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Mosul Museum: “between the real and its representation”

Saturday, February 28th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — last of three posts — the media studies / pomo side of the IS Mosul Museum rampage ]
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Simulacra Baudrillard

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It’s the sort of thing Bryan Alexander so often features in his Infocult blog — an instance of cyberfear. Writing of “Jihadi John” aka Mohammed Emwazi in the NYRB, Malise Ruthven says:

The casual brutalism of his online videos — he decapitated five Western and two Japanese hostages as well as numerous Syrian soldiers, and posed with the severed heads — suggests the insidious way that a generation brought up in cyberspace may have lost the connection between the real and its representation.

We’re in Baudrillard territory here, Simulacra and Simulation — even though it was written before digital / virtual “space” was much of an issue — is the relevant text here:

Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – it is the map that engenders the territory..

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This also bears relation to the bad news / good news, perhaps, of the IS video of iconoclasm in the Mosul museum:

The third greatest story ever told

Saturday, January 31st, 2015

[by Lynn C. Rees]

Colleen McCullough is dead (props Razib Khan).

It’s a sign of George Lucas’ complete incompetence as a storyteller that he found the third greatest story ever told and left it an abomination. It is a sign of McCullough’s greatness as a storyteller that she took the third greatest story ever told and lifted it far enough to almost glimpse the second greatest story ever told. When I see the fall of the Roman Republic, I see it through McCullough’s eyes.

McCullough wrote seven books in her Masters of Rome series:

  1. The First Man in Rome
  2. The Grass Crown
  3. Fortune’s Favorites
  4. Caesar’s Women
  5. Caesar: Let the Dice Fly 
  6. The October Horse
  7. Antony and Cleopatra

I’ve read the first six.

McCullough is given one of the greatest cast of characters in history and brings them to life:

Lesser-known characters given their due:

One aspect of history that McCullough’s novelizations allow her to highlight how interconnected these characters were, especially by blood ties. Genealogy helped and hindered the lives of prominent Romans in ways history books sometimes fail to capture. Servilia Caepionis, for example, was Caepio’s daughter, Drusus’ niece, Cato’s half-sister, Brutus’ mother, and Cassius and Lepidus‘ mother-in-law as well as Caesar’s long-time mistress.

McCullough uses fictional but plausible plot devices, arrived at through meticulous research, to plug gaps in the historical record. She marries Sulla to an invented short lived younger sister of Julia Caeseris, making Sulla Marius’ brother-in-law and providing a rationale for why Sulla was on Marius’ staff in Numidia. She explains Caesar Octavianus’ chronic absence from the field of battle by making him asthmatic.

Vivid scenes I recall:

  • Marius, deep in Asia Minor, unarmed and alone, giving Mithridates and his army the stare down and forcing Mithridates to retreat (“O King, either strive to be stronger than Rome, or do her bidding without a word.”, according to Plutarch).
  • The pompous young Pompeius, looking forward to meeting the great general Sulla on his return from the east, is shocked when the formerly handsome Sulla, disfigured by a disease (of McCullough’s invention), having lost his hair and teeth, wearing a ridiculous Raggedy Andy wig, drunkenly greets him like an sentimental old fool.
  • Sulla, wandering in this ridiculous over the top getup through the streets of Rome later, then he promptly proscribes the enemies he has been sniffing out as an innocuous circus act.

McCullough’s star though out is clearly Caesar, growing from a young boy learning at the knee of Uncle Marius, to the devoted husband of the daughter of one of Sulla’s archenemies who refuses to divorce her despite Sulla going into full beast mode to the rising politician to conquering general to assassinated dictator.

Sulla, however, is her most unforgettable character. A Cornelii, one of the great patrician families of Rome, but born into a branch fallen on hard times, Sulla hangs out with the low life hipsters of Rome, uses his good looks and charm to first win the love of two rich women (who he promptly murders), and then climbs his way to the leadership of Rome’s conservative aristocratic oligarchy. He is first friends and then deadly enemies of Marius. He ruthlessly culls Rome of his enemies only to give up power and go back to his partying ways. Her Sulla makes Caesar and Octavianus look like helpless babes.

Come for Caesar, Pompeius, Cleopatra, Octavianus, or Antonius. Stay for Sulla and Marius, men overshadowed by the prima donnas they made possible. McCullough can rest in peace knowing she brought one of the primal stories of Western civilization alive for anyone who reads her books.

George Lucas can toss and turn.

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 ]
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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>

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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?

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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…

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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.

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

DoubleQuoting Rex Brynen

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — two books on war-gaming, and one highly unexpected tweet ]
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and:

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Gladiator Eroticvs, at $43.50, appears to be a movie. Directed by John Bacchus.

At these prices, forget the movie — I think maybe I’ll read van Creveld, $27.99, and wait for Henry Hyde, $60.00, to go to paperback.

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 ]
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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:

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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.

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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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