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Archive for March, 2013

Reading Now….

Thursday, March 28th, 2013


Explaining Creativity:the Science of Human Innovation by R. Keith Sawyer

Antifragile: Things that Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb 

Taking a break for a bit from .mil topics in order to refresh my perspective on strategy and policy with new learning elsewhere. Reading a lot on creativity of late and a comprehensive post or paper may be the ultimate result.

Taleb’s book has been the focus of some interesting online exchanges elsewhere. Previously I wrote of Antifragile:

One of the  ”must read” books for 2013. I watched Taleb kick around some of the concepts in Antifragile on his Facebook page and then observed friends like co-blogger Scott Shipman and Dr. Terry Barnhart comment as they started reading shortly after the book’s release. There are many things in Antifragile (including, it seems, a fair piece on the epistemic deficiencies of Socrates) and this is a book to read with care – not least because I intuitively agree with a number of Taleb’s arguments which means reading with a critical eye will require more effort. 

I like the “antifragile” concept. It’s useful. So I have my sharpie in hand as I read.

What are you reading these days?

Stewart Brand on “De-extinction”

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

I found this talk fascinating.

Stewart Brand, well known activist, futurist and creator of the Whole Earth Catalog and The Long Now Foundation, speaks here on the realities of “de-extinction” the bringing back of extinct species and (local) ecosystems through genetic engineering and radical hybridization.


Come on….you know you want the Woolly Mammoth back!

On Socrates and his Legacy, Part II: Stone, Socrates and Religion

Tuesday, March 26th, 2013

This is the second in a series of posts regarding Socrates and his modern legacy that began with a discussion of the books and authors involved – The Trial of Socrates by I.F. Stone and Socrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson . We are also getting some direction from a foremost academic authority on Socrates and Plato, the late Gregory Vlastos in the form of  his last book,  Socrates: Ironist and Moral Philosopher

The greatest divergence between Johnson and Stone is on the matter of Socrates and religion. This is is some importance because one of the charges leveled at Socrates by his accusers Anytus and Meletus was not believing in “the gods of city”and introducing new ones.

The sincerity of this specific charge is an interesting question. As both authors indicated, the century of pre-Socratic philosophers in Athens laid the cornerstone of empirical and rational thought about nature that were the forerunners of both materialism as well as science in the form of natural philosophy. This coincided with the rise of Athens to greatness and empire and a possible change in Athenian civic culture, not so much a secularization but an emphasis on humanism over mysticism in political affairs. This point Johnson was at pains to emphasize as the core nature of “the cultural revolution” wrought by “the Periclean regime” , where Protogoras was prominent sophist. Stone regards the transition to one where religion was “demoted…reduced to venerable fables and metaphorical personifications of natural forces and abstract ideas” which renders the religious question at Socrates’ trial a “distraction”.  The primitive awe in which the Greek gods were held during archaic times, gave way to a more ritualistic and cultural reverence in the classical period, or so this line of argument goes.

I am not certain this interpretation is correct to that exaggerated degree. It strikes me far more likely as a representation of the beliefs of  educated elite Athenians at the time than those of the middle classes or the thetes, or of Greeks from other cities. Pagan folk religion probably retained the same influence over public and private life in Athens as Christianity does in America in our own times. That is to say there were likely differences in religiosity between the aristocratic elite and the masses in democratic Athens and between political factions (democratic, moderate and extreme oligarchic).

Some contrasting examples: Nicias, whose political reputation with the Assembly was anchored in trust of his admirable piety, brought final disaster upon the Sicilian Expedition and himself with his obstinate, superstitious, deference to religious signs and soothsayers when the path of escape still remained open. Xenophon, in delicately rebuffing calls to accept rulership over the 10,000 in The Anabasis of Cyrus used pious arguments with the soldiers that he himself probably viewed with some degree of cynicism because they were an effective excuse to pass the leadership to a Spartan. Speaking of the Spartans, they were known in this time as “the craftsmen of war” not because of battle art but because of their zealous adherence to military religious ceremonials and divination of sacrificial animals to discern the will of the gods.

That does not sound much like a people for whom Zeus and Apollo were merely enjoyable campfire fables for children, figures of comic sport in the theater or convenient metaphors for chance or the weather.

Stone argued that Athenian religion had been “demoted” but did so for purposes of rebutting the claim of Socrates that decades of comic poets lampooning him in their plays (like The Clouds, by Aristophanes) had prejudiced the jury against him. Stone was also writing  The Trial of Socrates after the time when standards of  “traditional morality” had been challenged culturally and theologically during the sixties and seventies and were rejected by a significant part of the Baby Boom generation:

….As for not believing in gods, the Athenians were accustomed to hearing the gods treated disrespectfully in both the comic and the tragic theater. For two centuries before Socrates, the philosophers had been laying the foundations of natural science and metaphysical inquiry. Their gigantic pioneering in free thought still awes us as we pore over the fragments of these so-called pre-Socratics. Almost all the basic concepts of science and philosophy may be found there in embryo. They first spoke of evolution and conceived the atom. In the process the gods were not so much dethroned as demoted and bypassed. They were reduced to venerable fables or metaphorical personifications of natural forces and abstract ideas.

These philosophers were rationalists and rarely bothered with what we call “theology”. The very term was unknown to them. Indeed it does not appear in Greek until the century after Socrates. The word theologia – talk about gods – turns up for the first time in the Republic when Plato is explaining what the poets in utopia will not be allowed to say about the divine powers. In his ideal society a Socrates would have indeed been punishable for deviating from the state-sanctioned theologia, but not in Athens.

….Polytheism was, by it’s pluralistic nature, roomy and tolerant, open to new gods and new views of old ones. It’s mythology personified by natural forces and could be adapted easily, by allegory, to metaphysical concepts. These were the old gods in a new guise, and commanded a similar but fresh reverence.

Atheism was little known and difficult for a pagan to grasp because he saw divinity all about him, not just on Olympus but in the hearth and boundary stone, which were also divinities though of a humbler sort…..

….It was the political, not the philosophical or theological views which finally got Socrates into trouble. The discussion of religious views diverts attention from the real issues. 

Stone develops this theme further in his explanation of how Socrates might have won acquittal, had the old philosopher not been determined to antagonize his jury:

The indictment’s two counts are equally vague. No specific acts against the city are alleged. The complaints are against the teaching and beliefs of Socrates. Neither in the indictment – nor at the trial – was there any mention of any overt act of sacrilege or disrespect to the city’s gods or any overt attempt or conspiracy against it’s democratic institutions. Socrates was prosecuted for what he said, not for anything he did.

In other words, the charges against Socrates were of a very different character than the ones which had been made during the Expedition to Syracuse against the close associate and student of  Socrates, the ambitious demagogue Alcibiades. The latter had been charged with sacrilege, specifically defaming and vandalizing the Eleusinian Mysteries, forcing his recall as joint strategos over the expedition and summoning him back to Athens for trial. This ill-fated and poorly timed indictment may or may not have been false, but it had certainly been politically motivated and was the catalyst for the subsequent treason of Alcibiades and the military disaster in Sicily, both so damaging to Athens. That charge, unlike the one against Socrates however, was based upon real acts that had taken place, whether Alcibiades had been the culprit or not.

….on the impiety charge, Socrates is as vague as the indictment. He never discusses the accusation that he did not respect or believe in – the Greek verb used, nomizein, has both meanings – the gods of the city. Instead, he traps the the rather dim-witted Meletus into accusing him of Atheism, a charge he easily refutes. But there was no law against atheism in ancient Athens either before or after the trial. Indeed, the only place we find such a law proposed is in Plato’s Laws. In this respect, Plato was the exception to the tolerance that paganism showed to diverse cults and philosophic speculation about the gods.

….it was monotheism that brought religious intolerance into the world. When the Jews and Christians denied divinity to any god but their own, they were attacked as atheos or “godless”. This explains how – to borrow Novalis’s characterization of Spinoza – a “God-intoxicated” Jew and Christian like St. Paul could be called an “atheist” by pious and indignant pagans.” 

We will see later that Johnson takes a normatively very different, but logically complementary view to Stone on “Socratic monotheism”, who concludes:

By trapping Meletus into calling him an atheist, Socrates evaded the actual charge in the indictment. It did not accuse him of disbelief in Zeus and the Olympian divinities, or in gods generally. It charged disbelief in ‘the gods of the city”.

This was in the ancient Greek sense, a political crime, a crime against the gods of the Athenian polis. This is a crucial point often overlooked.

In Athens, Democracy was itself deified and personified, at least to the extent of having it’s own ritual priest in the annual theater of Dionysus – and what was old Socrates in the view of Stone but the teacher of antidemocratic and antipolitical doctrines in a city where the Democracy had been overthrown by the Thirty?

End Part II.

Close reading, Synoptic- and Sembl-style, for parallels, patterns

Monday, March 25th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — if we omit all mention of the Qur’an, will the jihad perhaps disappear, you think? ]

On Friday, Oct. 29, 2004, just before the 2004 US Presidential Election, a videotaped speech by Osama bin Laden was released online and variously reported:


Being a theologian at heart, I’ve formatted these versions in the style used in comparisons of the Synoptic Gospels, to give you an immediate sense of the differences I’ll be discussing…


Just how important was this particular speech by bin Laden?

It was important to bin Laden himself, as it was his first statement after his invitation to the US to convert to Islam. As I have noted before — quoting Michael Scheuer‘s Al-Qaeda’s Completed Warning Cycle – Ready to attack? — bin Laden had been criticized for failing to issue such an invitation:

After 9/11, bin Laden received sharp criticisms from Islamist scholars that dealt with the al-Qaeda chief’s failure to satisfy several religious requirements pertinent to waging war. The critique focused on three items: (1) insufficient warning; (2) failure to offer Americans a chance to convert to Islam; and (3) inadequate religious authorization to kill so many people. Bin Laden accepted these criticisms and in mid-2002 began a series of speeches and actions to remedy the shortcomings and satisfy his Islamist critics before again attacking in the United States.

MEMRI picks up the story here:

The Islamist website Al-Islah explains: “Some people ask ‘what’s new in this tape?’ [The answer is that] this tape is the second of its kind, after the previous tape of the Sheikh [Osama bin Laden], in which he offered a truce to the Europeans a few months ago, and it is a completion of this move, and it brings together the complementary elements of politics and religion, political savvy and force, the sword and justice. The Sheikh reminds the West in this tape of the great Islamic civilization and pure Islamic religion, and of Islamic justice…”

This video is also a significant “first” for bin Laden. In Raymond Ibrahim‘s words in his The Al Qaeda Reader:

This message also marks the first time bin Laden publicly acknowledged his role in the 9/11 strikes; previously he had insisted that he was merely an “inciter” and that it was the Muslim umma in general who had retaliated in defense of their faith.

It was important to the US because of the election four days later. The following exchange occurred on NBCNews’ Meet the Press, Jan 30th, 2005:

MR. RUSSERT: At the Clinton Library dedication on November 18, a few weeks after the election, you were quoted as saying, “It was the Osama bin Laden tape. It scared the voters,” the tape that appeared just a day before the election here. Do you believe that tape is the reason you lost the race?

SEN. KERRY: I believe that 9/11 was the central deciding issue in this race. And the tape–we were rising in the polls up until the last day when the tape appeared. We flat-lined the day the tape appeared and went down on Monday. I think it had an impact

The speech was important, in sum, both to bin Laden himself and to the US electorate: it deserves a close reading.


Sadly, however…

Posted, translated transcripts of Al Qaida and other jihadist materials often leave out the salutation and envoi (or other choice bits such as quotes from the Qur’an or Hadith) because they’re too religious or perhaps too Muslim — but when these same pieces of the puzzle are added back into the text, the whole document may cohere to a degree that is otherwise unapparent.

We tend not to “get” religious language. What do Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon tell us in their book The Age of Sacred Terror?

So much of what was heard from al-Qaeda after the attacks sounded to Americans like gibberish that many chords of the apocalypse were missed.

Our prejudice against alien religious sentiment, or the assumption that it is ritualistic and hence irrelevant, or even worse, “babble” — the term FBI agents used to describe David Koresh‘s religious interpretation of events during the Waco siege — can blindside us to its very real discursive and exegetical power.

That’s the reason I’m offering you this post — years later — as a counter-example of the power of “Sembl thinking” — essentially, the power of pattern recognition as a key to understanding.


I read three versions of bin Laden’s videotaped speech of Oct. 29, 2004 at the time: those provided by CNN, MEMRI, and Al Jazeera — one “western secular” source, one with some degree of Israeli association, and one with roots in the Arabic cultures.

CNN cited al-Jazeera as having aired the video, and posted “a transcript of his remarks as translated by CNN senior editor for Arab affairs Octavia Nasr” which, as you can see above or at the link, began, “You, the American people, I talk to you today… “ MEMRI offered The Full Version of Osama bin Laden’s Speech followed by a transcript which began, “O American people, I address these words to you…” And Al Jazeera posted “the full English transcript of Usama bin Ladin’s speech in a videotape sent to Aljazeera” and noted, “In the interests of authenticity, the content of the transcript, which appeared as subtitles at the foot of the screen, has been left unedited” – above a transcript that began:

Praise be to Allah who created the creation for his worship and commanded them to be just and permitted the wronged one to retaliate against the oppressor in kind. To proceed: Peace be upon he who follows the guidance: People of America this talk of mine is for you…

That in itself is interesting — Al-Jazeera has two sentences with religious significance, one of them saying that God “permitted the wronged one to retaliate against the oppressor in kind” — with no mention of them in the MEMRI and CNN accounts.


As I read the Al Jazeera version, which seemed to me to be the one most likely to be accurate to bin Laden’s meaning, I came across the phrase:

We want to restore freedom to our Nation and just as you lay waste to our Nation, so shall we lay waste to yours.

There were several other parts of the speech which seemed to make (rhetorical) use of symmetry. There were the comments about “punishing the oppressor in kind” by destroying towers in the US, since towers in the Lebanon had been destroyed (which seems a pretty literal-minded reading of “in like manner”):

And as I looked at those demolished towers in Lebanon, it entered my mind that we should punish the oppressor in kind and that we should destroy towers in America in order that they taste some of what we tasted and so that they be deterred from killing our women and children.

There was a passage pointing up analogies between the Bush dynastic presidencies and similar dynastic rulerships in “our countries”:

… we have found it difficult to deal with the Bush administration in light of the resemblance it bears to the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half which are ruled by the sons of kings and presidents. Our experience with them in lengthy and both types are replete with those who are characterized by pride, arrogance, greed and a misappropriation of wealth.

And there was the comment translated in the CNN version:

Your security is not in the hands of [Democratic presidential nominee John] Kerry or Bush or al Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands. Any nation that does not attack us will not be attacked.

Each of these excerpts is couched in an analogical, symmetrical format, but it was the first one that really rang a bell for me — that phrase “just as you lay waste to our Nation, so shall we lay waste to yours” reminded me very strongly of one verse from the Qur’an, which contains the phrase, “And one who attacketh you, attack him in like manner as he attacked you” — the whole verse, Qur’an 2.194, has also been translated thus:

For the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.


Okay, I’d read three versions of bin Laden’s text, and made a mental leap to a Quranic verse — and then I finally ran across ABC’s transcript, which opens with the very verse from the Quran my mind had leaped to.

Here’s where you can find the entire text, which ABC describes as “an unedited government translation of the Osama bin Laden videotape” – presumably from the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (then the FBIS, now the Open Source Center). It is certainly the most complete version I’ve seen:

Full Transcript of Bin Laden Video: ABC News Obtains Complete Text of Bin Laden’s Oct. 29 Video.

I don’t know for sure whether bin Laden used that verse himself (although I’d bet on it), or whether it was “framing matter” added by in the studio by Al-Jazeera (I very much doubt it) — either way, it confirmed my association, and reading the whole speech as a sermonette on that scriptural text gives it, in my view, notable added coherence.


Here’s what I wrote after I read the ABC transcript:

I’m particularly interested to note that bin Laden “opens” with the Qur’anic verse which says “for the prohibited month, and so for all things prohibited, there is the law of equality. If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him. But fear Allah, and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves” [Baqara 194].

That’s the central statement of the Islamic view of symmetrical morality in warfare, and prior to reading your full text, I thought I’d detected echoes of it in the OBL text in question — my own analytic process leans heavily on analogy and symmetry — and specifically in the passages I’ve quoted above…

The analogical, symmetrical format is present in each of these excerpts, and indicates how deeply the Qur’anic process runs in bin Laden, even here in a speech which attempts to present that very Qur’anic insight in secular terms to a western audience — explaining the first of the four excerpts above, for instance, with these following words:

No one except a dumb thief plays with the security of others and then makes himself believe he will be secure whereas thinking people when disaster strikes make it their priority to look for its causes in order to prevent it happening again.

and saying again, towards the end of the speech:

you may recall that for every action, there is a reaction.

We do indeed recall that phrase: in its complete form, as given in Isaac Newton‘s memorable Third Law of Motion:

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.


For what it’s worth, the Qur’anic verse in question is not present in either Ibrahim’s Al Qaeda Reader, nor in Bruce Lawrence, Messages to the World: the Statements of Osama bin Laden. Ibrahim opens his version with the words, “Praise be to Allah, who created the worlds for his worship…” and Lawrence with, “Peace be upon those who are rightly guided. People of America…”

But no mention of Qur’an 2.194. It has just vanished. Gone. It has been ignored.

Isn’t that pretty much the definition of ignorance?

Words fail me.

Suicide bombing & Hemingway: a “found” DoubleQuote

Sunday, March 24th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — finding a gem of a DoubleQuote on ChicagoBoyz ]

As regular readers here will see, I have varied my usual DoubleQuotes format here to make room for the two particular quotes in question.

Taken together — as I found them in a post by Jay Manifold titled Quoted Without Comment today at ChicagoBoyz — they form a powerful, moving DoubleQuote, and I thought it was worth dropping them into the DQ format, thus essentially reposting Jay’s fine post here at Zenpundit.


This business of “finding” DoubleQuotes in the writings of others confirms me in my suspicion that the form itself is a naturally occurring one, which can be sharpened into a powerful analytic tool once we recognize its utility and formalize it.

Jay provides a link to the Resilience Engineering book and references Chapter 13, Taking Things in One’s Stride: Cognitive Features of Two Resilient Performances.

My appreciative thanks to Jay Manifold and the ChicagoBoyz.

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