zenpundit.com » complexity

Archive for the ‘complexity’ Category

Gaza now stretches all the way to God

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- more on the hopelessly interdisciplinary nature of reality, all the way to Amichai, to God, no God ]


In this post, I’ll offer another “entry” into the complexities of the situation in Gaza, drawing largely and gratefully on a post by Derek Gregory — presently the Peter Wall Distinguished Professor at the University of British Columbia — at Geographical Imaginations two days ago under the title Darkness Descending:

First, Dr Gregory quotes Samuel Weber‘s book, Targets of Opportunity: On the Militarization of Thinking:

Every target is inscribed in a network or chain of events that inevitably exceeds the opportunity that can be seized or the horizon that can be seen.

Gregory then comments:

The complex geometries of these networks then displace the pinpoint co-ordinates of ‘precision’ weapons and ‘smart bombs’ so that their effects surge far beyond any immediate or localised destruction. Their impacts ripple outwards through the network, extending the envelope of destruction in space and time, and yet the syntax of targeting – with its implication of isolating an objective – distracts attention from the cascade of destruction deliberately set in train.


I’m not sure who Gregory is quoting here, but the “network” gets personal, while tending to remain impersonal to the targeters:

.. by fastening on a single killing – through a ‘surgical strike’ – all the other people affected by it are removed from view. Any death causes ripple effects far beyond the immediate victim, but to those that plan and execute a targeted killing the only effects that concern them are the degradation of the terrorist or insurgent network in which the target is supposed to be implicated. Yet these strikes also, again incidentally but not accidentally, cause immense damage to the social fabric of which s/he was a part – the extended family, the local community and beyond – and the sense of loss continues to haunt countless (and uncounted) others.

In fact, the only thing I can think of that’s arguably both universal and more richly personal than individual persons is poetry — so I’ll let the Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, have the last word, as Gregory does:

The Diameter of the Bomb

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.


Ripple image from Ripple Effect Kindness, a blog that hopes to see ripples of peace


Chet’s Boydian Post-Script to American Spartan

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Dr. Chet Richards had some kind words to say about my review of American Spartan the other day and added some Boydian strategic analysis to the saga of Major Jim Gant to boot:

Zen Pundit on American Spartan 

….As Mark notes, the strategy of supporting local insurgents goes way back, and it can be highly successful — the United States wouldn’t be here if the French hadn’t taken this approach. But it’s also true, as he notes, that if you create a monster to fight a monster, you have, in fact, created a monster. You’d think we might have learned this from our first Afghan adventure. So I certainly agree with Mark when he says that “It should only be done with eyes wide open as to the potential drawbacks (numerous) and it won’t always work but the militia option works often enough historically that it should be carefully considered,” but “eyes wide open” is easier after the fact. Even a mechanical system of three or more parts can become complex and therefore unpredictable. So we have, at the very least, the US forces, the various tribes and militias, and the government. You see where I’m going with this, and that’s before we consider that the players are hardly mechanical parts whose behavior can be predicted over any length of time.

Still, Mark’s point is spot on — why do we always have to be the redcoats and let the other guys hide behind rocks and trees? Why do we keep doing dumb things? We don’t always, and we haven’t always, but somehow, we’ve developed a knack for discarding winning tactics.

…..One cause of this might be the mentality, attributed to Lord Palmerston several years back, that states have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. Glib statements like this are dangerous because they substitute for understanding and help lock orientation. Furthermore, they lead to the sorts of moral failings that Mark has identified. If you stop and think about it, the exact opposite would be a better way to run a foreign policy.

No organism, including a state, has long-term interests outside of survival on its own terms and increasing its capacity for independent action. As Boyd pointed out, these are easier to achieve if you have others who are sympathetic to your aims. In particular we should conduct our grand strategy (for that’s what Mark is talking about) so that we:

  • Support national goal;
  • Pump up our resolve, drain away adversary resolve, and attract the uncommitted;
  • End conflict on favorable terms;
  • Ensure that conflict and peace terms do not provide seeds for (unfavorable) future conflict. Patterns139

Or, put another way:

Morally we interact with others by avoiding mismatches between what we say we are, what we are, and the world we have to deal with, as well as by abiding by those other cultural codes or standards that we are expected to uphold.  Strategic Game 49

It’s not that hard. Our long-term friends are those who, like us, support our ideals, which we have made explicit….

Read the rest here.

I have to agree with Dr. Chet that we, or rather the USG, continues to do dumb things. It is virtually our default position now. The era of President Abraham Lincoln sending a case of whatever Ulysses S. Grant was drinking to his other generals is long over. Why?

I suspect by needlessly ramping up our organizational complexity we generate endless amounts of unnecessary friction against our ostensible purpose without adding any value. Aside from automatically increasing the number of folks involved who are neither motivated nor competent, making orgs more complex means too many voices and too many lawyers on every decision, of whom too few have a vested interest in the overall success of the policy to keep our strategic ( or at times, tactical) Ends uppermost in mind.

Policy, hell – maybe the first order of business should be to start using more bluntly honest terms like “victory” and “defeat” again in assessing results of military campaigns. They clarify the mind.

Maybe this is why the OSS, enterprising CIA officers like Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. , Edward Lansdale , Duane Clarridge or counterinsurgents like David Hackworth and Jim Gant could accrue large results while operating on a relative shoestring while enormous, powerful, quasi-institutional bureaucratic commands that spanned many years like MACV and ISAF have failed. The former led small teams that were simple, highly motivated and focused on adapting to win.

I fear things will have to get worse – much worse – before they get better.



Boko Haram “makes Kony look like child’s play”

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- some angles on Boko Haram ].

Boko Haram is irreducibly complex, quoth Tehu Cole:


To get a little understanding of that “irreducible complexity”, I turned to a Daily Trust May 4th interview with Kashim Shettima, Governor of Borno State, What Boko Haram Fighters Told Me About Sect

Shettima holds “there are two major factors that drive the Boko Haram sect, which are spiritual belief and economic desires.” It’s the first that concerns me here, and he has some pithy observations to make:

Bishop Matthew Kukah told me in an interview that Government does not understand the Boko Haram sect, that is why it has been difficult to tackle it. As governor, what are the mindsets, demands, motivation that have kept the sect alive?

In life, the most inspiring force is a strong spiritual belief regardless of the rightness or wrongness of the action. As Blaise Pascal rightly captured it and I quote “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” When you have spiritual belief in something, one might go to any extent to attain that goal. Though, to me, there can never be a belief that should lead a man into slicing the throats of fellow innocent humans for the simple reason that those humans share different ideology or faiths. [ ... ]

Those with spiritual beliefs are led into believing that when they kill, they obtain rewards from Allah and the rewards translate into houses in paradise. When they are killed, they automatically die as martyrs and go to paradise straight away. In other words, death is the beginning of their pleasure. [ ... ]

One dangerous thing about their ideology is their belief that when they attack a gathering or a community, any righteous person in the sight of God, who dies as a result of their attack, will go to paradise, which means they would have assisted the person to go to paradise in good time by their actions, and any infidel killed by their attack will go to hell, which to them is what he or she deserves and no regret for his death. This is the spiritual aspect that drives the sect, to the best of my understanding.

Useful quote to remember:

Blaise Pascal rightly captured it and I quote “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

Powerful phrasing:

In other words, death is the beginning of their pleasure.


The economic situation and its impact, family by family, is the other main driver Shettima sees:

Last year, when the President ordered the release of some detained suspects, some teenagers were brought to us at the Government House and when we asked them why they were arrested, some of them said to everyone’s hearing that they were being paid as little as N5,000 to set our schools ablaze. Some of them were paid less to spy on soldiers and make calls to insurgents to report their vulnerability so insurgents could ambush them. The teenagers obviously were either feeding their parents or taking care of themselves. This means, if there was spread of wealth through job opportunities, the teenagers would have no business depending on themselves. Their parents would have taken care of them.

Those children who become independent as teenagers in their search for economic fortunes are the same people exposed to all manner of religious preaching and manipulations. They develop independence over their parents to live with their views, while the parents can hardly influence them since they feed their parents. The element of lack is man’s worst nightmare. From Islamic point of view, our noble Prophet, Muhammad Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam, has enjoined Msulims to pray against poverty; it is a dangerous disease. [ ... ]

If you will take a sample of the backgrounds of majority of the sect members, you are likely to discover that most are children from backgrounds that have been deprived of economic opportunities. [ ... ]

As I have always said, beneath the mayhem of Boko Haram, underneath the nihilism of Boko Haram lies the underlying cause, which is social exclusivity and extreme poverty. Once we engage the youths, once we create jobs, this nihilism, this madness will evaporate.


Describing the situation in terms of just two drivers doesn’t exactly model the “irreducibly complex” — but it does features two factors, one supposedly “underlying” the other, when people have a tendency to want to sweep one or the other off the table, either because religion isn’t something they takes seriously, or because they have a particular religion they dislike, and want to paint it in the darkest hues possible.

So having both religious and political (in this case, economic) drivers succinctly stated together is a plus — and the real complexity comes into view, it seems to me, when one tries to visualize or otherwise explain the ways in which these two types of drivers are interwoven — how they interact, the feedback loops, the braidings… And please note, I’d probably include some other cultural anthro and depth psychological stuff (rites of passage; archretypal symbols & rituals, eg) along with religion, and many varieties of external circumstances (familial and tribal affiliations, resources, education, territory, militias and warlords, to name a few) to the political.


I’m also a comparativist, so I was interested to read Juan Cole‘s blog-post Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army: Hunted Children & the Problem of Fundamentalism in Africa, in which he suggests:

Boko Haram is the Nigerian Muslim counterpart of the Ugandan Christian LRA

— which ties us back in with Teju Cole’s tweet at the top of this post.

So that’s an added dimension to the complexity — we can and should investigate the two groups separately, for their uniquenesses, always with an eye for the interweaving of broadinly “political” and “religious” drivers, and then search out the specific convergervces and divergences between them as they manifest across their two respective religious and territorial situations — and perhaps even gain some sense of how they balance and where they don’t, in terms of rhetoric, scriptural basis, economic situation, men and materiel, cruelty, territory and reach, levels of success…

And all that is no small task…


Okay, it’s an “irreducibly complex” set of issues — but we can still attempt to understand and model it — we just need our inputs to be wide as well as deep, and our minds to be open as well as shrewd.


Education: a call for actors, directors, composers, conductors

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- leaping as far out of the box from Education: on Engineers, the Navy — and excuse me, Jihad as I can manage ]

Director / Actor Jean Renoir as Octave in Rules of the Game


Let me dive directly in at the deep end.

If, as Keith Oatley suggests, theatre is “simulation that runs on minds“, what does that tell us about actors (as compared with the rest of the population) as experienced simmers of complex realities, potential scenario planners?

Where does that leave Ronald Reagan vis-a-vis Margaret Thatcher? What about directors vs actors? What of Jean Renoir (depicted above)? Or Clint Eastwood, actor, director — and one time Mayor of Carmel, CA?


On another tack:

In one of my all-time favorite quotations — because it covers so much ground, aptly, from Middle Eastern politics to JS Bach — the music critic and pianist (and yes, Palestinian, and other things as well) Edward Said once wrote:

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.

If contrapuntal composers and conductors can hear, feel the conflicts between, and at times, at least for a while, balance and resolve them, what then might Bach be able to teach our analysts, policy and policy makers?


And finally, to quote Cornelius Castoriadis:

Philosophers almost always start by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is a table. What does this table show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever started by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is my memory of my dream of last night. What does this show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever starts by saying “Let the Mozart’s Requiem be a paradigm of being, let us start from that.” Why could we not start by positing a dream, a poem, a symphony as paradigmatic of the fullness of being and by seeing in the physical world a deficient mode of being, instead of looking at things the other way round, instead of seeing in the imaginary — that is, human — mode of existence, a deficient or secondary mode of being?

What then could we learn from Mozart (and Bach, and Shakespeare, Said and Renoir) about the better understanding of our present mode of existance?



I am suggesting that there is in fact such a thing as genius, that it is a “still, small voice” available to any who care to listen — and that we might be wise to center our educational ideas around its care and feeding…


Leap Worlds: my 3QD attempt

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- another runup to the glass bead game ]

Below you can read my submission to the wonderful 3 Quarks Daily “web aggregator” site as a candidate to join their regular Monday blogging team — it didn’t even make their “close but no cigar” list, but I wrote it and I like it, so I’m posting it here.


They are both fine American authors, stylists of high repute yet little known, Annie Dillard and Haniel Long, but I hadn’t associated the two of them particularly closely until that day. I’d snarfed up a copy of Long’s Letter to Saint Augustine from the dollar box at Pasadena’s magnificent Archives theological bookstore, and on my way home to nearby Eagle Rock, stumbled on a passage that seemed hazily familiar.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh yeah?


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The leaps.


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


Switch to our mobile site