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Archive for December, 2013

Gaming the Connections: from Sherlock H to Nada B

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — the game of Connect the Dots in play and practice ]

CIA's (now ret'd) Nada Bakos examines the Al Qaida board in the HBO docu, Manhunt


Manhunt, the HBO documentary, does what (not having been there and seen that at the time) appears to be a decent job of recreating some of the cognitive stratregies employed by CIA officers in the OBL hunt. The one I’m interested in here is the building of a “link chart” or cognitive map — law enforcement “evidence board” — the idea being (a) to note known connections visibly, and (b) to encourage the mind to make intuitive leaps that reveal previously unknown connections between nodes… or “dots”.

Sophisticated software does this sort of thing algorithmically with regard to (eg) network connections via phone-calls, but the human mind is still better than AI at some forms of pattern recognition, and that’s the aspect that interests me here.


For more on the cognitive significance of the link chart in Manhunt, see my post Jeff Jonas, Nada Bakos, Cindy Storer and Puzzles.


Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Sherlock lays out the way it works —


Okay, so one way to visualize connections is to make a fairly random collage of relevant photos, names, dates and places, and tie it together with links of string or ribbon. That’s the equivalent of what in HipBone games terms we’d call a “free-form” game, and it works well for the “divergent”, initial brainstorming phase of thought. But it does little to bottle its own energy, to focus down, to force the mind — in the no less powerful “convergent” phase — into perceiving even more links than occur spontaneously in building the link chart in question.

HipBone‘s preformatted boards take the cognitive process to that second stage. They work on one of the most powerful ingredients in creativity: constraint. Business writer Dave Gray of Communication Nation puts it like this:

Creativity is driven by constraints. When we have limited resources — even when the limits are artificial — creative thinking is enhanced. That’s because the fewer resources you have, the more you are forced to rely on your ingenuity.

But that premise doesn’t just hold true for business problem-solving — it’s at the heart of creative thinking at the Nobel level, too, in both arts and sciences. Consider mathematician Stanley Ulam, writing in his Adventures of a Mathematician:

When I was a boy I felt that the role of rhyme in poetry was to compel one to find the unobvious because of the necessity of finding a word which rhymes. This forces novel associations and almost guarantees deviations from routine chains or trains of thought. It becomes paradoxically a sort of automatic mechanism of originality…

Here’s how the poet TS Eliot puts it:

When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas.

A Hipbone Gameboard such as the Waterbird, Dartboard, or Said Symphony board is chosen precisely to challenge the mind with third, fourth and fifth rounds of “creative leaps” — thus adding both divergent and convergent cognitive styles to this form of graphical analysis.

That’s my point here — and a plug for HipBone-Sembl style thinking.


I can’t resist adding a couple of instances in which the meme of “connecting the dots” via a link chart or evidence board has crept from TV series that I enjoyed into the world of games — this first one based on the terrific French detective series, Engrenages, retitled Spirals for British consumption:

— and this one for fans of the US TV series, Breaking Bad:

DoubleQuote in the Wild: Maurits Escher & Juan Cole

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — mainly because I’ll post MC Escher any chance I get ]

I’m often but by no means always a fan of JR Cole. In this instance, though, I’d say he’s built a fine “wild” DoubleQuote out of his own observation and the Escher print he “quotes” in this tweet:


Hm — did this make anyone else think of Pakistan?

Matrioshka forensics

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — it still takes a live human to see what the human eye cannot see but the machine can ]

This would appear to be (one version of) the state of the art in facial recognition:

Image within image within image — the gentleman on the right is more or less recognizable as a reflection in the eye of the gentleman on the left — thus giving new potential meaning to the phrase “you are the apple of my eye” (cf Zechariah 2:8, also Oberon in Midsummer Night’s Dream III.ii.102 ff., and Stevie Wonder, You Are The Sunshine Of My Life).


Or — to switch disciplines while remaining with the matrioshka form, because such patterns are of interest to the inquiring mind — as Gary Snyder puts it in his marvelous poem, One Should Not Speak to a Skilled Hunter:

The secret.
and the secret hidden deep in that.


For another version of the state of the art in facial recognition, see: Where’s Ms. Waldo?. Aloha!

Postcards from Detroit

Friday, December 27th, 2013

(by Adam Elkus)

Another example is the Detroit Threat Management Center (TMC), a private security firm that provides a range of affordable public safety services, including car-to-front door escorts, security details, and neighborhood patrols. “I attribute the bankruptcy and all the economic issues to a lack of safety,” says TMC president Dale Brown. “If you don’t feel safe, why would you invest here?”

From a very interesting Reason story on Detroit. Also: an autonomous island:

[T]hey pale in comparison to the scale and ambition of a project conceived by real estate developer Rod Lockwood. He has outlined plans to buy Belle Isle, a 982-acre public island park in the Detroit River, and transform it into an independent commonwealth with its own laws, regulations, and taxes (or lack thereof). Investors would buy the island from the city for $1 billion and then sell lifetime citizenship for $300,000. The extra $1 billion would help the city pay off its debts, and the lax regulations and low taxes would act as a magnet for investment, says Lockwood.

Not much to add, beyond a vague sense that we are seeing a stirring of more to come in other parts of the US.

An Absurd Column by Walter Pincus

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Walter Pincus, taking notes for the embattled bureaucrats of the creepy-state here:

‘Front-Page Rule’ is unprecedented in U.S. intelligence community 

….“Accountability and secrecy” were two watchwords a former senior intelligence official said guided operations during his 40-year career, not whether the public would approve of everything he was doing.

However, that’s not what President Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies said last week after its study of intelligence gathering in the wake of disclosures generated by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s leaking of tens of thousands of previously secret NSA documents.

The president’s five-member panel called for reinstituting what it called the “Front-Page Rule,” which it described as an “informal precept, long employed by the leaders of U.S. administration.” It said such activities should not be undertaken if the public couldn’t support them if exposed.

In some 40 years of covering intelligence, I have never heard of such a rule, nor have several former senior intelligence officials with whom I have talked.

….Today, within the ranks of the intelligence community, there is concern that, in the face of the political uproar growing out of the Snowden disclosures, Obama might be backing away from the NSA after initially supporting the agency. “The White House may be looking to escape responsibility,” the former official said, adding that recently not enough public support has been given to Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and NSA Director Gen. Keith B. Alexander, who are out front defending the programs.

There are other recommendations and statements put forward by the president’s review board that run contrary to past and present operations.

For example, the panel said a collection effort should not be initiated “if a foreign government’s likely negative reaction” to it being revealed “would outweigh the value of the information likely to be obtained.” That’s a judgment call that every CIA officer, from junior to senior, routinely makes.

….The president’s review board writes that “if we are too aggressive in our surveillance policies under section 702 [a program that permits collection of intelligence from foreign targets associated with terrorists], we might trigger serious economic repercussions for American businesses.”

It is true that the Church and Pike hearings left a generation of IC personnel feeling burned and very risk averse toward covert operations and distrustful of politicians as a career philosophy. We are seeing that longstanding IC bureaucratic preference for risk aversion here in the veiled threat by senior insiders that the IC will have to sit on their hands vis-a-vis foreigners unless the NSA is greenlighted to spy on Americans to an unlimited degree.

What utter rubbish.

The Church and Pike hearings were primarily about the so-called CIA “crown jewels” – clandestine operations, actual and proposed, against foreign targets that were hostile to the United States and usually sympathetic to the Soviet Union when not outright Communists. Some of these operations were ill-considered and harebrained while others were well conceived if not executed, but the driving force behind the hearings was that many prominent committee members were very liberal to leftist antiwar Democrats, some had monumental egos or presidential ambitions and many strongly opposed anti-communist and interventionist foreign policies for ideological reasons.

It is also true that this 1970’s history has little or nothing to do with the NSA becoming an unconstitutional organ of mass domestic surveillance. Apples and oranges. Letting the NSA control all our private data data does not mean the CIA then runs a more robust HUMINT clandestine program against the Iranians, al Qaida, the Chinese or Pakistanis. Likely it will produce the opposite effect as relying systemically more and more on SIGINT is a dandy bureaucratic excuse to approve fewer and fewer covert operations or risky espionage targets.

Americans, outside State Department personnel who have to deal with the resultant headaches, could really care less if the NSA bugs the German chancellor’s cell phone or the ex-terrorist Marxist president of Brazil. To the extent they think of it at all, most would probably say “Hell, yeah!” because that is exactly what a foreign intelligence service is for. If Americans heard the NSA or CIA conducted some surveillance that resulted in Ayman al-Zawahiri being killed in a horrible way it is likely to meet with high approval ratings.
The idea that Americans as a whole, outside of the usual anti-American activist-protestor crowd, dislike successful covert ops against our enemies is a proposition for which there is scant evidence. The so-called “Frontpage rule” being touted by Pincus is complete B.S. intended to blur the lines of what institutional missions are really being discussed.
If senior managers of the NSA and CIA would rather investigate American citizens on a national scale in secret then they are in the wrong line of work and should resign or retire so that people more motivated to harry our enemies can take their places. Mass surveillance is the job of a secret police, not a foreign intelligence or even a counterintelligence service. In some countries a secret police agency is a normal and legal part of the government structure. The United States is not one of those nations and the “big boy rules” for IC operations overseas against specific, dangerous, hostile foreign targets cannot apply inside the United States against the broad mass of citizens while having the US remain a constitutional democracy anchored in the rule of law.
You can have one or the other but not both.

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