War and Peace and Anna Karenina

Just a link holding post. Mentioned several times that I consider Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” a great piece of work, being about life, the universe, (God) and everything and yet have failed to get very far through his other famous tome.

Hat tip @RoseDiel for sharing this 2005 review of reading War and Peace by Laura Miller in Salon. Despite the obvious historical and fictional narratives, it’s clearly also about life, the universe and everything.

Me previously on Psybertron (2016):

Anna Karenina is one of those great works, like Tolstoy’s other magnum opus, that I must have started, even read up to a handful of chapters, half-a-dozen times. Already familiar with his “unhappy families” and even Vronsky at the horse race – but always too distracted to read on through the patronymics, familials and informals to actually get the point of greatness. And of course I must have seen two or three film and TV dramatisations over the years, not to mention the meme of recalling Anna everytime I’ve set foot on a snowy windswept railway platform, typically for some reason at Slependen, Oslo, in my memories. Meme upon meme.

I’ve just finished reading the Penguin Classics Pevear & Volokhonsky translation, whose cover blurb includes:

“[T]he vividly observed story of Levin, a man striving to find contentment and meaning to his life – and also a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself.”

We probably all know Tolstoy as a “devout Christian” and of course I’m an atheist, rationalist, humanist, so it would be easy to be prejudiced against Levin’s (ie Tolstoy’s) enlightenment. But it’s an enlightenment I feel I share.

I know in fact.

The word may translate as God, but it is God as in “the good” – no superhuman, supernatural, omniscient, omnipotent, causal agent here. Church too, but not as organised religion or ritualised superstition, simply as socially shared knowledge of the good. And knowing that it is good in the collective action of individuals and not in any disembodied rational conception of scientists and philosophers. Beyond words. Rationality is our most powerful tool, but love is greater, being neither thing nor tool.

Good philosophers know this. Good people enact it. “The good man Jesus and the scoundrel Christ” anyone? Jeez – even good humanists know this.

There’s a lot of agriculture and “what about the workers?” in Karenina. Oh, and – spoiler alert – sadly, Anna doesn’t make it through her paranoia. Too great for me to do it justice in any actual review or selection of quotes.

Simply, a great book.

So, on to “War and Peace“? Maybe after some writing.


Andrea Wulf – Magnificent Rebels

This is my third post of 2024 and the previous two already referred to my reading of Andrea Wulf’s “Magnificent Rebels“. The second of hers I’ve read, after “The Invention of Nature“. The connection between the two is the overlap of explorer / scientist Alexander von Humboldt, his brother Wilhelm and his wife Caroline intersecting with thinkers clustered in and around Jena and the German / Prussian “states” of the time. The intersection is impressive enough – Goethe, Fichte, Hegel, the Humboldts, Novalis, Schelling, Schiller, the Schlegels, Schleiermacher and Tieck – the union is frankly the whole of European, North and South American and Russian politics and thought in the arts and sciences – and government, in the aftermath of the French revolution. Too many leaders to name-drop again, but well-connected and influential to say the least.

I read “Magnificent Rebels“ to a conclusion about 4am one night, excitedly covered in post-it notes. The notes I’m extracting are for my philosophical / metaphysical purposes, and it’s hard to exaggerate how much momentous thinking happened in Jena. I originally said 1750-1850 (1749-1854 spanning their lives) but the action all happened in a decade from 1796 when the Schlegel’s arrived in Jena and 1806 when Napoleon rolled through.

I’m not going to have bandwidth for a full review of all those notes, they’re back on the shelf for future reference alongside the Humboldt book.

Just a couple of general historical observations.

Women and Marriage. What with the Holy Roman Empire and the myriad of little states and principalities each with their feudal hierarchical arrangements, the rules about who could marry who were culturally tangled well beyond the individuals involved. Ditto the rules for divorce. Perhaps therefore not surprisingly, many of the couples understood they weren’t married to the right person and had by mutual agreement open relationships with any number of lovers and partners, including coveting their brother’s/sister’s wives/husbands. Only social propriety – and the consequences of being caught rule-breaking – maintained discretion, but within the walls of “liberal” Jena, who cared? That the women “helped” their male partners with their thinking and writing, at the very least editorially if not co-authored was openly acknowledged in that liberal environment. Even when the whole was explicitly authored by the women and advertised as such by their men, only the men’s names made it through the wider publishing process.

Disease and Death. It was very easy to die in those days. Ignoring the ever-present violence of governance and war, and travel – on horseback, carriage or on foot (the distances they walked!) – the death of a child and/or the mother in childbirth, death of children who survived birth, death of anyone contracting any number of prevalent diseases we’d consider minor in the 21st C, were all a part of daily life. Medicine was crude and often more harm than good, infection hadn’t been recognised yet. They’d all better live their best life and produce their best work today, they might be dead tomorrow.

Amazing work done in Prussia / Germany before anywhere else UK, US or continental Europe under the most adverse conditions. Anyway, enough for now, a dozen other reads – inevitably – added to my virtual reading list, whilst I am still in writing-not-reading mode.

Both wonderful books by Andrea Wulf, highly recommended.


Previously on Psybertron

So this is 2024” (3/4/5 Jan 2024 – “Friday I’m In Love“) A round up on my resolved priorities for 2024, where my first mistake was to start reading “Magnificent Rebels“.

2024 – Another day” (6 Jan 2024 – “Saturday I’m still in love“) ever deeper into “Magnificent Rebels

Humboldt – Pictures with Everything” (11 Sep 2023) My original reading of Wulf’s previous work “The Invention of Nature“.


2024 – Another Day.

Saturday, I’m still in love.

Still suffering mildly from whatever this winter bug is, I’m continuing my reading of Andrea Wulf’s “Magnificent Rebels, lazing around the house. It continues to be inspiring, deeply affecting and full of surprising and important content.

I’m allowing the reading to flow, making only mental notes – so we’ll mostly never see them again – allowing myself only occasionally to break off to make a note like this one. I’m about half way through the 350 page text (plus another 140 pages of end matter) as I type.

A whole chapter on the overlap of Alexander von Humboldt with Goethe doing proper empirical science with whatever was to hand in Jena – including their own bodies, but mostly frogs – before Humboldt’s globetrotting and the demands of the great and the good, which forms the subject of Wulf’s earlier “The Invention of Science” already much loved, so enough of that here.

And another on Fichte’s teaching methods – put me in mind of Pirsig, focussing on the stones in a stone wall in front of his students. Subject, meet object, then focus on subject, what you – your Ich / Self – see. (“The Invention of the Self” is Wulf’s subtitle to this work.)

For now, I am – wishfully, obviously – that man. Pirsig’s Phaedrus when I first expressed that thought  – or T E Lawrence when I first thought but never expressed it and at least a dozen more since – and in this case I’m Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg).

But first Shakespeare, who knew? Shakespeare was, and still is, much more important in German(y) than in English. August Wilhelm and Caroline Schlegel creating the translations that maintained the intended rhythm and meter of the original poetry – tapping out the rhythm on the table as they worked. August Wilhelm Schlegel’s “Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature” contrasting the old classical rules with the new romantic art:

Shakespeare “closer to the secret of the universe …  the expression of original love … the quintessential romantic writer” [creative, rule-breaking writing which Voltaire considered ungrammatical and vulgar, the work of a drunken savage].

The German romantics – the Jena Set – were ahead of the British romantics who all read Schlegel. Coleridge lectured using him, and Wordsworth

[Schlegel] first taught us to think correctly concerning Shakespeare“. A neutral (American) commentator “[Schlegel] even for the English … was nothing less than … the discoverer of Shakespeare“.

Love is central, and rule breaking too, even both at the same time.

Schlegel also commented on Novalis – eventually recovering from the grief of lost love Sophie 110 days earlier – herself the subject of a whole chapter on surviving multiple gruesome anaesthetic-free liver surgeries and appearing to be on the road to recovery – Novalis slowly returning to reality:

His style of writing had changed – His sentences became shorter and more aphoristic, He replaced commas, semicolons and full stops with em-dashes – lines for thinking – pauses for breath and thought – He thinks elemental – His sentences are atoms.

One of my (annoying) writing affectations too, em-dashes ignoring the proper rules of punctuation, and use of scare quotes mixed with italic and bold emphases to highlight key objects (and subjects). The atoms are simply network nodes or vertices, the relations, the em-dashes, the edges are where all the action is. The life, loves and death.

More writing inspiration to add to that from Rushdie yesterday [Post Note] and – oh look – his next, second chapter “Proteus” is about … Shakespeare.

Reading on, Napoleon permitting.


So, this is 2024

After a large family Christmas and a few days away over New Year, just the two of us in Ireland, I’m back at the desktop using more than my thumb-sized brain system.

The Divine Comedy were excellent in Dublin, outdoors on Friday 29th, on form with strings and brass backing to a great selection of favourites, and we struck it lucky with the stormy weather. Whenever we were out in both Dublin and Cork / Cobh we managed to (mostly) avoid the rain. Pubs, food and drink were the order of the days and Ireland failed to disappoint. Several previous haunts revisited, Kelly’s and Ryan’s in Cobh, but name checks to three new venues for us this time. The Quays in the Temple Bar area of Dublin, The Shelbourne in Cork’s Victorian Quarter and The Parnell off the top of O’Connell Street in Dublin. Sure, they all cater to tourist area custom, but the Irish hospitality simply works.

I already posted my “Resolution” back in November and thinking time observing the world from a couple of weeks R&R has reinforced things, despite the fact mentioned in post-notes to that resolution that (two) new commitments have arisen. One to help with a new Skeptical Freethought (S) initiative in the wake of the woke-capture of traditional skeptic / rationalist / humanist activities and a second to support our local Marske United (M) football team through a financial crisis.

T, the Technical Thesis remains the top priority, followed by F and D, the fictional narrative and the doctoral research. D essentially on hold until T is done by summer 2024.

P, the Robert Pirsig Association has slipped behind both S and M as a result of disappointing lack of responses or initiatives from North America which really ought to be its centre of gravity. My Pirsig involvement can only be the sustainable long-term archive and any specific help requested by others initiatives. I simply do not have the bandwidth or motivation to organise remotely in the climate experienced so far.

So priorities are T at the top, then D, F, S, M and bottom of the pile, P.


Even with T at the top – originally as per Pirsig’s “Stop reading and just write something!” – I find myself with new reading contributing to T, D & F. After Andrea Wulf’s mind-blowing historical biography around Alexander von Humboldt, I received as a Christmas gift her “Magnificent Rebels” which turns out to be equally wonderful on the German “first romantics” clustered around Jena from around 1750 to 1850. Lots of people on hold on my reading list will have to be re-activated. Goethe, Coleridge and Kant most conspicuously, but also Fichte, Hegel, Novalis, Schiller, Schelling, Schlegel and Schleiermacher demanding attention once more.

And, three new linked posts from A J Owens over at Staggering Implications that look interesting enough to read: Metaphysics and the Overton Window:

And finally for today – some bonkers X/Twitter exchanges with people suggesting the idea we think with our brains is not an empirically accepted fact (!) – irrespective of our physicalist and/or relational and/or panpsychist/idealist metaphysical positions. Prompted by Philip Goff tweet. Some people delight in making stuff more mysterious than in it is – gives philosophy (and neuro-philosophy) a bad name. Jeez!


Post Notes: A bit lazy / under-the-weather after the busy “holiday” – no doubt some winter bug picked-up along the way – so reading more than writing again!

Andrea Wulf’s “Magnificent Rebels” continues to enthral. Deeply researched – clearly including manually reading through physical archives of otherwise unpublished notes and correspondence – yet written beautifully in the imagined voices of the participants as their narrator without labouring too many exact quotations that don’t fit the narrative flow. 99% of notes, quotes and references non-intrusive as page-numbered end notes. Beautiful and witty read as well as the rich historical and philosophical content. Friday, I’m in love, again.

A few political cybernetics distractions arising in social media as ever, one of which reminded me I’d forgotten an earlier reference to Salman Rushdie’s “Languages of Truth – Essays 2003 to 2021” – not even on my wish-list(?) – so I dived in and acquired a Kindle copy for now. Needless to say beautifully and wittily written. I’ve only read the first of two sections of the first chapter of Part 1 of 4 parts which appear to contain 40 odd chapters in total(!). So a second level interrupt to the original distraction, but directly relevant to my task. Absolutely confirming my decision to go for a fictional narrative version of “my book” and full of advice of how and why. “Don’t write what you know” that’s boring, unless it’s not.  Marvellous stuff. Inspiring.

Continuing with Wulf’s “Magnificent Rebels” …


Wokeism and Critical Theory

For me, for decades, the idea that (even scientific) truths always have a political dimension has been central to my epistemic agenda. Not that science was my specific target, more the general orthodoxy that logically-positive objective-determinism presumes to fully explain the truths of real-world causation. And I’ve said so from my perspective as a science-educated geek, with my heroes in science and a long career in physical engineering and management systems.

The cause celebre when I first took to seriously researching the nature of the problem was the post-9/11 2001 “God vs Science” wars of the New Atheist movement. [More in “previously” footnotes.] I was instinctively against that movement and its four horsemen from the start (even as a fan of Dan Dennett’s philosophical thinking), which lost me a few friends, but my agenda hasn’t changed. That “too easy” communications of electronic media generally, short-circuits systemic complexity and reduces all topics to simplistic false-binary choices within the first few exchanges. So binary that having chosen sides the other is simply denied or cancelled, and that the narratives-in-mind are so entrenched and reinforced, change cannot even be countenanced.

The antithesis of reasonable discourse and the enemy of any kind of truth, objective or otherwise.

Since 2015, from my UK perspective, the exemplary case became the Gender-wars, and still is for me but with a growing background of DEI, BLM, de-colonialism, you name it, any “critical-theory”-supported positive discriminations not just in favour of perceived victimised minorities, but positively demonising their respective majorities, even where prejudiced discriminations may be as much historical as current or institutionalised. There’s always been a name for this – “tyranny of the minority” – it’s just that wokeness is forever discovering new minority interests to champion tyrannically.

Two things happened yesterday and today to prompt that musing.

The first was a strange Twitter thread from Peter Boghossian that anti-woke was now some kind of bandwagon attracting newcomers that had failed to take it seriously, now that it was somehow risk-free to do so? Boghossian was previously involved on two different sides of this from my perspective. With his Street Epistemology in the original god vs rationality wars and as part of the University of Austin anti-woke academic venture. [More in “previously” footnotes.] And whilst there have been encouraging signs of progress, there are also active cases of livelihood-threatening “cancellation” in academia and in employment happening right now. Far from risk free. Boghossian represents the polarising anti-woke side to the woke problem. Still “part of the problem” for me. A pox on both their houses.

The second was the incredibly moving documentary about the George Floyd case that created the BLM and Defund-Institutions poisonous streak in the whole woke cultural tragedy. Firstly this interview with John McWhorter of Columbia University and New York Times talking about the documentary, followed by the film itself.

As McWhorter comments, whatever the selective biases in the legal and documentary-making processes, you can’t fail to be moved by the humanity of those branded by the woke as the bad guys.

And finally, as a reminder, so many of these woke fallacies are couched in the language of rights of oppressed minorities in complete disregard of the rights of the rest of us, let’s remember that today is Universal Human Rights day. Many people sharing this image of Eleanor Roosevelt – who was “cancelled” as too radical, from speaking at Montana State University when Robert Pirsig was teaching there:

What goes around comes around.
There is very little new under the sun.

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Previously on Psybertron:

Mar 2003 Dawkins Hyper-Rationalism
(First time – after several positive readings of Dawkins – I spotted where he was going wrong. And a few days later “Stalled a bit recently in reaction to “hyper-rational” rants by Rand (objectivist) and Dawkins (scientist) which boiled my blood and knocked my confidence a bit. Picked-up Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil” … and the rest is now history.)

Jun 2007 Dawkins vs God – one of many posts about Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and equivalent works of his “horsemen” colleagues. Most of my thoughts are embedded as comments in a critique of Dawkins book by a vicar / theologian.

Sept 2015 Galileo’s Middle Finger by Alice Dreger
(My first encounter with Sex / Gender ambiguity as political ideology.)

Oct 2015 Street Epistemology – a curate’s egg.
(It’s just the Socratic Method, with its limitations and drawbacks. Part of the reason I came to formalise better “Rules of Engagement” beyond naïve interpretation of Socrates and other rules & methodologies.

Nov 2021 Follow The Money? – Or does the money follow them?
(Kathleen Stock and Peter Boghossian go to Austin. With an interesting comment thread on developments. Forget “the money” per se, but also picking-up on the recurring factor that naturally left/liberal/social sources have much greater difficulty acknowledging woke issues than right/libertarian/capitalists to – so it gets cast as some right-wing conspiracy. One of several Catch-22’s driving degenerate polarisation.)


[PS – Hat Tip to Dicky Fisher for a recent “good example” of the Street Epistemology” Socratic method process in a Gender ideology context. Will add notes when reviewed.]


Opportunity for a Visual Programmer?

If you are a visual programmer, I would fund your creation of a visual modelling tool. Working title – “The Whole World on One Page”. Outline as follows:

      • Functionallya bit like a “Mind Mapping” or “Network Visualisation” tools – visually navigating links between content objects-in-focus page views.
      • Architecturally – supporting the basic principles of the IDEF0 (old) diagramming language, with navigation behaviour between content views according to the semantics of different content link types.
      • Approach – extension using Open API’s to any existing Mind-Mapping products (many out there) and/or IDEF0 tools (like MS-Visio, Archimate or similar). Terms – Open Software (or alternatives considered). App or Browser based
      • Specification – scope and function described in pseudo-code natural language. No use-cases. Select Templates, Create / Edit / Save and View / Navigate modes.

Contact for elaboration / written specification.
Share on any appropriate developer channels.



The Shadow of Knowledge

Johnnie Moore is someone I’ve followed as long as I’ve been blogging – in the original “blogroll” over 20 years ago, though to my shame I’ve very rarely mentioned him, and I think I’ve attended a session with him only once – way back when. More than once in a previous life I’ve been close to recommending him as an alternative “creative facilitator” after decades of same-old, same-old “workshops” – whether team-building or problem solving. More recently his less-is-more style under the “unhurried” banner.

Even more minimalist recently he’s been doing ~2 minute “unpolished” videos – each with one simple but often counter-intuitive message. Prompted to share this one.

Knowledge Overwhelm
– Are you aware of the shadow your knowledge casts on people around you?

I recognise the problem. On top of 30 plus years of regular experience and 20 plus years of intense research, almost every piece of writing is connected to every other, it’s always possible to say more, even when asked what appears to be a simple question person to person. Equally obviously, even recognising the keep it simple adage, focussing on one point at a time, the tendency is to coin very dense summaries of the wider complex whole, but then the language itself begs to be explained, assuming the listener / reader hasn’t already moved on.

[aim] to create a more emotional connection …
and not to lean over much into explanation.

we get more of our insights …
in these small exchanges

I think he’s right.

I know I am going to have to write “my thesis” out in full, but that’s nothing to do with expecting it to be communicated by being read and understood. No that’s a more selfish act of clarifying what it is I’m trying to say for myself.

Communication – as suggested by Bruce McNaughton in a recent post – is closer to a “handshake“.



The Way of Systems

“The Way of Systems” is maybe not a phrase I would choose. Religious connotations of “the way” (Christian as well as Buddhist) seem unnecessary baggage to lead with, even though I clearly see universal value in systems thinking.

But nevertheless, whenever one is looking to improve on the “orthodox scientism” of western rationality all roads have led back to eastern (oriental or aboriginal) world views ever since the pre-Socratics. Take Pythagoras for example, despite our lasting association with his maths and geometry. Talk about “footnotes to Plato”. Nothing new under the sun, so I won’t attempt a summary of every reference since. Suffice to say, even the fundamental physicists of the Schrödinger and Heisenberg vintage had a lot to say about eastern perspectives. If we skip across the whole post-modern dive into the occult and our balanced PoPoMo recovery from that, I’ll mention just two more recent. Pirsig and his 1974 “Zen and the Art …” is an obvious milestone on my own thought journey (though not until 2002 in my case, after his 1991 “Lila”) and Iain McGilchrist’s “The Matter With Things” most recently. Similarly now in our PoPoMo times, “mindful” practice has become respectable having been seen as “alternative lifestyle” material during the PoMo trough.

It’s about recognising the value of embodied and directly experienced “knowledge” alongside and integrated with more formal language models of which science is the pre-eminent example. Essentially “The Way” as the Tao of Zen Buddhism – the journey is the reality that happens to us if we pay attention, whereas the destination, the objective reality, is never fully attained even as a symbolic best-approximation intellectual model. The way is also very much aligned with a process view of the world rather than things in the world.

I say all this because of another name I came across only yesterday in the dialogue I mentioned with Bruce McNaughton – fellow-traveller  systems-thinker. That person is Gene Bellinger, who I know no more about than his web-page. Like Bruce’s and early versions of mine, Gene’s old-school hand-crafted html with links to Powerpoint and Word PDF’s. (In fact he and Russell Ackoff have a number of old YouTube recordings too.)

Gene Bellinger - YouTube

Gene’s work is “The Way of Systems and indeed his archetypes of different (sub)-system types within his Systems of Systems (SoS) model are The Way of … each topic. In fact his use of archetypes is something I’ve been driving at before. I’m very much staying in my own lane in abstract space, so I’m always at a conceptual level or several levels removed from real individual systems or things. Within that network of multiple overlapping hierarchical and heterarchical typing (and typing-by-association) relations, there are some nodes – types – of special significance independent of the many detailed relations and features of the specific real-world individuals. Archetypes.

The East-West meme above is itself an archetype, for any number of detailed classification divisions (which are all individually binary #GoodFences). Of significant value even though not a specific – definitive – thing in the real world.


[Post Notes:

Gene Bellinger’s latest consolidated work is available here, presented as a “Brain” mind-map.

And, that “Stealth Modelling” node looks fascinatingly close to my diagramming interests, with a side order of the shadow of knowledge?

And, see AJ’s comment below. The Archetypes may be closely related to the sacred, the “Ur Nodes” as in Sacred Naturalism. I love it when a plan comes together.]