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Shahbaz Qalandar shrine bombing DoubleQuote

Saturday, February 18th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — qawwali vs bombing — tragic though this week’s deaths are, music, poetry, and devotion transcend death ]
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I thought this horrific announcement:

deserved a response of a very different order:

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That’s it, that’s my response.

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By way of background:

Lal Shahbaz Qalandar of Sehwan, whose shrine in Pakistan was bombed this week, was an Ismaili Shiite poet-mystic, perhaps best understood via his poetry. Shehram Mokhtar in a Master’s thesis on Qalandar writes:

His title of Shahbaz (royal falcon) is associated with him because of the mystical and spiritual heights he attained. This is reflected in his own poetry: “I am the royal falcon, that has no (fixed) place i.e. I am always in flight; I cannot be contained in any place; I am the phoenix, that cannot be restrained in any symbol or form” (Qazi, 1971, p. 26).

Further:

The third title associated with saint’s name is Qalandar. Muhammad Hussain bin Khalaf Tabrizi, the writer of a famous Persian dictionary defines Qalandar as someone “so much spiritualized that he is free from social and customary inhibitions and taboos” (Mohammad, 1978, p.7). Many other references have used terms like, “intoxicated in spirituality” to define the term Qalandar. The title of Qalandar has been associated with three saints, Lal Shahbaz, saint Bu Ali Sharfuddin of Panipat and a female saint Rabia Basri (Mohammad, 1978).

A taste of his poetry gives a taste of the man:

I am burning with Divine love every moment.
Sometimes I roll in the dust,
And sometimes I dance on thorns.
I have become notorious in your love.
I beseech you to come to me!
I am not afraid of the disrepute,
To dance in every bazaar.

Lal Shahbaz Qalandar is both transgressive – a frequently overused term, yet entirely applicable in this instance – and transcendent.

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It’s not always easy to get a fix on Sufi poet-saints. Consider this tale of Kabir, a Muslim from Varanasi, who obtained initiation from the Hindu saint Ramanand:

One of the most loved legends associated with Kabir is told of his funeral. Kabir’s disciples disputed over his body, the Muslims wanting to claim the body for burial, the Hindus wanting to cremate the body. Kabir appeared to the arguing disciples and told them to lift the burial shroud. When they did so, they found fragrant flowers where the body had rested. The flowers were divided, and the Muslims buried the flowers while the Hindus reverently committed them to fire.

Shahbaz Qalandar’s death seems similarly shrouded in mystery – so much so that the quai-authoritative Wikipedia entry for him reports both “Died: 19 February 1275 (aged 98-99) and “Lal Shahbaz lived a celibate life and died in the year 1300 at the age of 151. “

It is his death – considered as his marriage with the divine beloved – that is celebrated at the three-day urs (literally: marriage) festival, attended yearly in Sehwan by upwards of a half-million devotees, at which the divine love is glimpsed through a dance – the dhamaal – similar in function to, though not the same as, the sama dance of the dervish order order founded by Qalandar’s contemporary, Jalaluddin Rumi. The dancers’ characteristic experience is one of divine intoxication, mast.

It was Qalandar’s shrine / tomb that was the site of the IS-claimed bombing this week.

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With appreciation & and hat-tip to Omar Ali, and condolences — also to Husain Haqqani, Raza Rumi, Pundita, and all those who live, work and or pray for a peaceable Pakistan.

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Theory and Practice, Ideal and Real, War and Peace

Monday, January 26th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — hoping to introduce my many friends in the peace and light camp to my many friends in the carry a big stick camp, with a view to furthering mutual understanding ]
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A confluence in my infostream this morning:
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cantilever
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Let’s start with this brilliant example of theory (the diagram of the cantilever principle, above) and practice (the human demonstration, below). In the above instance, at least, the theory works out in practice. BTW, I think this image qualifies as a DoubleQuote in the Wild.

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There’s a problem when things just don’t work out that way, however, and Cardinal Richelieu nails it:
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Richelieu quote
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I’m afraid the recently past century amply bears out Richelieu’s point.

Theory is often too simple to match practice, and attempts to fit the real world into a crippling procrustean box of its own devising.

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I might not have taken an interest in these two tweets, if I hadn’t also read Ahmed Humayun‘s post, The Politics of Barbarism, on 3 Quarks Daily today, and blog-friend Omar Ali‘s comments in particular.

Humayun’s piece is essentially a precis and analysis of Abu Bakr Naji‘s The Management of Savagery, a book, incidentally, which has as much to do with management as it does with savagery.

But to get to the point which interests me, one Raza Husain commented that in place of recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq:

A trillion dollars on development work, schools, hospitals, roads, power plants, would have been money better spent and possibly just as helpful to the American economy if not to the arms industry in particular.

to which Omar responded:

A trillion dollars spent through what state apparatus? protected by what army? under which laws? (not saying it cannot be done, but those questions need answers first, otherwise how will the money actually get spent where you want it spent?)

And that’s it, right there.

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Richard Grenier paraphrased George Orwell nicely when he wrote:

people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf

If I was to DoubleQuote that, my pairing quote would be from John Adams:

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculature, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

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The Ideal and Real are, respectively, Theory and Practice, and we need, we are constituted to need both — and yet our discourse all too often promotes one (shorthand: peace) or the other (shorthand: war), without looking at how each can serve and illuminate the other.

For my purposes, it is essentially peace that is the objective, and war that should (where and when needed) serve it: but it is justice, as in peace with justice, that is the necessary third term bringing peace and war (to include revolution?) into their constantly shifting alignment.

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If one group of people chants peace, peace, while another prepares for, and makes, war — without justice rather than profit being its central motivation and the arbiter of its outcomes — there’s little chance of mutual understanding. The peaceables will think the warlikes lack “moral” sense, the warlikes will think the peaceables lack “common” sense, each side will seem senseless to the other — and the wheel will continue to turn.

What I would like to see — to foster — is deliberation, debate, discourse between these two camps, the idealists and the realists (and I use those terms without their technical senses as terms of art), those who would seek peace and those who would protect them from violence.

Because humanity is half-angelic, half-bestial, and the question is how the angelic can best deploy against the bestial. Or as Naji has it, against Savagery.

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There are two distinct scenarions that I try to bear in mind, in one of which an archipelago of islands is seen in a seascape, while the other shows a number of lakes in a lanscape of mountains, hills and valleys.

The only difference between them, as I envision them, is the water level.

Raise the water level, and the lakes join to become a sea in which the isolated remaining hill and mountain tops have become islands — lower the water level, and the islands become the hills and mountain tops of a landscape, with the sea now diminished to a congeries of lakes and pools in its valleys.

The quest, here, by analogy, is for optimal levels of protective violence to obtain and sustain a widespread and liveable landscape of peace.

Your thoughts?

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Image sources:

  • Cantilever, via BoingBoing
  • Richelieu, via the Economist

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