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On the topology of dreams

Saturday, August 6th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a poem that’s far too philosophical to work as poetry, Laramée’s Apparatus, and Alyce Santoro’s philosoprops ]
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The logic of poetry is, más o menos, dream logic, and so I’ve been pondering the logic of dreams and recently wrote this not terribly poetic poem:

The egg at the conjuror’s table

There is a topology of dreams.
Out beyond Riemann and names I have yet to learn,
there are configurations of space:
past Boole, dreams have their logics.

*

Take an egg.
With a tap of the wand, crack it open,
let it fall apart so precisely
the two half-shells could again fit together,
ovoid, seamlessly,
almost an egg.
Catch white and yolk in a glass.
Toss up and catch the half shell in your left hand
holding the right steady,
bring them together, there’s a fit,
a logic to it, a topology, one
to one, across many thousands of facets
of fragile, broken shell.
Break another egg so preciely
the left half of ts shell would match exactly
the right half of the first,
bring them together,
the fit is exact by definition,
brown shell with speckled,
but there is loss of logic, the thing is surreal,
an egg not an egg at all.
Holding the half-shell in your right hand
face upwards, pour into it
yolk and white of the same egg,
the heart of the egg filling its own shell,
the fit ovoid, but better:
the original yolk united with its familiar shell.
Cover shell and all with a handkerchief,
red, green, blue,
whisk it away, and the egg vanishes —
or appears, whole.

**

There are logics, topologies,
affinities beyond the exact match
of shell and shell,
and so between times, places,
people in dreams –
the half hovel, half cathedral
with its walkways among lily ponds, the koi,
dusk in one century dawn in another,
her youth your old age your youth again, time
cracked open so precisely,
its yolk, meaning,
its moments an exact match across centuries,
its half-shell a perch for Venus,
its wholeness Fabergé,
its yolk, tempera mixed by Giotto,
meaning, tempera, Assisi,
gesso, the chalk cliffs of Dover, the sea..
There is a harmony of the whole,
of the broken unbroken,
named yet unnameable, unspeakable,
there is a logic.
there is a topology of the sundries of dreams,
a mathematics to this matching
of thou with i,
of words, asleep, awake, of dusk to dawn, with all.

Recognising that it belongs in a category she might call philosopoetry, I sent it to my friend, the artist Alyce Santoro, author of the remarkable Philosoprops: A Unified Field Guide>

**

I’m a lucky fellow.

Today, via 3 Quarks Daily, I ran across this quote from Walter Bejamin:

I had suffered very much from the din in my room. Last night the dream retained this. I found myself in front of a map and, at the same time, in the landscape which was depicted on it. The landscape was incredibly gloomy and bleak, and it wasn’t possible to say whether its desolation was merely a craggy wasteland or empty grey ground populated only by capital letters. These letters drifted curvily on their base, just as if they were following the mountain range; the words formed from these letters were more or less remote from each other. I knew, or came to know, that I was in the labyrinth of the ear canal. The map was at the same time a map of hell.

There’s something darkly Borgesian about that quote, eh? But it certainly illuminates dream topology, and even moreso, the topology of the relationship of dream to waking, itself worth comparing with the relationship of map to territory, word to referent, and indeed moon to finger with which Count Korzybski, Lao Tzu, and the Zen poets are each so notably concerned.

**

Tunneling on through, I find myself contemplating one of Alyce’s inspirations — Eve Andrée Laramée’s Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions, shown in Mass MoCA‘s 2000-2001 exhibition Unnatural Science, from 2000 – 2001:

laramee

A detail from that work illustrates the etching of certain phrases into the glass — in this case, the words polysemy and misconception:

7. Eve Andree Laramee_polysemy-misconception

The display is characterized in this piece from Art & Science Jounral:

Apparatus for the Distillation of Vague Intuitions by American artist Eve Andrée Laramée consists of an array of tall metal stands, clamps, PVC tubings, glass beakers, flasks and vials. Although much of the equipment looks standard from afar, the installation is a dysfunctional and mythological sort of laboratory that highlights the inherent but often unnoticed subjectivity in scientific inquiry. [ .. ]

In this fantastical and visually dazzling Apparatus, many of the glassware are hand-blown with various cloudy or luminous turquoise solutions and copper wires attached to large exotic flowers contributing to the spectacle of a giant chemistry experiment gone amok.

Upon close inspection, a second level of complexity is revealed by the seemingly unscientific words and phrases such as “HANDFULS”, “LEAP IN THE DARK” and “UNNECESSARY EXPLANATORY PRINCIPLES” delicately etched into the glass, exposing a sense of insecurity and imprecision behind the process of science.

**

My Egg at the conjuror’s table is really more a philosoprop, to use Alyce’s coinage, than what many expect a poem to be, and likewise Laramée’s Apparatus more a philosoprop than what many expect an artwork to be.

Philosoprops:

The word philosoprop is a portmanteau of philosophy (love of wisdom) and either prop (theatrical property) or propaganda (influential communication), depending. A philosoprop is a device, implement, or illustration – crafted or discovered ready-made – that can be used for the purpose of demonstrating a concept or sparking a dialog.

Let’s talk..

A trumpet voice above Trump’s

Monday, July 25th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — for those wishing for discourse above the political fray ]
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Yesterday, Sunday, I was going to post a “Sunday surprise” about a voice that transcends that of Donald Trump — the voice of Alison Balsom, trumpeter extraordinaire. But my thread linking Balsom and Trump was a slender one — Trump and trumpet — and I thought better of it, and deleted my reliminary notes for that post.

Today, though, I read Humera Afridi‘s Dance of Ecstasy: Bridging the Secular, Sacred, and Profane, and found therein:

Amjad Sabri, an eminent Pakistani qawwal -— a Sufi devotional musician in the tradition of world-renowned Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and son of the famous singer Ghulam Fareed Sabri of the Sabri Brothers — had been shot dead in his car in Karachi ten days earlier by the Pakistani Taliban. He’d been praising the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and his noble family a little too much for the Taliban’s liking. And so they had their way with him. In a nation inured to violence, Sabri’s death, nevertheless, struck at the communal soul of Pakistan. ..

Thousands of Pakistanis came out on the streets, united in grief, to protest Sabri’s death. Sabri was a child of Pakistan’s own soil. He belonged to a venerable, centuries-old musical dynasty. His spiritual attunement and the muscular faculty of his voice transported people to ecstasy, raising mere mortals above the denseness of an earthly, mired existence, above differences of class and wealth into a celebration of the Divine. Sabri’s music was a glorification. And it belonged to a distinct tradition of South Asian music, a legacy irrefutably inherent in the DNA of Pakistan, twinned to the devotional practice of Islam and its syncretic cultural roots in the region. Invoking a transcendent joy, Sabri’s qawwali created a milieu of harmony—completely antithetical to the Taliban’s backward, beclouded ideology of hate which thrives on sowing seeds of discord.

**

It’s that second paragraph I’m interested in, because it says so exactly what I was trying to get at in my deleted post about Alison Balsom: that “mere mortals” can be lifted, lofted “above the denseness of an earthly, mired existence, above differences of class and wealth into a celebration of the Divine”.

Here’s a taste of Amjad Sabri, for those who appreciate the Sufi tradition and the haunting ecstasies of the Qawwals:

**

And here’s Balsom, whose trumpet voice likewise lifts us, for those with ears more attuned to the western classical tradition:

*

— and best of all, though I’ve posted it here before:

About those angels hiding in the wings & winds

Saturday, July 9th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — John Donne, Kepler, and the transition from natural philosophy to science — & beyond ]
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Here’s a DoubleQuote for you:

Donne Keppler DQ

This isn’t futuristic strategy, but it is futures thinking.

There was an extraordinary transition that took place when natural philosophy morphed into science, and while I’ve quoted John Donne’s four amazing words “round earth’s imagin’d corners” [upper panel, above] often enough as illustrating both worldviews as though seen through a conceptual equivalent of binocular vision, it was only recently via 3QD that I came across Kepler’s illustration of the elliptical orbit of Mars with its remarkable combination of angels and geometrical precision.

I would argue that we are at the beginning of another such trasformation, in which the “horizontal” imaginative (imaginal, image-making, magical), intuitive (irrational), creative (leaping, analogical, cross-disciplinary) mode of perception will again be integrated in some new and transformative manner with the “vertical” linear, numeric-verbal, logical (rational) mode that at present so fascinates our culture — the conscious mode of thinking through with the unconscious mode of revelatory insight.

If it is indeed the case — as suggested by the failure of Aristotelian either-or logic to support the niceties of the world seen from a quantum mechanical perspective — that we are entering a transition to a stereoscopic worldview that finally harmonizes the sciences with the arts and humanities, then a clear understanding of the earlier transition represented above in the two panels, one from Donne’s poems, one from Kepler’s treatise, will be an invaluable guide to what lies ahead.

**

Sources:

  • John Donne, At the round earth’s imagin’d corners
  • James Blachowicz, There Is No Scientific Method
  • **

    Edited to add:

    For an in-depth account of salient aspects of that first transformation, see Ioan Couliano‘s great book Eros and Magic in the Renaissance.

    Conkers (the game) and Deep Learning

    Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — offered to 3QD ]
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    This is my second submission attempting (and failing) to become a regular contributor at the fine web-aggregator known as 3QD — you can read my first here. On rereading this more recent attempt, I am not sure I would have selected it myself had I been one of the judges — it perhaps expects too mych “British” knowledge of its readers, who are as likely to come from Hoboken or Pakistan as from Oxford (hat-tip there to my two 3QD friends, Bill Benzon & Omar Ali). For those of you, therefore, who may not know what conkers is, here’s a brief video introduction, with the actual game demo starting around the 1’35” mark:

    I’ll add a fantastic passage from Seamus Heaney at the end of my post, to give it the final mahogany polish a conkers post deserves.

    ____________________________________________________________________________________________

    Three Quarks Daily submission:

    Conkers is for kids. So what does it have to do with computers, AI, “deep learning” or robots?

    It’s a very British game, conkers, played with the seeds of horse chestnut trees, of which Britain counts almost half a million, pierced and strung on string. I suppose you could think of it as a primitive form of rosary bashing, with each player’s rosary having only one bead, but that might give others the wrong impression since conkers (the game) is sacred the way taste is sacred before anyone has told you, “this is strawberry”, not the way sanctuaries are sacred after someone has put an altar rail round them, or screened them off with a rood screen.

    Even giving the game the name Conkers with a capital C puts it on a pedestal, when all it’s about is gleefully finding a suitable conker, maybe loose on the ground or maybe encased in its prickly green shell, drilling it through with some sort of skewer or Swiss Army device, threading it (stringing it) on string, finding a gleeful or shy playmate, and whazzam! conking their conker with your own so their falls apart and yours remains triumphant. Battered perhaps, but victorious.

    conkers in the wild - bbc

    An artificial general intelligence, left to its own devices and skilled in “deep learning”, will surely figure out that play plays a significant role in learning, by reading Johan Huizinga perhaps, or figuring out “the play’s the thing” – or noting that play is how learning develops in mammalian infancy and expresses itself in human mastery. And since learning is what artificial general intelligence is good for and would like to be even better at, you can bet your best conker that artificial general intelligence will want to learn to play.

    Okay, computers have played, and beaten humanity’s best, at such games as Pong, Space Invaders, Draughts, Backgammon, Chess, Jeopardy, Rock-Paper-Scissors, and Go

    Rock-Paper-Scissors

    — and apparently one set of AI researchers is considering Texas Hold’em as a plausible next challenge. I want to see them try their hands (hands?) and minds at conkers, though.

    Consider: they’d need more than brainpower, they’d need mobility. It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist but a robot to do the trick – locating chestnut trees, okay, with a judicious use of Google maps for targeting and drones for close observation, agility to get around the trees (climbing ‘em?) gathering and evaluating nuts, their sizes, densities, colors and weights, testing different angles of attack and types of needles for threading, the respective efficacies of polished (ooh like mahogany!) vs unpolished nuts (somewhat more in the spirit of sabi-wabi), styles of rough or silken string — and then the dexterity to swing the strung nut at its similarly strung and loosely hanging sibling-opponent!!

    conkers - sun

    Ah, but there’s a child to find first, shy or enthusiastic, and the very approach of a disembodied brain or robot might scare or enchant said child. Your successful robot will need to avoid the uncanny valley of too close resemblance, in which a machine garners the same emotional thrill as Chucky the scary doll from Child’s Play and its endless sequels…

    All this, to beat the poor kid at the kid’s own game?

    Perhaps our robot overchild will have read the bit about “It matters not who won, or lost, but how you played the game” – and will have the good sense and humility to build itself an arm that’s not quite as strong as a child’s arm, and will eventually have played enough child opponents to develop a style that wins only fractionally more games than it loses – say 503 games out of a thousand.

    What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou playest conkers with him?

    Oh, conkers isn’t the only game I’d like to see the computers try for -– in fact it’s one of two games that has been outlawed in some British schools –- and to live outside the law you must be honest, as Dylan says. Another banned — and therefore extra-interesting — game is leap-frog. How do you win and how do you lose at that? You don’t –- you just play.

    That’s when things will begin to get really interesting, I think –- when an artificial general intelligence, with or without robotic body, learns playfulness. There will need to be constraints of course, of the Do no Harm variety -– a fireproof Faraday cage playpen perhaps?

    **

    But play is by no means limited to infancy, it also finds an outlet in genius. So here’s my more serious, though still playful, question for the AI folks out there, and Monica Anderson with her “Intuitive AI” in particular:

    When will an AI be able to play Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game?

    After all, it’s the only game design that has arguably won its designer a Nobel Prize. And at the moment, it’s brilliantly undefined..

    Grail for Game Designers

    Hesse conceptualized the game as a virtual music of ideas – contrapuntal, polyphonic. Its origins were found in musical games, mathematicians soon added their own quotient of arcane symbols to those of musicians, and other disciplines followed suit until as Hesse puts it:

    The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

    Various people, myself among them, have proposed playable variants on Hesse’s great Game, and with a little further precision, definition and development, one of us might be able to propose a specific GBG format that would challenge AI to, essentially, produce profundity, beauty, perhaps even “holiness.” For when all’s said and done, that’s where Hesse’s game inexorably leads, as his Game Master Joseph Knecht tells us:

    Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with a truly meditative mind, nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created.

    Joshua Fost GBG sample
    Sample “island” of moves from Joshua Fost‘s Toward the Glass Bead Game – a rhetorical invention

    3QD is a polyphonic glass bead game of sorts, and comes far closer to Hesse’s ideal than the internet as a whole, since it curates the thoughts and insights it delivers — so maybe the challenge will be for an AI to win a place at the 3QD table by providing an essay, 1,000 to 2,500 words in length, to Abbas, by email at or before 11.59pm New York City time on some Saturday yet to be announced.

    GBG cover Hesse

    Preferably, such an AI will also have a stock of essays available, touching on a variety of subjects with passion, clarity, and at least a hint of quasi-human humor, for posting on specified Mondays. And before it writes in, it may need to think itself up a nom de plume.

    ____________________________________________________________________________________________

    So that was my 2QD submission, with a couple of additional images thrown in. As I say, I’m not convinced I got it right — and next time. if there is a next time, I’ll likely avoid the Glass Bead Game and pick on some other topic. To give you a “rounded experience”, however, I am going to return now to conkewrs and chestnut trees, and offer you that quote I promised from Seamus Heaney, taken from his essay The Placeless Heaven: Another Look at Kavanagh:

    In 1939, the year that Patrick Kavanagh arrived in Dublin, an aunt of mine planted a chestnut tree in a jam jar. When it began to sprout, she broke the jar, made a hole and transplanted the thing under a hedge in front of the house. Over the years, the seedling shot up into a young tree that rose taller and taller above the boxwood hedge. And over the years I came to identify my own life with the life of the chestnut tree.

    This was because everybody remembered and constantly repeated the fact that it had been planted the year I was born; also because I was something of a favourite with that particular aunt, so her affection came to be symbolised in the tree; and also perhaps because the chestnut was the one significant thing that grew visibly bigger by the year…

    When I was in my early teens, the family moved away from that house and the new owners of the place eventually cut down every tree around the yard and the lane and the garden including the chestnut tree. We all deplored that, of course, but life went on satisfactorily enough where we resettled, and for years I gave no particular thought to the place we had left or to my tree which had been felled.

    Then, all of a sudden, a couple of years ago, I began to think of the space where the tree had been or would have been. In my mind’s eye I saw it as a kind of luminous emptiness, a warp and waver of light, and once again, in a way that I find hard to define, I began to identify with that space just as years before I had identified with the young tree.

    Guest posting at 3 Quarks Daily [et al]

    Monday, June 29th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — two guest posts posted, a forthcoming book chapter written, and more to come ]
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    I very much enjoy 3 Quarks Daily, it’s my aggregator of choice, and so I was particularly delighted and honored when my friend Bill Benzon of New Savanna invited me to guest blog on his monthly 3QD spot today, with the very recent papal encyclical about climate change as my topic: Pontifex as Bridge Builder: the Encyclical Laudato Si’

    Here’s a sample:

    I propose that in his recent encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis is exercising his function as Supreme Pontiff, or @pontifex as he calls himself on Twitter – a pontifex being literally a bridge builder. It is my contention that in his encyclical he bridges a number of divides, between Catholic and Orthodox, sacramental and social, liberal and conservative, religious and scientific, even Christian and Muslim, traditional and of the fast advancing moment, in a manner which will impact our world in ways yet unforeseen.

    It is my contention, also, that his pontificate provides the third step in a momentous journey.

    The first step, as I see it, was taken by Christ himself in the Beatitudes – blessed are the poor in spirit, they that mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers – and in his doctrine of forgiveness, not once only but a myriad of times. The second was taken by Francis of Assisi, in his Canticle of Creatures – praised be you, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun, through Sister Moon and the stars, praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us.. blessed those who endure in peace.. – and in his crossing the front lines of war during the crusades to greet in peace the Sultan Malik Al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt. And in taking the name Francis, in washing and kissing on Maundy Thursday the feet of both male and female, Christian and Muslim juvenile offenders in prison, and in issuing this encyclical, I would suggest Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, is taking the third step.

    The line, the transmission, is of sheer humility. It begins with the Founder of the line, Christ himself, lapses, which all high inspirations must as routine replaces charisma, only to emerge brilliantly a millennium later in the saintly maverick, Francis, lapses again though still fermenting in the imagination of church and humankind, and now at last shows itself once more, in that most unexpected of places: in the heart of the bureaucracy, at the head of the hierarchy, atop the curia, simple, idealistic, practical – a pontifex building bridges.

    And in all this, there is lyricism.

    It is characteristic of St Francis that he is lyrical …

    Read the rest here.

    As noted in that piece, I’d also addressed the encyclical in a guest blog on LapidoMedia, where I’m temporarily the web-editor — Poetry, controversy and praise in Pope Francis’ Encyclical. There’s quite a bit of overlap between the two posts, but they are also complementary.

    **

    Speaking of complementarity, I just completed a 6,000 word essay for a forthcoming volume edited by Robert Bunker, to which Mark “Zenpundit” Safranski has also contributed a chapter. My piece is titled The Dark Sacred — watch this space!

    And Dr Edwin Bakker, whose fine Coursera course on Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism I have been a CT for, held a Google Hangout today, in part to celebrate his new book. I managed to sneak in or a few minutes despite my computer woes, and if interested, you can find us here:


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