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Silence as protest and gift

Friday, April 13th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — on the frayed edges of music ]
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Silence is the exception rather than the rule — so much so that it’s notable.

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The bells of York Minster were silenced for a year in protest at the sacking of, as the Guardian eruditely puts it, “30 campanologists”. Bell-ringing is an ancient craft in the UK, mathematical in its combinatoric precision, glorious in its language and literature. Spanning the arts and sciences, it is thus a bridge between the two sides of that academic and popular schism or chasm which CP Snow famously described in his book, The Two Cultures.

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Mathematics and combinatorics:

The ringing of a peal or complete sequence of bells is a highly mathematized form of music, and the order in which the bells are to be rung — the method — can therefore be transcribed in graphical form:

Oh, the beauty in so musical a score.

I dare not show you a full extent — we might run out of pixels!

**

Language and literature:

Truth (and the detested false), Grandsires, Triple Bob Major, oh, and Spitalfields Festival Treble Bob, and how could one forget Affpuddle Treble Bob Major..

Dorothy Sayers‘ novel The Nine Tailors has nothing to do with bespoke and everything to do with murder most fouldeath and detection:

In some parishes in England the centuries-old tradition of announcing a death on a church bell is upheld. In a small village most people would be aware of who was ill, and so broadcasting the age and sex of the deceased would identify them. To this end the death was announced by telling (i.e. single blows with the bell down) the sex and then striking off the years. Three blows meant a child, twice three a woman and thrice three a man. After a pause the years were counted out at approximately half-minute intervals. The word teller in some dialects becomes tailor, hence the old saying “Nine tailors maketh a man”.

The bell used in the novel for the announcement is the largest (tenor) bell, which is dedicated to St. Paul. Hence “teller Paul” or in dialect “tailor Paul”. Sayers is here acknowledging the assistance of Paul Taylor of Taylor’s bell foundry in Loughborough, England who provided her with detailed information on all aspects of change-ringing.

Scientific American adds other details, describing:

another time-honored tradition of bells, which frequently have nicknames and inscriptions, as if they were, indeed, alive.

For instance, in Sayers’ novel, the oldest bell is dubbed Batty Thomas, cast in 1380, and bears the inscription “Abbat Thomas sett mee heare + and bad mee ringe both loud and cleer.” (The oldest bell hung for change ringing that is still in use was cast in 1325; it is the fifth bell at St. Dunstan’s Church in Canterbury, Kent.)

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Argh, the lockout:

Enough of the beauty of the English bells. From the Guardian piece referenced in the upper panel, above:

But simmering tensions between the minster’s governing body, the Chapter of York, and the ringers came to a head last October when the band was summarily dismissed and locked out of the 15th-century cathedral’s bell tower.

The silencing of the York Minster peal is thus a case of a sacred sound being stilled by a secular — or at least unionized — silence.

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How opposite, and apposite, then, is the ringing silence offered by the youthful Quakers as a podcast in the second Guardian piece referenced (lower panel, above):

It’s not the most obvious subject for a podcast, but a group of young Quakers in Nottingham have recorded their 30-minute silent meeting so as to share their “oasis of calm” with the world.

In an episode of the monthly Young Quaker Podcast, called the Silence Special, you can hear a clock ticking, pages being turned and the rain falling, as the group meets and sits in silence at the Friend’s Meeting House in Nottingham. [ .. ]

The idea for the silent podcast first came from Tim Gee, a Quaker living in London, who was inspired by the BBC’s season of “slow” radio, which treated audiences to – among other things – the sounds of birds singing, mountain climbing and monks chatting.

Gee said he had wanted to “share a small oasis of calm, and a way to provide a moment of stillness, for people on the move”.

Jessica Hubbard-Bailey, 25, from the Nottingham Young Quakers, who recorded the podcast, said they had jumped at the opportunity to broadcast something “immersive and unusual”. She added: “We have very different ways of worship to most people of faith and we thought this was a really unique opportunity to give people a little slice of what the Quakers do. Also, we are really good at being quiet because we’ve made a practice of it and I think that is of value. These days everyone is so busy, everyone is working all the time, so it’s really valuable to have the opportunity to sit down once a week and just be quiet and listen.”

Listen? Listen to the birds, to the chattering monks — or to the still, small voice?

**

Listen, in any case, to the sound of silence:

Just listen!

Creating a web-based format for debate and deliberation: discuss?

Friday, December 12th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — Talmud, hypertext, spider webs, Indra’s net, noosphere, rosaries, renga, the bead game, Xanadu, hooks-and-eyes, onward! ]
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Let me firmly anchor this post and its comments, which will no doubt shift and turn as the wind wishes, in discussion of the possibility of improving on current affordances for online deliberation.

Let’s begin here:

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There are a variety of precursor streams to this discussion: I have listed a few that appeal to me in the sub-head of this post and believe we will reach each and all of them in some form and forum if this discussion takes off. And I would like to offer the immediate hospitality of this Zenpundit post and comment section to make a beginning.

Greg’s tweet shows us a page of the Talmud, which is interesting to me for two reasons:

  • it presents many voices debating a central topic
  • it does so using an intricate graphical format
  • The script of a play or movie also records multiple voices in discourse, as does an orchestral score — but the format of the Talmudic score is more intricate, allowing the notation of counterpoint that extends across centuries, and provoking in turn centuries of further commentary and debate.

    What can we devise by way of a format, given the constraints of screen space and the affordances of software and interface design, that maximizes the possibility of debate with respect, on the highly charged topics of the day.

    We know from the Talmud that such an arrangement is possible in retrospect (when emotion can be recollected in tranquility): I am asking how we can come closest to it in real time. The topics are typically hotly contested, patience and tolerance may not always be in sufficient supply, and moderation by humans with powers of summary and editing should probably not be ruled out of our consdierations. But how do we create a platform that is truly polyphonic, that sustains the voices of all participants without one shouting down or crowding out another, that indeed may embody a practic of listening..?

    Carl Rogers has shown us that the ability to express one’s interlocutor’s ideas clearly enough that they acknowledge one has understood them is a significant skill in navigating conversational rapids.

    The Talmud should be an inspiration but not a constraint for us. The question is not how to build a Talmud, but how to build a format that can host civil discussion which refines itself as it grows — so that, to use a gardening metaphor, it is neither overgrown nor too harshly manicured, but manages a carefully curated profusion of insights and —

    actual interactions between the emotions and ideas in participating or observing individuals’ minds and hearts

    **

    Because polyphony is not many voices talking past one another, but together — sometimes discordant, but attempting to resolve those discords as they arrive, and with a figured bass of our common humanity underwriting the lot of them.

    And I have said it before: here JS Bach is the master. What he manages with a multitude of musical voices in counterpoint is, in my opinion, what we need in terms of verbal voices in debate.

    I am particularly hoping to hear from some of those who participated in tweeted comments arising from my previous post here titled Some thoughts for Marc Andreessen & Adam Elkus, including also Greg Loyd, Callum Flack, Belinda Barnet, Ken (chumulu) — Jon Lebkowsky if he’s around — and friends, and friends of friends.

    What say you?

    Gaming the Connections: from Sherlock H to Nada B

    Sunday, December 29th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — the game of Connect the Dots in play and practice ]
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    CIA's (now ret'd) Nada Bakos examines the Al Qaida board in the HBO docu, Manhunt

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    Manhunt, the HBO documentary, does what (not having been there and seen that at the time) appears to be a decent job of recreating some of the cognitive stratregies employed by CIA officers in the OBL hunt. The one I’m interested in here is the building of a “link chart” or cognitive map — law enforcement “evidence board” — the idea being (a) to note known connections visibly, and (b) to encourage the mind to make intuitive leaps that reveal previously unknown connections between nodes… or “dots”.

    Sophisticated software does this sort of thing algorithmically with regard to (eg) network connections via phone-calls, but the human mind is still better than AI at some forms of pattern recognition, and that’s the aspect that interests me here.

    Aside:

    For more on the cognitive significance of the link chart in Manhunt, see my post Jeff Jonas, Nada Bakos, Cindy Storer and Puzzles.

    **

    Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Sherlock lays out the way it works —

    **

    Okay, so one way to visualize connections is to make a fairly random collage of relevant photos, names, dates and places, and tie it together with links of string or ribbon. That’s the equivalent of what in HipBone games terms we’d call a “free-form” game, and it works well for the “divergent”, initial brainstorming phase of thought. But it does little to bottle its own energy, to focus down, to force the mind — in the no less powerful “convergent” phase — into perceiving even more links than occur spontaneously in building the link chart in question.

    HipBone‘s preformatted boards take the cognitive process to that second stage. They work on one of the most powerful ingredients in creativity: constraint. Business writer Dave Gray of Communication Nation puts it like this:

    Creativity is driven by constraints. When we have limited resources — even when the limits are artificial — creative thinking is enhanced. That’s because the fewer resources you have, the more you are forced to rely on your ingenuity.

    But that premise doesn’t just hold true for business problem-solving — it’s at the heart of creative thinking at the Nobel level, too, in both arts and sciences. Consider mathematician Stanley Ulam, writing in his Adventures of a Mathematician:

    When I was a boy I felt that the role of rhyme in poetry was to compel one to find the unobvious because of the necessity of finding a word which rhymes. This forces novel associations and almost guarantees deviations from routine chains or trains of thought. It becomes paradoxically a sort of automatic mechanism of originality…

    Here’s how the poet TS Eliot puts it:

    When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas.

    A Hipbone Gameboard such as the Waterbird, Dartboard, or Said Symphony board is chosen precisely to challenge the mind with third, fourth and fifth rounds of “creative leaps” — thus adding both divergent and convergent cognitive styles to this form of graphical analysis.

    That’s my point here — and a plug for HipBone-Sembl style thinking.

    **

    I can’t resist adding a couple of instances in which the meme of “connecting the dots” via a link chart or evidence board has crept from TV series that I enjoyed into the world of games — this first one based on the terrific French detective series, Engrenages, retitled Spirals for British consumption:

    — and this one for fans of the US TV series, Breaking Bad:

    Form is insight: a musical experiment

    Monday, October 22nd, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — here’s a musical experiment from the book / project i seem to be writing, which offers a grand slam intro to contemplative and artistic approaches to creative thinking, and hence a fresh angle on intelligence ]
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    It looks very much as though I’ve been beginning to write parts of let’s call it “a book” for a while here on Zenpundit. I laid out the overall topic and approach as I see it in my previous post, but here I would like to launch into it mid-stream, with a musical experiment to explore the mind’s capabilities. I’ll explain why, later.

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    **

    Okay, here’s the experiment.

    I invite you to listen to a short piece by JS Bach on YouTube. This will take roughly three and a half minutes of your time, the piece of music itself is one of the glories of the classical tradition, I’ve chosen the video because of the terrific graphics that accompany and illuminate the music, there will be some rock and ragtime to follow for those whose tastes go those ways — and I must ask you to pay very special attention while watching and listening to the video.

    Before you do that, however, I’d like you to take a look at the image at the top of this post, which shows you the ending of the piece both as the video graphics present it, and in the musical notation or “score” an organist would read. The graphics are terrific because they allow the untrained eye to follow the threads of the different melodies or “voices” as Bach braids them together. The work is his “Little Fugue” in G minor, which you can find indexed in his collected works as “BWV 578”.

    Here’s how I’d like you to pay attention during the piece:

    As you listen to the performance on video, I’d like you to follow the colored lines of the melodies as they move along in the video graphic, and listen carefully to hear how many of the lines of sound you can actually follow distinctly in your mind. At the beginning there’s only one “voice” – only one line of melody – so your task is easy. If you are used to listening to music of one sort or another, you’ll almost certainly be able to track, more or less, some kind of thumping bass line and some kind of melody rising above it – two voices.

    Can you manage three? four or more?

    If you’re a musician you may still find the graphics — and the exercise – illuminating, but you might prefer to make the same experiment with a version of the piece played by Robert Köbler on a Silbemann organ, accompanied on video by the score..

    Here’s the video — see how many voices you can hear and track:

    **

    How did you do? How many voices could you follow at one time?

    And why am I bothering to as you to do this, and then talking so much about it? After all, you may already know everything I’m saying and more, or you may simply not care that much about such things.

    Here’s why: the project is about creativity and intelligence.

    It’s about how to apply forms of creativity that are generally found in the arts and humanities — and in the world’s contemplative traditions — to the questions that arise for every bright human as we face the exhilarating challenging and terrifyingly complex world around us.

    It’s about understanding complexity, in the way the Intelligence Community needs to understand complexity, and business leadership, and our scientists and technicians, and the congregants at our synagogues, churches, mosques and temples, and, well, all the bright people everywhere — disillusioned, or fresh and rarin’ to go.

    **

    Complex problems often require some sort of recognition and resolution of several or many distinct and sometimes conflicting voices, points of view, concerns or vectors.. which may shift in intensity and direction as the situation evolves.

    In musical terminology, any music that includes two or more distinct melodic lines or “voices” playing together simultaneously is polyphonic — from the Greek for “many voices”. Counterpoint — from the Latin for a point that counters another point — is the artful way in which composers can “work” two or more melodic lines together, so they clash at times, resolve, and harmonize.

    The fugue — the particular contrapuntal form Bach uses in the piece you just heard — imposes even tighter constraints on the composer, and can elicit even greater creative inspiration as a result — as many of Bach’s, Mozart‘s, Beethoven‘s and others’ greatest works testify..

    **

    I imagine you can see that the many voices of polyphony — voices in counterpoint, that at times clash and are in need of resolution and harmony — have their equivalents in the complex multi-stakeholder problems, clashing points of view and need for constructive resolutions that creative artists, intelligence analysts, strategy, policy and decision makers, and anyone who wants to keep aware of the shifting currents of our strange and complicated times all need to take into account.

    So polyphonic, and specifically contrapuntal, thinking, can be extended way beyond the realm of music — as Hermann Hesse suggested in his greatest novel, Glenn Gould tried to demonstrate in his “contrapuntal radio” pieces, and Edward Said understood when he characterized the Israeli-Palestinian issue in these words:

    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.

    The “book” may turn out to be a DVD, or a workshop, at this point who knows? Whatever format it winds up it takes, it will teach contrapuntal thinking — using examples drawn from world culture and contemporary geopolitics — as a radical alternative methodology, complementary to but very different from our current analytic methods. It will be a text in the cross-disciplinary, associative, lateral or horizontal equivalent of the kind of disciplinary, siloed, linear or vertical thinking that our increasingly specialized culture has trained us in —

    and which we need to supplement, if we are to have the mental flexibility to see and make the creative leaps our times require of us.

    For more on this, see also my Feb 2011 post (at least I’m reasonably consistent over time) A HipBone approach to analysis VI: from Cairo to Bach.

    **

    God only knows how many voices there are in Bob Dylan‘s song Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, or Eric Clapton‘s Have you ever loved a woman from the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival – the principle’s the same, but we don’t (yet) have the graphics to allow your eye to follow what the musicians are doing — and there are solos, and sidemen.

    Each musician has at least one voice, its melodies and its silences, to present – and sometimes several, as we saw with the Bach organ piece. And together the individual musicians add up to an ensemble, each with an awareness of the others’ voices and a concentration on their own.

    And for an insight into the varieties of organ mastery, compare Billy Preston‘s amazing solo starting at 9’33” on the Clapton piece, Al Kooper‘s organ work on Dylan’s Sad Eyed Lady, and Ton Koopman‘s rendering of the same Little Fugue BWV 578 we started with – where at times you can watch Koopman’s fingers on the keys or feet on the pedals, for yet another way of visualizing the intricate interweavings of this glorious music.

    **

    Glenn Gould had an amazing mind: for your enjoyment, here’s a version of his own fugue, aptly entitled So You Want To Write a Fugue? — with a similar graphical display to help you follow along with the interweaving lines of melody…

    It’s serious, and it’s hilarious too! Or maybe you’d prefer Scott Joplin? Either way, enjoy:

    Glenn Gould:

    Scott Joplin, Euphonic Sounds, a Syncopated Novelty:

    Form is Insight: the project

    Monday, October 22nd, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — about the (not yet titled) book (or post-book project) i seem to be writing, which offers a grand slam intro to an array of box-free contemplative and artistic approaches to creative thinking, and hence opens fresh angles on intelligence ]
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    One thing I can promise: whatever this project turns out to be, it won’t be predictable.

    credit for this incredible image: Roger Dean

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    This project won’t take you over familiar territory, congratulating you on holding the same opinions as the author and adding in enough choice details to keep you interested. I’m not aiming to teach you the same thing you already know, only better, more interestingly, more precisely, or in greater detail. I’m aiming to question you, challenge you, and give you a whole new range of optics through which to view the world.

    **

    So, here we go.

    I think I am finally at the point where the book (or whatever it is) I’ve been gathering inside me all these years is ready to be written. Some of it has already emerged in earlier posts here on Zenpundit — you don’t known and couldn’t count how many thanks, Mark — and this is certainly where I’ve been developing the style of integrated visuals and verbals that gives the project its flavor — so I’d also like to use my posts here to discuss the thing with you as I go along.

    The project is about intelligence in the widest sense, including heart and mind, and with particular focus on creativity. I’m addressing this from two standpoints that mesh together well, and I’m addressing it to two audiences that I believe also mesh together well.

    The standpoints are (i) meditation and (ii) the arts, and the audiences are (i) the “intelligence community” and (ii) bright people in general.

    I believe that meditation cultivates a spacious mind-set in which we can hold multiple concerns in mind at the same time – the opposing needs of different people, stakeholders, sections of society, the environment, etc – thus seeing things from multiple angles and in balancing & thus balanced ways. And I think the arts serve as the primary means for expressing these balances with all their nuances and shadings, and that techniques from within the arts such as polyphony, chiaroscuro, formal constraint and pattern can teach us to shape multi-faceted insights like these into rich and complex understandings – complex patterns that respond to complex situations. I’ll go into all this in detail as we move along, with examples.

    I also believe that this kind of creatively patterned insight — embodying artistic methodology in the context of complex problems with a “fresh” and open mind – will be of interest beyond the intelligence agencies and policy-makers, to business people, artists, and also — importantly — the bright general public, which I take to be a far larger subset of the population than we commonly think, and always eager for reading that doesn’t talk down to them but appreciates their own intelligence and good will.

    For now let me just say that I’m very excited, because this seems (at last) to be a project that ties together my game-work with Sembl, the think-tank side of me which has been monitoring religious violence, jihad and terror and working towards nuance, understanding and peace these last dozen years — and my sense of creativity as a writer and poet.

    Ripeness is all: I suspect the time for this venture has arrived.

    **

    Here’s the single page overview I’ve written, with a working title:

    Intelligence is Zen: understanding our complex world with koans in mind

    Just a few days ago, the Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, referenced Pirsig‘s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as key to the Intelligence Community’s work in understanding and adapting to the many, varied, intersecting problems we face in the world today. As I noted, Clapper was focused a bit more on the biker wisdom than the Zen to be found in Pirsig’s book, but he does raise a question I’ve been addressing for some years now:

    What does the contemplative mind have to offer in terms of understanding a complex world?

    To my mind, the creativity which is all the buzz of the business world, aimed at solving what are called “wicked problems” — problems that feature multiple stakeholders with multiple aims and objectives, aims and objectives which themselves shift over time so the problems are “never the same river twice” – requires a major mental and emotional shift. Reverie and meditation free us up to make the shift: the shift itself is poorly understood.

    Our present, mostly linear way of thinking favors either/or side-taking, dubious cause-and-effect expectations which fail to take complex feedback loops into account, followed all too often by a rush to judgment. We need a whole new – old, even ancient – way of thinking.

    Our problems are complex because they overlap, they ripple through one another. In Buddhist terms, they are “interdependently arising.” Not surprisingly, the way of thinking that is required to gain a deeper insight into “interdependently arising” problems can be found in explicit form in such contemplative traditions as Madhyamika & Zen, Taoism, Sufism, and their Abrahamic contemplative analogs. At the heart of these systems is fresh thinking – thought refreshed by quiet.

    Furthermore, the shaping of insights in an open field of thought is something the world’s artistic traditions have long dealt with, and there are schools of insight not just available but recorded in exquisite detail in the world’s traditions of poetry, music, painting, theater, film… in patterns that are found in nature, in culture, and in the very turbulence we now must learn to flow with.

    The project therefore takes a meditation-influenced approach to intelligence, both in the sense in which Clapper would use the word, relating to the intelligence analysis which develops and influences our decision-makers’ understanding of what’s needed, and in the more general sense of those capable folk with bright minds, keen insights, sharp instincts, warm hearts.

    I’ll propose a series of ways of looking differently – with application for anyone, whether artist, intel analyst, businessman, policy-maker, or lover – that cut to the essence of creativity: lateral, analogical, holistic thinking, witnessing pattern beneath the surface of things. My examples will be mainly drawn from terrorism, which I have been monitoring for a dozen years: my style is that of a poet and an eccentric Englishman.

    My subtext, my subliminal message, will be contemplation and artistry as profound common sense.


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