Dave Snowden and Mike Jackson

I saw the excellent Dave Snowden speaking at the Annual Mike Jackson lecture at Hull University yesterday evening.

Excellent in every way – Dave’s presentation and his conversation with Mike. All except for the absence of audience questions and discussion, that is, which meant I came away frustrated with my ‘bated list of questions and observations 🙂

[Since I have different communication channels with different parties here, I’m writing these comments and questions as an open blog post to share with Dave Snowden as @snowded on Twitter and Mike Jackson on LinkedIn and other Hull CSS, ISSS and INCOSE parties via any number of channels. Will add links.]


Firstly I have too many notes to write them all up here. Suffice to say both the talk and the conversation were excellent and packed with content across many practical and theoretical levels. Whatever language we’re using about Complexity, Cybernetics and/or Systems Thinking, Dave is already famous in this space for his consulting advice provided through the vehicle of his “Cynefin” Sensemaking framework.

Dave’s style is very in-the-moment, talking freely from his immense experience, with presentation material hand-drawn in real-time and very few pre-prepared slides and graphics. Free and therefore also very dense, with aside references that might have been tough for an audience to pick-up without pre-existing familiarity with Dave and Cynefin. For those with existing familiarity, we were treated to an update to the latest incarnation of the Cynefin framework (more on which later, below) and updated versions of the anecdotal narratives and metaphors Dave uses to illustrate the range of contexts that drive our choices of approach.

So, to some specific observations and questions:

    • Doubting Science?
    • The “Superconducting” Phase?
    • Constructor Theory & Counterfactuals?
    • Distributions and Fat-Tails?
    • The “Estuary” Metaphor?

Doubting “Science”?

The deepest topic first. Many practitioners and academics have taken systems thinking down to the most fundamental areas of physics and cognitive science. Dave is not alone in promoting latest thinking on these topics into systems practice and Mike is not alone in doubting the idea that such science can really be applied to the psychological context of human and social, organisational and political activities. Certainly doubting that law-like science can be applied any more than metaphorically.

Indeed even now, I find myself using “scientism” to critique those that overstretch scientific objectivity into humanity. But in fact my earliest encounter with Dave at the 2003 European Knowledge Management Conference was his quoting:

“Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go.”

by Robert M Pirsig
“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”

So, we’ve all been there. The distinction to be made is between the traditional orthodoxy of objective science and more enlightened “relational” views (of systems thinking).

Question: In terms of 21st Century Cognitive Science understanding of individual and collective psychology and the application of systems thinking, what do Dave and Mike make of the work of Iain McGilchrist, Mark Solms, Karl Friston and Chris Fields (ie Markov Blankets / Free Energy / Active Inference and more)?

The “Superconducting” Phase?

The Cynefin Framework is essentially categorising different human organisational situations, where different contexts imply different methodologies and strategies for managing and improving them. In it’s simplest form there are three categories or phases of evolving activity – Ordered, Complex and Chaotic, where Ordered lies on a scale from Simple to Complicated, Complex is the main focus of systems thinking and Chaotic is a different beast entirely. The function being not so much pigeon-holing and definitive aims within each as it is the speed and direction vectors of moving within and between these categories. Think phase changes.

There is some debate over 3, 4, 5 or more such phases and Dave suggested a “Superconducting” phase – and a physically-metaphorical “Plasma” phase. In fact even the 3 basic phases can map metaphorically to Solid, Liquid and Gas – though metaphors can only take us so far.

Question: does Dave see “superconducting” as associated with the “virality” of a memetic view of communication of ideas and decisions?

(Digression / Aside – for the fluid cases, there is a lot of interest in Navier-Stokes and compressible flow analogies at all scales of the physical world.)

Constructor Theory & Counterfactuals?

Fascinating to hear that Dave / Cynefin has taken on board David Deutsch on “Constructor Theory” and, by implication in the conversation, Chiara Marletto on “Counterfactuals”. An interesting extension to the Dave / Mike dialogue on the applicability of science to humanity. Gives us a different view of science as “laws” that can somehow be imposed on humans. Instead of laws, we have a framework of counterfactuals (possibilities and impossibilities) that far from restricting human freedoms, enables our creativity and ingenuity. Hence the engineering metaphor “constructor”. A scientific update on the old adage “Freedom runs on rails”?

Question: Has Dave seen any real organisation case-studies that have appreciated and explicitly taken up Constructor Theory? (Or is it really just a refinement to methodology thinking with the Cynefin framework?)

Distributions & Fat-Tails

There is a tendency – naturally in all of us – to analyse options and predictions in terms of statistical probability distributions, and test significance of what to care about and what to ignore implicitly in terms of 3 or 5-Sigma (or equivalent) limits of normal Gaussian distributions. Dave showed how superimposing Pareto and Power Law distributions exposed “Fat-Tails” that could be dangerously overlooked or misunderstood with normal tests of significance.

Question: Does Dave see Nassim Taleb’s “Black Swan” work on “Fooled by Randomness” as valuable in this area?

The “Estuary” Metaphor?

Dave used an Estuary metaphor as an example of the range of situations that might affect choices to act within in it. Rising and falling tidal flows, different ground conditions, different possibilities of access. Different types of project or operation might require quite different methods and organisation of resources, depending on scoping in time and geography, in essentially the same context. Obviously very topical for our Humberside audience and for me too in a Teesside redevelopment context 🙂

Question: Is there anywhere use of this metaphor is documented, beyond Dave’s very brief mention of it on the night?


Received Wisdom

A thread starter:

One recurring theme of mine is stuff that looks like conspiracy to conspiracy theorists – the coast guy, anyone – is a symptom of having no model or accepted language to account for a felt problem. With the received wisdom of western, objective (scientific) rationality in the dominant culture – feelings don’t get a look in, so people are left with inventing implausible but rational-looking reasoning.

[The whole McGilchrist and Solms line of work is about this. Not to mention a zillion other philosophers and psychologists since time immemorial. By excellent evolutionary design our (left) brains are “Baloney Generators”.]

Anyway started a Twitter thread that will probably go ignored, but I wanted to capture.

Starts with the first post of a thread (into which I interjected):

And the real world example fuelling the current furore:
#Boris and #Covid

Definitions of necessary and essential are limited to those that look rational.


And I couldn’t resist this one. More right wing people and channels find this stuff easier to criticise, and conspiratise, although as a social- liberal-democrat and “free-thinker”, I completely disagree with their reasoning.

Ain’t “science” wonderful?” is the right rhetorical question though:

Like the law, often “science is an ass”.

Fundamental Information & Computation

I’ve often noted that I hold an information monism – its processing & communication – to be underlying both the physical and the mental. In fact as recently as my previous post, I include it in a summary of my position linking information & entropy with systems & cybernetics. My “What, Why and How do we Know?” epistemological journey started in Sept 2001, and I made my first explicit reference to the fundamental nature of information and (quantum) computation in Jan 2002Dr Brian Josephson, Dr David Deutsch and BCS Cybernetics in one post.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Particularly fascinating this week is a new 2023 edition of “Complexity, Entropy & the Physics of Information” published by Santa Fe as the proceedings of the May/June 1989 workshop of that name, itself part of that history. The original foreword by editor Wojciech Zurek and new preface by original participant Seth Lloyd also provide a history of the subject.

Beautifully produced and indexed, some of the 32 individual papers have been available elsewhere, the collection includes Wheeler and Kaufmann as well as Zurek and Lloyd. And we find Boltzmann, Shannon & Wiener in the opening para of the historical preface.

Herman Melville presaging Gödel in the opening disclaimer “I promise nothing complete; because any human thing supposed to be complete, must for that very reason infallibly be faulty.” Gödel is one of Zurek’s references too, not to mention Melville and Gödel in my recent Goldstein and Spinoza post.

And also announced this week, starting in May, a six-part course “Physics as Information Processing” by Chris Fields” at the Active Inference Institute.

It’s all connected.

What Am I Thinking?

Thinking about an upcoming dialogue, I thought I’d compose a brief outline of what I’m about in 2023. A conversation starter.

I’m doing “Systems Thinking”.

For 20+ years, I would have called it “Cybernetics” by which I mean the original sense of the term – how humans as living things decide and govern ourselves for the best, individually and collectively – (Cybernetes = Governance = Gubernatorial). Of course in the second half of the 20th century systems and cybernetics became more and more associated with engineered systems – information systems, digital computers, automation & control, robotics, “cyberspace” and the like. Even organisational management systems becoming embodied in the information technology.

So much so that many today, even high-quality thinkers about the eco-socio-cultural processes of humanity, the ills and potential solutions that face us, baulk at cybernetic / systems language, even basic terms like information, algorithms, computation and systems. It’s understandable. These things are now so closely associated with “tech” and with programmable, deterministic – objectifying & de-humanising – applications in every corner of everyday life. But it needn’t be that way. Social engineering too has a bad name, as if it’s something technocrats do to other humans, but engineering (ie ingenuity) is simply something we humans do. We make things happen, creatively.

So, rather than systems engineering, think systems thinking and think soft systems.  Systems of governance, whether individual / group / organisational or state / political, whether hierarchical or democratic or any heterarchical mix of these.

I’m using systems thinking simply to say, it’s better to think of things in terms of their functional relations, internal with component parts and processes, and external with their environmental systems and structures, their ecosystem. And in saying that I’m making absolutely no presumptions about those things being physical, biological, social/cultural or intellectual/conceptual. They’re better treated in terms of functional relations as opposed to objects – in terms of the architecture of many such relationships. Such relational thinking predates the “western” intellectual history of either philosophy or science – including systems science – and was embodied in any number of pre-historical / indigenous / aboriginal ways of life.


With such broad thinking, we quickly bump into all aspects of life, the universe and everything. My own areas of interest probably best illustrated by these three examples:

    • Relational Philosophy
      As I say above, relational thinking is prehistoric – embodied in human traditions long before being intellectually documented in our philosophies and/or sciences. A very recent example from Matt Segall referred to the percept<>concept distinction being an issue underlying so many of philosophy’s enduring problems. Percepts being the things we perceive by direct participation the world, as opposed to the concepts we attempt to capture, name and define intellectually – to get a grip, get a handle on them. Recognising the former as more fundamental than the latter, Segall takes the radical empiricist position (after William James) and takes a dynamic process view of the participatory interaction (after A.N. Whitehead). The English language has sadly lost the knowledge distinction between (say) Savoir / Connaitre (in French) or Kennen / Wissen (in German).
    • Brain-Mind & Consciousness
      Whole libraries have been – and continue to be – written about these topics. Modern approaches range from panpsychist philosophies to neuro-physiological and psychological sciences. All bets appear to stumble on the so-called hard-problem of first-person experience. Two recent thinkers and writers interest me most, seeming to be closest to explanations of these. Iain McGilchrist would reject my use of systems thinking language but he nevertheless takes a wholly architectural position in how our best view of the world comes from integration of left and right brain perspectives – our divided brains architected that way by evolution for good reasons. Mark Solms embraces systems language but focusses on the functional integration of the upper (more recently evolved) and lower (more ancient) brain components in explaining not just how consciousness works but how our first-person perspective is supported.
    • Free Energy Principles and Active Inference
      Free Energy and the complementarity of Entropy and Information are as old as Boltzmann and the formalisation of thermodynamics as a science. They have been increasingly exploited in two directions, inwardly towards the fundamental elements of physics itself and outwardly into the completely generic behaviour of systems as described above. Karl Friston has done most recently to elaborate these in systems thinking terms. Solms has used Friston’s work in his explanation of the evolution and functioning of first-person consciousness (above). Furthermore Friston’s work is being used by a growing community to describe and create an evolutionary ecosystem for human and environmental flourishing.

Active Inference Entrepreneurship

The hype around the Free Energy Principle and Active Inference is mushrooming at an amazing rate. This paper … :

Designing Ecosystems of Intelligence from First Principles
Karl J Friston, Maxwell J D Ramstead, et al (2 Dec 2022)

… has several co-authors associates with VERSES as well as AII and (Wellcome Foundation & UCL). The plan is an ecosystem (a network operating system) for distributed intelligence, both artificial and human.

The vision for that comes from the paper, which Friston (Chief Scientific Office of VERSES, now) says was a response to Ramstead’s idea. But this feels like the “evolutionary interoperability” using a “hyperspatial modelling language” some of us have been banging-on about for more than two decades.

Only skimmed that video so far, but the hype is breathless. Karl being interviewed … again!

Getting hard to keep up. I’ve had two goes at engaging with AII, but it’s moving, and the language evolving, so fast … and I have other personal priorities to capture my own writing. Aaagghh!!!

(Really need to pick-up on the formal schematic n-dimensional modelling language and tools ASAP. Ditto my other drafted post on softening machine expectations.)


PS – a bit left field, but tonight – right about now, so I’m missing it – is a Pari Center (Alex Gomex-Marin) talk with Sheldrake reflecting on his “banned TED talk” about his Science Delusion.

Right about the time I was hearing him talk a couple of times in London.
(Love the fact it was Myers and Coyne that got it banned.)


The McGilchrist Manoeuvre

Introductory dialogue in a series (of 6?)
Series title: “Attention as a Moral Act”
(Upcoming 2nd one on “Valueception”.)

McGilchrist Objective? – the opening para of the Intro to TMWT says it.
[Quote to be added]

Polymathic? – Trivium – interest from childhood and Winchester school.

Sacred connection? – from a godless household discovered theological interest in the arts and classics as an undergraduate – before his Oxford PPE / philosophy / history / literature / classics post-graduate trajectory – so not just a conclusion of his later research work.

Trajectory? Oliver Sacks was one of his first contacts with the mind-body “lesion literature” and moving into medicine, neurology, psychology and psychiatry.

John Cutting at the Bethlem & Maudsley – introduced to split-brain fascination, before Baltimore abnormal / lesion / split-brain research associated with mental / medical conditions.

Louis Sass – Madness and Modernism – extraordinary influential read.

Schizoid / deluded, individual and society lost touch with right-brain capability – hence the books TMAHE & TMWT over 20 years, originally whilst working (in Baltimore).

Vanessa Dylyn documentary – The Divided Brain and many household names.

The McGilchrist Manoeuvre – Jonathan Rowson’s term. Chapter 20 of TMWT is the “door” assuming you already have a general idea of Iain’s hypothesis. The Coincidence of Opposites “Coincidentia Oppositorum“. Not just reductionism, but the law of non-contradiction, are the barriers. Need both thing (left) and opposite (right) and their integration, both are “good” and important. (Is that all JR is dubbing the manoeuvre? Yes it is – he quotes his own definition later. In terms of opposite brain hemispheres, already clear from TMAHE.)

Important – little used – concepts in this chapter are:

    • Hormesis  – poisons in small quantities can be beneficial. We (and trees) need adversity, headwinds real and metaphorical. Just right amounts / concentrations of stuff – eg water in whisky, cocoa in chocolate
    • Syllapsis – (to be added)
    • Enantiodromia – Jungian term for the idea that things include their opposites and one can morph into the other over time. The road up is the road down, depending how you look at it.

Definitely a Taoist, could be a Christian. They’re not incompatible.

So why “attention”? – simply that left and right attention are of different nature, and therefore how we attend gives us different knowledge of the world. It’s a moral act – we are not simply observers, we are decisive creators in our choice of attention to the world.

Migraine Symptoms

Migraine is not something I’ve suffered from in 67 years of life, but two family members have, so I am aware of symptoms as described.

About a month ago and for the third time in total, today I am suffering the “jagged vision” symptom – still no head pain or nausea on any occasion. And so far not felt the need to take any aspirin or paracetemol.

This post is just to capture a description of the visual symptom.

Fixed area peripheral top and left, with one branch towards the centre from the left. One edge of that branch fixed and highly defined jagged line. The fill below and outside that edge is the classic twinkling jagged shards of glass or ice. Essentially shades of grey, black and white but with the refraction rainbow fringe colours of thin films, overlapping and of variable thickness. I say “fixed” in the sense that whilst the pattern of jagged shards is in constant motion, on a half to one second period, that jagged edge sticks relative to my field of view. If I fix view on a focal point on the wall in front of me the jagged line is absolutely fixed. I get the feeling it’s more associated with the left eye, but it’s clearly in the mental / cortical representation of the field of view.

Subsiding now after about 20 minutes after a few minutes where the intensity directly interfered with my ability to see what reality was in the affected area in front of me. All absolutely classic I see now as I Google the symptoms.

(Where’s a pen when you need one, I could draw what I’m describing, for future reference.)

This is just a libary pic. Same idea, different geometry / distribution, more peripheral except for one jagged line from left to centre in my case, and much mor intense colours than my experience:

I know what you're thinking... what the heck did I eat? No, you aren't having a psychedelic trip, this is an example of an ocular migraine. Everyone experiences them differently though so if yours doesn't look exactly like this don't panic.


Oh, oh. Following day 13th March 2023 symptoms again. Different geometry, and smaller size, but exactly the same pattern. Small hard, fixed, jagged curlicue, lower, mid-right – with the jangly shards hanging off it.

Time for a stroll on the beach. Done. Gone.


Goldstein on Literary Spinoza

Robbie bought me Michael Della Rocca’s “Oxford Handbook of Spinoza” as a birthday gift. It was one of those on the book list, but which was a little pricey primarily for my interest in the one chapter mentioned previously, so it is great to have the full text of Rebecca Goldstein’s 40 page contribution on “Literary Spinoza” not just the discussion of it in that linked post.

My interest is quite specific, as with the previous post reviewing Rushdie’s “Victory City”, in narrative inspiration for my own writing project. In this case the philosophical content of Melville’s “Moby Dick” is directly relevant to my own 200 year narrative, but of course Goldstein covers many more Spinoza inspired literary sources. Win, win.

As well as Herman Melville, we have George Eliot, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Frederich Holderlin, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Novalis (von Hardenberg), Heinrich Heine, Berthold Auerbach, Matthew Arnold, Erwin Kolbenheyer, Jorge Luis Borges, Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Zbigniew Herbert, David Ives, Eugene Ostashevsky and Goce Smilevski.

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