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Shoma Choudhury talks to the CIA & Taliban, more or less

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- two talks from India's THiNK2013 conference, one about the Taliban and US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the other a tale of India / Pakistan Partition ]
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Here, Indian journalist Shoma Choudhury interviews Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, one time Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and author of the book, My Life with the Taliban, and Robert Grenier, CIA station chief in Islamabad in 2001 and later Director of the Agency’s Counterterrorist Center, during the THiNK2013 conference held at the Grand Hyatt in Goa, in a session titled An Afghan Date: The CIA Talks To The Taliban on November 9th, 2013:

I haven’t found a reference to this event in the New York Times or Washington Post, and the video of the event has been viewed less than 1,250 times — so I hope that if any Zenpundit readers have in fact already viewed it, they will forgive me for posting it here. It seems to me to be a remarkable conversation, not least because of Choudhury’s skillful moderation.

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I only know about this conversation because blog-friend Omar Ali pointed me to the video of a reading of Saadat Hasan Manto‘s account of Partition in his satirical short story, Toba Tek Singh at the same conference. The reader is the actor Naseeruddin Shah whom I admire enormously for his stunning performance as “the common man” in Neeraj Pandey‘s A Wednesday — the story is told as written in Manto’s Urdu, with a principal character who “mutters or shouts a mix of Punjabi, Urdu and English” — and most of an English language translation is provided for those like myself who need it, by means of projected background slides.

But that voice, Naseeruddin Shah’s voice!

You can read Toba Tek Singh in Frances Pritchett‘s translation here.

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If these two presentations are anything to go by, the THiNK conference series may be what TED talks could and should have been…

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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.

**

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.

**

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.

**

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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    You say Ezekiel and I say Ezequiel

    Monday, March 3rd, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- Keith Oatley's theatre as simulation that runs on minds applied v briefly to two Ezekiel narratives ]
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    Here’s the transcript of a conversation in a car between FBI Agents Shane Daughtry and Eve Rearden, from the 2011 movie Jerusalem Countdown, based loosely on Pastor John Hagee‘s book of that name:

    EVE: We have information that the CIA has been investigating certain Biblical or apocalyptic events.

    SHANE: Whoa, whoa. Are you kidding me?

    EVE: I haven’t been able to wrap my head around it either but apparently recent world events have been fitting right into what is known as the Ezekiel war scenario.

    SHANE: What is the Ezekiel war scenario? Eve?

    EVE: According to the Hebrew prophet, Ezekiel, in the Last Days the people of Persia, which is, of course, Iran, and the people of Gog or Rosh, which many believe to be Russia, form an alliance whose main purpose is to obliterate Israel.

    This is fiction, loosely based on scripture and adapted to politics — apocalyptic scri-fi, if you will, and not very good scri-fi at that. Joel Rosenberg does the genre much better.

    Recommendation: do not run this film as any kind of a simulation of future history!

    **

    For a second shoe, we have John Malkovich‘s directorial debut, a brilliant movie titled The Dancer Upstairs, based on Nicholas Shakespeare‘s book of the same name…

    What catches my eye here is the suave urbanity of Javier Bardem‘s policeman dealing with the crude and brutal folk-religious ideological underpinnings of the revolutionaries, in this case syncretic with the “Fourth Wave” Marxism of Sendero Luminoso.

    This is terrorism fiction at its best, or close to it — Ann Patchett‘s 2001 novel, Bel Canto, richly brocaded around the 1996 hostage crisis at the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru, would probably be my first pick — simply because the prose is so gorgeous, such poetry.

    Recommendation: run this one! The Dancer Upstairs

    But hold on, The Dancer Upstairs deserves a post or three of its own, and I’ll be back for those two screenshots once enthusiasm overcomes fatigue…

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    On Squaring the Circle

    Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron ]
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    This post, the first of several at our temporary Zenpunditry.Wordpress backup site — make a note of the URL — while ZP itself was down for a week, also contained an announcement of that problem, now no longer required.
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    I don’t have anything earth-shattering to report by way of an immanent apocalypse, but my interest in form got nicely tweaked yesterday when I finished watching the movie of Faulkner‘s As I lay Dying — which uses a lot of split screen work that reminded me of my collection of DoubleQuotes in the Wild…

    Image

    But anyway, I was saying…

    I finished the film, stunned and impressed, and went to look see if I could find a copy of the book (I thought it was a short story) online, and came across what to me is the most exquisite short paragraph devoted to form — the second para in As I Lay Dying

    The path runs straight as a plumb-line, worn smooth by feet and baked brick-hard by July, between the green rows of laidby cotton, to the cottonhouse in the center of the field, where it turns and circles the cottonhouse at four soft right angles and goes on across the field again, worn so by feet in fading precision.

    Such awesome beauty there, squaring the circle, circling the square — and for me, the recollection too of John Donne doing a similar rounded squaring:

    At the round earth’s imagined corners, blow
    Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
    From death, you numberless infinities
    Of souls, and to your scatter’d bodies go…

    Such exquisite geometries both great writers offer us.

    I suggest it’s because they have an eye for form — they look or the shapes, the patterns in things — they’re constantly scanning, constantly practicing pattern-recognition.

    Which as you know, is an desirable cognitive skill in analytic work — one of the way to connect the dots.

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    Matrioshka forensics

    Sunday, December 29th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- it still takes a live human to see what the human eye cannot see but the machine can ]
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    This would appear to be (one version of) the state of the art in facial recognition:

    Image within image within image — the gentleman on the right is more or less recognizable as a reflection in the eye of the gentleman on the left — thus giving new potential meaning to the phrase “you are the apple of my eye” (cf Zechariah 2:8, also Oberon in Midsummer Night’s Dream III.ii.102 ff., and Stevie Wonder, You Are The Sunshine Of My Life).

    **

    Or — to switch disciplines while remaining with the matrioshka form, because such patterns are of interest to the inquiring mind — as Gary Snyder puts it in his marvelous poem, One Should Not Speak to a Skilled Hunter:

    The secret.
    and the secret hidden deep in that.

    **

    For another version of the state of the art in facial recognition, see: Where’s Ms. Waldo?. Aloha!

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