Just had a weird reading-linked-articles (Tennis-Elbow-Foot / Cow-Lake-Bomb / Rock-Paper-Scissors) experience: Ian Stewart is a popular maths writer I’ve enjoyed, but probably barely referenced here other than as the author of “Does God Play Dice? – The Mathematics of Chaos“.

I was also aware that the “non-game” Finchley Central was a forerunner to ISIHAC‘s Mornington Crescent, ever since Doug Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas reference to it. But, I hadn’t twigged Ian Stewart was the inventor of Finchley Central in his time as editor of Warwick maths magazine Manifold.

If you follow me here on Psybertron, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Hofstadter and his connections to my hero Dan Dennett – the evolution of things complex, conscious and intelligent from nothing. One of the key contributions to my own agenda is Hofstadter’s game Tabletop (whose name has it’s own weird word-association evolution) but whose content, I now realise, is fundamentally a variant of Mornington Crescent (or Finchley Central).

In a game of no rules (a non-game) where the “board” permits any move of any piece  you might imagine, the progress – to something interesting – is by “conceptual slipping”. The basis of MC/FC is anyone can win the game at any time they choose after the first move, all moves are permitted, but the point is to spin it out into something interesting for as long as you can and still pre-empt your opponent’s winning move.

In Tabletop, and one variant of MC/FC, a strategy is to have some meta-rule (eg by some metaphorical association, A is to B as B is to C etc ) that allows you to make a next move but which looks random to your opponent. In that variant, an alternative way to beat your opponent is to guess their meta-rule before they make their winning move, or use that same (guessed) information to make your own winning move before they do. [The meta-rule may be very simple or pseudo-random to start with – when you first conceive it – but repeated, recursive, algorithmic action over many cycles can make the individual moves indecipherably complex – meta-(n x meta)-rule-result – from outside your head. That same feature makes it impossible for any outsider to know if you’ve been breaking or changing your own rule. The rule may be that there is no rule, other than the mental connection – the conceptual slipping – inside your head.]

The final synchronicity is that I’m pretty sure it was our maths master “Ester” Pearson, he who first introduced me to the Registry Assembly Programming exercise published later by Dennett, who also introduced us to listening to ISIHAC on the “Home Service” radio during our lunch breaks in 1972.

Just started reading a startlingly different book “The Master and Margarita” by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov.

I’d never heard of him or the book before I picked it up from my mother who is doing a University of the Third Age (U3A) course in Russian Literature. She was given the book by an old maths and physics teacher of mine from school, who was in turn given it by his philosopher brother. An always interesting feature of much Russian literature is understanding the prevailing political censorship and/or patronage context – and the punishments for transgression – at the time it was written. This certainly applies to M&M.

M&M was first published in Russian in 1966 and in English in 1995, but was written in the final years up to his death in 1940. Born in 1891, between 1922 and his death, Bulgakov had in fact written many hybrid books and dramas of various genres playing satirical games with or against his censors, many now available in Russian and English.

All I can say so far is M&M’s seriously weird and compelling. Some cross between Salman Rushdie Satanic Verses and Neil Gaiman American Gods but written in 1930’s Russia!

I may be distracted for a while, but I’ll be back.

Sad to hear of yesterday’s passing of Bob Pirsig, aged 88, at home after a period of failing health. Thoughts are with Wendy and the family.

Bob was my seed-crystal – the catalyst that triggered all manner of connections between the super-saturated collection of issues and thoughts that already had me on my “What, why & how do we know?” agenda, here at Psybertron. That is I’m not one of those originally inspired by reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” on a post-hippie lifestyle-seeking journey. There can be no doubt the culture-bearing zeitgeist of reconciling romantic yearnings with the classical yoke of industrial technology is probably what connected with and inspired his millions of readers. This New York Times piece is better than any obituary or overview of Pirsig’s work I could do here.

For me it’s more personal and I told my own Pirsigian story in this conference paper and these slides back in 2006. And, for all my Pirsigian resources see the Psybertron Pirsig Pages which includes a Robert Pirsig Biographical Timeline and many, many more links.

Pirsig’s philosophical work is criticised as naive in the sense that he never attempted the “philosophology” necessary to set it and develop it within the orthodoxy of mainstream philosophy. He wrote rhetorically about his own instructive experiences and his readings of the Greeks, Kant and James, take it or leave it. Of course, if you do choose to take it, it comes with two great novels, US road-trip / buddy-movie, father-son baton-passing, tormented madness as enlightenment, even a little engineering, motorcycle-maintenance and boat-rigging interwoven with his philosophical Chautauqua on quality, virtue, ethics and morality. You name it, all human life is in there.

In 2008 I effectively signed off on my own Pirsig research with this retrospective post, prompted by publication of Mark Richardson’s Zen and Now, and Mark E. Lehnertz review (on that page). My last significant reference was when reviewing “Shop Class as SoulCraft” by Matthew Crawford in 2009.

I’m quoted as claiming:

“The Metaphysics of Quality
is the best framework
for the whole of reality”

Although I don’t often write about Pirsig, or even refer specifically these days to his work, I do still hold his MoQ as “the best framework for the whole of reality“. I really do mean that. One way or another, everything I do, I hang off that mental picture. All the other great philosophers, like Hume and Wittgenstein, and even the latest and greatest works from Dan Dennett and Carlo Rovelli to name but two.


[Post Note: Talking of Philosophology (Comparative Philosophical Criticism) which Pirsig rejected and thereby excluded himself from mainstream philosophy, it was only a few days ago I picked-up on this tweet quoting Lewis Gordon speaking at #APAPacific17

Hat tip to Chris Meyns.]

[Post Note: And so many mainstream media pieces, too many to link to, but here a formal obituary from the Guardian. Hat tip to David Morey.]

Heard Ed Atkinson of Citizens’ Climate Lobby UK speak last night at Teesside “Skeptics in the Pub”. Although they’re already a decade old, and I have long-standing interests in the energy business and in climate change science and policy, it was the first time I had really been aware of CCL and their very specific climate policy.

It was a very impressive message.

Given my underlying epistemological scepticism – “Yeah, but how do we know?” and the fact that I am sceptical about both scientific & political climate-change predictions – particularly those that claim to be objectively evidence-based and quantifiable – many assume I must be a climate-change sceptic.

In fact the existence of Anthropogenic Global Warming and the need to do all we can to minimise CO2, volatile-hydrocarbon and low-grade heat emissions from our human activity has always been a no-brainer. Simply common sense. 1st and 2nd laws. As an engineer, where there’s a will, there’s a way. The problem has always been politics and political economics.

The beauty of Ed’s talk was that, whilst he did throw up a few graphs and numbers to illustrate the scale of what we’re dealing with, none of his conclusions – or the CCL policy recommendations – are particularly dependent on any actual numbers or calculations assumed. Basically, which things will drive the relevant factors in the right direction with greatest predictability & manageability and the least unintended incentives to corrupt & game the system.

It needs the caveat – all other things being equal – we’re talking about the carbon economy part of the whole global economic activity here, where businesses and governments will have plenty of other drivers and incentives in play. The point of the CCL proposal is to apply the economic controls at points where they are least in conflict with the other drivers on activity and investment.


  • The Carbon Tax or “Fee”. Leave fossil fuel in the ground or, if you do extract it, tax it progressively at that point of extraction.
  • The Benefit or “Dividend”. Divide the tax take to be paid equally and directly to all individual participants in the economic and ecological environment through existing tax allowance and benefit payment schemes.

The beauty of this approach is that it addresses the tragedy of the commons directly by putting government taxation in the role of the common interest, and giving the individual interest – environmental and economic – directly back to the individual. The market looks after the rest. The individual makes the lifestyle choices as the consumer, and the whole supply chain for energy, goods and R&D is then driven from that end. If that’s not enough, governments (with public support) can still provide subsidies from general taxation to the development on alternative energy technologies, without upsetting the incentives in the main scheme.

Particularly encouraging is that the simplicity and predictability, the avoidance of regulatory bans and risk of market shocks, means that more conservative Republican political and big-energy big-business interests appear to see this as the best option of a set of worse taxation and regulation choices. It could be win-win.

Seems a no-brainer to support this recommendation.

Plenty of lively discussion from an audience committed to the issues and a talk that had inspired much interest. The big take-away, beyond the detail and mechanics of the policy scheme itself, was the realisation how much any such scheme would be dependent on global / international government agreement to implement. Particularly salient in our time of increased noise for nationalist interests. However with China already committed to massive alternative energy investment and other western trading blocks already collaborating, even if the global agreement can only ever be partial, we nevertheless all benefit as the major part of the “commons”.

It may be brutal, but it’s no tragedy.

Islamism – non-secular political aspirations of Islam – are a problem of Islam and a problem for all of us, but that problem is Islamism, not Islam per se. And, like any religion, interpretation and fragmentation mean Islam has plenty of other problems with tolerance and respect for individual rights and freedoms, but there can be no doubt Sharia represents some very particular problems of Islam also exploited by Islamism. Extreme Islamism, Jihadism and political terrorism & violence in-the-name-of Islamism are further problematic levels of complication, and an important part of my agenda is to avoid conflation in addressing these many – related, but distinct – things.

In fact my thesis is that life really is this complicated and that’s as true of science & rationality, politics & culture as it is of religion & faith, but I digress.

I’ve been a follower of Quilliam and a supporter of Maajid Nawaz’s position on Islam and Islamism for some years, but have only recently got round to reading his early autobiographical “Radical“. It’s the story of his journey from youthful irreligious ethnic-Pakistani Essex “B-Boy” gangsta to extreme Islamist radicalisation and torture, and back again to being the grown-up Muslim campaigner against Islamism, radicalisation and bigoted extremism in general. I found particularly scary, shared experiences of common locations and times in London, Pakistan and Egypt.

It is a very good read.

Sure, there is probably a little over-inflated sense of attributing his own actions and qualities to taking credit for the events described, it is after all only one person’s narrative of events as he saw it, but there can be no denying the story is a must-read lesson we all should understand. There may even be a little dramatic invention in the DNA of the number 42 and in his apologising to the door out of the torture cell? But he does also give generous credit to many others along the way; Peter Tatchell and Amnesty International for example, as well as a list of mainstream party politicians and civil servants that might surprise the more cynical.

Significant, I think, that Mid-East historian Tom Holland is one of those providing a cover blurb recommendation. An important book as well as being an un-put-downable read.

Chapter 16 “Polemic” provides probably the most comprehensive statement and rationalisation of the reactionary Islamist agenda – radically political before it is remotely religious, essentially “our” self-identity politics with a vengeance. I was reminded of my own readings of Anders Breivik in the objective logic behind misguided determination behind the appalling actions.

Initially, I made many notes, quotes and connections from that polemic chapter, but thought better of presenting them all here. Just go read it.

The final redemptive section of the book starts with Chapter 24 and I was moved to share these:

[On “No Platforming”] [Hall’s summary of Voltaire]
‘I disapprove of what you say,
but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ […]

Any other stance makes a mockery of the universality of human rights. Even now as I spend and expend my life campaigning against extremism, I would still want Amnesty to protect prisoners in a similar position to the one I was in. [Guilty in actions, but nevertheless actually imprisoned for belief.] […]

But the devil is in the detail. Where I disagree with not just Amnesty but with many other human-rights groups is in their failure to highlight a clear and obvious distinction between a victim of human rights abuses, and a champion of human rights causes. […]

I will campaign against anyone who would want to torture Mubarak, for he remains a human being, but I would never want to extend to any one of the Mubarak regime’s men a human rights platform from which to address a young, impressionable crowd of student volunteers …

[Many groups sadly blur the distinction in who they platform.]
Life is more complicated than that.


The rehumanisation Amnesty had helped kick-start [in me] was furthered by others in prison too. […]

‘So, why did you leave the cause?’ I asked, genuinely interested.

And as we walked across the desert sand of Mazrah Tora’s prison yard, [he] looked at me a simply said, ‘I grew up.’

The way he said it caught me completely off guard. I grew up. The phrase made me pause. I had been expecting a long pseudo-theological justification [… but … H]e was too smart to get into that. Instead, he just left that phrase hanging there, and left me to think about it. Which I did.


Reading classic English literature did for me what [only recently] studying Islamic theology couldn’t; It forced my mind to grapple with moral dilemmas. Upon our request, the British Consul would regularly send us books from the embassy library.

I devoured the classics ….

Those of us with over-zealous adherence to our logic of life – even those of us who would claim entirely undogmatic rational logic – have a lot of growing-up to do. Nawaz eventually comes to reflecting on Breivik in his epilogue.

“Much remains to be done.”


I’ve expressed my views on Assad’s chemical weapons specifically and previously on (chemical weapons generally).

Even if the recent awful events weren’t caused by Russian supported Syrian forces using chemical weapons – Boris quite carefully suggested absence of any evidence they weren’t – but were collateral damage due to ISIS / rebel or even circumstantial stockpiling locally, then Assad is still guilty.

Assad is responsible for the stockpiles being in his country and for agreeing to manage their disposal safe from use, deliberate or accidental. If there are Syrian chemical weapons unaccounted for, Assad needs to apply caution in any Syrian / Russian military action in his own country.

Exactly what is or isn’t “anti-semitic” is getting pretty blurred and it’s getting pretty hard to follow when and why Ken Livingston keeps mentioning his pet theory on Hitler and Zionism.

If he is genuinely raising it himself – out of the context of any actual debate on the history of Jews in Germany, or rather simply answering provocative questions – then the question has to be why? What point is he making and why? That might be anti-semitic, even if it is a fact in historical context that Hitler did for a while conveniently support the idea a Jewish homeland outside Germany. The fact – even if it isn’t one – is plausible but it isn’t anti-semitic. A fact isn’t anti-semitic simply because Hitler was.

The real issue is that the UK Labour party is dealing with a persistent anti-semitism “taint” to which their response seems to be some PC variation on “Don’t mention the Jews” … just in case. The furore becomes almost self-fulfilling between accusation, defense and victimhood and, of course, Corbyn / Chakrabarti Labour has enough management leadership problems right now.

EITHER WAY – Ken is clearly no longer an astute enough politician to know how to avoid a “scandal” or has a hidden agenda that benefits from his continually stoking one. He really needs to be retired from any party involvement, whether he is anti-semitic or not.

[And I say this as a big fan of Ken back in the 1970’s when his GLC gave us students practically free 24 hour travel in London.]

[Post Note: My point, the historical Hitler / Zionism point is nowhere near Holocaust-denial. It’s only a step on the slippery slope to anti-semitism if you are a peculiarly PC version of “zero tolerant”. Jeez!]

[And here the full Facebook version of the David Baddiel piece in the Guardian. As he says, it’s the tone of what Ken is (may be) trying to say with his interpretation of historical facts and how he comes to be saying it – with PC avoidance of the word “Jew” – that’s the real problem, as I said. Think it’s more the lefty / liberal / PC commentary that is being “anti-semitic” with the conflation of all things Jewish / Zionist / Israeli. Hard to say whether Ken is or not, given his unclear message But as I say, as an experienced politician he’s either lost it or is exploiting the lack of clarity for an implied message or hidden agenda. Either way, as I said, Ken is in the wrong, anti-semitic or not.]

Is he a scientist or is he a philosopher? He’s a philosopher. His contributions to science (and anything else) are philosophical. He’s learned a great deal from science and is very pro-science. Some, but not so many, scientists appreciate philosophical input or explicitly concern themselves with the philosophical underpinnings of their subject.

Is he a “four horsemen” atheist or not? Yes, he is an atheist, but unlike most others, he’s not against religion per se, it has value in love and belonging (religiare – that which binds us culturally) and sees an entirely naturalistic explanation for religion. He’s against dogma and fanaticism – he certainly would “cage and/or disarm” extremists.

Does he believe consciousness is an illusion or not? No and Yes. It’s real and natural, but our typical view of it is illusory. It’s really a user interface behind which actual causality is quite different to the objects we can perceive in the interface. (How else would we / nature / god “intelligently-design” a supervisory dashboard for a complex system? – it’s a bag of tricks – The “mind” doesn’t need to know everything the “brain” is doing. See machine view.)

Does he explain or explain-away consciousness? Yes and Yes. Everything he has done has been of a piece attempting to explain and understand consciousness but, in “Consciousness Explained” and since, he has certainly been explaining away – pointing out an illusory idea – the “special” nature of consciousness – beyond natural evolutionary explanation. It’s a wonderful bag of natural tricks.

Does he believe in human exceptionalism? Yes and no. Human consciousness, intelligence and culture is the most wonderful bag of tricks we know about so far, but it’s no exclusion from natural evolution in any exceptional way.

Is he just a “materialist”, are minds just “machines”, can “culture” just be a product of the mind as materialist machine? Yes, but not “just”. Dawkins and Turing both showed us that evolution and computation are algorithmic, competence without comprehension, leading eventually to comprehension of competence. Robots made of robots made of robots made of robots made of robots made of …. Requires a stranger (loopy) version – an inversion – of reasoning more than mere greedy reductionism, reducing the “wonderful bag of tricks” to a direct chain of causation between the objects we choose to define (*). Always need to see big historical (evolutionary, fluid) picture as well as isolated local and temporal detail. [Post Note: ie Compatibilism is not simply (need not be) a fudge – after Julian Baggini on Freedom Regained. (*) This “shifting the basis of the argument” point is key to “Dennett’s wager.]

Critics in both the Humanities and the Sciences need to shift their (appreciation of) materialist (naturalist) thinking away from that kind of objective reductionism. Neither need have anything to fear except dogmatism in what may or must be explained in any particular way.

Hat tip to Jim Al-Khalili and the “Life Scientific” of  Dan Dennett this morning.