A recurring mention of mine is that “I am in writing mode” – deliberately avoiding reading new publications, even where it will obviously be relevant to my writings – everything is connected at some level of abstraction after all. I acknowledged this state existed “in theory anyway” when failing and reading a couple things in the last month – Humboldt and Prigogine for example.
That pattern recurs in microcosm ever month or two when I find I have dozens of browser pages open, after clicking on social media responses to topics I’m working on. And then I have to do a post, like this one below, to close all those pages whilst nevertheless saving them for posterity.
(I used to use a bookmarking app for that – but it’s a vicious cycle, the easier it is to bookmark, the more things get bookmarked and the harder it is to index or tag in ways that make them findable in future!)
So here goes:
“Book Review: Elon Musk – Not the new one, sorry” Musk’s interference in the social media (and the political commentary and free-speech landscape generally) highlights / intersects another topic of mine. That is he and many problematic modes of thought deserve honest use of the technical term “Autistic”. The PC / Woke agenda reminds us we need to be careful being critical of individuals – respect the human – on that spectrum, but the problematic thought pattern is real and really is problematic.
25 albums over 48 years between 1976 and 2023 so ~4/500 tracks to choose from. 8 from the new album “Last Chance to Learn to Twist” and 4 from the very first 1976 album “Howlin’ Wind” leaving only 8 from the other 23 albums from a set-list of 21 (inc 2 covers). So not surprising not many I would have pre-identified as favourites. And yet … a great set.
Not quite as much energy as the original Rumour days and no brass section, but at 72 he’s still got that voice and a passion for his songs, many of which have political messages, poetic without being angrily in your face (like the current naïve fashion of Sleaford Mods, Benefits and Meryl Streek to name but 3.) And playing a lot more on the guitar than I ever remember – but there were two top pros behind him in those days – Brinsley Schwarz and Martin Belmont. Just Martin remains from The Rumour, 2 years older at 74 and looking his age, pretty frail and unsteady on his feet, coming on stage with a walking stick and sitting on a stool when concentrating on the rhythm backing, but instantly recognisable standing and rocking / leaning into the riffs and solos.
Most of the audience seemed to be from the 70’s too and all seated – contrast with the Public Image gig from a couple of weeks ago – but Graham was in light-hearted banter mode throughout, enjoying his audience. Remember now the link to how Southside Johnny and Bruce Springsteen came into our lives. Not many appeared to recognise him in the bar beforehand and the few that did acknowledge left him in peace with the roadie/tech and the chorus girls – The Ladybugs. Couldn’t resist wishing him luck once the others had gone backstage and sharing the image I’d taken – what I’d taken to be – the last time I saw him in Nov’78, at least 3 memorable ’78 gigs, but I did see him another 3 or 4 times post “Sparks” ’79 to ’82. I know that because shortly after Sylvia and I married and moved to Reading I saw him at The Hexagon but Sylvia couldn’t be there she reminded me. Yet, she did see him too, checking into the Post House Hotel where she was doing a shift on reception that day. Pretty close to “home” in Deepcut, but that’s another story.
I’ve watched once through and notwithstanding clear differences – evolution of warm blooded mammals (environmental independence), not just vertebrates (brain architecture) and the “attractor” version of the internal model (?) – the whole active inference monitoring cycle and the affect-centred sense of subjective self in self and empathy in others seems exactly consistent with Solms.
Only issue I have is Nick has adopted “sentience” limited to the consciousness that comes with such an internal affective model of the self – phenomenal consciousness contrasted with “blind” sensation – I guess I can be OK with that, but I’ve used it more broadly.
And like Solms Humphry’s model also predicts artificial sentience.
Anyway -just a quickie to capture the links.
Solms knows Humphry’s work and admires the deep evolutionary aspect. Consistent with his own functional brain architecture focus.
Using “Sentient” to mean being aware of sensed inputs – that there is a self-aware being “in” the organism doing the experiencing (and responding).
Cognitive … unpicking overloaded meanings?
(Just to be clear – getting lots of pedants on social media pointing out that they’re not telling the same story. Obviously. But what they are telling by focussing on different aspects of the consciousness story at different levels of detail is that they fit one consistent overarching story … need to find time for a proper piece here.)
Last couple of days – Sarah Freiesleben – “Shaping Human Centered Progress” – posted a recommendation on LinkedIn for the thinking of Iain McGilchrist (of whom I’m a big fan, as you know) and it drew a lot of flak in reaction to the old left-right-brained-people suggestion (though of course she never actually said that). Dave Snowden (of whom I’m also a big fan since 2003) responded typically robustly against “that left/right brain nonsense – a simplistic dichotomy” – and the dialogue developed to some kind of sensible but disjointed concensus, with people including myself giving opinions.
So, today she posted an update (which also included an implied criticism of Dave’s attitude – and in his inimitable style, he let her have it again!)
Anyway, the valuable content:
Yesterday I wrote a post where I referred to the in-depth work that Dr Iain McGilchrist has done in explaining the various ways in which the brain’s hemispheres process information. I used this reference to make a point about how being able to navigate #complex and #complicated situations is already baked into the #humanexperience, but we seem to be devaluing it.
It attracted a lot of attention while I was out camping and enjoying the wonderful nature of Denmark, and I do not have time to respond to all the comments individually. But I want to take a moment to add some clarity based on the general categories of comments I have read.
Firstly, the modern science around this is not about people being right-brained or left-brained, like we used to think in the 80s. Nor can we categorically say that music, art, or math come from certain halves. That work has been debunked. But we should not mistake the old, now disproven science, with the compelling modern science around (sometimes competing) hemispheric behaviors, and be curious about its implications in relation to understanding and bringing awareness to how we engage in sensemaking.
Next, I wrote a concluding comment about how we need to use both hemispheres at work and some seem to have taken this literally. I want to clarify that leaving one behind is indeed not possible. People are always using their whole brains. But what I wanted to convey with the metaphor is that we value the style of thinking that is associated with the right hemisphere increasingly less in our world and this is a major problem.
The more we glorify quantifying and creating algorithms for everything, the less we seem to be able to find contextual truths that lead to possibilities. And since we are all, always thinking contextually, but becoming less aware of contextual truths existing and having value, we are perhaps unconsciously creating static polarities that eventually serve no real context at all.
Finally, to those who suggest that my post and Iain’s work are creating a dichotomy, I would like to highlight the crucial importance of noticing the differences and similarities between things as a tool to preserve and invite nuance back into situations. Dichotomies are similar but different in that they look at differences with an either/or perspective; nuance generally notices differences and aims to connect on them by noticing “differences that make a difference”. And nuance is of critical importance to evolution, as we often forget that symbiosis is a key part of it.
I hope this has made it more clear. I am always happy to engage in mutual learning in context with people who enjoy constructive dialogue, as time allows. I learn a lot from engaging in the LI community. Your comments and feedback help me know where to take more time to explain and this is a case where much care is clearly required.
My response in support of the originalpost and the general response:
Fascinating. I’ve written a lot about McGilchrist and as you say, we need to recognise true complexity and be very careful suggesting some “competing” dichotomy when we’re really talking about collaborative interactions (which I guess you already knew – even being careful with the words it’s easy to mislead over the complex subtleties).
My starter for ten –
Please, not that left/right brain nonsense. McGilchrist says a lot of sensible things but creating a simplistic dichotomy as the explanation doesn’t cut it any more.
(Some things he finds sensible) some of his views on the spatialisation of time, his disputes on free will and some aspects of his views on religion.
(And) no one denies that there are different hemispheres. What is being challenged is the validity of the conclusions that McGilchrist draws from that. That challenge also links with his wider failure to move beyond a cognitive framing.
Reductionism is problematic when people assume that the qualities of the whole are explained by the properties of the parts. There is nothing wrong with breaking things up. My view is that McGilchrist commits the reductionist error and worse he only uses a partial and non contextual account of the parts and further doesn’t take sufficient account of the relationships between those parts and other ‘parts’ and relationships he ignores.
And my response to Dave’s initial position position:
Dave Snowden – Not many things I’d disagree with you on Dave. Obviously, anyone who sees “a simplistic dichotomy” in McGilchrist’s view is in error – that’s debunked old left-right-brained-people bullshit – but surely it’s undeniable that the (divided) brain and its interconnectivity are evolved to be that way? (You make that point in another thread.)
As to what McGilchrist is actually claiming – I’ve already written a lot about both his and Mark Solms’ work – I might pick-up your specific comments in this thread and respond in a separate blog post. (Have you written any critique of McGilchrist elsewhere?)
Can’t believe I didn’t post anything during last week. But here a brief diary entry.
Monday (18th) I attended two venues new to me.
During the day I was at Lincoln University – great new location – at an event in memory of John Friend of (Community) Operations Research fame – more “systems thinking response to (human) complexity” for me. In addition to the current academic / researcher and host Rebecca Herron, probably the most significant new (old) contact was Gerard de Zeeuw.
That same evening I was at the converted and newly refurbished Sunderland Fire Station – another great new venue- and saw Public Image Limited in fine form with three new numbers and a not so obvious selection of oldies, with the usual final three for an encore.
(Sadly no USLS1, setlist in footer).
I’m returning to the Sunderland Fire Station on Tuesday this coming week.
I have tickets for golden oldie Graham Parker with new band The Goldtops. I was a massive fan in the 70’s up to and including “Squeezing Out Sparks” seeing him with The Rumour a dozen or more times. He’s been in the US since then, and I never did see him there, still writing but mostly doing solo unplugged new stuff I understand. That said my 2023 playlist does include his 21st C work too, England’s Latest Clown and I Discovered America – both excellent – from Don’t Tell Columbus (2007). I shall be fascinated to see what mix of tracks he brings to Sunderland after all this time.
“Ilya Prigogine – The End of Certainty. – Disappointing, given the guy’s credentials and the title – seems mainly a packaging of Chaos and Complexity. Will need to re-read once I’ve followed some of the references further.”
I’ve no recollection of re-reading it until the last few days (more on which later) – but I can see the follow-up references included the excellent philosophical works of Heisenberg and Schrödinger.
Anyway between then and now, I’ve made only one passing reference to Prigogine – a trivial reference in a draft (but important topic) essay that got side-tracked by a meta-argument about disagreement and credibility – weird!
But somewhere along the line, I did actually read it before now. I can tell because whilst annotating the current read I am annotating my previous – naïve – marginal / highlighting annotations.
Isabelle Stengers has been on the unread reading list recently, but I’d never noticed how much she had been a Prigogine collaborator until this read. In the original 1996 (French) edition she had in fact been co-author, but had apparently asked to be removed from co-authorship of the 1997 translation – more weird!
Suffice to say, I am finding the current read absolutely fascinating. It is full of things important to my thought journey. Systems thinking as a response to complexity. The inevitability of evolution of life and intelligence. The entropy-as-ignorance / knowledge-as-neg-entropy views as more fundamental than any quantum / relativity physics. And a strong Carnot and Gibbs emphasis before Boltzmann and later systems thinkers.
Again, I’ll probably not do any further “review” now before returning it to shelves of half-unread books, but it’s now full of notes I’ll need to incorporate into my wider writing.
Whilst my agenda is more meta, more abstract, than most, I have been conscious of many others’ focus on the challenges / crises facing us in the every-day world. Poly-crises, omni-crisis, you name them and have settled recently on the meta-crisis prefix (after Rowson) for obvious reasons. What we call things, the names and terms we use, what we care about, matter far more than any objective definitions.
My abstract / meta interests is therefore deliberate and unashamed – a belief that our whole collective decision-making, individual and social (ie cybernetics or free-democratic governance) operates in an environment dominated by an embedded but misguided worldview. [You just have to look at the fake-furore around our illustrious (UK) PM “rowing back” on environmental commitments (not).]
I think this is why I stopped reading books to concentrate on writing (in theory anyway). A habit I got from my Dad – a cartographer by profession, rest his soul – was a fascination for browsing maps and atlases, old and new, from a very young age, and still to this day at every opportunity. Not just physical atlases, but Google Maps is a regular rabbit-hole for me. Any place reference in any text or news story – yes, even crimes and disasters – I tend to put it into Google Maps and browse around. I’ve been everywhere man – over and above the fact I am fortunately pretty well travelled in reality anyway. [Probably also why I have a topological / architectural view of anything I need to understand generally – but I already digress from my digression.]
Well, I mentioned I was reading Andrea Wulf’s Adventures of (Alexander von) Humboldt, the inventor of nature. Fascinating enough as a story and as a catalogue of people, ideas and historical events as I mentioned already. But the geography is inescapable, partly because it’s obviously the story of an 18th/19th C explorer of the natural world, and partly because of Humboldt’s use of his “Naturgemälde” paintings of geographical / topological views to capture the essence of nature in the world. Ecotopology maybe a word I need to coin?
As well as the Americas an important part of world geography that Humboldt explored was Russia, across Siberia as far west as the Altai mountains bordering Mongolia. That initially rang a bell for me about another book I’d read – which shall remain nameless for now, part of my Mother’s “U3A” Russian literature and culture course (*) – about a 20th C traveller amid the forests and rivers (and religion) of same region – the lower altitudes of the Altai. But it’s an even more tangled rabbit-hole. Wulf’s book has some modern low-detail maps in the front, to represent Humboldt’s travels. As my comment below that post – mentions, I was embarrassed that I didn’t already know how influential Humboldt had been on Darwin, and it turns out one of the points of Humboldt’s first hand experience that intrigued Darwin enough to follow-up and pursue – after he’d met him but couldn’t get a word in edgeways – was the eco-geography relationships either side of the “Obi” river in that region.
Well Obi is an alternate spelling of the “Ob” the major river that runs south to north right across the desolate wastes of Nebraska Siberia from it’s source in those Altai mountains to the Kara Sea of the Arctic Ocean – a subject that Hofstadter has used. But that’s another digression.
The rabbit-hole I went down was browsing Google Maps to “map” the points highlighted by Wulf on her maps of Humboldt’s 1829 itinerary. Useless facts which I now have at my fingertips include:
West from St Petersburg and Moscow, he went via Nizhny Novgorod (a place I have visited myself, and the home of Maxim Gorky)
West of Yekaterinburg (and Miass on his return East) where he travelled without his official government hosts, the only named towns (in 1829) were Tobolsk and Bernaul. The latter is on the Ob, but after he’d already crossed it a little further north – the point of interest to Darwin – which looks almost exactly the location of modern day Novosibirsk?
His last point before turning back was Baty (Barak Batyr) just SW of Ust-Kamenogorsk – both on / close to the Irtysh river, since dammed in the 20th C – and as far as he got into the foothills of the Altai late summer, when there was no chance of getting higher as autumn and winter approached.
Returning via Omsk, leaving the Irtysh to cut across the Kazakh steppes to Miass and then on to Orenburg on the Ural river then crossing to the Volga to reach Astrakhan on the northern Caspian shores (no mention of Volgograd, and no sign of Chelyabinsk either, close to both Yekaterinburg and Miass).
Was it worth it?
Andrea Wulf’s “The Invention of Nature – The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science” – is just too interesting to read and review right now. Back onto the shelves of the library of (half) unread books.
(*) The un-named book was Jens Mühling “A Journey Into Russia” (2012) and it also has a map in the front – sadly with all the detail in the glued crack between two pages (!). The key word here is “Taiga” – which just means natural “boreal” (northern) forest, but particularly here between the Steppes and the (Altai) Mountains. Much more cultural & religious focus than the physical geography, even further east beyond the Yenesei river towards Irkutsk. (For map enthusiasts the Lena river is fascinating. Relatively minor river in this southern Siberia region, arising in swampy land west of Lake Baikal, but not connected to that lake like the other larger local rivers, and yet like the Ob a mighty river flowing all the way south to north into the arctic.) Recommended story.
Anyway, I did finish Wulf before passing it on.
Here’s the full table of contents:
Part I. Departure : emerging ideas. Beginnings ; Imagination and nature : Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Humboldt ; In search of a destination
Part II. Arrival : collecting ideas. South America ; The llanos and the Orinoco ; Across the Andes ; Chimborazo ; Politics and nature : Thomas Jefferson and Humboldt
Part III. Return : sorting Ideas. Europe ; Berlin ; Paris ; Revolutions and nature : Simón Bolívar and Humboldt ; London ; Going in circles : maladie centrifuge
Part IV. Influence : spreading ideas. Return to Berlin ; Russia ; Evolution and nature : Charles Darwin and Humboldt ; Humboldt’s Cosmos ; Poetry, science and nature : Henry David Thoreau and Humboldt
Part V. New worlds : evolving ideas. The greatest man since the deluge ; Man and nature : George Perkins Marsh and Humboldt ; Art, ecology and nature : Ernst Haeckel and Humboldt ; Preservation and nature : John Muir and Humboldt.
Loved the sections on Emerson and Thoreau and on Humboldt’s Cosmos. Sadly Part V Man and Nature, on Marsh, Haeckel and Muir and the Epilogue were just a bit too 21st C “green activist” politically motivated for me.
Humboldt obviously very important and influential and no mystery why “modern” western science has (wrongly) chosen to to forget him – too holistic and transcendentally enlightened for the reductionist rationalist fashion. More grist to my mill.