zenpundit.com » Sembl

Archive for the ‘Sembl’ Category

Locked horns: reading the abstract news

Sunday, June 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- pattern recognition in news media, also polarization, Swiss cows, and klezmer ]
.

Berkane & Bergamote, two Heren cows, lock horns for the title of 'queen' in Grimetz, Switzerland

**

It’s fairly extraordinary what happens when you scan a news item or op-ed piece in search of those remarks that are abstractions from the particular topic of the piece. I was struck by this today when I read:

A tradition of vigorous, nuanced debate is increasingly being boiled down to a binary choice of worldviews.

I mean, how many other topics in the same newspaper that day might that sentence have been slipped into without causing an eyebrow to lift?

Of similar interest, perhaps, and from the same piece:

ultimately, a big tent does have parameters

That doesn’t strike me as quite as open an insight, but maybe that’s just because “big tent” has more speciic resonance. And then there was:

Both views are completely valid, but they can be conflicting

That one intrigues me because on the face of it, it’s a contradiction: maybe a little set theory, expressed in the form of slightly different wording, could resolve it.

Here’s one more, still from the same piece, with a touch of zen to it — or is that psychotherapy?

By looking at ourselves, we can be better people

And this one, forgive me, is simply chilling:

are you now or have you ever been … ?

**

So, “big tent” and all, are we talking about the US Congress here?

Actually, those quotes all come from a Washington Post piece by Marc Fisher titled For Jewish groups, a stand-off between open debate and support of Israel — but that’s pretty much beside my point.

The thing is, as SI Hyakawa pointed out, good writing tends to be writing that moves up and down the “ladder of abstraction” from intimate details (“my cow Bessie” — or “Berkane” or “Bergamote” in this instance) to broad-sweep analysis (“13% of livestock in the region”), because details (and anecdotes) evoke emotion while statistics and abstractions ensure that the wider picture is not omitted from the telling.

WHich is why, among other things, in a world of think tanks and white papers which favor analytics and statictics almost to the exclusion of details and emotions, my own analytic tradecraft, as expressed in the HipBone Games and Sembl Thinking projects, favors quotes and anecdotes as highly as facts and stats.

**

One of the specific art acts discussed in that WaPo piece is The Shondes‘ klezmer rock punk song, I Watched the Temple Fall [lyrics, YouTube ]. Here’s what the band has to say about the song:

We wrote “I Watched the Temple Fall” because we were thinking a lot about what Jews put our faith in, and where that faith really lives. We’d been talking about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s notion of Judaism as a religion of time, not space, and thinking about how that related to Zionism. Confining ideas into spaces (temples, states, what have you) can falsely polarize us and take us away from the big, important stuff. We wanted to write a song that clearly said, “Look, it might be devastating to face, but the state of Israel commits actions daily that violate the basic tenets of Judaism.

Rock, punk, and klezmer I don’t know much about, but Heschel‘s book The Sabbath is one that has moved me profoundly, and reading this particular statement made me wonder what David Ronfeldt might find of interest for his Space-Time-Action (STA) theory in the song, or in Heschel’s thought.

**

Well, we began this post — about the attractions of abstraction — with an image of two Swiss cows named Berkane and Bergamote locking horns in a championship fight — here’s some klezmer from Itzhak Perlman — again, see, I’m climbing back down the ladder of abstraction to the level of the individual — to round things out:

Share

Sunday surprise 23: a narrative form without conflict

Monday, April 28th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- a friend's blogpost, a taste of still eating oranges -- and the eyes of beautiful women considered as weaponry, in a Zen story, backed up by a verse from a celebrated Indian treatise on advaita ]
.

Image

.
I like to get cross-blog discussions going, so what I’ll post here as this week’s Sunday surprise is my response to two paragraphs my friend Bill Benzon quoted on his New Savanna blog under the title Is conflict necessary to plot? from a longer piece at Still Eating Oranges titled The significance of plot without conflict — followed by a zen tale.

Here’s the Still Eating Oranges intro to the form known as kishotenketsu which so intrigued Bill Benzon:

The necessity of conflict is preached as a kind of dogma by contemporary writers’ workshops and Internet “guides” to writing. A plot without conflict is considered dull; some even go so far as to call it impossible. This has influenced not only fiction, but writing in general — arguably even philosophy. Yet, is there any truth to this belief? Does plot necessarily hinge on conflict? No. Such claims are a product of the West’s insularity. For countless centuries, Chinese and Japanese writers have used a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”, so to speak. Rather, it relies on exposition and contrast to generate interest. This structure is known as kishotenketsu.

Kishotenketsu contains four acts: introduction, development, twist and reconciliation. The basics of the story—characters, setting, etc. — are established in the first act and developed in the second. No major changes occur until the third act, in which a new, often surprising element is introduced. The third act is the core of the plot, and it may be thought of as a kind of structural non sequitur. The fourth act draws a conclusion from the contrast between the first two “straight” acts and the disconnected third, thereby reconciling them into a coherent whole.

And here, from Paul Reps’ celebrated little book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, is one of the 101 Zen Stories with which Reps’ anthology begins:

How to Write a Chinese Poem:

A well-known Japanese poet was asked how to compose a Chinese poem.

“The usual Chinese poem is four lines,” he explains. “The first line contains the initial phase; the second line, the continuation of that phase; the third line turns from this subject and begins a new one; and the fourth line brings the first three lines together. A popular Japanese song illustrates this:

Two daughters of a silk merchant live in Kyoto.
The elder is twenty, the younger, eighteen.
A soldier may kill with his sword.
But these girls slay men with their eyes.

Which reminds me irresistibly — in the HipBone-Sembl manner — of a quote from Shankaracharya‘s classic work, Vivekachudamani, or The Crest Jewel of Discrimination:

Who is the greatest hero? He who is not terror-stricken by the arrows which shoot from the eyes of a beautiful girl.

Wry grin: I am clearly no hero — but even here in Shankara’s aphorism, we are still and ever in the realm of narrative.

Share

Regarding the Lesser and Greater Sludges

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- the warnings, the lack of response, the tragedy, and a diagnosis of the underlying, near-universal human condition ]
.

Devastation wrought by the Lesser Sludge, Snohomish County, WA, March 2014

**

Hear ye! Hear ye!

The most stunning account I’ve yet seen of the Oso mudslide isn’t really about the slide itself, it’s about how much we already knew and how little we listened. Here’s an interview with geomorph­ologist Daniel Miller, who wrote up the danger of a slide in a 1997 report for the Washington Department of Ecology and the Tulalip Tribes, and followed it up with a report for the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1999, in which he warned of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure”:

Compare and contrast that with the quote from a piece yesterday on Vice Motherboard titled Lidar Mapping Could Save Lives Before the Next Mudslide:

Nevertheless the county believed that it was safe to build homes down by the Stillaguamish River. “It was considered very safe,” John Pennington, head of Snohomish County’s Department of Emergency Management, said at a news conference Monday. “This was a completely unforeseen slide. This came out of nowhere.”

**

The Lesser Sludge:

According to Chapter 14, Landslides and other mass movements, in Snohomish County’s 2010 Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan Update:

Mudslides or mudflows (or debris flows) are rivers of rock, earth, organic matter and other soil materials saturated with water. They develop in the soil overlying bedrock on sloping surfaces when water rapidly accumulates in the ground, such as during river of rock, earth, organic matter and other heavy rainfall or rapid snowmelt. Water pressure in the pore spaces of the material increases to the point that the internal strength of the soil is drastically weakened. The soil’s reduced resistance can then easily be overcome by gravity, changing the earth into a flowing river of mud or “slurry.” A debris flow or mudflow can move rapidly down slopes or through channels, and can strike with little or no warning at avalanche speeds. The slurry can travel miles from its source, growing as it descends, picking up trees, boulders, cars and anything else in its path. Although these slides behave as fluids, they pack many times the hydraulic force of water due to the mass of material included in them. Locally, they can be some of the most destructive events in nature.

— and their Hazard Profile comments:

Landslides are caused by one or a combination of the following factors: change in slope of the terrain, increased load on the land, shocks and vibrations, change in water content, groundwater movement, frost action, weathering of rocks, and removing or changing the type of vegetation covering slopes.

Note that no human intervention is required — this is what an insurance writer might call an “act of God” while a scientist might prefer to call it the result of “natural causes”.

As for myself, I would like to refer to the actual mudflow consisting of “rock, earth, organic matter and other soil materials saturated with water” that recently buried much of the small, humanly-populated town of Osa in Snohomish County, WA, as the Lesser Sludge.

**

Hear ye!

Listen! Warnings have been issued for millennia — and still the kings, the potentates, the real estate moguls refuse to listen:

Hear ye the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah, and inhabitants of Jerusalem; Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, the which whosoever heareth, his ears shall tingle.

— Jeremiah 19:3

**

Managua:

I was in Managua, Nicaragua, shortly after the 1972 earthquake there. I had spent the day before with a 35mm Pentax, photographing square block after square block of demolished housing, with the occasional yellow flag indicating that a body — hence a possible source of infection — had been located there, too deep to be retrieved at that point. And I recall all too vividly what the physician sitting next to me on the plane home said to me:

They will rebuild on this same spot.

Managua had been the site of previous quakes, including one in 1885, and another in 1931 — it was at risk for serious quakes roughly twice a century. But real estate is real estate, Managua as Nicaragua’s capital city was valuable real estate, and the owners of valuable real estate would want to rebuild on their own real estate, no? It only makes logical sense…

And they did.

**

What, then, is the Greater Sludge?

What I am calling the Greater Sludge is the mental sludge that somehow lodges itself, not just in this instance but in ten thousand others, between appropriate warnings on the one hand, and acting on the need for change on the other.

The Greater Sludge, in other words, is between our ears and behind our eyes: we cannot see it, and we cannot hear it.

I spent the better part of a decade working and talking with the fine group of social entrepreneurs that Jeff Skoll‘s foundation gathered for discussions at the late, lamented SocialEdge site, and I noticed something that struck me forcibly at the time, and has only become more deeply rooted in my thinking since then: we have Foundations, think tanks, journals, RFPs, and funding reources for all manner of top-down approaches to single-issue problems — depleted or polluted water supplies, lack of housing, education, medicine, you name it. We even have a few people like Anthony Judge and his Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, trying to see the complex interweavings of multiple problems — and a few more like Victor d’Allant and his team at Urb.Im working on bottom-up solutions.

But there isn’t really even a category for approaches to the problem of the Greater Sludge: our need to make across-the-board improvements in mental clarity isn’t even on the map.

And yet mental sludge is the greatest obstacle facing all those who see problems and have the clarity to know how to go about fixing them: from distraction and disinterest to outright denial, the many shades of sludge constitute our one totally interdisciplinary, wholly integral and universal problem.

Conversely, clarity in that invisible space behind the eyes, the ability to hear the quiet voice of sanity above the babel-babble between the ears — that would be the universal solvent.

**

Further readings:

  • Critical thinking — cf. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking
  • Bias avoidance — cf. The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis and The Mind’s Lie
  • Systemic thinking — cf. Places to Intervene in a System and Dancing with Systems
  • Associzative leaps — cf. On the HipBone and Sembl games: update and Recap: on HipBone / Sembl Thinking
  • Then read the whole sad mudslide and warnings story at the Seattle Times again, and weep:

    I think we did the best that we could under the constraints that nobody wanted to sell their property and move…

    Share

    On Magic: Jane’s and the Jesuits

    Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- a brief note on my own bi-focal vision, with appreciation to Marina Warner ]
    .

    **

    I was just reading Marina Warner‘s recent essay On Magic — and protective magic in particular — and was struck by the phrase:

    Calligraphic blazons act as icons, gems are incised with prayers to release their talismanic powers, phylacteries hold tightly wound documents written all over with blessings and invocations…

    Calligraphic blazons?

    My oh my! Only a click away, IHS, the “global information company” that brings us IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review, was tweeting me something or other and naturally, their avatar showed up (above, upper panel) on my screen, then in my eyes (etc), and finally (after a couple milliseconds?) in what Coleridge called the “hooks and eyes” of memory… where they hooked up very nicely indeed with the logo of the Society of Jesus (above, lower panel).

    Jane’s and the Jesuits. I mean, they’re both in the security business, right? The Jesuits want to protect us from sin, heresy, and other matters which will make life hot for us in the next world, while Jane’s wants to protect us from VBIEDs, CBRN weapons and other such things — widely considered more pressing — which might make life hot for us in this one.

    **

    Let’s skip the Jesuits and the seculars for a moment, and turn to Judaism and Islam. Marina writes:

    Kabbalistic beliefs share common ground in this love of letters as potent, active powers in themselves: “Every word an angel, every letter an angel, and the spaces between them” was a tenet of the mystical Isaac Luria in Prague. According to analogous Muslim practices involving inscription, the right words work even when they’re hidden, indecipherable, or have disappeared altogether: they need only to have made contact, for their presence lingers in the substances where they were once inscribed, transferred by means of the magic operation of writing.

    That last is, as cultural anthropologists know, a homeopathic concept — compare this, from the US (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine backgrounder:

    The alternative medical system of homeopathy was developed in Germany at the end of the 18th century. Supporters of homeopathy point to two unconventional theories: “like cures like”—the notion that a disease can be cured by a substance that produces similar symptoms in healthy people; and “law of minimum dose”—the notion that the lower the dose of the medication, the greater its effectiveness. Many homeopathic remedies are so diluted that no molecules of the original substance remain.

    The thing is, there are two worldviews at work here, and Marina very nicely finesses the pair of them when, discussing the “talismanically protective clothes” in a Paris exhibit of “Ottoman princes’ wardrobes from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries”, she says:

    Looked at from one angle, the Turkish practice was rankly superstitious, a fabulous, extreme, and crazy example of human fantasy in the doomed quest for mastery of natural forces. But looked at from another angle, the attempt to activate blessing and security through acts of writing rather than simple speech acts, and then by wearing the texts on one’s body, shows us a new dimension of word power and communicates an extraordinary degree of trust in the active literate imagination.

    Superstitious, fabulous and crazy in enlightened scientific terms, yes — and yet seen from another angle, an extraordinary degree of trust in the active literate imagination…

    John Donne opts for both, compressing two worlds into a mere four words:

    At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
    Your trumpets, Angells…

    **

    Okay and Amen.

    I’d now like to broaden the subject from word to world, and to deepen it from magic to sacrament.

    In my next, I’ll draw on Tara Isabella Burton‘s suggestion: Study Theology, Even If You Don’t Believe in God — and Dana Gioia‘s piece, The Catholic Writer Today. Onwards.

    Share

    Warren McCulloch’s lifetime koan

    Saturday, March 15th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- from intuitive leap to confirmation in a celebrated paper by neurophysiologist and cybernetician Warren McCulloch ]
    .

    As I mentioned in my earlier post, Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style, for parallels, patterns, there are times when my HipBone-influenced style of reading suggests the presence of a hidden piece of text that forms the basis for the part that’s readily available — in that case, the Qur’anic passage on which a major speech by Bin Laden was based.

    Something very similar happened the other day, while I was reading the cybernetician Warren McCulloch‘s paper What is a number, that a man may know it, and a man, that he may know a number? thoroughly for the first time.

    McCulloch’s title itself triggered an intuitive leap — call it a HipBone / Sembl move — to the Prologue to St John’s Gospel, familiar to me since my altar-boy childhood as the Last Gospel recited by the priest at the end of Mass.

    I’ll have more to say about St John’s Prologue, and scripture more generally, later in this post, when I’ve told you how my “intuitive leap” was confirmed by further readings, and what that means in terms of intuition and verification.

    **

    I call that move from McCulloch to St John an intuitive leap — but as with all such leaps, it is important to verify that the leap is well-founded at both ends.

    Reading on past the title, then, I found McCulloch’s description of his own background, which is relevcant here:

    I was destined for the ministry. Among my teen-age acquaintances were Henry Sloan Coffin, Harry Emerson Fosdick, H. K. W. Kumm, Hecker – of the Church of All Nations – sundry Episcopalian theologians, and that great Quaker philosopher, Rufus Jones.

    In the fall of 1917, I entered Haverford College with two strings to my bow – facility in Latin and a sure foundation in mathematics. I “honored” in the latter and was seduced by it. That winter Rufus Jones called me in. “Warren,” said he, “what is thee going to be?” And I said, “I don’t know.” “And what is thee going to do?” And again I said, “I have no idea; but there is one question I would like to answer: What is a number, that a man may know it, and a man, that he may know a number?” He smiled and said, “Friend, thee will be busy as long as thee lives.”

    In Zen (Buddhist) parlance, Rufus Jones is telling Warren McCulloch that he has found an authentic koan, a paradox to explore and deepen into, sufficient for a lifetime.

    **

    It’s only a little later in McCulloch’s paper that my intuitive leap is “verified” in McCulloch’s own words:

    This lecture might be called, “In Quest of the Logos” or, more appropriately – perverting St. Bonaventura’s famous title – “An Itinerary to Man.” Its proper preface is that St. Augustine says that it was a pagan philosopher – a Neoplatonist – who wrote, “In the beginning was the Logos, without the Logos was not anything made that was made … So begins our Christian theology.”

    But McCulloch doesn’t stop there, he continues right on from theology into mathematics:

    So begins our Christian theology. It rests on four principles. The first is the eternal verities. Listen to the thunder of that saint, in about A.D. 500: “7 and 3 are 10; 7 and 3 have always been 10; 7 and 3 at no time and in no way have ever been anything but 10; 7 and 3 will always be 10. I said that these indestructible truths of arithmetic are common to all who reason.” An eternal verity, any cornerstone of theology is a statement that is true regardless of the time and place of its utterance. Each he calls an idea in the Mind of God, which we can understand but can never comprehend.

    The idea (“mathematics”) and the thinker (“man”) — McCulloch is working at the interface of “mind and matter” — “word and flesh” — the eternal and the temporal. He’s working at what is these days called the “hard problem of consciousness”.

    St John, too, was working at that interface, and brilliantly so — regardless of what credence you put in his theology of the Incarnation of God in Man, it is a brilliant attempt to join the Hebrew “In the Beginning” of Genesis with the Greek “In the Beginning” of his own writings.

    My own point here is this: that an intuitive leap, once made, needs to be grounded or confirmed by slower, more explicit, rational or experimental means.

    **

    Having made my point, I’d like to add some further notes here, for those interested in scriptural matters…

    Here’s John 1.1-14, the celebrated “Prologue” to St John’s Gospel, in the King James version, worth reading whether you know it or not for the comparison that follows with St Augustine’s stunnning reading of the same text:

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

    There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

    That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

    And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

    **

    Here is Augustine’s comment, from his Confesssions, book VII:

    Thou procuredst for me, by means of one puffed up with most unnatural pride, certain books of the Platonists, translated from Greek into Latin. And therein I read, not indeed in the very words, but to the very same purpose, enforced by many and divers reasons, that In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God: the Same was in the beginning with God: all things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made: that which was made by Him is life, and the life was the light of men, and the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. And that the soul of man, though it bears witness to the light, yet itself is not that light; but the Word of God, being God, is that true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. And that He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. But, that He came unto His own, and His own received Him not; but as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, as many as believed in His name; this I read not there.

    Again I read there, that God the Word was born not of flesh nor of blood, nor of the will of man, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God. But that the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, I read not there.

    **

    That quote from St Augustine is a striking one — by way of comparison I would like to offer this no-less fascinating excerpt from the Islamic historiographer Ibn Khaldun‘s Muqaddimah, describing developments in the early church from the death of Christ to the establishment of the canon of scriptures:

    The Apostles divided into different groups. Most of them went to the country of the Romans and made propaganda for the Christian religion. Peter was the greatest of them. He settled in Rome, the seat of the Roman emperors. They 420 then wrote down the Gospel that had been revealed to Jesus, in four recensions according to their different traditions. Matthew wrote his Gospel in Jerusalem in Hebrew. It was translated into Latin by John, the son of Zebedee, one of (the Apostles). (The Apostle) Luke wrote his Gospel in Latin for a Roman dignitary. (The Apostle) John, the son of Zebedee, wrote his Gospel in Rome. Peter wrote his Gospel in Latin and ascribed it to his pupil Mark. These four recensions of the Gospel differ from each other. Not all of it is pure revelation, but (the Gospels) have an admixture of the words of Jesus and of the Apostles. Most of (their contents) consists of sermons and stories. There are very few laws in them.

    The Apostles came together at that time in Rome and laid down the rules of the Christian community. They entrusted them to Clement, a pupil of Peter, noting in them the list of books that are to be accepted and in accordance with which one must act…

    **

    Theology, once the Queen of Sciences and now largely ignored, has been laying fallow for centuries. There are rich findings here for those who choose to dig.

    h/t Derek Robinson.

    Share

    Switch to our mobile site