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Of Boxes and Worldviews

Sunday, October 9th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — this won’t be appearing in the Proceedings, sad to say — luckily, here at ZP I’m my own managing editor! ]

Bravely or foolishly, I keep on writing essays about our ignorance, in areas of which I’m ignorant myself. Not surprisingly, I don’t win any prizes, but I do manage to get my feelings about ignorance down and, sometimes, out.

For example, here’s my Coast Guard Essay Contest 2016 submission:


Of Boxes and Worldviews

What boxes may we imagine we’re in, as we consider this 2016 Coast Guard Essay Contest?

I ask this, because the challenge presented in the contest is described in part thus:

No issue is too big or too narrow as long as it makes the Coast Guard stronger. This does not mean authors cannot be critical and take on conventional wisdom and current practices. In fact, we encourage you to push the “dare factor.”

I’d argue that by now, it’s conventional wisdom to challenge conventional wisdom, that we’re now cosily settled in a box called “out of the box thinking” – that we’re effectively in “nested boxes” – and that what’s needed therefore is a grand scale questioning of the very way we think.

Is there such a thing as a Coast Guard question? There are certainly questions that have relevance to the US Coast Guard and its future, and some of them are mentioned in the prologue to this contest announcement – issues in the Arctic, which presumably range from sovereignty issues and under-ice flag raising claims, to the impact of methane release on global warming as permafrost melts in what amounts to a vicious circuit, a feedback loop, a serpent biting its own tail – issues of drug interdiction, to include the use of cartel submarines and drones, and so forth.

My problem with these questions is that they are effectively silos – specialty topics which, yes, the Coast Guard needs to address, and is indeed addressing, but silos, boxes nonetheless. In a word, they tend to the linear, in a world that is inherently cross-disciplinary, feedback-driven, complex – in which even the most straightforward of questions is involved with others in a peculiar web of tensions, arising and dissipating, between numerous vectors and stakeholders, of the sort first identified by Horst Rittel as “wicked problems”, and clarified thus by Dr Jeff Conklin of Cognexus:

A wicked problem is one for which each attempt to create a solution changes the understanding of the problem. Wicked problems cannot be solved in a traditional linear fashion, because the problem definition evolves as new possible solutions are considered and/or implemented.

Wicked problems always occur in a social context — the wickedness of the problem reflects the diversity among the stakeholders in the problem.

Most projects in organizations — and virtually all technology-related projects these days — are about wicked problems. Indeed, it is the social complexity of these problems, not their technical complexity, that overwhelms most current problem solving and project management approaches.

Importantly, Dr Conklin notes,

There are so many factors and conditions, all embedded in a dynamic social context, that no two wicked problems are alike, and the solutions to them will always be custom designed and fitted.

You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution. Indeed, there is no definitive statement of “The Problem.” The problem is ill-structured, an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints.

This takes us way past the elegant, non-linear, feedback-aware models that Jay Forrester pioneered ar MIT under the name of Systems Dynamics, way past the simple rules-sets with which agent-based modeling works, and into a rarefied concept-space where the arts and humanities as much as tech and the sciences — perhaps even more – come into play.

Here the nature of the questions asked is neither disciplinary nor silo’d, the questions are not Coast Guard or Army, Intel or National Security, or even Medical or Aesthetic, Local or Global – but human: human questions, crossing not only the usual disciplinary boundaries, but the great Cartesian boundary between the physical and the spiritual – or as Clausewitz would say, between physical and moral.

It’s far easier to think in terms of men, women and materiel, all of which can be counted, than in terms of morale – which takes the women and men seriously, after all – because morale is far less easily quantified. Indeed, with the exception of Matrix Games, it is far easier to game the physical side of conflict than the human. And yet Clausewitz says,

One might say that the physical seem little more than the wooden hilt, while the moral factors are the precious metal, the real weapons, the finely honed blade.

I suggested above that we need to get out of the Matrioshka-nested boxes of our current thinking, and if I can put that another way, we need to get to the heart of creativity.


From the point of view of pure creativity, as diagnosed by Arthur Koestler in his classic book, The Act of Creation, the aha! or eureka! of the creative breakthrough is in fact a “creative leap” — from one frame of reference to another, as shown in this diagram based on those in his book:


From the point of view of cognitive science, as Gilles Fauconnier & Mark Turner illustrate and confirm with neuro-scientific precision in their book on “conceptual blending”, The Way We Think, the tide has now turned from a more literal to a more analogical understanding of mental processing, at the most basic levels, and across all disciplines:

We will focus especially on the nature of integration, and we will see it at work as a basic mental operation in language, art, action, planning, reason, choice, judgment, decision, humor, mathematics, science, magic and ritual, and the simplest mental events in everyday life. Because conceptual integration presents so many different appearances in different domains, its unity as a general capacity had been missed. Now, however, the new disposition of cognitive scientists to find connections across fields has revived interest in the basic mental powers underlying dramatically different products in different walks of life.

From the point of view of Marshall McLuhan, writing to the poet Ezra Pound back in the 1940s, the issue is that following the rational enlightenment of the eighteenth century, which brought us today’s scientific and technological breakthroughs but has left us a wasteland in terms of values, threatening our planetary home with our weapons, our eager overpopulation, our fierce tribalisms, and excessive energy requirements, we have lost one central ingredient in human thought: the ability to think analogically rather than logically, in terms of relationships rather than linear causality.

McLuhan wrote, presciently,

The American mind is not even close to being amenable to the ideogram principle as yet. The reason is simply this. America is 100% 18th Century. The 18th century had chucked out the principle of metaphor and analogy.

And computer scientist and Pulitzer prize-winner Douglas Hofstadter has aptly subtitled his book Surfaces and Essences, co-authored with cognitive scientist Emmanuel Sander, “Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking”.

The analogical leap is the leap out of the box.


Thus far I’ve de-emphasized the “Coast Guardness” of my thinking. But let’s view some Coast Guard related issues in light of the above:

Let’s take a simple lateral comparison first – how does the Chinese Coast Guard compare with our own, what are the physical overlaps and differences, strengths and weaknesses, of theirs and ours?

Please note that this question cross-cuts, to a greater or lesser degree, with any and all other questions involving the USCG. It also leaps from ours to theirs, responds to Sun Tzu’s “know your enemy”, works by comparison and contrast, invites us into detail – and is far more easily answered in physical terms than in terms of morale. SIGINT is better at locating ships than at reading the mind and heart.


If ever there was a tangled knot, the US system for allocating budgetary items would be it. Not only do the federal services each have a series of individual pulls and pushes, but the fifty states, their senators and congresspeople do too. And then there’s the lame-duck president and the president soon to be elect. Until November, there’s the two party scramble, with voters on both sides of the aisle drifting to and fro between partisanship, frustration, and independence. And there are undertows and swells of popular emotion influencing these other factors.

The Coast Guard, arriving at its wish list for the next budget, must be single minded as to its objectives, flexible as to its willingness to negotiate – to a point – but balancing its clearly understood urgencies against the shifting tides of political wills in concert and in conflict, in a multi-vectorial tug-o-war, one against many. And there are no doubt similar tussles within the USCG, doctrinal purists and innovators, old hands and new, with their own mixed agendas, their temporary victories and defeats.

Humans, wily at times, straightforward at others, subject to shame and pride – the conceptual landscape within which any particular problem plays out – let alone the interlocking monster of the whole – is inevitably subject to constant change, closer to the paradoxical understanding of Heraclitus that all is flux than to Coast Guard Office of Strategic Analysis doctrine. Hey – it may well be that the Coast Guard would by its nature have understood the threat-nature of the Iranians in Millennium Challenge 2002 as well as Paul Riper, playing red team, did. From USCG to Marines is a difference of silo, but cross-fertilization is the name of the next game, and Defense Readiness (CG 3-0, Operations, 2.2.4) 1., Maritime interception/interdiction operations, is an area of USCG theoretical expertise and practical experience.


In short, the move is from blocked out and simplified complexity to a far more richly complex way of thinking, analogous to an n-dimensional concept space of shifting weights and tensions, of which this water-loaded spider’s web is a pretty good two-dimensional analog:

Spider web covered with dew drops

Imagine each water drop is a player, and that the entire web reconfigures as one drop shifts or is shaken, caroming into another, perhaps stretching one of the strands of the web past breaking point – and all this in an n-dimensional space beyond the capacity of most human minds to cognize, let along predict.

It is this kind of web into which our massive data inflows are directed, and the interface between the data-crunching capacity of our computers and analytic software, and the multiplex capabilities of the keenest human analytic minds – that’s where the “intel” usefully functions. Before it hits that interface is is data. Within a capable mind, or within the web-like tensions and resolutions of our keenest domain expert, analytic, and hopefully decision-making minds, is where the intelligence becomes meaningful.

Incalculable data points, multitudinous conflicting interests, and the human instinct for meaning.

As the US Coast Guard’s European colleagues have been finding out under increasing public scrutiny and with painful intensity, not only are there political and scientific issues to navigate, there can also be strictly humanitarian impacts of the sort that we find occurring in the interdiction of refugee boats making the trip between Turkey and the Greek island of Chios.

All in all, the work of the Coast Guard is a potent brew, and Computer Go pales before its complexity.


On a more personal note..

Do you speak any form of Inuit? Or Athanbaskan? There are in fact 16 indigenous languages with corresponding worldviews in Alaska.

What are caribou to you? Are you fluent in the magical worldview of the shamans? And what, as climate change drastically reshapes native Alaskan living, takes the place of shamanism in the leadership of native populations – in Alaska, an area of special concern to the USCG?

If you are of a scientific bent – and the USCG Academy awards Bachelor of Science degrees, so most who have passed through those gates into the Service probably are – how concerned are you by global warming – and how concerned by comparison with the preservation of Inuit or Athabaskan culture?

The truth is that both go together.

Military and law enforcement agencies are tasked with setting things right in the external world, but the world of the human psyche has its own specialists – psychiatrists no less than spiritual leaders – and while at some level the US Presidency is often considered the pinnacle of human power, there’s also a category of figures we respect for a different kind of authority, one that is earned above all by integrity and generosity of spirit: the names of Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi and Pope Francis come to mind.

Each of these four figures embodies the practice of contemplation in action – a practice which looks within the self for a compassionate response to adversity. Among the Inuit, and across the circumpolar region more generally, this practice of looking inward for values is the particular task of the shaman – and more recently, the artist.

The Yupik, Inupiaq and Irish artist Susie Silook’s work, Looking Inside Myself, is a recent sculptural presentation of this theme:


Cultural anthropology thus opens us to entire worldviews which are themselves both important to local stakeholders and profoundly illuminating in their own right. Indeed, in these worldviews, the whales, walrus, seals, the ravens and reindeer have voices – a concept largely foreign to western thinking until Mr Justice Douglas gave his dissenting opinion in SIERRA CLUB v. MORTON, 405 U.S. 727 (1972), alerting the nation via the Supreme Court that ecological considerations could no longer be ignored in coming to terms with the world we live in. In the arctic, such considerations have peculiar force, by reason of the extreme nature of the human and natural habitat.

An anthropologist such as Richard Nelson can live in the style that anthropologists term “participant observation” with peoples of very different cultural assumptions than our own for extended periods, and with no other motive than to understand their host cultures — and thus gain both the people’s trust and a depth of insight into their understanding of the world — of which Nelson’s Make Prayers to the Raven, in which he presents an Athabaskan view of the natural world, is a celebrated example. The study of the circumpolar bear cult, as presented by Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders in their The Sacred Paw: the Bear in Nature, Myth and Literature, arguably brings us as close to the archaic origins of religion as human science can bring us.

Somehow, these matters of extreme subtlety must at times be borne in mind while making the split-second decisions so characteristic of both military and law enforcement practice. And the higher the decision-maker in an action-oriented profession, the greater the need for deep understanding. In Napoleon’s own words, we can see that his actions, too, sprang from contemplation:

It is not genius which reveals to me suddenly and secretly what I should do in circumstances unexpected by others; it is thought and meditation.

Thought and meditation are the activities that prepare the mind for what Clausewitz termed the coup d’oeil:

When all is said and done, it really is the commander’s coup d’œil, his ability to see things simply, to identify the whole business of war completely with himself, that is the essence of good generalship. Only if the mind works in this comprehensive fashion can it achieve the freedom it needs to dominate events and not be dominated by them.

I have emphasized the cultural and contemplative side of things because Clausewitz’ “comprehensive” fashion of thinking demands it. The USCG Arctic Strategy mentions cultural matters only very briefly, giving far more weight to ecological considerations – which while complex in their own right, and sadly contested in the case of global warming, are far easier for a contemporary western, scientifically-trained mind to comprehend than the diverse human value systems of other cultures.

Indeed, from an Alaskan native perspective, climate change and the tradition values of the peoples are tightly coupled at the leadership level. From a native perspective, there is a need for a new kind of leadership, one that replaces traditional shamanism, well-adapted to earlier conditions but now lost, with an exacting blend of traditional and modern forms of knowledge. As Steven Becker puts it in “A Changing Sense of Place: Climate and Native Well Being”, in face of an uncertain future, “agile and adaptive leaders” are required, who “can meet the physical, economic, and sociocultural challenges resulting from climate change.”

These leaders need to be well versed in western science and management, but they must also be thoroughly grounded in their Native language, culture, and traditions (Kawagley 2008). They must see the value in both Native and western science, see the complementary uses of the two, and use both methods appropriately as the basis of true adaptive management (Tano 2006).

I have emphasized this “new shamanic leadership” issue, not because interactions with native leaders will occupy more USGC time and attention than air-sea rescues or other highly visible, courageous and newsworthy exploits but precisely because they are subtle, not likely to capture headlines, and thus easily overlooked – and also because they touch on my own personal interests.

But not only are these “agile leaders” (or “new shamans” as I prefer to think of them) leaders with whom forward-thinking Alaska-based USCG members may on occasion fruitfully collaborate, but because they are also emblematic of leadership in general, embodying both the best of scientific and technological “hands on” know-how with the finest human and ecological values.

In this, they represent the way forward, not just for the Coast Guard or Alaska, but for contemporary civilization in a world of rapid, complex, often dangerous, and ultimately transformative change.


Well, whaddaya think, eh?

On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: ten

Sunday, October 9th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a long, lazy Sunday post, packed with quirky interest and neat maps ]

Ten? What’s so special about ten, hunh? Just because you have ten fingers, you suppose that makes ten special?



As simple as a map can get:

Simon Kirby, The Worry Line


As complex as one can get:

Eric Jaffe, The World’s 15 Most Complex Subway Maps

And I mean complex, cognitively complex:

When it comes to information processing, an average person’s “cognitive threshold” is about 250 connections, or the equivalent of roughly eight bits of data, according to the researchers. New York’s system neared that limit, with 161 total connections, and the most complicated two-transfer trip a person could make on the subway exceeded it—clocking in at 8.1 bits. Maps for the Paris Metro (with 78 total connections), Tokyo Metro (56), and London Tube (48) clustered around six bits of information.



Nick van Mead, Can you identify the world cities from their ‘naked’ metro maps?

The Guardian wanted to know if you could recognize various cities if shown their metro maps without the stations markings.. and i could manage Chicago (above).



Chris Ward, Coffee Stops

Sadly, the map is not the territory, or I could get my Java from South Ken while sitting at my desk just outside Sacramento.

The London Coffee Map, “Coffee Stops,” was designed by Chris Ward, who calls himself “the boss who works from coffee shops.” He recently published Out of Office: Work Where You Like and Achieve More, a best-selling guide to leading a successful working life outside an office building. Apparently, being properly caffeinated is one of his biggest tips. Now you can grab your joe at local London cafes with quaint names like Scooter and Electric Elephant.



I could then quaff it from an appropriately poetical Map Mug:

Royal Shakespeare Company, Greater Shakespeare Map Mug

The map here representing affinities between characters in the Bard’s various plays:




— and we’re half way to ten, let’s imagine ourselves at Shakespeare and Co‘s bookstore and cafe in Paris





While we’re on a literary streak, here’s a thumbnail of one of artist Rod McLaren‘s illuminations of Italo Calvino‘s Invisible Cities:

Rod McLaren, Invisible Cities Illustrated #2: Trude/Ersilia

The detail here is fantastic, as befits Calvino’s work:

The diagram, a network of curved lines connecting to every other node on a 6 x 5 grid, has two configurations: if the picture is hung one way up, it shows the “Ersilia configuration” (where the lines are like the threads strung between the buildings of Ersilia); if hung the other way up, it shows that of Trude (where the lines are like a complicated airline route map).

Ersilia (Trading Cities 4, p78):

In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, or authority, agency. When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain. From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia’s refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.

They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away.

Thus, when travelling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of the abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.

Trude (Continuous Cities 2, p128):

If on arriving at Trude I had not read the city’s name written in big letters, I would have thought I was landing at the same airport from which I had taken off. The suburbs they drove me through were no different from the others, with the same greenish and yellowish houses. Following the same signs we swung around the same flower beds in the same squares. The downtown streets displayed goods, packages,signs that had not changed at all. This was the first time I had come to Trude, but I already knew the hotel where I happened to be lodged; I had already heard andspoken my dialogues with the buyers and sellers of hardware; I had ended other days identically,looking through the same goblets at the same swaying navels.

Why come to Trude? I asked myself. And I already wanted to leave.

“You can resume your flight whenever you like,” they said to me, “but you will arrive at another Trude, absolutely the same, detail by detail. The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport changes.”

All of which reminds me of nothing so much as Antonio Gaudi‘s model — made of hanging chains — catenaries —


which when turned upside down provide the structure for his Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona:




Meanwhile, back in London, we have maps of the ghost (ie abandoned) London tube stops:

Dylan Maryk, Ghost Stations On The London Underground


That’s one way to de-clutter the Tube map — show what ain’t there any more.

Here’s another —

Matt Thomason, 150 years of The London Underground

Don’t ask me what it means — seeing as Hugh Grant gets a station, it’s either gentlemanly or ungentlemanly, I’m not sure which.



I simply didn’t know you’d have to travel this far to get from Dylan to the Beatles:

Dorian Lynskey, in Tufte, Response to London Underground maps

I mean —

Michelle Geslani, The Beatles and Bob Dylan met 50 years ago today


I’ve kept this one for last because in some ways it’s the subtlest:


It’s the work of architect Jug Cerovic., and on his page In Borders We Trust he offers this conceptual comment:

Borders are primarily a mental construct.

Just like a deity, they exist only insofar as People believe in them. Question is however how necessary our belief in their existence is and when exactly does that belief start harming us?

At which point do borders cease to be a convenient orientation marker, a helpful tool for the comprehension of the land we inhabit, a common identifier for the construction of a shared identity? At which point do borders become a dogmatic limitation to imagination, a terrifying prison for the body and mind, a symbol and support of hatred?

Borders do not possess an inherent bad or good character, on the contrary they are a malleable concept subject to appropriation and interpretation.

“In borders we trust” examines the perception, physical manifestation and enforcement of the couple formed by People and Borders focusing on three key areas of the contemporary migration routes:

  • Gibraltar
  • Serbia
  • Levant
  • For this purpose the peculiar relationship between Borders and People is illustrated with a sequence of three distinct maps:

  • Borders without People
  • Borders with People
  • People without Borders
  • This novel perspective of a seemingly familiar representation, with each component of the couple shown separately and juxtaposed to their combined illustration, questions the articulation and pertinence of our present predicament.

    Happily, this is an area that I’ve delved into at some length myself in my earlier post, No man’s land, one man’s real estate, everyone’s dream? — with specific reference to ISIS’ bulldozing of the border between Iraq and Syria, and the Basque country, Euskadi, saddling the French / Spanish border.

    Cerovic has achieved an eminently practical limited version of one of my own grandiose castle-in-air schemes — building a universal graphical mapping system. Cerovic’s version offers us a universal graphical underground / tube / metro mapping system, in the form of his book One Metro World — you still have a couple of weeks to support it on Kickstarter!



    Earlier in this series:

  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: preliminaries
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: two dazzlers
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: three
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: four
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: five
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: six
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: seven
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: eight
  • And hey, and we’re back at maps — where we started in

  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: nine
  • Washington’s governing elites think we’re all morons

    Monday, October 3rd, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — a study in the mighty and their lowly, knowledge and ignorance, truth and falsehood ]


    Vice News, Washington’s governing elites think we’re all morons


    First, if you’ll permit, the simple truth:

    Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.

    That’s Laurence J Peter, and it’s a quote so succinct and powerful that Jeff Conklin puts it, in large print, above the title of his pamphlet on wicked problems:


    The simple truth is that the truth is complex, beyond the minds of elites and morons, deplorables and desirables alike.


    Next, the untruth:

    The untruth is in a view down the nose from one human person at another, or at a group, a crowd, a mob — a diversity of others.


    You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the ‘basket of deplorables’. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic – you name it.


    There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. .. These are people who pay no income tax. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. .. And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

    Such sentiments remind me irresistably of the Magnificat — given here in my own version:

    He is not one who is ashamed to show his strength,
    and buffets proud folk about like leaves in a gale.
    He upsets those that hold themselves high and mighty
    and rescues the least one of us.
    He feeds the hungry,
    and tells the rich they can go fetch their own food.


    And then the nuance..

    Let’s start with the fact that I’m a snob. I’m an almost equal-opportunity despiser. I prefer not to act on my snobbery, except when choosing which sorts of books and music I wish to consume, but it’s there in me, like an undertow, like an unrest.

    Now we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s the setup, as described in What Washington Gets Wrong:

    73 percent of government officials think the public knows little or nothing about programs aimed at helping the poor, 71 percent of them think the public knows little or nothing about science and technology policy, and 61 percent of them think the public knows almost nothing about childcare. In fact, when it comes to fundamental policy areas like social security, public schools, crime, defense and the environment, it was hard to find government officials who thought the public knew “a great deal.”

    Assuming Americans know so little, government officials tend to use their own judgment rather than the people’s when making policy decisions. With issues of science and defense, more than half of officials think they should “always” or “mostly” heed their own opinions. With crime, welfare and the environment, at least 42 percent of officials who felt the same way.

    Okay, first off, government officials — how well do they stack up?

    This is from Counterpunch — it’s a succinct summary of a Jeff Stein piece from the New York Times:

    There are very few people in the U.S. government who understand basic Islamic history or even regard it as important. In 2002 Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.), the incoming chairman of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, was asked by a reporter whether al-Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite. “Predominantly — probably Shiite,” he responded stupidly. And what about Lebanon’s Hizbollah? “Hizbollah. Uh, Hizbollah . . . Why do you ask me these questions at 5 o’clock?” He later added, “Speaking only for myself, it’s hard to keep things in perspective and in the categories.” Obviously the Intelligence Committee chairman was unaware that Hizbollah is a Shiite organization aligned with Shiite Iran and Shiite-led Syria against al-Qaeda-type Sunni Islamist forces.

    Jeff Stein, the national security editor of Congressional Quarterly, wrote a New York Times op-ed in 2002 highlighting the (bipartisan) ignorance among Washington “counterterrorism officials” including key Congressional committee members about the divisions within Islam. He had asked many of them the fundamental question, “What’s the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” and was shocked by their responses. “Most American officials I’ve interviewed,” he concluded, “don’t have a clue.” Rep. Jo Ann Davis, Republican Congresswoman from Virginia then heading the subcommittee overseeing much of the CIA’s work with Muslim assets, told Stein, “The Sunni are more radical than the Shia. Or vice versa.” (In other words, all Muslims are radical; it’s just a question of degree. Talk about Islamophobia. And talk about ignorance!)

    Alabama Republican Congressman Terry Everett, head of a subcommittee on tactical intelligence, told Stein after some briefing, “I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something. Now that you’ve explained it to me, what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult.” In 2001, after FBI counterterrorism chief Gary Bald had publicly revealed his ignorance about Islam, FBI spokesman John Miller declared such knowledge to be unnecessary, and indeed made it a point to belittle it. “A leader needs to drive the organization forward,” he told Stein. “If he is the executive in a counterterrorism operation in the post-9/11 world, he does not need to memorize the collected statements of Osama bin Laden, or be able to read Urdu to be effective. … Playing ‘Islamic Trivial Pursuit’ was a cheap shot for the lawyers and a cheaper shot for the journalist. It’s just a gimmick.”

    That was in 2006, ten years after Osama bin Laden’s Decxlaration of War against the United States, and five years after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

    In fact, one might say, when it comes to fundamental policy areas like defense.. government officials aren’t necessarily terribly savvy. And I’m relieved to know that by March 2014, at least, the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, knew that ISIS has an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision.”

    Of course, if Dabiq falls, as it very soon many, that strategic vision may get stretched to breaking point..


    So much for government officials. What of the general population, down on whom those paragons of virtue look?

    In November 2002, a year after the 9/11 attacks, according to National Geographic News:

    In a nation called the world’s superpower, only 17 percent of young adults in the United States could find Afghanistan on a map, according to a new worldwide survey released today.

    Ast forward to 2006, and a National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs Geographic Literacy Study of American youth between ages 18 and 24 finds:

    Six in ten (63%) cannot find Iraq on a map of the Middle East, despite near-constant news coverage since the U.S. invasion of March 2003. Three-quarters cannot find Indonesia on a map ñ even after images of the tsunami and the damage it caused to this region of the world played prominently across televisions screens and in the pages of print media over many months in 2005. Three-quarters (75%) of young men and women do not know that a majority of Indonesiaís population is Muslim (making it the largest Muslim country in the world), despite the prominence of this religion in global news today. Neither wars nor natural disasters appear to have compelled majorities of young adults to absorb knowledge about international places in the news.

    Of course, that’s young people.

    Young people today .. if you want to dismiss these findsings .. or young people are our future .. if you want to let the impact settle in.


    Here, for my convenience, is a map kindly provided by The Washington Post in 2013, in an intriguing Ezra Klein piece aptly titled Most Americans can’t find Syria on a map. So what?


    Maybe Firesign Theater had it right when they titled their 1971 album: I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus.

    Considering Viv, Wolfram Language, Syntience, and the GBG

    Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — expanding the computable to include qualitative ideation ]

    Let’s start with Viv. It looks pretty phenomenal:

    That video is almost exactly a month old, and it’s pitched at “the universe of things” with a marked tilt towards e-commerce. Fair enough.


    It’s instructive to compare it with Wolfram Language, although here I’ve had to go with a video that’s a couple of years old:

    Stephen Wolfram, the creator of both Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha, is focused on the world of numbers — and incidentally, that includes graphs of the sort I’ve been discussing in my series here On the felicities of graph-based game-board design, as you can see in the video above.

    It will be interesting to see how the two of them — Viv and Wolfram — interact over time. After all, one of the purposes of these lines of development is to dissolve the “walled gardens” which serve as procrustean beds for current thinking about the nature and possibilities of the web. Do these two gardens open to each other? If so, why? If not, why not?


    I’ve talked enough for my purposes about AlphaGo and it’s narrowly focused though impressive recent triumph, and the wider picture behind it, as expressed by Monica Anderson — and tying the two together, we have this video from Monica’s timeline, Bob Hearn: AlphaGo and the New Era of Artificial Intelligence:

    Bob Hearn: AlphaGo and the New Era of Artificial Intelligence from Monica Anderson on Vimeo.

    Monica’s Syntience, it seems to be, is a remarkable probing of the possibilities before us.


    But I’m left asking — because Hermann Hesse in his Nobel-winning novel The Glass Bead Game prompts me to ask — what about the universe of concepts — and in particular for my personal tastes, the universe of musical, philosophical, religious and poetic concepts. What of the computational mapping of the imagination?

    My question might well have large financial implications, but I’m asking it in a non-commercially and not only quantitative way. I believe it stands in relationship to these other endeavors, in fact, as pure mathematics stands in relation to physics, and hence also to chemistry, biology and more. And perhaps music stands in that relationship to mathematics? — but I digress.

    If I’m right about the universe of concepts / Glass Bead Game project, it will be the most intellectually demanding, the least commercially obvious, and finally the most revelatory of these grand-sweep ideas..

    From my POV, it’s also the one that can give the most value-add to human thinking in human minds, and to CT analysts, strategists, journos, educators, therapists, bright and playful kids — you name them all!

    Seeing it in terms of counterpoint, as Hesse did — it’s the virtual music of ideas.

    Turchin on Human Sacrifice and Society

    Tuesday, April 12th, 2016

    [by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

    Last week I posted on Human Sacrifice and State-Building, which focused on research findings published in Nature regarding the role of human sacrifice in establishing hierarchical societies. My interest was primarily in the way the gory practices of ISIS today seem to mirror this dynamic from prehistoric, ancient and chiefdom societies. Bogfriend T. Greer helpfully alerted me to the fact that noted scholar and cultural evolutionist, Peter Turchin also blogged regarding this research and took a critical posture.  Turchin, also addressed human sacrifice to some degree in his latest book, Ultrasociety, which has been on my list to read for his take on the role of warfare but which I have yet to do.

    Turchin’s reasons for blogging this article are different from mine, so I suggest that you read him in full as I intend to comment only on selected excerpts:

    Is Human Sacrifice Functional at the Society Level?

    An article published this week by Nature is generating a lot of press. Using a sample of 93 Austronesian cultures Watts et al. explore the possible relationship between human sacrifice (HS) and the evolution of hierarchical societies. Specifically, they test the “social control” hypothesis, according to which human sacrifice legitimizes, and thus stabilizes political authority in stratified class societies.

    Their statistical analyses suggest that human sacrifice stabilizes mild (non-hereditary) forms of social stratification, and promotes a shift to strict (hereditary) forms of stratification. They conclude that “ritual killing helped humans transition from the small egalitarian groups of our ancestors to the large stratified societies we live in today.” In other words, while HS obviously creates winners (rulers and elites) and losers (sacrifice victims and, more generally, commoners), Watts et all argue that it is a functional feature—in the evolutionary sense of the word—at the level of whole societies, because it makes them more durable.

    There are two problems with this conclusion. First, Watts et al. do not test their hypothesis against an explicit theoretical alternative (which I will provide in a moment). Second, and more important, their data span a very narrow range of societies, omitting the great majority of complex societies—indeed all truly large-scale societies. Let’s take these two points in order.

    Turchin is correct that study focuses on Austronesian islanders in clan and tribal settings and that’s a pretty narrow of a base from which to extrapolate. OTOH, the pre-Cortez estimated population of the Aztec empire begins at five million on the low end. Estimates of the population of Carthage proper, range from 150,000 to 700,000. That’s sufficiently complex that the Mexica and Carthaginians each established sophisticated imperial polities and yet both societies remained extremely robust practitioners of human sacrifice at the time they were conquered and destroyed.

    Maybe a more useful approach than simply expanding the data set would be to ask why human sacrifice disappears earlier in some societies than in others or continues to be retained at high levels of complexity?

    An alternative theory on the rise of human sacrifice and other extreme forms of structural inequality is explained in my recent book Ultrasociety ….

    ….Briefly, my argument in Ultrasociety is that large and complex human societies evolved under the selection pressures of war. To win in military competition societies had to become large (so that they could bring a lot of warriors to battle) and to be organized hierarchically (because chains of command help to win battles). Unfortunately, hierarchical organization gave too much power to military leaders and their warrior retinues, who abused it (“power corrupts”). The result was that early centralized societies (chiefdoms and archaic states) were  hugely unequal. As I say in Ultrasociety, alpha males set themselves up as god-kings.

    Again, I have not read Ultrasociety, but the idea that war would be a major driver of human cultural evolution is one to which I’m inclined to be strongly sympathetic. I’m not familiar enough with Turchin to know if he means war is”the driver” or “a major driver among several” in the evolution of human society.

    Human sacrifice was perhaps instrumental for the god-kings and the nobles in keeping the lower orders down, as Watts et al. (and social control hypothesis) argue. But I disagree with them that it was functional in making early centralized societies more stable and durable. In fact, any inequality is corrosive of cooperation, and its extreme forms doubly so. Lack of cooperation between the rulers and ruled made early archaic states highly unstable, and liable to collapse as a result of internal rebellion or conquest by external enemies. Thus, according to this “God-Kings hypothesis,” HS was a dysfunctional side-effect of the early phases of the evolution of hierarchical societies. As warfare continued to push societies to ever larger sizes, extreme forms of structural inequality became an ever greater liability and were selected out. Simply put, societies that evolved less inegalitarian social norms and institutions won over and replaced archaic despotisms.

    The question here is if human sacrifice was primarily functional – as a cynically wielded political weapon of terror by elites – or if that solidification of hierarchical stratification was a long term byproduct of religious drivers. It also depends on what evidence you count as “human sacrifice”. In the upper Paleolithic period, burial practices involving grave goods shifted to include additional human remains along with the primary corpse. Whether these additional remains, likely slaves, concubines or prisoners slain in the burial ritual count as human sacrifices in the same sense as on Aztec or Sumerian altars tens of thousands of years later may be reasonably disputed. What is not disputed is that humans being killed by other humans not by random violence or war but purposefully for the larger needs of a community goes back to the earliest and most primitive reckoning of what we call “society” and endured in (ever diminishing) places even into the modern period.

    This also begs the question if burial sacrifices, public executions of prisoners and other ritualistic killings on other pretexts conducted by societies of all levels of complexity are fundamentally different in nature from human sacrifices or if they are all subsets of the same atavistic phenomena binding a group through shared participation in violence.

    ….The most complex society in their sample is Hawaii, which is not complex at all when looked in the global context. I am, right now, analyzing the Seshat Databank for social complexity (finally, we have the data! I will be reporting on our progress soon, and manuscripts are being prepared for publication). And Hawaii is way down on the scale of social complexity. Just to give one measure (out of >50 that I am analyzing), polity population. The social scale of Hawaiian chiefdoms measures in the 10,000s of population, at most 100,000 (and that achieved after the arrival of the Europeans). In Afroeurasia (the Old World), you don’t count as a megaempire unless you have tens of millions of subjects—that’s three orders of magnitude larger than Hawaii!

    Why is this important? Because it is only by tracing the trajectories of societies that go beyond the social scale seen in Austronesia that we can test the social control hypothesis against the God-Kings theory. If HS helps to stabilize hierarchical societies, it should do so for societies of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions, tens of millions, and so on. So we should see it persist as societies grow in size.

    Well, human sacrifice persisted into the classical period of Greece and Rome, though becoming infrequent and eventually outlawed, though only during the last century of the Roman republic. That’s a significant level of complexity, Rome having become the dominant power in the Mediterranean world a century earlier. Certainly human sacrifice did not destabilize the Greeks and Romans, though the argument could be made that it did harm Sparta, if we count Spartan practices of infanticide for eugenic reasons as human sacrifice.

    What muddies the waters here is the prevalence of available substitutes for human sacrifice – usually animal sacrifice initially – that competed and co-existed with human sacrifice in many early societies for extremely long periods of time. Sometimes this readily available alternative was sufficient to eventually extinguish human sacrifice, as happened with the Romans but other times it was not, as with the Aztecs. The latter kept their maniacal pace of human sacrifice up to the end, sacrificing captured Spanish conquistadors and their horses to the bloody Sun god. Human sacrifice did not destabilize the Aztecs and it weakened their tributary vassals but the religious primacy they placed on human sacrifice and the need to capture prisoners in large numbers rather than kill them in battle hobbled the Aztec response to Spanish military assaults.

    Comments? Questions?

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