One day, the point of this “Meta” topic will stick with my readers, but for now this is just a holding post to collect previous attempts and add a few new inputs that might help me clarify it.

Back in 2011 I had Meta and Meta#2 attempts (*). Meta itself as a concept runs through many hundreds of posts and topics here, hardly surprising when so much of my over-arching agenda is at the metaphysical boundaries of physical reality. And my use of the term is the same root, same intended meaning, but sadly the meaning in use has ended up very one-dimensional …. which is going to take some explaining.

[(*) In fact those two explicit posts are not attempts at all, but simply references to usage, so they don’t add anything. Ho hum.]

Anyway, the problem is meta-meta and more:

The net practical result of “meta”
is that “things”
are not defined by “words”
with clear “definitions”.

Here I’m effectively talking about the use of the word meta and/or my intended definition – usage – of it. And when I used the single level “meta” I mean implicitly meta-[meta x n] as many levels of meta piled on meta as reality consists. (A bit like irony-[irony x n] incidentally – come in Richard Rorty.)

Bottom line is
all definitions (in words)
are about intent (in usage).

One of my heroes Dan Dennett is always warning his more scientistic – definitively objective – acolytes to “hold your definition”. Definitions are things that arise from, not things you impose on, discourse, whether that discourse is dialogue or argument. (Obviously, in a closed environment – the “control volume” of a scientific experiment or formally staged critical argument, you can – and should – impose whatever rules your game requires. Real life is not a repeatable experiment, it’s a different game.) Dan’s point is that definitions obscure the things you’re trying to understand before you understand them.

But having got to the bottom line so quickly – the problem of things and their definitions – I have glossed right over my “meta” point … so I need to back-up and unpick what I’m saying.

About a year or two ago I wrote a long piece on exactly this – the misuse of taxonomies and definitions – where I didn’t major on the meta. In fact it remains in draft with many fragmentary references only to the politics of identity – how we identify individuals by definitions of their class(es). It was called “Good Fences” – about “dividing lines” we use to distinguish between things and the words we choose to represent them. (I repurposed the original Good Fences draft for one particular border dispute, but that never got published. So I need to rework it – and can emphasise this meta problem.)

So for now, the meta problem in expecting things to be definitive.

One news story today on AI replacing humans in various roles, specifically in the legal profession. Somehow in a profession driven by rules (of law) it seems self-evident that automation can bring consistency and predictable clarity (as well as efficiencies). Jeez! One, see rules. Two, the application of rules is not linear anyway. Circumstances are many-layered, relations between the layers would by inconsistencies if confined within layers. Even the layers are not one-dimensionally stacked. There is no reality without Hofstadterian strange-loops that cross levels. (This IS the meta point, if I can elaborate it comprehensibly.)

Consistency and transparency are over-rated concepts.

A second story on Twitter was sparked by Dick the Dawk’s suggestion  that he needs to write a book on atheism for kids, and the general response that someone with a little humanity and “generosity of spirit” – like Alom Shaha – would do a much better job. (In fact he already wrote “The Young Person’s Guide to Atheism”) I managed to ignore Dawkins suggestion yesterday, but had to agree with @TheosElizabeth characterisation of Alom today.

Then Liz made a plea to somehow downgrade the “boo” factor in the word “indoctrination” – the child-abuse charge Dawkins habitually parrots in this space- since we all intentionally or otherwise pass on values and stories from one generation to the next. That is clearly not bad in itself, it’s absolutely essential in fact. I responded with the counter plea that we should keep indoctrination for the more doctrinaire / ideological process and inculcation for the “better” kind.

(Aside – One of my triggers is “PC” – people flattening the playing field with broad definitions and word usage that disguise real and important differences. Usually the reason being that hard and fast definitive differences are often difficult to come by and too subtle for mean-spirited rhetorical cut and thrust anyway. I prefer we properly address the hard problem, rather than impose an unworkable simplification by banning or ignoring uses of a word.)

Anyway, Liz asked me for the definitive difference between inculcation (good) and indoctrination (bad) – hence this (inconclusive) post. The trigger was her use of “line” and “definition”. So far this is just an early attempt at elaboration on my response:

The point here is not as simple as “hard-lines” being divisive, unlike “good-fences” being collaborative. But that the defensive (definitional) processes and collaborative (usage) processes work on multiple different meta levels. It’s about how, not what. Definition is just too one-dimensional for reality.

[Work-in-Progress – Need to come back.]


I’ve been using parts of the verb “moderate” in ambiguous contexts recently, but deliberately because, whatever its etymology, its different uses are surely related at root.

Everything in moderation is a kind of plea for moderation, a middle-way between extremes – a good example here on dietary “fads” from Julian Baggini. He concludes – in this dietary context:

“The burden of proof is always on those who deny the middle path. Extreme claims almost always turn out to be wrong. Almost always.”

It’s more general than that of course, wherever extremes are recommended, especially in polarisation to opposite extremes. Taleb’s work is important in drawing conclusions from the “tails” of statistical probabilities, there visual insignificance can hide very significant mechanisms. As Baggini suggests, it’s really about the onus of evidence – and that’s not about quantity, weight or shouting loudest, it’s about very specific understanding of what is happening.

But I’ve also been using moderation in the sense of moderator rods in a nuclear reactor – something that basically slows down a process that might be in danger of running away with itself, towards unintended consequences, left to its own devices. And I’ve been using it in connection with mediated and social media contexts. It’s like censorship (god forbid) but at a process level. Viral polarisation is a real barrier to progress everywhere right now. 99 times out of a 100 the extreme positions are insignificant to the issue immediately to hand, and their prominence simply gets in the way of finding best solutions.

A great acceleration of “western” decline, no less.

And yes, it’s about evolution,

… all mutation and no conservation equals death.

Rules That Ain’t

There are some classic memes where smart-asses point out ambiguities, disagreements and exceptions to would-be rules. I’m thinking about two kinds here:

BODMAS” rules of algebraic computation
[Brackets, Power(Order, Of), Division, Multiplication, Addition & Subtraction] and/or

I before E except after C” in spelling of “ie” and “ei” words in English

The former tends to be the “please share this quiz” format, turbocharged with the psychological virality tag-line “95% of people get this wrong” or “only genius get this right”. They are often the visual algebra of simultaneous equations of apples, pears, bananas and shapes, sometimes a simple arithmetic string without any punctuation other than mathematical operators. Arithmetically the problem is always trivial – these are click-bait after all – but the thread of responses invariably degenerates into two camps. BODMAS vs Sequential processing (and general trolling mischief) – and the real click-spreading objective has been achieved. Sometimes the same trivial arithmetic problem is buried behind a level of visual inference.

A simple version:

A complex version (still hiding the same problem):

The latter tends to be “poem” format – constructing sentences from “ei” and “ie” words that make a point about the rules being broken – usually clever and creative, hence their wide circulation. Here’s an example of the latter:

The implicit point is they’re not really rules, have little value and shouldn’t be taught. But this is just more of the logical absolutism meta-meme currently polarising every area of life. If you can’t prove it unambiguously it ain’t true. Picture or it didn’t happen. Black ain’t white. Exceptions that might “prove” rules, mean rules should be ignored, etc.

The disagreement over BODMAS is actually trivial, and basically a context problem. In a human context the point of the rule is that rules matter, not the specific content of the rule – the specific content can get very complex depending how rarefied the maths gets beyond Arithmetic101 . A convention is needed to get an unambiguous answer. In human processing, where you can “see the whole” as well as the analysis, you are mentally chunking the problem into its constituent parts – because the parts have semantic significance – they tell you something about the real world problem represented. Increasingly sadly, the only real-world context is “here’s an infuriating internet meme”. In a machine processing context – a file is fed sequentially into a processor and processed from the top / front. One spanner in the works is that a ubiquitous spreadsheet tool, like Excel, is a human-machine interface. The formula in the cell follows a highly elaborate version of the human (BODMAS) rules – there is a level of on-the-fly pre-compiling in the app before the underlying device does the processing. It’s why Excel checks the formula before it allows you to save it.

The I before E rule is trickier, because even when you understand it, there are etymological exceptions. The basic rule, for English language etymology up to say Victorian / Empire days does hold, provided you know how the words are pronounced. My wife is, and my dad was, Scots with impeccable pronunciation. They know when “ie” is one or two syllables or a diphthong – again you have to chunk the word to see it’s parts, where it and they came from. You learn the rule because it teaches you about words, about humans, about etymology, about history … about life. (Hard to give enough examples in text form only, to illustrate this further. Phonetics of “ay”, “aye”, “ee” and compound versions, etc.)

Rules are worth knowing …. and understanding. They are for guidance of the wise and the enslavement of fools.

Constructive Arguments

Very good and much-needed coverage with plenty of good contributors of “how to argue better”, well presented by Timandra Harkness in 5 x 15 minute BBC R4 sessions.

(Note – I have pages of “rules of engagement”)

Ep1 – For me, not agreeing does not equal disagreement, simply incomplete dialogue and understanding, more to do or more compromise before acting on decisions based on incomplete agreement. That’s life. We all have to act on incomplete agreement (and understanding) but still care about others.
Even though much of the content of the program is about listening and understanding, seeing the other person’s point of view etc, the language keeps coming back to the meme of debate and critical thinking, attack-defend / win-lose / point-scoring. The very template of debate encourages this binary myth – debating courses, set-piece IAI debates, etc. Too much disagreement as conflict (which is actually topic of Ep2).

Ep2 – Zero-sum conflict resolution. Much the same issues as Ep1 – need for dialogue to increase understanding of opposing view, and the eventual (imperfect) resolutions either through power and authority or through democracy. But we need to be careful, especially in social governance, that democracy happens with selection of decision-makers on temporary timescales, but not treating every decision as a vote. (Disappointed not to hear mention of Mary Parker-Follett in the context of genuine conflicts that require mediation and arbitration to resolve. Again the trick is “integration” of opposing interests, rather than choosing between or compromising either. Constructive argument really is a creative process, creating more than the zero sum brought to the table.)

Ep3 – disagreement on  factual truth. (To come)
Ep4 – disagreement on moral vision and principles. (To come)
Ep5 – recognising subjective needs and biases. (To come)

If Something’s Missing, Just Write It.

David Harding is an on-line acquaintance who shares my interest in Robert Pirsig’s  Metaphysics of Quality (MoQ). Recently he posted his own personal story – about himself – on his Quality Metaphysics blog / web-pages.

There are several important parallels – and differences – with my own story, and with Pirsig’s too.

The main trajectory starts with having a nagging suspicion that something is fundamentally wrong (with accepted world-views of life, the universe and everything). A suspicion that becomes a frustrating certainty until a “seed crystal” aha moment, in discovering expression of what that is, in the MoQ.

In Pirsig’s case the certainty of doubt arose when he was a precocious 15/16 year old, advanced 2 years to studying freshman science (chemistry) at the University of Minnesota in 1944. There was 15 years more doubt and drifting before his seed crystal aha moment when teaching English in Montana in 1959, but it took him another 15 years to work out his own MoQ and get Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZMM) published in 1974. The rest, as they say, is history, but that final third of his journey took him via the incarceration and enforced treatments of clinical insanity.

My own story follows that same doubt / frustration / seed-crystal / aha pattern though it started much later in my otherwise conventional life. And, despite retrospective feelings of “there but for grace go we all, myself included” the very real sense of depression never succumbed to clinical mental illness.

In David’s case the doubt, the suspicion that something’s wrong, something’s missing, arose before he dropped out of high-school and entered an increasingly frustrating period of drifting through despondency and near-suicidal depression. (There but for grace … as I say.) David’s plea for help provided the aha seed-crystal when an ex-teacher not only pointed him at Pirsig’s ZMM but advised him to write what the reading brought to mind.

It was Pirsig’s psychiatrist who told him to “just write something” in order to start his recovery phase. I wasn’t paying attention earlier in my own relatively comfortable and conventional life and career, when an early mentor told me to write down my important thoughts and a later tutor recommended I read ZMM. In my case it was at precisely the point much later, when I started writing – blogging – anything I considered significant, that I saw the point of reading Pirsig. David too saw little value in reading until he did. And again, the rest is history.

Although Pirsig’s books and his metaphysics took on lives of their own, Pirsig pretty much retired as a recluse until he died only last year. David now also writes, blogging and sharing his significant thoughts via social media.

I’m guessing because I’m older, maybe I’d like to think wiser, while I still consider Pirsig’s MoQ to be significant, central to my own thought journey, and indeed invaluable as a practical framework, I’ve come to see the MoQ as part of a perennial philosophy. As such I’m less concerned with what Pirsig invented precisely, than I am with wider expression and application of the perennial content – a rose by any other name – nothing new under the sun except reinterpretation and expression.

I’d still recommend anyone who has serious doubts and frustrations with received wisdom – and doesn’t get the idea that this is a metaphysical problem – read Pirsig. Hell, yes. Just because I like to think I’ve moved on doesn’t mean we should pull the ladder up. David has made it his life’s work to promote Pirsig’s metaphysics explicitly. Go read what he has to say.

More Anthropic Physics?

Picture this:


The left hand end represents what can be “seen” directly from earth, relatively local and recent in red-shift terms. Look out any window. Out into space, backwards in time.

CMBR, (Cosmic Microwave “Background” Radiation) at the right end, represents the iconic echoes of the original big-bang in microwave-visible structures. So iconic, the little strip of the “heat map” already carries the whole story. Verily, a meme.

Blog post and original paper, both by  Stacy McGaugh.
(Hat tip to Sabine @sdkh for tweeting links)

Blog Post on Tritonstation:
The next cosmic frontier: 21cm absorption at high redshift.

Paper on Arxiv:
Predictions for the sky-averaged depth of the 21cm absorption signal at high redshift in cosmologies with and without non-baryonic cold dark matter.

So much cosmology suffers from doubts of can it really be science? – regarding the tenuous and indirect nature of any “empirical” evidence to support speculative interpretations of what little can be observed, if anything. The CMBR heat-map originally created a stir because it appeared to show structure (very early in the history of the universe) in which our perspective, (as human observers on earth today) was reflected in the patterns of those structures.

That ought to be impossible. It suggests Copernicus was right, we, the earth, our solar system, really are somehow the centre of the universe.

To paraphrase any number of cosmologists at the time.

Of course the smart-money, philosophy, was always on the side of some observer effect. That our would-be objective model of physics is after all a human construct, probably with our perspective as observer (ie model-builder) built into the story. It’s only natural. Humans are – obviously – the center of physics. We built this city. Science can’t be as entirely objective as it would like to be. Physics is anthropic.

If that was literally true of the cosmos, not just our model of it, there is a good deal of supernatural explanation to be denied. And denial is what bad physicists did. Physics is political.

Good physicists keep looking, theoretically and empirically. Theoretically you can make a teleological (information / entropy / patterns) argument that intelligent life is in some sense an end – an objective – of cosmic evolution. Central in some grand scheme of things, even if a geometric cosmic centre in space-time is a moot concept. More denial, obviously, from bad physicists. Good theoretical physicists, those that recognise the metaphysical dependencies in their natural philosophy, are working on many fronts to explain what is going on. Many philosophers too.

But the science of this story still depends on some good physicists finding some empirical evidence to join up these extremes of cosmic evolution with some middle-ground.

The search for gravitational waves was part of that story. But when stakes are so high – the entire supernatural vs objectivity confusion – agendas are (almost) inevitably politically motivated to deny one side of the argument. As Brandon Carter pointed out many years ago – in earlier “fine-tuning” debates, long before the CMBR observations – the mere suggestion of the word Anthropic sends most physicist screaming for the hills in denial of any such possibility as a matter of policy. People stop listening.

Which is where the latest work by Stacy McGaugh (with original linked at the top) comes in. Good news is – whatever the technical, empirical detail and the statistical interpretations (eg in the significance of very small differences between mind-bogglingly large numbers for example), not to mention the physics itself- human perceptions of the boundaries of possibility are acknowledged rather than denied.

“Wonderfully, the atomic physics of the 21cm transition is such that it couples to both the radiation and gas temperatures in a way that matters in the early universe. [Me neither, but.] It didn’t have to be that way – most transitions don’t [*]. Perhaps this is fodder for people who worry that the physics of our universe is fine-tuned.”

“In the meantime, I think we’re obliged to take their result seriously, and not just hope it goes away (which seems to be the first reaction to the impossible).”

Worth a read. Don’t worry, be happy. Keep calm and carry on. Onward and upward.


[Post Note: (*) Transitions?
Phase-transitions – really are part of this “fluid” picture

Poisoning the Environment

Just a quickie, a hold-that-thought post (prompted by the US Glyphosate court verdict, but not specifically about that):

Two things – herbicides and pesticides, and controlling vermin.

Humans are an intelligent evolved species. We didn’t get where we are by allowing the environment to take over our lives – we legitimately manage our environment in enlightened ways that secure the future of humanity.

Rats we control – scare away from habitation, kill as humanely as we can if we have to. Except for domesticated individuals we don’t invite rat tribes to share our space. Crows we control, they outcompete for food supplies and steal eggs from physically weaker species. Moles we control, and so on.

Ditto, we control invertebrate pests and vigorous weeds in agriculture and domestic gardening. We do it with as much humanity and consideration for unintended consequences as we can, but we do it.

But we’ve controlled ourselves down to barely sustainable levels.

Whether it’s controlling crows on grouse-moors or moorland inhabited by Curlew (@BBCR4Today, today) – takes some ingenuity, not to disturb other breeding species and the environment more generally. In our domestic garden context – judicious scaring and discouraging seems to work, but only just. It is ideological to defend crows rights as somehow sacrosanct over broader environmental care.

Neonicotinoids have a bad rap for poisoning bees and other pollinating insects beyond originally intended environmental control – obviously before that the likes of DDT were the villain.

As herbicides, strong poisons used to be the norm 2-4-DP, Paraquat, Chlorate, you name it. These days domestically at least – there is only one game in town – Glyphosate, whether it’s branded RoundUp or not, made by Monsanto or not – and Monsanto are part of Bayer now anyway.

Neonics and Glyphosate have their own unintended consequences – we need to care about that. But the fact is these “modern” control chemicals are much less effective that older blunter instruments AND with more pervasive negative consequences.

Safer to use simple strong poisons – oxidising agents and other crude methods – that degrade into safer side-products locally, than persistent and pervasive complex chemicals. (I now Glyphosate degrades – but it’s so safe it’s useless for its intended purpose except when used on an industrial scale – counter-intuitive unintended consequence is the drive for greater use(!) – eg for crop desiccation as well as herbicidal use. Main risks are high-dose human exposure rather than environmental anyway.)

We’re overly mesmerised by proven issues than unknown risks, and defeating the primary human flourishing objectives. (Taleb is particularly strong on “fat-tail” risks, but has a particular anti-Monsanto shills agenda, and I have no doubt “their” chemists have over-stepped ethical boundaries in defence of interests, but …)

KISS – otherwise we’re just kicking environmental risks into the long grass.


[Post Note: Still just a holding post,
but picked this up from conspiracy-debunker Myles Power:

I like to think he’s right, but I have no evidence review of my own. Old people dying of cancer has to be the norm, so for me it’s about statistical significance vs the options, and there aren’t many options if we ban all human deployed poisons. Back to my main argument.]

[Ditto – Climate Change vs “Denial” – proper scepticism involves understanding risk tails. Simply invoking “precautionary principle” when dealing with the “unpredictable” is as reckless as ignoring risk. Taking risks is what humans do.]

The Boris Burqa Brouhaha

I feel the need to comment on the recent Boris bollox since it conflates several topics I’ve written about at length before. This tweet from @Whoozley sets the agenda fair enough:

“Banning” is generally wrong way to address any complex topic with divided opinions, and to be fair, that IS Boris’ substantive point.

Attacking the individual is generally wrong too – but that depends on freedoms and motivations (see complex). Attacking an issue by “mocking” archetype individuals – letter-boxes and bank-robbers – is kinda OK if you are the court-jester but not if you expect to be taken seriously as a politician. Being provocative in order to start a debate can be OK too – but this debate has already started. 9/11 provocative enough for you? What we need now are constructive contributions. It’s not a matter of “shutting down debate”, it’s a matter of proceeding responsibly. The “right to offend” comes with context dependent responsibilities. Boris has a track record when it comes to rhetorical irresponsibility and opportunism – it is for this he should be damned. (And of course with Boris and 2018’s populism, you could go well beyond this in to deliberate divisive agendas (*).)

Of course, the right to choose what to wear is not absolutely free in general. Muslim or not we have social mores on what is appropriate to wear / expose, where and when, body and face. See modesty more generally – always the elephant in the room in these debates. (And think bum-cracks and lard-arsed leggings, you name it. When it comes to freedom, the sky’s the limit, but not always appropriate. “Too much information” generally covers it.)

That’s all pretty general – appropriateness – true of so many issues.

It’s the final point that adds a distinct additional level of complexity here. That is the extent to which wearing Muslim body coverings is in fact a choice for the woman concerned. Before we even get to questions of religion and patriarchy, this is as complex as multiculturalism itself. The extent to which cultural & religious differences – symbols and practice – should be tolerated, supported, encouraged, moderated, segregated, integrated, etc, etc. Bigotry city for the overly simplistic.

As @Whoozley says, it is – “well complicated“.

(*) Or …


[Post Note: And to illustrate the point …

Yes, Atkinson’s relative silence is significant. Joke or otherwise context matters. Baddiel gets it – see the Dankula case. Atkinson is however wrong with “you should only apologise for a bad joke”. We can’t all be court-jester. Your humour can be as offensive and edgy as you like, so long as it’s good – and so long as you are the court-jester. Come in Frankie Boyle. Come in Rod Liddle.

Boris (like Corbyn) is cynically emulating Trump no doubt encouraged by Bannon. “Whilst masquerading as a serious politician, I can break all the rules and take you all for fools.” That is the real offense. Rules are for the guidance of wise men and keeping the village idiot in their place. Political correctness is properly about how you choose to use language in politics, not about the topics you’re allowed to mention. It’s the choices you make that tell us about your intentions, not the words. The fact we can all play the fool, doesn’t mean we should. That’s insanity.

Oh and one more:

So what’s the fuss? The burqa? – see “it’s complicated”.]