All posts by Psybertron

The Paul Holdengraber tweet came into my feed because it was liked by Frankie Boyle a few days ago. The original Nassim Nicholas Taleb post quoting the Umberto Eco reference I’d seen last year. It made my day, decade even, because Frankie, Taleb and Eco are each really high on the list of serious contributors to what I’m banging on about here on @Psybertron. Having all three converge in one tweet, was an “alignment of the stars”.

So with apologies to all the wonderful writers of books I may never get round to reading, here’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

I’ve been a fan of Eco as an intellectual writer since I was first aware of The Name of the Rose, and as a result I’ve read much of his work in the last decade or so. To put that in context, you need to be aware that despite now being over sixty, I’m a “born again” reader since only the turn of the millennium, since 9/11 in practice. For the previous forty-odd years I was a technology engineering geek who’d barely read anything other than a work-related manual or the occasional popular science best-seller.

Prior to that I’d developed plenty of doubts and clues that real life, as we lived, managed and governed it, was so much more ambiguous than we presented it to each other, and counter-intuitive, positively weird if not downright perverse. I first noticed the concerns enough to articulate them when I did a Master’s course and research dissertation a decade earlier, but it didn’t blossom until my own sons’ self-motivated reading (Douglas Adams and more) and 9/11 started the explosion of blogging, social media and on-line accessible writing generally.

Since starting the blogging project my reading knows few bounds. Still, for preference, in printed book form despite wider electronic access and not limited to the Great Books of literature, philosophy of science and epistemology, and especially any writings that combine these. I’ve used Eco as the yardstick to compare other modern writers.

Frankie Boyle’s work I’ve known since he rose to fame as a stand-up and TV comic but it’s fair to say I hadn’t appreciated how intelligent his wit was until he moved from his column in The Sun to writing for The Guardian. Me, an intellectual snob – surely not? He’s become the archetypal “Court Jester” for me. The person who’s earned the right to be as acerbically cutting, rude and offensively cruel in his ridicule of public figures as anyone can be. Firstly, because his wit really is sharply targeted and hilarious and secondly, because his understanding and analysis is so intelligently nuanced through all that.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb I knew only by second-hand repute of his Black Swan / Antifragile work until I started to notice his ruthless comments on twitter, hacking off at the knees any “Intellectual Yet Idiot” who couldn’t show they’d done their statistics homework before passing comment in public. I followed without daring to comment for quite some time. Then I noticed, vaguely recalled I suspect, that it had been he who made himself unpopular by debating against the four horsemen and their hangers-on in the science vs religion debates. I realised here was a fellow traveller in the search for something better than the pale excuse that passes for objective rationality in current public discourse. IYI says it.

Now, imagine my surprise when Taleb posted the Eco Antilibrary anecdote above, quoting from his own Black Swan. It was at that point, just last year that I decided I had to do my Taleb homework reading. As well as Black Swan and Antifragile, his Real World Risk Institute and any number of on-line research projects demand attention, even if the technical level of the statistics of probability would stretch the understanding of even the best professional scientists. No, not you, Mr Pinker. At a technical symbolic level I doubt I understand 10% of what Taleb writes, but what he says always rings true and always fearless with the power of Fuck You in the right hands.

The Antilibrary concept had certainly rung true for me with Eco before.

The reality is that, when you read a lot of books and papers with a purpose in mind, as I’ve been doing for over fifteen years now, it is ultimately unsustainable. Since every read (book or blog post long-read or micro-blog tweet) contains a minimum of two or more new reads to follow-up, then your un-read reading list grows exponentially, and obviously faster than you could ever read it at some point. Too much to read, too little time, someone else said.

However unavoidable the self-inflicted guilt feels, at some point you have to write instead of reading. Some successful writers needed to hit the buffers of a mental breakdown before they got professional psychiatric advice to stop reading and start writing. It’s no doubt why research degrees have time limits for delivery of the necessary writing.

Eco’s antilibrary is the antidote to this problem. A good library is full of unread books, that’s the point – to have living things to read, not simply dead things you’ve finished reading. Unread books are no longer a source of guilt. Both my library and antilibrary are continuing to expand and evolve nicely, thank you.

Vive La Différance – or a white swan in the hand is worth more than risking a few black feathers in the bush.

I’ve regularly used the Derridan version of difference (différance) ironically and usually when talking about gender differences. That minefield of:

  • what differences there really are between men and women (specifically archetypically, but generalising, obviously);
  • what the real significance and value of those differences are (if any);
  • and how these are best handled with care, when such archetypes may be exploited as stereotypes in actively biased political agendas or in passively maintained fallacies.

Political correctness says don’t mention the difference, let’s just avoid any slippery slope to such prejudiced politics. But that’s the deferrment in Derrida’s ironic neologism. That’s the denial. Denial of difference. Différance. Very unscientific, to say the least, and some people think such logic matters, even in the arithmetic of politics.

One reason I (re)use the term ironically in that gender context is because in fact I’m already using it implicitly everywhere issues involve binary choices but where clearly the larger issue can never be reduced to that smaller difference. Actual difference is nevertheless significant.

This kind of political correctness is damaging science itself and our rationality more generally. Rhetorical tricks are an accepted, indeed an essential, part of politics but, as more people are beginning to realise, this politically-correct denial of difference is turning science and rationality into another branch of politics.

Why am I writing this today?

Ive been personally concerned for more than two decades on where rationality appears to be failing human affairs generally, despite the progress of science and technology. There are always endless issues and topics of the day that get reduced to binary arguments between seemingly extreme opposing views. Godwin’s law is so devalued that anyone who disagrees with us is barely one click away from being branded a fascist. Post-truth isn’t even the half of it.

The Spring 2017 New Humanist is a special edition on the “Age of Extremes” which is very timely. #Brexit and #Trump may be the social-media hashtags of choice, but these are merely lightning rods for a mass of issues around identities and freedoms, truths and values. “How do we make sense of a troubling time for democracy and its discontents?” asks editor Daniel Trilling in his introduction to pieces on many of those issues behind the headlines. How indeed. Have a read.

Yesterday, I had an exchange with a sci-commer and and scientist on the original topic – that minefield of male-female / left-right brain differences – and some new apparently valid scientific findings. No prizes for guessing how that conversation ended: “we’ve debated that before” and “I’ve written a book about it”. End of. Even a denial that the closing down of discussion was itself any kind of political correctness. Now, as sci-commer and scientist, I have respect for both Vanessa Heggie and Mo Costandi. The point is not to criticise them. The problem is the prevailing “uncomfortable truth” meme that says “don’t even consider the difference”.

But today specifically? It’s not yet 10am as I write this, and mainstream media and twitter has already delivered the news:

[I’m including the Tweets with their own links and threads for reference and jumping-off points – impossible to re-create as a single storified “thread” – but all the important published links are in the text discussion that follows.]

BBC science correspondent Tom Feilden (oops, typo in my original tweet) reporting on the “Reproducibility Crisis”

Rupert Read’s latest “White Swan” post on Medium.

Retweet by Alom Shaha of two threads shared by Petra Boynton, and an ensuing exchange of tweets with several sub-threads.

Controversy reduced to binary choices.

Firstly, as I’ve said it hardly matters which “controversy” we’re talking about. These twitter streams illustrate at least three explicitly, and the New Humanist edition above covers at least half a dozen more. The things I’m talking about include:

  • Immigration ban vs refugees welcome
  • Extreme vetting vs open borders
  • Brexit project fear vs project cheer
  • Freedom of expression vs safe spaces
  • One state vs two state middle-east
  • Climate changer vs AGW denier
  • Sharia vs Secular constitution
  • Religious freedom vs secular life
  • Race vs religious culture
  • Evidence-based vs received wisdom
  • Scientific method vs everyday life
  • Left vs right
  • Liberal vs conservative
  • New vs old
  • And, frankly, dozens more.

The point is, as political arguments they all represent sides where each would want to prevail, at least in a win-win compromise if not total win-lose, Even with the most balanced and nuanced consideration of all details of each, and the myriad of complex relationships between each question, they represent issues where it might be rationally politic to choose a side – or it might not. However, on any scientifically or objectively rational basis none is actually a binary choice, the two sides never represent simple objects of choice or where compromise is simply how much of each. But politics is politics. Science isn’t.

The politics of science, sci-somms and science funding say, are political of course. The content and conduct of science are not. Or shouldn’t be. Our best sci-commers know this. The best of them are scientists too and know which hat they’re wearing. Their audiences in mainstream and social media may not always be so discerning in practice when reacting and interacting across the whole spectrum from serious technical journals, popular science and general media. The boundaries between politics and science are blurred on many axes.

The reproducibility crisis, even if you don’t believe it really exists as a crisis in science on the scale Tom reports – “Science is like [financial services] before the 2008 crash.” – is one symptom. In the competitive clamour for attention and funds, the politics of science crowds out the quality of the content. This either dismisses important internal differences to defend the only game currently in town or turns internal detail into the main event in the quest to be the next big thing. Two extremes neither of which reflects the most likely reality that we have something that might simply help progress existing areas of work. This focus on the novel as competitive true-or-false news politicises science and squeezes any resources that might be motivated to actually address significant so-far un-reproduced findings scientifically.

In the proper analysis, the difference will often be a small aspect of the whole. It may seem fair to quietly ignore it, deny it or shout it down in the daily cut and thrust. But it’s not science. It’s not objective rationality. And, being a small aspect of the whole, what may be obscured is the massive amount of common ground. In fact, that may the rationale for ignoring it and focussing on progressing the large but flawed majority – that’s politic too. Read’s “White Swan” piece pick’s this up. In climate-change denial politics we’re talking about a massive eco-system in terms of physical and temporal scale and complexity. However many things are well established and scientifically proven, and important things are, there are a million other doubtful details and undecidable choices. Read’s White Swan is a reference to Taleb’s unforeseeable Black Swan. Political and practical real-world action should really focus on the common ground. Wasted effort debating undecidable detail blind-sides us to the unpredictable Black Swans. They don’t become decidable simply because we cast them politically as simple objects we can choose between. We are fooled by randomness into thinking it’s better to debate and decide on details of the unpredictable.

Better to let the real scientists and proper use of statistical tools focus on the myriad of details, each in their own context, work towards making more detail decidable and ensuring a proper response to undecidable risk. Political debate and choice should restrict itself to how to ride the white swan – finding the common ground we can agree to work with right now.

The Thin End of Slippery Slopes

In the gender difference example it’s politically correct to deny difference, simply to avoid the risk of persisting stereotypes and their political abuse for other agendas. Not giving ground to the thin end of a wedge or a slippery slope. Politically of course, with much momentum and many battles won in the direction of “equality” it makes perfect sense to reject calls of difference. One or two Machiavellian operators could undermine a lot of established ground. That’s why it’s literally PC. But the difference is still real and significant. Science cannot ignore differences, the exceptions, the outliers, the odd-balls.

And herein lies the problem. It’s the exceptions that make for news. Quite literally in Shannon Information Theory, only the significantly different bits represent news. We can convey everything we knew yesterday, yesterday’s weather, with a single bit, the news is all the new bits. With ubiquitous media all new bits are clamouring competitively for attention. Boundaries between proper scientific attention and valid political attention are blown away. The known and nearly-known is crowded out by the (would-be) new.

The convergence is complete if we also consider that information – significant difference – is also the fundamental source of all physical reality, energy, particles, values, the lot. This would be a digression if it weren’t that so much popular science concerns itself with the physics of everything from quanta to the cosmos. The way information is physically embodied and represented depends on many evolved levels of encoding and abstraction on every axis imaginable.

We’d better get it right, the way we understand information and handle it. A newsworthy fact for a scientist may not be the same as a truth for a political journalist, and as we’ve seen commentators fall across a whole spectrum of media contexts. Evidence is an important input to any choice. Available evidence should never be ignored but we must not fetishise the idea that evidence of one objectively scientific kind is necessary before we can make any and all political decisions. Transparency of information is another aspect that gets fetishised. Rights and freedoms, and Wikileaks and social media generally, would support the idea that any information should be available in any context. But a valid fact or bit of information in a scientific analysis may be inappropriate in a public policy debate.

It’s not that we can’t all understand everything in any context – we can’t – and therefore might misinterpret and/or misuse it – we will – it’s that the fact, truth or bit of information might not represent a meaningful object applicable to any decidable question in any and all contexts – it won’t.

There needs to be recognisable demarcations between contexts. Good fences make good neighbours. Then, and only then, can we collaborate on what we mostly actually share both sides of any fences.

Had almost a two week blogging hiatus, despite being very active all over social media – some idiot called Trump/Brexit/Corbyn? And indeed reading books as well as on-line reads, but all very fragmented with no effort into linking and synthesising. It’s fixing the idiocy – received wisdom – that really interests me.

Still can’t find the cross-over between Eco and Child that prompted my previous post, and still have a handful of unfinished and new reads lying around. No longer motivated to try to remember it now.

I was rude to call it drivel, but time to draw a line under Child’s Reacher I reckon, and put it down to a matter of taste.

Martin is right, Child is clever when it comes to crafting his series of stories to a formula that sells in the hundreds of millions. I finished Make Me and maybe a third of Reacher Said Nothing (The Making of Make Me) and was finding every impression re-inforced. Signposted, predictable and meta-predictable. Even without any pre-determined schema or plot for each story, there is a process and a stock of devices to draw on as well as a production time-table. Campbell was maybe right, there are only so many stories to be written, and only a sub-set of those featuring the loner Robin Hood super-anti(?)hero-of-few-words. If there are any deeper stories and messages in the choices of subject matter in each plot I didn’t see them. Or I didn’t see any deeper than the obvious – even the obviously mis-directed twists – but the sheer repetition, including the treatment of the female characters, I found mind-numbing. The only saving grace for me has been the shared experience of Americana and smoky bars.

Clever, but. Line drawn.

Good news is Andy Martin continues to produce intelligent writing.

My focus for a while is going to shift back to the technology.  So many content threads seem to be converging on the “colonisation of the mind” by what passes for received wisdom, that it’s almost becoming a no brainer – albeit a no-brainer without the words to articulate. What I really need to get sorted is the book-marking and cross-linking, so that all the convergences can be collated and synthesised without the labour-intensive reliance on memory.

Some combination of PinBoard and IFTTT maybe, to capture all tagged thoughts, wherever they arise in social and mainstream media, on or off line, and package them according to tagging events in WordPress and/or Medium posts? At least then I can choose which such Index Cards I turn into a piece of writing with a point to it, without forgetting those that simply remain on-file-with-archived-links.

My biggest memory failure, is the instantaneous recognition of an important or significant link, with strong circumstantial recall of the linked memory, but no memory of the linking content itself. A particular problem for me, where I hold a world-view that all significant value-add – all reality in fact – is in the dynamic connections! Our conventional world of objects (and subjects) being merely meta or modelled orthogonal to this actual reality.

And, Les Mis is next on my Great Books reading list.

I may be some time.

I’m mid-reading on several avenues at once right now.

After having read the first two of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher collection, Killing Floor (1997) and Die Trying (1998), I went on to start Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004) I need an intellectual fix after Child’s drivel. Well crafted drivel, selling 100,000,000 copies and counting, but so formulaic: the very opposite of thrilling or entertaining, as in annoyingly repetitive and transparently signposted. Not a genre that appeals to me, written or cinematic, without the premise that Andy Martin’s Reacher Said Nothing (2015) is not only by an author I admire, but is also topping recommended must-read lists.

Anyway, reminded that the first two were a a set of three we’d bought, I paused on Eco to read Child’s third Tripwire. Sadly, no respite, but at least I’d done my duty in prepartion for Make Me (2015) and Reacher Said Nothing (The Making of Make Me)(2015) by now on order.

Finishing Tripwire, the order hadn’t yet arrived, so I went back to Mysterious Flame again. But now it has, so I’m reading Child again. So help me, Make Me, 28 years after the first three, Child still has doors “sucked” open and closed! Apart from forensic curiosity, as in a car crash, say, I can’t imagine why I’d pick up another Lee Child. Ever.

Martin’s interest is of course forensic, literary criticism aimed at the creative process, rather than the content. Mostly Reacher says nothing, but then neither really does Child so far as I can tell. But, how exactly does one create fluff that sells in such mind-boggling quantities? I guess every would-be writer wants to know that kinda secret <cough>.

However the only reason for making this post – being even more rude about Child is clearly a mean and pointless quest – is because I stumbled acros a 2015 Child sentence that said pretty much exactly the same as Eco in 2004!

And I can’t for the life of me remember what it was. Knowing you know something subjectively even though you can’t remember what it is objectively, is Eco’s Mysterious Flame of course.

A running theme throughout Psybertron is the reality of conscious mind and its consequences in the real world. That’s partly because explantory understanding of our understanding and of our decision-making is my main research focus and partly because – probably not coincidentally – it’s also a prime (but not the only) example where politicised scientific dogma denies reality and actually prejudices our understanding. Focussing too narrowly on “our” consciousness also risks excluding any panpsychic possibilities, monist or dualist, where our brains / minds – and those of sentient creatures generally – may be more like transducers of consciousness rather than exclusive sources.

Like any rational research, understanding a thing is often best achieved by altering selected parameters of our object of interest, and observing the consequences. And in order to maximise interpretability of any results, wherever possible, alteration of parameters should be done in the most controlled ways, minimising the numbers of variables in play at any one time.

There are two well established schools of investigation. One investigating natural and accidental mental (psychological and physical) “abnormalities” another investigating chemical induced changes of state. Evaluating the abnormal tells us a lot about the normal.

My main objective here – as someone avoiding and not condoning illegal drug use – is to evaluate secondary research, and to promote legalisation supporting valuable research and safe use. In preparation for a survey of the story so far, below are over 15 years of links within Psybertron (Hat tip to Andy Dean for asking the question):

[Altered Chemical StatesPeyote, Ayahuasca / Hoasca, DMT Tea, LSD, MescalinePsilocybin, psychedelics generally, Sue BlackmoreJames Austin.]

[Altered Psycho-Physical StatesMcGilchrist , Schwarz & Begley, Sacks, Ramchandran, DamasioZeman, and many more with Phineas Gage as the archetypal meme, the over-exposed pin-up of all researchers in this field.]

[Focus groupsStephen Reid’s Psychedelic Society, and the Agora Critical Thinking Consciousness group.]

[Psycho-Philosophical positions – Zen et al – also important, but not covered here.]

More recent:

Non-addictive drug use.


Jet Lag Melatonin

Link-rot used to be a big problem for early web-loggers, but since everyone (inc mainstream media) started used standard blogging and micro-blogging CMS and storage of content became practically free, most web content sticks once it’s posted. Permalinks usually are. Problems do still arise:

Having reviewed / recommended Andy Martin’s writing over the years, my blog posts include several links to the writing on his “Ink” blog – I pulled some of the key posts together in my previous post, but sadly some links to specific posts on Andy Martin Ink are broken:
This used to be a link to his brief personal memoir on how he came to be writing Camus vs Sartre (also published in The Independent review and appearing as a preface to his book).
This used to be a link to his promotional film for Modern and Mediaeval Languages at Cambridge.
This used to be a link to his film “Surfing in New York”.
This used to be a link to his article on how he came to be surfing in New York.
This used to link to independent article on how the fiction writer is king and how the crime-thriller genre is contributing to our downfall. (Very important story – closely related to why I find the Child-Reacher oevre “truly awful” however cleverly cafted to be “popular”. Pure memetics – popular does not equal good. There may be meta-qualities to be appreciated, so long as understood they are not literally equivalent to explicit reality. Populism is tyranny, not free democracy. Escapism has its value, but not as a model of reality.)

Pity. I wonder if alternative links exist to the same content? Is everything Andy Martin’s ever written now behind The Independent paywall?

Still works – this is a piece on Autism – beyond understanding.]

I’ve been a fan of Andy Martin’s writing for several years. I also loved his little advertising film recruiting for his home department of modern languages at Cambridge.

Here a selection of previous reviews: [Camus / Sartre Fight Club] [Surfing 9/11 USA] [No Students Were Harmed] [Cosmic Man] [Logic as Autism] [And more …]

However, I wasn’t drawn to his more recent Lee Child project. Interviewing and writing articles around Child’s writing and his Jack Reacher character. Child is prolific with Reacher, and a lot more besides apparently. Martin’s Child project culminated in Reacher Said Nothing.

By rights, given my taste for Martin’s writing, I should be reading Nothing, but as I noted on Twitter a month or so ago, I’d never read any Child, certainly not any Reacher. Obviously I’m aware of Reacher in general through the crash-bang-wallop man-of-few-words genre of films he’s spawned, but not the kind of films I go out of my way to watch. May have seen the odd one on TV. There was a big Child shaped hole in my reading which meant I probably couldn’t appreciate Martin’s latest?

So, for 2017 I’ve been reading Child’s Reacher oevre, starting with his first two; Killing Floor and Die Trying. Having lived in the US myself, the cultural and geographical references amuse, particularly Die Trying set in far north-west Montana locations same as Zen and the Art, same way as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods also does in some of the same locations as Killing Floor. But for the characters, the ballistics and the anti-hero-doesn’t-get-the-girl “thriller” plot lines, truly awful. Worse than I’d feared (*).

OK, so the Raymond Chandler-esque machine-gun narrative of short sharp phrasing I can see has a certain charm and interest maybe for a language scholar. But is there a level of irony I’m not seeing? A joke I’m not in on?

So my quandary is, why would I read Martin’s Reacher Said Nothing, and is there any other Child I should be reading?


[Post Note: Added links to previous Andy Martin reviews, and …

(*) I say worse than I’d feared. Clearly a phenomenon to succeed over dozens of books, and clever to craft so many stories to a winning formula. But, even having read only the first two, alarming how many formulaic plot and narrative devices are already repeated. The whole man-of-few-words device, an update of the man-with-no-name, leaves endless options for filling out the backstory as hooks for new themes in later pieces. Clever as a craft, but is it not too transparently obvious, a thriller with neon sign-posts?]

[Post Note: As an anlytical piece on the best-seller creative process I see Martin specifically follows Child’s writing of “Make Me”. Oh my god, does that mean I need to read another before embarking on “Reacher Said Nothing”. I’m beginning to see literary criticism of the popularly successful process, not (necessarily) concerned with other qualities of the literary content. Fair enough. Catching-up on Martin’s blog, I see he’s been covering a lot of the Nordic-Noir genre too. Again several very successful strains of the genre have resulted – our house is full of Nesbo, Adler-Olsson and the rest – but has it not all been repetition to the point of boring cliche since the original “Killing”?]

Too Blue For Logic

My axioms were so clean-hewn,

The joins of ‘thus’ and ‘therefore’ neat

But, I admit

Life would not fit

Between straight lines

And all the cornflowers said was ‘blue,’

All summer long, so blue.

So when the sea came in and with one wave

Threatened to wash my edifice away –

I let it.

[Marianne Jones]


[First discovered and posted back in 2002, but oft quoted since.]