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Form is insight: the funnel, part 1

Thursday, October 11th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — a post in my importance of form in intelligence series — Afghanistan, the complexity — also a Blackfoot Tale from Grinnell ]

Funnel image credit: Oxsite


One of my favorite tales of all time is the Blackfoot legend of The Bull Band, which begins thus in Grinnell‘s telling:

The people had built a great pis’kun, very high and strong, so that no buffalo could escape; but somehow the buffalo would not jump over the cliff. When driven toward it, they would run nearly to the edge, and then, swerving to the right or left, they would go down the sloping hills and cross the valley in safety. So the people were hungry, and began to starve.

Somehow I’d come by a sense that the pis’kun was a sort of funnel – perhaps from Joseph Campbell, whom I once heard tell this tale in his own words – and today I looked around my foolscap-sized screen and discovered that John Canfield Ewers reports what he calls a “buffalo fall” pretty much how I’d imagined the thing, in his Indian Life on the Upper Missouri:

The Piegan band called Never Laughs was camped on the Teton River a few miles north of the present town of Choteau. Their chief announced, “Now we are going to make a buffalo fall.” They built a corral below the cliff and piled rocks in a great V-shape on the slope above the fall. Then they chose a man to lead the buffalo to the fall. But each time he lured them in between the lines of rocks they broke away before they reached the cliff edge. After this had happened three times, young Many Tail Feathers became angry…

So that’s the shape I’m thinking of here: “a great V shape” – let’s call it a funnel.


I want to use the funnel to illustrate a movement in time, an imperative in intelligence, and a loss in nuance.

First, some background.


We are in a tricky situation here, because our minds would like to grasp a problematic reality (which resembles a landscape) by means of a thought (which resembles a road sign).

What’s up in Afghanistan?

Drought, and a huge humanitarian catastrophe, say those whose eyes are focused on human beings as fellow creatures in need of food, water and shelter. Preparations for getting the oil in Khazakstan to market, say those who focus on geology, resources, economics. The start of a strategic corridor that also includes Tibet and Kashmir, contested by India and Pakistan, the nuclear locals, and Russia and China, the nuclear regionals, in a four-sided tug of war. Islam itself, the religion of God, or a perverse and puritanical variant thereof. Or one man, Osama bin Laden.

Clearly a complex landscape – and we would like, depending which road sign we follow, to bomb the shit out of them, bring in truckloads of food and medicines, establish a stable government with which to ink a pipeline deal, export their Wahabi brand of Islam to the world — or discreetly support the US in its mission to extirpate the terrorists of Al-Qaida without rousing the more fundamentalist and simplistic of our citizens to topple the government and institute a radical Islamist state.

So much depends on whether we are in Peshawar or the Pentagon, in poverty or power. So much depends on our perspective, and the parallax it brings with it.

Because no matter what point of view we choose to consider the landscape from, some parts of the terrain will seem so close together as to be indistinguishable which we can understand to be worlds apart if we can only view them from another angle, in a different perspective.

I am not arguing for moral relativism. I am arguing for a recognition of complexity, and for an admission that sound bites and white papers cannot handle this style of problem. I have painted a highly impressionistic portrait of the complexities at work here, where China touches the tip of the eastwards panhandle of Afghanistan, where Kandahar can stand proxy for Jerusalem, where the national sport is a sort of polo with a goat’s head for a ball, and the tea served in thin, curved glasses is green and sweet.


I have checked Google and Dogpile, and as far as I can tell from poor memory, my sense of my own style, and the absence of the same text in the search engines, the above is my own work — the text of the bulk of which I found somewhat haphazardly on my hard drive while working on Part 2 of this post. If anyone else claims copyright, count me an admirer and let me know. I believe it’s “mine” for whatever that concept may be worth, I’m skeptical about solo creativity in any case, myself.

In part 2 of this post, which is definitely almost all borrowed from bright other beings, I’ll try to illustrate the funnel as it applies to America, Afghanistan, Obama and Osama, in a series of “zeroing in” quotes illustrating the complexity of the situation and analysis as contrasted with the “yes” of a kill-decision…


Friday, June 29th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — borrowing as the nature of creativity from lichen to origami, copyright ]

Lichen covered wall, Incan ruins of Ollantaytambo. Cusco, Peru


Leonardo in his Treatise on Painting came up with what he called “a new theoretical invention for knowledge’s sake … of great utility in bringing out the creativity in some of these inventions”:

This is the case if you cast your glance on any walls dirty with such stains or walls made up of rock formations of different types. If you have to invent some scenes, you will be able to discover them there in diverse forms, in diverse landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, extensive plains, valleys, and hills. You can even see different battle scenes and movements made up of unusual figures, faces with strange expressions, and myriad things which you can transform into a complete and proper form constituting part of similar walls and rocks. These are like the sound of bells, in whose tolling, you hear names and words that your imagination conjures up.

Borrow, he says, from nature.

Michelangelo, you may recall, used to see statues in chunks of marble, then chip away the excess to reveal what had been there all along…


The stone-cutters whose marvelous ingenuity pieced together the stone wall in the Incan ruins of Ollantaytambo, Peru, depicted above in a photo by Teosaurio (under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license) borrowed stone from nature in somewhat the same manner, brilliantly.

Nature repaid the compliment, adding the colors of lichen to the sunlit and shadowed grey of stone.


In Paris, the artist Mademoiselle Maurice has been adding her own kind of lichen to the shadowed and sunlit walls of Paris, in an installation she calls spectrum – her lichen being composed entirely of small, colored origami folds, by way of honoring the origami peace cranes of Hiroshima artist Sadako Sasaki.

image: Mlle Maurice, abstract paper rainbow



Origami is an exquisite art in its own right, demonstrating once again that mathematics belongs as much to the arts and humanities as it does to the sciences and technology.

[Consider this bleeding together of arts and sciences as something of a crusade of mine. Photography is art, and it does not became science just because the photograph is of stars rather than stones: photography is science, and it does not become art simply because the stars are beautiful.]

One genius of the artful mathematics of folding would be Robert Lang, who, as Kevin Kelly just told us, “helped NASA design satellite folding/unfolding solar panels” and “uses computers to devise folding patterns to create impossibly detailed 3D organisms from a single piece of paper…”

One can hardly deny that his work is quite lovely:

Butterfly image: Robert Lang, Origami Insects Vol 2, ed. Makoto Yamaguchi


One might wonder whether Lang is the genius, or mathematics? Does he borrow from God, from some principle immanent in universe?

His diagram depicted, left, below, “will, when folded by him, turn into a convincing Rhinoceros Beetle”

Of the Rhinosceros beetle or of the butterfly one might ask, as William Blake asked of the Tyger:

Did He smile His work to see?
Did He who made the lamb make thee?

Science, naturally, somewhat believes it has the answer…


Compare and contrast:

image: Kevin Kelly, from the Technium


Inappropriately appropriated? The very concepts battle each other into oxymoron fatigue.

The painter Susan Morris borrowed Robert Lang’s beautiful design, itself a WoA — useful bureaucratese devised by a friend of mine for filing Works of Art in a category of their own – to make the painting, also a WoA, depicted above, right.

Morris, it seems to me, takes Lang in a direction pioneered by Frank Stella:

image: Frank Stella, Harran II


It was Kevin Kelly who juxtaposed Lang and Morris in the image above — in what I’d have claimed was a WoA in my DoubleQuotes format if I’d done it myself — so as to discuss copyright.

Or more precisely, copy — right or wrong?

Nature copies, without apology, with beauty – and, in the case of certain poisonous spores, without remorse. And are we not nature?

Here’s Leonardo again:

Don’t underestimate this idea of mine, which calls to mind that it would not be too much of an effort to pause sometimes to look into these stains on walls, the ashes from the fire, the clouds, the mud, or other similar places. If these are well contemplated, you will find fantastic inventions that awaken the genius of the painter to new inventions, such as compositions of battles, animals, and men, as well as diverse composition of landscapes, and monstrous things, as devils and the like. These will do you well because they will awaken genius with this jumble of things.

To study, to copy, to derive: this awakens genius. Who am I to disagree?

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