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I’m trying to figure it out

Saturday, August 26th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — oh, i mean, the whole ball of wax, kit & kaboodle ]
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I’m trying to figure it out by catching glimpses in other people’s work, finding somethat are part of their pretty obvious ideas that are assumptions for tuthem and indicative of the state of affairs for me. I suppose I’m always on the lookout for such things, but today I’m going to shoot for the big picture.

Item #1 comes from David Ronfeldt, friend of this blog, who posted at TIMN:

It is no longer possible to think of corruption as just the iniquitous doings of individuals, be they street-level bribe payers, government officials, or business executives. In the five dozen or so countries of which Honduras is emblematic, corruption is the operating system of sophisticated networks that link together public and private sectors and out-and-out criminals — including killers — and whose main objective is maximizing returns for network members.

Boom! The main objective is to maximize returns, returns. Nobody says what retiurns are, everybody knows: returns are cash, money, moolah is what everyone is after, “follow the money” is equalled in popularity only by “cherchez la femme” — although “follow the dead Russians” has a temporary place in the sun if you follow John Schindler. Money, sex, that’s about it.

Sex. I’ll need an item for sex, eh?

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Item #2 is prestige. I ound it at Tom Whipple‘s post, Starman, whichb describes a Norwegian jazz player’s rooftop searches for items of stardust.

So began the journey that would end with an autodidact gypsy-jazz musician publishing a scientific paper in a prestigious American geology journal,

The item here is prestige, yes, in the words “prestigious journal” — and the thing here is that anm autodidact made it into some prestigious pages, a jazz musician, imagine that!

Oh, and BTW, we are stardust:

I suppose you could call Joni Mitchell a jazz musician too, but she’s not — as far as I know — Norwegian,

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Money, prestige, stardust.

Those are my findings so far, that’s what it’s all about. And I’m guessing, sex too, once I find an appopriate reference — oh, totally inappropriate, I’m afraid, not suited to office viewing. .

Sorry about that, I should have used a title-srolling clip from Sex and the City. I mean, good-looking means do it, plain and simple. Those guys who make films know what they’re doing.

I know, I know, I wemt from fishing phrases out of articles into fishing songs out of YouTube — but I’m still after “it” — and now we have money, prestige, stardust, sex..

I am beginning to see a glimmer of the human condition, la condition humaine. I mean, wars — civil and uncivil, compromise, film makers knowing who to film in filmy nightgowns, tight short skirts, and so on, and frankly, Trump, who epitomizes Sex and the City, has moola and no tax returns, and is made of greater stardust than the rest of us, I mean, he Trumps!

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What else? I ask you, what else are we?

Frankly, there’s transcendence. We are golden. We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden. This one’s from my memory trove — it’s from Thomas Traherne‘s little book, Centuries of Meditations:

You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world.

Sunday surprise the first — neat tweets from KarlreMarks

Sunday, July 3rd, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — Brexit, graphical thinking, serpents — there’s never a dull moment with Karl Sharro on Twitter! ]
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Karl Sharro is reMarkable and indeed reTweetable:

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An hour or so before I saw that tweet from Sharro, I’d tweeted a quote from Suzanne Langer:

I was quoting Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key — hat-tip: Steven H. Cullinane:

Visual forms— lines, colors, proportions, etc.— are just as capable of articulation, i.e. of complex combination, as words. But the laws that govern this sort of articulation are altogether different from the laws of syntax that govern language. The most radical difference is that visual forms are not discursive. They do not present their constituents successively, but simultaneously, so the relations determining a visual structure are grasped in one act of vision.”

I think that’s generally right, and goes some way to explaining why “reading” a HipBone Game is cognitively different, even when the game is played entirely in verbal moves, from an equivalent reading of the same “move” tests in sequence.

I noted Sharro’s visual example — worth clicking all the way through to see it full scale — because although it’s a visual representation of a cluster of texts, it follows a timeline from left to right, and is thus simultaneously sequential and synchronic. A neat trick.

BTW, Sharro is celebrated for an earlier diagram I’ve posted here — with glee, and with his amazing purely textual equivalent!

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OK so now my focal length is just right for KarlreMarks Twitter feed, and I find this beauty — also about Brexit — too:

What’s so neat here? Well, it appears to be a paradox of self-reference — ourobouros, a serpent biting its own tail if you like — and it’s very nicely done. The “large numbers of people” gathered in London, of course, aren’t the “large numbers of people” they say shouldn’t be heard, and if Sharro had tweeted —

Large numbers of people gather in London to demand that large numbers of other people shouldn’t be heard”

— the paradox would have been gone, the serpent biting its own tail morphed into a serpent biting another serpent — a far less interesting spectacle.

Or would it? At the level of particular crowds, yes, the paradox would vanish, one crowd biting another, but at the level of implied principle, a crowd voicing the denial of the principle that the voices of crowds deserve a hearing would still be self-refuting in just the way Sharro plays on.

So the paradox would be like Schrodinger’s cat, dead while alive — or even better, the Cheshire Cat, niow here now gone, perhaps?

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Life, she is rich in paradox.

On the narrative arc

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a recent Wapo example of how history gets bent (ever so slightly) out of shape to serve narrative ]
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Riley Rainbow in Curved Air
One of the universal arcs, and a personal favorite

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Story-telling shapes awareness.

Yesterday’s Washington Post has an article titled Patriots at the gate: The Americans preparing for battle against their own government. It’s an interesting overview, but I’m not interested in discussing the merits or demerits of the Patriot Movement, Southern Poverty Law Center, Oath Keepers, Waco, Ruby Ridge, Oklahoma City, the Bundy Ranch, or Malheur — what interests me is the way the story is told.

Here’s the section dealing with one participant:

Across the family-style table, Alex ­McNeely, 25, a drywaller and “avid YouTuber,” said he became interested in the patriot movement online and joined the group to feel that he was helping to defend the country.

“There’s this D.C. mentality that if you stand up for your rights, you’re dangerous and anti-government,” said McNeely, who has an AK-47 assault rifle tattooed on his forearm. “But if I’m denied my rights, what else can I do? Am I just going to stand there and take it, or am I going to do something?”

In the Constitutional Guard, McNeely said: “I feel what we do is stand up for people who don’t have the means to stand up for themselves. I have an overwhelming desire to help people.”

They have passed out more than 2,000 pocket-size copies of the Constitution that Soper said he bought for $500, sent food and clothes to victims of forest fires in Washington state and Oregon and given Christmas presents to more than three dozen children in need.

McNeely considered joining the military when he graduated from high school, but he turned 18 the month Obama was elected in 2008, and, because of Obama’s “socialist” policies, “I wasn’t going to accept him as my commander in chief.”

“I don’t like that he wants to fundamentally change America,” McNeely said.

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The writer is Kevin Sullivan, a WaPo Senior correspondent, and I think we can safely assume he knows his trade. My interest focus on the sentence:

“There’s this D.C. mentality that if you stand up for your rights, you’re dangerous and anti-government,” said McNeely, who has an AK-47 assault rifle tattooed on his forearm.

Sullivan has already given his opening identification of McNeely —

Across the family-style table, Alex ­McNeely, 25, a drywaller and “avid YouTuber,” said he became interested in the patriot movement online and joined the group to feel that he was helping to defend the country

— that’s fair enough, and the bit about the “AK-47 assault rifle tattooed on his forearm” could have gone in there, or been added to the graph:

McNeely considered joining the military when he graduated from high school, but he turned 18 the month Obama was elected in 2008, and, because of Obama’s “socialist” policies, “I wasn’t going to accept him as my commander in chief.”

where the topic is his consideration of “the military” — but no, Sullivan posts it neither where he’s introducing McNeely nor where he’s talking about his thoughts about the military, but in the graph discussing the Patriot Mov ement ideals as McNeely describes them — see, once again:

“There’s this D.C. mentality that if you stand up for your rights, you’re dangerous and anti-government,” said McNeely, who has an AK-47 assault rifle tattooed on his forearm.

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Sullivan wants the irony. He’s making a juxtaposition-with-purpose — long-time readers here will know that juxtaposition as a rhetorical device is a keen interest of mine — he’s linking the movement’s ideals with the AK-47 tattoo to add an inflection of irony.

It’s a tiny point — no more than an inflection — but it’s one that I note in the same way I noted the non-appearance of bin Laden‘s Qur’anic epigraph in media versions of a significant speech, in my post Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style, for parallels, patterns. I don’t happen to share McNeely’s worldview, nor that of bin Laden, but I am deeply interested in the ways the media portray matters of substance and nuance. I am interested in “narrative”.

We’ve all heard MLK’s quote, “somehow the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” The arc of narrative has another aim: it bends towards “good reading” — and if the curve bends fast enough it will spiral ever more lightly and less helpfully in, and we wind up with “click bait”. I know this, because I practice my own version of the dark (and sometimes, brilliantly illuminating) art of writing.

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There’s a lot more to say about narrative, and the various meanings it now has.

One of my own interests is the way in which we think a narrative can be spun out of words and images (aka “propaganda”), when facts, grounded realities, history may, as they say, tell a different tale — and facts may speak louder than words. In that sense, if we need a new narrative, we may need a new behavior, a new policy, a new strategy implemented, to speak it.

What interests me here though, getting back to the WaPo piece and McNeely, is how telling a story in a way that makes it a “good read” influences a narrative arc that is, significantly, also the arc of “the first draft of history”.

The reversal of Maugham’s Samarra

Tuesday, May 10th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — how British and American literature, a Talmudic tale and a Sufi teaching story conspire — twice — to illuminate current events in Iraq and Syria ]
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Let’s start with Somerset Maugham‘s telling of the Appointment in Samarra, which John O’Hara borrowed as the epigraph of his novel by that name:

The speaker is Death

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

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Here’s the version of the same story found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah 53a:

R. Yohanan stated: A man’s feet are his guarantors? they lead him to the place where he is wanted. There were once two Cushites who attended on Solomon, and these were Elihoreph and Ahyah, the sons of Shisha, scribes, of Solomon (I Kings 4:3). One day Solomon observed that the Angel of Death was distressed. He asked him: Why are you distressed? He responded: They have demanded from me the two Cushites who sit here. [Solomon] gave them over to the demons and sent them to the district of Luz. When they reached the district of Luz they died. On the following day he observed that the Angel of Death was smiling He said to him: Why are you smiling? He responded: To the place where they expected them from me, there did you send them!’ Solomon immediately began to say: A man’s feet are his guarantors? they lead him to the place where he is wanted.

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In February 2014 in the US Jewish magazine Forward, writer JJ Goldberg made fine use of this tale, applying it to a then-contemporary news event in his piece, Lesson of the Talmud in an Iraq School Suicide Bombing:

School massacres have become so commonplace that they scarcely shock us anymore. And yet, occasionally mayhem invades the sanctity of the classroom in a way that can still puncture our complacency. At these moments we’re reminded how fragile is this thing we call civilization. Such was the case February 10 in a rural schoolroom outside Samarra in north-central Iraq, where a terrorism instructor teaching a class in suicide bombing accidentally detonated a live explosive belt. Twenty-one students died along with their teacher. It happened in a training camp run by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Sunni terrorist group that was recently expelled from Al Qaeda for, of all things, its excessively brutal extremism in the Syrian civil war. [ .. ]

The location of the suicide school in Samarra has layers of poetic resonance, probably unintended by ISIS. Though predominantly Sunni, the city is revered by Shi’ites as the place where the last caliphs are buried and the Mahdi disappeared. Its name resonates in medieval Islamic lore with mysteries of suicide and predestined death, echoed in modern Anglo-American literature and linked to Talmudic legend.

After discussing the Talmudic and Maugham versions, Goldberg concludes:

Thus, the lesson of Samarra. In Arabic lore, we’re drawn helpless to our predestined deaths. In the Talmud, it’s kings who dispatch us with the best intentions to what they assume will be a cakewalk, but it’s we — or, per the Talmud, the king’s black soldiers — who do the dying.

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The Afghan Sufi writer Idries Shah tells the story in his brilliant little book Tales of the Dervishes, under the title When Death Came to Baghdad:

The disciple of a Sufi of Baghdad was sitting in the corner of an inn one day when he heard two figures talking. From what they said he realized that one of them was the Angel of Death.

“I have several calls to make in this city during the next three weeks,” the Angel was saying to his companion.

Terrified, the disciple concealed himself until the two had left. Then applying his intelligence to the problem of how to cheat a possible call from death, he decided that if he kept away from Baghdad he should not be touched. From this reasoning it was but a short step to hiring the fastest horse available and spurring it night and day towards the distant town of Samarkand.

Meanwhile Death met the Sufi teacher and they talked about various people. “And where is your disciple so-and-so?” asked Death.

“He should be somewhere in this city, spending his time in contemplation, perhaps in a caravanserai,” said the teacher.

“Surprising,” said the Angel; “because he is on my list. Yes, here it is: I have to collect him in four weeks’ time at Samarkand, of all places.”

Shah attributes his telling thus:

This treatment of the Story of Death is taken from Hikayat-iNaqshia (Tales formed according to a design’).

The author of this story, which is a very favourite folklore story in the Middle East, was the great Sufi Fudail ibn Ayad, a former highwayman, who died in the early part of the ninth century.

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All of which brings me to this Kurdish news story published yesterday, ISIS captive begs Peshmerga to kill him for 4 o’clock appointment

DUHOK, Kurdistan Region — An Islamic State (ISIS) militant caught in fighting near Mosul last week begged his Peshmerga captors to shoot him dead on the spot so he could reach paradise the same day, a frontline Kurdish soldier said.

“The militant’s own suicide vest had failed to explode but he had sustained injuries from his friends’ vest explosions,” Peshmerga Captain Salim Surchi of the Spilk base told Rudaw. “He kept saying, ‘kill me, you infidels kill me.’” Cpt. Surchi said the militant was captured by the Peshmerga during last week’s fighting in the Christian town of Tel Skof, 28km north of Mosul. The militant was eager to be killed on the spot because it was a holy Islamic day known as Isra an Mi’raj, the day that marks Prophet Muhammad’s ascension to heaven as mentioned in the Koran. [ .. ]

Cpt. Surchi lost three of his close friends that day and had others wounded, he said, but he still rushed to help a wounded ISIS militant to save his life. “I was filming the dead ISIS with my cell phone when I saw one of them moving his leg and I placed my hands on his chest trying to help him breathe,” the Peshmerga commander said of the moment following the fighting. “He breathed heavily a few times, he was conscious and he could even speak,” he added. Cpt. Surchi said that despite the militant’s pleas to be shot dead, he went ahead and treated his leg wound.

“When I was treating him I asked, ‘where’re you from?’ and he said, ‘I’m from Samarra and came here for jihad.’ The militant then said, ‘We were 50 suicide bombers altogether and we wanted to be in paradise by 4 o’clock in the afternoon,” Cpt. Surchi recounted. [ .. ]

“The wounded one kept asking us to kill him till the end of the day.”

Which in turn brings us full circle. In Maugham’s telling, our traveller makes his way to Samarra to avoid death, who finds him there. In yesterday’s version, the jihadist leaves Samarra to meet his death, who refuses, on the night of all nights, to oblige him.

The pearl and diamond of fightless fighting

Saturday, March 26th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — Sun Tzu meets Willie Pep ]
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SPEC pearl diamong sun tzu pep

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Sun Tzu‘s fightless victory is like the Platonic pearl, ideal, perfectly spherical. Pep‘s blowless round is like a cut diamond, multifaceted — some claim the tale is true, some that he fabricated the tale years later, some that it was a boast he made before the fight — one version suggests Pep told St. Paul sports writer Don Riley, who was covering the fight for Minnesota radio station WMIN:

Pick a round, I’ll throw punches, but I’ll never hit him. Check the scorecards after, and see if the judges fall for it.

Who knows? A good tale frays into a thousand fugal strands in the Ocean of Story.

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The curiosity:

The more facets a diamond built to approximate a sphere has, the closer it comes to the Platonic sphere.. Quite what the analogy with narrative variants would be, currently escapes me.


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