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Unequal equations

Friday, January 18th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — math, modeling and mapping, in that strange zone where beauty meets understanding ]

The upper equation — Euler‘s — gets as tight and definitional as one can get, yet is profound in the way the greatest haiku are… while the metaphorical “equation” mentioned in the lower panel is a very rough model indeed of the intricate and constantly shifting forces at work in and on Pakistan.


I’m interested in mapping these sorts of influences at a level of detail that the human mind can assimilate and comprehend — and the graphical news-map in the video below will give you an idea of what one approach to such a mapping would look like.

This particular example is drawn from a mapping of web-based news items related to President Obama over the course of 2009, but it should give you some idea of the constant flux of tensions and motion of “nodes” involved in tracking political issues, at home or abroad — the beginning is a bit slow, but from about the 23 second mark on is just amazing:

Now is that art, or technology — or a beginning of something fascinating that by its very nature melds both?



  • FB Ali, Interesting times in Pakistan on Sic Semper Tyrannis
  • Recorded Future Index video

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    Profiling Baader-Meinhof

    Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — fast cars, bumper stickers — and no mention of loose women ]

    -- I'm not a member of the Baader-Mainhof gang

    The sentence that drives my title is this one, from How BMW Became A Terrorist Icon In The 1970s (And How It Made Them Cool) on Jalopnik:

    police would set up roadblocks and stop only BMWs in an attempt to root out the gang members from the general population.

    That’s profiling for you, eh?


    Here’s a longer excerpt, so you see where this comes from — and how it turned out, at least for as the makers of BMWs:

    In the early 1970s, the extreme left wing Baader-Meinhof Gang terrorized the people of West Germany with a campaign of bombings and assassinations aimed at dismantling a capitalist system they considered no better than the Third Reich.

    The terrorists’ ride of choice? BMW New Class sedans and coupes, according to this documentary from historian Richard Huffman, an expert on the Baader-Meinhof Gang.

    Huffman says cars became so strongly associated with the group’s acts of terror that police would set up roadblocks and stop only BMWs in an attempt to root out the gang members from the general population.

    People even started saying that “Bavarian Motor Works” actually stood for “Baader-Meinhof Wagen.” Some BMW drivers even had to slap bumper stickers on their cars specifying that they weren’t terrorists.

    You might expect this to have been a major PR crisis for BMW, then a small and nascent regional automaker nowhere near as prominent as it is today. But it wasn’t. That’s because the Baader-Meinhof Gang, later known as the Red Army Faction, enjoyed a surprising amount of support from people in West Germany, especially among young people and members of the left-leaning counterculture. This went a long way toward making the car seem hip in German youth culture.

    Then the gang stopped being theoretical revolutionaries and actually started murdering Germans and U.S. soldiers. When the body count began to rise, public support evaporated. As for BMW, they emerged unscathed from the crisis, and started growing into the luxury giant they are today.


    Now, what kind of analytic model would predict a series of twists and turns and hairpin bends like that?


    What all these measures will not address is the mindset

    Monday, December 24th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — concerning the implications of the phrase “all things visible and invisible” ]

    In the upper panel above, you can see a bunch of “guns and ammo” displayed on a table, and in the lower panel, a bunch of “hearts and minds” similarly displayed. Putting that another way, you can see guns and ammo but you can’t see hearts and minds — they’re invisible, you can only intuit them.

    And therein lies the reason we focus so much on the quantitative and so little on the qualitative: we can see and count the one, the other is invisible and unaccountable.


    I thought the paragraph that follows was terrific. The article I’ve taken it from happens to be about a multiple rape of a teenage girl this July in India, and it was posted on the Times of India site. If that’s an issue of importance to you, the article is Why Indian men rape by Anand Soondas. It’s not the whole article that I’m pointing you to, though — it’s just this one paragraph:

    We at The Times of India in our edition today laid out a 6-point action plan to make India safer for women – harsher punishment, sensitization of the police force, setting up of fast-track courts, better patrolling, cleverer use of technology like GPS and CCTVs and a data base of public transport personnel – but what all these measures will not address is the mindset.

    More specifically, I want to address you to its concluding phrase: What all these measures will not address is the mindset.

    I want to re-purpose that paragraph. I want to remove the specific problem and proposed solutions, and to see the paragraph as a form, a vessel into which all manner of liquids could be poured.

    The form would look something like this:

    What follows is an n-point plan to make the world a better place — do x, do y, do z, do abc if it comes to that — but what all these measures will not address is the mindset.

    What all these measures will not address is the mindset.


    We almost always think about ways to fix the world, but forget that any and every fix has to work its way through not just our own mindset — though that can be a problem in itself — but also the multiple mindsets and differing culture sets of multiple others.

  • Do this, that and the other in Afghanistan — but what all these measures will not address is the mindset.
  • Do this, that and the other about Syria, about Egypt, about the Middle East, the Arab Spring — but what all these measures will not address is the mindset.
  • Do this, that and the other to combat global warming — but what all these measures will not address is the mindset.
  • Do this, that and the other about the possession and use of firearms — but what all these measures will not address is the mindset.
  • Do this, that and the other, and the world will be a far better place.

  • The thing is, you can’t simply deploy other people’s hearts and minds, the way you can deploy your own troops and materiel.


    Lost and found in translation

    Saturday, December 15th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — first of two quick posts, this one’s about when the same is the same and when it isn’t quite ]

    Dahlia Iyad, a member of Black September in the Thomas Harris novel, Black Sunday, is portrayed (above) in John Frankenheimer‘s 1977 movie of the same name by Marthe Keller. At this point, very early in the movie, Iyad is recording her speech to the Americans, which will accompany the act of terrorism she is master-minding:

    The American people have remained deaf to all the cries of the Palestinian nation. People of America, this situation is unbearable for us. From now on, you will share our suffering. The choice is yours. Salaam aleikum.

    Did you get that? The soundtrack says salaam aleikum, the subtitles read shalom aleichem.

    Either way, in Latin it would be pax vobiscum.


    Peace be upon you.

    My question, of course, has to do with the juxtaposition of the two words in two Semitic languages, sharing the same consonantal roots. Are they the same, or do they mean very different things?

    Obviously they’re the same phrase, obviously the subtitle is mistaken in putting a Hebrew salutation on aa Arab terrorist’s lips.

    But here’s the thing: strung between these two so similar phrases — or between Beit Ha’Mikdosh and Bayt al-Muqaddas — is the entire spectrum of ways in which translation can and cannot carry meaning over from one context into another. And we can locate it, right in the first words a child might learn, the greeting of one to another…

    As the Italians say, traduttore, traditore — translator, traitor.


    But that’s enough foreign for one day — I don’t speak it very well.

    I do have to admit I jumped when I saw that subtitle, though. No big deal — and all the difference in the world.


    Of children, cultural differences, and computers

    Saturday, December 15th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — kids, computers, creativity and games ]

    Motorola Xoom tablet


    It’s quite a triumphant story, with African kids in the foreground and Nicholas Negroponte and MIT playing the role of proud parents pushing them forward from behind…

    With 100 million first-grade-aged children worldwide having no access to schooling, the One Laptop Per Child organization is trying something new in two remote Ethiopian villages—simply dropping off tablet computers with preloaded programs and seeing what happens. The goal: to see if illiterate kids with no previous exposure to written words can learn how to read all by themselves, by experimenting with the tablet and its preloaded alphabet-training games, e-books, movies, cartoons, paintings, and other programs. Early observations are encouraging, said Nicholas Negroponte, OLPC’s founder, at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference last week.

    [ … ]

    Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. “I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”

    That’s a striking story, and it has caught many people’s attention since David Talbot wrote about it in a piece in MIT’s Technology Review in late October, titled Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves.


    I’d like to let that sink in — because I don’t want to deny it, in fact I want to share the excitement — but I do, too, want to juxtapose it with something else I read recently, where we’ll see some other African children, and where a different set of questions about their intelligence are in the air.

    This quote is from Malcolm Gladwell, in a New Yorker piece titled None of the Above: what IQ can’t tell you about race:

    The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement— — that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits. And if I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopted or discarded in a generation, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?

    That one, of course, concerns me deeply — in fact they both do.


    Look, my work with Cath Styles on the Sembl Game is predicated on the importance of resemblances — so the more cognitive preferences we can marshal by inviting people to make rich and varied links between things — Kpelle-style, western-style, art-style, science-style, you think of it, you name it — the better. But clearly we should also be aware in using and propagating the game that different styles of association exist, and should be explored.

    And the first quote? That’s important too, because it shows the eagerness to learn that’s there, innate, before our culturally-acquired habits and assumptions and behaviors inhibit the childlike excitement of discovery, recognition, eureka! and aha!


    Howard Rheingold once said of community-building digital media such as this blog, “Like all technologies, this medium has its shadow side, and there are ways to abuse it.”

    When feeling the thrill of “up” stories like Negroponte’s, it may we wise to ask also what the “down” side might be. And IMO, there’s always room for optimism — but let’s keep it cautious, eh?


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