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Making Historical Analogies about 1914

Friday, January 10th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

The Independent has a short, quasi-sensationalist, article featuring historian Margaret MacMillan discussing what is likely to become the first pop academic cottage industry of 2014….making historical analogies about 1914 and World War I! MacMillan is a senior scholar of international relations and administrator at Oxford ( where she is Warden of St Antony’s College)  with a wide range of research interests, including the First World War on which she has published two books.  I am just going to excerpt and comment on the historical analogies MacMillan made – or at least the ones filtered by the reporter and editor – she’s more eloquent in her own writing where each of these points are treated at greater length:

Is it 1914 all over again? We are in danger of repeating the mistakes that started WWI, says a leading historian 

Professor Margaret MacMillan, of the University of Cambridge, argues that the Middle East could be viewed as the modern-day equivalent of this turbulent region. A nuclear arms race that would be likely to start if Iran developed a bomb “would make for a very dangerous world indeed, which could lead to a recreation of the kind of tinderbox that exploded in the Balkans 100 years ago – only this time with mushroom clouds,”

…..While history does not repeat itself precisely, the Middle East today bears a worrying resemblance to the Balkans then,” she says. “A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside powers as the US, Turkey, Russia, and Iran look to protect their interests and clients. 

Several comments here. There is a similarity in that like the unstable Balkan states of the early 20th century, many of the Mideastern countries are young, autocratic, states with ancient cultures that are relatively weak  and measure their full independence from imperial rule only in decades.  The Mideast is also like the Balkans, divided internally along ethnic, tribal, religious, sectarian and linguistic lines.

The differences though, are substantial. The world may be more polycentric now than in 1954 or 1994 but the relative and absolute preponderance of American power versus all possible rivals, even while war-weary and economically dolorous, is not comparable to Great Britain’s position in 1914.  The outside great powers MacMillan points to are far from co-equal and there is no alliance system today that would guarantee escalation of a local conflict to a general war. Unlike Russia facing Austria-Hungary over Serbia there is no chance that Iran or Russia would court a full-scale war with the United States over Syria.

On the negative side of the ledger, the real problem  is not possible imperial conquest but the danger of regional collapse. “Toxic nationalism” is less the problem than the fact that the scale of a Mideastern Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict is so enormous, as are the implications . Nothing in the Balkans after the turn of the century compares to Syria, then Iraq and then other states sliding into a Muslim version of the Thirty Year’s War. An arc of failed states from Beirut to Islamabad is likelier than, say, a new Persian empire run by Tehran’s mullahs.

Modern-day Islamist terrorists mirror the revolutionary communists and anarchists who carried out a string of assassinations in the name of a philosophy that sanctioned murder to achieve their vision of a better world

Agree here. The analogy between 21st revolutionary Islamists and the 19th century revolutionary anarchists is sound.

And in 1914, Germany was a rising force that sought to challenge the pre-eminent power of the time, the UK. Today, the growing power of China is perceived as a threat by some in the US.

Transitions from one world power to another are always seen as dangerous times. In the late 1920s, the US drew up plans for a war with the British Empire that would have seen the invasion of Canada, partly because it was assumed conflict would break out as America took over as the world’s main superpower.

Imperial Germany’s growing power was less troublesome to Edwardian British statesmen than the strategic error of the Kaiser and von Tirpitz to pursue a naval arms race with Great Britain that did not give Germany’even the ability to break a naval blockade but needlessly antagonized the British with an existential threat that pushed London into the French camp.

As to military plans for invading Canada (or anywhere else), the job of military planning staffs are to create war plans to cover hypothetical contingencies so that if a crisis breaks out, there is at least a feasible starting point on the drawing board from which to begin organizing a campaign. This is what staff officers do be they American, French, Russian, German, Chinese and even British. This is not to be taken as serious evidence that the Coolidge or Hoover administrations were hatching schemes to occupy Quebec.

More importantly, nuclear weapons create an impediment to Sino-American rivalry ending in an “August 1914″ moment ( though not, arguably, an accidental or peripheral clash at sea or a nasty proxy conflict). Even bullying Japan ultimately carries a risk that at a certain point, the Japanese will get fed-up with Beijing, decide they need parity with China, and become a nuclear weapons state.

Professor MacMillan, whose book The War That Ended Peace was published last year, said right-wing and nationalist sentiments were rising across the world and had also been a factor before the First World War

In China and Japan, patriotic passions have been inflamed by the dispute over a string of islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China. “Increased Chinese military spending and the build-up of its naval capacity suggest to many American strategists that China intends to challenge the US as a Pacific power, and we are now seeing an arms race between the two countries in that region,” she writes in her essay. “The Wall Street Journal has authoritative reports that the Pentagon is preparing war plans against China – just in case.” 

“It is tempting – and sobering –to compare today’s relationship between China and the US with that between Germany and England a century ago,” Professor MacMillan writes. She points to the growing disquiet in the US over Chinese investment in America while “the Chinese complain that the US treats them as a second-rate power”.

The “dispute” of the Senkakus has been intentionally and wholly created by Beijing in much the same way Chinese leaders had PLA troops provocatively infringe on Indian territory, claim the South China Sea as sovereign territory and bully ships of all nearby nations other than Russia in international or foreign national waters. This is, as Edward Luttwak recently pointed out, not an especially smart execution of strategy. China’s recent burst of nationalistic bluffing, intimidation and paranoia about encirclement are working along the path of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Another similarity highlighted by the historian is the belief that a full-scale war between the major powers is unthinkable after such a prolonged period of peace. “Now, as then, the march of globalisation has lulled us into a false sense of safety,” she says. “The 100th anniversary of 1914 should make us reflect anew on our vulnerability to human error, sudden catastrophes, and sheer accident.

Agree that globalization is no guarantee against human folly, ambition or the caprice of chance.

What are your thoughts?

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A DoubleQuote in the (Arctic) Wild

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- always on the lookout for intriguing double-images ]
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There’s an implied “this is to that as this is to that” double analogy here. Just how well or ill it teaches coordinate systems I leave to others to decide — even without the analogical joking though, it’s an intriguing visual juxtaposition.

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Happy New “Creative Leap” Year

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- wondering whether a von Kármán vortex street might be a good place to take a Paul Lévy walk one of these days -- when I'm out and about, foraging for new ideas ]
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"Named after French mathematician Paul Lévy, a Lévy walk is characterized by many small moves combined with a few longer trajectories."

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M’friend Bill Benzon of the New Savanna blog posted two paras out of an NYT blog piece, Navigating Our World Like Birds and Bees, today:

What they have found is that when moving with a purpose such as foraging for food, many creatures follow a particular and shared pattern. They walk (or wing or lope) for a short time in one direction, scouring the ground for edibles, then turn and start moving in another direction for a short while, before turning and strolling or flying in another direction yet again. This is a useful strategy for finding tubers and such, but if maintained indefinitely brings creatures back to the same starting point over and over; they essentially move in circles.

So most foragers and predators occasionally throw in a longer-distance walk (or flight), which researchers refer to as a “long step,” bringing them into new territory, where they then return to short walks and frequent turns as they explore the new place.

I can’t help but think that this may give us a closer approximation to the way minds can think than our usual terms, linear and lateral, or on a wider scale, disciplinary and interdisciplinary thinking, with the short walks involving thoughts that require investigation but not analogy, and the long steps being leaps by analogy into new territory — the familiar hop, skip and jumps we also call creative leaps.

From my POV, seeing both linear and leaping thoughts this way allows for the fact that what we’ve been calling linear thoughts aren’t so much linear as local, while analogical thoughts by their very nature take us from one thought domain to another — via parallelism or opposition — leaping conceptual distances.

Which is why I can wish you a Happy New “Creative Leap” Year! — even though 2014 isn’t divisible by 4 and there will still only be 28 days this February.

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DoubleBurn: mosque and synagogue

Sunday, October 20th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- tipping my hat to a moving interfaith gesture ]
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This past Wednesday, a person or persons unknown torched a mosque in Gdansk, Poland, known to me as the place where Lech Walesa founded the Solidarnosc movement.

Thankfully, the physical damage doesn’t appear to have been complete [upper panel, below]:

What brings this particular event to our attention is the response from the city’s Jewish community [lower panel, above: an image of a current Gdansk synagogue].

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency [JTA] gives us the story:

Polish Jews say mosque torching reminiscent of Kristallnacht

Representatives of the Jewish community of Gdansk, Poland, said the torching of a mosque had “frightening connotations” of the Nazi-inspired Kristallnacht pogroms against Jews.

The association was inescapable, three of the city’s Jewish leaders wrote in a statement Thursday.

“On the eve of the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, during which synagogues were burned in the Free City of Gdansk, the burning of the mosque must bear frightening connotations,” the statement said.

Unidentified individuals started the fire early Wednesday morning. It consumed the mosque’s door and some of the equipment, resulting in damages to the tune of $16,000.

“In the face of this cowardly act of barbarism, Jews of Gdansk cannot stand idly by,” wrote the authors of the statement, Michal Samet, Michal Rucki and Mieczyslaw Abramowicz. “We express our deep indignation against the attack on the temple and the sadness of the fact that it took place in Gdansk.”

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An echo in time.

A powerful analogy, deeply felt.

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Jeff Jonas, Nada Bakos, Cindy Storer and Puzzles

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- at the intersection of filmcraft, tradecraft, and gameplay ]
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IBM Fellow Jeff Jones has a powerful insight into puzzles and analytics which I explored in one of my early guest posts here, A Hipbone Approach to Analysis III. I quoted him thus:

The first piece you take out of the box and place on the work surface requires very little computational effort. The second and third pieces require almost equally insignificant mental effort. Then as the number of pieces on the table grows the effort to determine where the next piece goes increases as well. But there is a tipping point where the effort to determine where to place the next piece gets easier and easier … despite the fact the number of puzzle pieces on the table continues to grow.

and — being a theologian and poet, hence interested in creative leaps — I threw this in for bonus points, since in it he talks about epiphanies:

Some pieces produce remarkable epiphanies. You grab the next piece, which appears to be just some chunk of grass – obviously no big deal. But wait … you discover this innocuous piece connects the windmill scene to the alligator scene! This innocent little new piece turned out to be the glue.

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That, being (at least a little) past — I was quoting Jonas back in 2010 — is prologue.

Yesterday I was listening to Nada Bakos, ex-CIA analyst and targeter, and more recently one of the stars of the HBO documentary Manhunt, which just won an Emmy — and which I have written about twice here on Zenpundit, first in Manhunt: Radicalization, & comprehending the full impact of dreams, and then in Manhunt: religion and the director’s eye.

Chelsea Daymon interviewed Nada Bakos on yesterday’s Loopcast, and I’d just got to the point, one minute and thirteen seconds in, where Bakos said the words that triggered my urgent need to reconnect with Jonas and his puzzle insights. She says:

It’s not unlike what an investigative journalist would do, when you’re piecing together an intelligence picture. You’re looking at disparate bits of information, and you’re trying to form them to make a puzzle. So from our perspective at the Agency, we were looking at it from signal intelligence, to human intelligence, to technical collection, foreign intel services — across the board, we were gathering this information from a variety of different sources. And any one of those pieces of information. in and of itself, may look innocuous, or not representative of what we’re trying to find, but when you add it to the larger puzzle, that’s when you can see if its going to fit. So it’s hard to sift through the chaff to find your actual information that you need to piece together.

I also wrote briefly about Manhunt in A feast of form in my twitter-stream today, quoting Bakos’ colleague Cindy Storer:

Even in the analytical community there’s a relatively smaller percentage of people who are really good at making sense of information that doesn’t appear to be connected. So that’s what we call pattern analysis, trying to figure out what things look like. And those people, you really need those people to work on an issue like terrorism, counternarcotic, international arms trafficking, because you’ve got bits and pieces of scattered information from all over the place, and you have to try to make some sense of it. … That takes this talent, which is also a skill, and people would refer to it as magic — not the analysts doing it, but other people who didn’t have that talent referred to it as magic.

Storer’s “magic” and Jones’ “epiphany” seem to me to have a great deal in common…

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[ and yes, personal disclosure, I've been working for almost 20 years on games that teach that kind of magic, the whole of that kind of magic across all domains, and nothing but that kind of magic. ]

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Back to Nada Bakos, and a crucial distinction between two types of analytic puzzle-solving:

From a predictive standpoint, if you’re looking at trying to gauge when or if an attack is going to happen, that is really difficult, and you’re going about looking at the data in a very different way. Because if you have a piece of intelligence that said that there will be an attack, but you don’t know the timing or location, your focus is going to be strictly on those two pieces.

That’s narrow focus. Wide focus, by contrast?

When you’re trying to look at an overall picture, you’re not — this is typical of intelligence gathering, when you don’t know what you have in front of you — you’re letting the information tell you what the picture is going to be. And that’s the objective challenge for intelligence analysis, and that’s what the Agency tries to drill into their analysts, to always let the information lead you, rather than you lead the information, so you’re…

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Wait a moment, though — I’d like to come back to that — but just for the record, here’s what looks to be a parallel use of “leading” from a legal definition…

LEADING QUESTION, evidence, Practice. A question which puts into the witness’ mouth the words to be echoed back, or plainly suggests the answer which the party wishes to get from him. 7 Serg. & Rawle, 171; 4 Wend. Rep. 247. In that case the examiner is said to lead him to the answer. It is not always easy to determine what is or is not a leading question.

I’m hypothesizing that the idea here is, in effect, “to always let the witness lead you, rather than you lead the witness” — in the interests of justice, not of prosecution or defense… And that “justice” in this case parallels “objectivity” in the case of intelligence analysis.

Analysts may yawn and attorneys quietly splutter at this truism — yet when the same pattern crops up in two distinct fields, you can bet it has more general application. From an intel standpoint, it’s a matter of avoiding your own biases and assumptions, and dealt with as such in Heuer. In the arts, it’s this need to avoid painting what one thinks what one knows, rather than what one sees, that’s behind Betty Edwards‘ instruction to her students to draw an upside-down photo of Albert Einstein, as in her book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, see p. 51. In music, it’s what permits the fresh interpretation of the Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould, 1955 — and then years later in 1981, but Gould again — so very different from all previous interpretations.

It’s the stuff of creativity, and at its highest pitch, the stuff of genius.

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But let Ms Bakos continue… Here’s another distinction she draws for us:

From a targeting perspective, your focus is, operationalizing the analysis. So you’re taking all that big picture and you’re doing something about it, so that is your intent from the get-go.

When you’re a traditional analyst, you’re actually writing pieces for the policy maker, and you’re adding to the larger picture so they can make decisions based upon that intelligence.

The second of these is clear enough, but I’d have a question for Ms Bakos about the first.

Roughly speaking –and I know the answer is likely to be a bit more complex than my formulation of the question — does this mean t hat the policy maker has by this point signed off on a “do whatever’s needed in your best judgment to achieve the stated goal”? — and if so, where is the threshold where targeting and execution take over from decision-making, in a Clausewitzian extension of the politics by other means?

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Towards the very end of the interview, and having covered a number of topics that were specific to Iraq and al-Zarqawi and thus not pertinent to my interests here, Ms Bakos asks:

How do we effect change, how do we actually deprogram people to get out of these groups, these regional groups, this ideology, and I think we haven’t effectively tapped into that, yet. I think we’re always fighting yesterday’s war. So, I think we need to start looking forward as well: What’s the way out? Are we working with host governments to figure out how we help people to get out of al-Qaida, how do they get out of the situation that they’re currently in — because once they’re in I think it’s very difficult, for some of these younger followers, if they’ve become disenchanted, to move on.

That’s something I feel passionate about, since Leah Farrall posted a series on Children, jihad, agency, and the state of counter terrorism making much the same point in considerable, painful detail. I invite you to open that link in another window and bookmark it for later reading.

If I’m reading both Ms Bakos and Leah right, this is a serious and underappreciated issue, and one that is both humane and eminently practical.

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Okay, that’s the gist of what Manhunt tells us about the analytic process, as I see it. So this is where I’d like to take what Nada Bakos, Manhunt, and Cindy Storer tell us, view it through the lens of Jeff Jonas’ insight, and see where else that leads us.

This to me is the crux of the thing.

For myself as a curious mind and game designer, what this boils down to is an investigation of the gameplay involved inp roblem solving, when the game-board extends from the virtual to the real, from thought to action, from the ideal to the practicable…

Indeed, our board also extends from our own models and games via the Great Game (in both its intel and Afghan meanings) to the deep game of life itself, of which Plotinus observed “Men directing their weapons against each other- under doom of death yet neatly lined up to fight as in the pyrrhic sword-dances of their sport- this is enough to tell us that all human intentions are but play…” — and not forgetting Keith Oatley‘s contemporary interpretation of the metaphor in his Shakespeare’s invention of theatre as simulation that runs on minds.

The gameplay of life, then — as is it practiced by the intelligence analyst, by the investigative journalist as Ms Bakos points out — by curious minds, as the phrase goes — and by game designers. Which last consideration is why I’d like to invite Mike Sellers, Brian Moriarty, and Amy Jo and/or Scott Kim and others to add their wisdom to the mix, should they happen to read this post…

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Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are the ones I think of most easily whose boards include both virtual and real spaces. Myths, beliefs and hard-nosed realities all impact both the Israeli-Palestinian issue and such games about it as PeaceMaker. The warfare in Mjolnir’s Game is deliciously asymmetrical. Three-dimensional chess has different “levels” to its boards, but no metaphysical distances between them — my own story-telling chess variant (see Playing a double Game) has both competitive and cooperative aspects tied in to every board move…

What other examples should we be thinking about? What other game design rules and heuristics might we apply?

The end game as Jonas describes it, happens quickly — in the context of a puzzle in which the “big picture” was complete for the designer before the pieces were scattered for play to commence, in which all the pieces in play are in fact part of the final picture, with none of them originating in other games and tossed randomly into the box, where none of the pieces are “false” in the sense of false flags, lies, propaganda, dissimulations, and so on.

Compared to the possibilities of deliberately deceptive pieces, duplicative pieces, partially obscured pieces and pieces of unrelated puzzles, the technical issue of pieces arising in different media is relatively easily handled by purely technical means (this I assume, having worked briefly with an early version of Starlight, correct me if I’m wrong).

And it is here — also an assumption of mine — that the analytic, pattern-recognizing mind will have the advantage over the machine.

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It’s the beginning of the game that interests me most — Jonas says that the moves are quickly made in the beginning, and in Manhunt there’s a moment where Cindy Storer pins the first puzzle piece — a photo of Abdullah Azzam, whose book The signs of Ar-Rahmaan in the Jihad of Afghanistan I’ve discussed before — into the first board space, which she’s labeled AF:

with the words:

Your starting point is Afghanistan. Abdullah Azzam is the Godfather of the Afghan jihad…

That’s a cinematic description of the process, of course, and there must have been a small flotilla of facts floating around in her brain — and the other brains working with her — at the time. Nevertheless, disciplined thought has to have a starting point, and Afghanistan, Azzam and the muj war against the Soviets offer the immediate context for the next face up and central focus of the pursuit, that of Osama bin Laden

whose photo she pins up with the words “and his partner is Osama bin Laden…”

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For additional context, here are some other quotes from Manhunt about the process:

A link chart is the visual representation of a terrorist network and it’s what terrorism analysts spend much of their time building.

and:

My mental image is that, you know, I’m doing Jacob’s Ladder, you’ve got this string where you’re pulling the strings in your fingers, I feel like that’s what I feel I’m doing mentally.

and:

You know, trying to keep track of all the threads of various threats and which ones are real and which ones aren’t real and what connects to what. And, you know, people say, why didn’t you connect the dots? Well, because the whole page is black.

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A sea of thoughts, then, in more than one mind yet strongly interconnected by whatever intel comes across the transom, conversations, memories, that needs to become physically represented in a way which represents links between the parties and their ideas, stated or surmised. With wild-cards, seepage, and needless duplication. Some oriented to materiel, some to morale: from munitions to Qur’anic meditations. A “semantic network“, with links as vertices, people and ideas as nodes (cf also “conceptual graphs“).

Something very like, in fact, Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game — only with a focus on threat, rather than conceptual elegance across the full range of human thought…

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It’s a formidable task, then, moving first from copious scraps of intel to human minds that perform their own evaluative sorting. Here I’d invoke Coleridge‘s “hooks and eyes of memory” and suggest the process, like other forms of combinatorial insight, may require passionate examination, sub-conscious-threshold processing, and some reverie or rest time in which the unanticipated connection can be presented to consciousness… in a highly complex iterative process. And with each new connection or cluster of dots requiring is own drilling down for verification, and weighting adjustment so that salient masses and intriguing outliers are both held in steady remembrance…

— I think this whole process is what Ms Bakos was talking about when earlier she gave us the overall injunction, “you’re letting the information tell you what the picture is going to be” –_

And all this without the benefit of the “red and yellow thumbs” that Jonas talks about in jigsaw puzzles [ see interview here ], or more accurately, with the exact nature of the thumbs ranging from quantifiable links between telephones to near-stochastic leaps from a theological imperative to a tactic…

And with a board that doesn’t have the neat rectangular frame of a picture puzzle, where the frame is in fact the particular analyst’s account – a geographic area, a nation perhaps, or some other area of specific expertise. So there are no “easy corners” to find, just a buzz of data, a murmuration…

It’s magnificently hard. It’s epiphanic, it’s magical. Much of the magic takes place below the threshold of consciousness, but consciousness is not fond of admitting that. And Cindy Storer’s comments, to my ear, convey a whole lot of that magic without “capturing” it.

John Livingstone LowesThe Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination, is I’m not mistaken, is a guided tour through the superb analytic puzzle piece and dot connecting mind o Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and a fir bed-time read for analysts. And I could go on, but this is long enough already.

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My thanks to HBO, the crew and cast of Manhunt — and congratulations on the Emmy.

We’re at the beginning of an understanding of how the mind puts puzzle pieces together, connects dots, spots needles in haystacks, and in general recognizes patterns and irregularities, at this point– and there’s much more to be uncovered.

  • I recommend the Loopcast with Nada Bakos, and the series in general.
  • I recommend the Greg Barker / HBO documentary, Manhunt
  • and you might also like to watch the fascinating mini-docu about the film’s title graphics
  • and read this comprehensive account of the titles
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    Filmcraft, like tradecraft, goes an order of magnitude above and beyond what is easily noticed to achieve its effect…

    And damn, I still want time and attention to give that movie the close review it richly deserves!

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