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JM Berger’s Extremism, from MIT Press. Brilliant.

Monday, September 24th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — my third JM Berger review, following reviews of Jihad Joe and ISIS: State of Terror ]
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**

I ordered a copy of JM Berger‘s Extremism months early from Amazon, having followed many of the posts in which he was formulating the insights that led to the book, and expecting a volume full of the very detailed diagrams and network analyses they contained:

Image sources:

  • ICCT, Countering Islamic State Messaging Through “Linkage-Based” Analysis
  • Intelwire, EXTREMIST CONSTRUCTION OF IDENTITY
  • **

    These diagrams, and the research that underlies them — the work of JM and his colleague, Haroro J Ingram — attest to JM’s skill at the detailed drill-down level, the equivalent of rock-face drilling in a mine. The book couldn’t be further from my expectations: it attests to an entirely different set of skills, those of simplicity, grace, and a superb command of language.

    JM has the ability to communicate directly with a lay audience at their (our) level. He neither shies away from nuance nor adds needless complications — either of which would be a form of condescension to the reader.

    JM’s writing is direct and clean:

  • Terrorism is a tactic, whereas extremism is a belief system.
  • Extremism is a spectrum of beliefs, not necessarily a simple destination.
  • Group radicalization precedes individual radicalization
  • **

    Above are three of the pull-quotes, extracted from the book’s text, that state some of JM’s basic propositions on lucid, large-print, white on black pages, scattered as needed across the book’s 167 short pages (plus glossary, notes, bibliography, further reading, index)..

  • What extremism is, how extremist ideologies are constructed, and why extremism can escalate into violence
  • That’s the core proposition of the whole work, buttressed as it is with a wealth of detailed research and analysis. And radical…

    JM’s approach is already radical in its (his) refusal to treat only one ideological or religious frame for extremism. Studying both ISIS and home grown Identity groups, those who promote violence and those who arguably foreshadow it, led JM to see extremism itself as the most fruitful category to study — not terrorism, nor Islam, not the Citizen Sovereignty movement nor alt-right, but extremism tout court.

    That broadening of the frame allows Berger a set of analytic insights that were obscured by detail in earlier, more limited studies, and his book is the elegant formulation of those insights, simply, and with a forest of scholarship in support.

    **

    JM lists Impurity, Conspiracy, Dystopia, Existential threat, and Apocalypse as central “crisis narratives” utilized by in-groups as they view out-groups — but it is the in-group-out-group distinction which is central to his thinking, its wrongness characterized by the in-group’s paranoid conspiracist suspicions of the out-group’s impurity, dystopic being the nature of the world now ruled by the out-group, and to be abhorred or saved by the in-, with existential threat and apocalypse providing the sense of time-crunch, urgency.

    All this, I say, with a simplicity and elegance which belies the originality and scholarship that undergirds it.

    Above highly recommended.

    What is “a multicausal and multilevel understanding”?

    Friday, April 27th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — if you can lose your car in a multilevel parking garage, imagine how easy it is to lose your mind in a multilevel understanding ]
    .

    I mean, what is multicausal and multilevel understanding anyway?

    We know what the words mean, and can possibly gloss over them without pausing for the question as I intend it. But pause, please. What is it, in terms of brain function and or training, that gives us access to multicausal and multilevel understanding?

    **

    I came across the phrase in the publisher’s abstract for Bart Schuurman‘s book Becoming a European Homegrown Jihadist:

    How and why do people become involved in European homegrown jihadism? This book addresses this question through an in-depth study of the Dutch Hofstadgroup, infamous for containing the murderer of filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was killed in November 2004 in Amsterdam, and for plotting numerous other terrorist attacks. The Hofstadgroup offers a window into the broader phenomenon of homegrown jihadism that arose in Europe in 2004 and is still with us today. Utilizing interviews with former Hofstadgroup participants and the extensive police files on the group, Becoming a European Homegrown Jihadist overcomes the scarcity of high-quality data that has hampered the study of terrorism for decades. The book advances a multicausal and multilevel understanding of involvement in European homegrown jihadism that is critical of the currently prevalent ‘radicalization’-based explanatory frameworks. It stresses that the factors that initiate involvement are separate from those that sustain it, which in turn are again likely to differ from those that bring some individuals to actual acts of terrorism. This is a key resource for scholars of terrorism and all those interested in understanding the pathways that can lead to involvement in European homegrown jihadism.

    **

    I’d expect Bart Schuuman fills the void in our understanding as described. But I was in another discussion today, in which a friend of mine, Mike Sellers, said he’d been trying to teach analysts at Ft Meade the kind of thinking that can hold two ideas, possibly contradictory, in the mind at one time. He found the task both interesting and difificult. But how do you manage the task of multicausal understanding without what I call contrapuntal thinking — the ability to hold two or more thoughts in mind at the same time?

    My friend’s teaching is strongly influenced by systems thinking, as first devised by Jay Forrester of MIT. Mike has a great lecture on systems and systems thinking in the context of games — he was lead designer on games like Sims 2

    My own approach in the HipBone Games is to ask players to create a single, deeply connected “thought” out for ten individual ideas on a suitable ten-move game-board — with a “two idea” board for my DoubleQuotes games:

    Over the course of twenty years experimenting, I’ve realised my DoubleQuotes is the ideal format for teaching / learning “contrapuntal thinking” — basically, that same “ability to hold two or more thoughts in mind at the same time” — or “how to think in terms of systems” — or “multicausal and multilevel understanding”..

    **

    Hay, this is relevant and more than relevant. Macron‘s address to the joint session of Congress today included an appeal for a renewal of multilateralism:

    This requires more than ever the United States involvement, as your role was decisive in creating and safeguarding the free world. The United States is the one who invented this multilateralism, you are the one who has to help to preserve and reinvent it.

    Here, see how that works:

    **

    Multilateral means many-sided, eh? — and considering many sides at once requires the by-now familiar “multicausal and multilevel understanding”.

    On Iran, he repeated his support for the nuclear trade deal and outlined a four-part solution to Trump’s concerns about the deal and Iranian expansionism in the Middle East.

    So just the Iran deal requires a four-sided understanding at minimum. And let me remind us, four-fold vision was the highest hope of William Blake, who wrote to Mr Butts — but I’ll show you the poem alongside one of his illustrations of the concept:

    Multicausal and — particularly, perhaps, in view of Blake — multilevel understanding may be more demanding than at first we think.

    And the world? The world requires this of us.

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    Helpful books:

    Amazon:

  • Bart Schuuman, Becoming a European Homegrown Jihadist: A Multilevel Analysis
  • Mike Sellers, Advanced Game Design: A Systems Approach
  • A complexity consideration or two

    Wednesday, March 28th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — that one is a many among many, and how many does that make? ]
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    There are many, many distinctions that can be drawn at the group level, political, financial, religious, tribal, on the right side of the line in the diagram below — but every one of them in constituted of individuals, for each of whom the considerations on the left side would, to a greater or lesser extent, apply:

    **

    How is this multiplied?

    Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

    Nice words, nice indeed. Bobby Kennedy‘s words.

    But did the darker aspects of “the complex compound of pure and impure impulses” — in every individual, every “tiny ripple” — get lost in the niceness of the words?

    I ask because for optimists it so often does, and that’s the great weakness of positive movements. And because for the cynical, so often, no glimpse of the positive aspects can make it through their fog.

    **

    Consider this, for each individual:

    As every man goes through life he fills in a number of forms for the record, each containing a number of questions . .. There are thus hundreds of little threads radiating from every man, millions of threads in all. If these threads were suddenly to become visible, the whole sky would look like a spider’s web, and if they materialized as rubber bands, buses; trams and even people would all lose the ability to move, and the wind would be unable to carry torn-up newspapers or autumn leaves along the streets of the city. They are not visible, they are not material, but every man is constantly aware of their existence…. Each man, permanently aware of his own invisible threads, naturally develops a respect for the people who manipulate the threads.

    That’s not somebody writing about Cambridge Analytica or FaceBook — that’s Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in Cancer Ward, 1968, courtesy Bruce Schneier.

    I may add further one and many instances and illuminations in the comments section as I find them — you are invited to do the same..

    On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: twelve

    Friday, March 23rd, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — Cambridge Analytica and Guardian logos, HipBone Game boards ]
    .

    A while back, I posted a series of pieces about the felicities of graph-based game-board design. This piece picks up from that series, with a bit of a refresher, and a pointer to the Cambridge Analytica logo.

    First, the question arises of what graphs are. A graph, from a mathematical point of view, consists of nodes and edges: nodes are, in this diagram, the red circles, and edges are the lines connecting them:

    We know a great deal about the mathematics of graphs, but they underlya vasst repertoire of modern systems, including — for an extreme. complex instance — the design of washing machines:

    **

    Back at least to medieval times, graphs can be found with concepts assigned to their nodes and the reasons connecting those conceptts assigned to their edges. These thre show one Jewish (Kabbalistic) conceptual graph, one graph of the four elements and their relaations, and a Christian ttrinitarian graph:

    I have usedsc similar conceptual graphs as the boards of my HipBone Games. SHown herear ethree of my boards, together with a spiffy board by my friend and colleagues Cath Styles for her Sembl games:

    **

    All the above, to show you why all usees of graphs are potentially of interest to me, and why I am particularly interested in the Cambridge Analytica logo (left, below), which offers a graph in the shape of the human brain, and the logo the Guardian devised (right, below), to give visual continuity to their articles about Cambridge Analytica;

    I think you can see how the Guardian logo would make a fine HipBone game board for teen Agatha Christie -type games.

    **

    Hey, on complexity — which graphs and diagrams are better at than “linear” verbal explanations — there’s this — not a graph! — from another post of mine — wow!:


    Shaping strategy — Constant turbulence and disruption

    **

    Earlier in this series:

  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: preliminaries
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: two dazzlers
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: three
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: four
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: five
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: six
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: seven
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: eight
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: nine
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: ten
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: eleven
  • Sunday surprise — Li Bai and the Song of Songs

    Sunday, March 11th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — it’s all about a scarlet thread and some corks in a current ]
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    I have plenty of idle time between naps, and was binge watching The Churchmen on Netflix. Plus it’s a Sunday..

    **

    As you know, I track “twins” in events and quotations, mainly for sheer aesthetic pleasure, but also partly as an analytic tool — believing as I do that “two is the first number” and often a leading-edge clue to pattern, meaning, significance.

    I’m used to finding others who have noted these twins or “DoubleQuotes” as I call them — “DoubleQuotes in the Wild” — but I’m not sure I’ve ever run across a clear description of someone else noting them, let alone in a scholarly manner that bridges the secular west and spiritual east — but lookee here!

    **

    Amazing indeed! And what a line! Your lips are like a thread of scarlet! worthy of Li Po, worthy indeed of the Song of Songs!

    I’d have been very chuffed if I’d run across the same doublet between Li Bai – better known to me as Li Po — and the Song of Songs — which, by the way, is Solomon’s.

    **

    Li Po, who, drunk and out in a shallow boat, saw the moon reflected in the Yellow River, leaned over to kiss it, and drowned..

    Solomon — but you know the story — seated in judgement, ordered a child be cut in two when two women claimed to be its mother — then commanded it be given to the one whose shocked pure love begged him to deliver it to the other.. wisdom as the test of love!

    **

    The discoverer of the binary “Your lips are like a thread of scarlet!” is a brilliant, generous-hearted, flawed founder and leader of a seminary in France who displeases ambitious Vaticanisti, is offered a choice of disgrace (on account off his flaws) or (as an “out”) a posting to an obscure but copacetic position in Shanghai..

    A conversation ensues, in which he discusses his options with the nun who serves as his assistant:

    The nun ancourages him to consider the Shanghai option..

    That option has a certain seductive charm — following that scarlet thread.. but it represents being “bought off” rather than sticking by one’s guns come what may, and somehow weathering the consequences.

    **

    Our nun reflects:

    And that’s an interesting idea.

    At first glace it seems fatalistic — but that current moving the corks — the seminarians, the nun herself, the priest she serves, an ambitious president of the Franch bishops, various monsignori and a pope – maybe Christ, too? — has its own flows and undertows — a priest’s flaws included. It’s a complex system.

    The corks are afloat in a complex system. A scarlet thread traces its curve in the complex system, from contemporary France to eighth- century China.

    **

    And when you’re afloat in a complex system — as we all are — “go with the flow” may be sound advice. That’s why the “corks in a current” idea seems so interesting to me. Sunday surprise!


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