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Turning analytic bifocals on the Islamic State’s Irregulars

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — IS / Daesh focus is not on the question of derangement but of repentance – Dabiq #6, Aquinas, adaequatio ]

Lindt police
Lindt cafe worker escapes Man Haron Monis hostage situation, Sydney – credit Jason Reed, Reuters


It’s interesting to compare how we think about those like Man Haron Monis on the cusp between derangement, criminality, terrorism and jihad, and how IS views them.

JM Berger remarks of those he classifies as The Islamic State’s Irregulars:

in a number of these cases, it’s unclear whether the attacks were inspired by the Islamic State and its extremist ideology, or whether IS provided a convenient excuse for violence that was already brewing in the hearts of the perpetrators.

while his subtitle asks:

What should we do with lone-wolf attackers who are mentally unstable or deranged? Are they terrorists, too?


Berger, among our most discerning analysts and co-author with Jessica Stern of the keenly awaited book, ISIS: The State of Terror, describes Monis as:

a Shiite Muslim born in Iran who had emigrated to Australia. He had been charged in 2013 as an accessory to murder and faced dozens of sexual assault charges related to his “spiritual healing” practice. His own lawyer described him as “unhinged.”

Clearly, the waves of influence running amok in Monis’ head are nowhere near as simply as our routine categorizations – that he was IS, or simply a terrorist, a mental case, a criminal, a murderer perhaps – would like to suggest. Our best inquiry is into his mental state, his psychological “drivers” – how we can understand him, with easy categorization the sound-bite version providing closure.


The Islamic State views him differently. As described in the sixth issue of their magazine, Dabiq, he is clearly a religious hero, specifically a martyr:

It didn’t take much; he got hold of a gun and stormed a café taking everyone inside hostage. Yet in doing so, he prompted mass panic, brought terror to the entire nation, and triggered an evacuation of parts of Sydney’s central business district. The blessings in his efforts were apparent from the very outset.

Dabiq then paints western media diagnoses made against him as slurs:

Then, as the situation developed and his identity was revealed, we saw a predictable response from the international media. They immediately began searching for anything negative that they could use against him, and subsequently began reporting numerous allegations made against him in an attempt to smear his character and, by extension, the noble cause that he was fighting for – the cause of Allah (ta’?l?).

And then something interesting occurs. Dabiq, half-admitting the accuracy of some of those slurs, defends him not by denying their accuracy but by framing them in the context of repentance and divine mercy:

The fact is, however, that any allegations leveled against a person concerning their past are irrelevant as long as they hope for Allah’s mercy and sincerely repent from any previous misguidance.

This is so with one who embraces Islam and thereby has his past history of shirk and transgression completely erased – as was even the case with many Sahabah. So how much more so in the case of one who followed up his repentance by fighting and being killed in the path of Allah, knowing the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) declared that such a person would be forgiven the moment his blood is first spilled.


“He was deranged, violent, driven, and IS became the hook on which he hanged himself” – or “His sacrificial death absolved him from all flaws and sins”. The contrast is instructive.

It seems best for us to to wear secular / sacred bifocals in our analyses. But how does the analyst gain that faculty which EF schumacher, Thomas Aquinas and Augustine call adaequatio rei et intellectus

according to which to each plane of reality there corresponds an instrument of knowledge adequate to the task of knowing that particular level of reality


Is there truth in victory?

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

[by Lynn C. Rees]

Things change. Beliefs don’t. Facing change, belief clings to the agreeable and resists the disagreeable. Current fashion names this reflex “confirmation bias” and frames it as the enemy of truth. Closer truth names this reflex “concentration of force” and portrays it as the friend of victory.

The notion that discovery of truth is an individual effort persists. By its curiously resilient lights, the only truthful mind is a blank mind. Purge existing beliefs. Capture change free of entanglements. Embrace blindness to see clearly. Above all, lean neither one way nor the other. Only then, after much trial, with the last mental debris bulldozed away, will light come.

No one thinks like this. Despite the occasional brave try, everyone reflexively favors things that fortify belief over things that undermine belief. If truth is a self-help exercise, the existence of confirmation bias means the mind is inescapably flawed. If truth is trial by self-improvement, the only cure for mind flaws is constant reinforcement of what experience suggests is impossible. And if reinforcing the impossible only leads to more impossibility, at least it leads to an impossibility redeemed by its righteous aggression.

And so it would be, if leaving a vacuum and calling it truth is truth. But if truth comes from group contortion rather than individual self-flagellation, confirmation bias is a feature, not a bug. Then the mind is not flawed, at least not in that way. If the mind was guilty of chronic confirmation bias, it would only be guilty of operating to spec.

Those who insist on convening a symposium for a full and frank exchange of views every time they come under fire rarely need a good retirement plan. Because of this, to enforce effectiveness under fire, Darwin decrees that the mind comes preloaded and then preloaded with live ammunition, not blanks. Beyond this, freedom to arbitrarily switch the caliber of mental ammunition mid-stream is sacrificed for clarity of supply: mind yields measured in thoughts per calorie rise when ideas are bought in bulk following spec, especially amid uncertainty in the field.

Because buying ideas in bulk creates economies of scale, if confirmation bias is bias confirmed then it is bias shared. At the tribal scale, where human routine plays out, bias shared is indistinguishable from agreement. It too is guilty of operating to spec: Agreement reduces friction. Reduced friction lets group efforts prioritize targets. Prioritized targets let group effort selectively focus. Selective focus creates opportunities for local asymmetries. Local asymmetries can be exploited to further the tribe.

This makes confirmation bias concentration of force. Concentration of force is biased, first in favor being very strong and then at the decisive point. But it is confirmed only when being very strong and then at the decisive point yields victory. Local superiority in strength at a decisive point is neither constant nor guaranteed: it is only guaranteed to not be constant. So the mind must stay on target: it earns its keep by concentrating for victory, not emptying for truth.

This explains why what humans experience as “me” is a social loop: it is a argument simulator for forging chatter into weapons through endless drill of imagined conversations. It’s a display device, not a thinking machine. The thinking machine lies deep in the mind: real thought emerges from offline processing, especially during sleep. Conscious “me” is suited to rehearsing if small variations in action lead to opportunity through asymmetry. These variations are what gets flung at others as weaponized chatter. Some variations stick, leading to victory. Some miss, leading to defeat. Some should only be flung if clearly labelled FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY.

Truth emerges from accumulations of such victories piled on mass burials of such defeats. It is an unintended byproduct, not an intended end product. But its emergence reaches back to shape its source. Generation by generation, the mind is doomed to more and more bias in favor of weaponized thought measured in victories confirmed, always subject to how well they fit, however haltingly, what is true.

So things change while beliefs don’t. Confirmed truth is biased toward victory and victory is biased toward agreements with friends to win something with something rather than lonely pursuit of nothing through nothing.

See the argumentative theory of reason for more background on this framework.

Mind map usage example: John Boyd Papers Index

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

[by Lynn C. Rees, with points from John Boyd]

Earlier this year, Scott kindly shared a PDF index of the John Boyd Papers (see tail end of PDF here). While PDFs are good for preserving document layout, they’re poor at storing clean text data. Since I wanted the index in a spreadsheet to facilitate searching and sorting, this was a issue. Data extraction into machine readable formats remains painful. Data extraction from PDFs remains even more painful: the priority of PDFs is prettiness for the human eye not prettiness for the machine.

Fortunately, pdftotext can extract the text data to plain text. But, even then, the John Boyd index text was misaligned and out of order due to its formatting in the original document. It also needed to be broken down into useful chunks that could be mapped to spreadsheet cells. I decided to use Freeplane to reformat the text into a form appropriate for piping into a spreadsheet since it has elements of asynchronous text editing.

I don’t know if a true asynchronous text editor exists. I’m not sure I know what one would look like. But I have some notion of what it isn’t. Most text editors and word processors are good at sequential editing of text. They only sort of approach asynchronous text editing where text is moved around and reordered freely without copy and pasting. Asynchronous text editing was what I wanted and Freeplane kind of does it.

I pasted the plain text into Freeplane and started breaking it down. Progress was slow. A lot of awkward and time-consuming cutting and pasting was required and this  was annoying. I had to create additional text manipulation tools for Freeplane. Then things moved along nicely.

Due to intervening time constraints, the Boyd Papers index hasn’t made it to spreadsheet form yet. However, it is broken down in Freeplane. Though mind maps are most commonly used as a brainstorming tool, they are also useful for rearranging existing text data in a hierarchy. Since the John Boyd index mind map is a useful example of this, here’s what’s done so far:

  • the index as an image (5.9 MB in size, require some magnification within the browser)
  • original Freeplane mindmap (536.7 KB in size) 

Book Mini-Review: Makers: the New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson 

This is a fun book  by the former editor-in-chief of WIRED , author of The Long Tail and the co-founder of 3D Robotics, Chris Anderson. Part pop culture, part tech-optimist futurism and all DIY business book, Anderson is preaching a revolution, one brought about by the intersection of 3D printing and open source “Maker movement” culture, that he believes will be bigger and more transformative to society than was the Web. One with the potential to change the “race to the bottom” economic logic of globalization by allowing manufacturing entrepreneurs to be smart, small, nimble and global by sharing bits and selling atoms.

Anderson writes:

Here’s the history of two decades of innovation in two sentences: The past ten years have been about discovering new ways to create, invent, and work together on the Web. The next ten years will be about applying those lessons to the real world.

This book is about the next ten years.

….Why? Because making things has gone digital: physical objects now begin as designs on screens, and those designs can be shared online as files…..once an industry goes digital in changes in profound ways, as we’ve seen in everything from retail to publishing. The biggest transformation, but in who’s doing it. Once things can be done on regular computers, they can be done by anyone. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing happening in manufacturing.

…..In short, the Maker Movement shares three characteristics,  all of which I’d argue are transformative:

1. People using digital desktop tools to create designs for new products and prototype them (“digital DIY”)

2. A cultural norm to share those designs and collaborate with others in online communities.

3. The use of common design file standards that allow anyone, if they desire, to send their designs to commercial manufacturing services to be produced in any number, just as easily as they can fabricate them on their desktop. This radically foreshortens the path from idea to entrepreneurship, just as the Web did in software, information, and content.

Nations whose entire strategy rests upon being the provider of cheapest labor per unit cost on all scales are going to be in jeopardy if local can innovate, customize and manufacture in near-real time response to customer demand. Creativity of designers and stigmergic /stochastic collaboration of communities rise in economic value relative to top-down, hierarchical production systems with long development lags and capital tied up betting on having large production runs.

Interesting, with potentially profound implications.

At the round earths imagin’d corners

Friday, July 20th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — mapping, holding two worldviews in mind at one time, a conductor’s score, complexity thinking ]


About a year ago, the Atlantic reported that the Library of Congress had been given a map of the flat earth, designed according to Biblical principles — yet showing knowledge of the border between the United States and Canada…

Thanks to a post from Jason Wells, I saw it today.

The view that the earth is flat is one worldview, of course, and no longer the prevailing one. As Nicholas Jackson noted at the Atlantic:

The interesting thing about the map is that it was created about 120 years ago by Orlando Ferguson, then a practicing physician in Hot Springs [South Dakota]. This is more than 500 years after most educated people gave up on the idea of the Earth as flat and accepted the spherical viewpoint first expressed by the Ancient Greeks.


It is, however, possible to hold two worldviews in mind at the same time. John Donne manages it in the first line of his extraordinary poem, written at a time when the two views were clashing:

At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow

AT the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you numberlesse infinities
Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never tast deaths woe.
But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space,
For, if above all these, my sinnes abound,
‘Tis late to aske abundance of thy grace,
When wee are there; here on this lowly ground,
Teach mee how to repent; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood.

Donne accomplishes the task of holding two worldviews in mind at one time with four simple words: “round earths imagin’d corners”.


I don’t know how many melodic “lines of thought” the mind can hold in counterpoint at once. I do know it’s an important cognitive skill for us to cultivate. A classical conductor must surely be able to hold as many lines as there are in this page of Olivier Messaien‘s Oiseaux:

As I pointed out in a recent comment here, “somewhere above three and before eleven there’s a point — Miller’s ‘magical number seven, plus or minus two‘ where the human mind can’t hold any more detail, so that’s a cut-off of sorts.”

Well, Messaien clearly imagines the conductor’s mind can follow more than eleven paths…


And then there’s Bob Milne.

I’ll let the Philosophy Compass take it from here:

Bob is predominantly known for his piano concerts of Ragtime and Bogie-Woogie music – and was given the moniker of ‘National Treasure’ by the United States Library of Congress. It was at one of these concerts that drew the attention of Penn State neuroscientist Kerstin Bettermann. At his concerts, Bob often carries on conversations, telling stories and jokes, while simultaneously modulating key signatures over the polyrhythmic Ragtime music. In their broadcast, Radiolab discusses with Dr. Bettermann why this is so surprising.

Language use and musical competency often use the same neural resources: the prototypical language areas in the left hemisphere of the brain, and the working memory circuit that keeps information available and rapidly accessible for a short-period of time. Our ability to use language and engage with music should, on most models of the brain, be competing for these neural resources and interfere with one another. Not so with Bob – he appears to be able to tackle both tasks with ease. Further, while most people can approach this kind of competency in multi-tasking, it usually involves many learning trials, a process of sedimenting the learning into what psychologists call procedural memory, which may have its roots in a different brain region, the cerebellum. But Bob can hear a tune just once, and play it back with commentary.

But that’s not all Bob can do.

In their interview, Dr. Bettermann heard Bob claim something extraordinary. He claims not only to be able to hear a symphony in his head, but that he normally does this with two symphonies simultaneously. Where most individuals would only hear a cacophonous mess – Bob claimed he could dial the relative volume of either symphony up or down, and could zoom in or out of individual instrumentations. To return to the considerations above, Bob further states on the Radiolab website that he does this while driving – another procedural memory task and presumable source of interference. But when Dr. Bettermann challenged him, Bob reluctantly claimed that he could probably do the same (not while driving, mind you) with four simultaneous symphonies.

The claim is something like this: Bob states that he can hold and listen to four symphonies with different keys, instrumentation, tempo and style in his working memory at the same time. And what is stunning is that when they put Bob into an fMRI machine, they verified his claim. Bob could be stopped at any time during his imaginative trip through the four simultaneous symphonies, and hum out the exact phrase that the original recording would be on. Remarkable.


This in turn takes us back to that point Edward Said made, which gave me the basic concept for my Said Sympohony (must get back to that soon):

When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes — opposites in the Hegelian sense — that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom.

Edward W. Said, Power, Politics, and Culture, p. 447 — from the section titled “My Right of Return,” consisting of an interview with Ari Shavit from Ha’aretz Magazine, August 18, 2000.

I asked in a post yesterday how good we now are at modeling or simulating ideas in the “war of ideas” — just for a moment, suppose we could think through all complex geopolitical issues in this polyphonic, contrapuntal way…


Okay, you deserve a reward for faithful reading if you’ve come this far with me. Here’s the incomparable Richard Burton reading Donne’s poem — the text is up above, if you want to follow along:

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