zenpundit.com » recommended reading

Archive for the ‘recommended reading’ Category

An associative algorithm from teh Amazon

Saturday, October 15th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — ISIS advertizes! — and riding on Berger & Stern’s coattails at that — sad ]

The artificial intelligence behind Amazon‘s selection of books he might be interested in surprised JM Berger — co-author with Jessica Stern of the excellent ISIS: The State of Terror — today, by recommending Be Happy Like ISIS: The secret to success that will change your world view (The Code Breakers Book 1) as something that might interest readers of his book.

Unbelievable. I checked my own Amazon account, and found this:


That’s from the “Sponsored Products Related To This Item” section of the Amazon page on JM’s book. Right at the bottom of that screenshot, I found this:



See also:

  • Of Anwar al-Awlaki and Bold Christian Clothing
  • The intelligence of algorithms
  • On the foolishness of some current algorithms
  • As I said recently in Japanese joinery: DoubleQuoting with wooden blocks:

    One of my own aims has been to generate — or begin the generation of — a similar anthology of “DoubleQuotes” (conceptual twinnings) illustrating the methods of associative connection available in the realms of language and the aural and visual arts.

    So here’s another example, belonging in another category — a commercially-sponsored algorithm linking two books it “believes” might of of interest to a common audience. One is a rigorous examination of ISIS history, use of online propaganda, and apocalyptic rhetoric. The other is an example of that propaganda, skilfully contrived with keywords like “happy”, “secret to success” — and even “code-breakers” — in its title, to propagate itself on Amazon despite its pro-terror slant. Puerile.


    Recommended Reading—Summer 2016

    Monday, July 11th, 2016

    [by J. Scott Shipman]

    Storm of Creativity2017



    white horsewashington


    The Storm of Creativity, by Kyna Leski

    2017 War With Russia, by General Sir Richard Shirreff

    The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

    Serendipities, Language and Lunacy, by Umberto Eco

    Paradise, Dante Alighieri, translated by Mark Musa

    Undertow, by Stanton S. Coerr

    The White Horse Cometh, by Rich Parks

    Washington The Indispensable Man, by John Thomas Flexner

    This list starts the first week of May, so perhaps the title should be Spring/Summer. Most of these books are quick reads and all are recommended.

    I picked up Ms. Leski’s book at an MIT bookshop on a business trip in early May and read on the train ride home. Books on creativity are ubiquitous, but Ms. Leski takes an interesting approach by describing the creative process using the metaphor of a storm. Several ZP readers will find of interest.

    2017 was recommended by a friend. The author was the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the book focuses on a Europe/NATO response to a Russian invasion of the Baltics. Written in a Tom Clancy-like style, the plot is fast-paced even though the good general provides sometimes provides detailed insights into the inner workings of NATA and the North Atlantic Council (this is one of the values of the book—bureaucracy writ-large).

    David McCullough’s Wright Brothers delivers an approachable and human accounting of the first men of powered flight. Some reviews on Amazon complain McCullough lifts and uses too many quotes to tell the story. At times the quotes were distracting, but not enough to prevent the enjoyment of the story of two brothers who changed the world. This book was a gift otherwise I probably would not have read.

    Serendipities is a short book, but was a long read for me. Eco explains how language and the pursuit of the perfect language has confounded thinkers since time immemorial. He refers to Marco Polo’s unicorn (also used in his Kant and the Platypus which is excellent) explaining how language is often twisted to meet a preconceived notion or idea. The first couple of chapters were quite good, chapters three and four did not hold my interest or were over my head. The closing chapter was good enough to convince me I’ll need to read this little book again. (My Eco anti-library has been growing of late.)

    Eco’s book led me to reread Musa’s excellent translation of Paradise. My son gave me the deluxe edition with parallel Italian and English, plus commentary. Eco referenced Canto 26 and 27, and I enjoyed the break so much I read the whole thing!

    Undertow is my good friend Stan Coerr’s second book of poetry.  His first book Rubicon was a moving collection of poetry of men at war. Undertow deals more with the heart and is quite good, too. You won’t be disappointed.

    White Horse is also a book by an old friend, Rich Parks (we’ve known each other since the mid-80’s). White Horse is self-published and in places it shows, but the overall story is quite good for a first book (I’ve already told him his book would make an excellent screenplay.). The plot is quick and entertaining even if a bit unbelievable, but the story is fiction. Rich is following up with a sequel in August in 2016 and I’ll be reading it, too.

    Mr. Flexner’s Washington was a gift, too. In this quick biography Washington is made approachable and human. And when I say “quick,” I mean quick…Trenton and Princeton took one chapter compared to David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing which took up a standalone book. If someone were looking for a first Washington biography, this would be a good place to start.

    This isn’t the conclusion of my summer reading, but a pretty good start.What are  you reading this summer?

    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 ]

    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.



  • 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.

    Orlando & Charleston: Lawfare raising questions

    Friday, June 17th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — “Orlando Thoughts Towards a Better Taxonomy of Mass Violence” and “White Hate but Islamic Terror?” ]

    Recommended readings:

    Two pieces from the Lawfare blog offer us plenty to chew on regarding our categorization of violent acts, triggered by Orlando and Charleston, Thomas Mair and Dylann Roof.

    Benjamin Wittes
    , Orlando Thoughts Towards a Better Taxonomy of Mass Violence:

    I have been struck, however, by the range of people who have seen confirmation of their particular worldviews in this horrific event, some plausibly in my view, some not:

  • To the LGBT community, understandably enough, it’s about violence against gays.
  • For many Latinos, a salient fact is that the victims were overwhelmingly Latino, many of them Puerto Rican.
  • To those who believe our society is too heavily armed, this latest mass shooting proves they were right about gun availability.
  • For those who believe our society is insufficiently armed, this latest mass shooting proves they were right about more good guys needing guns.
  • For those who are anxious about foreign terrorism, the shooter’s claimed allegiance to ISIS places this on the long list of attacks and attempted attacks by ISIS and Al Qaeda and those they inspire.
  • To the Trumpists and others who don’t like Muslims, it’s all about Islam more generally.
  • To those who have a problem with immigration, well, the shooter is the child of immigrants from Afghanistan.
  • Apparently it’s also about the surveillance debate.
  • I even saw one tweet—the logic of which I admit I could not follow—blaming the incident on white supremacy.
  • I’m pretty sure that the shooter’s aim was not to validate anyone’s preexisting political stance.


    To be sure, sometimes legal path dependencies do arise out of our categories. Most importantly, the criminal laws on material support for terrorist groups don’t apply to domestic terrorist organizations, only designated foreign terrorist organizations. And the law presumptively treats as terrorism those crimes committed with bombs, but does not do the same with crimes committed by domestic individuals or groups with guns. (For an excellent explication of these points, see this piece by Jane Chong.)

    But the more important impact of our taxonomical confusion, in my view, is intellectual, not legal: We just don’t know what to call an incident of (a) mass murder (b) by means of a gun (c) in which motive is unclear or mixed but involves clear elements of (d) bigotry, (e) mental illness, and (f) expressions of affiliation with a foreign terrorist group. And because we don’t know how to describe it, we also don’t know what aspects of it to prioritize in responding and preventing future such events.

    One interesting question is why we care? It’s a crime; it’s a tragedy; it’s big. Why do we fight over what to call it?

    There’s more, naturally, and I recommend the whole piece.


    Wittes also links specifically to another, earlier Lawfare post..

    Jane Chong, White Hate but Islamic Terror? Charleston, Hate Crimes and Terrorism Per Quod:

    Netizens have taken particular interest in contrasting the immediate reaction to Charleston with the immediate reaction to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. Presumably these two attacks have emerged as fertile subjects for comparison partly because of the early dearth of evidence that either alleged perpetrator had official ties to or an operational role in a designated terrorist organization.

    South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is among those who have been singled out for his disparate treatment of Charleston and Boston. Commenting on what the Charleston shooting might signify for his home state, Senator Graham described Roof as “one of these wacked out kids” and stated, “I don’t think it’s anything broader than that.”

    This presents a sharp contrast with the views Graham espoused back in 2013 on the appropriate treatment of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: “This man, in my view, should be designated as a potential enemy combatant and we should be allowed to question him for intelligence gathering purposes to find out about future attacks and terrorist organizations that may exist that he has knowledge of, and that evidence cannot be used against him in trial. That evidence is used to protect us as a nation.”

    Judd Legum of Think Progress cited the Senator’s statements as a glaring example of our collective insistence on seeing violence motivated by Islamic extremism as a systemic threat while minimizing right-wing supremacist violence as the work of individual madmen. As Charles Kurzman and David Schanzer noted in a New York Times op-ed the day before the Charleston attack, such bias is particularly indefensible given the data: Attacks carried out by Muslim Americans account for 50 fatalities in the thirteen and a half years since 9/11, while plots by right-wing extremists have resulted in 254 fatalities between 9/11 and 2012.

    The conflation of terrorism with Islamic extremism is an undeniable error. But distinguishing Boston and Charleston need not unequivocally boil down to bias of this particular kind.

    Chong continues:

    Consider President Obama’s reactions shortly after each attack—reactions that, if read in isolation, might seem to reflect this bias. On April 16, 2013, the day after the Boston bombings, President Obama delivered a speech in which he stated the following:

    [G]iven what we now know about what took place, the FBI is investigating it as an act of terrorism. Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians it is an act of terror. What we don’t yet know, however, is who carried out this attack, or why; whether it was planned and executed by a terrorist organization, foreign or domestic, or was the act of a malevolent individual. That’s what we don’t yet know.

    Now contrast this with President Obama’s speech last Thursday, one day after the attacks in Charleston, which nowhere made mention of terrorism:

    The FBI is now on the scene with local police, and more of the Bureau’s best are on the way to join them. The Attorney General has announced plans for the FBI to open a hate crime investigation. We understand that the suspect is in custody. And I’ll let the best of law enforcement do its work to make sure that justice is served.

    Superficially speaking, there are at least two ways to read the administration’s initial decision to investigate one attack as a terrorist act and the other as a hate crime. A critic might contend that President Obama, like Senator Graham, appears to have untenably reserved the terrorist designation for Muslim extremists. Alternatively, we could take President Obama’s words at face value and recognize the weapon of choice as a critical factor in how a massacre tends to be classified when facts remain sparse and the evidence is still forthcoming. Those words again: “Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians it is an act of terror.”

    And so our inquiry evolves. Is Dylann Roof being widely portrayed as a hater and not a terrorist because, based on the available evidence, he is a white supremacist and not a Muslim extremist? Or is it because his weapon of choice was a gun and not a bomb?

    Again, I’d encourage you to read the whole piece.


    As an addendum, if you want some thoughtful consideration of Thomas Mair, the (alleged) killer of the British MP Jo Cox, you way want to read Barth’s Notes on the topic:

    Richard Bartholomew, Some Notes on Claims about Thomas Mair

    Recommended Reading

    Wednesday, April 27th, 2016

    [by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

    Top Billing! James C. Bennett “Brexit and Beyond:  Why Americans Should Support British Exit  From the European Union, and What Could Come Next

    ….However, the argument for Remain from the standpoint of American interest, whether articulated by Obama or academics, depends on a foreign policy world view that is probably well past its sell-by date.  It continues to pin its hopes on the emergence of a federal United States of Europe as a strong, even co-equal partner in the world that, unlike its current scattered member-states, can afford the economic and military measures needed to help the US maintain world order.  And it continues to hope that Britain will be a strong voice within such a Federal Europe for a pro-American policy.  Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, back in the 1950s, famously described Britain as having “lost an empire, but not yet gained a role.”  Leading a uniting Europe in a pro-American direction has always been the US State Department’s idea of what that role could be.

    What is wrong with those assumptions?  Just about everything.

    To begin with, the idea of a united Europe that would be genuinely federal, which is to say anything other than an empire of one culture over the others, is highly unlikely if not chimerical.  To the extent Europe today works, it is an empire of Germans, with the French as their lieutenants, over the rest.  The Germans try to be polite about it, unless money is at stake, but the reality is a bit too visible for comfort these days.  The British who believe in the idea of their place in a federal Europe, tend to work as lieutenants to the Germans on economic matters, and allies of the French on security matters, except where it comes to cooperation with the US, where they have only minor allies from Eastern Europe, who do not count for much in Brussels.

    Scholar’s Stage – Sunzi on ISIS

    ….In the piece “The Radical Sunzi” I argued rather forcefully that the key to understand the Sunzi is realizing that it was not written in a vacuum. Much of it was written as a direct response to common attitudes of the time, which depicted war as a ritualized contest of heroes, and the conquest and conduct of war were treated as religious rites. Less time separated the China of the Sunzi from the China of Aztec-style human sacrifice than separated the Greece that produced Thucydides’s rationalist vision of war from the Greece that created the honor-driven duels of the Homeric epics. It is difficult to say if the Sunzi simply reflects a change in norms that was sweeping through ancient Chinese society, or if it was actually one of the causes of it. In any case, the change itself is clear. Before the Sunzi violence was justified as a sacral act, and it was employed mostly on for the purpose of personal honor; after the Sunzi violence was justified as a central pillar of statecraft, used mostly on the grounds of cool realpolitik. [7]

    That is the context for the quotation above. When the Sunzi says that the best victory is the victory achieved without recourse to warfare at all, it was attacking the idea that victory and it’s glories were the purpose of war. When it says that a country conquered intact is better than a country ravaged by conquest, he is suggesting that ravaging is not a worthy end in and of itself. The unspoken subtext of this passage is that decisions in war should all be judged on the basis of interest (or ‘profit,’ the Chinese word used here is li ?) of the ruling house. The Sunzi may well have been the earliest voice in recorded history to argue that generals must use cost-benefit analysis to decide on whether or not to embark on any new campaign. 

    The idea that military force should be used rationally to accomplish national interests; that if possible it is better to achieve those same aims without war; and that every campaign should be subjected to a rigorous calculation of potential costs and benefits are so obvious to modern military planners that most of these ideas are simply assumed, not argued. They do not need to be argued because everyone already accepts them as the baseline for new discussion. When the Sunzi was originally etched into bamboo, however, this was not true. The idea that violence should be used as a rational instrument of policy was a new and radical idea. …

    Queenofthinair –On the Platonic Form of Garrison Obedience and Garrison versus Combat: Are there different standards for Obedience? 

    ….In garrison contexts, is there more bureaucracy and micromanaging? Is the appearance of obedience more important here because of how that looks relative to civilian ‘masters’ especially in terms of career promotions and procurement issues?  Here is the idea that what really matters is the appearance of obedience and the sense of predictability and control that comes with that. As a mother, I wonder if this is like wanting to my kids to behave when we go to church, so others will think well of me and trust me in other matters.

    In combat, it would seem that there  is more fluidity and changes in circumstance where the individual has to interpret how an order is to be carried out given conditions on the ground.  This seems to be what the above quote is referring to and seems to be an idea with intuitive appeal. War is not predictable or controllable in the ways that we might expect of civilian life or even a garrison context, so wouldn’t it make sense that we make allowances here for some disobedience? But then how does that jive with the conventional idea that obedience is so important under fire to keep people from harm and to achieve the mission?  At the very least, there seems an interesting tension here.

    ….In combat, might is not be the case that results matter? If disobedience leads to good results then it is forgiven or tolerated, if not approved? If this is the case, this raises other  questions about the grounds for the moral obligation to obedience in the military. It cannot be an absolute or even general obligation, it might be a conditional obligation?         Are we willing to say: One ought to be obedient, unless disobedience produces a greater good? Are we willing to give individual members of the military the discretion to decide this? How do you train for this?

    Admiral William McRaven – A Warrior’s Career Sacrificed for Politics

    The Diplomat – Is China Gearing up for Another People’s War?

    Global Guerrillas –The Return of Great Power War

    The Strategy Bridge – #Reviewing Shanghai 1937 and Nanjing 1937

    Small Wars Journal – Time to Bring Counterinsurgency to Molenbeek

    John Hagel – The Big Shift in Business Models

    Cicero Magazine – How Wars Are Fought Again in Memory

    LifeHacker – Exploring the Myth of the Scientific vs. Artistic Mind

    That’s it.

    Switch to our mobile site