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From the caliphate to Ferguson and back, it’s a small world

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- starting with the news, closing with Jay Forrester & the impact of systems dynamics on our understanding of cause and effect -- a catchup post ]
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Clearing the decks grom the last few days, I found this DoubleQuote in the Wild from Ferguson staring out at me from my twitter feed — suggesting just how intricately interwoven our world really is:

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Souad Mekhennet has a piece titled Even the Islamists of ISIS are obsessing over Ferguson in the Washington Post:

You can understand if President Obama would rather talk about the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq, where he has scored some victories, than talk about the unholy mess in Ferguson, Mo. Surprisingly, though, ISIS militants are following developments in the St. Louis suburb, and some of them would rather focus on that. According to interviews and social media, members of the group and sympathizers with its jihadist ideology are closely tracking the events in the St. Louis suburb, where protesters and police have clashed. In it, they see opportunity.

Here are a couple of ISIS-fan tweets:

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Look, the point I’m making isn’t about Ferguson, it isn’t about the Islamic State, it has to do with the way that an event in one place whill have myriad unexpected effects downstream. The classic case which really opened my eyes to this was Aum Shinrikyo — the group that released sarin in the Tokyo subway system — sending a planeload of its members to Zaire in an attempt to collect Ebola samples for their biochem weapons labs.

Someone in a medium size yoga cult in Japan read the New Yorker and learned that Ebola esisted and was lethal, and the next thing you know there’s a religious terror group, led by a guy who reads Nostradamus, Asimov and Revelation — and has been granted a photo op with the Dalai Lama — working diligently to get that capability.

That was back in the last century, but Ebola’s in the news again these days, and it turns out that epidemiology needs to take into account pervasive belief in some affected corners of Africa that the whole business is a conspiracy designed to imprison Africans in “clinics” — the result being riots against at least one clinic, and blood-stained bedclothes and live virus carriers being dispersed into a poorly protected slum.

Epidemiology as theorized and modeled should be cleaner than that. But then there are other factors — in the case of polio, there’s CIA use of a vaccination team as cover for an attempt to obtain bin Laden’s DNA in Abbottabad, resulting in widespread rumors of conspiracy, refusal of vaccinations, and a resurgence of the disease.

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Big question: how can you figure out the unknown unknowns represented by riots affecting quarantine? words spoken when a mic supposedly off is in fact on? the impact of large scale climate engineering.

One of the ideas that has most influenced me in my thinking about games, simulations and models over the last dozen or more years comes from Jay Forrester. I’ll quote him from section 4.1, Cause and Effect Not Closely Related in Time or Space, in his 2009 paper, Learning through System Dynamics as Preparation for the 21st Century, though I think I first ran across the idea in one of his books, probably Urban Dynamics (1969) or World Dynamics (1971):

Most understandable experiences teach us that cause and effect are closely related in time and space. However, the idea that the cause of a symptom must lie nearby and must have occurred shortly before the symptom is true only in simple systems. In the more realistic complex systems, causes may be far removed in both timing and location from their observed effects.

From earliest childhood we learn that cause and effect are closely associated. If one touches a hot stove, the hand is burned here and now. When one stumbles over a threshold, the cause is immediately seen as not picking the foot high enough, and the resulting fall is immediate. All simple feedback processes that we fully understand reinforce the same lesson of close association of cause and effect. However, those lessons are aggressively misleading in more complex systems.

In systems composed of many interacting feedback loops and long time delays, causes of an observed symptom may come from an entirely different part of the system and lie far back in time.

To make matters even more misleading, such systems present the kind of evidence that one has been conditioned by simple systems to expect. There will be apparent causes that meet the test of being closely associated in time and in location. However, those apparent causes are usually coincident symptoms arising from a distant cause. People are thereby drawn to actions that are not relevant to the problem at hand.

That stunned me. But it gets a little worse:

Comments such as I have just made about cause and effect carry little conviction from being stated in a text. Only after a student has repeatedly worked with models that demonstrate such behavior, and has had time to observe the same kinds of behavior in real life, will the idea be internalized and become part of normal thinking.

I don’t think that’s quite right, I think we’re now seeing generations arise for whom system dynamics and networked thinking seem progressively more “intuitive” — more in tune with the zeitgeist.

But the decision makers? As far as I can see, they are largely impervious to the kinds of thinking necessary to navigate our complexly interwoven envirorment.

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Wearing their t-shirts like football uniforms

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- preliminary thoughts about an Indian group photograph, Tamils & the calphate ]
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I talked about “caliphate” merchandise just the other day, and pointed specifically to t-shirts. I’m sorry to say those tees have now cropped up in my news feed a second time, this time under less auspicious circumstances:

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Those, my friends, are Tamil (southern) Indians who support ISIS and the “caliphate”. Prayaag Akbar at Scroll.In has this anlysis:

A photograph has been doing the rounds of the Internet of a large group of young Tamil Muslims clad in black ISIS t-shirts. On the Internet it is being brandished by Hindu nationalists as justification for their narrow parochialism, but it should worry every citizen of India. Tamils have nothing to do with Iraq or Syria. Then why this adherence to ISIS over Al-Qaeda, indeed over the jihad in Kashmir?

The answer lies in ISIS’ rallying call. The politically savvy and militarily capable self-named Caliph of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has astutely positioned his struggle as one against not the West but against Shia overreach. While many have characterised his ideology as pan-Islamist, it is in fact pan-Sunni. He seeks to create a Sunni state stretching across West Asia and the subcontinent. Needless to say, Shias will have at best subsidiary part in it.

There’s more on the Scroll.In site, of course, but those are the key paras for my current purpose.

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Dots — as yet pretty much unconnected — to keep an eye onin the subcontinent:

  • Hindu nationanalism & Hindutva
  • Sri Lanka and a revival of Tamil sentiment
  • Jammu & Kashmir
  • Ghazwa-e-Hind
  • global jihad
  • the IS “caliphate” and
  • Sunni / Shia sectarianism
  • Oy veh. Did I mention Pakistan?

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    The ISIS flood in my twitterstream today 2: big picture

    Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- an attempt to "curate" the onrush of news, hitting the high points on a low, low morning ]
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    I have tried to keep the tweets here limited to their own texts, with illustrations only where essential, and without “parent tweets” and other encumbrances. Even so, it’s a long read — my advice would be to take it fast, first, and then come back to click on articles and other details that look like they’re of particular interest.

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    And I’m sure a lot has happened during the half-hour or more it has taken me to put even this small selection of relevant tweets together!

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    Echoes: Boko H and the LRA, Ray Davis & others anon

    Saturday, May 10th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- following up on Boko Haram "makes Kony look like child's play" while continuing my explorations in stereocognition, along with two dazzling quotes about music ]
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    It happened to be the tweet from Elizabeth Pearson in the upper panel above that alerted me to the LRA’s 1996 abduction of schoolgirls in Uganda, which Boko Haram’s 2014 abduction of schoolgirls in Nigeria echoes and amplifies — so I have matched it with another of her tweets, lower panel above, offering an equivalent headline for the Nigerian girls.

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    The parallelisms.

    My purpose, explicitly stated, is not to equate but to compare the two incidents, and more specifically to allow the acts of the purportedly Christian extremists in Uganda to be in the back of our minds as a comparative, while we consider the current spate of appalling actions of the supposedly Muslim extremists in Nigeria…

    And the differences.

    I won’t attempt to detail the parallelisms and differences as I see them here, primarily because it’s the habit of analogical thinking I am exploring, not any single (“double”) instance.

    A stereocognitive view will add nuance — an additional depth dimension to our perception of these two instances — without losing the detail of either one, just as stereoscopic vision and stereophonic hearing give additional depth to our visual and sonic views of the world.

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    Here’s another one — this time triggered by an Emptywheel blogpost today. Marcy Wheeler has been following the Ray Davis story for quite a while, so I’ve matched her post noting the echo betwen “JSOC and one CIA official killing attempted abductors in Yemen” and the “Ray Davis episode in Pakistan” with an earlier post on Ray Davis.

    You know, if “news echoes” of the sort both Lizz and Marcy are noting were discussed in musical terms — rather than as history repeating itself, say — we’d call them fugal motifs, or if we’re more into Wagner than Bach, leitmotifs perhaps.

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    As is widely known, Dan Drezner views his interest through the lens of the undead in his book Theories of International Politics and Zombies — I’d like to view mine through the lens of music, as in these two quotes I’m fond of repeating — they’re a bit long to fit readably into DoubleQuotes format, so I’ll just put them in blockquotes:

    From Cornelius Castoriadis, World in Fragments

    Philosophers almost always start by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is a table. What does this table show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever started by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is my memory of my dream of last night. What does this show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever starts by saying “Let the Mozart’s Requiem be a paradigm of being, let us start from that.” Why could we not start by positing a dream, a poem, a symphony as paradigmatic of the fullness of being and by seeing in the physical world a deficient mode of being, instead of looking at things the other way round, instead of seeing in the imaginary — that is, human — mode of existence, a deficient or secondary mode of being?

    and from Edward Said, Power, Politics, and Culture

    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.

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    Shoma Choudhury talks to the CIA & Taliban, more or less

    Thursday, April 10th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- two talks from India's THiNK2013 conference, one about the Taliban and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the other a tale of India / Pakistan Partition ]
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    Here, Indian journalist Shoma Choudhury interviews Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, one time Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and author of the book, My Life with the Taliban, and Robert Grenier, CIA station chief in Islamabad in 2001 and later Director of the Agency’s Counterterrorist Center, during the THiNK2013 conference held at the Grand Hyatt in Goa, in a session titled An Afghan Date: The CIA Talks To The Taliban on November 9th, 2013:

    I haven’t found a reference to this event in the New York Times or Washington Post, and the video of the event has been viewed less than 1,250 times — so I hope that if any Zenpundit readers have in fact already viewed it, they will forgive me for posting it here. It seems to me to be a remarkable conversation, not least because of Choudhury’s skillful moderation.

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    I only know about this conversation because blog-friend Omar Ali pointed me to the video of a reading of Saadat Hasan Manto‘s account of Partition in his satirical short story, Toba Tek Singh at the same conference. The reader is the actor Naseeruddin Shah whom I admire enormously for his stunning performance as “the common man” in Neeraj Pandey‘s A Wednesday — the story is told as written in Manto’s Urdu, with a principal character who “mutters or shouts a mix of Punjabi, Urdu and English” — and most of an English language translation is provided for those like myself who need it, by means of projected background slides.

    But that voice, Naseeruddin Shah’s voice!

    You can read Toba Tek Singh in Frances Pritchett‘s translation here.

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    If these two presentations are anything to go by, the THiNK conference series may be what TED talks could and should have been…

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