Not sure about the “battleground” metaphor, but otherwise sounds about right. It’s a plug for tonight’s Horizon documentary featuring Daniel Kahneman on how we really make decisions. My governance agenda:

Post doc notes : Hmmm. Too much emphasis on “error and mistake”, too much emphasis on error relative to some “perfect” rational model – assumes perfect rational is best or right answer. Wrong, or wrong to assume necessarily right. Deviation from perfectly rational sure, but not “error”.

The loss aversion trait is only wrong if the “long term (mean) stats” are what really matter to the person making the decision as opposed to some hypothetical (non-existent) average rational agent. In practice we do NOT face an unmediated stream of repeat opportunities – all other things being equal (which they never will be).

Same comments I made when I read Kahneman originals.

Can’t believe no-one actually mentioned the bird-in-the-hand adage – it really is worth-two-in-the-bush. A loss DOES have negative worth two (or more) times greater than a prospective gain. Wisdom (and truth) in old wives rules of thumb. (Of course in some “perfect” markets, statistical long term population calcs do matter – but not in many real human situations. – Hence (macro) economics Nobel prize, but not individual human psychological.)

Kahneman’s work is very good in researching and understanding how the mind really does make decisions, but applied qualitative interpretations are as doubtful as the affects he documents. Come in Mr Quine.

One to watch later from IAI TV.
Now having watched:

Polly Higgins – all true, but mostly irrelevant, except the basic point “we” must take our responsibility for the planet, a duty of care.

Bjorn Lomborg – hits the point. A polarising debate between doomsayers and deniers is the last thing we need. Ultimately, like all anthropogenic activity, its technology-driven economic activity that changes things, laws and tax-funding regulate and incentivise but don’t solve.

Crispin Tickell – Anthropocene concept, OK. Climate change one issue amongst many – 20/20 hindsight – too non-committal (…. and why we never get anything done, says Bjorn).

Nigel Lawson – Climate change not the issue, it’s ever changing. Many of the warming effects, of emissions, greenhouse effects and conversion of fossil energy to low grade heat etc, are a reality, even if net global warming is an issue not worth debating. (Hmmm, Nigel vs Crispin enter into the gainsaying childish argument.)

Ho hum. No progress.

One for the “Everybody Wants a Revolution” pile.

The Limits of Non-Cooperation as a Strategy for Social Change

Civil disobedience is vital, but it is insufficient to transform society. A new science of cooperation illuminates the path ahead.

The strategy must be to achieve “solidarity” through collaboration. Resistance and revolution are mere tactics.

[Hat tip to Henry Gurr for the link.]

Reading Terry Eagleton’s Culture and the Death of God (2014)

Only read the first chapter The Limits of Enlightenment, but already finding lots of interest. In fact the style despite his usual sardonic wit is more academic paper (based on what was originally a lecture) with lots of referenced quotes to make his arguments. A couple of things to note for now:

For me, Gibbon’s “celebrated sentence”:

“The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrates as equally useful.” (Quoted previously).

For the MoQists:

“The two camps, rational and experiential, are for the most part speaking past each other”

“In one sense, feeling is the most incontrovertible of grounds, while in another sense it is a notoriously slippery one.”

Well – decided to go for a standard theme, so the formatting bugs seem resolved, as do the social media links, but still cannot find 13 years worth of uploaded images and media anywhere on the server.

Only solution looks like progressively re-finding and re-uploading each important image – quite a time-consuming chore – ho hum. [Update - on a first 80/20 pass I've re-attached the top 20% with 80% of the value. That will have to do for now - if you find any interesting images missing, let me know.]

Other minor item is to organise the page links in the header, since the standard theme simply defaults the top level pages, whereas I had manually linked pages beyond the WordPress-managed blog pages previously.

Sometimes the young are too creditably laid back. I still can hardly believe Loudon was under 30 when he wrote this:

I am a full fledged, grown-up adult
I’m tryin’ make a dent, tryin’ to get a result
I’m holed up in a Hollywood hotel suite
Tequila to drink and avocado to eat

They got all kinds of victories and lots of downfalls
They got drugs in the rugs and ghosts in the walls
Starlets in the lobby that can make a man drool
Blood on the curtains and a phone by the pool

Well I never did see so many TV stars
And I never did see so many rented cars
I never did see so many desperate eyes
And never did I hear so many bold faced lies

When I was ten years old, I was alive
In Benedict Canyon down on Hutton Drive
Well now I’m right back in my old backyward
And I’m tryin’ to get a billboard on the boulevard
I’m tryin’ to get a billboard on _ the _ bou _ le _ vard

Well I never thought I’d see the age of twenty-five
And it’s been twenty-eight years now that I’ve been alive
And in a matter of months I will be thirty years old
And the apprehension that I feel can hardly be told

I am a full fledged, grown-up adult
I’m tryin’ make a dent, tryin’ to get a result
I’m hold up in a Hollywood hotel suite
Tequila to drink and avocado to eat
Tequila to drink and avocado to eat

Loudon Wainwright III  (1975)

Everyone must have ambition to make a dent,
by whatever means they choose to measure it.
We live in hope, otherwise, why bother?

I empathise with Jeremy Paxman squirming at the explanation of the value of a “year of code”. I support the year of code wholeheartedly, but let’s understand why it’s valuable, and recognise the bullshit in “create your own web-page / business”.

As far back as 1973/74 I recorded schoolteacher / form-master Ester Pearson teaching us to code – early Fortran via teletype and punch-tape – he having switched to maths and computing from French and modern languages for the purpose. Bar a few weeks at university first year, I’ve never written a line of code, but I’ve published thousands of web-pages. I’m not proud of that particularly, but it’s a fact. [Not quite true, I did write script-based technical analysis and calculation routines and high-level simulation language code in my early engineering years too.]

[Aside - aaaaagh - Chris Packham on the telly selling us "clever" animals .... those damn trained crows get everywhere, and the honey bee's waggle-dance .... sigh ... no thought, instinctive behaviour, and not clever understanding either but taught / learned-by-association behaviour. And I support Dennett's "precision engineering" problem solving metaphor. Now Packham needs Dennett's coding course.]

The point is, I mentioned my old maths teacher last when I reviewed Dan Dennett’s “Intuition Pumps” – where Dennett presents his laws of computing and registry programming exercise – the very same exercise Pearson had taught us 40 years ago. As I said (and meant) then, it should be compulsory primary school education [See Note *].

I could also have mentioned ex-colleague Siobhan from back around 96/97 – on a project where we’d employed a developer to create an information management solution, not entirely successfully, when Siobhan announced she’d researched some programming courses and would we support her in doing one or more. I wasn’t sure of the direct applicability to our current job, but supported the educational initiative – what the hell, go for it. Sadly our immediate management at the time was explicitly against it – even rather scornful of the idea.

More recently my own younger son, working in a not specifically IT related business, spotted some opportunities to extend the functionality of basic geographic layout and design tools with some information linking and data driven functions – and it turned out he had an aptitude to execute the idea in scripted code. Useful functionally, and naturally I’m encouraging him to develop it further but not necessarily, at least not exclusively, for the immediate application value.

Coding – can represent a skill at some given situation in time, but the core point is not to be a skill !! “Apps” didn’t exist x years ago, in x years time they’ll be superseded by Gocs (or whatever) – something we’ve never heard of or predicted. Programming languages and tools are evolving as fast as technological possibilities. It’s not a skill that can necessarily be applied to employment at the end of a course, or at the end of 7 years education. It’s knowledge about what computation is, a transferrable concept like understanding how humans function.

So what is computation? It’s a fundamental concept about how the world works.

But do we have any better understanding of computing than the audiences who switched on to watch Ian McNaught-Davis in the 1980s? I somehow doubt it.

[* Note - The rules referred to are "The Seven Secrets of Computer Power" - six "laws" you can learn from the registry programming exercise, and a seventh that says there are no more laws to learn. On-line PDF version here, or here at Google Books, and subject to a few minor technical errata by Dennett.

  • SECRET 1: Competence without Comprehension: Something - e.g., a register machine - can do perfect arithmetic without having to comprehend what it is doing.
  • SECRET 2: What a number in a register stands for depends on the program that we have composed.
  • SECRET 3: Since a number in a register can stand for anything, this means that the register machine can, in principle, be designed to “notice” anything, to “discriminate” any pattern or feature that can be associated with a number, or be different between any number of numbers.
  • SECRET 4: Since a number can stand for anything, a number can stand for an instruction or an address.
  • SECRET 5: All possible programs can be given a unique number as a name, which can then be treated as a list of instructions to be executed by a Universal machine.
  • SECRET 6: All the improvements in computers since Turing invented his imaginary paper-tape machine are simply ways of making them faster.
  • SECRET 7: There are no more secrets!

Note that these are the secret and incontrovertible conclusions, but the point is to learn (to believe and understand) them through the Registry Programming exercise. In practice of course, a real group of people in a practical time-scale for running the exercise will only actually learn the first couple directly empirically, but having got the simplicity of the principles, the rest follows inductively and can be demonstrated by progressively more elaborate computer-assisted simulation exercises - where interest is piqued.

Once interest is piqued, of course the student can go any number of ways into "hey, I get computing why don't I learn to program what can be done with current tools and technologies?" to "hey, it's intriguing how basic those rules are and independent of any clever 20th or 21st century technology; I wonder what that tells us about how information and knowledge works more generally in the world?" or "hey, if I put those two ideas together, maybe I could learn something about how information and computation (or knowledge and brains) are evolving?" or .... maybe, just think.

All of which presumes that wise education is at least partly aimed at learning to understand the workings of the world at large, the world of humans that is not some disembodied objective world, and not simply about knowledge, qualifications and skills directly aimed at only 1/3 of student's future lives.


This is a retrospective blog on the beers I’ve experienced in the past 3 months, of weekly commuting to London.

Brewdog bars in Camden, Shoreditch and Shepherds Bush, all on the itinerary, after Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Aberdeen (x2) the summer / autumn before, and a couple more before that. (Shoreditch BTW is by far my favourite, if you’re interested.) I’m a “punk-equity” holder 3x over, and been active consumer of the craft beer revolution since 2006 in west coast & regional US, and 2008/9 is Oslo and Stavanger. There’s a lot of it about.

I like it. “Real Ale” and all the other campaigns to encourage (preserve) beer “from the wood” or “from the cask” are creditable, but essentially conservative or backward-looking. Stopping the corporate rot, nostalgia leading nowhere in particular – a holding pattern. In markets where entrepreneurship could flourish (Smallville, USA), or where state-regulated alcohol pricing disguised marginal costs (Scandinavian capitals) nostalgia was irrelevant. What mattered was differentiation, and people could choose what they liked at prices they wanted to afford to pay.

Brewdog deserve massive credit for breaking the mould. Massive, but cheap, social-media-based, marketing campaigns, focussing on the whacky dare to be different “punk” image, to sell novel (revived) products into the existing market at price-premiums. You get what you pay for, takes courage.

Interesting that in this last week – after massive success selling back to Scandinavia – that Brewdog should be opening their latest bar in Rio – ahead of the World Cup and Olympic years. At the bleeding edge of any market, your life-expectancy is slim. Fun, edgy, maybe even lucrative, but short.

In London, the revolution is established – if that’s not an oxymoron. The first mover has hundreds of whipper-snappers at their heels.

Camra were involved in spats with Brewdog over what constituted real ale and craft beer. Recipes, processes, “authentic” ingredients, the wooden casks and unpressurised “draw” pumps, pasteurisation, filtering, corporate ownership, you name it. In the UK (and elsewhere) lots of “real” ale brands are of course part of larger brewing concerns where production is a long way from the operations that originally created the value behind the brands. There are creditable exceptions everywhere of course, but that’s not the point here. (On the rules for brewing and marketing – gimme a break – the only rule is transparency. What are you selling me? I’ll tell you if I like it or not.)

The point is, the market here in London is well beyond the control of any one company’s campaign. There are so many pubs selling so many beers. From the tied-house chains with guest beers to the genuinely free houses, you could die of choice.

By way of example only, just two (or maybe a third).

The Old Fountain, where I am as I type (in the city, EC1), and The Harp (off Trafalgar Square, WC2 on the same block as Prior Guisborians’ favourite The Chandos – ‘cos it sells Sam Smiths Yorkshire beer, like Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese off Fleet Steet (rebuilt in 1642, LOL), and ….) and maybe …. a handful more actually.

Are a new phenomenon to me.

Independently, landlord owned bars, selling dozens of different cask, keg and bottled beers to packed houses. Real (cask) ales at £3.50 to £4.00 a pint to craft (keg) beers at £5 to £12 a pint up to 12/15% abv. And what is most interesting, despite wider UK, Europe and US brewed examples, 50 to 75% are from London and Greater London breweries I’d never heard of 3 months ago. Each with a huge range of beer styles.

You’ve unleashed a monster, with an independent life, Brewdog.


Attended the Intelligence Squared debate at the Royal Geographic Society yesterday evening – chaired by Jonathan Freedland, with Jesse Norman and Rachel Johnson for the motion and with Will Self and Rod Liddle against.

On the way in, the audience (full theatre of 350-ish?) were a little under 50% for and the rest more undecided than against. At the conclusion we were over 60% against with very few undecided.

But therein lay the snag for me with the debate – about winning an either-or argument. Apart from choosing which “we” was being debated – the sum total of UK Benthamite “good” divided by the population, or some more global humanity – clearly the for parties simply traded stats on every measure of progress from economics and income levels, healthcare, environmental quality, freedoms of (religious, and political and scientific) expression, etc to subjective surveys of happiness and well-being. Much debate of course about the material and spiritual aspects of good and evidence of lack of correlation between the two. Will in particular declined this debate – sticking firmly to the whole individual of multiple constituencies, rather than measurable choices for some monolithic average “we”. Rod reinforced the superfluity of choice as the measure of why we’ve never had it so bad.

Ultimately as a debate it was the usual gladiatorial rhetorical battle – easily won by the rhetoricians, whose main point ironically was that wining gladiatorial battles on such matters was pointless.

All my “wisdom” agenda items in one nice package – we (constituency), value (good) and governance (how). Will particularly emphasising that scientism and quantifiable stats are the problem not the solution. A man after my own.

(Interesting therefore in this post-Russell-Brand world, that the motion in the March 11th debate at the Cadogan Hall is “One size doesn’t fit all – Democracy is not always the best from of government”. Connects with yesterday’s debate through the superfluity of choice angle, the meme of our social-media-enabled times is that everyone has, and expects to express, an opinion for or against anything and everything. Whereas real life ain’t so simple. Democracy would work if we could lose the myth of popular – statistical – voting.)

[Post Notes: Good personally, to make contact with Rod Liddle, a fellow Prior Guisborian alumnus of Prior Pursglove College in Guisborough, North Yorkshire. And also good to exchange contact details with the young guy from a Muslim society trying to arrange a forum on Islamic contributions to progress - attending this event to pick up hints on how to not necessarily organise as a gladiatorial debate - some impressive names on his wish-list of guest speakers - watch this space.]

I mentioned Neil Gaiman’s American Gods back here in October. Having lived and travelled n the US over several years, and being a fan of all things Americana, I was looking forward to the read, though I can’t recall where I picked up the reference to the publication of the author’s preferred text of his 2011 original best-seller (possibly heard him talking about it on BBC R4 Start The Week or Saturday Live ?)

Weirdly, after reading the first couple of chapters and encountering the strangest sex scene somewhere around chapter 4, I found Iain Hislop’s words “bonkers, bizarre” preventing me continuing. So what started out as a promising US Road Trip / Buddy movie screen-play lay unread on the bedside cabinet for 3 months. However last two weeks, I restarted from the beginning and devoured it – and the bonus “novella” sequel(*) included.

No room for a full review, but for me it was Douglas Adams(*) meets Satanic Verses(*), with a mass of Americana myth, culture and familiar locations. Quite brilliant – puts “religion vs rationality” debates into real perspective. A book “I wish I’d written”, in fact to continue my own writing project I’m going to have to find some new plot components and angles. Where have American Gods been all my life?

[(*) The sequel adds the familiar Norse gods, Norway, Viking & Northern Isles & northern-most Scotland (Sutherland) context to the already familiar Americana. Think more zombie / fantasy sci-fi than time & space travel scenarios and North London / St Pancras station, and substitute Mr Wednesday for the angel Gabriel, and you get the general idea. Personally, spooky coincidence of locations, themes and subject matter.]

Didn’t spot this until pointed out by Marsha on MD, but in the Q&A session in the 4th Grayson Perry 2013 Reith Lecture, responding to a question around 35:50 about the need for non-judgemental playfulness in order to encourage new potentially creative ideas, he recalls a favourite quote from Robert Pirsig’s ZMM (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).

The analogy of seeing new ideas and creative opportunities as small furry creatures emerging from the undergrowth. If you’re not friendly to the first one, the others are unlikely to come out to play.

Mentioned a couple of posts ago that I needed to explain the under-par blogging for the last month or two of 2013.

I changed jobs, starting a new job early November that involves a weekly commute to London from the North East home. At almost the same time, I was in the process of enhancing another joint blogging project [The Global Circle] when a failed WordPress upgrade affected all my blogs, including this one, at the very point where I didn’t really have enough time for both admin and blogging.

Still a few things missing here on Psybertron – mainly lost links to 13 years worth of media still to be resolved (apologies for that) but I think everything else is at least functional. All the social media linking works again – but so much variable behaviour of different social media apps on different devices. Some strange remaining bug in the first post / single post pages having a long blank gap between the foot of the post text and the comment / sharing links – which I know a theme upgrade will fix.Working on collecting all my customisations before I do that fix. Connectivity-wise I have mobile broadband working, that fits my weekly travel logistics, so I can blog or admin from any device anywhere.

In the process I may consolidate my solo and joint blogs into one vehicle [Joining Dots & Weaving Threads], or at least re-evaluate my publishing objectives, and join forces with another collaborative (edited) project, in order to simplify my admin. I’d be interested in the meantime from anyone interested in genuinely collaborative joint publishing, not just a channel for their own content (you probably already have one of those?).

Interesting 2012 TED talk by billionaire Nick Hanauer on the creation myths of jobs and wealth. Like every aspect of life, even in the built-environment, creation arises from natural cycles across multiple levels.

Ironic and perhaps fortunate that his squirrel chicken-and-egg analogy about who created evolution, makes the general point even better than his explicit economic point. More true than maybe even he knew.

A circle of life kinda process …

(Hat tip to David Morey on FB for the link, but ignore all the conspiracy theory PR crap about it being banned or censored, it just didn’t make the editorial cut the day TED published.)

[Must resurrect my "circle-of-life" version of the Pirsig model.]

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

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.]