All posts by Psybertron

As “Islamist” issues of every kind rumble on, I have often found myself pointing out that an elephant in the room is “modesty”. It makes me priggish to even mention it. Of course, when cultural taboos are enforced by patriarchal tradition, women come off worst in the more extreme interpretations of how much exposed flesh is considered inappropriate. But it’s not just women and it’s not just concerned with the distraction of sexual attraction. It’s all of us and it’s about bodily functions and personal hygiene generally.

Whatever the current level of cultural tolerance of exposed flesh, and whatever the state of evolution of cultural norms, it’s always going to be non-zero and it’s always going to be context dependent.

Setting precisely objective enforceable and quantifiable norms as laws and bans is also never going to be the solution to differences, except as temporary and pragmatic political statements. Appropriateness is about values; values shared culturally.

In the case of the Burka / Burkini total cover-up extremes, and the lesser variations on veils and head-scarves, and beyond the specifically Islamic cultural variations, there are:

  • Modesty per se.
  • Patriarchal domination of women’s freedoms.
  • Non-secular signalling – wearing and display of overtly religious symbols in secular contexts generally.
  • As well as the myriad of contextual variations; from lard-arsed chavs and gentlemen of a certain age wearing leggings and cycling shorts in public to olympic competitors in all manner of skimpy and skin-tight costumes. Too much information, about covers it. Conversely, this can’t be the first time I’ve admitted that I find the eyes-only forms of veil can be very sexy – a little information can carry a lot of meaning.

However, too far from “the norm” implies either a specific context or a specific statement being made, even if the statment is only one of careless ignorance. Freedom of expression is not absolute. Freedom of choice is never entirely free of cultural expectations.

The recent French burkini ban enforcement on the beach in Nice shows how easily the law is made an ass by inappropriate bans. Interesting that the meme erupting from that outrage involves many surfing nuns, Victorian bathing costumes and other historical fascist skirt-length-measurers.

Between repression and gay abandon, there is a wide spectrum of freedom and respect. Norms evolve with culture, and culture is not simply religious. In fact many religious taboos and norms are themselves appropriated conservatively from their pre-existing cultural surreoundings. For those lifestyles involving outdoor toil in hot and/or dusty conditions, near-total cover-up is common for both sexes. Most traditions arise from practicalities before dogmatic adoption.

I guess this is really just a conversation starter. But the inescapable element for me is that the focus must be on the balance between the cultural acceptance of shared values and the tolerance of difference from the norm. Jurisdictions need boundaries, not for enforcment of formal bans and laws, but for governance of evolving cultural norms. Interventions across borders – between jurisdictions and their cultures – can be driven by basic human rights, but not by a wishful single level-playing field in terms of cultural norms. Even suggesting that some things are “normal” can be a red-rag to the PC-bulls out there. One of the most unsettling displays of “abnormality” I experienced was a pair of Hassidic Jews on a plane – overtly fashioned as such to start with – going through elaborate prayer rituals taking up aisle and exit space, complete with various props. Am I allowed to mention they were overweight, sweaty and smelly too? All I could think was, is it really necessary guys, that you subject us all to this. Does that make me an anti-semite?

For the burkini ban fiasco, the underlying “modesty” and “freedom” motives are massively coloured by the secular political messaging on all sides. Values for a secular culture.

The reason it’s an elephant in the room is not so much because Islamic culture – and secular extremist reaction to it – has got it wrong, but because secular culture hasn’t necessarily got the modesty-freedom balance right anyway. The politically polarised extremes ignore the elephant.


[Post Note : piece from Elizabeth Oldfield on “extreme secularism”.]

[Post Note : Ten year old story in general terms, religious headgear for police officers, but in recent days, Canadian and Scottish forces adopting Hijab option for female officers. Understandable “community policing” incentive, but blurring official secularity of state, and attracting “Sharia police” jibes.]

[Post Note – and Maajid Nawaz clear as usual on the middle-ground in his piece for The Daily Beast. Recognising the spectrum across the middle-groind means we can stop ignoring the reality of the underlying issues. When we drain the swamp we notice the elephants.]

[Post Note – and Anne-Marie raises one I’ve raised before on this modesty issue, in her case to make a political point against London’s Muslim mayor, but the underlying issue is clear here:

It’s about balance, Anne-Marie.]

[Post Note – and as I said …

…. it’s not all about sexual distraction either.]

[And Matt …

… nails it.]

Cutting your own throat with Occam’s (Ockham’s) razor (Summa Logicae, 1323) has been a recurring meme since (before) I started Psybertron. Here a piece by Philip Ball in The Atlantic reinforces that the drive for simplicity can just as well be counter-productive.

Between the infinity of (general) theses that may explain an (individual, set of) phenomenon and the maximum efficiency of economy there are many plausible and potentially better explanations.

“We are to admit no more causes of natural things, than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” [restated by Isaac Newton, Principia Mathematica (1687).]

Simplicity is a practical virtue, allowing a clearer view of what’s most important in [an intentionally simplified view of] a phenomenon.

But Occam’s razor is often fetishized and misapplied as a guiding beacon for scientific enquiry. Here the implication is that the simplest theory isn’t just more convenient, but gets [more probably, correctly] closer to how nature really works.

There’s absolutely no reason to believe that.

Fetish. Yes, that’s the language I’ve been using too.

As a piece of writing this is unrehearsed an unpollished, but I wanted to record some notes before Phil Walder’s second talk on meat-eating “Should Humanists Eat Animals” at Central London Humanists on Wednesday this week at Conway Hall. I didn’t see his previous talk either, but did hear some some specific points of feedback from others. (Also in recent weeks – Julian Baggini’s TLS piece and George Monbiot’s piece in the Grauniad – exchanged info with Phil. Both have of course written on meat-eating before.) So with apologies working blind as far as Phil’s actual talk is concerned herewith some thoughts:

The ethics of human power over the life and death of animals? I see this as the key issue, everything else being corollaries or practical detail.

The fact that we have evolved as omnivores as part of the animal kingdom is an attractive argument, but also being intelligent and enlightened, doesn’t mean we should eat animals if there is no reason to. The opposite holds too, the fact we are intelligent and enlightened doesn’t mean we should reject our evolutionary history either.

What counts as (killing and) eating animals is the first definitional problem. Domesticated or wild, hunted or husbanded (?) beasts or birds of any kind? Fish, caught or farmed? “Lower” forms of shellfish – where is the line drawn. What about symbotic life forms? What about animal products that don’t involve slaughter – dairy? Are eggs slaugher anyway? Funghi? But definitions can’t be the decisive the issue.

The real ethical issue is sustainability – phsyical & biological as well as psychological & morally. What are we doing to ourselves and the cosmos?

As far as the ethics of how the animals are treated in the supply chain – right up to slaughter and subsequent handling – and how we treat those we delegate to “process” the animals, from farmers to slaughter and butchery on our behalf, or ourselves if we are so inclined.

Sustainability is a matter of respect. Respect for the cosmos as well as for ourselves and our treatment of animals.

Intensive production (eg US beef or mass poultry, say) shows little respect for anything. The animals, ourselves or environmental resources. What about lower intensity production, sheep hill-farming on grouse moorland as part of wider environmental management? A lot of what we consider “natural” environment is in fact the result of thousands of years of husbandry.

Slaughtermen in intensive production may be “desensitised” even “dehumanised” in what they are doing. [A famous US documentary exposed extreme practices a couple of decades ago.] Little chance for the human to show the animals any respect. One reason why traditional cultures (eg religious ones) have taboos, mores and rituals when it comes to taking the life of animals – even if reality can still be trampled-on by supply chain economics in any culture.

I say all this as someone who eats meat and animal products, though more fish and shellfish than meat generally by choice, and generally less meat than most who do. As a result of travel and exposure to many different local cuisines we eat a wide range of non-meat and non-fish meals. And would generally target sustainable sources, though busy-life, bad-habits and blind-spots mean I/we do have specific processed food exceptions. In a sense I/we could easily be vegetarian but choose not to be.

And I say that as someone who used to be fascinated by the slaugherman at work, on both cattle and sheep, at the local butcher on my way home from school. And I recall a memorable meal of fresh fish on a mediterranean quayside, right alongside the blood-bath that was freshly landed tuna being butchered. Interesting conversation with our young school-age kids. Out of sight, out of mind, is not a healthy attitude to the real ethical issues.

In summary for me, meat-eating is OK (but not essential, obviously) provided it is sustainable at both the physical & biological environmental level and the level of psychological well-being and moral respect.


[Post Note : My actual position is that we should not give up meat eating beyond sustainability condiderations. We might one-day regret long-term evolution away from omnivorousness – we shouldn’t lose the potential as a species.]

[Post Note : No sign of the recorded talk yet, but an interesting piece from Julie Burchill.]

Mentioned in my previous post that I was actively catching-up on reading Nicholas Nassim Taleb whose best-selling Black Swan I already felt I knew from secondary references, and whose later (Antifragile) arguments (and the person) I was coming to know through social media and blogging links.

As mentioned, I had received Antifragile first, but had only got started on the Prologue before Black Swan turned-up yesterday, so I switched to reading in published order. Just as well because the Prologue to Antifragile already inlcudes many references to Black Swans and the Black Swan Effect.

So, as per usual when reading and reviewing an anticipated book, I’m blogging an early review of initial impressions, so that any later conclusions and lessons learned (gutted and abstracted content) can be honestly judged as more than hindsight.

Right from the first few pages – taking Black Swans (*) as a given already – I’m right with him in my own agenda:

“[This] philosophical-logical question into an empirical reality, […] that has obsessed me since childhood.”

“A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our [21st C] world […] Ever since we left the Pleistocene […] the effect of these Black Swans has been increasing. It started accelerating during the industrial revolution, as the world started getting more complicated, while ordinary events […] become increasingly inconsequential.”

That increasing complication is of course exaggerated by the degree and speed of information inter-connectivity too and, as he goes on to say later, increasingly recursive.

“Literally, just about everything of significance around [us] might qualify [as a Black Swan].”

“[Predictive, risk management business as intellectual frauds] exclude the possibility of the Black Swan.

“[Learning] with too much precision. […] Too practical and exceedingly focussed for [our] own safety.”

“We do not spontaneously learn that we don’t learn that we don’t learn. The problem lies in the structure of our minds: we don’t learn rules, just facts, and only facts. Metarules (such as the rule that we have a tendency to not learn rules) we don’t seem to be good at getting. We scorn the abstract; we scorn it with a passion,”

“Aggressive ignorance.”

And he is already telegraphing his anti-fragile thesis – ie not just being aware of and resilient to Black Swans in general, but being fore-armed with the antifragile capabilities to benefit from them – but I was already there in the previous post. Anyway enough for now, let’s finish with this one, and we’re only half-way through the 12 page Prologue:

“A new kind of ingratitude […]
a far more viscious kind of ingratitude:
the feeling of uselessness
on the part of the silent hero.”

Silent as in those that don’t fly planes into the WTC.

I can already see the ironies piling-up, as we aim for the meta-meta abstractions needed whilst inevitably arguing about specific technical detail. But I get it already. I’m driven by the same passion.


[(*) Note: Black Swans are fundamentally what’s known as “The Induction Problem” – the failure of generalised knowledge of the past to predict the future specifically or generally (coupled with increasingly catastrophic and chaotic potential outcomes in an ever more complex and recursively connected world). Ever since Aristotle formalised what we mean by induction, people have been pointing out the problem. Most famously for us anglophones, Hume elaborated on Bishop Berkley on the chances of the sun rising (in the east) tomorrow, but Taleb (and wikipedia) remind us that Sextus Empiricus (alas the empirical according to Taleb) as well as Al-Ghazali’s debate with Averroes had already thoroughly warned anyone who’d read them. (I notice Taleb, like Simon Blackburn, is a fan of Hume, his lifestyle more than the more formal philosophy for which he is more generally known).]

Skimming my blog dashboard I find I have several, a handful, of draft pieces with reference to Nassim Nicholas Taleb and things he’s published or linked to, that I’ve not quite had the courage to post yet.

Like many, I find his argumentation style is so ruthless, he suffers no fools gladly, that even short supportive responses on twitter get the full application of vitriol – even blockage – if there is even the slightest hint of “not getting it”. With a lot of (other) people I might just pigeon-hole them down the wrong end of the autism disorder spectrum, or consider them plain arrogant and unhelpful. In Taleb’s case, it’s kinda the point.

His target is the overly simplistic, underinformed use of logic, scientific and/or statistical.

It’s ironic that right now I’m also in dialogue with Lee Beaumont on lessons in argumentation leading to better knowledge and its wiser application. The emphasis is very much on insight-seeking respectful dialogue (eg following Rappaport’s rule) whilst at the same time having access to the widest possible toolsets of logic and rhetoric from winning binary arguments and destroying fallacies to collaborative and creative synthesis of new knowledge. I suspect we and Taleb might not get off first base, or maybe we not even survive the experience.

Anyway the points is, however prickly Taleb’s style, he is onto something important about the limits to knowledge – even with the best information available some things remain essentially unpredictable or objectively unknowable in any practical sense. That much was the lesson of his Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness. I hadn’t really joined-up the dots until I was reminded of his standing-up to challenge the naive scientific certainties of The Four Horseman of New Atheism (2009, and here 2012 in The New Statesman). And of course he is more generally supportive of promoting the value of philosophy to science as it bumps up against it’s unknown and unknowable edges.

My homework has some catching-up to do. Black Swan I only know by second hand references, so I now have a copy winging its way to me. Today however I received my copy of his 2012 Antifragile and just debating whether to plunge-in or wait and read him in the order published.

Antifragile goes beyond pointing out the chaotic unpredictability that undermines naive scientific rationale, to the constructive benefit of not just being resilient to the random, but being able to positively exploit it through evolution. I’m hooked; when I did my master’s thesis over 25 years ago, I quoted Malcom McLaren’s adage:

“Thriving on chaos”

Antifragile has some impressive hype in its cover blurbs too:

Changed my view of how the world works.
[Daniel Kahneman, no less] and

The most prophetic voice of all …
… a genuinely significant philosopher.

The hottest thinker in the world.
[Sunday Times]

Some exciting – and I guess challenging – reading ahead.


[Post Note: Lee, mentioned above, has in fact already read and reviewed Antifragile, and interestingly his (negative) comments focus almost entirely on style, and the combative (boxing-match analogy) style of the set-piece god-wars debate above. The ironies pile up.]

Great piece from Peter Clive at “Mo’ Flo’ MoJo”

Grandma’s adages almost invariably contain an important element of non-obvious truth. Correlations between experience of things grouping together (platooning) in nature – two buses coming along at once – have evolutionary explanations. Yes even the behaviour of bus services evolve.

(Hat tip Gillian Mair @Ruglonian)

Been picking-up links and hits on the blog that had me confused until today. Firstly several Spiral Model hits – presumably from Ken Wilber’s “Intergal” AQAL metaphysical ontology (dervived from Graves, Beck & Cohen) – then several colours including TEAL which at first I suspected to be another acronym, but then realised Teal just another Wilber colour in the spiral layers. And now I realise there’s a whole management school spinning out of Frederick Laloux’s “Reinventing Organisations” which presumably takes Wilber’s evolutionary model of organisation. Something I’ve thought dismissively about myself in the past but focussed more on Maslow and Pirsig’s MoQ layered model with Hofstadter’s loopiness.

Just a few holding links for the moment.

Argumentum ad Wilberiam: How truthiness and
overgeneralization threaten to turn integral theory into a new

So what’s this “Teal” organisations thing?

A critique of the ‘subtle hierarchism’ of the Teal Organizations concept in the book ‘Reinventing Organizations’ – originally hat-tip to Jaap van Till I believe, bringing @paulmasonnews into the conversation. A link to “Peer-to-Peer” organisation. Like so much management-speak there’s plenty of jargon and dubious bullshit, but as in all such cases there’s probably some meta-sense in there trying not to get reified by objective criticism?

The thing that really distracted me in reading these links was the Dupuy reference. The first comment in the critique above was by François Dupuy, sociologist picking up on missing “social systems” view aspects (of the book & review?) and my own extraction from a pure-science stance on systems engineering (cybernetics) came from Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s “Mechanisation of the Mind”. Checking if any relation.

Something to follow-up.