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Through a glass, darkly

Sunday, August 20th, 2017

[ by Emlyn Cameron — On North Korea: a retrospective as preemptive strike ]

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.


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.

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.

    Spectacularly non-obvious, I: Elkus on strategy & games

    Friday, October 30th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — Adam Elkus, Umberto Eco, Chris Crawford and John Robb ]

    Rock Paper Scissors, diagram by Enzoklop via Wikimedia


    Adam Elkus talks about strategy and games, in the inaugural Center for International Maritime Security “Real Time Strategy” podcast. What delighted me was his commentary on rock paper scissors between the 9.55 and 11 minute marks:

    I would say that if I was to pick a single game for people to play in a structured way to understand a lot about strategy. Here’s, actually I’ll probably surprise a lot of you people here, and say they can probably just do well with rock paper scissors, in a sense that a lot of games have representational issues of how realistic or generalizable they are, and at the core a lot of strategy amounts to making choices about what to do without knowing what your opponent will do, and the game that’s one of the most atomic and basic in the way it represents that is rock paper scissors. But not just a one off game, a finite game, if you play repeated games of rock paper scissors, the way people win is by detecting sequential dependencies in the various choices that their opponent makes – so learning about the opponent over time, particularly their choices of what they’re going to field, is a very useful heuristic, is a very useful educational gesture..

    Adam has more to say about rock paper scissors at his Zenpundit post, Master and (Drone) Commander?


    A couple of additional quotes, from an earlier post of mine in a private venue:

    Here’s Umberto Eco in his Search for the Perfect Language:

    Recent studies have established that unlike western thought, based on a two-valued logic (either true or false), Aymara thought is based on a three-valued logic, and is, therefore, capable of expressing modal subtleties which other languages can only capture through complex circumlocutions…

    And here is Chris Crawford, from his justly famous Art of Computer Game Design:

    The advantage of asymmetric games lies in the ability to build nontransitive or triangular relationships into the game. Transitivity is a well-defined mathematical property. In the context of games it is best illustrated with the rock-scissors-paper game. Two players play this game; each secretly selects one of the three pieces; they simultaneously announce and compare their choices. If both made the same choice the result is a draw and the game is repeated. If they make different choices, then rock breaks scissors, scissors cut paper, and paper enfolds rock. This relationship, in which each component can defeat one other and can be defeated by one other, is a nontransitive relationship; the fact that rock beats scissors and scissors beat paper does not mean that rock beats paper. Notice that this particular nontransitive relationship only produces clean results with three components. This is because each component only relates to two other components; it beats one and loses to the other. A rock-scissors-paper game with binary outcomes (win or lose) cannot be made with more than three components. One could be made with multiple components if several levels of victory (using a point system, perhaps) were admitted.


    John Robb on The Future of Drone Warfare is worth conasidering here, too, and play nicely with more of Adam’s thoughts in the podcast.

    See also my post, Of games III: Rock, Paper, Tank.

    And I think I’d best stop here, and make a second post on rock-scissors-paper and threeness games in general.

    DoubleQuoting Andreessen with Turing

    Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — counterintuitive insights are like eddies in group mind ]



    Adam Elkus said a while back that he wondered “if @pmarca and @hipbonegamer could team up for a double quote post.”

    Well, I’m @hipbonegamer, and @pmarca is Marc Andreessen — and while we haven’t teamed up as such, the DoubleQuote above consists of a tweet from Marc two or three days ago, and a paragraph I ran across yesterday which seemed to echo Marc’s tweet from one of Alan Turing‘s posthumously published essays, and which is juxtaposed with Marc’s tweet as my response. Effectively, Marc made the first move on this two panel board, and I responded with the second — and that’s how this most basic form of my HipBone Games is played.

    The degree of kinship between Marc’s tweet and Turing’s para is even stronger if you look up the link Marc offered in his tweet, which goes to a pre-pub paper by Jerker Denrell and Christina Fang titled Predicting the Next Big Thing: Success as a Signal of Poor Judgment, in which they suggest:

    The explanation is that because extreme outcomes are very rare, managers who take into account all the available information are less likely to make such extreme predictions, whereas those who rely on heuristics and intuition are more likely to make extreme predictions. As such, if the outcome was in fact extreme, an individual who predicts accurately an extreme event is likely to be someone who relies on intuition, rather than someone who takes into account all available information. She is likely to be someone who raves about any new idea or product. However, such heuristics are unlikely to produce consistent success over a wide range of forecasts. Therefore, accurate predictions of an extreme event are likely to be an indication of poor overall forecasting ability, when judgment or forecasting ability is defined as the average level of forecast accuracy over a wide range of forecasts.

    — and then goes on to demonstrate it:

    Consistent with our model, both the experimental and field results demonstrate that in a dataset containing all predictions, an accurate prediction is an indication of good forecasting ability (i.e., high accuracy on all predictions). However, if we only consider extreme predictions, then an accurate prediction is in fact associated with poor forecasting ability.


    The counterintuitive nature of this prediction is delighful in its own right — there’s a sense in which “going against the tide” of what appears obvious is part of a wider pattern that includes knots in a plank and eddies in a stream, close cousins to von Kármán’s vortex streets. And I suspect it’s that built-in paradox that we perceive as “counterintuitive” that caught the eye and attention of Turing, Denrell and Fang, Marc Andreessen and myself. Once again, form, ie pattern, is the indicator of interest.

    So this DQ is for Marc and Adam, raising a toast to Alan Turing, in playful spirit and with season’s greetings.

    “Trust in Govt” DoubleQuote from John Robb

    Saturday, December 6th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — I’d like to define “thinkers” as those who make us think, John Robb being a prime example ]


    Assuming that in this case correlation just might be evidence of causation, what remedy would you suggest?

    I imagine a wide swathe of people will think reducing the size of the bureaucracy could well increase confidence in government — but my own hunch, perhaps counterintuitive, would be to increase confidence in government & watch it cleanse itself of those in various offices who serve no helpful purpose.

    Of course, there may be feedback loops involved, so I don’t consider this a sure-fire remedy. I’m foolish, I was being just a tad optimistic. And besides, correlation doesn’t prove causation, though it may alert us to its possibility.


    John juxtaposes two images there, though, in a thought-provocative way, as is his wont. From a DoubleQuotes point of view — and this is a fine example of what I call “DoubleQuotes in the wild” — the juxtaposition neatly demonstrates the potential benefits of reading DQs both from left to right and from right to left, or more generally, of checking analogies for possible meanings both ways, despite the fact that they often have their own directionality, real or implied.


    What I mean to imply when I say “my own hunch, perhaps counterintuitive, would be to increase confidence in government” is that we need to increase the actual trustworthiness of government, the degree of alignment between words and deeds, the sincerity of its practitioners, the degree to which that Gettysburg phrase, “of the people, by the people, for the people” is reflected in actual practice.

    That must work primarily at the level of the human individual elected to govern: honesty, decency, and humility rather than self-serving, surely, are the primary values called for — a little dignity would be appreciated, too.

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