That information and communication are fundamental properties and behaviours of the universe, human and cosmic, has kinda been part of my worldview since I started this blogging project, but it’s one of those “facts” that becomes ever more clearly defined. And I don’t believe it’s just the self-reinforcement of echo-chamber and confirmation-bias. If anything, it’s a view I hold despite not many others who admit to holding.

My most recent confirmations, in just the last couple of weeks, are here;
Valuing Difference (human, cultural, political) and here,
Rovelli’s Quantum Loop Gravity (cosmic, physical, metaphysical)
Significant Bits are the fundaments of the entire universe.

A recurring web-meme is people posting “Maslow’s Pyramid” (*) of human needs, with internet connection (technology, apps and/or power, whatever) as an additional foundation layer.

Image result

It’s so wrong, it’s right or maybe vice-versa. I love it and loath it all at once.

The pyramid itself has been regularly subject to debunking and re-habilitation many times. I happen to hold it as capturing some important generic truths, even though as a simple-picture-painting-a-thousand-words it is (obviously) subject to much debate about details and contexts of applicability [see the (*) footnote].

Today Erin Noonan posted the above version on Facebook, and I was moved to respond (expanded and clarified here for the blog context):

I love this meme, because it is so wrong.
Couldn’t be more wrong.

WiFi (connectivity in the world) has to be the biggest “proof” that the rest of the pyramid (based on Maslow’s work) is 100% right – complete AND consistent.

Communication runs right through the pyramid. It’s not just an additional foundation layer in the direction of the human motivation axis. It’s independent of, and fundamental to the whole fabric of the pyramid (and everything else) from a completely orthogonal direction

So working up from the bottom of the pyramid:

Physiological – The air we breath to be able to talk and listen, is our most basic communication, not to mention the other physical senses and signalling.

Safety & Security – Protecting our physical well-being from threats also depends being able to communicate, whether it’s interpersonal (having friends check on each other or hit the alarm when threats are perceived) or institutional (who ya gonna call, 999 / 911 / 112 in emergencies).

Social Needs – The term social-media says it all.

Esteem – The fact social media runs on likes and follows, feeds our own extrinsic social worth back to us.

Self-Actualisation – The enabling power of electronic media, social or otherwise means that we’re can all be creators of intrinsic value now, whether blogging communications for their own sake or doing so as part of some other creative enterprise.

It’s no coincidence that an important feature of the pyramid of drivers is that they do indeed range from the most basic physical to the most conceivably creative.


(*) The “pyramid” is of course a 2D triangle and it’s not actually Maslow’s. But apart from that, it’s simply the evolved result of scholars of behaviour and management summarising Maslow’s work. If you ever pin down an original source, I’d like to hear from you. As something I value, I have maintained and updated my own piece on it’s current state in the world, here.

During the recent US election night I followed the BBC coverage from Times Square, backed-up by the real-time New York Times dashboard, and all the social-media feeds I could handle. (So did Robbie.)

The BBC coverage was excellent, probably second to none. Andrew Neill, Katty Kay and Emily Maitlis are as good as journalism gets, so we can maybe forgive the utterly naff virtual-reality graphic fills dumbed-down by Jeremy Vine, adding absolutely nothing to the proceedings. Emily had everything at her fingertips already, even if the content and the ticker strapline was sometimes cautiously behind the real-time chatter out there. Validation and verification is the reason we have mainstream media after all. And I repeat, it doesn’t come much better than this team.

For most of the night, at the left side of the panel sat Norman Ornstein. A political science commentator with about as much credibility and authority as anyone could have in that role. My main agenda, aside from the politics of the US election itself, is the less sexy topic of epistemology. Knowledge itself – how do we know anything and how do we decide to act and/or communicate based on what we think we know.

I posted this Facebook (and Twitter) comment, early on, ie before the prediction graph flipped (below).

“Norman Ornstein sounds like a real expert.
I so hope he’s right.
(Nothing to do with US election –
just on behalf of experts everywhere.)”

Part of it is statistics – still less sexy – how we handle and interpret the data we do have, and my authority of choice there would be Nassim Nicholas Taleb. But part of it is even deeper than that – the origins and basis of each individual “bit” of data – the models and methods and tools being used by the surveyors and the surveyed. You know they say garbage in garbage out, but we’re dealing with the psychology of game theory and the like here. Where’s the garbage? Good voters are no more beyond a good joke than a good journalist. Where’s the skin in the game. It’s not simply a matter of more tools and more analysis, it’s more a matter of the right data and the right analyses. Less may be more.

It’s possible Ornstein is, in Taleb terms, an “Intellectual-Yet-Idiot” but I sincerely doubt it. But, we are all idiots if we don’t carefully unpick what’s going on here.


One from Ed Yong in The Atlantic a couple of weeks ago, on Cambridge Neuroscience research by Jon Simons. Here the original blog post by Simons.

The refreshingly credible aspect is the multiple independent dimensions to memory – a “3-way fork” of precision, correctness and confidence – not simply “storage”. Like all things memory is relative – relations between multiple brain activities – not simply objects to be stored.



Interesting to see today’s news on standardisation of units of measure, that time, distance and mass are now to be unified through the Caesium clock with application of the speed of light (c) and Planck’s constant (h). (Hat tip to Jim Al-Khalili on Twitter). Fascinating article in itself, however yet more evidence that the accepted standard models of physics are ever more solid and dependable. The scales of everyday life really are gounded in quanta.

I say interesting, because the cosmic gravitational scales of relativistic space-time nevertheless remain disconnected from such models. Quantum gravity has been the holy grail of physics for several decades, ever since the two extremes seemed sound in themselves despite failing to communicate with each other.

Interesting today particularly, because last night I finished Carlo Rovelli’s latest “Reality is Not What it Seems – The Journey to Quantum Gravity” and was already composing this post.

I’m sympathetic to Rovelli’s outlook, have been for several years, because I appear to share his metaphysics. As I said only in my previous post – on the topic of gender, race and religious identity politics, not physics:

“Significant differerence”
is THE fundamental “particle” of the universe,
the source of all information and all things.

Rovelli’s hero, from beginning to end, is Democritus. The original source of the idea that the universe is made of bits of very small but finite size, points of close but finite separation.

One thing I did learn from Rovelli’s latest is that the “loops” of quantum loop gravity (QLG) are closed curves in space-time around which solutions to the fundamental maths of physics have well-behaved (non-infinite) solutions. The other thing is that in the limit – the smallest curves around individual or small finite numbers of quanta – the values of these solutions resolve to multiples of the half-integers of “spin”.

As an aero-engineer myself, I couldn’t help but see the parallel with intergrals in aerodynamic flows aound the infinities of (virtual) sources and sinks used to model circulations (vortices) imposed on otherwise steady flow fields. In fact the QLG posits that all fields are quantised – in all the material particles and force fields in the standard model in space-time there are no zero properties or dimensions involved.

To cut to the chase, the fundaments of Rovelli’s QLG physics are information; small, finite, significant, differences of possibility. Claude Shannon is in there with the more expected heroes of physics and natural philosophy. Information is the key. The Ontology of reality really is limited by the epistemology of what can be known. What can be known is in the limit of quantised physics.

“A vision of reality
entirely independent of the observer
is impossible.”

Rovelli dismisses many hopeless fallacies around fundamental physics, string theory in its entirety being one of them, but also popular conceptions around the collapse of the Schroedinger wave function, often used to gloss over the observer-world interactions.

Time and causation are root problems in understanding how fundamental physics works. Time, says Rovelli, doesn’t exist. He means it doesn’t exist as some fundamental thing underlying the behaviour of the rest of physics. An independent fundamental variable – a part of “space-time”. Like the rest of physics, it’s an emergent, quantised and relative property. Time is within the QLG model, like everything else.

As we already knew, time is the direction of increasing entropy, in general, on average. Life is the efficient local means of reversing entropy and increasing or maintaining form and order. The more intelligently evolved life, the more efficient the entropic processes.

Positing a physics based on forces relative to points of finite separation also sounds a lot like Boscovich, an early influencer of Mach and hence Einstein.

I’ve said before, one of the things I like about Rovelli as a scientist is that he has time for philosophical thinking, and cites many early philosophers. He’s pretty scathing however, about the qualitative aspects of Plato – what is for the best:

How completely off track the great Plato was here!

But on the whole he takes a sympathetic reading of the intended thinking of many ancient philosophers from Anaximander to Spinoza. He doesn’t cite any modern or present day philosophers. Rovelli’s pedigree comes in part via Lee Smolin with whom a lot of this metaphysics is shared. Smolin of course published an important major work recently in collaboration with political philosopher Roberto Unger. I’d be really interested to see some current philosophers take on Rovelli’s work. I’m thinking of you Dan Dennett, Rebecca Goldstein, Julian Baggini and Massimo Pigliucci?

(Aside – Would also love to tie up Rovelli’s take on QLG with Deutsch & Marletto’s thinking on constructor theory, and with Mersini-Houghton, but I digress.)

After his exposé on QLG, itself preceded by a potted history of physics to date, Rovelli ends with several short qualifying chapters on where we stand and what needs to be done. He is particularly careful about what makes for science and evidence. He is at pains to reiterate that the unknown is much greater than the known, but creativity needs to be based on clues in or problems with what is believed to be known, rather than flights of complete fantasy into the unknown. Empirical disconfirmation remains the key distinguishing feature of science – taking its exams – whatever the process of arriving at hypotheses.

In some sense I think he doth protest too much in his final warning against arguments from authority and ancient wisdom, since his whole book proceeds step-wise from what was previously hypothesised to be known. All steps are relative, nothing is cast in stone, but every step needs a foundation, even one that redefines or undermines previous foundations. That the great thinkers and scientists are proven wrong, doesn’t stop them being great. It’s what makes them great. Not being provably wrong is science’s biggest problem. It’s belief without explanatory understanding that risks reification into dogma.

An absolutely excellent book. So many more notes on topics I’ve not mentioned here: cosmic expansion and multiple sequential big-bounce universes, black holes and Hawking radiation and the hype over Higgs and Super-symmetry as examples. Rovelli’s own selection of important people in the history of natural philosophy is itself interesting. Great read and I suspect will turn out to be an important book in the history of fundamental physics.


[Post Note: “It from Bit” – More on the informational basis of reality – New Scientist from earlier (May) this year, and Erik Verlinde’s “Entropic Gravity” from 2010. Hat tip to Jaap van Till. Interesting that Verlinde is a string theorist, so the time <> entropy <> gravity relationship is a deep issue for all sides here. Rovelli says “Time isn’t real”. Verlinde says “Gravity isn’t real”. They seem to be saying the same thing. Nothing is fundamentally real other than quantised information, all else is emergent in higher level patterns. If it works with quanta, not sure why we need strings, but hey.

Information (significant differences)
and patterns (negative entropy)
have been Psybertron’s focus since 2001.


[Post Note: See also this review of James Gleick’s History of Time Travel, by John Lanchester in the New York Review of Books. Hat tip to Massimo Pigliucci on Twitter. A long read on the inescapability of time; everything from Joe Campbell’s monomyth to fundamental physics via H G Wells. Metamyth.]

Just a quickie riff.

Whether is gender differences – male vs female cognitive difference anyone? – or race, or religion or whatever …

Difference matters.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that “significant differerence” is THE fundamental “particle” of the universe, the source of all information and all things. Whoah, but that’s maybe just me, I digress!

Trouble is in the less rarefied levels of everyday life, built-on / evolved-from a zillion levels of nuanced variety across time and space (history of the world as we know it – so far) we deal with things we find significant – things we care about – every day.

We give ’em names. As soon as we do, we have:

the named
the named-otherwise

We have a binary shorthand for the thing we are currently talking about, for some reason we care about. Obviously there are differences between these things – male vs female – really big ones as it happens, at the level were at. But, however great and significant that difference, the common components in the current evolved state are even greater. Obviously. As in, Duh!

We don’t talk about men and women to deny our common humanity, or deny any spectrum of variability in gender assignment, we do it to communicate our current thought. We do well to remember the huge common ground behind every choice of name for the current subjects of our conversation, and of course it’s mostly unsaid. We’d never get anything said if we qualified every difference (content) with the entire common ground (context).

It becomes PC to ….

“don’t mention the difference”

…. because you may have some evil intent to exploit the difference, or even accidentally mislead, in an unsaid way.

We have to talk about the things that matter.
Differences matter, Difference is material in fact.

And we have to trust each other.


This is the thread from yesterday with Andy Martin, that prompted the riff:


Interesting review of Carlo Rovelli’s latest “Reality Is Not What It Seems” by Michael Brooks in the New Statesman.

In my own review of Rovelli’s introductory work “Seven Brief Lessons, I felt compelled to add a footnote to ensure readers understood he was peddling a minority view in Quantum Loop Gravity. Interesting in Brooks’ review of Rovelli’s latest, he highlights the well understood paradox that Gravity and Quantum theories can’t both be right.

Both are right ….
in the sense that …. they’ve both
[made useful repeatable predictions].

And both must be wrong, too.
[Since neither supports the other].

Brooks takes umbrage at Rovelli’s dismissal of more “popular” current theories – eg String and SuperSym – that aim to provide more fundamental physics than the current combination of Gravity and Quantum. Rovelli spends the final third of his latest work promoting QLG.

Being right in this world is about being useful for two or three generations – Kuhn / Kondratiev – but that is hindsight of course. Those proven right – or consigned to obscurity – are always in a minority of one when they first point out the advantages of their alternative.

A minority view, but I think Rovelli is mostly right, however successful QLG proves to be. He’s right even if QLG is wrong. And right in a more fundamental sense than simply utilitarian. Consisent with Smolin and others there is a serious attempt to bring time and law-like causation within the explanatory scope of the model, not to mention a respect for the value that philosophy brings to fundamental thinking. And then there is that healthy scepticism of the celebrity status of heroic Galilean mythology.

I’m less inclined to follow fundamental physicists who are dismissive of time, causation and philosophy than those that are dismissive of popularity.


[Post Note : Another related review / book. Bell’s is another interpretation I have time for. Hat tip to Rick Ryalls on FB. Minority interests are not new, they just get trampled in the crowds following popularity contest winners, long before social media was invented. Same with science as any other topic of cultural interest.]

One positive thought coming out of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s second Reith lecture this morning is Civic Identity

As with the first lecture on Credo, this second installment on Nationality came across again as statements of the obvious on the broad difficulties in being “definitive” on such matters of Identity Politics. Mistaken identity for sure, but what about “appropriate” identities with values to support them?

The positive thought came up in one of the later questions on Civic Identity. Having thrown-away cheap-shots on philosophers wanting to be definitive, citizens of the world vs citizens of a nation, and his own father’s belief in “Unitary (National) Citizenship” one philosophy student raised the idea of Civic Nationalism.

There is always a question of “we”; a presumption that there is one that means anything. Obviously there are many that mean many things. Any identity chosen by multiple individuals for their collective identity is a statement of caring enough about that identity. (Whatever genetic or memetic, biological or cultural – familial, ethnic, religious or territorial “heritage” forms the basis of that identity. The issue is simply that we have many of these at many levels.)

National identity – a particular “peoples” collective as a nation – is a political identity – like all identities are in the final analysis. The suggestion is that this is a particular “Civic Nationalism” – one based on political principles AND narrative, existing alongside other affiliations with multiple constituencies of peoples. Broadly consistent and tolerant of difference and multiplicity, despite particular points of conflict, that we can agree to forget or give low priority in most practical situations of daily life. Again we (individually) must choose to self-identify our collective “civic” nationality as distinct from all other national and ethnic identities, the point being as a statement that we accept the practicality of the governance arrangements of that civic. We are nailing our colours to the mast of a civic identity – a nation – that we declare will be used as the basis of any significant governance of conflicts and inconsistencies arising with the many other overlapping identities. We are accepting this civic identity to handle changes and accomodations involving other identities. Choosing a civic identity in no way loses or ignores the existence of our other identities and narratives as people’s other than that civic identity.

Declaring citizenship of the world is fatuous as our civic identity until such time as there is a form of world governance “we” all genuinely share. It’s a fine identity many of us also have, and even an aspirational civic identity, but until then, governance is about jurisdictions and their borders.

I’m kinda hoping Kwame Anthony Appiah’s lectures will have some punchline in the fourth episode, to bring together practical necessities of identities which bind us for real world purpose. So far it’s all about how matters of identity are complicated and non-definitive. We already knew that.

It’s a common claim in some form, in many a situation, where were are in danger of confusing or conflating prejudice based on race with prejudice based on some other social construct. It works on the assumption that race is a naturally objective class about which an individual has no choice, whereas religion is a matter of individual choice in a cultural context.

Of course the form “a religion is not a race it’s an idea?” is invoked when it’s the religious (cultural) identity that is the main topic at issue – to put some clear water between that and other issues of race. Particularly in the case where the religion is Islam, where there are strong associations with ethnic and cultural identities, it somehow seems important to maintain the distinction between different issues.

But if our topic were a racial or ethnic identity in the first place, we might have “ethnicity is not race” and “neither is race a meaningful biological thing”. In fact if we get deeper into biology we also find that even species are definable only by convention and the appropriate conventions vary enormously with context and purpose. How many scientists are keen to emphasise how flimsy are the actual differences at the mental and cultural levels between humans and our kindred species.

Down with this sort of thing. We humans ain’t so special. This is very much about identity. And, for thinking beings, identity is very much about personal identity politics, and our conformity or reaction to our cultural context.

If we add the religious angle to this, we find that which binds people is only in very small part specific ideas and beliefs that are held in common. So much did Kwame Anthony Appiah remind us in the Credo part of this year’s Reith Lectures. In fact this take on Mistaken Identities was so underwhelming, that he was seen by many (in my twitter feed anyway) to be merely stating the obvious and missing the opportunity for any important insight [Refs].

When talking race and attempting to get a grip on what we really mean, any measure we choose – skin colour – is as good and imperfect as any other [Refs]. Even when talking genetics, as scientifically rigorously as you like, it’s ultimately about statistical distributions of many possible combinations and patterns, whose own boundaries are scarcely definitive.

Some conventions are deeper in accepted science, but pretty much all the objects we are talking about and the classes to which we assign them, depend for their identity on social constructs and our (pragmatic) acceptance of these.

This is not an excuse for an anything goes – w’evs – cultural relativism. Quite the opposite. Simply a reminder that we’re not going to solve any complex issue by being precious about a specific choice of words having hard and fast objective definitions. Islamism in its political and violent extremes, has a wide range of religious and racial, extrinsic and behavioural aspects, each themselves involving cultural patterns of identity over and above anything intrinsically objective in our individual biology.

You might be tempted to the easy conclusion that biology is our racial marker, distinct from religion. Sure an individual may generally have no choice about their biological make up, but how that particular biological entity is assigned to a class – even a biological one – is a cultural choice.

We’re always ultimately dealing with individuals. Prejudice against the freedoms and free-thought of individuals is still prejudice whatever class of race or religion we’ve assigned it to. From the individual’s immediate perspective it matters little whether the constraints on their freedoms are biological (genetic) or cultural (memetic), they’re still constraints, and at the individual level both are intertwined with each other and with collective group effects.


[Post Note: Reference for social constructs and political theory around race in particular. Falguni Sheth – book and blog. Hat tip @contronline.]