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Baghdad to Samarra: “you are entering a hot zone”

Thursday, July 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- life not quite as subtle as art, but echoing it nevertheless ]
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Poignant photo of refugees sleeping in Samarra's Askariya mosque -- credit Bryan Denton for the NYT

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Alissa Rubin, writing in yesterday’s NYT under the title On the Road to Samarra, Glimpses of Iraq’s New Fractured Reality, offers a realistic description of the road between the two cities:

About 20 miles beyond the northern gates of Baghdad, on the way to the embattled city of Samarra, site of one of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines, the road empties out as if some invisible barrier has been passed.

From this point on boundaries are constantly shifting, with the Iraqi government’s control extending only a little beyond the side of the road, and sometimes not even there.

The 75-mile drive from Baghdad to Samarra plunges the traveler into Iraq’s precarious new reality. It is a world of Shiite militias, where many of the men carrying arms on behalf of the government have only the most tenuous ties to the Iraqi security forces. And it is a world where Sunni militants, who advanced to within 50 miles of Baghdad in their initial burst last month before their drive stalled, often are no more than a mile or so away.

Travelers must read signs that would be invisible to a newcomer: Flags and uniforms signal safety or danger.

**

I can’t help but remember Somerset Maugham‘s account of that same distance, metaphysically measured, as quoted by John O’Hara:

Death speaks:

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

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Connecting dots: Luther learns découpage from Bowie

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- from a British TV cop via teh glitter-glam rocker & William Burroughs -- a helpful analytic technique and its pre-history ]
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You take your learnings where you find them. DCI Luther (in the BBC cop show, series 1 episode 4) has a great many data points — in this case, photos and maps.

He arranges them in a circle around his chair, squats, studies them, rearranges them. DS Ripley comes in…

For your convenience, here’s the exchange:

DS Ripley: What’s all this?
DCI Luther: Découpage, a cut-up technique. Take a bit of text, cut it up, randomise it, make new text, see new patterns.
DS Ripley: Where’d you learn this?
DCI Luther: David Bowie — it’s how he wrote his lyrics.
DS Ripley: Are you a fan?
DCI Luther: Don’t I look like a fan?
DS Ripley: What, of songs about, like, aliens and that?
DCI Luther: Well, there’s a bit more to him than aliens. I’ll make you a tape.

Randomize, to see new patterns.

Once again, it’s a near-instinctive move, but one worth sharpening into a tool. Take it out of the zone of tacit knowledge and bring it into the explicit.

**

Novelist William Burroughs learned the cut-up technique from that jack-of-all-arts, Bryon Gysin.

Interviewer: How did you become interested in the cut-up technique?

Wm Burroughs: A friend, Brion Gysin, an American poet and painter, who has lived in Europe for thirty years, was, as far as I know, the first to create cut-ups. His cut-up poem, Minutes to Go, was broadcast by the BBC and later published in a pamphlet. I was in Paris in the summer of 1960; this was after the publication there of Naked Lunch. I became interested in the possibilities of this technique, and I began experimenting myself. Of course, when you think of it, The Waste Land was the first great cut-up collage, and Tristan Tzara had done a bit along the same lines. Dos Passos used the same idea in ‘The Camera Eye’ sequences in USA. I felt I had been working toward the same goal; thus it was a major revelation to me when I actually saw it being done.

Bowie borrowed the cut-up from Burroughs and Gysin — glitter from the avant garde:

Burroughs had a technique that would enable Bowie to renew his entire method of writing lyrics and making music. During the early 1960s, Burroughs and his colleague, the painter and writer Brion Gysin, had developed the cut-up as a method of visual and verbal reassembly that was equally applicable to painting, montaged artworks, calligraphy, tape manipulation and the word. It offered, in fact, a whole new way of seeing.

Having read Burroughs’ cut-up novel Nova Express to prepare for the interview, Bowie applied the technique to the words and sound of his next album, the darkly dystopian Diamond Dogs – a fusion of Burroughs and George Orwell. The cut-up, as he admitted later, perfectly suited his own fragmented consciousness, and also enabled him to cut through the tangle of expectation and image that threatened to slow him down. It sped everything up.

Here’s Bowie:

You take your learnings where you find them.

Randomize, to see new patterns.

**

Sources:

  • Luther
  • How did you become interested
  • Burroughs had a technique
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    Today’s DoubleQuotes 2: mine own

    Sunday, May 4th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- smart guns and science fiction, transubstantiation, AE van Vogt, Frank Herbert, and PK Dick ]
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    Many of my books are in storage at the moment, so I’m borrowing from a review to interest you in A. E. van Vogt‘s book The Weapon Shops of Isher if you don’t already know it. It’s pretty timely.

    It’s curious, too, that The Weapon Shops of Isher by A. E. van Vogt should happen to concern grand political themes like dictatorship, an imperial cult, government theft of private property, the suppression of dissent, and gun ownership. Being science fiction, it also includes time travel, and invisibility suits, and doorknobs that reach out to, and weapons that jump into, the right people’s hands.

    The lower panel, above, shows science fiction becoming science fact — the controversial prototype of the Armatix iP1 .22-caliber smart gun

    **

    Here are the two key texts for the fiction and the fact, in the form of a second DoubleQuote — first the fiction, then the 2014 fact:

    **

    Putting together the DoubleQuotes with the van Vogt cover threw me through a loop, because I could swear I remembered something about Frank Herbert‘s Dune having a cover that was “borrowed” for use on another book, as though all non-earth planets were the same. After some searching, I realized that it wasn’t this cover that matched the cover of Dune, but a cover used on PK Dick‘s Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich — so here’s that DQ, showing events on Arrakis (Dune) and (presumably) Mars (Three Stigmata):

    **

    My personal reasons for interest in these three books, beyond the fact that each is splendid?

  • The Weapons Shops: the idea of guns that can only be used in self defence is interesting
  • Dune: deals with a Mahdi and questions of jihad
  • The Three Stigmata: makes a comparison between transubstantiation & altered states
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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.

    **

    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.

    **

    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

    **

    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…

    **

    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”…

    **

    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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