A recurring topic. Just capturing some thoughts / links prompted by (partly) hearing Alberto Manguel reading from Packing (and more to the point unpacking) My Library on BBC R4 Book of the Week.

The mnemonic of unpacking books.

Obviously resonances with Eco and Borges, but also Alexandria and much more.

[Eco – Ur-Fascism, The Rose, Queen Loana
(also Tartt / Caldwell&Thomason)]

Here Dublin from New Year visit 2018 …


The Court Jester in Real Life

There are many posts here describing the idea of “The Court Jester” in the context of potentially offensive humour. There are some basic rules of thumb on the rhetorical use of humour here, but reality is invariably more complex when free speech meets the concepts of offensive humour and hate-speech.

Charlie Hebdo was probably the highest profile example, and #dankula the Scottish comedian convicted without any prior complaint(!) for an offensive video joke the most recent, but it’s a general question of when humour is valid use of – potentially offensive – free expression:

The basic rules, followed by post-notes of real examples:

The Court Jester

Essentially UNLESS you are appointed / recognised / claiming the role of court jester in any given context, then humour comes with a duty of care to its target. If the target doesn’t find it funny, you have a responsibility to make peace with the target, either by prior investment of love or working to resolve the offense.

If you ARE the court jester, you are given licence to offend your target, on the mutual understanding of yourself, audience and target(s) that this freedom is being used to make points of social value, to prick consciences etc. The fool was tolerated at the court of kings, kings that otherwise had the power of summary execution of anyone causing offense. King, fools and courtiers all knew the rules of the game, even if the innocent child who couldn’t see the emperor’s clothes did not.

Suffer the little children. The corollary is despite freedom of expression, we can’t all choose to be court-jester or innocent-child anywhere anytime. It would be chaotic, unproductive, destructive and tiresome if we all did, but that is simply the practical problem. A game with rules is there to be gamed and the rules evolved. There is a more fundamental issue. Context and understanding matter. In these days where anything and everything is shared publicly, immediately, beyond any context, original intent within any original context are lost. The offense may be apparent whereas the care, the humour and the point are not. The only rule is respect and duty of care towards any target, deliberate or unintended.


[Post note for the Court Jester thread. Don’t believe me about the “rules”? Here a hostage to fortune from 1940’s BBC in attempting to frame actual rules of rhetoric and humour. Let’s don’t go there:

And this twitter exchange:

“Maybe” notice.

Ongoing fall-out from the #dankula Scottish comedian guilty of joke case, but same is true of the “jokes at expense of ex” cases.]


[Post Note: And looking at humour as a game with rules, broken rules that prove the rule, at many levels, it’s worth thinking of counter-intuitive professional cases. Anyone who has worked in any of these professions, or has a loved-one who has will know:

Healthcare professionals and their patients, education professionals and their students, policing professionals and suspected criminals, care professionals of all kinds and their wards – even service providers and their customers more generally – provide contexts for some of the most vicious, cruel humour where their punters are the target. It’s a given that no-one cares more for the target than the carer and (privately) such humour is tolerated as an important therapeutic release. Of course that toleration breaks down if the trust in the carer is lost or the private context is made public.]

[And why not? Another post-note: Given the Corbyn anti-semitism saga …. whether we’re talking about the mural or The Merchant of Venice, my base position is that anti-semitic prejudice is built into much western tradition, since much of it stands on  Christian (ie pointedly-not-Jewish) tradition. That’s not to excuse the prejudice rather it says it’s something we have to care enough to be cognisant of when inadvertent instances of prejudice arise.  As ever it’s about care and respect, love even. So what about humour?

My archetype offensive humourist has been Frankie Boyle in many previous posts. Well, another of our established court-jesters is David Baddiel, and tiresomely people often fail to notice a court-jester is not always on duty, and often feel all interactions should be (attempts at) humour. 

Obviously, the remark is indeed racist. Equally obviously it was a rhetorical question – but was the sarcasm simply to draw attention to David’s Jewishness never being hidden, to draw attention to his Jewishness itself, like, who needed that? Or, were there any other levels of irony intended to make any other valid points? If zillions of people do this to you every day – even if they think they’re being funny – it’s tiresome as well as racist. Is it offensive to be tiresome? The point is without evidence that the person is caring and respectful of the target it is gratuitous racism, whatever David’s level of annoyance or offence. He’s an intelligent person who takes it in his stride to simply point out the fact, neither taking offence nor even making a big deal out of the annoyance.

I might draw parallels and contrasts with (say) Lenny Henry on humour around his Afro-Caribbean-blackness …. but another day.

Nice Jewish Guy? Given all the conflated issues around Zionism more widely and Israeli politics more specifically, I still have on CD in the car Tommy Womack’s “Alpha Male” from the album “There, I Said It”. The whole world in one song.]

[And finally: David Baddiel’s line resulted in this excellent TLS piece. A “twinkle in the eye” doesn’t travel well in text. When I say excellent I’m not kidding – it’s bloody marvellous, a must read if ever there was one. Conviction and sentencing here. Tough one for the judge. I agree on balance with Baddiel’s take that the – admitted / agreed – intended humour protects the free speech aspect. In the end it came down to context that the private joke – the twinkle in the eye – doesn’t travel well. Understanding of the girlfriend’s relationship with the dog gets left behind when content goes viral. The social value of the joke is shared with those that share that understanding – without that it’s a dumb animal trained to do offensive things. Quoting myself above:

“The offense may be apparent, whereas
the care, the humour and the point are not.”

We all need to care enough to take responsibility for that.]

[Oh and more “and finally” – since the #dankula sentencing – more reflective pieces. This from Douglas Murray – same, same – context is everything. The Pythons’ “Tell ’em we’re Jewish” gag  is an obvious (archetypal in fact) court-jester-in-chief situation, AND said with obvious love for the target(s) – both Jews and Germans.]

[Guess now this story can never be complete without the Roseanne Barr example.

Offensive humour has to have a point (*).

At least there were apologies and sackings in some of these cases, and some taking of responsibility. Hope for us all.

(*) In cases where free-speech appears to be being oppressed, even oppressed by conservative public reaction rather than authority, one point may simply be to protest or claim the right to freely offend. That’s fair enough so long as that point and the original point are both followed-up.

It’s not a general  “right to offend”.]

Carlo Rovelli – A Fresh Spin on Fundamental Physics

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 closest-possible but finite separation. Indivisible a-toms.

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 (Navier-Stokes equations) integrals in aerodynamic flows around 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 exposĂ© 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. (Latest May 2018 thoughts on Verlinde et al.) 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.]

Four Threads Unify Reality

I said in the previous post that I owed David Deutsch’s “Fabric of Reality” a thorough review – well in my usual style I won’t have time for that, but I can now precis my impression of his main messages, having just finished reading it over dinner.

Excuse some repetition with the couple of other blogs on this, but this book is worth it IMHO. This gonna be a long, but hopefully not too rambling, post. I’ve been excited since the introductory chapter, and not disappointed since – it covers, and necessarily exceeds, my own thesis very well, but is by any measure a must read book.

David’s fabric of reality is woven from four threads of thought. Four threads which individually suffer from a common problem, but which together form the basis of a startlingly credible understanding of life, the universe and everything. Published in 1997, St Douglas of-the-whooshing-deadline Adams (RIP) said simply “A tremendously exciting book” – but I didn’t notice that until after I’d read it myself. When I set out on this quest, I carefully warned myself of the trap of seeing a “model of everything” on the horizon – now I’m not so sure it is a trap.

I’ve often quoted William James warning that every generation see’s age old issues as new problems and oportunities “of our time”- hype that goes back at least five thousand years in citable references. In Deutsch’s own words his thesis is conservative, offering no startling change to the current best state-of-their-art explanations in their fields. Yet he says “I hope we shall not have to spend too long looking backwards….. It’s time to move on.” to a brave new world.

The common snag with the four main threads is that they are schools of thought that are pragmatically (instrumentally) accepted as best working explanations in their own fields, yet not only do they draw sceptical and offensive counter-attacks from the world at large, they are not easily accepted as prevailing world-views even by those practicioners that regularly depend on them.

These four ideas suffer an explanatory gap of which intutive common sense is sceptical …

(1) Karl Poppers Epistemology – that the truth of what we know about the world is based on argument in response to problems we already see, rather than any absolute logical induction of any kind.

(2) Hugh Everett’s Quantum Multiverse – that the best explanation of quantum behaviour, including interference, is the reality of many worlds – the multiverse, conveniently ignored by black box quantum recipes like the Copenhagen Interpretation.

(3) Alan Turing’s Universal Computing Machine – that finite physical resources make tractable the computation of any problem with a solution in the physical world, with two corollaries – firtsly that there are no solutions (or any kind of mathematics) not in the physical world, and secondly that virtual reality can behave as and only as any physical reality.

(4) Darwinian / Dawkins’ Evolution – that the existence and complexity of life is a matter of information replication – fundamentally nothing more, nothing less. Terrestrial life being constructed on a substrate of physics and chemistry does not mean that complex, emergent life is any less fundamental than any of the above concepts.

What Deutsch does is show how each of the above is explainable in terms of some combinations of all or part of each of the others – that together they form a consistent explanatory whole “better” than any other available models. Despite each having an explanatory gap, they plug each other’s gaps to form a whole.

Deutsch hammers Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm shift” explanation of why each of the individual theories fails to assert itself as the accepted paradigmatic world view – the conservative defense mechanisms and (tendency to) schematic blindness that preserve old views. Kuhn’s view is I guess a grotesque pastiche of a collection of no particular real scenarios, so Deutsch is maybe correct in that respect from the perspective of science and the professions. I suspect Kuhn’s caricature is more true of competitive commercial affairs of business and economies, where his ideas have found wide acceptance in management theories.

Notwithstanding Deutsch’s unifying expanatory power of the four (main) threads, the most powerful message for me – where my original focus was strictly epistemology – models of knowledge – but where I kept tripping up over the undoubted significance of all the other threads – is this.

Causality and free-will have perplexed many a thinker into arriving at the conclusion it’s all an illusion. The fine Sue Blackmore arrived at that very depressing end-point as I noted only a couple of weeks ago, and as did Dan Dennett before her. Well David Deutsch’s explanation is this – analysis leads to to that conclusion only because you believe in the common sensical “flow of time” model in this universe. With the quantum multiverse – all the open futures exist already – what causality does is determine which world which outcome really exists in. Tough to grasp, but convincingly argued.

Not only do free-will and causality exist, thanks to thread (2) but the consequence is immense for thread (4). Even if life turns out to exist only as terrestrial life in this solar system – (an insignificant stain of “scum” on an insignificant planet of an average sun nowhere special in an insignicant galaxy amongst countless others in this universe) – which is itself statistically highly unlikely given the multiverse of universes that exsist in reality – even if that were true – the future of the multiverse depends on the action of our life. Life is the most powerful force determining the future.

That is not just optimistic, it is quite frankly a daunting thought. You can understand the attraction of the pessimistic paradigm – Kuhnian or not.

This is a very important book. Go read.

[A few postscripts – off the main topic …

For you Pisrigians – there’s a nice line in the significance of history in explaining – well – anything, which should add fuel to the philosophy vs philosophology debate.

For those of you “pro-anti-qualia-ists”, “immediate-experiencists”, “what’s-it-like-to-be-a-bat-ists”, “brain-in-a-vat-ists”, or “mary-the-colour-scientists” – there’s an intersting treatise on universal virtual reality generators.

For you sci-fi fans, of which I’m not one, there is a nice angle on explaining so-called time-travel paradoxes.

For you quantum-computists – there is a surprising lack of holography, given the fundamental explanatory nature of quantum interference between the multiple-universes.

For you quantum-consciousness people – there is an sceptical view of large scale coherence (tubules or pixie-dust) supporting anything other than a classical computer in the brain-mind debate.

And many more goodies …. ]