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Mancala games in culture & nature

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — I would rather play with the woodpeckers than with the humans ]

Mancala games are games in which “seeds” are places in a series of “holes” in a board, often a carved wooden board, according to mathematical principles of play and capture. Wikipedia:

Most mancala games share a common general game play. Players begin by placing a certain number of seeds, prescribed for the particular game, in each of the pits on the game board. A player may count their stones to plot the game. A turn consists of removing all seeds from a pit, “sowing” the seeds (placing one in each of the following pits in sequence) and capturing based on the state of board. This leads to the English phrase “count and capture” sometimes used to describe the gameplay. Although the details differ greatly, this general sequence applies to all games.


Equipment is typically a board, constructed of various materials, with a series of holes arranged in rows, usually two or four. The materials include clay and other shape-able materials. Some games are more often played with holes dug in the earth, or carved in stone. The holes may be referred to as “depressions”, “pits”, or “houses”. Sometimes, large holes on the ends of the board, called stores, are used for holding the pieces.

Playing pieces are seeds, beans, stones, cowry shells, half-marbles or other small undifferentiated counters that are placed in and transferred about the holes during play.


Among the earliest evidence of the game are fragments of a pottery board and several rock cuts found in Aksumite areas in Matara (in Eritrea) and Yeha (in Ethiopia), which are dated by archaeologists to between the 6th and 7th century AD; the game may have been mentioned by Giyorgis of Segla in his 14th century Ge’ez text Mysteries of Heaven and Earth, where he refers to a game called qarqis, a term used in Ge’ez to refer to both Gebet’a (mancala) and Sant’araz (modern sent’erazh, Ethiopian chess).

Nota Bene:

Even when played with glass beads, mancala games are not even close to the Glass Bead Game as Hermann Hesse describes it, since their moves have nothing to do with cultural citation or meanings, let along their contrapuntal connections and correspondences, but are indifferent markers, inherently fungible.


It was 3 Quarks Daily that introduced me to the avian version of mancala games in a post that read:

Acorn woodpeckers drill into trees not in order to find acorns, but in order to make holes in which they can store acorns for later use, especially during the winter.

As the acorn dries out, it decreases in size, and the woodpecker moves it to a smaller hole. The birds spend an awful lot of time tending to their granaries in this way, transferring acorns from hole to hole as if engaged in some complicated game of solitaire.

Multiple acorn woodpeckers work together to maintain a single granary, which may be located in a man-made structure – a fence or a wooden building – as well as in a tree trunk. And whereas most woodpecker species are monogamous, acorn woodpeckers take a communal approach to family life. In the bird world, this is called cooperative breeding. Acorn woodpeckers live in groups of up to seven breeding males and three breeding females, plus as many as ten non-breeding helpers. Helpers are young birds who stick around to help their parents raise future broods; only about five per cent of bird species operate in this way.



For myself, I would rather play with the woodpeckers than with the humans.

Even so, a humanly-wrought board can be very lovely:

swan mancala board

Sunday surprise: osprey! — & more..

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — elemental battles — one extraordinary nature video in slomo, and another with an interesting angle on threesidedness ]

But first, by way of preamble..

Haniel Long Annie Dillard SPEC

I’ve told the tale of how I came to appreciate the power of DoubleQuotes by running across these two parallel quotes in the works of two writers I admire, Haniel Long and Annie Dillard, in DoubleQuotes — origins, while in Bobcat jumps shark.. I posted a photo of an encounter that strongly reminded me of the pair of them.


You can therefore imagine how delighted i was this week to add this fourth entry into what is rapidly becoming a catalogue of fights-to-the-death between creatures of opposing elements:

The bird, as in Haniel Long’s tale, is an osprey, it’s battle is with a heavy fish — but in this case, it is the osprey that survives the encounter — and the slow motion video capture is simply astonishing.

Which reminds me..


I have already posted three times on the subject of ternary logic and three player games — in Of games III: Rock, Paper, Tank, in Spectacularly non-obvious, I: Elkus on strategy & games, and in Spectacularly non-obvious, 2: threeness games — but had somehow omitted any mention of another spectacular wildlife video, this one capturing a three-cornered battle between buffalos, lions and a crocodile or two, which can be found on YouTube under the title Battle at Kruger:

With 77 million views and counting at the time I post this, it’s a video you may very well have seen before — and a terrific testament to the idea that sheer quantity may on occasion be indicative of real quality.

That a world-mapping should include our assumptions

Friday, May 13th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — Lorenz’ butterfly : tornado :: Fukushima’s rat : earthquake? + Brussles metro attack ]

Brussels map
Brussels metro & tramway map


For every unintended consequence, there’s an assumption that was assumed and thus overlooked, forgotten, unfairly assigned to oblivion, amirite? Sometimes we’re fortunate, and a pattern emerges that can then be written into checklists, and repeat unintended consequences subsequently averted, if we heed the checklists, ahem.

Consider this stunning paragraph, from a Union of concerned Scientists‘ 2013 piece titled Fission Stories #133: Mayflies, and Squirrels, and Rats, …:

Fukushima Daiichi recently received worldwide media attention when another power outage once again interrupted cooling of the water in the Unit4 spent fuel pool for several hours. The culprits in 2011 were an earthquake that knocked out the normal supply of electricity to the cooling system and a tsunami that disabled the backup power source. This time, a rat was the culprit. It chewed through the insulation on an electrical cable, exposing wires that shorted out and stopped the cooling system. It was also the rat’s final meal as the event also electrocuted the guilty party.

Part of what’s so conceptually audacious here is the implicit risk equation, okay, perhaps I should call it the implicit risk approximation:

earthquake = rat


Take the Brussels metro attack: in my less-than-graphically-ideal mapping below, the left hand column shows what was intanded by the police to be the order of events as they initiated them in response to the airport attack a little earlier:


while the two centered annotations in red indicate the unverified assumption that interfered with the sequence of events as intended by the police, and the right hand column shows what actually transpired.

Exceopt that the situation was wildly more complex than that — a point not germane to my argument here, but elaborated upon in today’s WaPo article, The email that was supposed to prevent the Brussels metro attack was sent to the wrong address. Which see.


Getting back to Fukushima, the earthquake and the rat, perhaps we can now take the title of Edward Lorenz‘ remarable paper that gave us the term “butterfly effect” — Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas? — out of the realm of speculation, and into the realm of improbable yet actualized comparables, by rephrasing it thus: Predictability: Does the Bite of a Rat’s Teeth in Fukushima Have Comparable Effect to an Earthquake in Fukushima?

Oh, and just because something is predictable doesn’t mean it’s predicted — and just because something is predicted doesn’t mean the prediction will be heard or heeded.

And that’s an anticipable consequence of the way we are.


In the matter of Quixote:

I have this quixotic wish to see a map of global dependencies — it’s something I’ve thought about ever since Don Beck told me “Y2K is like a lightning bolt: when it strikes and lights up the sky, we will see the contours of our social systems” — and I’ve talked about it here before, in eg Mapping our interdependencies and vulnerabilities [with a glance at Y2K].

It’s a windmill, agreed — a glorious windmill! — and indeed, combining all our potential assumptions about even one single Belgian metro station in the course of just one particular morning and adding them to a map — or a checklist — would be another.

Tilting at windmills, however, is one of the great games of the imagination, frowned upon by all the righteously serious among us, well-suited to poets — and having the potential to help us avoid those damned unintended consequences.

Pope Francis : Francis Bacon

Monday, March 28th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — and a tradition of natural philosophy profound enough to include Francis of Assisi ]

It’s a small point, perhaps, but M. Anthony Mills had a piece in The New Atlantis last Fall titled Is Pope Francis Anti-Modern? — which I ran across today because today 3 Quarks Daily posted it — and in it, Mills to my mind makes a false dichotomy between Pope Francis and Francis Bacon.

Thus Mills writes:

Pope Francis’s picture of nature is indebted to Genesis, the Biblical prophets, and the writings of Irenaeus, Aquinas, and Francis of Assisi — and, arguably, Plato and Aristotle — as well as to the twentieth-century theologian Romano Guardini (whose book The End of the Modern World is cited a number of times in the encyclical). But it is not true that doing so puts Pope Francis at odds with modern science. It does pit him against a particular understanding of modern science, bequeathed to us by Francis Bacon and, perhaps more importantly, by the Enlightenment philosophes such as Voltaire who claimed Bacon as the “father of experimental philosophy.” This view of science continues today in the cult of technological progress, which sees every problem as amenable to technocratic solution, no matter the environmental, social, cultural, or spiritual cost. This is what Pope Francis refers to and criticizes as the “technocratic paradigm.”

To the contrary, at the end of his Preface to the Instauratio Magna, which Jerome Ravetz quotes in the final paragraph of his magisterial Scientific knowledge and its social problems, Bacon writes:

Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all; that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things; but for the benefit and use of life; and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.

And to bring the opposition between their two views into a nutshell, Mills writes of “the Baconian technocratic paradigm, which understands science and technology together as instruments for controlling and exploiting all of creation” — while Bacon is in fact opposed to such control and exploitation, as we see when he attacks certain of his contemporaries for precisely those failings:

For we create worlds, we direct and domineer over nature, we will have it that all things are as in our folly we think they should be, not as seems fittest to the Divine wisdom, or as they are found to be in fact.


There are indeed two visions of science at work across history, as Ravetz is at pains to show. Perhaps we can see them best by comparing the two instances in which Mills and Ravetz respectively situate yet another Francis, St Francis of Assisi.

Mills, as we have seen, locates him — along with the current Pope — on the anti-modern, and hence anti-Baconian, side of the ledger:

Pope Francis’s picture of nature is indebted to Genesis, the Biblical prophets, and the writings of Irenaeus, Aquinas, and Francis of Assisi — and, arguably, Plato and Aristotle — as well as to the twentieth-century theologian Romano Guardini

For Ravetz, St Francis is indeed a participant in one of two distinct streams of world exploration — the one he terms a “romantic” philosophy of nature:

Looking back into history, we can find a similarity of doctrine or style, and sometimes a linking tradition, as far back as the Taoists of ancient China, through St. Francis of Assisi, to Paracelsus, William Blake, and Herbert Marcuse.

He continues:

Not every one of these figures would claim to be a natural scientist of any description; but as philosophers, poets or prophets, they must be recognized as participating in and shaping a tradition of a certain perception of nature and its relation to man. Granted all the variety of their messages and styles, certain themes recur. One is the ‘romantic’ striving for immediacy, of contact with the living things themselves rather than with book-learned descriptions. Another is ‘philanthropy’; the quest is not for a private realization, but for the benefit of all men and nature.

And here’s the difference. Francis Bacon, Ravetz finds, stands clearly on this same “romantuc” side of the ledger. For:

As deeply as any of his pietistic, alchemical forerunners, he felt the love of God’s creation, the pity for the sufferings of man, and the striving for innocence, humility, and charity; and he recognized vanity as the deadliest of sins.


Let me recapitulate that final paragraph of Ravetz’ book, quoted entirely from Bacon:

Lastly, I would address one general admonition to all; that they consider what are the true ends of knowledge, and that they seek it not either for pleasure of the mind, or for contention, or for superiority to others, or for profit, or fame, or power, or any of these inferior things; but for the benefit and use of life; and that they perfect and govern it in charity. For it was from lust of power that the angels fell, from lust of knowledge that man fell; but of charity there can be no excess, neither did angel or man ever come in danger by it.

This is virtually a monastic ideal of science, one which would be found most suitable in the halls of Hesse’s Castalia, and one well-suited to the Benedict Option as formulated by Rod Dreher.

It is also, and significantly, as Ravetz points out, compatible with the truth concerns of Taoists, poets and theologians…


Hermann Hesse, it seems to me, gives a deeper and wider acknowledgment of both streams, bringing their “hard” and “soft” strands together in his history of the Glass Bead Game:

How far back the historian wishes to place the origins and antecedents of the Glass Bead Game is, ultimately, a matter of his personal choice. For like every great idea it has no real beginning; rather, it has always been, at least the idea of it. We find it foreshadowed, as a dim anticipation and hope, in a good many earlier ages. There are hints of it in Pythagoras, for example, and then among Hellenistic Gnostic circles in the late period of classical civilization. We find it equally among the ancient Chinese, then again at the several pinnacles of Arabic-Moorish culture; and the path of its prehistory leads on through Scholasticism and Humanism to the academies of mathematicians of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and on to the Romantic philosophies and the runes of Novalis’s hallucinatory visions. This same eternal idea, which for us has been embodied in the Glass Bead Game, has underlain every movement of Mind toward the ideal goal of a universitas litterarum, every Platonic academy, every league of an intellectual elite, every rapprochement between the exact and the more liberal disciplines, every effort toward reconciliation between science and art or science and religion. Men like Abelard, Leibniz, and Hegel unquestionably were familiar with the dream of capturing the universe of the intellect in concentric systems, and pairing the living beauty of thought and art with the magical expressiveness of the exact sciences. In that age in which music and mathematics almost simultaneously attained classical heights, approaches and cross-fertilizations between the two disciplines occurred frequently. And two centuries earlier we find in Nicholas of Cues sentences of the same tenor, such as this: “The mind adapts itself to potentiality in order to measure everything in the mode of potentiality, and to absolute necessity in order to measure everything in the mode of unity and simplicity as God does, and to the necessity of nexus in order to measure everything with respect to its peculiar nature; finally, it adapts itself to determinate potentiality in order to measure everything with respect to its existence. But furthermore the mind also measures symbolically, by comparison, as when it employs numerals and geometric figures and equates other things with them.”


Avian commentary on electoral outliers

Sunday, March 27th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — under the impression a bird requires bipartisan wings to achieve flight ]


If you’re looking for signs and wonders to guide your vote this electoral season, it’s worth noting that the same eagle also attacked Bill Clinton — as Master Falconer Jonathan Wood said in that first clip, “he’s an “equal opportunity biter”.

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