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If our toes were our fingers, if Pyongyang was Tehran

Sunday, June 17th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — metaphors, mathematics, and a question for you all ]
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**

There’s a toe ointment ad for Kerasil that begins:

If our toes were our fingers, everyone would instantly notice the difference..

— accompanied by various shortt clips of feet serving various functions of hands, see above.

I’ll talk about fingers and toes, okay, if you’ll tell me about Pyongyang and Tehran, deal?

**

This is the first ad — or for that matter, mass media mention — I’ve seen of the hands / feet comparison, and that’s significant in itself because, along with day / night, sun / moon, fingers / toes must be one of the earlier comparisons on which we base all future comparisons / parallelisms / oppositions, and thus analogies, and by extension, metaphors.

Fingers and toes, then, are an early matrix for us, but that matrix gets abstracted into the decimal counting system, no small matter in our culture and many others. And from decimals we can go to the Dewey Decimal System used in, Wiki informs us, 200,000 libraries in at least 135 countries — and that’s just one of the branches of the tree whose roots are in fingers and toes — our fingers and toes, not the toes of a three-toed sloth or woodpecker…

And of course, the day / night, sun / moon and other dual contrasts arguably derive some of their power from the duality hands / feet, which also gives us left / right, sinister / right, right / wrong and the entire range of moral judgments, based on the two sides of the body and extrapolated from there. We seldom think of these things, unless perhaps in early education, but as Jung and others have noted, they hold great significance for psychology and cultural anthropology.


image: the Nassau County Mathletes

Using decimals, we can represent irrational numbers — impossible to represent as fractions, pi and the square root of minus one foremost among them — a notion so disturbing tto the purist Pythagoreans that Tobias Dantzig, in Number: the Language of Science, quotes Proclus as saying:

It is told that those who first brought out the irrationals from concealment into the open perished in shipwreck, to a man. For the unutterable and the formless must needs be concealed. And those who uncovered and touched this image of life were instantly destroyed and shall remain forever exposed to the play of the eternal waves.

Irrational, or just plain crazy? And those waves — a metaphor for randomness, chaos, or for the universality (via Fourier transforms) of the sine wave?

Oh. And when a zen master wants to set a student a problem that cannot be solved by our binarily inclined minds, he gives them the koan “what’s the sound of one hand clapping?”

**

Okay, that’s enough about about hands / feet — now let’s hear about the Pyongyang summit and the Iranian nuclear deal — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. I’m sure you have plenty of thoughts on the matter — your turn, please..

The new bad boy in girls’ lives, & other complex natsec issues

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — Trump hits Iran-ball hoping to put N-Korea-ball in the pocket? ]
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Bad boy?

**

Consider this:

The drivers of various significant natsec behaviors from a natsec perspective, can be pretty hard to characterize, pin down, and model. To take just today’s example (well, yesterday’s):

  • WaPo, MS-13 is the new bad boy in girls’ lives
  • Think about it, just skim the surface, and it’s obvious. Of course, MS-13 would be the new bad boy in girls’ lives. But what does that mean? Who has mapped the way in which girl’s lives might require or enjoy bad boys, and how gang identity, and thus by entension the game itself, might fulfill that requirement, that need.

    How true was it that ISIS or AQ was in its day the bad boy in girls’ lives?

    It seems pretty obvious Mick Jagger was bad boy in girls’ lives, back when Paul McCartney was the boy those same girls could bring home to meet the parents.

    Is extremism always the bad boy in girls’ lives?

    And once we’ve wondered about a few exmples, we need to reflect on the ornery nature of individual human psychology.

    **

    God says, “But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die” — and what’s the very next thing the fledgling humans do?

    Or as Wallace Black Elk said to me, “stolen watermelon tastes best.”

    Those two are fairly straightforward, the message is simply “humans are liable to do the exact opposite of what might be intended or predicted. But then there’s this, anecdotal to be sure, but I can voich for it myself:

    In my early thirties, I made my way cross-country to Inia along the hippie trail, and in the midst of majestic mountains in Iran, I got out of the van, did a headstand, and made a vow to give up smoking. I climbed back into the van, and ten minutes later had another cigarette. Ah, but I didn’t bite my nails — up to that time a long-established habit — for almost a decade..

    Go figure. There’s a logic there, but it involves a sidestep. Or, as they say, some wires got crossed.

    And it gets worse.

    **

    Blaise Pascal‘s observation in his Pensées (1623-1662) opens the possibility that any number of undertows may suddenly erupt and sweep us off in unforeseen directions:

    Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point. The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing

    **

    Or to give you a vivid example of the same pattern of process torn from this day’s news — and threatening thousands of Hawaiian householdsL

    On April 30, the floor of a crater on top of the Kilauea volcano collapsed, sending its pool of lava back underground and causing small earthquakes. Scientists predicted the magma would travel elsewhere and push its way back to the surface somewhere in the East Rift Zone.

    They were correct.

    Days later, the ground split open on the east end of Leilani Estates, exposing an angry red beneath the lush landscape. From the widening gash, molten rock burbled and splashed, then shot dozens of feet in the air.

    The Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency called it “active volcanic fountaining.” Some residents said it was Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess, coming to reclaim her land. About 1,700 Leilani Estates residents were ordered to evacuate amid threats of fires and “extremely high levels of dangerous” sulfur dioxide gas.

    Soon, another such fissure had formed a few streets to the west. Then another, and another. For days, hot steam and noxious gases rose from the vents, before magma broke through, with some lava fountains shooting as high as 330 feet into the air — taller than the tip of the Statue of Liberty torch.

    At least 12 fissures have been reported in and around Leilani Estates, according to the county civil defense agency. Lava spouted along the vents and oozed through the neighborhood, leaving lines of smoldering trees in its wake and igniting cars and buildings.

    So far, lava has destroyed at least 35 structures, 26 of which were homes, the agency said Monday night.

    The world, like the min, is full of surprises.

    **

    King Canute, I was taught as a young boy, set his throne on the beach at low tide and forbade the waters to come in. This Hawaii resident had much the same idea..

    **

    And we would like to know how Iran will respond to Trump withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. And China. what Admiral Stavdridis calls “the knock-on effect with North Korea”. Saudi Arabia.The game is one of recriprocal Nuclear Dominoes, and exactly how they’ll fall is..

    Well, here are a few headlines to chew on:

  • Ha’aretz, From Doomsday to Delay: 5 Scenarios Ahead of Trump’s Decision on the Iran Nuclear Deal
  • Independent, Donald Trump’s decision on the Iran nuclear deal could have a disastrous ripple effect on the fight against terrorism
  • Atlantic, The Three Crises Sparked by Trump’s Withdrawal From the Iran Deal
  • Toss a coin, Roll the dice. Or maybe pray to Pele for a favorable outcome for you and yours, no guarantees..

    Do nothing — just don’t do, eh?

    Sunday, December 31st, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — Trump — Lao and Chuang on their way to the New Year — & Iran ]
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    It’s quizzically amusing for someone with basic meditative or comparative religious eyes to read Philip Gordon‘s NYT piece yesterday, How Can Trump Help Iran’s Protesters? Be Quiet.

    I, too, want to see the government in Tehran weakened, moderated or even removed. So let me offer Mr. Trump some unsolicited advice: Keep quiet and do nothing.

    Ah, quiet. Ah, nothing.

    **

    Wu-wei, not-doing, is a basic principle of Taoism, the religion or school of philosophy which gave us Lao Tsu, author of the Tao Te Ching, and Chuang Tsu, the master humorist of Chinese philosophy.

    Lao Tsu:

  • Thirty spokes share a single hub; grasp the nothingness at its center to get the use of the wheel.
  • Clay is fashioned to make a vessel; grasp the nothingness at the center to get the use of the vessel.
  • Bore windows and doors to create a room; grasp the nothingness of the interior to get the use of the room.
  • Thus that which is constitutes what is valuable, but that which is not constitutes what is of use
  • Ah, nothing.

    But as that fourth aphorism indicates, wu-wei, nothing doing, is nothing without wei wu-wei, doing-nothing-doing — doing that springs effortlessly from the way of things. What results is true excellence.

    Chuang Tsu:

    Cook Ding was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee – whop! whish! He wielded his knife with a whoosh, and always in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the Dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Jingshou music.

    “Ah, marvelous!” said Lord Wenhui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

    Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Dao, which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now – now I meet it with my spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

    “A good cook changes his knife once a year – because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month – because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room – more than enough leeway for the blade to play about. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.

    “However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until … flop! – the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand with my knife raised and turn to look all around, prancing in place with complete satisfaction. Then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”

    “Excellent!” said Lord Wenhui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ding and learned how to nurture life!

    Aha! Nothing, doing!

    **

    And now back to that original question:

    How Can Trump Help Iran’s Protesters?

    And the resply?

    Be Quiet.

    Be quiet! And listen, listen. Let the CIA in place just listen.

    Hey, Happy New Year!

    Not Checkers, not Chess, no Go, Gen Perkins — it’s Calvinball time

    Friday, July 7th, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — on changing our very notions of game and challenge — or unanticipating the unanticipated ]
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    Reading David Perkins, Big picture, not details, key when eyeing future from last year, and thinking:

    **

    It’s scary to read Gen. Perkins — the head of TRADOC — disagree with him, sometimes quite sharply along the way and particularly when he talks about games — and then wind up agreeing with the second half of this, his closing sentiment:

    So now that we know what game we are playing and assumedly what is required to win it, we can employ these insights to lay out a path toward building the Army our country will need in 2025 and beyond. It is our duty, and our country depends on us to get it right.

    We don’t know what game we are playing, nor — love that word “assumedly” — what is required to win it. And if I’m right about this, how can our potentially mistaken insights help us “lay out a path toward building the Army our country will need in 2025 and beyond” — when “getting it right” is liable to be an emergent property, only recognizable as such in retrospect?

    Let me cut to my main objection, for which Gen. Perkins’ checkers and chess games are analogies. Of the two games, Perkins said:

    Checkers and chess are played on the same style board, but the games are far from similar. For a long time, the Army has designed forces based on a “checkers-based” world outlook. Today, we’re switching to a “chess-based” appreciation of the world.

    I’ll come back to this game metaphor in time, but the paragraph I first halted at, for which the games paragraph I just quoted is a metaphor, is this one:

    Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, we lived in a “complicated” world, but one with a single defining enemy for which we could plan against. In today’s “complex” world, there is no single defined future foe with relatively known capabilities, doctrines and intent. This is not a minor point, as designing and building the future Army rests upon what kind of world we expect to see.

    I’m not at all sure jointness will mean anything at all like “cross-service cooperation in all stages of the military processes, from research, through procurement and into operations’ — whether the services be Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, or also include the National Guard, whether we think in terms of Land, Sea, Air, and Space, or throw in Cyber. What if jointness is better conceived of in terms of heart, mind and soul?

    Our command structure isn’t structured along those lines, so we can’t put the Chief of Staff of the Heart, the Commandant of Minds, and the Chief of Soul Operations under the Chairman and Vice-Chairman and call them the Joint Chiefs — the very absurdity of the phrasing makes the whole idea almost ridiculous.

    And yet heart, mind and soul — or for that matter, the Buddhist body, mind and speech — are the fundamental building blocks of a full and sane human personhood, and their social equivalents the equivalent bases of a full and sane human society.

    Maybe heart, mind and soul are more basic than land, air and sea?

    Did we ever think of that?

    What I’m suggesting here, in fact, is that the challenges we face may differ from previous challenges in this: that they won’t fall into the expected mold, they won’t look to us like challenges at all, we won’t categorize or react to them as such — in short, that they will be oblique to our assumptions and expectations.

    One other point of disagreement, briefly:

    by 2005 we confronted a well-understood problem in Afghanistan and Iraq, and began optimizing much of the Army to meet that current threat

    Oh really? You could have fooled Zarqawi!

    **

    Getting back to games, we have some very nice comparisons and metamorphoses already “in play” in the strategic literature. Perkins’ “Checkers to Chess” is one, “Ghess to Go” is another and more sophisticated example — Scott Boorman‘s The Protracted Game: A Wei-Ch’i Interpretation of Maoist Revolutionary Strategy is the classic here — “Chess to Star Trek’s 3-D chess” is another one worth considering, or “Chess to Mjolnir’s Game” for that matter, “Go to Buckminster Fuller‘s World Game” yet another, while “Go to the Glass Bead Game” is clearly one which would fascinate me personally..

    But I’m convinced, as I’ve said before, that the game we need to understand is the one known as Calvinball:

    Calvinball — Calvin and Hobbes‘ favourite game to play. There is only one main rule in the game — that you can’t play it the same way twice.

    Now that game idea is an audacious one, rivaling and perhaps even surpassing Peter Suber‘s awesome game, Nomic:

    in which the rules of the game include mechanisms for the players to change those rules, usually beginning through a system of democratic voting. Nomic is a game in which changing the rules is a move.

    When I meantion Calvinball, I not infrequently quote the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre:

    Not one game is being played, but several, and, if the game metaphor may be stretched further, the problem about real life is that moving one’s knight to QB3 may always be replied to by a lob over the net.

    Now that’s talking!

    And Roland Barthes:

    This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing-match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time… The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.

    Switching games?

    We’re blurring game-boards in real time, according to CTC Sentinel editor-in-chief Paul Cruikshank:

    **

    Okay, here’s another mind in the Natsec arena, that switches the playing field from “game as cricket or chess” to “game as zero-sum or non-zero sum” — President Rouhani of Iran, writing an op-ed in the Washington Post — Iran, mark you, in WaPo — who says:

    The world has changed. International politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities.

    Rouhani is pretty conservative in Iranian terms, though we sometimes consider him a reformer — but very “other” in his thinking, compared to ours. And if we wish to game him, our Red Team must be able to think as ably and otherly as he does.

    How would TRADOC suggest we adapt to a shift in games of that sort?

    **

    H/t The Strategy Bridge.

    Anything self-defeating is an ouroboros

    Thursday, June 8th, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — Tankel’s take on Trump’s CT ]
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    Mostly the self-devouring snakes I track here are a little more subtle about the circular nature of their logic — the phrasing often hides the fact that man bites self, or dog chases own tail. This example, however, is just so blatant, presented in so large and darkna font, with its accompanying image just so dazzlingly colored, that I just has to bring it here.

    Self-defeating, self-eating — it’s the self- part that signals trouble. Stephen Tankel is a fine researcher — his book Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba is recommended readng on the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

    He is not a happy chap:

    The emerging Trump counterterrorism strategy appears to be a dysfunctional combination of repurposed elements of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama approaches infused with some of Trump’s worst impulses

    You may wish to read him.

    **

    Meanwhile, as an ad to accompany CNN’s Iran’s Revolutionary Guards blame Saudis for Tehran attacks, I got this:

    Okay ouroboroi!


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