All posts by Psybertron

Loved reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the so-called “author’s preferred text” version from 2004 with the extra epilogue chapter. It made a big impression but I never did get round to writing a full review, beyond this passing reference.

Never been a fan of fantasy or sci-fi fiction generally, with a few satirical and philosophical exceptions, and I said the book felt like Douglas Adams  (Hitchhiker and Long Dark Teatime) meets Salman Rushdie (Satanic Verses and Two Years) – on several levels. Both exceptions I loved. Now watching the Amazon TV adaptation, with Gaiman as exec producer, I would add Terry Gilliam’s Brazil to that impression. The production is magnificent. The real difference from those other three, is the added bonus of Americana of which I’m also a great fan.

Confusing to say the least. But then, like the book there are so many surreal aside scenes in any temporal order that following “the plot” is tough. I really wonder what anyone not already appreciating the book would make of simply trying to sit down and watch it? Confused myself even further when having watched the 6th episode on the understanding it was the final episode, I was bereft. That’s not how I remembered it and put the impression down to experience and moved on.

But of course it’s 12 episodes in Series 1 (how can there be more than one?) and I’ve now watched episodes 7 and 8 having recapped on 6.

It really is brilliant on belief in stories and reality. Practically theological as far as the eponymous gods are concerned. The allegories and metaphors are pretty thin and transparent, (eg Technology and Media) which is just as well because as I say it would be pretty opaque if not. Gillian Anderson is magnificently cast in her several cameo roles as Media. Even my first full read involved a couple of false starts before I could get to grips with it. I saw one reviewer complaining that the Ricky Whittle’s lead character Shadow Moon was a pretty dumb name and the plot hard to discern. If that’s your entry level then I’m guessing the point of the story will be lost to you.

And I’m also guessing consistent with the original read, the theological and philosophical positions underlying the allegory may not be that sophisticated, despite being heavily researched from every pre-existing strand of mythology. How could it be otherwise given that scope. But it is full of thought provoking material presented with wit and imagination. The more I watch and re-read, the more it looks like a “resource” to be unpicked at leisure afterwards. What I really need is a synoptic schema of all it’s components – I’m probably going to have to create one.

Recommended for anyone prepared to put in the effort.

Despite the fact Piers often remarked “Yes, I have often agreed with things you have said in the past.”, Tommy also said “Yes, I’ve apologised for some of the misguided things I’ve said in the past.” Let’s face it Maajid Nawaz founded Quilliam entirely on reversing things he said and believed when he was younger and hot-headed. There’s no love lost between these parties, but learning from mistakes, ours and those of others, is to be encouraged.

One argument for keeping this kind of debate off mainstream media is because the angry hot-headed “debate” stokes anger (and violent hatred) without noticeably progressing any constructive argument. The hypocritical and manipulative Piers sets the bar to moral high-ground pretty low, so Tommy easily wins that one. The second reason is that the shock-jock sound-bite set-piece style set-up by the host is never going to progress any subtle realities beyond shouty and personal gain-saying anyway. Credit to Tommy he did force in plenty of “Islamic” material and prior research he’d come armed with, despite the obviously set-up control-freakery of Piers, and as a rule I’m a supporter of conventional host / guest “platforming” arrangements. Tommy is the first to admit he’s not the one to make subtle arguments anyway. Shouting his simplistic points onto other people’s agenda is his style. In that he no doubt succeeded, but the triumphalism of “Tommy owned Piers” is grotesque.

Having considered all these arguments at various levels of detail many times before I have little new to say:

In fact “Islam, we have a problem” is how I’ve said it before.

Islam has any number of problems, like any ancient factional religion. And compared to the other two Abrahamic religions, is well behind the curve on reforming its illiberal patriarchal misogynistic traditions within and between factions. And even the most benign of religions has obvious theological problems between supernatural faith and wider accepted rationality.

Adding Islamism and a Jihadi-mindset into that mix, is a whole other level of problems. In the real world difference between religious teaching and otherwise non-secular democratic freedoms are an obvious recipe for conflict, if religious adherents expect explicit exceptions and impositions beyond basic tolerance. Murderous terrorist extremism in the name of any cause or ideology, is evil full stop. Specifically Islamist extremism – in the name of Islam – is a problem for Islam by association, however complex and flawed the immediate and historical causal chains of justification.

So how many problems is that; several dozen? And how are they related; how long have you got?

Islam isn’t “the” problem. Islam has its own distinct problems. Islamism is “a” (big) problem, but there is no “the” problem, except maybe ill-considered hateful simplistic “us vs them” – anti-religious, islamophobic – gain-saying. That is a problem for us all. Initiatives like Prevent, Quilliam and Inspire work to address any and all of these problems collaboratively rather than undermine each other’s efforts and stir up anger and Islamophobic hatred in the process.

Wrote a fairly comprehensive piece on #IdentityPolitics a year or two ago. Have a “Good Fences” thread on the go also, about classifying individuals AND groups and recognising “woolly” boundaries and less than objective definitions (amongst other things). Naming is always political, for reasons of policy objectives. ALWAYS. The individuals being named, fluidly straddle the definitions of the groups or classes being named. When it comes to naming and identity, (subjective) self-identity is the closest we can get to neutral objectivity. All others are “somebody else’s”, unwitting or deliberate, policy agenda.

[The “Good Fences” piece remains in draft for a possible wider publication, but many fragmented references.]

Anyway. 3 Twitter threads today on the topic

Clive on “Disabled cyclists”, the disabled and cyclists

The “political utility” of calling #FinsburyParkMosque perpetrator a “terrorist”. This whole thread:

The recurring “Islam is not a race” nonsense – supporting a couple of threads from Alom Shaha

Obviously the last two are related. The naming of the perp as a terrorist and the claims he’s not a racist. Generic point would have been clearer if I’d used “cultural tribes” rather than “religious tribes” in that tweet, but same-same … is the point.

All grist to the upcoming “Good Fences” piece.


[Post Notes – and there’s more …

50 years ago we sang “All you need is love” as the BBC linked up the world with the Beatles by satellite for the first time ever in the summer of ’67. The summer of love.

These days a catchy little meme like that is generated every few seconds and disseminated at the speed of light around the media bubble we might easily call our global village. Increasingly the medium is the message, but not all memes are created equal. Yesterday’s meme was the idea “Grenfell Tower IS political” or if you prefer “Grenfell Tower IS NOT a tragedy, it’s a monstrous crime”. And boy, are the Corbynista’s exploiting these shamelessly.

Sure Grenfell Tower is political, but it’s not Political, it is not necessarily or usefully partisan political. There are many questions of policy and implementation, about green & fire-safety standards in new and refurbished high-rise buildings, about social housing, about the cladding spec, building control practices as well as international experience and changes in these. Relevant all, almost certainly, but the cause celebre? Already a rush to judgement. Funding of social housing and cost-cutting in public services? Tory austerity or Labour budgetary control? Where to point fingers? Which heads need to be rolling? Boris’ “get stuffed” was in response to being called a liar. He did actually respond to the funding criticisms of fire-station closures. There was no shortage or slowness of funded firefighters at the blaze.

Anger is a fair human response following the horror and grief at the human tragedy. But it is not fair policy unless you’re promoting populism.

Corbyn and McDonnell are. Political opportunists of the most contemptible kind. Mass protest against a democratic election result (!) being stoked with the Grenfell Tower anger. Commandeer property from the rich (!) to house the poor. Corbyn man of the people (!) vs May’s awkwardness failing to deal directly with an angry public. Listen to ourselves folks.

I’m no fan of May or Boris. But as a Labour voter I was one to point out that “for the many not the few” was almost an ideal definition for a tyranny of the majority in the reality of an inhomogeneous plural society . Interestingly, listening to Peter Jones, Newcastle University professor of political philosophy last night, he paralleled the idea of a tyrant being a misliked king with the idea of populism as “misliked democracy”.

Populism is thin on ideology, more style than content. Sure it looks like democracy – a “popular” numerical majority may be involved (though let’s not forget in #GE2017 case Labour polled the minority), but it’s actually an attempt at tyranny. A brazen revolutionary coup.
It is classic populism to contrast “our people” with a liberal elite political class. Often explicitly anti-intellectual, anti-expert, anti-liberal, non-PC and anti-judiciary say in the Trump case. Often nativist or nationalist anti-other in UKIP and assorted anti-EU / anti-immigration populist parties. But always demonising other in contrast to us. They are the enemies of us, the people.
The rise of populist thinking can be a valuable corrective. It’s a symptom of failures in an established democratic system but it’s not an alternative to democracy, Churchill’s least-worst form of government. Outrage and anger must be addressed; questions and criticisms not dismissed, but they cannot be allowed to form the basis of “alt” policy or politics. Left or right. Trump / Farage or Chavez / Corbyn.
Problem is in our modern media we have a perfect storm where such wisdom gets trampled under foot in the rush to judgement on instantly available “facts”. Youth is fetishised over experience. Older voters are demonised for complacency about the future. WTF? I am part of the problem and someone has a final solution?
Whether we’re talking about electronically connected “traditional” print and broadcast media or entirely social media, there is a bubble effect. Does the Daily Mail reflect its readership or does it create them? Does a media consumer reject cognitive dissonance and self-select the content it wants? Such chicken-and-egg tensions should always suggest an evolutionary cycle at work. A memetic cycle working at the speed of light, where populist ideas, skewed to be thin on ideology and strong on catchy style, naturally win the democratic media arms race.
Demonisation beats love? The innocent victims of the Grenfell Tower tragedy / crime deserve better. Careful what you wish for. I know which meme I prefer.
[Post Notes:
OK, so the rhetoric has changed today to empty properties, but still disgraceful grandstanding exploitation by Corbyn. Appeals for donated resources already swamped – even house keys – this is an issue for the local authority and mayor. Corbyn has a national government opposition to form and act. Labour have still not accepted #GE2017 democratic result. It stinks. It’s not democracy.

And a counter-view, albeit agreeing populism is dangerous. Yes I do know what it means; see above.]

I’ve had actual language lessons in maybe four non-English foreign languages at various times, studied a couple more as a precursor to needing to learn them and looked-up some basic vocabulary in a couple more for travel reasons. More generally, I’ve taken longer term interest in etymology, particularly from Proto-Indo-European roots and sometimes Sanskrit sources as well as the ubiquitous Greek and Latin classics. Any written language I can decipher phonetically, I can usually make a stab at the gist of an English translation.

On the only two occasions I’ve both learned a language and had the opportunity for immersion amongst native speakers, I’ve been in project working environments where the technical language of the main topic has been English and/or the native speakers have preferred to work on their English. To my shame I can’t speak or listen at conversational speed in any language other than English beyond a few basic context-specific sentences with a few key words. My own rationalisation of that failure is that on top of the technical interest in language, my priority has always been impatiently wanting to get on with whatever our topic is, at the rate the English thoughts run in my head, rather than use of the language itself. Anyway, at my age, I’ve no doubt paid that price.

My original loose interest in etymology has of course been focussed by my researches into epistemology and the philosophy of mind and in the reading in English translation of “great books” of literature with a philosophical bent. I was able to appreciate Andy Martin’s “MML The Film” Modern and Mediaeval Languages at Cambridge Uni back in 2011 which I came across after having already being a fan of the engaging and linguistically playful writing in his books and his blog.

I noticed Martin’s latest “long-read” in The Independent on “Speaking in Tongues” was on the the value of speaking a foreign language, in extending one’s monoglot appreciation of the world, more than the obvious and immediate multi-lingual communication value. I’d noticed the connection and the thought had crossed my mind to link to it when I mentioned the limits of exclusively anglophone thinking in this recent Pirsig Meets Foucault piece. However, by then the scope of that piece was set and there wasn’t room for the wider acknowledgement of lessons I’d learned from Martin’s appreciation of the French existentialists that really needed to be added to the French post-modernists I’d already name-dropped. Everything’s connected you know, world without end.

Well now I have read Martin’s latest.

In mentioning the value of some original linguistic appreciation in understanding the conceptual thought processes in Greek and French philosophy, I’d used the Savoir / Connaître distinction to make the crack about the difference between being acquainted with someone and “knowing” the same person biblically. Andy’s piece has an orgasmic thread running through it, from the Sonata Erotica to Last Tango in Paris. Couldn’t help but be reminded of my previous reference to Lacan’s use of “Jouissance” – the pleasure principle in the games we play with ourselves and each other.


Specifically Martin says “language was always an evolutionary mash-up of random phonemes” which resonated with my view that all language started out onomatopoeic and variously metaphorical body-language-by-association (after Lakoff), before it was ever formally captured as vocabulary with definitions and grammar with rules

His further quote “English doesn’t contain all the words you need” is so like the salutary Korean reaction to Pirsig’s suggestion that our 26 letter English alphabet was so marvellous and flexible we could express anything we needed. Martin goes on to reference the early and late aspects of Wittgenstein’s work before and after the Tractatus whereby the impression that language can somehow logically describe the whole enchilada is replaced by the idea that it’s all word games we play with each other. I go further and suggest that even Tractatus was a mind-game at the expense of Russell and the logical positivists. Cruel to be kind, pleasure in pain.

Your thinking necessarily stops when you’re lost for words since “words represent thoughts you otherwise can’t have”. In any event there is far more in heaven and earth Horatio than your language can capture.

Whilst obviously intellectually knowing, Martin’s language and turn of phrase is as ever witty even hilarious. A recommended read.

I have a friend in New York who tends to hark back to the good old days of truth-speaking. Yes, he lives on the eleventh floor of a tall building in Manhattan, but he occasionally looks out of the window at Central Park and he dreams of being a hunter-gatherer.

Ostensibly Martin’s piece is driven from the nostalgic idea that somehow our “post-fact” world is less concerned with truth and that the closing of our borders (eg with the EU) is closing channels of communication, but the fact is that whilst language enables both thinking and communication,  a single language really does restrict our own thoughts.


[Post Note: Reminds me I’ve still not read Martin’s piece on Ayaan Hirsi Ali, which he mentions in this piece in terms of the power of her multi-lingual understanding. Certainly a crossing of contents I’d not envisaged.]



Variations on this graphic are much shared in the wake of terror events, as part of reassuring people that we have more important risks to worry about than terrorism. Public reassurance is good, genuinely valuable, but the relative risk implied is massively wrong, when it comes to planning appropriate actions – allocating resources and time to addressing the risk.

Here the Politico version.

So what’s wrong?

Sure all the circles represent the size of a risk. But they are quite different risks. The distributions of the probabilities of the “event” occurring inside each coloured circle are all different – they may look to the untrained eye like “normal” (gaussian) distributions but in important ways, they are almost certainly not. Similarly the distribution of the negative consequences of the event – to individuals and/or to populations may look typically random, presumed normal distributions, but again in very important respects they are not.

We are fooled by randomness, the normal look of a seemingly random distribution, and exploiting that look in a graphic of comparative size compounds the error. It simply reifies and reinforces the statistical error in easy to share (but wrong) memes. They are comparing pommes with pomegranates.

There are many classes of statistical risk distribution (See Taleb’s Real World Risk Institute for more. Fooled by Randomness is one of Taleb’s book titles. And I’ve written previously about Taleb.)

The rallying cry is “fat-tails“. At the thin end of low probability event distributions – the gaussian tails – the actual shapes vary massively and, with low probability events, this is the part of the distribution that matters most. Think about that. The 99.99% that looks normal, maybe a skewed normal, tells us nothing about the risk of the low probability event. NOTHING we didn’t already know; that the vast majority of us are unlikely to die in a terror event. Who knew? But of course we are massively affected by other consequences of such events as well as the effects and effectiveness of actions to counter them. This statistic tells us nothing.

The technical detail (in comparative differences between the different classes of distribution) lie in differences of effect on the individual and the population, different populations of different participants, and imbalances between high downside risk and upside cost-benefits of avoidance. The fat-tails and/or heavy-tails simply hide the true cost-benefit risks, unless we address these. And to understand these you need to be an expert, not simply someone who can recognise the reassuringly misleading size of a coloured dot. If you need to share information in simple graphics, ensure the classes of thing being compared are visually apparent.

It’s public misinformation. Rhetorical bullshit designed to attract funding to somebody’s pet project. It’s memetic. Catchy colourful graphics designed as click-bait to sell media links irrespective of the quality of the information content or the headline.

Lies, damn lies and statistics. Fake-news I think we call it these days.

(Hat tip to Terry Waites for the Twitter conversation that prompted this post.)

I’m exploring available theories of consciousness that tie themselves in open-minded ways to fundamental physics, that is they don’t automatically exclude themselves from physical explanation by overly reductionist reliance on objects already (accepted as being) defined by physics.

Yesterday, I summarised what I heard from Robert Kuhn’s Physics of Consciousness / Closer to Truth resources. The things I liked the sound of is the general line that there must be something missing from current physics and physical explanations, so it is important that investigations include philosophical / metaphysical questions for physics itself. Dennett I’m already a fan of thanks to his warnings against greedy-reductionism and premature-definitions, and his plea for more repetitive, creative dialogue to allow new explanations to evolve instead of destructive criticism of incomplete explanations of consciousness on the fatal terms already set by objective physical discourse.

Information has always been core to my own developing theses. That is, information pretty obviously seems fundamental to knowledge and epistemology, but increasingly also seems fundamental to physics itself. Those objects we know as particles and fields would seem to be manifestations of more fundamental information, in the limit any “significant difference”. Most recently Rovelli seemed to be arriving at similar views through his Quantum Loop Gravity work – everything and anything being identified as integrals of differences over closed-loops in space-time. Earlier works influencing Einstein involving Mach and before him the likes of Poincaré and Boscovich also suggested this limit of significant difference as fundamental to all the real world physical concepts we deal with.

Also with the cybernetics angle of my work, a systems view of identity suggests that higher level evolved or derived objects, whilst clearly derived from, supervenient on, their more fundamental parts, nevertheless have definitive identity that is more than the sum of their parts.

I feel I’ve been at this position for decades now.

I was naturally intrigued when I came across the words Integrated Information Theory in the field of the science of consciousness. Information and Integration, creative synthesis of information, not simply critical analysis.

Now from my (so far) very brief investigation of IIT I’m finding their choice of terms for axioms and postulates (and subsequent logical maths notation) very tough going, but I am seeing things I find promising:

Firstly, starting on their own terms for conscious experience without any constraint of existing physical models, it does indeed seem to be a new open-minded metaphysics. Secondly, Mach is the source of the fundamental units of experience – and experience is the fundamental “substance” of their model. In my own words ….

Axioms 1, 2 and 5 – Existence, Structure and  Exclusion – say that conscious experience exists with an ontology and each individual experience has distinct identity in space-time.

Axiom 4 – Integration – says that the ontological composition involves integration, that higher “system” objects are not reducible to their component parts.

Axiom 3 – Information – says that consciousness comprises information arising from differentiation, represented by distinct individual differences

When it gets onto its postulates, explanations, graphical examples, cause-and-effect repertoires and the logical relations derived, I’m afraid it loses me, except for the Identity postulate. That is there is an Identity relationship between our subjective experience or qualia and and the axiomatic IIT construct of consciousness. That is this IIT construct IS our experience, not simply the causal explanation of some other subjective mental level.

How’ma doin’?

[Aside – Quality and Irreversible Incorporation in there again?]

I’ve been sitting on this Physics of Consciousness link for a while, without so far watching the video interviews, because of both the topic and the participants. I’m a bit sceptical I’ll hear anything newly convincing, but I will take a look.

(Also worth linking because of the overall range of material on Robert Lawrence Kuhn’s “Closer to Truth” PBS site generally, but FQXi and Templeton I notice. Is Templeton also the reason Dennett not involved in EES?)

Post Notes:-

David Chalmers – Non-reductionist emphasis, new fundamental role for something like consciousness. Tononi “integrated information theory”. Materialist /identity theory (Penrose /Hameroff) adds nothing.

Sean Carroll – Unreconstructed determinist reductionist – simply emergence of useful-category short-hand.

David Wallace – References Dennett, but seems to be an epiphenomenalist – no interaction backward interaction from conscious to physical. But like Dennett he does agree the problem is with our arguments, not with our subjective intuition.

Max Tegmark – Fact is outstanding mysteries of physics do seem to have issues with consciousness. Prejudice regarding the subjective element in objective physics. But, the hard-problem is actually a hard-fact. Consciousness is a real thing, however fundamental or otherwise. Clearly some additional fundamental principle about information processing. (Tegmark seems pretty close to my position, see also Rovelli.)

Bernard Carr – (seen him talk previously at HTLGI) – Sees the limitations of most science seeing consciousness as one-way emergent epiphenomenal from physics, whereas there clearly is interaction. Consciousness is more fundamental than that -William James. Filter, limiter or transducer of information processing consciousness in the brain, (doesn’t actually use the phrase) free-won’t rather than free-will, but … not the creator or consciousness. Consciousness is a primary fundamental element of physics. It’s physical reality that is the secondary manifestation of more fundamental information processing, Carr is not a “panpsychist”, but prepared to countenance effects that science would brand as “paranormal” phenomena. Any way – NOT simple reductionist.

[One to one interview format is much better than conference “debate” formats!]

Paul Davies – Systems view, more than the sum of the parts. (Also a Tononi integrated information reference. No reference to Tononi in Rovelli?) Promising. Not panpsychist, but some proto-conscious stuff must be missing from models – but not necessarily an independent fundamental stuff. Physics and psychic must both arise from same info stuff – form and complexity (“II” must also relate to entropy?)

Jeff Tollaksen – new to me – and not sure I get anything newly intelligible, other than it’s a problem with our tools or particle-properties models – Hammer / Nail metaphor? Quantum miracles! Hmmm.

Don Page – also new to me – “sensible quantum mechanics” and “mindless sensationalism”. Interesting, “sensible” is a parameter I use. Speculative framework rather than a theory or thesis. Limitations of explanations in descriptive physics are everywhere, not just with consciousness, so “hard-problem” is an unfair categorisation for lack of explanation of subjectivity.