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Brevity in Paradox

Monday, May 2nd, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — or as John Cage once said, I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry ]
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suzuki_enso-2-sm

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JV Cunningham has a poem which runs in its entirety:

Life flows to death as rivers to the sea
And life is fresh and death is salt to me.

Brilliant and brief. Samuel Beckett goes him one better, writing:

My birth was my death. Or put it another way. My birth was the death of me. Words are scarce.

It’s the scarcity that interests me here. Earlier, in Godot, he had written:

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

That’s too wordy. “My birth was the death of me” packs a colloquial punch, while “My birth was my death” is more succinct and correspondingly powerful.

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Birth > death.

They are opposites, obviously, and almost tautologically so — and yet there is a less-than-obvious “double meaning” to them — when brought into close conjunction they can be said to fold the universe from many back into one.

This business of the conjunction of opposites is one which Carl Jung made the centerpiece of much of his later work, writing for instance:

Whoever identifies with an intellectual standpoint will occasionally find his feeling confronting him like an enemy in the guise of the anima; conversely, an intellectual animus will make violent attacks on the feeling standpoint. Therefore, anyone who wants to achieve the difficult feat of realizing something not only intellectually, but also according to its feeling-value, must for better or worse come to grips with the anima/animus problem in order to open the way for a higher union, a coniunctio oppositorum. This is an indispensable prerequisite for wholeness.

Consider the current US election campaign in this light…

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Shakespeare’s “insult, exult, and all at once” in As you Like It, and Dylan Thomas’ “Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray” in Do not go gentle are 0other instances of brevity in paradox.

Beckett, Jung, Shakespeare, Dylan Thomas — heady company.

A couple more beads for Hesse’s Game

Sunday, April 24th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — Art & Philospphy, Latin, Greek & Arabic, Porphyry & Proclus ]
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I discovered Elaine Van Dalen‘s twitterstream today, and was enchanted. Trawling backwards a little from her tweet about the Sultan al-Kamil, I ran across this one:

which fairly begged to be DoubleTweeted with this hastily assembled tweet of my own, quoting from Hermann Melville‘s Mardi:

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Both are instances of the game Hermann Hesse described himself playing while raking and burning leaves, in his poem Hours in the Garden:

Within me, my thoughts begin to play
A game, an exercise I have practiced for many years.
It is called the Glass Bead Game, a charming invention
Whose framework is music, whose basis is meditation.

[ … ]

I hear music and see men of the past and the future.
Wise men and poets and scholars and artists, all of one mind,
Building the hundred-gated cathedral of the spirit…

That’s Hesse’s private manner of playing the Glass Bead Game: the game as played in the novel is more abstract, shorn of persons, a virtual music of ideas indeed.

I’ve quoted this over and over, I know, but for those who are new to the Game, here’s Hesse’s definitive description from the novel:

The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

Theology for artists and musicians, Buddhist & Christian

Monday, April 18th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — with side-trips to China, ancient and modern ]
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The-Bach-Window-Saint-Tho-007
Bach window in the Thomaskirsche, Leipzig, where Bach was Cantor

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The Dalai Lama has a fascinating article out about reincarnating lamas (“tulkus”) which has direct relevance to discussions of what happens when he died — whether he decides to reincarnate as a new Dalai Lama, whether the Chinese decide to do it for him, etc.

I learned a lot — but the piece that really caught my eye was this:

The Emanation Body is three-fold: a) the Supreme Emanation Body like Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, who manifested the twelve deeds of a Buddha such as being born in the place he chose and so forth; b) the Artistic Emanation Body which serves others by appearing as craftsmen, artists and so on; and c) the Incarnate Emanation Body, according to which Buddhas appear in various forms such as human beings, deities, rivers, bridges, medicinal plants, and trees to help sentient beings.

I love the ontology that gives us “human beings, deities, rivers, bridges, medicinal plants, and trees” and which reminds me of Borges‘ scheme, allegedly derived from a Chinese encyclopedia, The Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge, for the classification of animals:

In its remote pages it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.

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But really, that’s a bonus.

It’s the inclusion of “craftsmen, artists and so on” as being potentially Artistic Emanation Bodies of Buddha that gets me. I see it as a viable counterbalance to the current emphasis in the west — and in the westifying east — on STEM topics, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, as the ultimate desirables in education.

And for what it’s worth, the idea is not without comparative equivalents. July 28 is the commemoration, in the Episcopalian Calendar of Saints, of “Johann Sebastian Bach, 1750, George Frederick Handel, 1759, and Henry Purcell, 1695, Composers” — while the Lutherans on the same day commemorate “Johann Sebastian Bach, 1750; Heinrich Schütz, 1672; George Frederick Handel, 1759; musicians”.

From a set of Episcopalian lectionary readings:

Almighty God, beautiful in majesty and majestic in holiness: Thou gavest to thy musicians Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel, and Henry Purcell grace to show forth thy glory in their music. May we also be moved to sound out thy praises as a foretaste of thy eternal glory; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Arthur Waley, in his slim volume on Li Po, puts a somewhat ironic spin on the idea, telling us:

It was commonly believed that immortals who had misbehaved in Heaven were as punishment banished to live on earth for a fixed time, there they figured as wayward and extraordinary human beings. They were what was called ‘Ministers Abroad of the Thirty-Six Emperors of Heaven.’

Falling, drunk, into the Yellow River while attempting to kiss the moon would appear to qualify one for this honorific.

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Not to worry, btw. According to an announcement issued yesterday:

The Tibetan spiritual leader told a group of abbots not to worry as he is in good health and still has recurring dreams indicating that he will live for at least 113 years.

Conkers (the game) and Deep Learning

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — offered to 3QD ]
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This is my second submission attempting (and failing) to become a regular contributor at the fine web-aggregator known as 3QD — you can read my first here. On rereading this more recent attempt, I am not sure I would have selected it myself had I been one of the judges — it perhaps expects too mych “British” knowledge of its readers, who are as likely to come from Hoboken or Pakistan as from Oxford (hat-tip there to my two 3QD friends, Bill Benzon & Omar Ali). For those of you, therefore, who may not know what conkers is, here’s a brief video introduction, with the actual game demo starting around the 1’35” mark:

I’ll add a fantastic passage from Seamus Heaney at the end of my post, to give it the final mahogany polish a conkers post deserves.

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Three Quarks Daily submission:

Conkers is for kids. So what does it have to do with computers, AI, “deep learning” or robots?

It’s a very British game, conkers, played with the seeds of horse chestnut trees, of which Britain counts almost half a million, pierced and strung on string. I suppose you could think of it as a primitive form of rosary bashing, with each player’s rosary having only one bead, but that might give others the wrong impression since conkers (the game) is sacred the way taste is sacred before anyone has told you, “this is strawberry”, not the way sanctuaries are sacred after someone has put an altar rail round them, or screened them off with a rood screen.

Even giving the game the name Conkers with a capital C puts it on a pedestal, when all it’s about is gleefully finding a suitable conker, maybe loose on the ground or maybe encased in its prickly green shell, drilling it through with some sort of skewer or Swiss Army device, threading it (stringing it) on string, finding a gleeful or shy playmate, and whazzam! conking their conker with your own so their falls apart and yours remains triumphant. Battered perhaps, but victorious.

conkers in the wild - bbc

An artificial general intelligence, left to its own devices and skilled in “deep learning”, will surely figure out that play plays a significant role in learning, by reading Johan Huizinga perhaps, or figuring out “the play’s the thing” – or noting that play is how learning develops in mammalian infancy and expresses itself in human mastery. And since learning is what artificial general intelligence is good for and would like to be even better at, you can bet your best conker that artificial general intelligence will want to learn to play.

Okay, computers have played, and beaten humanity’s best, at such games as Pong, Space Invaders, Draughts, Backgammon, Chess, Jeopardy, Rock-Paper-Scissors, and Go

Rock-Paper-Scissors

— and apparently one set of AI researchers is considering Texas Hold’em as a plausible next challenge. I want to see them try their hands (hands?) and minds at conkers, though.

Consider: they’d need more than brainpower, they’d need mobility. It wouldn’t take a rocket scientist but a robot to do the trick – locating chestnut trees, okay, with a judicious use of Google maps for targeting and drones for close observation, agility to get around the trees (climbing ‘em?) gathering and evaluating nuts, their sizes, densities, colors and weights, testing different angles of attack and types of needles for threading, the respective efficacies of polished (ooh like mahogany!) vs unpolished nuts (somewhat more in the spirit of sabi-wabi), styles of rough or silken string — and then the dexterity to swing the strung nut at its similarly strung and loosely hanging sibling-opponent!!

conkers - sun

Ah, but there’s a child to find first, shy or enthusiastic, and the very approach of a disembodied brain or robot might scare or enchant said child. Your successful robot will need to avoid the uncanny valley of too close resemblance, in which a machine garners the same emotional thrill as Chucky the scary doll from Child’s Play and its endless sequels…

All this, to beat the poor kid at the kid’s own game?

Perhaps our robot overchild will have read the bit about “It matters not who won, or lost, but how you played the game” – and will have the good sense and humility to build itself an arm that’s not quite as strong as a child’s arm, and will eventually have played enough child opponents to develop a style that wins only fractionally more games than it loses – say 503 games out of a thousand.

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou playest conkers with him?

Oh, conkers isn’t the only game I’d like to see the computers try for -– in fact it’s one of two games that has been outlawed in some British schools –- and to live outside the law you must be honest, as Dylan says. Another banned — and therefore extra-interesting — game is leap-frog. How do you win and how do you lose at that? You don’t –- you just play.

That’s when things will begin to get really interesting, I think –- when an artificial general intelligence, with or without robotic body, learns playfulness. There will need to be constraints of course, of the Do no Harm variety -– a fireproof Faraday cage playpen perhaps?

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But play is by no means limited to infancy, it also finds an outlet in genius. So here’s my more serious, though still playful, question for the AI folks out there, and Monica Anderson with her “Intuitive AI” in particular:

When will an AI be able to play Hermann Hesse’s Glass Bead Game?

After all, it’s the only game design that has arguably won its designer a Nobel Prize. And at the moment, it’s brilliantly undefined..

Grail for Game Designers

Hesse conceptualized the game as a virtual music of ideas – contrapuntal, polyphonic. Its origins were found in musical games, mathematicians soon added their own quotient of arcane symbols to those of musicians, and other disciplines followed suit until as Hesse puts it:

The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

Various people, myself among them, have proposed playable variants on Hesse’s great Game, and with a little further precision, definition and development, one of us might be able to propose a specific GBG format that would challenge AI to, essentially, produce profundity, beauty, perhaps even “holiness.” For when all’s said and done, that’s where Hesse’s game inexorably leads, as his Game Master Joseph Knecht tells us:

Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with a truly meditative mind, nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created.

Joshua Fost GBG sample
Sample “island” of moves from Joshua Fost‘s Toward the Glass Bead Game – a rhetorical invention

3QD is a polyphonic glass bead game of sorts, and comes far closer to Hesse’s ideal than the internet as a whole, since it curates the thoughts and insights it delivers — so maybe the challenge will be for an AI to win a place at the 3QD table by providing an essay, 1,000 to 2,500 words in length, to Abbas, by email at or before 11.59pm New York City time on some Saturday yet to be announced.

GBG cover Hesse

Preferably, such an AI will also have a stock of essays available, touching on a variety of subjects with passion, clarity, and at least a hint of quasi-human humor, for posting on specified Mondays. And before it writes in, it may need to think itself up a nom de plume.

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So that was my 2QD submission, with a couple of additional images thrown in. As I say, I’m not convinced I got it right — and next time. if there is a next time, I’ll likely avoid the Glass Bead Game and pick on some other topic. To give you a “rounded experience”, however, I am going to return now to conkewrs and chestnut trees, and offer you that quote I promised from Seamus Heaney, taken from his essay The Placeless Heaven: Another Look at Kavanagh:

In 1939, the year that Patrick Kavanagh arrived in Dublin, an aunt of mine planted a chestnut tree in a jam jar. When it began to sprout, she broke the jar, made a hole and transplanted the thing under a hedge in front of the house. Over the years, the seedling shot up into a young tree that rose taller and taller above the boxwood hedge. And over the years I came to identify my own life with the life of the chestnut tree.

This was because everybody remembered and constantly repeated the fact that it had been planted the year I was born; also because I was something of a favourite with that particular aunt, so her affection came to be symbolised in the tree; and also perhaps because the chestnut was the one significant thing that grew visibly bigger by the year…

When I was in my early teens, the family moved away from that house and the new owners of the place eventually cut down every tree around the yard and the lane and the garden including the chestnut tree. We all deplored that, of course, but life went on satisfactorily enough where we resettled, and for years I gave no particular thought to the place we had left or to my tree which had been felled.

Then, all of a sudden, a couple of years ago, I began to think of the space where the tree had been or would have been. In my mind’s eye I saw it as a kind of luminous emptiness, a warp and waver of light, and once again, in a way that I find hard to define, I began to identify with that space just as years before I had identified with the young tree.

On analogical mountains — & pitons that portend enlightenment

Saturday, April 2nd, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — carrying French mountaineering coals to a mountaineering Frenchman ]
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As imagination can reach farther than spacecraft, so analogical mountains are at a higher elevation — indeed, a higher octave — than physical ones:

Tablet DQ rurp mt analogue


René Daumal
‘s brilliant novel Mount Analogue was uncompleted, and fittingly so, at his death — the peak of the book’s arduous ascent being by necessity wordless.

Thete’s nothing non-Eucidean or metaphysical about Chouinard‘s RURP, however — it’s a piton so small that if you dare hang your life on it, you might well expect to achieve enlightenment. I was given mine as a keepsake by a hitchhiker on his way to try the lower slopes of Everest, while I was taking the hippie route through Turkey and Iran to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India in the early seventies. And yes, I confess I use it for exclusively analogical mountaineering.

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This DoubleQuote is for my long-time boss and friend Victor d’Allant, who tweeted today:

Salut!


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