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In Brief: Azzam illustrates Levi-Strauss on Mythologiques

Friday, March 6th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — the geometry of two miracle stories from Abdullah Azzam ]
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SPEC DQ Azzam honey & vinegar

These two tales are taken from Abdullah Azzam, Signs of ar-Rahman in the Jihad of Afghanistan.

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Binary oppositions seem to be basic to the human thought process, and this simple, elegant observation has in turn given rise to a number of interesting philosopphical explorations, some of which are expressed perhaps most powerully in diagrams. I am thinking here of the medieval square of opposition — as in this diagram taken from Georg Reisch, Margarita Phylosophica tractans de omni genere scibili, Basel 1517:

square_of_opposition SEMBL

Algirdas Greimas developed his semiotic square from this medieval diagram —

greimas_semiotic_square

— and defines his square as the “visual representation of the logical articulation of any category”. In his “Towards a Theory of Modalities”, Greimas writes:

the terms manifestation vs. immanence .. can be compared profitably with the categories surface vs. deep in linguistics, manifest vs. latent in psychoanalysis, phenomenal vs. noumenal in philosophy, etc.

Then there’s Levi-Strauss and his triangle, essentially a variant on the same idea, applied by LS in his magnificent 4-volume Mythologiques to a wide range of myths — here’s the basic triangle for the first volume, The Raw and the Cooked:

LS culinary_triangle

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What Reisch, Greimas and Levi-Strauss are all doing lies in its own distinct area of “visual thinking” at the confluence of logic, algebra, geometry and conceptual graphs — the same area my own DoubleQuotes and the HipBone and Sembl games are found in.

When people think about narrative — and it is or should be as hot a topic in strategy and counterterrorism as it is in myth, story-telling, film and their various related forms of criticism — they tend to think linearly, from beginning to end, noting the emotional expansions and contractions, the narrative shifts, the crescendos before the climax and its resolution.

My own style of thinking leans more to the atemporal or synchronic, which in turn is closer to the logical-algebraic-geometric-graphical mode of visual expression. Thus, for me, the “myth of Narcissus” is not a story-line but a geometry, a narrative formulation of the concept of reflection, or “bouncing back”. To adapt the Levi-Strauss triangle to the Narcissus narrative, then, we have:

Reflection triangle

while the two Azzam miracle tales in my DoubleQuote at the top of this post give us:

Azzam triangle

This in turn can become a square if we allow the four coordinates to be wine (intoxicant, bad), water (sobriety, good), vinegar (sour, bad) and honey (sweet, good). We notice here that water (sobriety, good) is the fourth which hovers unmentioned over the twin tales, just as Jung argued the dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin into heaven was the “fourth” which “completed” — nb, this is from a psychological perspective — the celestial Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It remains for Jalaluddin Rumi to transcend the duality of the halal (sobriety) and the haram (intoxication) in his praise of his master, Shams of Tabriz:

In Shams al-Din-i Tabrizi you will discover a heart which is at once intoxicated and very sober.

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In what sense or senses are Azzam’s two tales two, and in what sense are they one and the same?

Sources & suggested further readings include:

  • The Raw and the Cooked: Mythologiques, Volume 1
  • Anthropology for Beginners
  • Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences
  • The Dual and the Real
  • Semiotics for Beginners
  • Semiotics and Language
  • Visual Memory (handbags!)
  • Punctualization: Law and Greimas
  • Square of Opposition
  • Visualizing knowledge
  • Signs of Ar-Rahman
  • Mystical Poems of Rumi
  • Creating a web-based format for debate and deliberation: discuss?

    Friday, December 12th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — Talmud, hypertext, spider webs, Indra’s net, noosphere, rosaries, renga, the bead game, Xanadu, hooks-and-eyes, onward! ]
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    Let me firmly anchor this post and its comments, which will no doubt shift and turn as the wind wishes, in discussion of the possibility of improving on current affordances for online deliberation.

    Let’s begin here:

    **

    There are a variety of precursor streams to this discussion: I have listed a few that appeal to me in the sub-head of this post and believe we will reach each and all of them in some form and forum if this discussion takes off. And I would like to offer the immediate hospitality of this Zenpundit post and comment section to make a beginning.

    Greg’s tweet shows us a page of the Talmud, which is interesting to me for two reasons:

  • it presents many voices debating a central topic
  • it does so using an intricate graphical format
  • The script of a play or movie also records multiple voices in discourse, as does an orchestral score — but the format of the Talmudic score is more intricate, allowing the notation of counterpoint that extends across centuries, and provoking in turn centuries of further commentary and debate.

    What can we devise by way of a format, given the constraints of screen space and the affordances of software and interface design, that maximizes the possibility of debate with respect, on the highly charged topics of the day.

    We know from the Talmud that such an arrangement is possible in retrospect (when emotion can be recollected in tranquility): I am asking how we can come closest to it in real time. The topics are typically hotly contested, patience and tolerance may not always be in sufficient supply, and moderation by humans with powers of summary and editing should probably not be ruled out of our consdierations. But how do we create a platform that is truly polyphonic, that sustains the voices of all participants without one shouting down or crowding out another, that indeed may embody a practic of listening..?

    Carl Rogers has shown us that the ability to express one’s interlocutor’s ideas clearly enough that they acknowledge one has understood them is a significant skill in navigating conversational rapids.

    The Talmud should be an inspiration but not a constraint for us. The question is not how to build a Talmud, but how to build a format that can host civil discussion which refines itself as it grows — so that, to use a gardening metaphor, it is neither overgrown nor too harshly manicured, but manages a carefully curated profusion of insights and —

    actual interactions between the emotions and ideas in participating or observing individuals’ minds and hearts

    **

    Because polyphony is not many voices talking past one another, but together — sometimes discordant, but attempting to resolve those discords as they arrive, and with a figured bass of our common humanity underwriting the lot of them.

    And I have said it before: here JS Bach is the master. What he manages with a multitude of musical voices in counterpoint is, in my opinion, what we need in terms of verbal voices in debate.

    I am particularly hoping to hear from some of those who participated in tweeted comments arising from my previous post here titled Some thoughts for Marc Andreessen & Adam Elkus, including also Greg Loyd, Callum Flack, Belinda Barnet, Ken (chumulu) — Jon Lebkowsky if he’s around — and friends, and friends of friends.

    What say you?

    A DoubleQuote in the (Arctic) Wild

    Friday, January 3rd, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — always on the lookout for intriguing double-images ]
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    There’s an implied “this is to that as this is to that” double analogy here. Just how well or ill it teaches coordinate systems I leave to others to decide — even without the analogical joking though, it’s an intriguing visual juxtaposition.

    Gaming the Connections: from Sherlock H to Nada B

    Sunday, December 29th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — the game of Connect the Dots in play and practice ]
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    CIA's (now ret'd) Nada Bakos examines the Al Qaida board in the HBO docu, Manhunt

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    Manhunt, the HBO documentary, does what (not having been there and seen that at the time) appears to be a decent job of recreating some of the cognitive stratregies employed by CIA officers in the OBL hunt. The one I’m interested in here is the building of a “link chart” or cognitive map — law enforcement “evidence board” — the idea being (a) to note known connections visibly, and (b) to encourage the mind to make intuitive leaps that reveal previously unknown connections between nodes… or “dots”.

    Sophisticated software does this sort of thing algorithmically with regard to (eg) network connections via phone-calls, but the human mind is still better than AI at some forms of pattern recognition, and that’s the aspect that interests me here.

    Aside:

    For more on the cognitive significance of the link chart in Manhunt, see my post Jeff Jonas, Nada Bakos, Cindy Storer and Puzzles.

    **

    Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Sherlock lays out the way it works —

    **

    Okay, so one way to visualize connections is to make a fairly random collage of relevant photos, names, dates and places, and tie it together with links of string or ribbon. That’s the equivalent of what in HipBone games terms we’d call a “free-form” game, and it works well for the “divergent”, initial brainstorming phase of thought. But it does little to bottle its own energy, to focus down, to force the mind — in the no less powerful “convergent” phase — into perceiving even more links than occur spontaneously in building the link chart in question.

    HipBone‘s preformatted boards take the cognitive process to that second stage. They work on one of the most powerful ingredients in creativity: constraint. Business writer Dave Gray of Communication Nation puts it like this:

    Creativity is driven by constraints. When we have limited resources — even when the limits are artificial — creative thinking is enhanced. That’s because the fewer resources you have, the more you are forced to rely on your ingenuity.

    But that premise doesn’t just hold true for business problem-solving — it’s at the heart of creative thinking at the Nobel level, too, in both arts and sciences. Consider mathematician Stanley Ulam, writing in his Adventures of a Mathematician:

    When I was a boy I felt that the role of rhyme in poetry was to compel one to find the unobvious because of the necessity of finding a word which rhymes. This forces novel associations and almost guarantees deviations from routine chains or trains of thought. It becomes paradoxically a sort of automatic mechanism of originality…

    Here’s how the poet TS Eliot puts it:

    When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas.

    A Hipbone Gameboard such as the Waterbird, Dartboard, or Said Symphony board is chosen precisely to challenge the mind with third, fourth and fifth rounds of “creative leaps” — thus adding both divergent and convergent cognitive styles to this form of graphical analysis.

    That’s my point here — and a plug for HipBone-Sembl style thinking.

    **

    I can’t resist adding a couple of instances in which the meme of “connecting the dots” via a link chart or evidence board has crept from TV series that I enjoyed into the world of games — this first one based on the terrific French detective series, Engrenages, retitled Spirals for British consumption:

    — and this one for fans of the US TV series, Breaking Bad:

    Concerning four flags and two tees

    Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — a brief meditation on word and image ]
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    Flags have been in the news quite a bit recently. There were the Marine Corps and Confederate flags carried by the protester outside the White House in the upper panel below:

    and the flag some protesting Native American (Lakota?) grandmothers took from the white supremacists who hoped to establish a community of the like-minded in the tiny town of Leith, North Dakota — in what one account called an improv “game” of “capture the flag”.

    So that’s two protests, right there. But the title of this post suggests it will concern “four flags and two tees” — and thus far I have mentioned three flags. The fourth is the flag worn as a tee-shirt decoration by one of the Grandmothers, and as shown below (upper panel) it is in fact the flag of the American Indian Movement:

    while by way of contrast, the tee worn by the confederate-and-marine-flags chap is a logo rather than a flag — it’s a Southern Thread Men’s Special Deluxe Art Tee to be exact. As the ad says:

    Alone or under a snap front shirt or a button down, you can show your southern roots or the vintage inspired western look.

    **

    My mind is a side-winder, as you know, so all this thinking about flags and logos got me thinking too about the Logos (or Word of God) and his standard.

    When the Emperor Constantine, for better or worse, co-opted Christianity or converted to it or both, his battle cry in hoc signo vinces (or in this sign you will conquer in late Barbarian, in case that’s your maternal tongue) raised the chi-rho as the sign, ensign, or battle flag — the logo if you will — of the newly baptised Roman Empire. The chi-rho — ☧ — combining the first two letters of the Greek word Christos, and meaning the Anointed One.

    **

    Flags and mottos are consequential things. Which comes first: the image, or the word?


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