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Koan 1 — Bibi, Walt, and the concept of buffer zones

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- with sympathy for the real, while holding compassion as the ideal ]
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First, I want to requote two parts of the Times of Israel report titled Netanyahu finally speaks his mind that I quoted a short while ago in my post Israel / Palestine: some delicate balancing acts:

Because, given the march of Islamic extremism across the Middle East, he [Netanyahu] said, Israel simply cannot afford to give up control over the territory immediately to its east, including the eastern border — that is, the border between Israel and Jordan, and the West Bank and Jordan.

and in more detail:

Netanyahu didn’t say he was ruling out all territorial compromise, but he did go to some lengths to highlight the danger of relinquishing what he called “adjacent territory.” He scoffed at those many experts who have argued that holding onto territory for security purposes is less critical in the modern technological era, and argued by contrast that the closer your enemies are, physically, to your borders, the more they’ll try to tunnel under those borders and fire rockets over them. It had been a mistake for Israel to withdraw from Gaza, he added — reminding us that he’d opposed the 2005 disengagement — because Hamas had since established a terrorist bunker in the Strip. And what Hamas had been doing in Gaza — tunneling into and rocketing at the enemy — would be replicated in the West Bank were Israel so foolish as to give the Islamists the opportunity.

I am not blind to the force of that proposition.

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Indeed, what PM Netanyahu is calling “adjacent territory” in the case of Israel and the West Bank is, in my limited understanding of geopolitics, no different from what generally goes under the name of “buffer states” — and what Stephen Walt, not a great Netanyahu admirer to say the least, describes as the “immediate neighborhood” in the case of Ukraine and Russia in his FP piece The Perils of an Itchy Twitter Finger:

No great power is indifferent to potential threats in its immediate neighborhood, and all the more so when it has valid historical reasons to be concerned about particular areas. Furthermore, great powers are usually willing to do pretty nasty things when vital interests are at stake.

Walt approves the existence of the State of Israel, but not Netanyahu’s formulation of the exigencies of that State’s continued existence as a home for the Jewish people — yet in the paragraph I just quoted, he appears supportive of the concept of a buffer zone in the case of a “great power”.

Should “little or no powers” get a say too, Walt? Or are they not major enough to count?

And while we’re about it: Is Israel best seen as a Goliath towering over the Palestinians, or as a David caught between a swathe of Islamic states and the deep blue Mediterranean sea?

What if it’s seen as both?

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Okay, let’s take a step back — reculer pour mieux sauter. Here’s the koan as I see it.

On the one hand, there’s a certain grim reality to the idea that your own people won’t want mortal enemies sitting right on your doorstep — think of those Russian missiles in Cuba, for instance — while on the other, the people whose middle ground would provide a buffer zone between two more powerful powers wind up getting little say in their own affairs if the notion of a buffer zone is accepted and implemented.

Well, about this buffer business — do you don’t you, will you won’t you, Walt?

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I have called this wrangle of rival thoughts and emotions — of ideals and realities, pragmatics and morals — a koan: one of those unanswerable riddles that the zen tradition uses to break the lock of binary logic in favor of holistic insight.

If one starts with a premise that falls on one side or the other of the Israeli-Palestinian koan, there will be plenty of supporting evidence for that side of the matter, and precious little coming from the other side that can’t be argued away or dismissed… as spin, as hasbara, as duplicity, taqiyya even.

The koan itself has numerous variants, grand-parents and cousins:

  • is peace inherently and only peaceful?
  • is peace human nature? really? by no means?
  • must peace be warlike to be achieved?
  • are morals best taken as certitudes, or better understood as ad hoc guidelines?
  • and which came first in any case, the Philistines or the Israelites?
  • I have been smashing my head against these questions for quite some while now. I set out to explore them via the Said Symphony game, but seem to have dropped that particular attempt — and now realize I have been continuing the same exploration in the more informal form of a great many blog posts here on Zenpundit — particularly those in which I use my DoubleQuotes format.

    So this post too, along with a passel of recent posts on Gaza, continues that search — not the search for which side to support, but for enough altitude to see clearly across both sides of the Wall.

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    So: is the Wall enough of a buffer zone?

    Is it an affront that should be torn down, like the Berlin wall — or should its remit be expanded, perphaps, to encompass the whole of “Greater Israel”?

    Geopolitics seems to be pretty firmly rooted in the idea of the “outside world” — the world around us. And yet each person in that “world around us” has an “inside world” of their own, and in that “inner world” may find themselves “conlicted” or “at peace”. So that’s another dividing line, another border, another wall.

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    When I limit myself to the world around me and consider peace, it seems to me that the peace doesn’t arise in the absence of a sense of justice, at the very least a sense of justice agreeable for the sake of peace to those on both or all sides.

    But “inner peace”? — where does that fit into the “war and peace” picture? That seems to be a question that geopolitics by definition sets aside, ignores, and effectively denies: geopolitics is by definition inter-human, not intra-human.

    When I open myself to the possibility that “inner peace” and “peace-making” — in the sense of conflict-resolution — are somehow inextricably interwoven, I see the koan, the dilemma with fresh eyes.

  • Which comes first: the compassion, or the negotiated concession?
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    Stereocognition, intelligence and the movies

    Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- Zero Dark Thirty & Manhunt, fact and fiction, that old saw about who it is that gets to write history, thence onwards to theology & the arts, von Balthasar & Tolkien, winding up watching UK & US versions of House of Cards with son David ]
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    How’s this for stereoscopy?

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    You may know I’m preoccupied with the notion of extending the stereo concept — using twin sources to add a depth dimension to one’s perception — from stereophonic audition and stereoscopic vision to stereocognition more generally.

    Nada Bakos‘ image above shows a cinema in which documentary and fictional versions of the story of the hunt for bin Laden are playing simultaneously. The fiction, Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty, I saw a couple of days ago, and neither I nor son Emlyn, 17, were terribly enthused: the Camp Chapman scene was the one that touched me most deeply.

    I’ll no doubt want to see both films, but it’s Greg Barker’s documentary, Manhunter, that will interest me the most, the more factual of the two. And yet that’s curious in and of itself, because as a poet I’m usually interested in the mythic and imaginative as much as or more than the “merely” factual, and I tend to think of the movies as providing a mythology for our times.

    Okay, let me give you the two quotes that get to the heart of my sensibilities about fact and fiction at the movies.

    What, after all, happens in a movie theater after the lights dim and the curtain rises? F Scott Fitzgerald tells us what happens in the mogul’s screening room, but it’s the same with us peons, isn’t it?

    Dreams hung in fragments at the far end of the room, suffered analysis, passed — to be dreamed in crowds or else discarded.

    And I’m also with the poet Kathleen Raine, who said:

    Myth, when a real event may be the enactment of a myth, is the truth of the fact and not the other way around…

    So where does that leave me?

    Right now, it leaves me feeling that in the case of these two filmic treatments of the same “true story” — and no doubt many others — history will likely be “written” by the entertainment makers, not the documentarists. Paradoxically, a sad thought.

    But let’s go beyond that.

    **

    I said I’m preoccupied with the notion of using twin sources to add a depth dimension to perception — from stereophonic audition and stereoscopic vision to stereocognition more generally. Another way to say that is that I’m interested in figuring out how to think contrapuntally, and how to score contrapuntal thought — thought which holds two or more potentially conflicting concepts in mind simultaneously, so as to arrive at a deeper understanding than one perspective alone can provide…

    I’ve talked about these modes of stereoscopic / contrapuntal cognition before, in posts such as Form is insight: a musical experiment and Silent reading, silent thinking, bifocal glasses, and I’m always delighted when I run across a new very bright thinker (Glenn Gould, Edward Said [Power, Politics, and Culture p. 447}, Wm Blake) playing with these ideas -- today it's the late theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book Truth Is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism, who speaks of "the entire polyphony of revelation", suggests that:

    In his revelation, God performs a symphony, and it is impossible to say which is richer: the seamless genius of his composition or the polyphonous orchestra of Creation that he has prepared to play it

    and states that "Even eternal Truth itself is symphonic." The only stronger statement I know of concerning the contrapuntal nature of the world from within the Catholic tradition is JRR Tolkien's extraordinary short masterpiece of a creation myth, The Music of the Ainur [scroll down at link], with which he begins the Silmarillion.

    So the contrapuntal idea is present in theology, as well as the arts…

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    Stereoscopy, counterpoint.

    I’ve been watching the TV series, House of Cards, with my fourteen-year old, David – we’ve now seen the whole first series of the UK version together, and the beginning of the US version, and it’s fascinating to notice the differences.

    Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey):

    Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson):

    See both shows, form your own conclusions…

    And their source?

    Now I shall have to watch Richard III with David, too.

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    The zen of Cage II: from the A Train to Liverpool Street Station

    Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron -- two performances of Cage's 4'33" in the New York and London Times: an interlude in my review of Where the Heart Beats, with a brief meditation on contrapuntal listening ]
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    I began to review Kay Larson‘s Where the Heart Beats in a post here last week, and am not done yet.

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    London:

    photo credit: Chris Harris for the London Times

    In John Cage’s sound of silence… at Liverpool Street station [London Times, subscription required], Igor Toronyi-Lalic describes performing John Cage‘s silent work 4’33″ in what Cage himself — but few others — would have recognized as a concert venue, London’s Liverpool Street Station:

    My rendition isn’t going down well. “This is doing my head in!” groans a drunken West Ham supporter as he watches me at the piano outside Liverpool Street station. I hear shuffling. “I can’t dance to this,” someone shouts. The restlessness is in danger of turning to anger. And I probably should have guessed it would. Presenting a performance of one of the most controversial works of music yet written in a rowdy Central London station forecourt on a Friday night on a public piano (one of several that made up the City of London Festival’s Play Me, I’m Yours artwork) was always going to be ambitious.

    The work itself is hardly over before it begins — again, a paradox Cage would have enjoyed:

    At my Liverpool Street Station performance, there was a symphony of rush-hour noise: commuter patter, train announcements, drunken heckling and the screeching of taxis stopping to pick up fares. Not everyone appreciated the music in this.

    “When’s he going to start?” asked one lady as I finished the final movement. Others felt like they’d been had. “I thought you were going to play,” they shouted.

    There’s more, and if you can get past the pay-wall you should read it all. I’ll just quote one more snippet here, though, because it leads directly into one strand of the book that I’ll be discussing in Part III of my review of Larson’s book:

    “Classical musicians don’t know about Cage. They don’t perform it. We aren’t taught it in schools,” Volkov says.

    But, for visual artists, Cage is a revered figure, a key part of the 1950s and 60s New York arts scene and godfather to conceptual and sound art, a connection cemented by Cage’s 40-year creative relationship with his lifelong partner, the late choreographer Merce Cunningham. “Cage worked with Rauschenberg and Cunningham and, at Black Mountain College, he mainly taught music to artists,” observes Volkov, “So, today, in art schools, they teach Cage properly. They teach his ideas.”

    **

    New York:

    photo credit: Christian Hansen for the New York Times

    From London’s Liverpool Street Station we pass to New York City’s subway system. I don’t know what it is about trains, but there you are and there you go. Or perhaps the transit is from Times to Times?

    Allan Kozinn‘s John Cage Recital? Take the A Train [New York Times] starts by defining “Cage moments”:

    You know about Cage moments, don’t you? We all have them, whether we think of them that way or not. They occur when happenstance kicks in, and surprising musical experiences take form, seemingly out of nowhere. They can happen anywhere at any time.

    Listening. Listening as though all life is music.

    Kozinn is a listener, a listener to music — but he doesn’t always listen for the music in his daily life. This time, as it happens, he did:

    On the A train I wasn’t thinking about Cage at all. I had just heard an exquisitely turned, energetic performance of Schubert’s String Quintet in C at a church in Greenwich Village, and Cage could not have been further from my thoughts. Nor did the crowded subway car bring him to mind at first. But I noticed that it was unusually noisy.

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    Then something shifted:

    Typically, most of the noise you hear comes from the subway itself: its din drowns out conversations, and people tend to stare at their feet, or at whatever they are reading, and listen to their portable music players. But this Tuesday evening just about all the people were talking, and working hard to drown out both the subway and the chats taking place around them.

    I would normally have tuned all this out, but instead I sat back, closed my eyes and did what Cage so often recommended: I listened. I made no effort to separate the strands of conversation or to focus on what people were saying. I was simply grabbed by the sheer mass of sound, human and mechanical. It sounded intensely musical to me, noisy as it was, and once I began hearing it that way, I couldn’t stop.

    Okay, this is where it get’s interesting. You remember that I pointed to the pianist Glenn Gould in my Said Symphony posts, and quoted this passage from David Rothenberg‘s Sudden Music:

    Gould set himself up to hear the world in a new way. In diners he ate his lunch alone, eaves dropping closely on the voices around him. He learned to hear conversation as music, the lilting lines, the rhythms everywhere up, down, and around, what Bach does to our sense of talk. There are two part inventions in words, themes and variations in the quarrels of couples and the tales told by friends. Gould met the world on his own terms, and he was fascinated by this way of listening to human voices as if they were a musical interplay, not participating in a conversation but taking it all in, as an audience.

    What Gould sets out to do — and records for Canadian Broadcasting — Kozinn finds himself doing:

    Strand upon strand of the chatter was animated and midrange: there were neither basso profundos nor soaring sopranos in this choir, but after a moment the pitch levels began to sort themselves out as a kind of orchestration. Argumentative voices created driving, punchy rhythms that sailed over more smoothly floating narrative tones.

    At least three languages were being spoken, each with its own melodic lilt and rhythmic character. To my left, a woman’s laughter momentarily changed the coloration of this vast choral tapestry and offset the argument to my right.

    Within it all, squeaking metal yielded a high-pitched ostinato, and the ever-so-slightly-clattery rumble of the train was the high-tech equivalent of a Baroque basso continuo. As the train pulled into each station, the muted squeal of the brakes, the opening and closing of the doors and the slight shift in the balance of voices as some people left and others entered, already talking, suggested shifts between connected movements.

    Again, I recommend reading the entire piece, but will close with just one more short clip:

    I have heard “4’33” ” performed by pianists, percussion ensembles, oboists, cellists and orchestras, but none of those versions were as exciting as what I now think of as “4’33”: The Extended Subway Remix” by the A Train Yakkers, an ensemble so conceptual that its members had no idea they were in it.

    Cage would have understood.

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    And wherever:

    Listening — and listening to the world around us as music — can happen anywhere and everywhere. But as usual, I’d like to take this a step further.

    As I never tire of repeating, Edward Said — pianist and music critic as much as writer on Israeli-Palestinian issues — carries the idea of listening to multiple voices a step further, when he suggests:

    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.

    Said’s proposed manner of listening to the many voices of life in counterpoint involves listening to the words, their meanings, their stories, their histories, and thus to a simultaneous listening across time itself — not just to a harmonious blur, “Strand upon strand of the chatter .. a kind of orchestration .. driving, punchy rhythms that sailed over more smoothly floating narrative tones.”

    It goes way deeper: my life and concerns, and yours, and yours, heard together — separate and interwoven — in polyphony, in a many-voiced music — in counterpoint.

    In conflict, and in hope of resolution.

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    At the round earths imagin’d corners

    Friday, July 20th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron -- mapping, holding two worldviews in mind at one time, a conductor's score, complexity thinking ]
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    About a year ago, the Atlantic reported that the Library of Congress had been given a map of the flat earth, designed according to Biblical principles — yet showing knowledge of the border between the United States and Canada…

    Thanks to a post from Jason Wells, I saw it today.

    The view that the earth is flat is one worldview, of course, and no longer the prevailing one. As Nicholas Jackson noted at the Atlantic:

    The interesting thing about the map is that it was created about 120 years ago by Orlando Ferguson, then a practicing physician in Hot Springs [South Dakota]. This is more than 500 years after most educated people gave up on the idea of the Earth as flat and accepted the spherical viewpoint first expressed by the Ancient Greeks.

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    It is, however, possible to hold two worldviews in mind at the same time. John Donne manages it in the first line of his extraordinary poem, written at a time when the two views were clashing:

    At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow

    AT the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
    Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
    From death, you numberlesse infinities
    Of soules, and to your scattred bodies goe,
    All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
    All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
    Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
    Shall behold God, and never tast deaths woe.
    But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space,
    For, if above all these, my sinnes abound,
    ‘Tis late to aske abundance of thy grace,
    When wee are there; here on this lowly ground,
    Teach mee how to repent; for that’s as good
    As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood.

    Donne accomplishes the task of holding two worldviews in mind at one time with four simple words: “round earths imagin’d corners”.

    **

    I don’t know how many melodic “lines of thought” the mind can hold in counterpoint at once. I do know it’s an important cognitive skill for us to cultivate. A classical conductor must surely be able to hold as many lines as there are in this page of Olivier Messaien‘s Oiseaux:

    As I pointed out in a recent comment here, “somewhere above three and before eleven there’s a point — Miller’s ‘magical number seven, plus or minus two‘ where the human mind can’t hold any more detail, so that’s a cut-off of sorts.”

    Well, Messaien clearly imagines the conductor’s mind can follow more than eleven paths…

    **

    And then there’s Bob Milne.

    I’ll let the Philosophy Compass take it from here:

    Bob is predominantly known for his piano concerts of Ragtime and Bogie-Woogie music – and was given the moniker of ‘National Treasure’ by the United States Library of Congress. It was at one of these concerts that drew the attention of Penn State neuroscientist Kerstin Bettermann. At his concerts, Bob often carries on conversations, telling stories and jokes, while simultaneously modulating key signatures over the polyrhythmic Ragtime music. In their broadcast, Radiolab discusses with Dr. Bettermann why this is so surprising.

    Language use and musical competency often use the same neural resources: the prototypical language areas in the left hemisphere of the brain, and the working memory circuit that keeps information available and rapidly accessible for a short-period of time. Our ability to use language and engage with music should, on most models of the brain, be competing for these neural resources and interfere with one another. Not so with Bob – he appears to be able to tackle both tasks with ease. Further, while most people can approach this kind of competency in multi-tasking, it usually involves many learning trials, a process of sedimenting the learning into what psychologists call procedural memory, which may have its roots in a different brain region, the cerebellum. But Bob can hear a tune just once, and play it back with commentary.

    But that’s not all Bob can do.

    In their interview, Dr. Bettermann heard Bob claim something extraordinary. He claims not only to be able to hear a symphony in his head, but that he normally does this with two symphonies simultaneously. Where most individuals would only hear a cacophonous mess – Bob claimed he could dial the relative volume of either symphony up or down, and could zoom in or out of individual instrumentations. To return to the considerations above, Bob further states on the Radiolab website that he does this while driving – another procedural memory task and presumable source of interference. But when Dr. Bettermann challenged him, Bob reluctantly claimed that he could probably do the same (not while driving, mind you) with four simultaneous symphonies.

    The claim is something like this: Bob states that he can hold and listen to four symphonies with different keys, instrumentation, tempo and style in his working memory at the same time. And what is stunning is that when they put Bob into an fMRI machine, they verified his claim. Bob could be stopped at any time during his imaginative trip through the four simultaneous symphonies, and hum out the exact phrase that the original recording would be on. Remarkable.

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    This in turn takes us back to that point Edward Said made, which gave me the basic concept for my Said Sympohony (must get back to that soon):

    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.

    Edward W. Said, Power, Politics, and Culture, p. 447 — from the section titled “My Right of Return,” consisting of an interview with Ari Shavit from Ha’aretz Magazine, August 18, 2000.

    I asked in a post yesterday how good we now are at modeling or simulating ideas in the “war of ideas” — just for a moment, suppose we could think through all complex geopolitical issues in this polyphonic, contrapuntal way…

    **

    Okay, you deserve a reward for faithful reading if you’ve come this far with me. Here’s the incomparable Richard Burton reading Donne’s poem — the text is up above, if you want to follow along:

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    Having eyes to see…

    Saturday, March 31st, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron -- looking through the eyes of tech, math, art, flies, and intelligence ]
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    Imaging the winds and the waters

    I’ve been raising questions about the varieties of ways of seeing here — asking whether guardian angels can be more than guys on night watch and if so what that “more” means, invoking William Blake’s fourfold vision [see move 4], and so forth. And I tend to emphasize the visionary over against the material.

    I thought I’d do something different this time, and show you two views of the world that science brings us, that we couldn’t have seen half a century ago unless you were Theodore von Kármán (below, upper image)…

    let alone a century ago, unless you were Vincent van Gogh (lower image).

    *

    In descending order, these four images are:

    • the winds over a portion of the Americas, as depicted by Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg a few days ago, see also their current live feed
    • a NASA image drawn from the Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio‘s Perpetual Ocean animation, hi-res Gulf Stream image
    • a diagram of a Kármán vortex street, from Arthur E. Bryson, Jr., Demetri P. Telionis, “Kármán vortex street,” in AccessScience, ©McGraw-Hill Companies, 2008
    • and Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night, in the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    The gentleman in the meditation goggles — he calls them “eye-bags” — featured in the “mini-SPECS” section of the Winds and Waters SPECS is my friend David Woolley, who alerted me to these simulations on his Just think of it blog today. David, btw, is the fellow who designed and wrote PLATO Notes, the first permanent, general-purpose online conferencing system, back in 1973.

    The eyes features in the “mini-SPECS” of the Kármán / van Gogh SPECS are a fly’s “compound” eyes — “compound meaning that each eye has hundreds of facets (ommatidia or simple eyes).

    *

    And that’s the point, isn’t it?

    We as the human community have many eyes, many perspectives — the visionary, the technological, the abstract, the photographic, the artistic, the consensus, the minority opinion — such as that of Mr Justice Douglas in Sierra Club vs Morton, perhaps? …

    Our intelligence — our intel too — should build on a rich and wide array of ways of seeing. After all…

    … unless the above is just a recruitment slogan.

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