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Two for the Dalai Lama, and one more

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron – the UN panel of happiness experts, human nature on and off the freeway, and royal rainmaking in Thailand and Tanzania ]

Seeings as how the Kingdom of Bhutan just convened a UN forum on the topic of Happiness and Well-being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm, I thought it might be interesting to compare the faces in reports of a recent, controversial congressional panel on contraceptive issues with those of the folks on the happiness panel:

And to be frank, neither panel looked particularly cheerful. I thought it might be nice to get away from all that seriousness, so I featured the Dalai Lama’s often playful eyes as an inset…

Seriously: is happiness something we should figure out in committee?

To be fair, though, they did have some decent guest speakers — Joan Halifax for one. My guess is, some people just bring their happiness with them.


And while I have the Dalai Lama in mind and in a conveniently copiable graphic, I thought I’d post a second, quick item — this one also having to do with happiness, I suppose, and raising the question of what human nature is.

When you’re stuck on the San Diego Freeway on the way back from work, you may not feel as “one with nature” as you do when you’re out for an evening walk on the beach in Malibu. But are the ribbons of the Interstate system really that different from the veining of a leaf?

I suspect that question might bring some quiet laughter to the Dalai Lama’s eyes…

Hat-tip: I have Andrea Lobel of Concordia U to thank for this second pair of images, which she very kindly sent me knowing of my delight in such pairings.


Time for one more?

Given my strong interest in ritual, you won’t be surprised to learn that royal rainmaking is of interest to me.

The insignia on the left is that of the Thai Bureau of Royal Rainmaking and Agricultural Aviation, founded by Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who holds European patents on several of his methods:

According to the notes attached to this video:

Among the best-known and most successful of His Majesty’s water provision projects has been the Royal Rainmaking programme. He began to study how clouds might be seeded to produce rain. In 1969 he carried out preliminary tests at Khao Yai National Park using a Cessna 180 and dry ice. In August 1969, he moved to Hua Hin and used two aircraft in a variety of weather conditions to determine what worked best. Initially, he financed the research with his own funds but in 1970, he sought temporary funding for a “Rainmaking Project” from the government. With it, he established the Royal Rainmaking Research and Development Institute. Based on it, he has spent succeeding years refining his techniques to accord with varying cloud conditions and to suit differing climatological and geographic areas, enjoying considerable success throughout Thailand.

On the right is the encampment for the mapolyo a mbula or ancestral offerings for rain of the Ihanzu of Tanzania.

Todd Sanders, in his book Beyond Bodies: Rainmaking and Sense Making in Tanzania, writes:

Because the Ihanzu have long depended on the rain for their very existence, it is not surprising that rainmaking is central, both conceptually and practically, to their everyday lives. They have two royal rainmakers – one male, the other female – whose job it is to ensure the rains arrive on time and fall properly each year. … Through varied rain rites carried out each year in the village of Kirumi, royal rainmakers regulate the annual movement from the dry ‘male’ season (kipasu) to the wet ‘female’ one (kitiku) and back again. These rites take various forms, as we shall see…

For a detailed account of the mapolyo a mbula rites and the legend that accompanies and explains the diagram above, see Sanders’ Reflections on Two Sticks: Gender, Sexuality and Rainmaking in Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines:

These rites take place only when the rains have utterly failed and it has been divined that the royal Anyampanda clan spirits have demanded such an offering. Offerings take place over two days, but the entire ritual sequence often lasts a month, sometimes longer. It is only the two Anyampanda royal leaders, and no one else, who can bring such rain offerings to fruition.


Enough, I’m done for now — I’m happy.

Book: On Creativity

Friday, January 27th, 2012

On Creativity by David Bohm 

A former student, now an adult, stopped by and gave me a copy of of On Creativity by the late and controversial quantum physicist David Bohm. Thumbing through quickly, On Creativity had an air of consilience to it that I think I will find enjoyable, though I am not sure I will agree with Bohm’s conceptions of thought and mind. At least, the book should challenge some of my preconceived opinions.

Thus, making it useful.


A Multi-Disciplinary Approach?: Coerr’s The Eagle and the Bear Outline

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Here is something for the learned readership to chew on.

As you are probably all aware, in the hard sciences it is common for research papers to be the product of large, multidiciplinary, teams with, for example, biochemists working with physicists, geneticists, bioinformatics experts, mathematicians and so on. In the social sciences and humanities, not so much. Traditional disciplinary boundaries and methodological conservatism often prevail or are even frequently the subject of heated disputes when someone begins to test the limits of academic culture

I’m not sure why this has to be so for any of us not punching the clock in an ivory tower.

The organizer of the Boyd & Beyond II Conference, Stan Coerr, a GS-15 Marine Corps, Colonel Marine Corps Reserve and Iraq combat veteran, several years ago, developed a very intriguing analytical outline of thirty years of Afghan War, which I recommend that you take a look at:

The Eagle and the Bear: First World Armies in Fourth World Insurgencies by Stan Coerr


There are many potential verges for collaboration in this outline – by my count, useful insights can be drawn by from the following fields:

Military History
Strategic Studies
Security Studies
COIN Theory
Operational Design
Diplomatic History
Soviet Studies
Intelligence History
International Relations
Area Studies
Islamic Studies
Military Geography
Network Theory

I’m sure that I have missed a few.

It would be interesting to crowdsource this doc a little and get a discussion started. Before I go off on a riff about our unlamented Soviet friends, take a look and opine on any section or the whole in the comments section.

More on Where Good Ideas Come From

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Dr. Von weighed in on Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From with an extensive book review last December( I posted on Johnson here. On a related note, read Charles Cameron’s comment about the limitations of linear thinking here):

Where do New Ideas come from?

….But what exactly are innovation and creativity? The dictionary definition of innovation is ‘the introduction of new things or methods,’ while creativity is ‘the ability to create meaningful new ideas, forms or methods’ that are original and imaginative. So the key notion is the development of new ideas in whatever field one is working. A question naturally develops, which is where do new ideas come from? How do we begin preparing children now to be creative and innovative in the future? In the past, many would have first thought about the arts as being the training ground for creativity. Now, we realize that the development of the abilities and mindsets and skills necessary to be creative in every field of study is necessary.Steven Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, provides the argument that there are seven common themes that have led to the vast majority of great ideas throughout history. He gives numerous examples of such ideas, ranging from Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution to the of the GPS system, from Google to the creation of the first mechanical computing devices centuries ago, and so on. It is an interesting read.Here is a summary of the seven themes that lead to good ideas. Keep in mind there is certainly some degree of overlap and relationships between the themes, but overall they can be thought of as distinct concepts.1. The Adjacent Possible: Even if you have an interest in some topic or problem, if there is not a good environment conducive to presenting the necessary pieces to solve the problem, good ideas will almost certainly not develop. You may be brilliant with some of the information (i.e. pieces of a puzzle) in your mind that is necessary to solve a problem, but if your surroundings are not able to provide the remaining pieces of information or experiences, you will endlessly search for them to no avail. If you are isolated from others who know something about your problem or issue, or if there is no means of gathering further information (which is becoming less of a problem with the advent of the Internet), or if your environment does not provide the physical infrastructure or supplies to finish building a new physical device, you will be unable to develop the Idea or solution to your problem.

2. Liquid Networks: Great ideas can develop when information is allowed to flow through a larger network. One possible network is a social network, or often and more specifically, a professional network. The focus of this is the ability to collaborate to solve problems. It turns out that there are almost no great ideas throughout history that have been developed in isolation or by an individual who did not need any help in the development of that great idea. One may think Newton or Einstein did their work in isolation, but this is not entirely true. Those two individuals come about as close as you can get to not needing a network to develop the laws of motion or relativity, but they relied on some level of feedback, reading others’ work, and ultimately talking and discussing issues with close colleagues and friends.
An interesting study was done that looked at how research groups reach the coveted ‘Eureka!’ moment, where a new discovery is made. It turns out that these rare moments of discovery or problem solving almost never happen in the lab! Instead, the ‘Aha!’ are yelled out at the conference table, where members of the group are throwing ideas around and sharing results of their latest work over the past week. The person who figures it out needs to have input they have not thought about from the larger group or network, before the grand idea is formed….

Read the rest here.

Elementary, my dear Watson — for humans

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron ]

On the face of it, the two events described here – the super-match in which IBM’s Watson computer beat two human Jeopardy champs, and the crowd-sourced protein-folding experiment in which nearly 60,000 gamers fared better than a supercomputer — would seem to say, respectively, that computers can defeat humans, and that humans can beat computers. So what’s to believe?


I don’t think the opposition holds up on closer inspection, however.

Watson may have beaten the human contestants in Jeopardy, but as the paragraph I quoted shows, it was nonetheless a human that “had the last word”.

Ben Zimmer in The Atlantic goes on to describe just how clever that “last word” actually was:

If you are a fan of The Simpsons, you’ll be able to identify it as a riff on a line from the 1994 episode, “Deep Space Homer,” wherein clueless news anchor Kent Brockman is briefly under the mistaken impression that a “master race of giant space ants” is about to take over Earth. “I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords,” Brockman says, sucking up to the new bosses. “I’d like to remind them that as a trusted TV personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground sugar caves.”
Even if you’re not intimately familiar with that episode (and you really should be), you might have come across the “Overlord Meme,” which uses Brockman’s line as a template to make a sarcastic statement of submission: “I, for one, welcome our (new) ___ overlord(s).” Over on Language Log, where I’m a contributor, we’d call this kind of phrasal template a “snowclone,” and that one’s been on our radar since 2004. So it’s a repurposed pop-culture reference wrapped in several layers of irony.

Frankly, Watson isn’t up to that level of clever – it would take a Sherlock or a Mycroft to pull that off…
So in that first instance, the computer apparently beats the humans, but the humans come across as brighter than the computer all the same.
More or less the opposite happens with my second example. Here we have tens of thousands of humans pitted against a single computer, and the humans appear to have the edge – but do they?
It’s not the individual human brain that wins here, but what you might term “massively parallel human processing” – which isn’t nearly as impressive.
So there are in fact three kinds of ingenuity on display here: the original small-group human ingenuity that constructed the machine, the machine’s own mechanical ingenuity, and the combined ingenuity of sixty thousand humans in distributed collaboration


Look, here’s my challenge. The folks at IBM need to read Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi, and figure out how to create the sort of computer that could best Joseph Knecht at his own game

Let’s make that a little easier. they need to be able to recognize rich analogies across wide disciplinary distances — well enough to come up with a relationship comparable in its impact on two previously unrelated fields of knowledge to, say, the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture linking elliptic curves and modular forms

Simpler still: they need to be able to play one of my HipBone Games – see Derek Robinson‘s description of the games in The HipBone Games, AI and the rest — well enough to pass a Turing test.


Elementary, my dear Watson…

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