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AirTrains at the Antipodes

Friday, April 11th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- playfully expressing his usual preference for play over terror ]
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In the upper panel, above, we have Inspire magazine’s take on the San Francisco AirTrain — an ad for mayhem.

In the lower panel we see an ad for Airtrain Brisbane, which suggests that traffic between you and the airport may be slow enough for you to solve the Sudoku puzzle on the billboard before you pass it… and suggests you take the Airtrain, where you will presumably be able to solve a similar puzzle on your iPad before reaching the airport in time for your flight.

The text of the Inspire ad reads:

For how long will you live in tension? Instead of just sitting, having no solution, simply stand up. Pack your tools of destruction. Assemble your bomb, ready for detonation.

It follows from this wording, incidentally, that “you” are in no hurry to catch a plane since — like Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce‘s Portrait of the Artist — “you” imagine “heaven” to be your destination.

**

But look again at the question Inspire asks:

For how long will you live in tension?

There is plenty of tension right there between the two ads: while AQ-style terrorism is designed to elicit terror, Sudoku suggests playful relaxation.

I’d like to take that a little farther. I’m more literate than numerate, to be honest — so I find crossword puzzles more appealing than Sudoku. And heck, I was even beaten once in boarding school (four with a bamboo cane) for doing The Times crossword instead of my math homework. So here’s an alternative, more peaceable version of our two images:

The upper panel shows a decidedly more pleasant variant on the Sudoku ad — while the lower panel shows Edward McGowan‘s original photo, which AQAP’s Inspire magazine swiped for use in their ad, and which is far more restful on the eye without the garish reddening that Inspire added for dire effect.

**

Sources:

  • SFGate report on the Inspire ad
  • Ads of the World, AirTrain Sudoku ad

  • Ads of the World, AirTrain crossword ad
  • SFGate account of McGowan’s original photo
  • The Brisbane ads were designed by De Pasquale of Brisbane, Creative Director Cos Luccitti, Copywriter Jake McLennan, Art Director Daniele Milazzo.

    **

    One day, perhaps, you or I will be on our way to BNE Brisbane or SFO San Francisco, and we’ll see an ad that shows a DoubleQuotes board, with one panel filled with a neat quote or headline from the day’s news and the other one left blank for the reader to fill in… and a question:

    Mind quick enough to try for a creative leap?

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    Hipbone’s Games, Emlyn’s critique

    Sunday, March 30th, 2014

    [ by Charles and Emlyn Cameron -- my thousandth ZP post, and his first -- in which my son schools me in making my games more responsive to the requirements of decision-support ]
    .

    Alexander Calder, "Yellow Sail", 1950, Weatherspoon Art Museum, Greensboro, NC

    **

    I’d been wondering what to do with my thousandth post here on Zenpundit, and a conversation with my son Emlyn, who turned nineteen a few days ago, gave me an idea.

    Emlyn was telling me how he saw my HipBone Games, and also the more extended and informal version of the games I’ve been posting here — using “HipBone thinking” to analyse and comment on all manner of things happening in the world around us, with a particular eye on a novel, mental-netted mode of intelligence analysis. He spoke, I was impressed, and asked him to write his observations up, to form the basis of this, my 1,000th ZP post.

    Here he goes:

    I consider all my father’s thoughts to be rather like a mobile, which in turn I consider to be the three-dimensional equivalent of a HipBone board: many swirling clusters of information, spinning, for the most part, independently of one another, balanced, but lacking a focus. They are connected, but some are so only by virtue of their association with a shared cluster between them. These clusters are creative and constructive, but typically inconclusive in their determination of any particular fact to which they all play a part. Father has made some comments to this effect, claiming that the games might widen the perception of intelligence analysts, making them more fully aware of political situations in which they involve themselves, but admitting that it might not be a mechanism for reaching conclusions about the next step to take in said situations…

    That’s fierce enough, and very much to the point. I’m generally more interested in open questions than closed answers — and in my post, Wei Wu Wei, or the inactionable option, I wrote of “the importance of intelligence that is not actionable, with illustrations from Zenpundit, Dickens and Shakespeare” — and closed with a gobbet of my favorite Chinese philosopher, Chuang Tzu.

    But then Emlyn, having understood me all too well, opens an alternative pathway…

    it is my conviction that such a use [ie in "reaching conclusions about the next step to take"] is only missed by the barest margins in the construction of the games, that, in fact, a figure has been presenting the use of such a thought process towards such ends since the eighteen-eighties: Mycroft Holmes.

    I’m delighted, too, that Emlyn finds something about my work that resonates with his own keen interest in the Holmes brothers, favorites of his both in their canonical Conan Doyle and more recent Benedict Cumberbatch forms.

    As for the Calder mobile effect — ideas hanging in some kind of perpetually shifting balance in three-space — I’m reminded of the pebbled path which leads through shrubs and bushes and cactus plants around Pierre Sogol‘s attic studio in René Daumal‘s great novel, Mount Analogue:

    Along the path, glued to the windowpanes or hung on the bushes or dangling from the ceiling, so that all free space was put to maximum use, hundreds of little placards were displayed. Each one carried a drawing, a photograph, or an inscription, and the whole constituted a veritable encyclopedia of what we call ‘human knowledge.’ A diagram of a plant cell, Mendeleieff’s periodic table of the elements, a key to Chinese writing, a cross-section of the human heart, Lorentz’s transformation formulae, each planet and its characteristics, fossil remains of the horse species in series, Mayan hieroglyphics, economic and demographic statistics, musical phrases, samples of the principal plant and animal families, crystal specimens, the ground plan of the Great Pyramid, brain diagrams, logistic equations, phonetic charts of the sounds employed in all languages, maps, genealogies — everything in short which would fill the brain of a twentieth-century Pico della Mirandola…

    **

    Emlyn again, when I requested he go into a little more detail:

    In regards to the difference between my father’s manner of thinking and that of, say, a Holmesian detective, the largest separation presents itself, not in the construction of a conceptual geometry for the facts, but in the selection of a focal point. That is to say the Holmesian analyst has one.

    Where my father’s constructions are clusters of concepts hanging in their own orbits, connected with fibers between one element of one cluster and one element of another, the Holmesian mindset is clusters of facts arrayed around a single unknown, like the spheres of a model of the Copernican solar system (ironic, considering Sherlock’s reluctance to retain such a universal model in his memory palace), each piece of data added to the strata of information bringing the silhouette of the solution into greater clarity, until finally, only one plausible answer can be found to match the shape.

    Mycroft makes himself the “most indispensable man in the country” simply by centering a single point for all of his data, connecting each strand of thought to an innermost axis, the unknown he wishes to conquer, invariably finding an effective solution even to difficulties involving “the Navy, India, Canada and the bimetallic question… Only Mycroft can focus them all, and say offhand how each factor would affect the other”.

    Father, on the other hand, foresees largely important cultural trends months to years in advance and wields staggering creativity in the collection of concepts, but struggles to choose menu items at a fast food restaurant. He has a plethora of clusters about the pros and cons of various dishes but makes no attempt to align all his awareness towards selecting the best one for his immediate needs.

    Emlyn suggests that retrofitting my games to serve a “Mycroft” function would involve “clusters of facts arrayed around a single unknown, like the spheres of a model of the Copernican solar system” — the Copernican system in which the “single unknown” around which the planets are arrayed is in fact the sun, bright enough, my poetic education in symbolism tells me, that we cannot directly look at and see it… a great mystery, around or within which all things find their harmonious orbits…

    A Copernican board, then, more to Mycroft’s liking, might look something like this:

    The Planisphaerium Copernicanum, from Cellarius' 1661 Harmonia Macrocosmica

    For myself, it’s the motion of the moon around the earth that captures my interest.

    Ludwig Wittgenstein, it transpires, had a game he played with friends. They would walk in the park, wittgenstein himself if I recall correctly, playing the sun, while one friend circled him as the earth and another circled the circling earth as its moon… I am told Wittgenstein particularly enjoyed this game because “nobody wins”…

    **

    Memory palace diagrams: L. Robert Fludd, 1619, R. Victoria & Albert, Museum, 2013

    Next, Emlyn turns from the mobile and the solar system to the idea of memory palaces, which I discussed before in Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lector and Simonides — note again the Holmesian connection:

    Where Mycroft’s memory palace is the resource of his conclusions, a place from which “The conclusions of every department” are culled and sorted, that he might be the governments “clearinghouse, which makes out the balance”, my Father’s is a resource unto its self, lending its exhibits from one massive wing to another in an ever evolving collection of antiquities, religious dictums, poetic verses and verdant projects, a spectacle to be appreciated, certainly, but not one intended to be the mechanism of an answer, rather there to be experienced and considered and revisited once a new article is catalogued or created for display.

    Mycroft’s tidy and orderly “Central exchange”, an intellectual ministry, and my Father’s mental gallery are not parallel in architecture, but are laid with the same mortar and buttressed using the same alloys.

    **

    At last we turn to Sherlock himself — and to the issue of intelligence which is not only actionable but acted upon — and I think here of the shift by which an analyst (I’m thinking of Nada Bakos, as she describes herself in Manhunt) becomes a targeter…

    It is at this point that we come to a final individual, Mycroft’s better known sibling, Sherlock. I have discussed my Father’s system of arranging connections, and outlined the underlying similarity of the mental mechanism Mycroft uses to synthesize an answer from his collected data to it, but, as my Father’s assembly does not reach conclusions, Mycroft does not solidify his suppositions through action, he defers his assessment to a minister who will choose whether or not to act upon it, or alternatively to his younger brother who will pursue the inquiry.

    Sherlock said of his brother that “If the art of the detective began and ended in reasoning from an arm-chair, [Mycroft] would be the greatest criminal agent that ever lived. But he has no ambition and no energy.” It is not sufficient to reach a conclusion, one must be willing to “go out of [one's] way to verify [one's] own solution”.

    In fact, of course — or should I say, in fiction? — Sherlock himself indeed arrives at conclusions, but he tends to have Lestrade around to execute them — to apprehend those Holmes has elicited confessions from or otherwise shown to be guilty. But Emlyn’s concern — to move from games of a non-actionable sort towards actionable games and thus, eventually, action — is well placed.

    Indeed, it follows from the differing tempi of “pure” analysts and “practical” decision makers — or between strategists and tacticians.

    **

    Emlyn concludes:

    Such a mental model as the one heretofore described can be of all the use in the world in reaping a creative crop or finding the hypothetical solution to any number of intractable problems, but without working out “the practical points” with the determination of the younger Holmes brother, all of it is for naught, and if the thought process is overlooked or limited by the consideration of the user, it is as inert as if its products were ignored entirely, its rewards as indispensable as Mycroft himself and equally as inactive.

    It seems I have my marching orders: to devise a game whose tempo accelerates from a slower analytic periphery towards a high-tempo central insight, solution or target. An actionable game.

    It’s a choice problem, and one that lies beyond my usual reach: I’ll set my mind to it.

    **

    Memory Palace diagrams:

  • Robert Fludd, from Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris
  • Memory Palace exhibition at the Victoria and Albert
  • Related posts:

  • The Haqqani come to high Dunsinane
  • Wei Wu Wei, or the inactionable option
  • Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lector and Simonides
  • Jeff Jonas, Nada Bakos, Cindy Storer and Puzzles
  • Gaming the Connections: from Sherlock H to Nada B
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    Regarding the Lesser and Greater Sludges

    Saturday, March 29th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- the warnings, the lack of response, the tragedy, and a diagnosis of the underlying, near-universal human condition ]
    .

    Devastation wrought by the Lesser Sludge, Snohomish County, WA, March 2014

    **

    Hear ye! Hear ye!

    The most stunning account I’ve yet seen of the Oso mudslide isn’t really about the slide itself, it’s about how much we already knew and how little we listened. Here’s an interview with geomorph­ologist Daniel Miller, who wrote up the danger of a slide in a 1997 report for the Washington Department of Ecology and the Tulalip Tribes, and followed it up with a report for the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1999, in which he warned of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure”:

    Compare and contrast that with the quote from a piece yesterday on Vice Motherboard titled Lidar Mapping Could Save Lives Before the Next Mudslide:

    Nevertheless the county believed that it was safe to build homes down by the Stillaguamish River. “It was considered very safe,” John Pennington, head of Snohomish County’s Department of Emergency Management, said at a news conference Monday. “This was a completely unforeseen slide. This came out of nowhere.”

    **

    The Lesser Sludge:

    According to Chapter 14, Landslides and other mass movements, in Snohomish County’s 2010 Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan Update:

    Mudslides or mudflows (or debris flows) are rivers of rock, earth, organic matter and other soil materials saturated with water. They develop in the soil overlying bedrock on sloping surfaces when water rapidly accumulates in the ground, such as during river of rock, earth, organic matter and other heavy rainfall or rapid snowmelt. Water pressure in the pore spaces of the material increases to the point that the internal strength of the soil is drastically weakened. The soil’s reduced resistance can then easily be overcome by gravity, changing the earth into a flowing river of mud or “slurry.” A debris flow or mudflow can move rapidly down slopes or through channels, and can strike with little or no warning at avalanche speeds. The slurry can travel miles from its source, growing as it descends, picking up trees, boulders, cars and anything else in its path. Although these slides behave as fluids, they pack many times the hydraulic force of water due to the mass of material included in them. Locally, they can be some of the most destructive events in nature.

    — and their Hazard Profile comments:

    Landslides are caused by one or a combination of the following factors: change in slope of the terrain, increased load on the land, shocks and vibrations, change in water content, groundwater movement, frost action, weathering of rocks, and removing or changing the type of vegetation covering slopes.

    Note that no human intervention is required — this is what an insurance writer might call an “act of God” while a scientist might prefer to call it the result of “natural causes”.

    As for myself, I would like to refer to the actual mudflow consisting of “rock, earth, organic matter and other soil materials saturated with water” that recently buried much of the small, humanly-populated town of Osa in Snohomish County, WA, as the Lesser Sludge.

    **

    Hear ye!

    Listen! Warnings have been issued for millennia — and still the kings, the potentates, the real estate moguls refuse to listen:

    Hear ye the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah, and inhabitants of Jerusalem; Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, the which whosoever heareth, his ears shall tingle.

    — Jeremiah 19:3

    **

    Managua:

    I was in Managua, Nicaragua, shortly after the 1972 earthquake there. I had spent the day before with a 35mm Pentax, photographing square block after square block of demolished housing, with the occasional yellow flag indicating that a body — hence a possible source of infection — had been located there, too deep to be retrieved at that point. And I recall all too vividly what the physician sitting next to me on the plane home said to me:

    They will rebuild on this same spot.

    Managua had been the site of previous quakes, including one in 1885, and another in 1931 — it was at risk for serious quakes roughly twice a century. But real estate is real estate, Managua as Nicaragua’s capital city was valuable real estate, and the owners of valuable real estate would want to rebuild on their own real estate, no? It only makes logical sense…

    And they did.

    **

    What, then, is the Greater Sludge?

    What I am calling the Greater Sludge is the mental sludge that somehow lodges itself, not just in this instance but in ten thousand others, between appropriate warnings on the one hand, and acting on the need for change on the other.

    The Greater Sludge, in other words, is between our ears and behind our eyes: we cannot see it, and we cannot hear it.

    I spent the better part of a decade working and talking with the fine group of social entrepreneurs that Jeff Skoll‘s foundation gathered for discussions at the late, lamented SocialEdge site, and I noticed something that struck me forcibly at the time, and has only become more deeply rooted in my thinking since then: we have Foundations, think tanks, journals, RFPs, and funding reources for all manner of top-down approaches to single-issue problems — depleted or polluted water supplies, lack of housing, education, medicine, you name it. We even have a few people like Anthony Judge and his Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, trying to see the complex interweavings of multiple problems — and a few more like Victor d’Allant and his team at Urb.Im working on bottom-up solutions.

    But there isn’t really even a category for approaches to the problem of the Greater Sludge: our need to make across-the-board improvements in mental clarity isn’t even on the map.

    And yet mental sludge is the greatest obstacle facing all those who see problems and have the clarity to know how to go about fixing them: from distraction and disinterest to outright denial, the many shades of sludge constitute our one totally interdisciplinary, wholly integral and universal problem.

    Conversely, clarity in that invisible space behind the eyes, the ability to hear the quiet voice of sanity above the babel-babble between the ears — that would be the universal solvent.

    **

    Further readings:

  • Critical thinking — cf. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking
  • Bias avoidance — cf. The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis and The Mind’s Lie
  • Systemic thinking — cf. Places to Intervene in a System and Dancing with Systems
  • Associzative leaps — cf. On the HipBone and Sembl games: update and Recap: on HipBone / Sembl Thinking
  • Then read the whole sad mudslide and warnings story at the Seattle Times again, and weep:

    I think we did the best that we could under the constraints that nobody wanted to sell their property and move…

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    Never bring a sword to a pen fight?

    Monday, March 24th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- in which I suggest that reality may be more like a river, our understandings more like canals ]
    .

    Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, "Moon of Enlightenment" from One Hundred Views of the Moon


    **

    I read a couple of things this morning that struck me. The first was in Zen’s post, Dealing with the China we Have Rather than the China we Wish to Have:

    Getting your adversary to negotiate with powerless and ill- informed representatives while the real decision makers sit at a remove is a time-tested tactic in bargaining.

    The side that uses this approach gets at least two bites at every apple which means the other side increasingly has to give further concessions to secure what they thought had already been agreed to. It is a classic example of negotiating in bad faith. Furthermore, the side using it is the one interested in winning or at best, in buying time, not in reaching an agreement.

    When presented with this dynamic the smart move is to walk away and immediately implement whatever the other side would rather you not do or give up the game and move on to something else. Agreements and treaties have no intrinsic value unless they advance, or at least preserve, interest. If the other party has no intention of abiding by the terms at all then they are less than worthless, being actively harmful.

    There’s this business about words and realities, or maps and territories if you prefer. The word is not the thing, the finger pointing is not the moon, the name that can be named is not the true name… and gaming a war is not the same as fighting it.

    And yet troop movements near a border “in an exercise” are still troop movements, and thus threatening. And a threat is what? — an implicit form of violence?

    Alex Schmid, in his Revised Academic Consensus Definition of Terrorism, #3, writes of “physical violence or threat thereof employed by terrorist actors”…

    A threat, a promise, a plan, a scenario, a prediction, a prophecy, a self-fulfilling prophecy — words and images have impact, the pen can be mightier than the sword, just as it can be cut down by it. How does the saying go? Don’t bring a pen (or sketch-pad) to a swordfight? or should it be — never bring a sword to a pen fight?

    So how do we talk about the disjunction Zen mentions, the “negotiating in bad faith” mechanism, in game theoretic terms? What kinds of maps allow us to note the positioning of minds as well as mortars?

    And what if the minds themselves are split — how do we model that?

    **

    Which brings me to the second thing I read today — this one in Graeme Smith‘s The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, p 96:

    Like many Afghans, my translator’s extended family included both government workers and insurgents. Not all of them disagreed with each other ideologically; sometimes they followed the pragmatic tradition in which Afghan families hedge their bets, sending their sons to serve in a variety of factions in a conflict.

    I’d seen this division of familial labor mentioned some years ago, and today a review of Smith’s book brought the memory back to me, and again I wondered — what does that do to all those network maps that show who knows who?

    I guess what I’m saying is that reality is inherently fluid — like a river if you will, with its shifting banks and oxbow lakes — while our categories for thinking about reality tend to be as straight and inflexible as a canal.

    **

    How do we transition, in understanding, from the neat, crisp idea to the rumpled reality? From the finger pointing, to the moon?

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    Go or No Go?

    Friday, March 14th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- from the Crimea to jihad, via "perhaps the most famous move in the history of go" ]
    .

    As usual, my interest here is not in the geo-polemics of the affair, which I leave to others, but in the formal properties of the presentation. In this case, the form in question is a type of map I’m inclined to call a surround, threat or seige map depending on circumstances. Here, juxtaposed as is my style, are two versions:

    Zen posted the upper image on this blog earlier today, and I saw it around the same time I found the lower image in my Twitterfeed.

    **

    What each of these maps shows is an area x surrounded by the forces of y, with different emphases in the two cases — and note the ironic caption of the second!

    What they remind me of is a Go board, in which each side is, so to speak, surrounding, threatening or besieging the other, simultaneously.

    In 1846 in what I gather is one of the classic games of Go, a youngster named Shusaku played against a renowned master, Gennan Inseki, st one point in the game making a single move — which gave its name to the game as a whole — known as the ear-reddening move:

    marked black stone is the famous ear-reddening move, perhaps the most famous move in the history of go

    Note how distant that move is from other pockets of play, and how central to the game as a whole.

    As Arno Hollosi and Morten Pahle at Sensei’s Library describe the Ear Reddening Game

    This move is called the ear-reddening move. Gennan’s disciples were watching the game and not one of them doubted that Gennan would win. But a doctor, who also had been watching the game, thought that Gennan would lose. When pressed for an answer he replied: I don’t know much about the game, but when Shusaku played B1 [ie: the marked move] Gennan’s ears flushed red. This is a sign that he had been upset.

    B1 is a profound move having influence in all four directions. It expands black’s moyo at the top, it helps the four black stones below, it reduces the influence of white’s strong position to the right, and it also has an eye on white’s moyo on the left side. In short B1 is the central point for attack and defence.

    Eventually Shusaku won this game by 2 points after 325 moves.

    Gennan’s disciples read, or attempt to read, the board: the doctor reads the mind in a rush of blood to the ears.

    That too is an interesting move — in another game entirely.

    **

    In an article in tomorrow’s The Economist subtitled To understand war, American officials are playing board games, brought to my attention today by PaxSims, we find this comment –

    Board games can also illuminate the most complex conflicts. Volko Ruhnke, a CIA analyst, has designed a series of games about counterinsurgency. For example, Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? (sold by GMT Games of California) models “parallel wars of bombs and ideas”, as one reviewer puts it, on a board depicting much of Eurasia and Africa.

    — fascinating to me because “wars of bombs and ideas” are what we have, and while a whole lot of effort goes into modeling “wars of bombs” it’s my impression that “wars of ideas” get far less attention.

    Something I hope, in my own small way, to rectify.

    **

    But to get back to borders and surroundings?

    The issue is a perennial one. Only today I was reading David Cook’s Understanding Jihad, on page 29 of which we find that the concept of the jihadist martyr as occupying the uppermost layers of paraise in the afterlife was extended, as time and events progressed, to include those who merely lived in (dangerous) border territory:

    Cities are also associated with privileges of this nature — for the most part, cities in dangerous locations, such as those close to the Byzantine border, along the Mediterranean Sea (subject to regular Byzantine raids), in northern Persia facing the mountainous and unconquered area of Tabaristan, and in Central Asia. In all cases, those Muslims who guard the frontiers are assured either the rank of martyrs or the privileges of intercession after their deaths. It seems clear that the issue of intercession was a very powerful incentive for people to live in what would otherwise be undesirable locations.

    Plus ça change…

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