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Through a glass, darkly

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

[ by Emlyn Cameron — On North Korea: a retrospective as preemptive strike ]
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Charles Cameron’s introduction: Regular readers may know my son Emlyn from previous contributions on Zenpundit [1, 2]. Here he wages a war of miniturization on the Korean fiefdom of Kim Jong-Un.

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Snow falls on Kim Jong-Il‘s funeral cortege

Reflecting on the Nuclear staring contest now ongoing between the United States and North Korea, I confront mixed feelings: Obviously one must consider different strategies and engage in a pragmatic calculus; One must consider the pros and cons, the risks and rewards, and the numerous lives which might be ended or fail ever to be lived as a consequence of any policy. It is, I need not say, a very complex issue. Worse still, it is an issue of severe import to many whose lives hang in the balance.

But I find myself grappling with a less practical question and coming away irresolute: If North Korea’s brand of surreal statism could be overthrown without bloodshed or tragedy, how would I feel? Would I be proud? Pleased? Grateful? Somehow, I can’t convince myself that I would be entirely satisfied. I feel certain that any pride, pleasure, or gratitude would be alloyed with something else. And this in spite of my knowledge that such a coup would be, well, a coup, and of the welcome it would justifiably receive.

“The bloodless anticlimax to an Orwellian police state?” I hear the likely refrain, “Terrific!”

“A peaceful end to a regime which embraced not only Stalinist propagandism, but De Facto Monarchy? Still better!” The voices continue.

“And a conclusion to tantrums and ICBM rattle throwing? Who could hope for more?” Comes the triumphal call.

And yet, I am unconvinced in the recesses of my heart. That might be strange to many people, even a tad immoral, but it’s how things stand.

In order that such a stance might make more sense, I’ll admit that I have a strange affection for the turbulent little state and its Emperor’s New Jumpsuits. This probably extends from more general conflicted feelings about overt dictatorships: I am someone who deeply loves enlightenment philosophy, and cherishes my personal freedoms. I am, all the same, a morbid person, prone to fatalism, and I harbor dark anticipations about the future of humanity. Somewhere in the middle I developed a great relish for bleak wit. For these reasons, it should come as no shock that I am a great admirer of George Orwell and a fan of his writings. Perhaps like others who count themselves among his readers, I find myself emotionally torn while reading Nineteen Eighty-Four or Animal Farm; The dystopias he presents disturb me, and yet, (in spite of my philosophical leanings) a small part of me is always tugged at by a desire to relinquish the struggle of self determination, and to escape the paradox of choice by giving in to such an oppression. The terrible certainties, even of state assigned conclusions and death, speak to some tired part in me, which recognizes strain from the ongoing alertness required of anyone who wants to be the arbiter of their own affairs.

North Korea, likewise, is a natural antagonist to the individualism I hold dear, but, perhaps because of its total conviction and flagrance in opposing my worldview, I am captivated by its iconography and insular existence. I have always been fascinated by the ludicrous spectacle, the stark imagery, and the total devotion of totalitarian nations, though I revile their premises. Having one around, therefore, leaves me in rather a strange position: I desire the grip of the North Korean state on its people broken as a matter of principle, while simultaneously fearing the death of a kind of dangerous endangered species; I am struck by the feeling that the end of the North Korean state would be a victory for my values, and the loss of one of the world’s great curiosities.

A friend recently called North Korea “an Eighth Wonder of the World”, and I agree. It is a tragic wonder, dangerous rather than glorious, but a wonder none the less.

My grandfather, a conservative philosopher, referred to himself as a “sentimental monarchist”. If a peaceful end came to the militaristic regime in North Korea, my relief would be tinged with a similar kind of sentimental loss; Something interesting would be gone, and I would feel a nostalgic pang for the missing strangeness. I fancy that I would rather keep the aggressive little power, not on a map, but on a shelf. I should like to keep it in a snow globe, I think (the state already more or less frozen as it is).

I’d like a little magnified globe, not unlike the coral paperweight in Orwell’s book, in which would be held the repressive slice of 1950’s authoritarianism: Marches and missiles behind safety glass. Occasionally, on a quiet night, I might chance to hear a soft, televised threat to my safety, or a report on bountiful rations; If I felt a stab of longing for the atmosphere of suspended aggression from my parents and grand parents age, I could go to the mantle and wind the little state up by hand (rather than by tweet) and hear a tinkling anthem that takes me back; I’d like to visit the trinket now and again and watch snow fallout from a nuclear winter after I shake it, or watch tiny jackboots and smiling, slightly condescending diplomats go about their days work. Maybe the mandatorily grateful workers would even build a cardboard city for my benefit, to give an impression of plenty. And once I had seen the last settling flakes fall, I would place it back above the fire place with a feeling of having harmlessly revisited my childhood, glad of a souvenir to solidify the bittersweet memory. After all, a snow globe can cast nothing else from the mantle to the floor, nor launch beyond its translucent border.

Then again, just because I’d have the terror held safely under glass, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t continue in earnest within.

Sunday surprise — the toss of a coin

Sunday, August 21st, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — choice, chance and maybe destiny at the movies, on the road, in life ]
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A while back, I lived in Cottonwood, Arizona, and drove the few miles back and forth between Cottonwood and Sedona most days each week for months. There’s a beautiful stretch of desert in between, I delighted in the journey, and no doubt my foot on the gas pedal quickened or eased off to some mild extent depending on what music I was listening to, how much coffee I’d had recently, how my most recent conversation or burst of writing had gone. And then one night a deer ran across the road, perhaps twelve feet ahead of my car.

Let’s say I was traveling at 60 for ease of calculation. 60 mph is a mile a minute, 88 feet per second. About a tenth of a second later and the deer and / or I would likely have been dead — one full second later, he or she would have crossed sixty feet behind me and I would have seen nothing, known nothing.

There are deer constantly crossing our paths sixty feet behind us and it’s a normal day at the office, it’s one more day like any other: sunny, then partly cloudy, with a ten percent chance of rain.

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The average human life expectancy, or pretty close, in the United States these days is 690,235 hours. Here are two film clips, which will occupy just over a quarter of one of those hours if you watch them both.

The Magus:

No Country For Old Men:

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The Magus — the entire film — runs an hour and 57 minutes, while No Country for Old Men runs two hours and three minutes, so those clips, 10 and 5 minutes long each, represent in each case a small fraction of the whole film — yet those two fractions have been selected out to be posted as YouTube clips — and they have something in common: life and death in a roll of the dice, the flip of a coin.

I’m guessing it’s that life or death in an instant play of chance that marks those two particular clips as worth noting and posting to YouTube — and that made that deer running across the road in my headlights so memorable.

The realization here: my life hangs, moment by moment across hundreds of thousands of hours, on such slight and unintended (“chance”) variations of physical fact & effect as how much my foot on the gas pedal imperceptibly quickens or eases off as a slight turn, rise or fall in the road..

Half Price Books

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

An old Border’s location near where I live was taken over by Half Price Books, the growing used book chain. So I took a drive with the kids to check it out, though my expectations were not high.  My Eldest also decided to sell a box of books dating back to her more childish years.

The atmosphere of the store was pleasant and the employees friendly and helpful, much of the space is (quite properly) devoted to maximizing the display of the stock of books instead of various kinds of retail nonsense. We browsed while the buyers evaluated my daughter’s books for resale. The store was very well stocked for a used book store catering to the general public and the prices were excellent. While the decor was “no frills” there were comfortable, well-used, chairs in which to sit toward the back of the store accompanied by end tables for the piling of books.  My son enjoyed going through the bins of of old comics, of which he bought a fistful for .50 cents each.

The most expensive book I bought was $9 (for two volumes) vice a new retail price of $40; most ran $4 – $6. One brand new copy was purchased for all of $2.

Here’s what I picked up:

    

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa byJason Stearns 

This one was the subject of a book review by Scott Shipman which you can read in full here.

Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography by Sir Hew Strachan

I have been wanting to read this one ever since we had The Clausewitz Roundtable at Chicago Boyz. Strachan is one of the leading military historians and strategic thinkers and can be viewed lecturing on strategy and war here.

The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain by Terrence Deacon

This was in mint condition – literally had never been opened (must have been a student’s copy LOL) – and was only $2 as a Half Price Books “SuperBuy”. Deacon is a biological anthropologist and was/is a professor at Harvard Medical School and Berkeley. On the one hand, some of the neuroscience might be dated, given the 1997 copyright, but as he is investigating 2 million years of human evolution, so how off could it be in just 16 years?

The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian 

Arrian was cited frequently, but with significant reservations and commentary, by Paul Cartledge in his biography Alexander the Great, which I reviewed here.

    

War in the Shadows: The Guerrilla in History (vol. I & II) by Robert Asprey 

I am not very familiar with Asprey but I have deep sympathy for anyone who attempts this kind of epochal survey, they are very hard to pull off well ( and harder to get people to read all the way through  once they are written and published, see Arnold Toynbee and Will and Ariel Durant). Any comments here are welcome.

Mussolini by R. J. B. Bosworth 

A biography of il Duce by a leading expert on the period of Italian Fascism.

Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly 

I’ve read this before, when it was first published, but did not have a copy. Bought it to have on hand as a reference.

My only complaint about the Half Price Books experience was the store was a trifle warm. My Eldest pocketed a cool $15 from selling her old books and decided to treat herself to a detective novel and a used Xbox game.

A good time was had by all.

Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

On behalf of Charles and Scott, I would like to wish all the readers a happy and safe holiday!

On the HipBone and Sembl games: update

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

[ brief intro by Charles Cameron, then shorter version of Dr. Cath Styles‘ presentation of Sembl at the National Digital Forum in New Zealand, 20 November 2012 ]
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Charles writes:

I’ve been working for almost twenty years on the development of a playable variant on Hermann Hesse‘s concept of the Glass Bead Game.

It’s an astonishing idea, the GBG — that one could build an architecture of the greatest human ideas across all disciplinary boundaries and media — music, religion, mathematics, the sciences, anthropology, art, psychology, film, theater, literature, history all included — and it has engaged thinkers as subtle as Christopher Alexander, the author of A Pattern Language [See here, p. 74]. Manfred Eigen, Nobel laureate in Chemistry and author of Laws of the Game [see here], and John Holland, the father of genetic algorithms [see here].

Here’s Hesse’s own description of the game as a virtual music of ideas:

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.

My own HipBone Games were an attempt to make a variant of the game that would be simple enough that you could play it on a napkin in a cafe, and has in fact been played online — and more recently, my friend Cath Styles has adapted it for museum play, and introduced the basic concept and our future hopes in a presentation at the National Digital Forum 2012, New Zealand — which you can see very nicely recorded in Mediasite format.

Do take a look — Cath makes a first-rate presentation, and I love the Mediasite tech used to capture it.

Since the slides are shown in a small window concurrently with Cath’s presentation, I’ve edited her presentation for Zenpundit readers, and reproduced many of her slides full-size with some of her commentary below.

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Sembl, the game of resemblance

Cath speaking:

In its first form, Sembl is an iPad game, called The Museum Game, at the National Museum of Australia. We’ve just released it in beta as a program for visiting groups.

Cath then talks about feedback from children and adults about their experience of playing the game. Some kids homed in on the principle of resemblance, others emphasised the social side of the game. She talks, too, about their teacher, and her observations about the ways the game engaged her kids.

She then shows us various Sembl gameboards for iPad:

Sembl Museum gameboard for four teams of younger players

Four different Sembl Museum gameboards

Cath speaks:

But The Museum Game is just one form of Sembl. The Museum Game is played in real time, on site, and players take photos of physical objects to create nodes on the board.

The next step is to make a web-based form, that you could play at your own pace, and from your own place. Then, Sembl becomes a game-based social learning network, which amplifies the personal value of the game – it becomes social networking with cognitive benefits.

But it’s the bigger picture – of humans as a community – that I most want to explore: Sembl as an engine of networked ideas, or linked data.

Charles notes: I’m skipping the educational part — and the bit about my own role in the game’s development, to get to the core of her presentation as I see it: the cognitive facilitation it provides

Cath again:

Another way of saying this is that the Game provides a structure and impetus for dialogue, between the museum and visitors, between visitors and things, among visitors and between things. And this is not dialogue in the sense of an everyday conversation. It’s deeper than that. It’s a mutual experience of looking both ways, simultaneously.

Cath next quotes David Bohm, the eminent quantum physicist:

to hold several points of view in active suspension – quotation of David Bohm

Cath speaks:

For Bohm, dialogue means holding several points of view in active suspension. He regarded this kind of dialogue as critical in order to investigate the crises facing society. He saw it as a way to liberate creativity to find solutions.

Cath then drops in an important topic header:

Toward a game-based social learning network

Cath:

The concept of Sembl, in its deepest sense, is social learning – game-based social learning. In its first instantiation, it is game-based social learning in a museum and – if things turn out as I hope they will – from next year it will be playable at any other exhibiting venue that has the infrastructure and the will to host games – galleries, libraries, botanic gardens, zoos and so on.

network thinking – how Sembl network links differ from traditional linked data links

A web-based form of Sembl can generate linked data with a difference. It’s linked link data, and quite different to normal linked data.

  • Instead of connections based on what a thing is – sculpture, or wooden, or red – Sembl generates connections based on a mutual resemblance between two things. Which, amazingly enough, is a great way of gaining a sense of what each thing is. And if your interest is to enable joyful journeying through cultural ideas, or serendipitous discovery, this approach just wins…
  • Instead of compiling logical links, Sembl cultivates the analogical.
  • Instead of building and deploying a structured, consistent set of relationships, Sembl revels in personal, imprecise, one-of-a-kind, free association, however crazy.
  • Instead of attempting to create a comprehensive and stable map of language and culture, Sembl links are perpetually generative, celebrating the organic, dynamic quirks of cognitive and natural processes.

But the most important way that Sembl is distinct from other systems of network links is that those who generate the links learn network thinking. Which is a critical faculty in this complex time between times, as many smart people will tell you.

Poets have always known the virtues of analogy as a path to the truth.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant – poem by Emily Dickinson

Sembl promotes dialogic, non-linear thinking, and new forms of coherence.

deliberative thinkers – quotation of Charles Cameron

It’s distinct from deliberative thinking, which is rational and causal and logical and linear.

eccentric thinkers – quotation of Charles Cameron

It’s another kind of thinking, which might be informed by rational thought, but its purpose is not singular.

bridge-builders – quotation of Charles Cameron

You might say its purpose is to create – and cohabit – a state of grace, from which ideas simply emerge.

every move you make is a creative leap

If playing Sembl gives us practice in polyphonic thinking, if it helps cultivate connectivity and our capacity to find solutions to local and global problems, it is good value. As Charles says, every move is a creative leap.

Cath concludes:

If you’re interested in working with us to supply content, develop strategy or raise capital, we’re keen to talk.

And I can’t tell you how much I’m anticipating being able to invite everyone to play.

thanks

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Cath can be reached via Twitter at @cathstyles, and I’m at @hipbonegamer. The Sembl site is at Sembl.net.

Next up: what Sembl has to offer the IC.


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