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Locked horns: reading the abstract news

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- pattern recognition in news media, also polarization, Swiss cows, and klezmer ]
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Berkane & Bergamote, two Heren cows, lock horns for the title of 'queen' in Grimetz, Switzerland

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It’s fairly extraordinary what happens when you scan a news item or op-ed piece in search of those remarks that are abstractions from the particular topic of the piece. I was struck by this today when I read:

A tradition of vigorous, nuanced debate is increasingly being boiled down to a binary choice of worldviews.

I mean, how many other topics in the same newspaper that day might that sentence have been slipped into without causing an eyebrow to lift?

Of similar interest, perhaps, and from the same piece:

ultimately, a big tent does have parameters

That doesn’t strike me as quite as open an insight, but maybe that’s just because “big tent” has more speciic resonance. And then there was:

Both views are completely valid, but they can be conflicting

That one intrigues me because on the face of it, it’s a contradiction: maybe a little set theory, expressed in the form of slightly different wording, could resolve it.

Here’s one more, still from the same piece, with a touch of zen to it — or is that psychotherapy?

By looking at ourselves, we can be better people

And this one, forgive me, is simply chilling:

are you now or have you ever been … ?

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So, “big tent” and all, are we talking about the US Congress here?

Actually, those quotes all come from a Washington Post piece by Marc Fisher titled For Jewish groups, a stand-off between open debate and support of Israel — but that’s pretty much beside my point.

The thing is, as SI Hyakawa pointed out, good writing tends to be writing that moves up and down the “ladder of abstraction” from intimate details (“my cow Bessie” — or “Berkane” or “Bergamote” in this instance) to broad-sweep analysis (“13% of livestock in the region”), because details (and anecdotes) evoke emotion while statistics and abstractions ensure that the wider picture is not omitted from the telling.

WHich is why, among other things, in a world of think tanks and white papers which favor analytics and statictics almost to the exclusion of details and emotions, my own analytic tradecraft, as expressed in the HipBone Games and Sembl Thinking projects, favors quotes and anecdotes as highly as facts and stats.

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One of the specific art acts discussed in that WaPo piece is The Shondes‘ klezmer rock punk song, I Watched the Temple Fall [lyrics, YouTube ]. Here’s what the band has to say about the song:

We wrote “I Watched the Temple Fall” because we were thinking a lot about what Jews put our faith in, and where that faith really lives. We’d been talking about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s notion of Judaism as a religion of time, not space, and thinking about how that related to Zionism. Confining ideas into spaces (temples, states, what have you) can falsely polarize us and take us away from the big, important stuff. We wanted to write a song that clearly said, “Look, it might be devastating to face, but the state of Israel commits actions daily that violate the basic tenets of Judaism.

Rock, punk, and klezmer I don’t know much about, but Heschel‘s book The Sabbath is one that has moved me profoundly, and reading this particular statement made me wonder what David Ronfeldt might find of interest for his Space-Time-Action (STA) theory in the song, or in Heschel’s thought.

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Well, we began this post — about the attractions of abstraction — with an image of two Swiss cows named Berkane and Bergamote locking horns in a championship fight — here’s some klezmer from Itzhak Perlman — again, see, I’m climbing back down the ladder of abstraction to the level of the individual — to round things out:

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Krishna, Oppie and the Bomb

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- following a lead from Adam Elkus, a little more on the (Hindu) theological side of the Trinity test ]
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WHen Oppenheimer saw the first nuclear fireball — apart from those supposedly recorded in legend, the sun in the sky, and presumably a whole heavenly host of stars — at the Trinity test in Alamogordo, July 16, 1945, he famously quoted the Indian scripture, Bhagavad Gita, either in his head or out loud:
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This post is to give those who may be interested a brief update on the relevance of that quotation.

I am grateful to Adam Elkus for pointing us to this post on Restricted Data, Oppenheimer and the Gita, which in turn led me to Dr Hijaya‘s paper, The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society.

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I have a side note of caution here. Dr Hijaya notes in the Acknowledgments at the end of his paper:

Sanskrit is Greek to me, and Hinduism a mystery. Therefore I am immensely indebted to two scholars who provided me not only with translations of the language but also with innumerable insights into the philosophy: Peter M. Scharf, classics department, Brown University, Providence, R.I.; and Roy W. Perrett, philosophy department, Massey University, Palmerston North, N.Z.

Drs Scharf and Perrett both appear to be well qualified to have advised Dr Hijaya in matters Sanskrit, which seems si=gnificant since — among other things — Oppie himself had studied Sanskrit seriously, and was not simply quoting a line he’d picked up on a cursory reading of the text in some English translation.

Like Dr Hijaya, I have no knowledge of Sanskrit, and like him I relied on the help of other scholars, and particularly Chandra Das, in writing my own commentary on Oppie, various scriptures and the bomb, What Sacred Games? My post for a bloggers’ roundtable on nuclear weapondry in different religious contexts may also be of interest — The religious and apocalyptic background to nuclear policy making.

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Put into a nutshell, Dr Hijaya notes that the warrior Arjuna is unwilling at first to partake in the battle of Kurukshetra against an army that includes family, friends, and mentors. Krishna, who speaks with divine authority as the avatar of Vishnu, instructs him that it is his dharma or vocation as a warrior to fight, that he should perform actions because they are his to perform, without concern for their results, and that all those who will die in the battle are effectively already dead, since that is the divine will.

From a mortal perspective this is a hard truth to bear, but from the perspective of Vishnu it is appointed, necessary, all part of the divine lila or play — a concept the western Neoplatonist Plotinus expressed thus:

Men directing their weapons against each other- under doom of death yet neatly lined up to fight as in the pyrrhic sword-dances of their sport – this is enough to tell us that all human intentions are but play, that death is nothing terrible, that to die in a war or in a fight is but to taste a little beforehand what old age has in store, to go away earlier and come back the sooner. … Murders, death in all its guises, the reduction and sacking of cities, all must be to us just such a spectacle as the changing scenes of a play; all is but the varied incident of a plot, costume on and off, acted grief and lament. For on earth, in all the succession of life, it is not the Soul within but the Shadow outside of the authentic man, that grieves and complains and acts out the plot on this world stage which men have dotted with stages of their own constructing.

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One of the topics that should have been mentioned in that 7,000 word post and (irresponsibly?) wasn’t, is the first Indian nuclear test, which if I recall was officially termed “the Buddha’s smile” — an irony both devastating and delicious!

In a follow up post to be completed as time allows, I hope to address that issue.

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Sunday surprise 23: a narrative form without conflict

Monday, April 28th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a friend's blogpost, a taste of still eating oranges -- and the eyes of beautiful women considered as weaponry, in a Zen story, backed up by a verse from a celebrated Indian treatise on advaita ]
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I like to get cross-blog discussions going, so what I’ll post here as this week’s Sunday surprise is my response to two paragraphs my friend Bill Benzon quoted on his New Savanna blog under the title Is conflict necessary to plot? from a longer piece at Still Eating Oranges titled The significance of plot without conflict — followed by a zen tale.

Here’s the Still Eating Oranges intro to the form known as kishotenketsu which so intrigued Bill Benzon:

The necessity of conflict is preached as a kind of dogma by contemporary writers’ workshops and Internet “guides” to writing. A plot without conflict is considered dull; some even go so far as to call it impossible. This has influenced not only fiction, but writing in general — arguably even philosophy. Yet, is there any truth to this belief? Does plot necessarily hinge on conflict? No. Such claims are a product of the West’s insularity. For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese writers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest. This structure is known as kishotenketsu.

Kishotenketsu contains four acts: introduction, development, twist and reconciliation. The basics of the story—characters, setting, etc. — are established in the first act and developed in the second. No major changes occur until the third act, in which a new, often surprising element is introduced. The third act is the core of the plot, and it may be thought of as a kind of structural non sequitur. The fourth act draws a conclusion from the contrast between the first two “straight” acts and the disconnected third, thereby reconciling them into a coherent whole.

And here, from Paul Reps’ celebrated little book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, is one of the 101 Zen Stories with which Reps’ anthology begins:

How to Write a Chinese Poem:

A well-known Japanese poet was asked how to compose a Chinese poem.

“The usual Chinese poem is four lines,” he explains. “The first line contains the initial phase; the second line, the continuation of that phase; the third line turns from this subject and begins a new one; and the fourth line brings the first three lines together. A popular Japanese song illustrates this:

Two daughters of a silk merchant live in Kyoto.
The elder is twenty, the younger, eighteen.
A soldier may kill with his sword.
But these girls slay men with their eyes.

Which reminds me irresistibly — in the HipBone-Sembl manner — of a quote from Shankaracharya‘s classic work, Vivekachudamani, or The Crest Jewel of Discrimination:

Who is the greatest hero? He who is not terror-stricken by the arrows which shoot from the eyes of a beautiful girl.

Wry grin: I am clearly no hero — but even here in Shankara’s aphorism, we are still and ever in the realm of narrative.

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

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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…

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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”…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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    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.”

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    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.

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    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

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    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.

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    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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