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Ursula K Le Guin and a schooling in magic, mystery

Thursday, August 29th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — the magic of names, the mystery of creation ]
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Let’s begin with Russell Moore, controversial president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention:

He’s concerned about deep fake, or more exactly deepfakes, in which AI is used to develop model of people’s faces, which can then be manipulated to “make them” say things the real people wouldn’t say and haven’t said. There’s a fairly well-known TED talk that explains:

The speaker, Supasorn Suwajanakorn, mentions towards the end of his talk that he’s working on software called Reality Defender, while DARPA is running a contest to catch deepfakes and other AI trickery.

Boom!! — we’re in the realm of untruth so subtle it can fool both ear and eye, so we can no longer trust that seeing is believing. Indeed, Charlton Heston’s Moses could no doubt now be persuaded to come down from the mountain and declare:

Thou shalt make unto thee fake images, and any likeness of any person that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth

From a strict Christian perspective this would be blasphemy — but fun from the POV of Dawkins and the antitheists, and entirely feasible from the perspective of digital manipulation of existing video.

And in Russell Moore‘s terms, the fundamental distinction here is between he who is the Truth, the Way and the Life, and that which is the Father of Lies.

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Which brings us to Ursula K Le Guin, and her magnificent work, Wizard of Earthsea. Ursula grew up in the household of her parents: her father, AL Kroeber was of the great wave of anthropologists trained by Franz Boas, while her mother, Theodora Kroeber, was also an anthropologist, celebrated for her 1961 book Ishi in Two Worlds, based on her husband’s curation, around the time of the First World War, of Ishi, the last surviving member of the Californian Yahi tribe.

Le Guin, then, grew up in the household of the UC Berkeley Professor of Anthropology — a household visited by numerous other anthropologists with their tales of shamans and the varieties of magical practice around the world.. Not surprisingly, her vision of magic in Earthsea corresponds with that of many varieties of shamanism..

Here we are dealing with magic as deep truth, or deeptrush, so to speak. And Le Guin‘s definition of magic is to know the true name of all that is.

**

Here, it seems to me, we are in the realm of the Prologue to St John’s Gospel:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

with its extraordinary conclusion:

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us

And returning to Le Guin, we find the nature of Word as True Name spelled out in its cosmic glory:

It is no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.

Can we also hear in Le Guin‘s words that therein lies the deepmagic?

**

And quoting from that video clip:

He who would be the Sea Master must know the True Name of every drop of water in the sea.

Magic exists in most societies in one way or another. And one of the forms that it exists in a lot of places is, if you know a thing’s True Name, you have power over the thing, or the person. And of course it’s irresistible, because I’m a writer, I use words, and knowing the names of things, is, I do, magic. I do, make up things that didn’t exist before, by naming them. I call it Earthsea — and there it is, it exists!

We’re close, here, to Genesis 1.3:

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

Here, as Tolkien noted, the human creator works within the greater work of creation in which she partakes.

The Magic in Advertising series — rhyming, twinning, pattern recognition

Tuesday, May 28th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — the ability to recognize similarities across wide conceptual or memory distances is what Cindy Storer calls “magic” in analytic practice — here we examine it in terms of advertising ]
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You could almost learn how to write poetry by watching the commercials on TV — or learn a bit more about how the ads themselves work.. come have some fun.

Consider rhyme for a moment. There’s a rhyme between the car that’s too small for comfort and the shoe that’s too tight to fit in this ad, and there’s an analogy between the larger, more comfortable — luxurious, even — car and the wide and comfortable — “like a luxury ride for my feet” — Skechers wide fit shoes that the ad is all about:

The rhyme here between today’s American fisherman and his Irish fisherman ancestor is stunning — and plausible. This, after all, is genetics, which is often said to rhyme from one generation to another:

And even when the analogy between an image and the product it’s supposed to resemble (“rhyme with”) is weak, making a successful rhyme between two such images is a delight in itself, and makes the weak rhyme seem plausible. Here, a two-thirds shaved dog rhymes with a two-thirds mowed lawn:

Allstate piles the rhymes on — drawing on powerful similarities between widely different parts of the country — in its brilliant Park Road / Street / Avenue commercial:

Here’s a beautiful rhyme between cement and sand — it’s not so great to find you’ve stepped unexpectedly in wet cement — but what a delight to feel sand on the beach between your toes!

Look, Exxon wants to make it’s industrial plants more closely resemble living, breathing, green plants: it’s not a bad idea, laudable really — but the rhyme is a bit of a stretch, eh?

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One form of rhyme that’s worth noting falls under the heading of Opposites:

In this case, the equation would be something like blue plus red equals unbiased. I haven’t checked the product, but the math is clean, and the divide the ad bridges is very real and quite perilous for democracy:

So opposites can be powerful. But it’s worth considering, too, the mind-numbing effect of seeing opposing commercials:

That’s not the kind of opposition you want if you’re Roundup, but exactly the kind of opposition you seek if you’re the legal opposition!

**

Rhyming — twinning — as it’s dreamed up in the creative agencies of Madison Avenue, and no doubt Madison Wisconsin too, requires horizontal, associative thinking — thinking based on pattern recognition, thinking that makes creative leaps where similarities can be found in the midst of difference. Metaphors and analogies are woven of the same kind of thinking, rhyme in poetry, graphic match or match cut in enema, canon and fugue in music — and it’s the type of thinking my HipBone Games are designed to teach and practice, until they’re strong reflexes in your intellectual arsenal.

When readers or movie-goers, or just people watching commercials on TV, recognize patterns or rhymes — shaving a dog, then mowing a lawn, okay — it may elicit a chuckle the first time you see the ad, but you’re not sitting there to learn about dogs or lawns, or even Flonase unless you happen to need that kind of medicine. No, you’re there to see the next installment of the movie you’re watching, the next entertainment — which was almost certainly put together with less cash and care per minute or per frame than the commercials that slip into your mind almost subcutaneously.

And analogy — this type of analogical thinking — works. Analogy is the very heart of magic:

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Do you have time for another example?

Here we have analogy across time, as we did in the case of the Donegal fisherman, but this time woven into the telling of a very simple short story: he wants a Heineken, looks in the fridge, no luck, goes out onto the street, flags down a cab, takes a short ride, steps down from his Hackney Carriage about a century earlier, and gets the Heineken he was looking for. Plus ça change!

The Heineken’s the same — the six-pack at the end is the essence of difference!

**

Previous episodes in the same series:

Advertising series 01: Music
Eros, the Renaissance and advertising
Authentic, spiritual magic!
The magic of advertising or the commercialization of magic?
Here’s magic!
The magic of miniatures

I imagine there will eventually be about twenty posts in the series..

The human voice, counterpoint, & the analysis of complex systems

Saturday, February 9th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — with Mike Sellers and Ali Minai particularly in mind, and more to come.. ]
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Roomful of Teeth:

That’s composer Caroline Shaw‘s Partita for 8 Voices, a piece she wrote for Roomful of Teeth.

A piece she composed and wrote for them — in the remainder of this post, we’ll explore the overlap of text (writing) and music (composition) in increasing subtlety and detail..

**

I’m brought to make this post by a paragraph I read in a fascinating New Yorker article, Roomful of Teeth Is Revolutionizing Choral Music. Roomful of Teeth is the group whose music I first praised in Pulitzer : Lamar :: Nobel : Dylan?, and showcase again in the video clip above.

Here’s that New Yorker para:

The human voice is the world’s most astonishing instrument, it’s often said. It’s capable of everything from a trill to a bark to an ear-splitting scream, from growling harmonics to liquid acrobatics, lofted on the breath like a lark on an updraft. Instrument is the wrong word, really. The voice is more like a chamber ensemble: winds and strings and blaring horns, strung together end to end. It’s a pump organ, a viola, an oboe, and the bell of a trumpet, each instrument passing the sound along to the next, adding volume and overtones at every step. Throw in the percussion of the lips and tongue, and the echoing amphitheatre of the skull, and you have a full orchestra playing inside you.

My aim in this post is to add that “full orchestra playing inside you” to that other internal polyphony of contrasting desires, identities, and emergent thoughts, and the external polyphony of all those voices with a stake in our common concerns, risk assessments and deliberations — which are constituent of our complex analytic topics.

Done.

**

The rest is context…

I’ve often talked about the notion that the analysis of complex human systems involves dealing with multiple stakeholder voices, also on occasion with the many internal voices within each individual, and suggested that music offers the clearest equivalent or analogy that humans successfully and repeatedly navigate. Specifically, the twin notions of polyphony — the sounding together of many voices — and more specifically counterpoint — the juxtaposition of conflicting voices and the possible resolution of their conflicts from dissonance to harmony in an iterative process — are clearly relevant to analytic practice, albeit drawing on a tradition that will seem wildly cross-disciplinary to many analysts.

Relevant here is Edward Said‘s definition of counterpoint:

In counterpoint a melody is always in the process of being repeated by one or another voice: the result is horizontal, rather than vertical, music. Any series of notes is thus capable of an infinite set of transformations, as the series (or melody or subject) is taken up first by one voice then by another, the voices always continuing to sound against, as well as with, all the others. Instead of the melody at the top being supported by a thicker harmonic mass beneath (as in largely vertical nineteenth century music), Bach’s contrapuntal music is regularly composed of several equal lines, sinuously interwoven, working themselves out according to stringent rules

In my view , which I have repeatedly expressed, Johann Sebastian Bach, the master of contrapuntal writing, is a significant exemplar for us at this time. And if it should be argued that musical methods cannot be transposed — another musical term — to matters of verbal thought, let me say that the great Bach pianist Glenn Gould towards the end of his life made specifically contrapuntal human voice radio plays for the Canadian Broadcasting Company..

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Gould’s contrapuntal mind:

Among Gould‘s eccentricities — David Howes in Glenn Gould’s Contrapuntal Constitution calls them bi-centricities, a phrase that reminds us of Arthur Koestler‘s notion of the creative leap as the bisociation of two planes or matrices, are:

the way he liked to have one AM and one FM station playing all the time in his apartment, one for news, the other for music; the way he could learn a score while talking on the phone; and the way he enjoyed eavesdropping on three or four conversations at the same time going on at neighbouring tables in the restaurants he haunted (Kostelanetz 1983: 127).

We can see here that Gould‘s basic thinking is in terms of multiple voices, often contrasting, in simultaneous awareness — Gould, Howes continues, spoke of counterpoint as “an explosion of simultaneous ideas”. As Gould puts it, Howes reports, when speaking of his radio programs for human voices:

The basis of it was that we tried to have situations arise cogently from within the framework of the program in which the two or three voices … [recorded previously in conversation with Gould, but with the latter’s voice edited out for the final version] … could be overlapped, in which they would be heard talking – simultaneously, but from different points of view – about the same subject. We also tried to treat these voices as though they belonged to characters in a play, though all the material was gained from interviews. It was documentary material, treated in a sense as drama (cited in Payzant 1982: 131).

This, then, is Gould‘s contrapuntal radio, and we can see Gould vividly transposing conytrapuntal imagination from the musical sphere to that of the varieties of human verbalization.

**

As not an aside but the re-introduction of a theme previously only hinted at, here is Arthur Koestler on the conceptual or creative leap:

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Okay, our concept of music must shift, change, expand, if we are to consider Gould‘s Idea of North as a musical composition — in ways that are consistent with my own development of contrapuntal analysis. As Anthony Cushing explains in Glenn Gould and ‘Opus 2’: An outline for a musical understanding of contrapuntal radio with respect to The Idea of North:

A musical understanding of North requires re-thinking some traditional elements of music theory: harmony must take into consideration semantic content and shifting topic areas; form follows somewhat traditional musical structures (ternary, binary, etc.); and texture encompasses layering of literal voices and dispenses with traditional notions of melody. One must also consider the spatial component of tape composition, in which voices inhabit locations in a sound field. The later documentaries in the trilogy and the Leopold Stokowski and Pablo Casals tribute radio documentaries contribute to a more complete musical concept of contrapuntal radio — complex polyphonic textures, stereo sound, pitch-based harmonic content — the germ of contrapuntal radio was developed and actualized in North.

I’d like to take that lead, given us by the masterful pianist Glenn Gould, across into the field of analytic understanding — as a stream of analysis complementary and in counterpoint (for instance) to “big data” analytic tools — contrapuntal analysis characteristically working with a few, humanly-selected verbal utterances rather than data-points algorithmically-selected in the millions.

**

Moving to a larger geopolitical canvas, Edward Said once told an interviewer:

When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes – opposites in the Hegelian sense – that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom.

We see here the invocation of Bach in a context of geopolitical analysis — one paragraph in the life-work of Said, who was a music critic as well as a well-known Palestinian-American public intellectual.

That single paragraph — and Gould‘s clear understanding that contrapuntal thinking can be applied to the polyphony of human voices, not just in the musical sphere — prompts me to go further, and assert that complexity studies with application to the human condition and intelligence and geopolitical analysis will all, sooner or later, arrive at the practice of contrapuntal thinking as basic to their deeper purposes.

**

Refocusing at the national level, on Glenn Gould‘s native Canada:

I’ve mentioned the simultaneity of voices in social contexts such as listening, hearing and understanding the views and voices of multiple stakeholder. In similar vein, Howes suggests Gould‘s own taste for counterpoint stems from and reflects the Canadian Constitution:

Gould understood music to provide a model of society, and the performing artist, hence, to be performing society, as well as music. Along these lines, counterpoint, Gould’s preferred musical style, provides a specially apt model for comprehending the constitutional structure of the Canadian state. Gould’s interest in keeping the different voices of a fugue distinct, equal, and bound together parallels the concern of the Canadian state to keep the different parties to Confederation distinct, equal and bound together. In this difficult task, however, there is always a risk of overemphasizing or losing one of the voices. If Quebec is proclaimed “a distinct society” will that disturb the equality of the provinces (for surely all are distinct); if it is not, will that lead to the separation of Quebec and the break-up of Confederation? This bi-cultural counterpoint confronts Canadians daily, from the bilingual product information on their cereal boxes to the reports of English/French political jousting on the evening news.

Counterpoint, or in more general terms, polyphony, is non-dialectical, for it involves the interweaving of voices, of ideas, rather than the Hegelian process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Polyphony as social theory does not, therefore, entail the negation of any countervailing views the way, say, a dialectical social philosophy would. With polyphony, accommodation or peaceful co-presence takes the place of negation.

**

Readings:

  • New Yorker, Roomful of Teeth Is Revolutionizing Choral Music
  • NY Times, The Glenn Gould Contrapuntal Radio Show
  • Open Culture, Listen to Glenn Gould’s Shockingly Experimental Radio Documentary
  • Hermitary, Glenn Gould’s The Solitude Trilogy
  • Canadian Icon, Glenn Gould’s Contrapuntal Constitution
  • Politics & Culture, An interview with Edward Said

  • Charles Cameron, Pulitzer : Lamar :: Nobel : Dylan?
  • Charles Cameron, Getting deeper into Koestler

  • Mike Sellers, Advanced Game Design: A systems Approach
  • Ali Minai, A core concern of our research is the desire to catch ‘creativity in the act.’
  • **

    More Teeth — your reward for reading this far:

    And BachGlenn Gould plays Contrapunctus IX from The Art of Fugue — on organ:

    Three books in one day — splendid!!

    Friday, June 22nd, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — Imagination, Joan of Arc, and Coronation ]
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    Oh, the other day was a great day, bringing me three terrific books:

  • Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi: Alone with the Alone
  • Marina Warner, Joan of Arc: the Image of Female Heroism
  • Matthias Range, Music and Ceremonial at British Coronations: From James I to Elizabeth II
  • The Corbin is simply the most dedicated book on spirituality I would take with me if I could, and which I’d dearly love to crack. Marina Warner was a stellar presence in the cafe I frequented in Little Clarendon Street in Oxford, and hijacked me once to help paint her new digs. And the Range? It’s a book I’ve long wished to read and finally, here it is.

    Quite a trio!

    The Leap

    Sunday, March 18th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — three or four steps out along stepping stones you have no idea where you’ll land next ]
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    You know that for me the basic unit is the duet / duel? And that what’s most interesting in the duel / duet — let’s just call it the dual — is the leap, the creative leap, at best the stereophany between them. Well, my bassic image for that leap is the DoubleQuote board:

    That’s a simple graph with two nodes and an edge between them:

    And beauty and depth — creativity — lies in the leap along the edge between them.

    **

    The rue, as I discussed with David Gelernter lo these many years ago, is that the greatest beauty is found — identified, by AI search; acheved, by artistry — when the two nodes are rich, the edge is rich in connections between themgreat:, and the distance between them is

    I don’t know how Theodor von Kármán came by his Vortex Street, and I’ve spent a decade in Pasadena wandering its streets and even picked up his four volume works — signed — at a CalTech book sale, but if he had the Van Gogh painting in the back of his mind, there’s the beginning, the seed of an awesome leap.

    And you might say van Gogh made a mighty leap, pre-intuiting the von Kármán pattern in the night ckouds..

    **

    Okay, here’s a terrific leap by Claude Shannon:

    There was this idea that you could connect the computer to a machine to turn the cranks on a milling machine and make aircraft parts. At the time, this was a huge leap. It was connecting two alien realms: this new computer thing and a milling machine. What it let you do was make aircraft parts you couldn’t make any other way.

    The key words here are “connecting two alien realms“.

    Roughly:

    Or as Milling Machine; The History puts it:

    Perhaps the milling machine’s greatest distinction is that in 1954 it became the first machine tool to be controlled numerically, thereby representing one of the greatest industrial advances of the twentieth century.

    And then there’s this leap too, earlier:

    In the 1930s and working independently, American electronic engineer Claude Shannon and Soviet logician Victor Shestakov[65] both showed a one-to-one correspondence between the concepts of Boolean logic and certain electrical circuits, now called logic gates, which are now ubiquitous in digital computers.

    **

    Play — play, I emphasize — is the connecting link or edge that leaps between theem:

    If there were an Olympic sport of mind leaps — why forever not? long leaps, high leaps, long high leaps, ski leaps — Claude Shannon would surely be a contender.

    **

    With a hat-tip to Monica Anderson, who set me off on this particular journey.


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