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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 ]

How’s this for stereoscopy?


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…


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.


The Controversial CTC Report

Friday, January 25th, 2013

The Center for Combating Terrorism at West Point released a report on domestic terrorism that raised hackles for a number of reasons. Despite the dismissals of liberal political pundits, the reasons for objections to the CTC report are legitimate but they did not need to arise in the first place and might have been avoided with a slightly different editorial approach or appropriate caveats (I just finished reading the report, which is primarily focused on the usual suspects). Here’s why I think the normally well-regarded CTC stumbled into a hornet’s nest:

First, in this foray into domestic terrorism analysis, the center chose to concentrate only on the threat of violence of the Far Right while ignoring other threats coming from the Far Left, infiltration by criminal insurgent networks from Mexico, notably the ultraviolent Zetas whose reach has stirred gang violence in Chicago and Islamist terrorism, either homegrown “lone wolves” or from foreign infiltration or subversion. In itself, this is understandable if the CTC plans a series of reports with a separate focus on different domestic threats; but without that context, it is a myopic analytic perspective, particularly given the demonstrated capabilities of various AQ affiliates or just south of the border, the criminal-insurgency of  the narco-cartels. Had all of these been addressed in one omnibus report, any complaints from conservatives were likely to have been muted or nonexistent. This is not to say that the radical American Far Right does not have a violent threat potential of it’s own worth studying; it does and it is real. But available evidence indicates it to be the least organized, least operationally active and least professionally competent in terms of terrorist “tradecraft” of the three.

The second and most problematic aspect of the report is an intellectually sloppy definition of a dangerous “antifederalist movement”  where noxious concepts like “white supremacy” and wacko conspiracy theories are casually associated with very mainstream conservative (or even traditionally bipartisan !) political ideas – coincidentally, some of the same ideas that contemporary “big government” liberal elites tend to find irritating, objectionable or critical of their preferred policies. Part of the equation here is that American politics are evolvng into a very bitterly partisan, “low trust” environment, but even on the merits of critical analysis,  these two passages are ill-considered and are largely responsible for most of the recent public criticism of the CTC:

….The antifederalist rationale is multifaceted, and includes the beliefs that the American political system and its proxies were hijacked by external forces interested in promoting a “New World Order” (NWO) in which the United States will be absorbed into the United Nations or another version of global government.  They also espouse strong convictions regarding the federal government, believing it to be corrupt and tyrannical, with a natural tendency to intrude on individuals’ civil and constitutional rights.  Finally, they support civil activism, individual freedoms, and self government

….In contrast to the relatively long tradition of the white supremacy racist movement, the anti-federalist movement appeared in full force only in the early to mid-1990s, with the emergence of groups such as the  Militia of Montana and the Michigan Militia. Antifederalism is normally identified in the literature as the “Militia” or “Patriot” movement. Anti-federalist and anti-government sentiments were present in American society before the 1990s in diverse movements and ideological associations promoting anti-taxation, gun rights, survivalist  practices,and libertarian ideas 

This is taxonomic incoherence, or at least could have used some bright-line specifics ( like “Posse Commitatus” qualifying what was meant by “anti-taxation” activists) though in some cases, such as “libertarian ideas” and “civil activism”, I’m at a loss to know who or what violent actors they were implying, despite being fairly well informed on such matters.

By the standard used in the first paragraph, Glenn Greenwald, Ralph Nader and the ACLU would also be considered “far right antifederalists”. By the standards of the second, we might be in physical danger from Grover Norquist,  Congressman John Dingell and Penn Jillette. No one who opposed the recent increases in income tax rates, dislikes gun-control or thought the DOJ may have abused it’s power in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz or in their stubborn refusal to prosecute Bankster racketeering is likely to welcome a report under the auspices of West Point that juxtaposes such normal and perfectly valid American political beliefs with neo-Nazism. A move that is simply going to – and quite frankly, did – gratuitously irritate a large number of people, including many in the defense and national security communities who are a natural “customer base” for CTC reports.

As I said previously, this could easily have been completely avoided with more careful use of language, given that 99% the report has nothing to do with mainstream politics and is concerned with actors and orgs with often extensive track records of violence. As the CTC, despite it’s independence, is associated so strongly with an official U.S. Army institution, it needs to go the extra mile in explaining it’s analysis when examining domestic terrorism subjects that are or, appear to be, connected to perfectly legitimate participation in the political process. This is the case whether the subject is on the Left or Right – few activists on the Left, for example, have forgotten the days of COINTELPRO and are currently aggrieved by the activities of Project Vigilant.

I might make a few other criticisms of the report, such as the need for a better informed historical perspective, but that is hardly what the recent uproar was about.


Point and Counterpoint in Defining Warfare II.

Monday, December 10th, 2012

A few comments on the article by Lt. Col. Jill Long at SWJ and the hardheaded critique by Jason Fritz of Inkspots to which I linked yesterday.

First, the attempt that Long was making in posing an alternative to Clausewitz was a laudable one, in the sense that every serious student who picks up a classic text, Clausewitz, Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Marx, Plato, Machievelli, Musashi and so on, should do more than simply try to understand the author and accept their views uncritically. Doing so would make you a parrot, not a scholar. Instead, we need to wrestle with and challenge the text; try to poke holes in the argument, turn it inside out and break it apart, if we are able. Sometimes we can make a legitimate chip or dent but most of the time, we are going to fail – the reason people have read these books for two or twenty centuries is because the arguments of brilliant minds within them continue to have enduring relevance.

I don’t think Long succeeded in her effort here, but if every officer had as part of their PME to formally construct an alternative to Clausewitz as she tried, we’d have a more strategically informed military and arguably one that better understood Clausewitz. If nothing else, Long was intellectually more courageous than the majority of her brother officers to make the attempt in the full glare of public scrutiny and that is praiseworthy

That said, “What is War? A New Point of View” is problematic. In my view, there are three major structural flaws in Long’s article: first, I don’t think she wrestled with On War  to plausibly justify her opening claim that that Clausewitz’s definition of war was obsolete. As Colonel David Maxwell pointed out at SWJ, that kind of bold discussion requires some reference to CvC’s “remarkable trinity”. Jason Fritz was probably speaking for a Clausewitzian legion when he, quite correctly, jumped on her argument for using dictionary definitions(!),  not tackling Clausewitz’s actual definition of war in asserting it was an anachronism or that such a definition can and does apply to non-state actors making war as well as states. You can’t make sweeping claims as a declaratory preface to the subject you’d really like to talk about – your audience will demand proof of your claim first.

The second major problem, is Long similarly dismisses the accepted definition of war under international law which is not only as equally large a field as Clausewitzian thought, it’s far larger and more important – being, you know – binding international law!  Disproving either of these alone is a fit subject for a dissertation or a book, not a paragraph. Sometimes we must learn how to construct a melody before we attempt to write a symphony.

The third structural problem is one of basic epistemology. Long’s assertion that Clausewitz’s (or any ) definition is not sufficiently broad because it is simple and that her definition is because it is complex is fundamentally ass-backwards. The question of definitions is one of the oldest ones in Western philosophy and we know that simple and profound definitions are by nature broadly stated while the negative dialectical process of qualifying them narrows their scope of application by revising the definition in a more complex form.

Jason Fritz raised a very interesting objection in his rebuttal:

….Long fails to adequately describe how the world has changed or how the “Global Era” plays into this. She states that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 have changed how we should perceive the world. It seems that the she believes that that day should have awakened Americans to the threat of non-state actors. Long also states that “‘interconnected systems of trade, finance, information, and security’ demand a larger perspective when considering the engagement of imposing national will on others.” Both of these points are stated in defiance of history. Globalists enjoy selling the greatness and threats of our “interconnected systems” in the modern day, but that presumes that the world is newly interconnected. We know this is not true. Interconnection in today’s world may be faster and easier, but it is not new. States and other political groups have interacted over the elements listed for millennia – look only to the period of global colonization to see how long we as humans have been at this. Long does not describe how today’s globalization is unique and why that changes how we define war.

There are important distinctions to be made here but my short comment would be that globalization has had a significant effect upon warfare but not upon war.

As Jude Wanniski once pointed out, there is and has always been only one “system” – the whole world. What globalization has changed among the constituent parts is the velocity of transactions, their frequency, the potential number of players making transactions, where the system has degrees of transparency and opacity, the incentives and capabilities of political “gatekeepers” to control exchange of information or goods among other things. It is a different global economy than the one under the auspices of Bretton Woods or the quasi-autarkic decade of the Great Depression or the first globalization that died in August 1914.

Most of these things have direct bearing on economics, politics or policy but indirectly on the conduct of warfare as well. Balance of comparative advantages can be altered, situational awareness of conflicts can be heightened and the line between de jure war and “mere violence” uncomfortably blurred. Generally, statesmen have reacted to globalization by imposing greater political constraints – usually more than would be tactically wise or efficient –  on their own use of military force in less than existential conflicts. Generally, this is perceived as an aversion to taking or inflicting casualties and a legalistic-bureaucratic micromanaging of  military commanders and troops.Whether such politically self-imposed limits are useful in pursuing a strategy for military victory is another question, one that can only be answered in specific contexts. Sometimes restraint and de-escalation is the best answer on the strategic level.

What was good in the Long article? In my view, the root idea of conceptualizing of war on a spectrum; it is a useful cognitive device that could accommodate nuances, ideal for examining case studies or changes in warfare over time. But would be more persuasive if developed with accepted definitions.


Point and Counterpoint on Defining War

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

A quick note. There’s a provocative article at SWJ by a USAF Lt Col., Jill Long that attempted to pose an alternative definition of war and Jason Fritz at Inkspots has written a tough rebuttal; both are worth reading:

Jill Long - What is War? A New Point of View

….The Spectrum of War in the Global Era

Michael Howard summarizes the changing environment as shifting from one centered on the control of territory, to one focused not only on territorial control but the effective exploitation of the resources of that territory.[8]  This concept leads to a new approach to view and define war…within the context of globalization.  As the global finance crisis illuminated, economies can no longer be managed/controlled internally but in fact are impacted by events and decisions made across the world.[9]  One only needs to reference the so called “CNN effect,” the Arab Spring or current anti-American protests to understand the impact digital communications and the 24-hour news cycle have had on regional and world affairs.[10]  The bottom line: “interconnected systems of trade, finance, information, and security” demand a larger perspective when considering the engagement of imposing national will on others.[11]

One method to approach this broader perspective is to view war as a spectrum of discord, a continuum where unrestrained armed conflict and world peace are at opposing ends.  By establishing this graphic scale, it is relatively easy to conceptualize that as a nation approaches peace (or harmony) with other entities’ values, objectives, and ideals, there is an abeyance of hostilities.  War is not over, a nation’s desire to impose its will remains; it simply does not require the use of armed conflict to achieve its goals.  What might appear on the surface to be the age old argument between Thomas Hobbes’ theory of man’s natural state as one of war and John Locke’s more peaceful perspective, is actually providing the answer to that debate…both may be right.  If a nation’s will is in harmony with other entities’ then the natural tendency will lean towards world peace.  As discord develops between a nation’s will and other nation-states or non-state actors the natural tendency will increasingly lean towards more aggressive national engagement and armed conflict.  This theory purposefully focuses on nation-states and/or non-state actors versus the individual.  While one may argue it can be applied to individual interaction, this is not the author’s intent. 

This spectrum facilitates understanding that the art of war encompasses much more than the concept of armed conflict and acknowledges a nation’s capability to change their “natural state” based on the will of the people, political landscape, as well as a nation’s strength, ability, and desire to project power. [...]

And now, from the other side……

Jason Fritz-  Our definition of war is pretty good as it is

…..Long fails to adequately describe how the world has changed or how the “Global Era” plays into this. She states that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 have changed how we should perceive the world. It seems that the she believes that that day should have awakened Americans to the threat of non-state actors. Long also states that “‘interconnected systems of trade, finance, information, and security’ demand a larger perspective when considering the engagement of imposing national will on others.” Both of these points are stated in defiance of history. Globalists enjoy selling the greatness and threats of our “interconnected systems” in the modern day, but that presumes that the world is newly interconnected. We know this is not true. Interconnection in today’s world may be faster and easier, but it is not new. States and other political groups have interacted over the elements listed for millennia – look only to the period of global colonization to see how long we as humans have been at this. Long does not describe how today’s globalization is unique and why that changes how we define war.The issue of state versus non-state actors, as pertains to the definition of war, is a silly discussion. The idea that this new “globalization” has resulted in the rise of non-state actors is also historically inaccurate and is prima facie absurd.  Civil wars have raged as long as long as humans have fought wars (indeed, civil war comprise a significant proportion of the wars humans have fought). Who are these wars supposed to have been fought by if not by non-state actors? Insurgencies and terrorism are also not new to the 21st Century (or even the Common Era) and it would take a peculiar interpretation of history to argue otherwise.

It is important to note that in his definition, Clausewitz does not describe war as act of force between states. War is engaged between enemies as the means to achieve political objectives. Of course, political objectives are not the sole purview of states as many non-state groups have exhibited and Mao so logically codified. This is not to say that Clausewitz did not intend his definition and the rest of the book to discuss war between states in the best traditions of the post-Westphalian world. He clearly speaks of states throughout the book, as indicated in the parenthetical comment in his definition of war (I did say I would return to that point). But this does not limit On War solely to war between states as mean scholars have, most prominently historian John Keegan and strategist Martin van Creveld to name a couple. It does not take that large of a leap of thought to read On War and understand that states can be any organized political group, that princes can be any leaders of those political groups, and armies can be the armed elements of those political groups. A literalist reading of Clausewitz would be as unwise as a literalist reading of Plato or Aristotle and saying their writings do not apply to the modern world because we are no longer city-states. A non-literalist exegesis of On War easily provides for the incorporation of non-state war into Clausewitz’s thesis. As a last point on non-state actors, Long indicates that these offspring of globalization are driving this need for a new definition of war and yet her new definition specifies that means required are to bring about “sufficient adherence to a nation’s will.” This suggests that only nations have wills or that the means of war could only be used to achieve national wills. Ergo, only nations can be at war. I suspect that non-state actors would like to know how to label their activities if “war” is closed to them. [....]

I am pressed for time, as usual, this morning, but i will try to offer my own comments later tonight.

Form is insight: a musical experiment

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- here's a musical experiment from the book / project i seem to be writing, which offers a grand slam intro to contemplative and artistic approaches to creative thinking, and hence a fresh angle on intelligence ]

It looks very much as though I’ve been beginning to write parts of let’s call it “a book” for a while here on Zenpundit. I laid out the overall topic and approach as I see it in my previous post, but here I would like to launch into it mid-stream, with a musical experiment to explore the mind’s capabilities. I’ll explain why, later.




Okay, here’s the experiment.

I invite you to listen to a short piece by JS Bach on YouTube. This will take roughly three and a half minutes of your time, the piece of music itself is one of the glories of the classical tradition, I’ve chosen the video because of the terrific graphics that accompany and illuminate the music, there will be some rock and ragtime to follow for those whose tastes go those ways — and I must ask you to pay very special attention while watching and listening to the video.

Before you do that, however, I’d like you to take a look at the image at the top of this post, which shows you the ending of the piece both as the video graphics present it, and in the musical notation or “score” an organist would read. The graphics are terrific because they allow the untrained eye to follow the threads of the different melodies or “voices” as Bach braids them together. The work is his “Little Fugue” in G minor, which you can find indexed in his collected works as “BWV 578″.

Here’s how I’d like you to pay attention during the piece:

As you listen to the performance on video, I’d like you to follow the colored lines of the melodies as they move along in the video graphic, and listen carefully to hear how many of the lines of sound you can actually follow distinctly in your mind. At the beginning there’s only one “voice” – only one line of melody – so your task is easy. If you are used to listening to music of one sort or another, you’ll almost certainly be able to track, more or less, some kind of thumping bass line and some kind of melody rising above it – two voices.

Can you manage three? four or more?

If you’re a musician you may still find the graphics — and the exercise – illuminating, but you might prefer to make the same experiment with a version of the piece played by Robert Köbler on a Silbemann organ, accompanied on video by the score..

Here’s the video — see how many voices you can hear and track:


How did you do? How many voices could you follow at one time?

And why am I bothering to as you to do this, and then talking so much about it? After all, you may already know everything I’m saying and more, or you may simply not care that much about such things.

Here’s why: the project is about creativity and intelligence.

It’s about how to apply forms of creativity that are generally found in the arts and humanities – and in the world’s contemplative traditions — to the questions that arise for every bright human as we face the exhilarating challenging and terrifyingly complex world around us.

It’s about understanding complexity, in the way the Intelligence Community needs to understand complexity, and business leadership, and our scientists and technicians, and the congregants at our synagogues, churches, mosques and temples, and, well, all the bright people everywhere — disillusioned, or fresh and rarin’ to go.


Complex problems often require some sort of recognition and resolution of several or many distinct and sometimes conflicting voices, points of view, concerns or vectors.. which may shift in intensity and direction as the situation evolves.

In musical terminology, any music that includes two or more distinct melodic lines or “voices” playing together simultaneously is polyphonic – from the Greek for “many voices”. Counterpoint – from the Latin for a point that counters another point — is the artful way in which composers can “work” two or more melodic lines together, so they clash at times, resolve, and harmonize.

The fugue – the particular contrapuntal form Bach uses in the piece you just heard — imposes even tighter constraints on the composer, and can elicit even greater creative inspiration as a result — as many of Bach’s, Mozart‘s, Beethoven‘s and others’ greatest works testify..


I imagine you can see that the many voices of polyphony — voices in counterpoint, that at times clash and are in need of resolution and harmony — have their equivalents in the complex multi-stakeholder problems, clashing points of view and need for constructive resolutions that creative artists, intelligence analysts, strategy, policy and decision makers, and anyone who wants to keep aware of the shifting currents of our strange and complicated times all need to take into account.

So polyphonic, and specifically contrapuntal, thinking, can be extended way beyond the realm of music — as Hermann Hesse suggested in his greatest novel, Glenn Gould tried to demonstrate in his “contrapuntal radio” pieces, and Edward Said understood when he characterized the Israeli-Palestinian issue in these words:

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.

The “book” may turn out to be a DVD, or a workshop, at this point who knows? Whatever format it winds up it takes, it will teach contrapuntal thinking — using examples drawn from world culture and contemporary geopolitics — as a radical alternative methodology, complementary to but very different from our current analytic methods. It will be a text in the cross-disciplinary, associative, lateral or horizontal equivalent of the kind of disciplinary, siloed, linear or vertical thinking that our increasingly specialized culture has trained us in —

and which we need to supplement, if we are to have the mental flexibility to see and make the creative leaps our times require of us.

For more on this, see also my Feb 2011 post (at least I’m reasonably consistent over time) A HipBone approach to analysis VI: from Cairo to Bach.


God only knows how many voices there are in Bob Dylan‘s song Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, or Eric Clapton‘s Have you ever loved a woman from the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival – the principle’s the same, but we don’t (yet) have the graphics to allow your eye to follow what the musicians are doing — and there are solos, and sidemen.

Each musician has at least one voice, its melodies and its silences, to present – and sometimes several, as we saw with the Bach organ piece. And together the individual musicians add up to an ensemble, each with an awareness of the others’ voices and a concentration on their own.

And for an insight into the varieties of organ mastery, compare Billy Preston‘s amazing solo starting at 9’33″ on the Clapton piece, Al Kooper‘s organ work on Dylan’s Sad Eyed Lady, and Ton Koopman‘s rendering of the same Little Fugue BWV 578 we started with – where at times you can watch Koopman’s fingers on the keys or feet on the pedals, for yet another way of visualizing the intricate interweavings of this glorious music.


Glenn Gould had an amazing mind: for your enjoyment, here’s a version of his own fugue, aptly entitled So You Want To Write a Fugue? — with a similar graphical display to help you follow along with the interweaving lines of melody…

It’s serious, and it’s hilarious too! Or maybe you’d prefer Scott Joplin? Either way, enjoy:

Glenn Gould:

Scott Joplin, Euphonic Sounds, a Syncopated Novelty:


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