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The Totally DoubleQuotable James Fallows

Saturday, March 15th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- Malaysia flight 370 seen through the media glass, darkly ]
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Here’s Fallows in The Atlantic on Malaysia flight 370:

As the years go by, I am more and more convinced that the immediate, fast-twitch talk-show responses on what we “have” to do about some development are almost always wrong, and the calm, day- or week-after reflections about proportion, response, and national interest are almost always wiser. If I could, I would put all cable-TV discussion of breaking-news crises on a 24-hour delay.

I would love to DoubleQuote that up with some other specific example — but which?

With the initial reporting that the Oklahoma City bombing was likely Islamic? From the American Journalism Review, Jumping to Conclusions in Oklahoma City?

Within hours of the bombing, most network news reports featured comments from experts on Middle Eastern terrorism who said the blast was similar to the World Trade Center explosion two years earlier. Newspapers relied on many of those same experts and stressed the possibility of a Middle East connection. The Wall Street Journal, for example, called it a “Beirut-style car bombing” in the first sentence of its story. The New York Post quoted Israeli terrorism experts in its opening paragraph, saying the explosion “mimicked three recent attacks on targets abroad.” “We were, as usual, following the lead of public officials, assuming that public officials are telling us the truth,” says John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s magazine and author of a book on coverage of the Persian Gulf War. He believes the media overemphasized the possible Middle Eastern link and ignored domestic suspects because initially the police were not giving that angle much thought. “Reporters can’t think without a cop telling them what to think,” MacArthur says. “If you are going to speculate wildly, why not say this is the anniversary of the Waco siege? Why isn’t that as plausible as bearded Arabs fleeing the scene?”

With the student Sunil Tripathi, widely and falsely accused of being one of the Boston Marathon bombers, whose body was later found in “the waters off India Point Park in Providence, Rhode Island”? As later reported by Mary Elizabeth Williams in Salon:

Of all the ways in which last week’s horror in Boston showed the resilience and cooperation of a community in the wake of disaster, the tragedy will also inevitably go down as a shining example of the desperate, despicable scramble to hunt, to accuse, to blame first – and worry about ethics and responsibility later. If ever. We saw it in the epic bungling of mainstream media outlets like CNN and the New York Post. We saw it in the frenzy of Redditors and overeager tweeters. We saw it, most cruelly, in the story of a missing student, a young man whose body may have been pulled Tuesday night from the Providence harbor:

Sunil Tripathi was already making headlines before the Boston Marathon bombing. The Brown undergraduate was last seen on March 16, wearing “a black jacket, blue jeans and a Philadelphia Eagles cap.” … And then Boston happened. In what was later far too generously referred to as the “confusion” of its aftermath, the amateur detectives of Reddit decided that the missing man could be seen in images at the scene of the bombing. “The photos bear good resemblance… not perfect but there are definitely strong similarities… skin tone, hair color, approximate build, and yes that nose.” Where the whole thing really went berserk, though, was in the rumor, which instantly became a desperately repeated report, that Tripathi, along with another man mentioned by name, had been “identified on police scanner” as a suspect. Tripathi’s photograph was instantly splashed across the world. He was declared unquestioningly in the news feeds of both hasty, news-hungry social media users and several media outlets as a “suspect.”

And so forth…

Or should we go with something simpler and more general, like Moltke the Elder‘s dictum:

No plan survives contact with the enemy

or Philip Snowden‘s:

Truth, it has been said, is the first casualty of war

??

The DoubleQuote is a fine and useful form — but deep down, it’s pattern recognition — and as in the present case, a pattern may recur more than once…

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In this instance… James Fallows later commented, in Malaysia 370 Update: Landing Strips, Cell Phones, and More:

Rupert Murdoch loses his mind. You can see it here. What’s most amazing about the response below is that it happened before anything was known about the flight — whether it had blown up, ditched in the sea, been hijacked, landed safely by mistake somewhere, etc.

It’s possible that the jihadist interpretation will turn out to be true. But the word “confirms,” before anyone knew (or yet knows) what happened to the flight, from perhaps the single most powerful “journalistic” figure in the world is … well, it confirms a lot of suspicions about Murdoch.

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Spirals: plus ça change

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- a striking image from the Cassini probe, a "spiral" staircase ]
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Spirals, which are close to concentric circles and close to ellipses, can also be “squared” or “oblonged” — pattern recognition is not always neat in its observation of definitions, and this can as easily be a cognitive feature as a bug:

Besides, Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose could almost be the motto for pattern recognition, emphasizing the naturally cross-disciplinary, cross-silo nature of analogical cognitive strategies.

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The top panel image is of the North Pole of Saturn, as recently captured by NASA’s Cassini mission. As blog-friend Bryan Alexander notes at Infocult, NASA says of this image, which it calls The Maelstrom:

The vortex at Saturn’s north pole — seen here in the infrared — takes on the menacing look of something from the imagination of Edgar Allan Poe.

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Matrioshka forensics

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- it still takes a live human to see what the human eye cannot see but the machine can ]
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This would appear to be (one version of) the state of the art in facial recognition:

Image within image within image — the gentleman on the right is more or less recognizable as a reflection in the eye of the gentleman on the left — thus giving new potential meaning to the phrase “you are the apple of my eye” (cf Zechariah 2:8, also Oberon in Midsummer Night’s Dream III.ii.102 ff., and Stevie Wonder, You Are The Sunshine Of My Life).

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Or — to switch disciplines while remaining with the matrioshka form, because such patterns are of interest to the inquiring mind — as Gary Snyder puts it in his marvelous poem, One Should Not Speak to a Skilled Hunter:

The secret.
and the secret hidden deep in that.

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For another version of the state of the art in facial recognition, see: Where’s Ms. Waldo?. Aloha!

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Leap Worlds: my 3QD attempt

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- another runup to the glass bead game ]
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Below you can read my submission to the wonderful 3 Quarks Daily “web aggregator” site as a candidate to join their regular Monday blogging team — it didn’t even make their “close but no cigar” list, but I wrote it and I like it, so I’m posting it here.
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They are both fine American authors, stylists of high repute yet little known, Annie Dillard and Haniel Long, but I hadn’t associated the two of them particularly closely until that day. I’d snarfed up a copy of Long’s Letter to Saint Augustine from the dollar box at Pasadena’s magnificent Archives theological bookstore, and on my way home to nearby Eagle Rock, stumbled on a passage that seemed hazily familiar.

My friend Jens Jensen, who is an ornithologist, tells me that when he was a boy in Denmark he caught a big carp embedded in which, across the spinal vertebrae, were the talons of an osprey. Apparently years before, the fish hawk had dived for its prey, but had misjudged its size. The carp was too heavy for it to lift up out of the water, and so after a struggle the bird of prey was pulled under and drowned. The fish then lived as best it could with the great bird clamped to it, till time disintegrated the carcass, and freed it, all but the bony structure of the talon.

By the time I arrived back at my books, I knew it was Annie Dillard I’d been reminded of, and a quick, no, excited but fumbling search turned up this passage from her Teaching a Stone to Talk:

And once, says Ernest Seton Thompson–once, a man shot an eagle out of the sky. He examined the eagle and found the dry skull of a weasel fixed by the jaws to his throat. The supposition is that the eagle had pounced on the weasel and the weasel swiveled and bit as instinct taught him, tooth to neck, and nearly won. I would like to have seen that eagle from the air a few weeks or months before he was shot: was the whole weasel still attached to his feathered throat, a fur pendant? Or did the eagle eat what he could reach, gutting the living weasel with his talons before his breast, bending his beak, cleaning the beautiful airborne bones?

They’re emblematic, those two quotes, the way I see them: emblematic in the sense that each could be the basis for a heraldic shield, the eagle stooping to carry off the weasel, air creature triumphant over creature of earth in the one, the fish dragging the bird down in the other — creature of water gathering the air creature into its own fatal realm.

Emblematic too, I see them, of the possibility of a rhyme between thoughts — and I have quoted them as such in previous essays, alongside rhymes of sound and rhymes of meaning, womb and tomb being the classic examples of choice, but also rhymes of image, the fan rotors and helicopter rotors in the opening sequences of Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now, rhymes of melody in counterpoint, in fugue… and rhymes, yes, in history, as when Sir Frederick Stanley Maude told the people of Baghdad in 1917, “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators…” and Donald Rumsfeld chimed in, telling his own troops in that same weary city, almost a century later, “Unlike many armies in the world, you came not to conquer, not to occupy, but to liberate and the Iraqi people know this.”

Oh yeah?

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The world is woven, Jung tells us in one of his most original and illuminating insights, of woof and warp, causaland acausal principles , it is at once at every point synchronic and diachronic.

Moving through time, we have the causal, diachronic principle, one things leads to another: let us sort and analyze the actions of one thing on another until psychology becomes sociology, sociology turns into evolutionary biology, biology into genetics, genetics a form of chemistry that is essentially physics — and physics, at the quark-level at last, a matter of statistics, mathematics unfettered even by the dualism of wave and particle.

Let me be clear about this. I do not begrudge Higgs his boson or his Nobel, nor Chandrasekhar his Nobel or his limit. But both men followed the warp, the causal, time-bound length-wise threads of discovery to their fraying edges. And the causal threading of events, time’s warp in our lived universe, is the mode best suited to quantity, to the determinable, and knows little of mystery unless magnitude alone — the infinities of astronomy, the infinitessimals of subatomics, alone will qualify.

Oh, scale is a marvel, true enough — but it is quality, not quantity, where the mystery and the greater meaning resides.

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And so we come to the mind’s other faculty, the other manner in which the world is woven, the manner of rhyme and repetition, synchronicities and semblances, of patterns recognized within and across disciplines. The cross-weave.

This has been the step-child of cognition for too long — but with the rise of cybernetics, feedback loops, complexity theory, network thinking and multi-causality, we can no longer think only in linear progressions, but must also cultivate associative, lateral, sideways thinking — in short, creative leaps.

Creative leaps occur when we recognize commonalities across conceptual distances — theme and variations, as musicians would say, rhymes in the nature of things, multiple perspectives and voices in counterpoint. So the nature of our current world, in all its complexity and variegation, calls for what I would call a music of ideas.

I’m not the first to have this idea, Glenn Gould was pursuing it in his work for radio, blending the many voices and conversations in a train compartment, or at the different tables in a truck-stop café, to form an interwoven whole that comprehended all of its voices, all of its parts in a greater music. But it is Edward Said — another musicians, when he was not occupied with Israeli-Palestinian politics or literature — who observed in an essay in Power, Politics and Culture, p. 447:

When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes — opposites in the Hegelian sense — that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom.

So that’s the symphonic scope of the thing, seeing the whole with all its fractures and dissonances as a music — a music that calls for harmonization, but remains in complex counterpoint.

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Hermann Hesse was the first great proponent of the music of ideas, at least in modern western times, and his glass bead game — evoked but never defined in his Nobel-winning novel of that name — offers us a glimpse both of the nature of moves and of the possible grandeur of an implicit world-architecture, formed of resonances and semblances, rather than of causes and effects.

Hesse gives us an insight into how the game is played at the level of moves and themes when he says a given game might have explored “the rhythmic structure of Julius Caesar’s Latin and discovered the most striking congruences with the results of well-known studies of the intervals in Byzantine hymns” — but he could hardly have known, back in the 1940s, that in 1978 the University of Wisconsin Press would publish Jane-Marie Luecke OSB’s monograph, Measuring Old English Rhythm: an Application of the Principles of Gregorian Chant Rhythm to the Meter of Beowulf. Intentionally or unintentionally, his game is played by all whose minds play with meanings. And there’s a game move right there, in the conviviality between the fictional move of Hesse himself, and the monograph, years later, of a Benedictine nun.

Tiny, you say, a tiny move — but a move in what Hesse termed the “hundred-gated Cathedral of Mind.”

And the scope of that cathedral, in its gradual entirety, is vast — encompassing all the vast quantities of the sciences, with the qualitative depths and heights of the arts and humanities too:

The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

We are drawing close, in a humanly possible way and without making any predications of the being or non-being of such a supposed entity, to the very mind of god.

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And with immediate real world application, as when Maxwell sees the commonality between electricity and magnetism, Kekulé the serpent-biting-it’s-tail like form of the benzene ring — or Taniyama‘s 1955 “surmise” as Barry Mazur puts it, that “every elliptic equation is associated with a modular form” — an insight that was to bear rich fruit forty years later, in Andrew Wiles‘ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

Hesse’s vision of the game was lucid, elegant, intellectual — but lacked real world application. Viewed as a method of scoring the music of ideas, it offers illuminations from the most abstract and theoretical of mathematics to the most complex of opposed political intrangencies — from Tamiyama to Edward Said, and from Christopher Alexander‘s Pattern Language to John Holland‘s “genetic algorithms“. Alexander and Holland each indicate their debt to Hesse’s fictional game in their own respective works.

How, then, to notate this game, these moves that leap side-wise, pattern-wise, semblance-wise across boundaries and boxes, limitations and disciplines — for it is these leaps, as Arthur Koestler notes in his The Act of Creation, that give us the surprised aha! of discovery, the unexpected ha! of laughter, the gut-wrenching wail aiiyeee! when tragedy strikes.

My own inclinations favor play — solo or with a friend — at a coffee house, with pencil and paper napkin, with a small graph for a board, ideas played at its nodes, connections and resonances represented by its edges. I’m thinking of network mapping on a human scale, between seven and a dozen nodes, each one rich in meaning, anecdote, quote, statistic, image, snatch of song…

But the essence is the single move, the single resemblance. And for this I have a form which I would like to offer you, downloadable, for your own experiments:

Download the image and fill the two spaces with what you will — whatever you can sketch, whistle, count out or scribble —

I think you’ll find the greatest reward comes when the two ideas, visuals, verbals, aurals you juxtapose are closely related yet drawn from distantly separated regions of thought.

At their best, such juxtapositions cross galaxies. My own most cherished example to date compares a night sky by Van Gogh with a von Kármán diagram of turbulent flow…

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And where does this lead us? What becomes of CP Snow‘s famed Two Cultures?

Two great rows of pillars in Hesse’s hundred-gated cathedral, perhaps — best appreciated when one looks up, and sees the great vaulted roof, the magnificence of the arches between them.

In future Monday columns here on 3QD, I hope to bring you some further moves in the great game of correspondences, weaving together topics that have caught my attention in the preceding month — now in poetry, now on the morning news.

The leaps.

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I’m happy to report that friend Bill Benzon made the 3 Quarks Daily cut and will be blogging there, and that friend Omar Ali is already one of their regulars.

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Theory and Practice:

Friday, November 29th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- how theory works out in practice, and vice versa ]
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Here’s the first of a pair of “patterns” of interest…

Theory contradicts practice:

— with thanks to my friend Peter van der Werff!

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And here’s the second, a delicious serpent-bites-tail tweet re Egypt:

Practice contradicts theory:

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Okay, there are two more items for the “pattern recognition” / “pattern language” archives…

And here’s wishing you all a Happy Black Friday — if that’s even concedivable!

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