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Of serpent-bites in logic

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — continuing my series on the “serpent bites tail” reflexive form (1, 2, 3, 4) in which analytic gems and other insights may often be easily discovered or succinctly expressed — read this post fast for fun, or reflectively (!!) for the ripples ]

I’m going to lead off with this tweet, which seems very timely considering the news this last week or so about Syria…

I thought this was another quite beautiful example of “serpent bites its own tail” phrasing — timely too — uttered by JM Berger in summarizing his Loopcast with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross on the current status of Al-Qaeda, highly recommended, BTW:

And if you want to know about Hezbollah and its global reach, this one refers to the book you need…


Okay, having given pride of place to those three, I’d like to catch those of you who are interested up on an entire series of self-referencing tweets I’ve run across since I last posted. I’m really collecting these things because I’d like, one of these days, to do a thorough analysis of what they teach us about our modes of thought, and how we can apply that to pattern-recognition in our own readings, and creative insight in our writings and analytic output… In the meantime, don’t feel obliged to read every last one, just dip in as you feel inclined — think of this as a reference section, okay? Take what you need and leave the rest.

Here’s one that uses the Escher‘s hand draws hand format:

And here’s a pair that needs to stay together:

Continuing… I might as well give you a cluster from Teju Cole, since he’s a master…

Okay, here’s another one with timely reference, this time to the whole NSA business:

Really, this is just such a rich vein of humor and insight:

Let’s go to another wordsmith — they’re often good at this stuff:

Two from philosopher Allen Stairs:

One from quasi-Einstein, via the very bright (non-quasi) Seb Paquet:


I’ll close with an example from the “all is nothing” category, this one from Peter J Munson:

Of nested and coiled serpents in logic

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — another exploration into forms of insight — in this case the Matrioshka effect, spiral staircases and the like, with a glance at holy winds and human fingertips ]

A mention of blogs about blogs about blogs seems to me to qualify for the “nested serpent” category of forms that are worth watching out for, the nest (or spiral, from which I am guessing the nest is not entirely separable) being of particular interest because while seemingly simple enough, it all too often reaches at one end or both into the infinities, where paradox meets epiphany… as my second example will show.

But first, by sheer good fortune, I came across this verse from the book of Ecclesiastes as I was polishing this post for publication:

The winde goeth toward the South, and turneth about vnto the North; it whirleth about continually, and the winde returneth againe according to his circuits.


That’s the pattern we’re looking for, and I ran across it recently in a comment my friend Allen Stairs made, and the response he received:

Okay, I didn’t follow — so I asked Allen for an explanation, and he wrote me:

Actually. “equipollent” was a bad choice of terms. “Equinumerous” wold have been better.

But the thing about numbers and those dolls: natural numbers have their identity intrinsically, so to speak. In set theory, one way to represent them is as the series

1 = {Ø}, 2 = {Ø,{Ø}}, 3 = {Ø,{Ø,{Ø}}}, etc.

In fact, we can even use the simpler construction

1 = {Ø}, 2 = {{Ø}}, 3 = {{{Ø}}}, etc.

So if we’re given the set, its structure tells us which number it is. I

Now a finite set of Russian dolls does much the same thing. We could count the innermost one as 1, the next as 2, the next as 3, and so on, and if you were given the doll, you’d be able to tell which number it represented. Or if we wanted, we could let the outermost doll represent 1, and work our way in. But if we take the set of all natural numbers, things get a little wonkier. The thing about a set of dolls is that there’s an outer one; the charm is in the fact that there’s a place to start opening them. So suppose we have an infinitely nested set of dolls. What number does the outermost one correspond to? It can’t be a natural number, because for any natural number, the nesting would have to be finite. It can’t be the infinite number Aleph-null because among other things, if the nesting is infinite downward then each doll has the same structure as the one that encloses it, and so it seems that there’s no way for the individual dolls to represent distinct integers.

Now if we’re given the whole set of dolls, there’s a sort of substitute: match dolls to numbers depending on how many “predecessors” they have. The outermost doll has no predecessors, so let it be 1; the next one in has 1 predecessor, so let it be 2. And so on. But we still have a problem: there’s nothing about the doll itself that tells us which integer it represents.

So my little point was that Harold’s joke was about “how many?” but the thing about the dolls is that they might seem at first to have the right structure to represent the natural numbers, and yet they don’t — at least, not the whole set of natural numbers.


Did Ecclesiastes mention the winds? Here’s a discussion of wind spirals from David Avram‘s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World:

Although invisible, the Holy Wind can be recognized by the swirling and spiraling traces that it continually leaves in the visible world. The Winds that enter a human being leave their trace, according to the Navajo, in the vortices or swirling patterns to be seen on our fingertips and the tips of our toes, and in the spiraling pattern made by the hairs as they emerge from our heads. As one elder explains:

There are whorls here at the tips of our fingers. Winds stick out here. It is the same way on the toes of our feet, and Winds exist on us here where soft spots are, where there are spirals. At the tops of our heads some children have two spirals, some have only one, you see. I am saying that those (who have two) live by means of two Winds. These (Winds sticking out of the) whorls at the tips of our toes hold us to the Earth. Those at our fingertips hold us to the Sky. Because of these, we do not fall when we move about.

That last italicized quote is from James Kale McNeley, Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy — a remarkable book for anyone interested in the holiness of spirit…

Choices: Burning Man or Bali?

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — we have as many possible futures as there are eyes in the tails of numberless peacocks — for your consideration, here are two of them ]


  • Burning Man, live webcast, h/t Scott Hess
  • Bali, Pura Tanah Lot
  • **

    I’ll go for Bali, with wifi and a laptop to watch the live feed from Burning Man. You?


    Saturday, August 31st, 2013

    [by Lynn C. Rees]

    If, right this second, you could push that tempting Easy Button over there and launch our top secret stash of ophthalmologist-seeking cruise missiles to kill every man, woman, child, and goat related by blood, association, or unlucky proximity to Boy Asad, it would have zero political impact on the war over Syria.

    Beheading strikes have marginal persuasive value unless you can reliably find and kill uncooperatives who fail to become cooperatives. American military history from Arnold to Tecumseh to Santa Anna to Jeff Davis to Cochise to Geronimo to Aguinaldo to Villa to Sandino to Castro to Noriega to Saddam to Kaddafy to Bin Laden shows our ability to behead reliably is wildly unreliable. Even if we could reliably kill enemy leaders on demand, there’s no guarantee that killing will have favorable political effects. As Clemenceau may have observed and multitudes of al-Kyyda Number Threes can attest, “The graveyards are full of indispensable men” (many of them headless). This war already has one ready example of a beheading strike. Enduring political impact: zero.

    There are suggestions that we conspicuously target Boy Azzad-themed buildings with “symbolic importance” as a way to shock and awe someone, anyone, into surrender. If a true demonstration of ability to hit ’em where you (supposedly) ain’t, the political impact can be profound. However conspicuous, blowing up Boy Azod’s presidential palace, his Old Man’s or Big Brother’s graves, or even his presidential goat’s presidential stable, when no one doubts you could blow up any empty building or tent or camel in the world at any time, will have zero political effect unless you conspicuously miss it. These days, accidental hits get more airplay (e.g. blowing up embassies (no, they haven’t forgotten)). Accidental hit or near miss, photogenic Madam Asod will stand next to it, in front of the cameras for YouTube, and mock you. Those are the risks you run when conspicuously targeting motionless monuments of massive masonry. And the mockery is deserved, especially if you’ve just spent the last twenty years boasting about how antiseptic and networky your precision guided munitions are.

    Robert D. Kaplan wrote of Old Man Azodd’s takeover of Syria:

    An Alawi ruling Syria is like an untouchable becoming maharajah in India or a Jew becoming tsar in Russia—an unprecedented development shocking to the majority population which had monopolized power for so many centuries.

    If Boy Asadd and minions fell victim to those ophthalmologist seeking missiles twenty minutes from now, the Alahhwyytes would quickly stand up some other mustache in his place. As long as any Alawy keeps any kind of grip on their high end warfighting brass ring, they will brutally fight to defend it down to the last Syrian. The alternative, as already demonstrated, is, as Xenophon wrote of the Spartan helots, “they would gladly eat their masters raw”. The Allahwites realize this more than anyone: they used to be the helots.

    Half measures like cruise missling camels and empty tents in fit of D.C. pique by D.C. clique will do nothing good. Half measures are worse than tragedy and far worse than a mistake: they will be low and contemptible farce. The only way to break Boy Assad and friends is to break the Syrian state. This involves a relentless and unyielding intention to attrit the Syrian army down to street thug level and kill any Syrians that disagree with American political goals.

    Since neither this administration in particular (nor any post-WWI United States in general) has credibly shown that they can do that, it’s best that they hold back for now. If they’re determined to intervene, that intervention will be much easier politically if the massacres start on cue and if the massacres prove to be telegenically more shocking than what you get at the local matinee.

    Waiting patiently like this is unlikely: the people ruling this country aren’t any better at starting a war properly than they are at anything else.

    Farewell, a long farewell to Syria, my fair province. Thou art an infidel’s (enemy’s) now. Peace be with you, O Syria – what a beautiful land you will be for the enemy hands.

    — attributed to Heraclius, c. AD 637

    Big Pharaoh: Levels of complexity in presentation

    Thursday, August 29th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — Syria, yes, but with a focus on networks, tensions, mapping, and understanding ]

    Binary logic is a poor basis for foreign policy, as Tukhachevskii said on Small Wars Council’s Syria under Bashir Assad: crumbling now? thread, pointing us to the work of The Big Pharaoh. Here are two of the Big Pharaoh’s recent (before Obama‘s “undecided” speech) tweets:

    Each of those tweets is non-linear in its own way, but via its implications — we “complete the loop” by knowing that the “mass murderer” is the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad and the “cannibal” is the Syrian rebel, Abu Sakkar, and that Al-Qaeda typically cries “allahu Akbar” after killing Americans, while Americans typically rejoice after killing Al-Qaeda operatives. So these two tweets are already non-linear, but not as complex as what comes next>


    The Big Pharaoh also put this diagram on his blog, and Max Fisher picked it up and blogged it at the Washington Post as The Middle East, explained in one (sort of terrifying) chart:

    I’d have some questions here, of course — one about the directionality of the arrows, which only seem to go in one direction — okay for the “supports” and “has nu clue” arrows, perhaps, but surely the “haters” would mostly be two-way, with AQ hating US as well as US hating AQ? There’s no mention of Jordan, I might ask about that… And there are no arrows at all between Lebanese Shias and Lebanese Sunnis — hunh?


    What really intrigues me here, though, is that while this chart with fifteen “nodes” or players captures many more “edges” or connections between them than either or even both of the two tweets above, the tweets evoke a more richly human “feel” for the connections they reference, by drawing on human memories of the various parties and their actions.

    Thus on the face of it, the diagram is the more complex representation, but when taken into human perception and understanding, the tweets offer a more immediuate and visceral sense of their respective situations.

    And scaled down and in broad strokes, that’s the difference between “big data” analytic tools on the one hand, and HipBone-Sembl approach to mapping on the other. A HipBone-Sembl board may offer you two, or six, ten, maybe even a dozen nodes, but it fills them with rich anecdotal associations, both intellectual and emotional — a very different approach from — and one that I feel is complementary to — a big data search for a needle in a global needlestack…


    But I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point you to Kerwin Datu‘s A network analysis approach to the Syrian dilemma on the Global Urbanist blog. He begins:

    A chart by The Big Pharaoh doing the rounds of social media shows just how much of a tangled mess the Middle East is. But if we tease it apart, we see that the region is fairly neatly divided into two camps; it’s just that one of those camps is divided amongst itself. Deciding which of these internal divisions are fundamental to the peace and which are distractions in the short term may make the diplomatic options very clear.

    and goes on from there, offering a series of network graphs of which is the fourth:

    from which he draws the following observation:

    What can we do from this position? If the US decides to pursue a purely military route to remove Assad from power, it will incur the ire of Russia, Iran and Lebanese Shias, but it can do so with a broad base of support including the Syrian rebels themselves, Israel, Qatar, Turkey, Lebanese Sunnis, and even Al Qaeda. However if it chooses a diplomatic route to curry support to remove Assad it must isolate him in the above graph by making an ally out of Russia and/or Iran (assuming that making an ally out of Lebanese Shias would have little impact). Russia doesn’t hate the US but it does hate the Syrian rebels, making it an unpromising ally against Assad. Iran hates the Syrian rebels and the US hates Iran, but the Al Qaeda is a thorn in both their sides, making it a potential though unlikely source of cooperation.

    Really, you and I should read the whole piece, and draw our own conclusions.


    Or lack thereof. I’ll give the last tweet to Teju Cole, who articulates my own thoughts, too:

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