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Happy New “Creative Leap” Year

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — wondering whether a von Kármán vortex street might be a good place to take a Paul Lévy walk one of these days — when I’m out and about, foraging for new ideas ]
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"Named after French mathematician Paul Lévy, a Lévy walk is characterized by many small moves combined with a few longer trajectories."

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M’friend Bill Benzon of the New Savanna blog posted two paras out of an NYT blog piece, Navigating Our World Like Birds and Bees, today:

What they have found is that when moving with a purpose such as foraging for food, many creatures follow a particular and shared pattern. They walk (or wing or lope) for a short time in one direction, scouring the ground for edibles, then turn and start moving in another direction for a short while, before turning and strolling or flying in another direction yet again. This is a useful strategy for finding tubers and such, but if maintained indefinitely brings creatures back to the same starting point over and over; they essentially move in circles.

So most foragers and predators occasionally throw in a longer-distance walk (or flight), which researchers refer to as a “long step,” bringing them into new territory, where they then return to short walks and frequent turns as they explore the new place.

I can’t help but think that this may give us a closer approximation to the way minds can think than our usual terms, linear and lateral, or on a wider scale, disciplinary and interdisciplinary thinking, with the short walks involving thoughts that require investigation but not analogy, and the long steps being leaps by analogy into new territory — the familiar hop, skip and jumps we also call creative leaps.

From my POV, seeing both linear and leaping thoughts this way allows for the fact that what we’ve been calling linear thoughts aren’t so much linear as local, while analogical thoughts by their very nature take us from one thought domain to another — via parallelism or opposition — leaping conceptual distances.

Which is why I can wish you a Happy New “Creative Leap” Year! — even though 2014 isn’t divisible by 4 and there will still only be 28 days this February.

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Glass Beads and Complexity

Monday, May 27th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — achieving something like closure on a post I started for Adam Elkus here, with a side dish along the way here ]
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It’s astonishing to me how closely complexity science is related to Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game.

Adam Elkus recently pointed those who follow him to Cosma Rohilla Shalizi, Methods and Techniques of Complex Systems Science: an Overview, and just a quick dip there gave me the graphic I’ve put at the head of this post, together with this quote about “patterns” as Shalizi understands that term:

I mean more or less what people in software engineering do: a pattern is a recurring theme in the analysis of many different systems, a cross-systemic regularity. For instance: bacterial chemotaxis can be thought of as a way of resolving the tension between the exploitation of known resources, and costly exploration for new, potentially more valuable, resources (Figure 1.2). This same tension is present in a vast range of adaptive systems. Whether the exploration-exploitation trade-off arises among artifcial agents, human decision-makers or colonial organisms, many of the issues are the same as in chemotaxis, and solutions and methods of investigation that apply in one case can profitably be tried in another. The pattern “trade-off between exploitation and exploration” thus serves to orient us to broad features of novel situations. There are many other such patterns in complex systems science: “stability through hierarchically structured interactions”, “positive feedback leading to highly skewed outcomes”, “local inhibition and long-rate activation create spatial patterns”, and so forth.

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Let’s start with patterns. The “people in software engineering” Shalizi mentions gleaned their use of the term “pattern” from the architect Christopher Alexander, author of the extraordinary, seminal book A Pattern Language, which in turn has hugely influenced computer science. Alexander distilled the essence of his thinking in his “Bead Game Conjecture”:

That it is possible to invent a unifying concept of structure within which all the various concepts of structure now current in different fields of art and science, can be seen from a single point of view. This conjecture is not new. In one form or another people have been wondering about it, as long as they have been wondering about structure itself; but in our world, confused and fragmented by specialisation, the conjecture takes on special significance. If our grasp of the world is to remain coherent, we need a bead game; and it is therefore vital for us to ask ourselves whether or not a bead game can be invented.

Manfred Eigen, Nobel laureate in Chemistry, called his book with Ruth Winkler-Oswatitsch Laws of the Game — and it deals with molecular biology, cellular automata, game theory, and games. But not just that — it is specifically written with Hesse’s concept in mind:

We hope to translate Hermann Hesse’s symbol of the glass bead game back into reality.

While we’re on about cellular automata, what about Stephen Wolfram? I don’t know that he talks about the Glass Bead Game himself, but at least three people talk about Wolfram’s book, A New Kind of Science, and/or his search engine, Wolfram Alpha as being strongly analogous to Hesse’s game — Jason Dyer, Graeme Philipson, and most recently, Mohammed AlQuraishi. Here’s a key para from Quraishi’s piece:

I think the Game is an intriguing concept, and I think it may one day be realized. In fact I think we are already on our way toward realizing it. In the simplest and most general sense, mathematics and programming languages allow us to formalize all knowledge. Contenders for the language of the Game already exist, at least in principle. But we are further along than that. Search engines like Wolfram Alpha have already begun the process of formalizing diverse pieces of knowledge, unifying them in a single medium, and providing the means to connect and reason about them. A repeated example in the book, the mapping of musical compositions to mathematical formulas or even historical events, is eminently doable within Wolfram Alpha. Much remains to be done of course, and there is no “game” yet that can be played across the vast sea of all human knowledge, but some enterprising individuals have already gotten started on creating it.

And then there’s John Holland, the “father of genetic algorithms”. Holland told an interviewer:

I’ve been working toward it all my life, this Das Glasperlenspiel. It was a very scholarly game, starting with an abacus, where people set up musical themes, then do variations on it, like a fugue. Then they’d expand it to where it could include other artistic forms, and eventually cultural symbols. It became a very sophisticated game for setting up themes, almost as a poet would, and building variations as a composer. It was a way of symbolizing music and of building broad insights into the world.

If I could get at all close to producing something like the glass bead game I can’t think of anything that would delight me more.

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I’ve been working on a playable variant on the Glass Bead Game too, for twenty years quite consciously, and more if you count subterranean stirrings. And I don’t think glass beads, or stones, or chess or go pieces, or beads on an abacus, or strings of ones and zeros, or cells in an agent-based model for that matter, are the way to go. Which is not to say those approaches shouldn’t be tried, or don’t have remarkable things to teach us. I just don’t believe they give us quite what Hesse envisioned:

a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created.

I think what’s important in Hesse’s game is that concepts that humans can grasp should reveal their stunning interrelations to heart and mind. And for that reason, the “moves” in my games [Hipbone, and more recently Sembl] consist of concepts — musical, verbal, visual, mathematical — and the links, the analogies, the “semblances” between them.

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And thus the game is a search for analogies.

The human mind must inevitably perform what Shalizi calls the “trade-off between exploitation and exploration”. Some thoughts are proximate to others, they can be developed without any special insight by regular “linear” thinking. We do this every day, every minute — but it is not particularly revelatory. It doesn’t solve thorny problems, much less create beauty. There is another mode of thinking, however, that leaps between thoughts that are not so “close” but are nevertheless deeply related. To leap the apparent distance between such deeply related thoughts, we deploy analogy and creative thinking, and that is where the aha! of revelation occurs.

So I would suggest there is a close analogy here with the point Shalizi is making with the diagram atop this post. The human mind, to slightly paraphrase Shalizi’s caption, will “exploit the currently-available patch of food” for thought by linear, inside-the-patch thinking, but at full stretch it will also “explore, in hopes of ?nding richer patches elsewhere” — the “elsewhere” being attained precisely by “creative leaps” — by seeing semblances, patterns, analogies.

And to return to my earlier post, Thinking outside the cocoon, of which this post is a continuation, and perhaps the completion….

Shalizi’s “random walk” is thus also the archangel’s “zig-zag wantonness” in that great poem, Tom O’Roughley — when William Butler Yeats asks, “how but in zig-zag wantonness / could trumpeter Michael be so brave?” and writes, “wisdom is a butterfly / and not a gloomy bird of prey”…

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Of hot spots and feedback loops

Friday, October 26th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — with a pinch of humility which, if you ask me, burns hotter than any pepper ]
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Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations‘ Politics, Power, and Preventive Action blog raised a question yesterday that I found irresistible:

Well…

To be more exact, and exercise just a little humility, the question I found so exciting was really the one Crispin Burke posed, in a tweet pointing to Zenko’s piece:

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So I read Zenko’s post with Burke’s term “hot spot” in the back of my head, and when I responded to Zenko, did so in terms of hot spots. Which because they’re like the celebrated “dots” we’re often told we’ve failed to connect, triggered some thoughts that I think are worth repeating, even if the phrasing is a little off from Zenko’s own.

And the only real benefit I can see from my carrying Burke’s “hot spots” over into Zenko’s post is that it raised the issue of peppers, which adds a little spice to my response, and gave me a great graphic to go at the top of this post.

Okay, here’s the key sentence that frames Zenko’s post:

If you ask ten forecasters to predict the next conflict, you’ll likely get ten very different answers. But, they will agree on one thing: it is impossible to know for sure where and when the next conflict will emerge.

Zenko may not mention hot spots as such, but already two things stand out for me: he uses the words “where and when” and “the next” — so he’s thinking in geographic terms and short timelines. In his title, he asks about 2013, which is almost in the greetings card section of my local Safeway by now. And he sees trouble in terms of places, not systems.

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Here’s the response I posted at his CFR blog:

A given hot spot may only be hot when coupled with another spot in a feedback loop – and the two spots may be widely separated geographically.

To my way of thinking, an assessment of incipient troubles needs to look for feedback loops, blowback systems, echo chambers – all of them patterned phenomena that are likely to feature both sides of a potential or ongoing conflict from a systems analytic point of view. A microphone isn’t a hot spot, a loudspeaker isn’t a hot spot, but put the two of them in the same acoustic system and you can generate an ear-shattering howl…

I’d look at “strong” versions of Islamophobic rhetoric and “strong” versions of Islamist rhetoric as a single system transglobally, for example, and I’d want to figure out what would cause dampening effects on both sides.

Another tack I’d take is to ask questions like “what’s in our blind spots” and “what’s under the radar” – I vividly recall hearing Ali Allawi tell a session at the Jamestown Foundation that within Iraq, “most of the dissident Shi’a movements not within the ambit of the political process have very strong Madhist tendencies” and that they were “flying under our radar” — despite the fact that US forces had been involved in a major battle with one such group outside Najaf.

I’ll post a more extended response on Zenpundit – but for now, I’d just like to throw in one additional question: is there a Scoville Scale for the “hotness of spots” as there is for peppers? It’s hard to know how to think through potential vulnerabilities without some sense of both intensity and probability of risk…

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Forget Scoville and his habaneros — let’s get to the meat and potatoes.

I’ll be straightforward about this. I suspect we’re doing our intelligence analysis and decision-making with only one cerebral hemisphere fully functioning — ie with only half a brain — like halfwits one might almost say, but in a strictly metaphorical manner — without benefit of corpus callosum.

We don’t have the leaf > twig > branch > limb > tree > forest > watershed > continent > world zoom down yet.

We don’t think in systems, we think in data points.

Blecch, or d’oh! — your choice.

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So my questions — and I don’t claim by any means to have an exhaustive list, that’s why we have many and varied bright people instead of just one or two — would be along the lines of:

  • how many kinds of metaphorical dry kindling are there in the world, which could turn into metaphorical wildfires?
  • and what sorts of metaphorical sparks could trigger them?
  • where are the rumblings?
  • what are the undercurrents of strong emotion running in different sociological slices of the world, that can be discerned from open sources such as the comments sections of online news media, conspiracy sites, religious group and subgroup (sect/cult) teachings, eccentric political movements, strands of pop culture — fanfic, comics, graffiti — single issue blocs?
  • where are the feedback loops, the parallelisms and oppositions, the halls of mirrors, the paradoxes, the koans, the antitheses, the conceptual antipodes?
  • where does energy drain from the system, and where does it collect, pool, and stagnate?
  • and perhaps most of all, what do we do, ourselves, wittingly or unwittingly, that tends to irritate others enough that they do unto us?
  • and do we consciously want to keep doing those things, and the blowback be damned?

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    Where do we go from here. I think Zen (the Zen of Zenpundit, not the Zen of Zenko in this case) is right: we need to cross-weave our “vertical thinking” tendencies with “horizontal thinking” — see Zen’s posts on understanding cognition 1 and 2, which I take to be foundational for this blog.

    It’s the horizontal part that I’m trying to develop here, in my series of posts under the rubric of “form is insight” — because I think we have the other half of the equation, or the other cerebral hemisphere if you prefer, fairly well in hand.

    As always, it’s our vulnerabilities, dependencies, deficits and blind-spots we should be paying most attention to.

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    “No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” – Madhu

    Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

    [by J. Scott Shipman]

    As mentioned recently, I’m reading Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, by Jon Tetsuro Sumida. Chapter 2 is complete, however Sumida included one sentence at the end of the Introduction that has been nagging me. Professor Sumida said, speaking of Alfred Thayer Mahan:

    “It remains to be seen whether readers exist with the mind and will to accept his guidance on what necessarily is an arduous intellectual and moral voyage into the realm of war and politics.” (emphasis added)

    The phrase “whether readers exist with the mind and will” jumped off the page. Over the last few days I’ve seen several articles of warning of the West’s decline, and while many shed light on symptoms that would indicate decline, most are tired old bromides masquerading as “new thought.” For instance, a few days ago, a friend on Twitter (an Army officer) shared a Tweet from The New Atlanticist of an article called, “Why We Need a Smart NATO.” He tweeted, “Call me a cynic, but haven’t we ALWAYS needed a smart NATO?” Good question. In my estimation, “smart NATO” is yet another venture into sloganeering. While it may call into question my judgement, my first thought on reading “smart NATO,” was a line from the cult movie Idiocracy (if you haven’t seen it, get it) and one scene where the time traveling protagonist is attempting to explain the importance of water to plants to people of the future who use a sports drink instead. Here is the clip:

    but it’s got electrolytes…

    We’re living in a world of unprecedented availability of information, yet our meta-culture seems indifferent to anything that takes more than a few minutes to consume. Among too many military colleagues I know, it is not uncommon to hear the phrase, “I’ve not read Clausewitz through….nobody does…” And I respond, “But if not you, then who will?” If the practitioners of a profession as serious as the profession of arms don’t read and think deeply, who will? And what will become of the timeless principles learned and recorded at the cost of blood and treasure and how those principles translate into how we fight? I have an abiding fear our military, not out of malice but neglect, is cutting the intellectual cord with the past by making it culturally acceptable to be intellectually indifferent and incurious, to sloganeer instead of think, allowing slogans and PowerPoint as woefully inadequate substitutes. There is no app for intellectual development.

    We can’t afford to allow the profession of arms to be anything but intellectually robust and challenging. Zen wrote an excellent summation of the recent posts on disruptive thinkers (which may for some have the ring of sloganeering). However these posts are evidence a lot of the young guys “get it” and want more. Good news, but recognition of the problem is not enough; action is required. Action that may damage a career.

    I’m a member of the US Naval Institute, and an on-going concern of the Institute is relevance to the young folks. Yep, relevance. Relevance with a mission statement like this:

    “To provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense.”

    Reading, thinking, speaking, and writing requires what Sumida referred to as “mind and will.” Leaders create this condition and desire by example, unambiguous expectations, and by listening, adapting, and sharing their knowledge with subordinates and encouraging them to push their intellect. Good leaders will create a space where deep thinking is expected, where curiosity isn’t the exception, but the rule. Many of our folks in uniform compete in the physical fitness arena and do the hard work necessary to be the best physically, but we need more intellectually rigorous competition in both formal schools and at the unit level. Leaders create this environment, for the best leaders want their people to think. Robert Leonhard in his excellent book, The Principles of War for the Information Age said it best:

    “The greatest legacy that a leader can leave behind is a subordinate who is not afraid to think for himself.”

    While we can’t pretend to be in good condition or physically fit, some may be tempted to pretend on the intellectual front. Which brings me back to Madhu’s quote: “No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” Doc Madhu, a blog friend and frequent commenter at zenpundit, was commenting on an excellent essay by Mike Few at Carl Prine’s Line of Departure. The essay was titled Finding Niebuhr, and Mike reminds us of Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer:

    “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

    Courage and wisdom are virtues enabled by a well-developed, well-rounded, curious intellect. “Pretending” in the profession of arms can have deadly consequences, and more often than not, the pretenders are trying to “be someone” instead of “doing something.” More often than not, this is a group effort, enabled by a crippled culture dominated by groupthink.

    Boyd’s challenge continues to ring true:

    “To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?”

    This is cross-posted at To Be or To Do.

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    Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command—currently reading

    Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

    [by J. Scott Shipman]

    Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, by Jon Tetsuro Sumida

    This monograph piqued my interest several weeks ago, as I consider whether or not to re-read Alfred Thayer Mahan‘s classic The Influence of Sea Power on History, 1660-1783. I’m about twenty years removed from my original reading, and honestly wasn’t ready for it when I did read it, so much of what I remember remains a blur at best.

    Professor Sumida leads with a Preface entitled, Musical Performance, Zen Enlightenment, and Naval Command. Sumida draws parallels between the performance of music and the artistry inherent in sound leadership during war. Boyd’s ideas with respect to harmony came to mind. Sumida also draws parallels between Mahan’s ideas and Zen and offers:

    “Mahan’s writing about the art and science of command resembles Zen in three major respects — a pedagogy that attempts to teach that which cannot be directly described in words, the absence of doctrinal ends, and a recognition of the limitations of ratiocination as the basis of action under conditions of rapid and unpredictable change.”

    After finishing the first chapter of Professor Sumida’s work, I was struck by how relevant Mahan’s ideas with respect to leadership development seem to be in harmony with ideas advanced of late regarding the need for disruptive thinkers (this links to Mark’s excellent summary). Sumida portrays Mahan as man convinced of the need for naval executive education that goes beyond the scientific and mechanical, and focused rather on the “deep knowledge” and “truths” found only in history (I agree). He writes:

    Mahan “was convinced that constant and rapid mechanical innovation had upset planning and education to the detriment of command confidence and authority. He feared the consequences of a navy led by indecisive men, bred by bureaucratic routine—or worse, subservience to corrupt civilian officialdom—to follow rules or act politically.”

    At only 116 pages, Sumida’s monograph would normally be a quick read, but I plan to savor every word—and probably read more Mahan.

    More to come.

    Cross posted at To Be or To Do.

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