Lex parsimoniae

William-of-OckhamMore than 600 years ago William of Ockham is credited with inventing lex parsimonae, the law of parsimony. We know it as Ockham’s razor, the principle that where there are several hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

It serves as a useful rule because fewer assumptions mean less complex solutions and these are often preferable even when they make less reliable predictions.

You will also know the modern variant KISS — keep it simple stupid — that is wielded to stop us from wandering off to the never never lands of technical, logical and, dare I say, emotional complexity that so many of us find appealing.

I often wonder what William of Ockham who lived the life of a Franciscan friar in a time when witches were burnt and the life expectancy was closer to 30 than 50 would make of mobile phone neck.

What hypothesis might he have put forward to explain the epidemic of downward eyes and squashed chins? Prayer perhaps, certainly a simple explanation with few assumptions and a good fit to the behaviours of his day.

Collective deference would be an option, a mass display of respect to an unseen deity or perhaps in anticipation of a papal visit.

A sudden collective and consuming sadness from the realization that life was indeed hard and without hope of ripe old age.

It is impossible that he would have chosen the hypothesis that people are staring at a device that invisibly connects them to candy crush and tweets with such a force that they can no longer see the sky.

Clearly the razor must have context.

It works for the assumption set that is available at the time. In other words it is dependent on what is known. Friar Ockham had no idea that everyone would carry a mobile device or that they would be addicted to it to the exclusion of all others.

It remains true that the simplest explanation is usually correct. What is good to remember is that the truth, however simple, may not yet be known.


Got any ‘Sounds Crazy’ ideas?

The sounds crazy series on Alloporus has covered topics that bend logic out of shape and makes you wonder if the world is run by the insane…

Take a perusal at some of these and maybe see if you can come up with another, maybe something even crazier.

I am happy to take suggestions or a guest post.

Meantime here is more craziness from the most popular confused Confucius post for September…


Present moment awareness

confused confucius questionsAll the new age gurus that have managed to score a publishing deal tell us that most of our emotional troubles come from the twin fears of anxiety over the future and holding on to the past.

Somewhat surprisingly they are all pretty consistent in this message. This could be because they all borrowed it from the same old sage who sat and mused for a while under a fig tree, or it could be because there is truth in it.

They are also pretty consistent in their suggestions for solutions. Live in the present, the now, for that is all there is. Cultivate present moment awareness and all will be well. You will still feel all the same fears only they will have their place and so cause far less emotional pain, and, ultimately, should enlightenment come, no pain at all.

The books that now clutter the self-help shelves are mostly about the myriad tactics to achieve this awareness. They include  the tried and tested yoga, meditation and four agreements, to any number of whacky options with products peddled via websites in Kazakhstan.

So here is a question. If all we need to do is live in the now. Indeed, if all that is possible is the now, aren’t we already in it?

If so, and contrary to the observations you can make on any commuter train carriage, we are all walking around in a state of enlightenment with no need for a broom in a mountain monastery.

This is the kind of renaissance logic you might expect from Alloporus, all scientific and rational without even a piquant of metaphysics. Except it might be worth a thought.

We all walk around in the now — we have to for there is nothing else. And yet we also perambulate in blissful ignorance of most things that will actually influence the future we fear.

The conundrum that faces us is the requirement to leave the now so as to consider and prepare ourselves for the future. How else would be able to arrest the current erosion of natural capital, avert conflict over scarce resources, and, more fundamentally, even become aware that such risks assail us?

Leave the now so as to be in the now when it arrives in the future.

It is all mind bending trickery that explains why the packed shelves of guru wisdom have nothing much to say about the environment.

A guru of our own

By the way, Alloporus has searched far and wide under many a fig tree to find a guru worth sharing with its loyal readers. After many miles, many false alarms, pretenders and brushes with dodgy acolytes, finally we have a guru worth quoting.

Confused Confucius is its gender-neutral name.

This wise one has yet to sell out to the publishing world proudly posting regular pearls of wisdom from and to the universe for free on Confused Confucius.

Whilst this acceptance of social media is surprising in a sage, more so is that ConCon is not afraid to leave the now and speculate on our environmental future.

Check it out | Confused Confucius

Paying more for food


As regular readers of alloporus will know, posts on food appear quite often on this blog.

Not new recipes for banoffee pie [can be too bananary] or salted caramel tart [delicious with just the right amount of salt] but more about how we are going to consistently grow enough of food to feed the growing and increasingly fussy global human population, not to mention their pets.

Food securityA food security challenge | What we eat

Recently I asked a question in my confused Confucius series on the article site Hubpages to see if food security was something people thought about.

Being confused Confucius the question was just a tad lateral: Would you be prepared to pay more for your food if it meant food supply was secure? [The link takes you to the answers and comments] and there is also a summary Hub

Turns out that there were three main objections

  1. Could not pay more because it was already a struggle to cover the food bill
  2. Paying more would not solve anything
  3. We already pay

Social media is a great tool to canvas opinion but, unlike answers to exam questions from my long-suffering undergraduates, answers to questions are often oblique.

Not being able to pay is fair enough and no doubt very real for many people all around the world.

Paying more not solving anything did not really answer the question by making the assumption that it was not possible to pay for security. Bit of a dodge I think and quite common I suspect in our thinking. We jump onto the polemic in order to avoid searching ourselves for what we truly think.

The ‘we already pay’ because our production system is riddled with externalities, also didn’t really answer the question.

I guess all I was asking is if we would pay to be secure, pay more for our current food to know that we would always have enough food in the future.

So far the answer seems to be either ‘no’ or ‘not something I want to answer thanks’. This I find both curious and just a little disturbing.

Confused Confucius questions | #1 In the beginning

confused confucius questionsSocial media is a great tool to explore the wonders of human nature.

As billions of smartphones, pads and tablets beep or jingle to alert the world to a new message so each owner in a reflex action picks up and responds. It is now so natural to comment, post and message that nobody even thinks about it.

What has amazed me is how liberated our online talk is, far more so than if we were chatting in the pub or over the cooler in the office. We have no qualms at all about saying what we think online, and usually it is the first thing that comes into our heads.

This growing fondness for telling the ether our deepest thoughts and feelings creates a whole new opportunity for cheeky folk like myself to prod and provoke a reaction.

As an experiment in testing this ability of people to bare their souls via a digital device, I started asking some random questions on the online articles platform HubPages where there is an alloporus profile with a few articles.

Rather than the usual “How to” and “What is” type questions, I settled for the “Why do we” type under the tag

Confucius confusions | Do you have any answers to this modern question that would have baffled the wisest sages of old?

The first observation was that this particular online community seems to view questions and then write answers more than they read articles. I received more views of questions in a week that I have for my articles in 6 months. Not surprising though considering the audience is primarily would be writers who like to voice their opinion.

The next thing that struck me was the topics that get people excited. So far the most viewed questions are

Why is elegance so rare?

Why are business suits dark?

The more tax you pay the more money you earn, so why are we obsessed with paying less tax?

Why do we take so many photographs?

These ‘random’ questions with no real bearing on anything seem to fire people up. Many write short essays to get their message across. And maybe this is a good thing. Since it is now far too expensive to go and have a chat in the pub every night, maybe we can get into discussion online.

Not all questions get people going and alloporus will monitor the questions that drift away into the ether without a spark as closely as the ones that get noticed.

So far most questions were asked under the category ‘Religion and Philosophy’ so as to suggest they were thoughtful rather than deliberately controversial. The interesting thing though was how passionate people can be over these random questions. What seems to happen is that answering allows feelings to flow.

So far any overtly environmental questions seem to get only a fraction of the views of the esoteric conundrums and only an occasional answer. This is bad news for this wannabe best-selling author who writes about the travails of the dance between humans and the environment. Clearly the topic is not often on our minds.

More to come on this exploration of human awareness.