /G/A/C/T/U et al and completely overlook the other self-organizing wonders of life in both evolution and individual ontogeny.]

Interesting that the customer service contacts of these food companies all seem to use Google and Wikipedia to answer customer questions about sources and processes of their products.

Not sure we ever got to the “bottom” (beyond speculation in the broadcast material) of how the LGG Probiotic bacteria really are originally sourced, but no surprise they are factory cultured in production quantities thereafter.

The grapefruit processing is an eye-opener – not the blanching and manual peeling, but the hydrochloric acid and caustic soda treatments. Must use a lot of water too to wash away the chlorine / chloride by-products – and what about the natural citric acid, if processed to neutralisation?

None-too incisive journalism, but interesting first in a new series, with James and Martin of Brewdog as well as Kate Quilton and Matt Tebbutt.