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Contrapuntal video, fugal braiding

Friday, March 11th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — from Trumpery to Altman’s Nashville ]

Tufte’s illustration of the Kathasaritsagara or Ocean of the Streams of Story


Wired had a piece titled Never Mind Trump. The Internet Wants to Watch What’s Behind Him a couple of days ago, and it contained a sentence that caught my attention:

Like a Bach fugue, the counterpoint rivaled, and then overtook, the original melody.


I’m always interested in non-musical forms of counterpoint, whether we’re talking Glenn Gould‘s radio dramas, Claude Levi-Strauss‘s structure for his Mytholoogiques, Tufte‘s Rushdie‘s Kathasaritsagara, or the various attempts to make Hermann Hesse‘s Glass Bead Game playable. Hesse himself invokes both fugue and counterpoint in the passage in which he describes actual moves in his game about as clearly as anywhere:

A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or from the actual theme of a Bach fugue, or from a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusions to kindred concepts. Beginners learned how to establish parallels, by means of the Game’s symbols, between a piece of classical music and the formula for some law of nature. Experts and Masters of the Game freely wove the initial theme into unlimited combinations. For a long time one school of players favored the technique of stating ide by side, developing in counterpoint, and finally harmoniously ombining two hostile themes or ideas, such as law and freedom, individual and community. In such a Game the goal was to develop both themes or theses with complete equality and impartiality, to
evolve out of thesis and antithesis the purest possible synthesis.


I was accordingly interested to read this paragraph, ending as it does with the sentence I quoted above:

The Christie videos were just the latest installment in what might be the defining video format of this election. Call it marginal media, in which background activity overwhelms the intended subject. Most candidates have found themselves inadvertently sidelined at some point. Hillary Clinton was overshadowed by the surreal stylings of “Sticker Kid,” who mugged, jerked, and danced throughout her stump speech. Another short video treated Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of marijuana decriminalization as a preamble to an audience member’s startled reaction. Another Trump rally was undercut when a member of the crowd behind the lectern began reading a copy of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. The drama unfolded over the course of Trump’s speech, as the reader’s neighbors began to argue with her, then brought their neighbors into the fray. Soon, the tension made it impossible to pay attention to Trump at all. Like a Bach fugue, the counterpoint rivaled, and then overtook, the original melody.


We need, it seems to me, to get used to thinking contrapuntally — and accordingly it is instructive to see just how many of the great artists of recent times have employed some measure of contrapuntal thinking in their work. From the same Wired piece:

The frames of Robert Altman’s Nashville are packed with overlapping dialogue and activity—it’s often hard to determine which storyline should dominate—granting his aspiring losers the same weight as the country-music superstars they idolize. Tom Stoppard applied the same lens to Hamlet when he made two lackeys — whose off-stage death was barely remarked upon in Shakespeare’s play — the heroes of his fan-fic spin-off, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Okay, I’m off to see Nashville if I can find it..

A flock, a gaggle of tweeters?

Monday, May 13th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — a testament to bewilderment ]

It is pretty clear, I think, that Craig Little (upper panel) is not a mujahid from Daphne, Alabama, now living or dead in Somalia. He first tweeted on 22 March, 2009, however, and hasn’t tweeted since 29 July, 2010. Which gives him the name AbuAmerican on twitter.

Abu M, however, came later, first tweeting on May 15, 2012, and most recently on May 3, 2013. He has the Twitter handle AbuMAmerican, and is generally regarded as being the mujahid from Daphne, Alabama, Omar Hammami — of whom one might ask, is he in heaven, is he in hell, that demmed, elusive Pimpernel? Or still in Somalia, perhaps, dead or alive? Depending on what one believes about life, death, and beyond.


But that leaves us with two other contenders to consider:

Both these gents — the one with an “a” where an “e” would otherwise be, and the one with an _ at the end of his handle, as though you might need to crank a car with it — purport to be picking up where AbuMAmerican left off.

AbuAmerican_ with the crank handle is followed by Jarret Brachman, J. Dana Stuster, Khanserai, Peter Neumann, and Raff Pantucci among knowledgeable others — Raff also follows AbuAmarican with the improper “a”. And how’s this for complicated? AbuAmarican with the “a'” is followed, too, by the frankly cranky AbuAmerican_, by Chris Anzalone, IntelGirl, DC Gomez and Christof Putzel.

Putzel, in case this is any help, interviewed Hammami in 2012 for CurrentTV, long before Spencer Ackerman talked with him for Wired this April.

Neither Abu with an A nor Abu Crank have shown the kind of easy humor the Original Abu M showed in tweets like this:


But then — is Abu M any more real than his knockoffs? At least he’s the most interesting of the lot. And as JM Berger said to Attackerman, speaking of the “original” AbuMAmerican:

If it’s a hoax … it’s an incredibly elaborate one, and would be done for an extremely small audience.

Who’s Who? How should I know?

Of Omar Hammami — and dying more than once?

Friday, April 26th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — dying more than once in hadith, in press reports, in Rumi and John of the Cross ]

The American mujahid in Somalia, Omar Hammami [see his Wikipedia bio], who has been tweeting back and forth with various “U.S. national security professionals” [see this Wired piece], reported yesterday that he had been shot in the neck “by Shabab assassin” [see this piece by Clint Watts at Selected Wisdom]. JM Berger, who has been in close correspondence with him, tweeted:

Omar has indeed been in dispute with Shabab, the group he originally joined [see this LWJ post], and his own most recent tweets, sent eighteen hours ago as I write this, were these:

Omar Hammami may or may not still be among us, although recent reports suggest with caveats that he survived the attack…

That’s the background.


From my point of view, the most interesting discussion anyone had with Hammami in the last day or two was this exchange between Hammami and Jeremy Scahill, whose book Dirty Wars has just hit the stands:

Characteristically, Omar has a light tone — yet speaks to the issue in the context of his theology…


There are, it seems to me, basically three ways that one might imagine dying more than once. The first — and it’s the one Hammami himself was referring to — is found in the hadith in Bukhari [Volume 4, Book 52, Number 54]:

Narrated Abu Huraira:

The Prophet said, “… By Him in Whose Hands my life is! I would love to be martyred in Allah’s Cause and then get resurrected and then get martyred, and then get resurrected again and then get martyred and then get resurrected again and then get martyred.

Let the intensity of that hadith — and Hammami’s reference to it, a little earlier [?] on the same day he was shot — sink in.


The second, “secular” way to have “died” more than once is through faulty intelligence and / or journalism — and that’s what JM Berger is on about when he tweets:

Indeed, such reports led to the 2011 release of a nasheed in his name, though he may not have sung it himself:

Now Hammami has apparently resurfaced, with two new a cappella songs that appeared on the web earlier this week. In “Send Me A Cruise,” Hammami begs to be plastered by a tank shell, a drone attack or a cruise missile, so that he can martyred like some of the heroes he names, including Al Qaeda leaders Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Laith al-Libi. In his trademark tuneless drone, he claims “an amazing martyrdom” is what he “strive(s) for and adore(s).” “Send me a cruise like Maa’lam Adam al Ansari/ And send me a couple of tons like Zarqawi,” chants Hammami. “Send me four and send me more, that’s what I implore.”

More generally, false reports of AQ leaders dying hither and yon have become so common that I posted a DoubleQuote about it last year:


Here’s where it get’s most interesting…

For a third view of dying more than once, we can turn to the mystical tradition. Thus the Prophet Muhammad is credited with the hadith “Die before death” by Jalaluddin Rumi, who in his Mathnawi, VI, 3837-38 writes:

The mystery of “Die before death” is this, that the prizes come after dying (and not before).
Except dying, no other skill avails with God, O artful schemer.

The death before death here is the death of the nafs, the “self” — the true martyrdom of the greater jihad. As Peter Lamborn Wilson puts it in his Introduction to the Sufi Path:

Man’s authentic existence is in the Divine; he has a higher Self, which is true; he can attain felicity, even before death (“Die before you die,” said the Prophet). The call comes: to flight, migration, a journey beyond the limitations of world and self.

Of course, St John of the Cross wrote in much the same vein:

This life I live in vital strength
Is loss of life unless I win You:
And thus to die I shall continue
Until in You I live at length.
Listen (my God!) my life is in You.
This life I do not want, for I
Am dying that I do not die.

Book Mini-Review: Makers: the New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson 

This is a fun book  by the former editor-in-chief of WIRED , author of The Long Tail and the co-founder of 3D Robotics, Chris Anderson. Part pop culture, part tech-optimist futurism and all DIY business book, Anderson is preaching a revolution, one brought about by the intersection of 3D printing and open source “Maker movement” culture, that he believes will be bigger and more transformative to society than was the Web. One with the potential to change the “race to the bottom” economic logic of globalization by allowing manufacturing entrepreneurs to be smart, small, nimble and global by sharing bits and selling atoms.

Anderson writes:

Here’s the history of two decades of innovation in two sentences: The past ten years have been about discovering new ways to create, invent, and work together on the Web. The next ten years will be about applying those lessons to the real world.

This book is about the next ten years.

….Why? Because making things has gone digital: physical objects now begin as designs on screens, and those designs can be shared online as files…..once an industry goes digital in changes in profound ways, as we’ve seen in everything from retail to publishing. The biggest transformation, but in who’s doing it. Once things can be done on regular computers, they can be done by anyone. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing happening in manufacturing.

…..In short, the Maker Movement shares three characteristics,  all of which I’d argue are transformative:

1. People using digital desktop tools to create designs for new products and prototype them (“digital DIY”)

2. A cultural norm to share those designs and collaborate with others in online communities.

3. The use of common design file standards that allow anyone, if they desire, to send their designs to commercial manufacturing services to be produced in any number, just as easily as they can fabricate them on their desktop. This radically foreshortens the path from idea to entrepreneurship, just as the Web did in software, information, and content.

Nations whose entire strategy rests upon being the provider of cheapest labor per unit cost on all scales are going to be in jeopardy if local can innovate, customize and manufacture in near-real time response to customer demand. Creativity of designers and stigmergic /stochastic collaboration of communities rise in economic value relative to top-down, hierarchical production systems with long development lags and capital tied up betting on having large production runs.

Interesting, with potentially profound implications.

Prophecy, Poetry and Prediction

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — personal preference, gangs, Chicago, insurgency, Afghanistan, and admitting the uncomfortable ]

Albrecht Durer, The Blessed Virgin enthroned on the crescent moon


Poetry, on the whole, has a liking for prophets. Thus Sylvia Plath writes:

By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.
I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.

There’s an undeniable affinity there, the sense of giving voice to a lightning strike. Or as Randall Jarrell puts it:

A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.


Okay. I’m a poet, I think, partly because I have such a damnably literal mind that I need to break out in metaphor the way athletes break out in a sweat.

And the trouble with prophecy, from my point of view, is that it’s all too often read in damnably literal-minded ways, as though:

And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars

wasn’t clearly poetry. Let me clarify: it is.

And it is because prophecy (not “false prophecy”) is all too often read literally that the end of the world is so regularly promised, without once having come to pass thus far.

Even though the scriptures proclaim, But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven


I suppose it goes along with being a poet rather than a statistician that I’m far more interested in qualitative than in quantitative approaches to modeling — or understanding, as we used to call it.

There are times, though, when it’s advisable to acknowledge the approaches most different from one’s own — for they too have their moments.


A Reporter’s Notebook entry yesterday on Fox News titled Chicago gang database intends to predict and prevent further violence tells us “One shooting sets the next shooting in motion.” That’s poignant even if a tad banal. But what comes next is interesting:

In an attempt to predict the next violent act, Chicago police are turning to technology. They have established a database that includes information on more than 100,000 known gang members. Even the lowest members of the gangs are entered as soon as police become aware of them. Their arrest records and affiliations are all entered and cross-referenced and available to the cop on the street. This is the kind of information a good beat cop would keep in his head; now it’s available to every cop on every beat. Sgt. Tom Ryan is in the gang unit on the South Side. “This is just a great way that we can look at all the information gathered because it is hard for the detectives to talk to all the different units. This is a good way of filtering down data through the departments to each other.

Probably of greatest use to the officers, when a guy gets shot, police see who his buddies are. “We can make predictions about where retaliations might be likely to happen,” says Commander Jonathan Lewin.


And I bring this to your attention because today I ran across an article in Wired’s Danger Room with the headline Study: WikiLeaked Data Can Predict Insurgent Attacks which resonated with yesterday’s Chicago gang report:

Insurgencies are amongst the hardest conflicts to predict. Insurgents can be loosely organized, split into factions, and strike from out of nowhere. But now researchers have demonstrated that with enough data, you might actually predict where insurgent violence will strike next. The results, though, don’t look good for the U.S.-led war.

And they’re also laden with irony. The data the researchers used was purloined by WikiLeaks, which the Pentagon has tried to suppress. And the Pentagon has struggled for years to develop its own prediction tools.

That data would be the “Afghan War Diary,” a record of 77,000 military logs dated between 2004 and 2009 that were spilled onto the internet two years ago by WikiLeaks. In a paper published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers used the leaked logs to (mostly) accurately predict violence levels in Afghanistan for the year 2010. (Behind a paywall, alas, but a summary is available for free in .pdf.)


I’m focused on minds and hearts, as the saying goes — but I’ll admit that mines and HK417s are also significant.

If the quant side of the house can reduce casualties, I’m all for that.

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