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Ideal as cause, real as effect

Saturday, November 28th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — a pretty intense little cognitive romp, b’day surprise #2 ]

nefertiti saccade cc version
mapping object seen to eye movement, Yarbus via MIT


Today I was reading James Harkin, How the Islamic State Was Won, in Harper’s from November last year, and this sentence struck me:

The aim was to wipe out the regime’s armed opponents, but the result was to destroy the country’s social fabric and displace whole communities — leaving millions of Syrians with little to lose. Groups like the Nusra Front took control of towns across the north, and foreign jihadis flooded into Syria to join the fight.

Here’s the thought it prompted:

The aim, purpose, or target of an action will often represent some sort of ideal, and that ideal becomes the cause of the action in question. Like all ideals, it represents a trajectory in a model space, that of the imagination, which like all models, lacks some of the details of the reality it purports to represent. Not only is the map not the territory, it will in all cases not envisioned by Jorge Luis Borges be smaller and less informed than the reality.

The result of that action, its effect, takes place in reality, even thought we then cognize it in a mental comparison with its aim or cause.

Unintended consequences, then, are quasi-mappable as arising in precisely those areas of the real which the ideal fails to map.

Mapping the distinctions between reality and unconscious perception, conscious perception, neural activity, and verbal, visual and matghematical models in mind, brain, and on a napkin or computer is, accordingly, one of the great tasks of the age.


duchamp cc versionDuchamp (image) and Ithkuil (verbal description) via John Quijada, see Birthday surprise

Which best captures the fleeting present — past or future?

Monday, October 26th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — architectural history as a question in philosophy — Palmyra ]




I’ll admit my preference for “past” — but is it just “the patina of antiquity”I’m appreciating?

What building from the first decades of this millennium might people think worth preserving — or destroying — a thousand years hence?

And what if the present should arise and fade, unaided?

The paradox of the Repugnant Conclusion & more

Saturday, August 8th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — two data points, one impoverished, one rich — and a redemptive (maybe) quote from Twiggy ]

SPEC DQ The Repugnant Conclusion


As I quoted in my recent post Not everything that counts can be counted, “Effective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can” — which in turn suggests that “good” can be quantified, an idea I resist.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article The Repugnant Conclusion, from which I drew the Parfit quote [upper panel, above], doesn’t mention Wittgenstein , though I suspect his view that we cannot sum individual sufferings to a grand total would suggest a similarposition with regard to the summation of individual happinesses..

And as I’ve pointed out before, both CS Lewis and Arne Naess agree with Wittgenstein on this point.


Walker Percy, Ludwig Wittngenstiein and Clive Staples Lewis all being Christians, it seems appropriate to recall here the tale of Mary and Martha from the New Testament, Luke 10:38-42 —

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

I somewhat cavalierly refer to this story on occasion as the story of Mary Qualit and Martha Quant. Eh. Mary Quant, you may recall if you’re as old as I am, gave us the mini-skirt, the Dashing Daisy doll, and Twiggy .


The quote from Walker Percy’s second novel [lower panel, above] nicely illustrates high level abstraction, as we instantly see when we compare it with the personal insight (from the same novel) on which it is based [lower panel, below]:

SPEC DQ Walker Percy x 2

The first is philosophy, the second — if you’ll pardon my saying so — is humanity.

Literature. Art.


All of which ties in neatly with a conversation I was having on Facebook with my long-time friend the game designer Mike Sellers. And in all of which, I am trying not to forget the heart’s reasons of which Pascal famously wrote —

The heart has reasons Reason knows not of

— because we need them in our gaming, in our analysis, and our understanding of what Mike Sellers describes as our world that is “far more interconnected and interactive than ever before.”:



  • Julia Galef, The Repugnant Conclusion (a philosophy paradox)
  • Walter Isaacson, Walker Percy’s Theory of Hurricanes
  • **

    Hey, Twiggy — sweet — gets the main point:

    twiggy quote

    Big Pharaoh: Levels of complexity in presentation

    Thursday, August 29th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — Syria, yes, but with a focus on networks, tensions, mapping, and understanding ]

    Binary logic is a poor basis for foreign policy, as Tukhachevskii said on Small Wars Council’s Syria under Bashir Assad: crumbling now? thread, pointing us to the work of The Big Pharaoh. Here are two of the Big Pharaoh’s recent (before Obama‘s “undecided” speech) tweets:

    Each of those tweets is non-linear in its own way, but via its implications — we “complete the loop” by knowing that the “mass murderer” is the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad and the “cannibal” is the Syrian rebel, Abu Sakkar, and that Al-Qaeda typically cries “allahu Akbar” after killing Americans, while Americans typically rejoice after killing Al-Qaeda operatives. So these two tweets are already non-linear, but not as complex as what comes next>


    The Big Pharaoh also put this diagram on his blog, and Max Fisher picked it up and blogged it at the Washington Post as The Middle East, explained in one (sort of terrifying) chart:

    I’d have some questions here, of course — one about the directionality of the arrows, which only seem to go in one direction — okay for the “supports” and “has nu clue” arrows, perhaps, but surely the “haters” would mostly be two-way, with AQ hating US as well as US hating AQ? There’s no mention of Jordan, I might ask about that… And there are no arrows at all between Lebanese Shias and Lebanese Sunnis — hunh?


    What really intrigues me here, though, is that while this chart with fifteen “nodes” or players captures many more “edges” or connections between them than either or even both of the two tweets above, the tweets evoke a more richly human “feel” for the connections they reference, by drawing on human memories of the various parties and their actions.

    Thus on the face of it, the diagram is the more complex representation, but when taken into human perception and understanding, the tweets offer a more immediuate and visceral sense of their respective situations.

    And scaled down and in broad strokes, that’s the difference between “big data” analytic tools on the one hand, and HipBone-Sembl approach to mapping on the other. A HipBone-Sembl board may offer you two, or six, ten, maybe even a dozen nodes, but it fills them with rich anecdotal associations, both intellectual and emotional — a very different approach from — and one that I feel is complementary to — a big data search for a needle in a global needlestack…


    But I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point you to Kerwin Datu‘s A network analysis approach to the Syrian dilemma on the Global Urbanist blog. He begins:

    A chart by The Big Pharaoh doing the rounds of social media shows just how much of a tangled mess the Middle East is. But if we tease it apart, we see that the region is fairly neatly divided into two camps; it’s just that one of those camps is divided amongst itself. Deciding which of these internal divisions are fundamental to the peace and which are distractions in the short term may make the diplomatic options very clear.

    and goes on from there, offering a series of network graphs of which is the fourth:

    from which he draws the following observation:

    What can we do from this position? If the US decides to pursue a purely military route to remove Assad from power, it will incur the ire of Russia, Iran and Lebanese Shias, but it can do so with a broad base of support including the Syrian rebels themselves, Israel, Qatar, Turkey, Lebanese Sunnis, and even Al Qaeda. However if it chooses a diplomatic route to curry support to remove Assad it must isolate him in the above graph by making an ally out of Russia and/or Iran (assuming that making an ally out of Lebanese Shias would have little impact). Russia doesn’t hate the US but it does hate the Syrian rebels, making it an unpromising ally against Assad. Iran hates the Syrian rebels and the US hates Iran, but the Al Qaeda is a thorn in both their sides, making it a potential though unlikely source of cooperation.

    Really, you and I should read the whole piece, and draw our own conclusions.


    Or lack thereof. I’ll give the last tweet to Teju Cole, who articulates my own thoughts, too:

    Redux: I’d like to game an idea entering a mind

    Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — another angle on the whole idea of qualitative node-&-edge graphs for concept mapping ]

    Image of a virus letting its DNA loose in a cell, from the Bjork app-game-song

    The other day I found myself re-reading a comment I’d made on Zen’s post The Games People Play back in January 2008, which I’d been searching for in the back of my mind for months — too attic-like and cobwebbed, probably not the best place to look for it. In any case, now I’ve found it I’ve dusted it off and offer it here for your consideration:


    Ideas can be infectious.  We know this, and thus we can explore the spread of ideas using models drawn from epidemiology, an approach which Malcolm Gladwell takes in his book Tipping Point. Ideas can also be viewed as existing in an ecosystem, and thus what we know of genetics can be applied to them, as Dawkins suggested in coining the term "meme". Having said that, I’d still like to game an idea entering a mind.

    Specifically, I would like to game the way in which the idea that constitutes "martyrdom" (shahada) in an al-Qaida mind enters a mind that’s primed with the ideas of Tablighi Jamaat, for instance, and once it’s "in," conforms the idea of "obligation" (fard) that’s already present in TJ’s non-violent and apolitical version into the al-Q sense of the word — that "to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty (fard ‘ayn) for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it"… I’m thinking of something along the lines of the kind of research that allows someone to write, describing the John Cunningham virus (JCV):

    the JC virus enters the central nervous system by fastening itself to the 5HT2AR receptor for serotonin, which is found on the surface of glial cells.  When this receptor for serotonin is triggered, it opens the pathway that allows the virus to enter the cell.

    The thing is, we can manage a very brief verbal sketch of how an idea enters a mind and becomes part of a person’s "thinking" — and we can model in some detail the way that an idea spreads through a population — but we’re not very good at modeling, or gaming, thought processes.  And from my POV, that’s the most fascinating challenge of all.

    My question is: what kind of game should this be, how do we set up the board, what markers shall we have for ideas or parts of ideas and for views or congregations of ideas, what rules do we need to use in combining them, etc — how do we get as close to a mental conversation as humanly possible?

    I happen to think that meditators will have quite a bit to teach us here, that the Tibetans may have a better vantage point than we as a culture do… because they’ve been watching the mind, and in particular watching its various coiled springs uncoil, and putting the process into words, for longer than we have. But it will take a whole new series of aha!s to really figure this out.


    The result wouldn’t look like the image at the top of this post — it might look more like a PERT chart, but with sequences of ideas rather than actions. And it would be based on narratives, not theories. Above all, it would be multi-voiced, polyphonic, fluid — like that diagram from Edward Tufte about the Ocean of Stories:

    That’s it — what say you all?

    The Bjork Virus video can be found here, the Virus app-game-song can apparently be downloaded here.

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