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All posts for the year 2013

A second review vignette from Dennett’s greatest hits.

As I’ve said many times when Richard Dawkins sticks to evolutionary biology, he’s a great writer and a credible scientist, but when he joins (leads!) the science vs religion fray all he does his display his inadequacies as a philosopher, politician or general factotum saviour of humanity. (Jerry Coyne less / more so, but with less pretence.) Unlike Dennett, a colossus straddling both science and philosophy, or (say) Bronowski before him.

Dennett also considers Dawkins a great writer on evolutionary biology. Chapter 38 of his “Intuition Pumps” is, almost in its entirety, a 3 page direct quotation from Dawkins “The Ancestor’s Tale” to which Dennett feels unworthy to add even any editorial value. [A passage inspired by Matt Ridley on the subject of the metaphor of genes not so much as words or sentences as stock-phrases or sub-routines, to continue Dennett's unbroken computing thread.]

In fact, in the next chapter Dennett introduces Dawkins (and Coyne) as “two of my most esteemed colleagues and friends” … as a prelude to demolishing their positions.

Remember Dennett’s book is about thinking tools, methods and processes for making progress, and a recurring agenda theme is discovering error and learning from mistakes. Here he is pointing out the dangers of overly defending a strongly held position, investing in defenses, exaggerating the territory held, raiding enemy territory, generally behaving as warlike thugs – being the worst form of argument if your objective is progress.

It’s a corollary of Dennett’s “intentional stance” that the world of possibilities is a multi-dimensional “design space” and so many of his metaphors involve R&D and Engineering. Questions of what things are designed to do, how they came to be designed the way they are, and how any such designs came to be implemented at the expense of others. If it quacks like a duck, why not use the word design? Remember real intentional systems with designs in mind do arise in this real world, so why make the intentional stance – the very idea of design (with purpose towards meaning*) – some kind of taboo to be vilified at every turn. Understanding is better than denial.

“I disagree with the policy [of denying design], which can backfire badly. They [Harvard medical students] seriously underestimated the power of natural selection, because evolutionary biologists had told them, again and again, that there is no actual design in nature, only the appearance of design.”

The biosphere is utterly saturated with design, with purpose, with reasons.”

Turn the other cheek to your perceived enemies and listen to your real friends, Dawkins, and maybe Coyne and other lapdogs will follow their leader.

[Did I mention? Dan Dennett "Intuition Pumps" is a thoroughly recommended read - I see it made Brain Pickings books of 2013 list too. Read and learn.]

[(*) intentionality itself concerns "aboutness" - the idea than syntax (structure in the world) might entail some semantic (meaning) - some aspect of one thing being about (or significant to) another. Linguistically and practically, it's a short step to intention and purpose (and design), and indeed the intentional stance positively advocates this leap, but it's important to bear in mind that intentionality itself is more fundamental to the underlying facts of the matter or not, as the case may be.]

Blogging after quite a hiatus, more of which in the next post, and reading a first book since October, the two not unconnected.

Received Dan Dennett’s “Intuition Pumps – and Other Tools for Thinking” as a Christmas present, and I’m about a third through. No secret here on Psybertron that I’m a big fan of Dennett, and Intuition Pumps is a retrospective reflection on many of his meta-thought-experiments about thinking, collected from his previous 45 years of writings. Many re-writes of pieces he’s published and presented several times himself and many, as he points out, anthologised multiple times by other editors. So in a sense, nothing new.

But Dennett’s voice is always readable and what this compilation brings is the selection and editorial commenting and re-phrasing, a cleaner re-phrasing of the core points stripped of any potentially misleading clutter. Dennett himself, as well as his reader, has learned a lot in 45 years. Even then, after 8 sets of 70-odd one-tool-per-chapter over 400-odd pages, there’s a whole chapter on what got left out (and where to find them). Not-included include the famous Where Am I examples derived from the Brain in a Vat thought experiment, nor the eight examples known as Quining Qualia.

One thing the editorial revisit brings, is rephrasing that counters any misleading interpretations introduced by earlier wise-cracking zingers intended to demolish adversaries. With hindsight, rhetorical put-downs may have overstated one’s argument and missed important lessons. The one example that pleased me most, given that I share Dennett’s belief that computer systems modelling does still and will continue to bring a great deal to the philosophy of mind and the brain-mind-consciousness problem, is the backtracking on the homunculus-as-infinite-regress view. The regress is of course finite, if each “controller” is a system of less intelligent controllers than the previous level, eventually the substrate really does comprise the dumb building blocks of chemistry and physics.

Intentionality and the intentional stance feature prominently of course, as does evolution as algorithm. The whole engineering take on evolution as problem solving – ladders, cranes and sky-hooks, scaffolding and staging, etc – gets an outing, whilst the many-layered properties of computer architectures maybe represents the single greatest part of the material.

In fact, I reckon chapter 24 on “Register Assembly Programming” should be compulsory education for all early secondary schoolers (7th/8th graders) independent of specific subject teaching. I vividly recall Hester (Mr Pearson) our Maths teacher recently converted from French teacher, running exactly the same pupils and boxes of beans exercise in class (though the beans may have been bits of paper IIRC). At the time I assumed we were learning how new-fangled computers worked (around 1971 this would have been) but what Dennett does is bring out and list explicitly the “Seven Secrets of Computer Power” – lessons of computing, not rules about computing, but rules about the world in general. [PS Listening to Angie Hobbs on BBC R4 Saturday Live - wholeheartedly agree that philosophy needs to be taught in primary schools too, but the fascination with the analytical and rhetorical demolition tricks of paradoxes and pointless pre-socratic arguments must be supplemented with the tools of constructive solutions too. Otherwise philosophy remains the caricature counting angels on the head of a pin. From the mouths of babes - what do philosophers do? - pointless arguments about nothing all day long.]

If I may paraphrase that and the two subsequent chapters on algorithms and virtual machines – competencies in this layer as systems or patterns in an underlying layer of repeatable parts: Turing (and von Neumann and Church) already said it all; all advances since are about speed and power, not about any new rules or mechanisms; vis Rule 7, there are no new rules beyond Rule 6, full stop, end of. More complex layers are simply built upon less complex underlying layers, ad infinitum so far as necessary, and the whole is substrate neutral, any physics will do.

As I said none of this is entirely new to me, but one aspect I’d never seen explicitly, but maybe I absorbed osmotically from engaging with Dennett, was my own aversion to definitions. Throughout the book so far he uses the “sorta” operator, to allow approximate ontological definition within taxonomies. (Throughout this blog I use “kinda”.) Sure most of consciousness and intelligence, in fact most aspects of even dumb development through branching decisions – evolution itself – depends on the competency of making distinctions, detecting and acting on significant difference. But that doesn’t depend on tight definitions of those distinctions. It depends on their existence and significance. Like species, distinctions are defined with hindsight only. Rationality is 20:20 hindsight. So, as a philosopher who has straddled the border with science, with strong scientific sympathies (eg as one of the 4 horsemen in the science vs religion wars) Dennett remains resolutely a philosopher; even a whole chapter on that – why be a philosopher?

“One of [Dennett's] guilty pleasures is watching eminent scientists, who only a few years ago expressed withering contempt for philosophy, stumble embarrassingly in their own efforts to set the world straight [...] with a few briskly argued extrapolations from their own scientific research. Even better is when they request, and acknowledge, a little help from us philosophers.”

“There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, just science conducted without consideration of its underlying philosophical assumptions.”

“We should quell our desire to draw lines. We don’t need to draw lines. [Distinctions yes, but not with tight definitions.]”

“The intentional stance is the strategy of interpreting the behaviour of an entity by treating it as if it were a rational agent …. [with sorta consciousness, sorta intelligence, sorta beliefs & sorta aims in sorta life, etc.] ….

Define your terms sir! No, I won’t, that would be premature ….

Many philosophers cannot work that way; they [believe they] need utterly fixed boundaries to their problems and possible solutions ….”

A recommended read, whether you’ve read Dennett before or not.
A sorta greatest hits, selected by the author himself.

Post Note: Nice to see this Dennett extract quoted by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, on the event of Dan’s birthday 28th March 2014. (Dennett credits these as Rappaport’s rules, but this is the version Dennett presents in Intuition Pumps.)

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  • You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  • You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  • You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  • Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

These the first three rules I call elsewhere:

“Respect, respect & respect”.

If you’ve ever read the on-line version of my masters dissertation, or any number of references in the blog to the “softer” aspects of organisational behaviour in “governance”, or the gender differences in world-views and decision-making behaviour, you can’t fail to have noticed my references to the three women I had the honour to be taught by in my brief time at Imperial College Management School.

Sandra Dawson, Karen Legge and Dot Griffiths. Sandra has since moved on to elevated pastures new. Karen left for Lancaster before I finished my masters. Dot, who’s been at the college since … since before I did my batchelors there, and my tutor at the time of my masters … has retired from Imperial only this week.

A real inspiration.

Dot with her book

 

I’ve always believed this, and believed that the cross-wiring was part of the reason.

The “connectome maps” reveal the differences between the male brain (seen in blue) and the female brain (orange).

I hope this is good science – need to follow-up the reference source (*). Of course following Pinker’s hint, being (genetically) “hard-wired” may only account for 10% of behavioural differences, a proportion that can be dwarfed by the plasticity of formal upbringing (40% parent & teachers) and informal environment (50% peer groups of all kinds). But a the level of talking generalities and understanding them, the differences are clear (and valuable when understood, independent of any pro-anti-feminist agendas).

Basically, the (whole) problem is – men (typically in positions of relative authority) are wired serially and have to “learn” to switch sides of their brain to get a balanced view, for women, it simply comes more naturally.

[(*) It's a Princeton source, so presumably good stuff, if not misrepresented journalistically. The abstract seems pretty clear.]

Heard Roberto Unger talk last night on BBC R4 Analysis, at LSE with a student audience I believe, on the subject of democracy and freedom.

Suffice to say he reinforced my points in the recent “Everybody Wants a Revolution” series of posts.

Democratic freedom comes with “obligations” – not to be confused with coercion and enforcement – we are all individually free to ignore our obligations, so long as you’re prepared to take the social consequences.

Similarly those obligations involve taking action towards social solidarity – helping others – in addition to using those freedoms to make your own way in the democratic world.

Disruption can be a valid tactic, but the aim should always be towards solidarity. Refusing to engage in the current political system, not voting, can have protest value, but is not constructive. Interesting in societies where voting is “compulsory” (see above) not voting has greater visible impact and value. In any event the aim must be towards something better, having some idea of what it might take to be better – greater value to the whole.

[Links to add later.]

I blogged recently on having seen Roy Harper at Bridgewater Hall in Manchester in October, and having been very disappointed in his well below par, distracted, forgetful performance. In compensation I’ve been listening to his back catalogue almost constantly since, including his epic (one of his many epics) Lord’s Prayer, a complex 20 minute poem / modal song in seven parts variously voiced over atmospheric background music and sung to melody and accompanying musical arrangement (*). It’s one amongst the immense back catalogue I’ve been revisiting since the summer when looking forward to the autumn concert – where I discovered total recall of every word, note and nuanced sound, despite previously not listening to regularly for 35 years or more.

Tragic to hear last week that the reason for his distraction was the fact that the week before the concert he’d been formally charged on child sexual abuse (9 counts, 1 12 year old girl) in 1975/78. I’m still struggling to imagine how his lifestyle at the time could have led to such a situation, but as someone else commented, he has never been the kind of public celebrity likely to attract false attention-seeking accusations.

I’ve been listening to his back catalogue again with even greater intensity. I came across this recent (9/11 2012) posting on his blog on the demise of James Edgar (James Irish Jimi Edgar Schwartz-Schmaltz, Jimmy The Ghost, artist-shaman, 1939-2012) and the story of how he and his hand-tinted encyclopedia photo of Geronimo were the original inspiration for Lord’s Prayer. The Lifemask cover described is illustrated on-line here. Although the “aboriginal” imagery of the piece always reminded me of the American Indian vs White Man angle also used by Robert Pirsig, and let’s face it “I Hate The White Man” is a recurring theme, I had completely forgotten the visual imagery and explicit Geronimo references in the original album artwork. One thing you lose in these times of disembodied electronic media.

Sense amid the none sense.

[(*) - I can't think of a track less like "driving music" than Lord's Prayer, unlike the more promising Highway Blues, but it's a track I find myself constantly listening to in the car.]

Oh no, it’s far worse than I feared. That last failed 3.6.x to 3.7 update followed by 3.7.1 bug fix has resulted in even greater damage than I feared. Not only do I still have to rebuild the social media and comment notification functionality, but I see now that all internal media and file links have been reconfigured somewhere – so all the links are broken in 13 years worth of content, some 3 or 4000 posts and more. Bastards. Effing bastards.

The “Everybody Wants a Revolution” theme continues from the last post, and a the post before that, with a few post-notes inserted along the way.

Interesting in this Guardian interview Brand continues the “don’t ask me I’m no expert” line, and admits he’s only recently taken an interest in the topic of alternative governance, so the warning remains that “do something to change things” hand-wringing and drum-banging is really only supported by half-baked, dangerous and positively misguided advice.

Don’t Vote vs Spoil Vote choice ? The real reason to go for the latter is obvious. The self-disenfranchisement of non-voting is a technicality, and yes, as a protest it devalues the hard-won freedoms of having popular democracy in the first place. No, the real practical reason is because a spoiled-vote is a protest which is visible, countable and accountable. Not that these are themselves naturally valuable virtues, except in any “system” where it’s the count of popular votes that counts, some variant of which is likely to be true in any free democracy. (Something completely other than some form of democracy ? Unlikely – conceivable, but unlikely – see Churchill.)

The Political Classes rhetoric? I’ve said enough. We are they. It’s “our” responsibility to change things. The more people who wake up to that the better, well done Russell, but in order to take responsibility we, some of us, need to think about what better governance would look like, and how we might get there, rather than just knock the poor sods who find themselves incumbent.

Protest(s) ? Hmm. Need to understand what protest is about and for, and what is protected by democratic freedoms. Protest votes and boycotts, protest stands and marches – all valid. Best if they are visible to those who the message is aimed at, obviously, that can’t be ignored, but of course the actual message, we/they are free to ignore if it doesn’t contain any sound advice or novel ideas. Something’s wrong, please fix it, is hardy news. Protest does not include rights to interfere or break laws (see trust & respect, below) though of course every protester (and whistle-blower) is physically entitled to do so, provided they accept the legal consequences (that means you Greenpeace).

Anonymity? Unless anonymity is the point of a protest, which it can sometimes be, anonymity is not a freedom or democratic right. Obviously anonymity as cover for illegal acts and threats of mob-rule is a no-no. Guido Fawkes has symbolic value as a mask, relevant in changing governance, sure – but don’t confuse that with any right to anonymity.

Respect and trust? Related to personal responsibility for rights and actions, which count against any rights to anonymity above, there is a basic need for trust and respect between individuals. Any form of democratic governance, includes accountability sure, but depends on trusting those to whom (any) power to decide and act is delegated, and mutually those entrusted need to trust their “constituents” in return. There is no system of free democratic governance that can dispense with interpersonal trust and respect for the governance arrangements. Brand needs to be very careful of hypocrisy in commenting on personal responses to his intervention, whilst indulging in personal (even witty, humorous) mudslinging rhetoric against political classes and named individuals. The other side of any change (call it evolution, revolution or paradigm-shift) we’re going to need mutual trust and respect.

In the previous post “Everybody Wants a Revolution” one of my links was to Nick Maxwell’s Knowledge to Wisdom campaign – the call for a revolution in academe.

Also on The Global Circle blog Allan McKenna posted a simple plea for specific advice to individuals at incremental stages in academe between undergraduate and tenured professor. Today I saw this piece tweeted by media scientist writers Graham Farmelo and Lisa Jardine – which instantly reminded me of the piece posted on Facebook by philosopher Stephen Law – on career directed degrees, though the former is about PhD’s rather than first (major) degrees.

I all three cases my instant reaction was to think of the adage:

“Don’t confuse your life’s work with your day job.”

And the best rendition of that I’ve come across, is this 2004 Colby College commencement address by Richard Russo.

Whenever I hear people talking about the need for a revolution, I need to look in their eyes and see what they are really thinking by that word “revolution” before I think “careful what you wish for”.

Bankers and capitalism / globalisation / consumerism generally; Democratic, parliamentary government; Standards in education and academe; Press and other freedoms; The “science” of climate change, have we past where having anthropogenically caused it “we” can no longer reverse it; Energy, water, air, resources and sustainability of the planet generally. The list of global challenges is endless, and notice they are all interconnected, partly because they are connected structurally, and partly because we’re all globally interconnected by ubiquitous communications media anyway.

This piece is prompted by several posts on “revolution” recently. Most obviously the New Statesman appointment and Russell Brand’s piece in that journal (and his interview with Paxman on Newsnight). Most recently the wonderful Robert Webb response to that, tweeted by Dara O’Briain and Dave Gorman. But in between these headline grabbers, also Nick Maxwell’s campaign From Knowledge to Wisdom as an “academic revolution”; Positive Money campaign for alternatives to debt-based banking and finance; Climate change scientists, call to arms as politicised revolutionaries.

The point is when a large single sector of human economic activity becomes an established part of “the system”, when something goes wrong, or they are increasingly seen to have undesirable direct or collateral consequences – inevitable – and large because the particular activity we are talking about is large – then we want things to change (for the better). The scale means all such arguments become politicised, inevitably entangling more interests and other “single issues” into the whole. Anger, frustration and impatience at inertia, ineffectiveness and resistance to change lead to talk of the need for a revolution – taking power and action “back” into “our” hands as (many) individuals. Boycotting or even working against the institutions we disapprove of and ….. and then what ?

Violent general social disorder, off with their heads, storm the seats of government, release the prisoners – what exactly ? We had those kinds of revolution last time around before general emancipation and establishment of democratic freedoms and human rights. When people talk of tipping points – in boycotting of the system (be that debt-based financial institutions, or democratic elections, or fossil fuel, or …) what are they foreseeing the other side of that tipping point. Some are indeed planning for that “different world” the other side of the event – variations on self-sufficiency, localisation and downsizing, but with more “borders” to be protected – but most seem to hold some romantic view of taking a stand against the “bad” without seeing anything better other than more anarchic freedom.

My agenda here is primarily about knowledge, the use of that knowledge to make decisions, and how we know that such processes and decisions are wise rather than simply rational by some narrow definition. Many times before I’ve concluded that “governance” is the underlying problem in all these issues – “we” want to have things run the way “we” think they should be, rather than leaving it to “them”, whoever they are. I am he and you are me and we are all together said the same wise poet who penned everybody wants a revolution.

Everybody wants a revolution, but what they really want is something better the other side for “us”. It was Churchill who was reputed to have said “Democracy is the worst from of governance, except for all the others” – which is an adage I subscribe to, which leaves the debate about exactly what forms of democratic institutions rather than alternatives to democracy itself. There are of course many variables to play with and opportunities for creativity, there are few sacred cows within democracy that couldn’t be improved.

The view of revolution I prefer is what Thomas Kuhn called “paradigm shifts”. Think the industrial revolution, the information revolution, think game-changing processes and technologies in any walk of life. Most of course create collateral damage in the process, even lasting damage to some constituency, that’s the point, paradigm shifts are ultimately revolutionary, but they don’t start with the damage creation process – they start with something of value worth pursuing. It’s the same with new species in biological evolution, with paradigm shifts, you can only identify the revolutionary change that has occurred with hindsight. The revolution was never the premeditated point of the exercise. (Very similar arguments apply to the anthropogenic aspects of climate change and hopes of reversing it – the “right” things to do now cannot be defined in advance in terms of the outcome achieved. Do the right thing anyway.)

Finally, we can join this up with Grayson Perry’s comments on shock tactics as part of game-changing moves against the establishment of the art world. It was ever thus, that shock, including violence, has been and forever will be part of the attention grabbing process of making change happen within any constituency. Exactly what it takes to create that shock, to draw attention to the particular (new or recycled) quality itself changes with circumstances. In some worlds violence and human yuk factor may no longer shock, and the artist needs to work on their creativity more subtly, but clearly in other cosier worlds, violence and disgust can still shock. So, sure violent actions of revolution can be a tactic, but unless they are your perverse objective, they cannot be your strategy for achieving a better future. And as Grayson Perry also said, political aims are as valid artistic purposes as any.

As Robert Webb says the real way to shock democracy into the kind of paradigm change revolution we really want to see, is a very British kind of revolution – vote and engage, engage in improving the institutions of governance. The good news as Rob says, is that Russell Brand’s bullshit is “wilful” – dangerous bullshit nevertheless – but Brand is an intelligent person who knows his words are bullshit. Living dangerously to shock is part of the artist’s world, but don’t confuse shock tactics, with wise advice.

[Post Note : Bruce Sterling's Medium Tweet "Dread Pirate Nemo - The Silk Road is not about drugs." or Don't mess with Texas, 'cos life gets complicated when it comes to subversive revolution.]

[Post Note : Also this follow-up from Paxman, and offline correspondence with Jeff Huggins. Nothing wrong with a protest vote / spoil / non-vote, signifying a desire for change - we've all already been there for years - it's just not a policy for future governance. Brand's dangerous arrogance is in the anti "political classes" rhetoric implying no policy for any governance - true an-archy - all freedom and no governance.]

I posted an initial response to Grayson Perry’s Reith #1 and added a short post-note after #2. Yesterday was #3 on the place of shock amongst other things in the leading edge of artistic development.

(Didn’t manage to blog yesterday – after a couple of days away, I came back to a WordPress 3.7 upgrade – which failed with fatal errors – and it took yesterday to re-build and a 3.7.1 bug-fix upgrade this morning to get the blog up and running again – still some content re-building to do, but back functioning and existing post linking intact. Comment notifiers, dlvr.it and social media linking still incomplete.)

By coincidence, at the weekend in Manchester, we saw Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences / (Rakes Progress) series of tapestries and associated works at the Manchester Art Gallery, and Alison Goldfrapp’s curated collection also at the Lowry in Salford – along with a huge range of Lowry’s too.

Also by coincidence, after the Classic Albums documentary on Lou Reed’s Transformer, last night I also watched the Shock Metal episode of the Metal Evolution series.

From Perry’s pieces, mentioned in Reith#3, it is the detail and wit in the immense amount of creative work that goes into the tapestries – the objects of significance in the stages of Rakewell’s life. Composition and design work that is, the actual “weaving” is on a computer-controlled loom of course. He talks about art chasing the technology – why wouldn’t you use the latest technology to accomplish your work, there are multiple crafts in the workings of art, and not all the crafts need to be “authentic”, or artificially wooden as he puts it. Much about authenticity and gentrification of art – and locations associated with art – in Reith#3.

Much also about “detached irony” – the game of not taking things too seriously, but where ultimately there has to be a serious point, some objective of sincerity met or not met, even if that sincere objective is the irony. In the same way as I say we can’t all be court-jesters, we can all be ironists, all of the time, we can’t all be shocking relative to any established norm – just not possible by definition.

Shock itself as a point, and more generally originality, was ever thus at the leading edge – avant garde – always had to make a point of difference in some dimension from “the establishment” – hence The Vanity of Small Differences. So much so that being shocking and original eventually became the ticket to being welcomed into the recognised world of appreciated art. To not be shocking and original, and merely skilled craft-wise, would be a recipe for being overlooked. The irony being now of course that there is little that can actually shock, it’s all been done and accepted as part of art, despite recognising that the need to shock was ever thus at the leading edge. (Almost by definition the “new” needs some significant and surprising twist on previous work, but not everything can be entirely new or original in either a shocking or authentic dimension. In my limited experience of exhibited art, the “pleasant surprise” is more important than any shock, even where the work involves a high element of initial shock to attract interest – thinking Emin / Hirst here – the surprise has to be in some unexpected aspect of the quality of the work – the pleasure is in the unexpected quality. The attention and the appreciation are distinct.)

Saw some negative responses to Perry’s lectures from the art community on Twitter, not being exciting enough, letting the side down as it were. I think this is the ironic truth in his lectures. As I noted after the first lecture, what was instantly apparent was that his message was common sense – witty well-informed discursive delivery sure – but the basic “twas ever thus” truth was itself was very refreshing and exciting in its own way. Which is I believe his point.

The coincidence there was the progression of shock rock from Alice Cooper to Ramstein and Slipknot, had kinda reached the same conclusion – the need to shock had always been there (long before Alice), with every bodily function fair-game in rock and art more generally. Interesting that the “Parental Advisory” sticker campaign became a badge of honour for the artists, a sure seal of success. But now it seems little can shock, short of death and mutilation, self or otherwise, as artistic attention-grabbing statements – the Marylin Manson / Columbine School (non-)connection being particularly poignant. As one wag put it “You could always cut your arm off, but you could only do it twice.” Even artists have boundaries and a moral compass.

Perhaps there really is a turning point in the cycles of irony and shock – despite twill ever be thus, maybe the shock will be to not be shockingly or ironically different or original, but to be – shock horror – good at the artistic objective. Anything can be art and art can have any number of objectives. Quality will out.

Finally, to round off the Manchester basic-truth-in-art connection – we were in Manchester at the weekend to see Roy Harper at Bridgewater Hall on Friday. Beautiful venue, but the event was hugely disappointing. Roy at 72 back in his home town, clearly nervous, he forgot lines and selections of guitars and tunings. But worse still, the late-arriving audience was comatose after a low-key warm-up by Jonathan Wilson, too flat sound with insufficient dynamic, and dim “mood” lighting focussed almost entirely on the large stage behind Roy. The strings and brass did very well to fit in around the errors. Very sad, despite a promising set list, same selection, but different order to London, Festival Hall last Tuesday :

Highway Blues (short version), Time is Temporary, Heaven is Here, Hallucinating Light, Another Day, I’ll See You Again, The Stranger, January Man, The Enemy, Twelve Hours of Sunset, Girl from the North Country, Me and My Woman, Old Cricketer.

But it just wasn’t the same old rock. Artistic quality relies on getting more than one craft right, and sadly there were a few missing. Here’s hoping the old dog will have his day again.

It’s normal for a young upcoming artist to go through some packaging and maturation from first being noticed paying their dues and honing their skills in earliest bar gigs seen by a few, to the global media promotion of the act and a new album. Gary Clarke Jr is no different. Good and loud and already mellowing I said back in 2009/10.

Gary is maturing nicely and rhythm guitar Eric Zapata is repackaged as the coolly shaded “King”. The combination is an magical injection of fresh blood into what is after all good ole blues done right.

I’ve reported many times on acts I’ve seen on my travels, even from pre-punk 70’s days before the internet. That in itself a random selection of who happened to be playing where and when I was there, and word of mouth or gig-guide scans of what’s to see. The maybe 5 to 10% that become ones to watch (for me) both on future travels or from afar, rarely translates into a tip for actual success and wider exposure, there are just too many vagaries and arbitrary business events in that chain. Gems remaining hidden have their own value too, but it’s good to see a flowering in public.

Given that Gary Clark Jr is trading the blues, and probably every other act or genre since, from folk to the heaviest rock including any number of electro variants, has derived from there, it always feels important when a raw blues act takes the big time back to its roots. Particularly poignant for me the second time I saw Gary and Eric, first time as the headline act, in Antones, Austin Tx, it had been a purely random circumstantial word of mouth chance I’d found myself nearby in the hour before. What’s more, blues original Pinetop Perkins who’d agreed “Yeah, this boy mighty fine, he’s going places”, apparently a long time regular seated anonymously left of the stage at Antone’s, passed away only a few months later.

Good to see sign’s of big time success for Gary carrying the blues torch forward, here’s hoping he get’s the appreciation he deserves from his appearance on Later with Jools this week. Catch him if you can.

[PS - Tom / PsyJr - he's playing US East Coast gigs at the start of November, if you're still in NYC try to catch him nearby, NYC gigs already sold out.]

[PPS - don't miss the harmonies in video of the guitar duet outro from Numb. The missing link between Pinetop and Satriani maybe ? On no, I forgot, that's either Billy Gibbons or Slim Hamster, but you get my drift, a lot of links in that chain, not least Hendrix. With acknowledgement to Johnny Marr for the missing link reference, Roy Harper between Syd Barrett  and John Lennon.]

[PPPS - And here he was about this time October 2013 at Clapton's Chicago Crossroads festival.]

I’ll probably come back to this, but for now just a brief comment.

I’ve very pro next generation nuclear power, though I need to check out the intrinsic safety of the particular EDF / AREVA design proposed, and I’m very pro French and Chinese (and Russian, and South African) engineering innovation in this space, where UK and US have lagged. However the “deal” agreed with the UK government seems to be the worst of all possible worlds in terms of the political economic energy pricing fog that is bound to hang like a millstone around the project for its lifetime and beyond, obscuring any actual technical and social cost-benefit.

Can’t believe the wholly French-Chinese consortium with UK Gov price-guarantee was the best arrangement for UK Power industry, or UK consumers & tax-payers long term. Convenient for the current government obviously, underwrite a big future cheque and stand back from any responsibility to make it work. Future blame-game assured.

[Grist to the "who is we" agenda. UK (w or w/o Scotland), EU, Western Alliances, Global consitituencies?]

[Post Note : Ditto the Porstmouth vs The Clyde shipyards political deal ..... who is we, again ?]

Interesting after the exchange with Tiffany and Ed on their articles about the danger of losing the point of curation (in museum and gallery context) when the institution is encouraged by funding based on goal evaluation, to turn those goals into the object of curation rather than the curated / shared objects themselves, to see David share this one from Euan.

In this case it is in the sharing items of interest through blogging and social media – the point being to share things that are of interest in their own right, rather than trying to second guess the value / lesson / message of the shared objects to those with whom you’re sharing.

Briefly caught Paul Collier with Stephanie Flanders on BBC R4 Start the Week this morning, and noticed instantly that his immigration agenda (Exodus) is another example of my Eco-Diversity Beats In-Breeding mantra, pointing out in particular that there are important subtleties behind the headline. For Darwinian evolution to work, this truth depends on understanding fidelity and fecundity. Too little and the “species” (*) stagnates, too much and no new stable species can emerge amid the chaos. Just enough and the new inputs to the status-quo are absorbed into emergent meaningful species

[(*) PS for the biologists, Yes, I'm talking species at a social and group selection level .... with all the debate that entails .... but that's social species subject to social group selection, not bio-species.]

A month or so couple of weeks ago, I posted a holding post for a whole collection of posts I need to write. Despite more than a dozen significant posts since then, not to mention Tweets and Facebook posts, I’ve still barely acknowledged those I telegraphed then, even though some of the subject matter clearly overlaps.

I can at least catch-up on The Cyprus Connection and the Tale of Two Cities allusion contained in the ‘Twas Ever Thus passage.

I’ve completed Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities and completed Storrs’ Orientations.

Glad I finally finished TOTC after many false starts. The opening message remains important (the ’twas ever thus quotes extracted in the post linked above), and, in case we didn’t know, it ends with Sydney Carton sacrificing himself for Charles Darnay, going to his death at the Guillotine, with the words:

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.

In between it’s all a bit predictable as soon as the visual similarity between Darnay and Carton (and the potential love triangle with Ms Manette) is laid on a plate – even illustrated in the “Likeness” instalment very early on. Useful to know the dependence on Carlyle’s The French Revolution as a British-biased source of much of what Dickens was able to imagine of France at the time. And, I have to say the long prose letter “left” by Dr Manette and later “discovered” in his original Bastille cell is a lame and contrived literary device to conveniently join up the loose ends with the metaphorical but none-too-apparent golden thread. Found motivation (the will to live) hard to continue from that point, but I did stick at it to the end. Ho hum. Come in Victor Hugo, I expect.

Orientations, on the other hand, remained wonderful to the very end. A little sad as Storrs recounts his difficulties leading up to the 1931 Cypriot revolt against the British, the burning down of Government House with so much of Storrs’ personal collection of papers and artefacts destroyed, and the eventual shootings that restored military order, but signalled the breakdown in orderly, civil development of Cyprus. Storrs went on to take up governorship of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1932, but nevertheless defends the value of lessons learned from his (and predecessors’) periods in Cyprus (and Egypt and Palestine before that) for the benefit of those who came after. His sense of being undervalued at that point is underlined by his also noting that his acquisition in 1938 of his country retirement home back in good old England was an “unfulfilled dream” until funded by Orientations written in 1936 and published in 1937.

Failure would have been not to try. Storrs also adopts the “twas ever thus / plus ca change” attitude. In concluding he spends quite some time summarising the influences on his life, as well as acknowledging a number of the losses (in the fire) “from which the rest of his life is freely and eagerly disencumbered.” Beautiful language to the end.

Affectionately, he recalls Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible, (a cubic yard of) Bach, Kitchener, Allenby and of course T.E.Lawrence.

Included amongst his long but eclectic list of things he was glad to see the back of are “restaurants with bands” (*) as well as “fervent converts to any religion or cause”. In his own words :

So much the more must I cling to that highest which need not and must not be resigned while strength is left to perceive it – to that particular manifestation of immortal power by which individual spirit is most deeply moved.

I believe, and proclaim my faith, that this solace will proceed increasingly from the great classics of the world; both from their own splendour and from their contrast with the limitations of modern life. True, we may rise from Mr [H.G.] Wells Autobiography convinced for the moment that the paramount of life is physical science. Yet throughout the war, I never saw one tired man refreshing his soul with a scientific treatise or a mathematical problem; whereas there were many beside Lawrence transported from their own fatigues and anxieties by following those of Patroclus and Odysseus.

And finally:

Before such epiphanies of the god in man
I can but repeat the prayer of a Moslem
uttered in Basra more than a thousand years ago:

“O my Lord !
If I worship Thee from fear of Hell,
burn me in Hell.

And,
if I worship Thee from hope of Paradise,
exclude me thence.

But,
if I worship Thee for Thine own sake,
then withhold me not from Thine Eternal Beauty.

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Four Horsemen of New Atheism, not to mention the hoard of scientistic celeb scientists and comics hanging onto their coat-tails. I recall it was cognitive scientist Dupuy I read and blogged about in 2002 that first made me realise that “literature is a superior form of knowledge to science” is a valid statement, to be denied by scientists at our peril. It is at least not for scientists to say there is no debate on scientific grounds – per Pinker / Wieseltier correspondence.

Talking of literature, the reason for sticking to the  bitter end of Storrs and the Dickensian allusion, was The Cyprus Connection.

The inter-war history of Cyprus formed a good lead in to Mak Berwick’s Langkawi Lair. Mak is under no illusion – as he said on Facebook – our high-school English masters may be turning in their graves, to read his rookie opus, though our physics teacher gave it praise. It’s not literature in any sense that would pass muster with Grayson Perry’s idea of intellectual authority for quality. I could fill a few paragraphs myself with literary criticism – too many redundant adjectives and adverbs better served by better nouns and verbs, maybe too much dwelling on explaining military jargon, procedures and acronyms rather than letting the reader’s intelligence carry them forward – but I won’t.

I managed to read the opening (Cyprus, and the single live round fired) and the developing (Paris) chapters before breaking off to finish Dickens and Storrs, and I do have a new Neil Gaiman on the reading pile. But, whilst being an action/adventure genre I would not normally read, I already know I want to get to Malaysia, and back hopefully, with a moral in the tail no doubt. A good yarn in prospect? [Post Note : having read on 3 or 4 more chapters, I can't see me sticking with it. A great yarn if you like the smash bang wallop of designer branded fire-arms, Rolex Oysters, Mercedes AMG's, murders, executions, torture interrogations, convenient coincidences and general mano-a-mano combat - at a rate of least 3 of each per chapter currently. BTW, do I claim my prize of spotting that the autobiographical reality flips into 99% fantasy the moment scarface reaches across our hero's drink in the Paris bar scene? Sorry, not my scene anyway. Neil Gaiman's "American Gods" next.]

[(*) Restaurants with bands. I know what he means. I love live music, but find the idea of live musicians as background music not so much a distraction to whatever the foreground is, as an insult to the musicians and their music deserving attention. People talkin' while I'm singin' - as Tommy Womack puts it.]

I have much sympathy with this Susan Sontag piece from Brain Pickings.

I must admit myself to using adages and aphorisms as short-hand for many of my recurring points, some stolen directly from others, some borrowed and modified to suit, some essentially invented / evolved as new species. I use them a great deal in fact. Many of these aphorisms are effectively working chapter titles for my book. But Sontag’s point is so important, that they are no substitute for any wisdom intended, they may make the apparent wisdom easy to share and recall, but we must avoid being lazy and presuming they actually contain or communicate the wisdom.

This is exactly the same issue as the “A Picture Paints a Thousand Words” adage – which  first blogged about way back here in 2002, when I followed in back to its 1921 Printer’s Ink origins with the title “An Aphorism Too Far”. The point being a picture (typically these days a brand “icon”) can signify a massively complex point very simply and quickly, but the image does not actually contain much of the message. The communication is one of recall, of something which must already have been learnt, at least implicitly, by the viewer of the image, or the recipient of the aphorism. To think the message is “communicated” by the image or aphorism is lazy and misleading – dangerous – this case in particular, a meta-adage, an aphorism about an image.

Lovely coincidence to see this today, having read and mentally remarked on Sam Norton’s latest tweeted blog post. I had been meaning to respond from the keyboard since reading the post in mobile format at the crack of dawn today.

My initial response was “Sam, you’ve got the acronym wrong it should be APPATW not APAATW”, and was about to deliver my lecture on the “Aphorism Too Far” from 2002. Ha. No, the wise Sam has it right, he does indeed mean “And” a thousand words, not “Paints” a thousand words. The and is so important, you cannot achieve one without the other.

Just a holding post for now after hearing the first of four in full.

Democracy has bad taste.
Quality does not = popularity;
Quality = validated by enough of the right people.

Simple truth. And brings in the value of “authority” based on time-served effort to understand. That and the memetic downside of popularity – all there. Democracy itself needs layers of authority. Brilliant. This one will run. Fun too. Wonderful lecture on many levels, language and style as well as content and message. Direct and without prevarication. Refreshing. And a great collection of authorities in the invited audience, asking questions as I type.

More later no doubt.

[I like the fact that, after the visual-introduction-for-radio, there is no mention of cross-dressing in either the lecture or the Q&A.]

[Also important to note, in the context of this blog, that the bit of the "truth" people will baulk at is the idea of "the right people" - an inescapable kind of "elitism" based on earned authority - as many will want to reduce this to objective definitions as will cling to individual subjective democracy, whereas by definition it's a kind of "agreed subjectivity". And in fact it is very close to "governance" in any sphere, democratically delegated but operationally subjective - but never totally objective in terms of popular democratic numbers.]

[Post Note : No separate blog for the second lecture. Common sense description of the "baggy" definition of what constitutes art - starting with the inevitable Duchamp again - anything can be art but not everything is. Ultimately a Venn diagram of many complex and shifting issues.]

Just listened to Chris Packham on Desert Island Discs. We have a lot in common, I’m maybe 4 years older, our interests in science and music had very similar origins and early trajectories, but I have to say he came across as a gross self-parody of the worst kind of scientistic media-celeb scientist. Nothing personal, just the stereotypical archetype of much that is wrong with modern science, and why the way it is promoted as teaching knowledge through the media is potentially so damaging to humanity.

His “red in tooth and claw” description of the Sparrow Hawk shredding the Greenfinch, suggesting any “repulsion” is tantamount to closing one’s mind on the true beauty of the process [*]. No, it’s the human response acknowledging that there is far more to Darwinian evolution than the individual vs individual life and death competition. His infatuation with the joyous predictability of his “dogs and other animals” is precisely because he – on his own admission – rejects human beauty as too complicated for his taste.

Proudly sceptic, like any good scientist, rejecting authority, the rebel (rebel rebel, punk to be different) always questioning authority. As he says, authority needs to be earned (yawn, this is news?) but having earned it, I ask, does it not deserve any respect ? Simple Darwinian principles are levels of “fidelity” and “fecundity” – predominantly copying established precedent – upon which to play the exceptional mutant games of new opportunity. Conservative authority must be respected or we have no progress. Anti-establishment rejection for its own sake gets us nowhere, the special – destructive – case of falsification testing [or Sparrow Hawk eats Greenfich] is only a small part of the whole enterprise. Difference must be an exception from a norm.

I’d mentally drafted most of the above during the programme, but he caps it all …. the Bible and Shakespeare as “fuel”. Oh how we laughed. I’m often impressed how Kirsty manages to skip over those two without attracting anti-religious comment (take it or leave it being left unsaid as not the point of the program) …. but no, he had to take the fight to the religious (and the literary in the same breath). What a closed-minded, bigoted, scientistic stereotype. Talk about missing the point.

And the final “pick one” choice-of-choices of this book-burning bigot?
The refrain from Penetration’s Shout Above the Noise.

“Don’t let them win.”

Truly the scientistic neurosis in Maxwell’s terms. A scientist paranoid about them. We should be teaching the next generation to acquire knowledge in the application of wisdom, not neurotic paranoia against those nasty humanities / humanists.

[(*) Post Note : coincidentally, posted on Facebook last year witnessing from my office window a Sparrow Hawk take a Chaffinch from our garden feeder in classic over-the-hedgerow smash-and-grab ambush mode last year. More interesting, early this year, we stood and watched a Kestrel stoop in full view just ten feet in front of us at Portland Bill, gradually dropping and hovering in careful stages as it kept eyes on its prey the opposite side of a 2 metre high wall in front of us, only to pop-up instantly to sit with the vole in its claw on top of the wall in front of us. It proceeded to tear and swallow strips over the course of maybe 15 minutes, as we and a growing crowd of maybe 6 or 8 passing walkers paused to watch. Fascinating.When it got to some of the more gruesome entrails it contemplated disdainfully whether to swallow before discarding and moving on to tastier morsels, eventually flying off to somewhere more private to finish its meal.]