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Remembering mathematician and Glass Bead Gamer Bob de Marrais

Monday, February 11th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — this is strictly for the record — you don’t need to read it unless — like Bob — you’re a poly-mathematician, para-biologist, meta-psychiatrist or native-born glass bead gamer ]
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1984. Illustrating for Bob de Marrais‘ article on Computer Graphics,
published in Digital Deli: The Comprehensive, User-Lovable Menu
of Computer Lore, Culture, Lifestyles and Fancy
, ed. Steve Ditlea.

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My late friend Bob de Marrais wrote a five-part short-book-length essay, Catastrophes, Kaleidoscopes, String Quartets: Deploying the Glass Bead Game, which is so wide-ranging in its scholarship that no single journal had peers sufficient to review it, so witty, subtle, enchanting, and generally impossible that its continued existence on the web and in the time-worn hard drives of a scattering of computers has made of it a sort of samizdat — a secret publication passsed from hand to hand, or in this case memory to memory, and in this post I wish to memorialize both the essay and Bob himself.

Here are five sips, to give you a sense of the work.

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Catastrophes, Kaleidoscopes, String Quartets:

Part I: Ministrations Concerning Silliness, or: Is “Interdisciplinary Thought” an Oxymoron?

We seek deep concepts by silly means. Think of this, for openers at least, as a cerebral equivalent of a well-known Monty Python skit: welcome to the Ministry of Silly Thoughts. [ … ]

Essential to easy generation of the “silliness effect” – as in the frivolous juxtaposing of Kings Arthur and Elvis in the last paragraph – is production of collisions between disparate things, which context makes us associate unexpectedly. No one not on drugs or writing late-night standup material would be likely to seek a link between the latest news from robotic interplanetary exploratory vehicles and political upheaval in the Hispanic community in the general vicinity of Miami. But when Elian Gonzales’ mom fled Castro’s regime on a flimsy makeshift boat and died at sea while getting her son to (what she thought would be his) freedom, Jay Leno noted how scientists had just discovered water on the Red Planet, “and in an unrelated story, a boat of Cuban refugees washed up on Mars this morning.”

Aside from late-night comedic unwinding from the day’s events, there is only one other area where such juxtapositions are hunted down and put to use. (No, not dreams: that’s involuntary; and besides, many people today no longer have any.) This area is largely deemed, regardless of lip services paid, “absurd; trifling; frivolous” in academia – when not, that is, subjected to sober attempts at its production which typically display all these three aspects in spite of themselves. This is the domain of what often passes for an oxymoron in our supremely specialized research establishment: interdisciplinary thought. And this, of course, is what we’re here to talk about.

Compare “the silliness effect .. is production of collisions between disparate things, which context makes us associate unexpectedly” with, from this morning’s diggings:

Brecht:

He [Darko Suvin] cites Brecht as follows: “A representation which estranges is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time make it seem unfamiliar.” This permits a new cognition of the now and creates a moment which is potentially liberating. Placing familiar objects (or subjects) in unfamiliar settings allows us to see differently. Our old and tired perceptions can thus be revitalized and transformed. — Lucy Sargisson, Fool’s Gold?: Utopianism in the Twenty-First Century

Boulez:

For Boulez, the challenge was to present the borrowed ideas in a new light that could lead to results far removed from the original, which had provided only a single solution. — The Gramophone

Both quotes via JustKnecht, another Glass Bead Game-player of note, discussing his Rattlesnake Games.

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Part II: Canonical Collage-oscopes, or: Claude in Jacques’ Trap? Not What It Sounds Like!

For this section of Bob’s work, I’ll just post a snippet referencing the Catastrophe Theory of René Thom:

Of the many, many ways to frame the two-control Cusp, the most interesting for us is the predator-prey chain, due to Thom himself. Let us frame it mythically: in the Vedic lore of pre-Hindu India, the great god Indra – the Zeus of the Aryan invaders – had (or was trapped in) a magical net. Depending on the story told, and teller’s point of view, Indra is the hunter and the hunted too. According to the mathematics of Catastrophe Theory, this is fundamental, not unusual. The theory’s creator typically focuses on the single Cusp as the basis of all richer models .. Its stable “splits and mergers” mode of yoyo-ing between the Two and the One, he tells us, is “the most fundamental regulatory process” in non­linear dynamics: not only in the abstract, but, under the guise of the “predation loop,” in the ultimate concreteness of animal feeding. At least since the emerging of the amoeba, this is, sim­ply, merging: “fundamentally, engulfing a prey into the organism” … and herein resides an enigma.

It’s a rich broth, you see — connecting perhaps to Ali Minai‘s comment tweeted today:

Polyphony, in an abstract sense, applies not just to human complex systems but to all complex systems. .. One of the most unappreciated facts about natural complexity is that it emerges from interaction of simpler processes, and not from some prior complexity.

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Part III: Grooving on the Sly with Klein Groups

No one knows that this tale is a part of an immense poem: myths communicate with each other by means of men and without men knowing it. … The situation which Le Cru et le cuit describes is analogous to that of musicians per­form­ing a symphony while kept incommunicado and separated from each other in time and space: each one would play his fragment as if it were the complete work. No one among them would be able to hear the concert because in order to hear it one must be outside the circle, far from the orchestra. In the case of American mythology, that concert began millennia ago, and today some few scattered and moribund communities are running through the last chords.

That’s Octavio Paz writing on Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Bob uses it as the epigraph to section III. Just today I was writing of the various friends of mind who are making profound contributions as islands in an archipelago — and how I long for the richness that will emerge when the connections between them are strong, the transmission of ideas between them fluid..

Further, from section III:

Somebody calls you, you answer: “In theory, a twirl of kaleidoscopes” – why?

If you were called to provide a summary of the first two installments preceding this, to someone who’s only just joined us, the perpetual revolution of Sir David Brewster’s famous tube should certainly be the very first image to pop from that jack-in-the-box you keep in your head. For Jacques Derrida, as we saw, lopped off this capstone of Lévi-Strauss’s extended metaphor of how the mythic mind operates: the workings of “bricolage” were like those of a kaleidoscope, as the anthropologist summed it up; but Derri­da’s demolition job didn’t so much as footnote, much less explicitly point to, this motif. [ … ]

… Beat­les’ paean to “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes.” …

Leary and Ralph Metzner meanwhile wrote about, and advocated, the use of low-tech kaleidoscopes, imported from the East, for inner exploration as well: I refer, of course, to mandalas. Mixing scientific and New Age styles, they managed to synthesize, in brief compass and without the “depth psychology,” the gist of what Jung’s approach toward such sacred objects (about which, more in the next installment) is taken to be by those who’d worn bell-bottoms and “love beads” while reading such things:

[As] the mandala is a depiction of the structure of the eye, the center of the man­dala corresponds to the foveal “blind spot.” Since the “blind spot” is the exit from the eye to the visual system of the brain, by going “out” through the center, you are going in to the brain. The Yogin finds the mandala in his own body. The mandala is an instrument for transcending the world of visually perceived phenomena by first centering them and turning them inward.

Note that Leary’s reading of the foveal blind spot is markedly at odds with Derrida’s

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Part IV: Claude’s Kaleidoscope . . . and Carl’s

As before, note that the epigraps to this section contain doors intonwhat is within:

All the creative power that modern man pours into science and technics the man of antiquity devoted to his myths. This creative urge explains the bewildering confusion, the kaleidoscopic changes and syncretistic regroupings, the continual rejuvenation, of myths in Greek culture.

That’s Carl Jung, in Symbols of Transformation

Here he goes:

For those who’ve tuned in late to this mini-series, the first episode performed a sort of sitcom set­up of the main conundrum: Derrida’s deconstruction launched itself using Lévi-Strauss’ structuralism – as epitomized in his Mr. Fixit figure of the “bricoleur” – as thrust-block . . . the irony being that the latter “failed” analytics of myth proved a harbinger of advanced mathematical toolkits whose utility in linguistic and cultural studies has been burgeoning, while the former “success story” has shown itself to be ever more hollow – intellectually, morally, and spiritually.

In Part Deux, we blowfished the argument, treating the core event – the 1966 Johns Hopkins con­ference where Derrida struck his “deal with the Devil” – as itself a sort of myth requiring structural analy­sis, inspecting it through the lens of Derrida’s 1987 reminiscences about the postmodernist “quotation market” and his own role in fomenting it . . . and then beefed up our discussion of Lévi-Strauss’ own “canonical law of myths” with Catastrophe Theory mathematics and the tasteful injection of celebrity quotes, movie reviews, and porno­graphic movie ads to, um, “flesh out” the argument.

Strike three, though, was where the ubiquitous form-language of the so-called “A,D,E Problem” and its lowly instancing as a new sort of Timaeus-style creation myth – based on kaleido­scopes instead of an odd lot of triangles and things whose names rhyme with Tipi Hedron[1] but don’t look half as fetching – was taken much too seriously, with the limitations in Husserl’s phenomeno­logy shame­lessly con­trasted (unfa­v­or­ably) with the concentric run-out groove at the end of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. The point being, natural­ly, that the Madhyamika Buddhism of Nagarjuna’s “full void” was allowed to under­write the super­po­si­­tion principal of quantum mechanics in spite of its looking like something Derrida liked to mutter about, while all the while all of this was subsumed in some mare’s nest of compari­sons between the struc­tures of mythical argument, their “reincarnation” in the forms of classical music, and the Glass Beads that Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi was known to like to play with when he thought no one was watching.

Of course, if we’re going to keep a load like that down without providing our readers free Pepto-Bismol, it would behoove us to make the people reading this think the linchpins of the argument were some­­how intrinsic. Put another way (which is our specialty here), we could say that it’s all very nice that this “A,D,E Problem” gives us kaleidoscopes as the Meaning of Life and like that there, but wouldn’t it be so much better if we got the same basic mishmash without all the abstraction – if the kaleidoscope could legi­timately be seen as some kind of “archetype” in its own right, which “just happened” to bring in Catas­trophe-type “shock waves” into the argument without all the hand-waving … and all without losing all the rest of our baggage, once the argument has landed?

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Part V: Spelling the Tree, from Aleph to Tav (While Not Forgetting to Shin)

I didn’t even know there was a fifth part — quint-esseence? — until a couple of days ago, and am very grateful to Steven H. Cullinane for conserving all five for us.

One of the epigraphs for this fifth section comes from Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind:

“The heart has its reasons which the reason does not at all perceive.” Among Anglo-Saxons, it is rather usual to think of the “reasons” of the heart or of the unconscious as the inchoate forces or pushes or heavings – what Freud called Trieben. To Pascal, a Frenchman, the matter was rather different, and he no doubt thought of the reasons of the heart as a body of logic or computation as precise and complex as the reasons of consciousness. (I have noticed that Anglo-Saxon anthro­po­logists sometimes misunderstand the writings of Claude Lévi-Strauss for precisely this reason. They say he emphasizes too much the intellect and ignores the “feelings.” The truth is that he assumes that the heart has precise algorithms.)

WHat can I tell you? We haven’t delved in any detail into Bob’s mathematical work, but this section contains a footnote — a quotation that delights us with the concept of a perfectly square ship with vertical sides, and offers enough catastrophe-cusp based math to illustrate that central aspect of the whole work:

Tim Poston and Ian Stewart, Catastrophe Theory and its Applications (Boston, London, Melbourne: Pit­man, 1978): “The commonest kind of water-going vessel which is actually built with vertical sides all the way round is a floating oil-platform. These are normally fixed to the ocean floor when on site, but they float during transport. Often they are built square. This symmetry goes through to the buoyancy locus… and the buoyancy locus is a circularly symmetric paraboloid of revolution. The metacentric locus may therefore, apparently, be found by spinning the two-dimensional case, so that the geometry of the perfectly square, vertical-sided ship is remarkably simple. From a catastrophe theory viewpoint this simplicity is thoroughly deceptive, the energy function takes the form (x2 + y2)2. This is not finitely determined … and so has infinite codimension…. Physically, this means that the apparently simple geometry of the ‘ideal’ vessel .. is violently unstable.”

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Bobert de Marrais was born Nov. 30, 1948, and died April 4, 2011 in Boston, MA. His obit notes he “had a lifelong interest in history, his French heritage, music, history of science, and multidimensional algebras.” He was a remarkable polymath, profoundly loved and deeply admired by the fortunate few who knew him.

The human voice, counterpoint, & the analysis of complex systems

Saturday, February 9th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — with Mike Sellers and Ali Minai particularly in mind, and more to come.. ]
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Roomful of Teeth:

That’s composer Caroline Shaw‘s Partita for 8 Voices, a piece she wrote for Roomful of Teeth.

A piece she composed and wrote for them — in the remainder of this post, we’ll explore the overlap of text (writing) and music (composition) in increasing subtlety and detail..

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I’m brought to make this post by a paragraph I read in a fascinating New Yorker article, Roomful of Teeth Is Revolutionizing Choral Music. Roomful of Teeth is the group whose music I first praised in Pulitzer : Lamar :: Nobel : Dylan?, and showcase again in the video clip above.

Here’s that New Yorker para:

The human voice is the world’s most astonishing instrument, it’s often said. It’s capable of everything from a trill to a bark to an ear-splitting scream, from growling harmonics to liquid acrobatics, lofted on the breath like a lark on an updraft. Instrument is the wrong word, really. The voice is more like a chamber ensemble: winds and strings and blaring horns, strung together end to end. It’s a pump organ, a viola, an oboe, and the bell of a trumpet, each instrument passing the sound along to the next, adding volume and overtones at every step. Throw in the percussion of the lips and tongue, and the echoing amphitheatre of the skull, and you have a full orchestra playing inside you.

My aim in this post is to add that “full orchestra playing inside you” to that other internal polyphony of contrasting desires, identities, and emergent thoughts, and the external polyphony of all those voices with a stake in our common concerns, risk assessments and deliberations — which are constituent of our complex analytic topics.

Done.

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The rest is context…

I’ve often talked about the notion that the analysis of complex human systems involves dealing with multiple stakeholder voices, also on occasion with the many internal voices within each individual, and suggested that music offers the clearest equivalent or analogy that humans successfully and repeatedly navigate. Specifically, the twin notions of polyphony — the sounding together of many voices — and more specifically counterpoint — the juxtaposition of conflicting voices and the possible resolution of their conflicts from dissonance to harmony in an iterative process — are clearly relevant to analytic practice, albeit drawing on a tradition that will seem wildly cross-disciplinary to many analysts.

Relevant here is Edward Said‘s definition of counterpoint:

In counterpoint a melody is always in the process of being repeated by one or another voice: the result is horizontal, rather than vertical, music. Any series of notes is thus capable of an infinite set of transformations, as the series (or melody or subject) is taken up first by one voice then by another, the voices always continuing to sound against, as well as with, all the others. Instead of the melody at the top being supported by a thicker harmonic mass beneath (as in largely vertical nineteenth century music), Bach’s contrapuntal music is regularly composed of several equal lines, sinuously interwoven, working themselves out according to stringent rules

In my view , which I have repeatedly expressed, Johann Sebastian Bach, the master of contrapuntal writing, is a significant exemplar for us at this time. And if it should be argued that musical methods cannot be transposed — another musical term — to matters of verbal thought, let me say that the great Bach pianist Glenn Gould towards the end of his life made specifically contrapuntal human voice radio plays for the Canadian Broadcasting Company..

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Gould’s contrapuntal mind:

Among Gould‘s eccentricities — David Howes in Glenn Gould’s Contrapuntal Constitution calls them bi-centricities, a phrase that reminds us of Arthur Koestler‘s notion of the creative leap as the bisociation of two planes or matrices, are:

the way he liked to have one AM and one FM station playing all the time in his apartment, one for news, the other for music; the way he could learn a score while talking on the phone; and the way he enjoyed eavesdropping on three or four conversations at the same time going on at neighbouring tables in the restaurants he haunted (Kostelanetz 1983: 127).

We can see here that Gould‘s basic thinking is in terms of multiple voices, often contrasting, in simultaneous awareness — Gould, Howes continues, spoke of counterpoint as “an explosion of simultaneous ideas”. As Gould puts it, Howes reports, when speaking of his radio programs for human voices:

The basis of it was that we tried to have situations arise cogently from within the framework of the program in which the two or three voices … [recorded previously in conversation with Gould, but with the latter’s voice edited out for the final version] … could be overlapped, in which they would be heard talking – simultaneously, but from different points of view – about the same subject. We also tried to treat these voices as though they belonged to characters in a play, though all the material was gained from interviews. It was documentary material, treated in a sense as drama (cited in Payzant 1982: 131).

This, then, is Gould‘s contrapuntal radio, and we can see Gould vividly transposing conytrapuntal imagination from the musical sphere to that of the varieties of human verbalization.

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As not an aside but the re-introduction of a theme previously only hinted at, here is Arthur Koestler on the conceptual or creative leap:

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Okay, our concept of music must shift, change, expand, if we are to consider Gould‘s Idea of North as a musical composition — in ways that are consistent with my own development of contrapuntal analysis. As Anthony Cushing explains in Glenn Gould and ‘Opus 2’: An outline for a musical understanding of contrapuntal radio with respect to The Idea of North:

A musical understanding of North requires re-thinking some traditional elements of music theory: harmony must take into consideration semantic content and shifting topic areas; form follows somewhat traditional musical structures (ternary, binary, etc.); and texture encompasses layering of literal voices and dispenses with traditional notions of melody. One must also consider the spatial component of tape composition, in which voices inhabit locations in a sound field. The later documentaries in the trilogy and the Leopold Stokowski and Pablo Casals tribute radio documentaries contribute to a more complete musical concept of contrapuntal radio — complex polyphonic textures, stereo sound, pitch-based harmonic content — the germ of contrapuntal radio was developed and actualized in North.

I’d like to take that lead, given us by the masterful pianist Glenn Gould, across into the field of analytic understanding — as a stream of analysis complementary and in counterpoint (for instance) to “big data” analytic tools — contrapuntal analysis characteristically working with a few, humanly-selected verbal utterances rather than data-points algorithmically-selected in the millions.

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Moving to a larger geopolitical canvas, Edward Said once told an interviewer:

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.

We see here the invocation of Bach in a context of geopolitical analysis — one paragraph in the life-work of Said, who was a music critic as well as a well-known Palestinian-American public intellectual.

That single paragraph — and Gould‘s clear understanding that contrapuntal thinking can be applied to the polyphony of human voices, not just in the musical sphere — prompts me to go further, and assert that complexity studies with application to the human condition and intelligence and geopolitical analysis will all, sooner or later, arrive at the practice of contrapuntal thinking as basic to their deeper purposes.

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Refocusing at the national level, on Glenn Gould‘s native Canada:

I’ve mentioned the simultaneity of voices in social contexts such as listening, hearing and understanding the views and voices of multiple stakeholder. In similar vein, Howes suggests Gould‘s own taste for counterpoint stems from and reflects the Canadian Constitution:

Gould understood music to provide a model of society, and the performing artist, hence, to be performing society, as well as music. Along these lines, counterpoint, Gould’s preferred musical style, provides a specially apt model for comprehending the constitutional structure of the Canadian state. Gould’s interest in keeping the different voices of a fugue distinct, equal, and bound together parallels the concern of the Canadian state to keep the different parties to Confederation distinct, equal and bound together. In this difficult task, however, there is always a risk of overemphasizing or losing one of the voices. If Quebec is proclaimed “a distinct society” will that disturb the equality of the provinces (for surely all are distinct); if it is not, will that lead to the separation of Quebec and the break-up of Confederation? This bi-cultural counterpoint confronts Canadians daily, from the bilingual product information on their cereal boxes to the reports of English/French political jousting on the evening news.

Counterpoint, or in more general terms, polyphony, is non-dialectical, for it involves the interweaving of voices, of ideas, rather than the Hegelian process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Polyphony as social theory does not, therefore, entail the negation of any countervailing views the way, say, a dialectical social philosophy would. With polyphony, accommodation or peaceful co-presence takes the place of negation.

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Readings:

  • New Yorker, Roomful of Teeth Is Revolutionizing Choral Music
  • NY Times, The Glenn Gould Contrapuntal Radio Show
  • Open Culture, Listen to Glenn Gould’s Shockingly Experimental Radio Documentary
  • Hermitary, Glenn Gould’s The Solitude Trilogy
  • Canadian Icon, Glenn Gould’s Contrapuntal Constitution
  • Politics & Culture, An interview with Edward Said

  • Charles Cameron, Pulitzer : Lamar :: Nobel : Dylan?
  • Charles Cameron, Getting deeper into Koestler

  • Mike Sellers, Advanced Game Design: A systems Approach
  • Ali Minai, A core concern of our research is the desire to catch ‘creativity in the act.’
  • **

    More Teeth — your reward for reading this far:

    And BachGlenn Gould plays Contrapunctus IX from The Art of Fugue — on organ:

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

    Wednesday, January 30th, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — surprise, surprise — this isn’t the #15 I expected and predicted ]
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    In Two eminently watchable TV series by Hugo Blick I looked at narrative artistry as an approach to understanding complex problems — and I do mean complex, the Israeli-Palestinian and Hutu-Tutsi errh, situations..

    Here, we consider artistry of another sort — polyphonic, graphical, yet still clearly artistic in execution ..

    **

    Here’s a drawing from Victor Papanek‘s Notebook — and very notebook it is — courtesy Roelof Pieters:

    **

    Compare the above with this example of Mark Lombardi‘s fine art “conspiracy” graphs from his book, Global Networks:

    We’re getting positively calligraphic here, and approaching the scope of one of those Song dynasty scroll paintings that feature (am I right? memory, imagination!) a hermit disappearing into his cave in some obscure not quite corner of the scroll, while thunder wreaks havoc on armies by a river in almost center field..

    Speaking of which..

    Ah, but we’re straggling away from our topic: On the felicities of graph-based game-board design. The point is that the arts have many inventive ways to approach complexity.

    I mean, we could start with Hamlet..

    **

    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
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: twelve
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: thirteen
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: fourteen
  • Two eminently watchable TV series by Hugo Blick

    Tuesday, January 29th, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — I suspect Mike Sellers & Ali Minai might find them of interest as subtle narrative avenues into complexity ]
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    I’ve been watching Black Earth Rising , British writer-director Hugo Blick‘s latest series, starring Michaela Coel:

    As with his earlier series, The Honourable Woman featuring Maggie Gyllenhaal, I’m transfixed. Here is complexity delivered — in both cases, brilliantly — on TV:

    Once Blick puts down his first card, as a viewer you think, “Oh, that’s good. That will be interesting.” Then he essentially flips the other 51 into the air and lets them fall all over the script. That’s the ambitious beauty of The Honorable Woman, which explodes across each episode with elaborate twists involving the Israelis, the Palestinians, the British and the Americans.

    **

    Sources:

  • Hollywood Reporter, The Complicated, Ambitious Brilliance of ‘The Honorable Woman’
  • Hollywood Reporter, ‘Black Earth Rising’: TV Review
  • IndieWire, Netflix Thriller Shows the Danger of Treating Global Politics Like a Game
  • **

    I have been discussing systems dynamics and complexity with my game designer friend Mike Sellers recently — see his brilliant book, Advanced Game Design: A Systems Approach — and complexity, glass bead games and AI with a new friend, Ali Minai — hear our podcast at BrownPundits. Let’s make it clear: I’m the student here.

    In the course of our discussion, I’d written:

    I think of novels and plays as offering approaches to an intuitive grasp of complex situations

    and

    I think polyphony and counterpoint are what we meet with in the social world, and indeed in our conflicted minds and hearts, and that Bach will prove to be the great master of our age, once we’ve matured enough to learn from him. But listening must come first, and that seems a skill that’s wildly at variance with our times..

    Mike responded:

    Novels and plays give us, I think, something of an implicit systemic view, in that we understand how a greater whole (a love story, a tragedy, etc.) emerges from the mutual interactions between actors. Same with counterpoint and polyphony — the notes mutually interact at the same time, and set up call-and-response interaction within our minds across time, to create a larger experienced whole from the entire musical piece.

    I’m trying to make those relationships more explicit and more generalized, seeing the commonalities in books, music, biology, and games

    so — for both Mike and Ali — I’d recommend these two Hugo Blick series as contemporary works of Shakespearean subtlety, to consider as avenues into coomplexity. And although I lack the linguistic skills to appreciate him I’m sure Ali would like to add the Urdu poet Ghalib to the list..

    So that’s my interest.

    Complexity, what is it? Which avenue takes us deepest into the heart of the matter?

    **

    Hugo Blick?

    Hugo Blick, who likes to teach the ambiguities to which a probing sense of morality will necessarily find itself subject, might like to examine “Combat charities” in the West and their jihadi twin:

    A NEW PHENOMENON OF THE 21ST CENTURY BATTLEFIELD

    “Combat charities”—entities that seek to provide non-profit military and political assistance to weaker armed groups or minorities resisting the military onslaught of others (like ISIS)—are one mechanism for foreign anti-ISIS volunteers to join the fight. “Combat charities” are a new rising phenomenon of the 21st century battlefield and political dispensation. They can significantly affect both local orders and international politics. [ … ]

    Thousands of Western foreign fighters have traveled to the Middle East in recent years to join the fighting that has engulfed the region. They have overwhelmingly participated on the side of jihadi organizations like the Islamic State (ISIS) or the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front).

    However, a smaller and often unnoticed segment of these volunteers has embedded with groups that resist the jihadis, such as Kurdish, Assyrian, and Yazidi militias. These fighters vary in their motivations for joining the fight: Some are driven by moral outrage and seek to prevent the atrocities minority groups have suffered at the hands of the jihadis, while others are motivated by co-religionist solidarity. Some seek a sense of adventure and the adrenaline highs of military tourism, while others wish to escape problems at home, finding in the fight a form of self-medicating for post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems. [ … ]

    THE WESTERN PATHBREAKERS

    SOLI is the oldest and most established combat charity in the world. Founded and led by American citizen Matthew VanDyke, it operates in Iraq, and is building abilities to operate in Syria and North Africa. Since its creation in 2014, SOLI has helped form, train, and to certain extent equip the two largest Assyrian militias in northern Iraq fighting against ISIS. [ … ]

    …AND THEIR JIHADI TWIN

    Founded in May 2016, Malhama Tactical is the first sunni jihadi private military company. As Rao Komar, Christian Borys, and Eric Woods reported in Foreign Policy magazine in February, during its short existence Malhama Tactical has provided training and battlefield consulting for Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as the Nusra Front, affiliated with al-Qaida) and the Turkistan Islamic Party, an Uighur extremist group from China’s restive Xinjiang province.

    Get that? Rival combat charities to throw a heavy dose of ambiguity into the already three-cornered Syrian situation..

    IMO, these combat charities on both sides of an already fraught situation might make excellent fodder for Hugo Blick‘s subtle story-telling mind..

    **

    Viewing:

  • Netflix, Black Earth Rising
  • Amazon, The Honorable Woman
  • Further reading — the full combat charities report:

  • Brookings, Combat charities or when humanitarians go to war:
  • The remaking of angels, their rank and sweep

    Wednesday, January 16th, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — on, i suppose, the uphill slog or seduction of genius — or a very different take on complexity? ]
    .

    Paul Klee‘s Angelus Novus — described by the Verso writer Stuart Jeffries as “this goofy, eternally hovering angel with hair that looks like paper scrolls, aerodynamically hopeless wings and googly if rather melancholy eyes”:

    was admired and bought for a thousand marks by Walter Benjamin, and moved with him from one lodging to the next until her fled Germany and the onrushing Nazis. It is also:

    Benjamin’s most famous image, in the 1940 “Theses on the Philosophy of History”: the “angel of history” who is blown backward into the future by the storm of progress.

    or to quote Benjamin himself:

    A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

    **

    At a time after Darwin, Marx and Freud have dissolved the basics of fundamentalism, and before the likes of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and the brilliant Christopher Hitchens proclaimed “the new atheism” in an easily-won contest with that same low, popular religiosity — all but ignoring the retreat of angels from Renaissance tryptich to Hallmark Card — we might do well to carry the God-NoBoDaddy debate up an octave, and consider the possibility that once angels have been more or less erased from modern western consciousness, they may, as in a palimpsest, reappear in new-old guises..

    **

    Principally, I think here of Rilke‘s angels in the Duino Elegies:

    Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?
    and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
    I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
    For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
    and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
    Every angel is terrifying.

    Ah!

    Rilke told one of his translators that she should not make the mistake of understanding the angel referred to in the elegies as a Christian angel. To the contrary, this angel was quite distinctly drawn from an Islamic tradition. Rilke writes that in the months before his trip to Duino, he had traveled in Spain and had been consumed with reading the Qu’ran and a book on the life of the Prophet Mohammed. It seems fairly clear that this occurred under the influence of his friend Lou Andreas-Salomé, whose husband, Friedrich Carl Andreas, was a leading scholar of Islamic culture in the Russian Empire, particularly including Naqshibandiyya.

    **

    Let Rilke have traveled next to India or China, the apsarases and gandharvas of Hinduism and Buddhism might have affected him, with their sensuality, their song, their dance..

    **

    But while gandharvas and apsarases capture us by their powers of seduction — in some ways like the houris of Islamic paradise — with Rilke’s angels, drawing no less on the Old Testament than on the Qur’an, our surrender is to elemental force:

    I mean the Angel who appeared
    to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
    when the wrestlers’ sinews
    grew long like metal strings,
    he felt them under his fingers
    like chords of deep music.

    Whoever was beaten by this Angel
    (who often simply declined the fight)
    went away proud and strengthened
    and great from that harsh hand,
    that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
    Winning does not tempt that man.
    This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
    by constantly greater beings.

    **

    Constantly greater beings, with which we may if we are spiritually fortunate, wrestle — these are Rilke‘s angels, and they fill the gap in the once-dominant Great Chain of Being paradigm, on a rung above human usualness, demanding, promising, skirmishing, delivering…

    To be carried in the arms of an apsara, to be swept by the gale-force storm of an angel, these are human experiences of the transhuman kind, and we need words for them, both forgetful of any surrounding dogma and delighting in their strength as imagery — gandharvas and angels named as such, and constantly revivified by the poetic imagination.

    Klee, Benjamin, Rilke, but also Jacob wrestling with — who? a man, angel, God? — and becoming IsraelGiotto, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo who wrestled form from Carrera marble, Dogen Zenji for whom mountains were the sages into whom, living among them, he blended.. Kalidasa with his yakshas in Cloud Messenger and perhaps supremely in the gandharva marriage in his Shakuntala..

    Isaac becoming Israel, Shakuntala the mother of Bharata.. Of such are sacred nations born.

    **

    Yet this world is wide and deep, the beings above us multitudinous, and the humans touched by them more than a single mind can comprehend. And:

    The problem of god is a problem in ballistics, Icarus discovered this,
    that to shoot for the sun is to fall short of it, those who shoot
    for beauty achieve prettiness, there is a gravity in aesthetics as there is
    in physics, and theology too has its fall, the problem of god being
    that the mind falls short of what is huge enough to conceive it, give
    conception whatever relevant definition you choose, too vast
    to think of, give birth to it — no, no, mind has sheer cliffs of fall, and
    to shoot for a conception of god is full speed ahead to fall, fail ..

    I bow, salute, prostrate, pranam, bow gassho.


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