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Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lector and Simonides

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — the art of memory, with a sidelong glance at swans, typhoid and theodicy ]

Thomas Harris (and by extension Hannibal Lector) has been interested in memory palaces for a long time. We can begin to infer this this because Lector describes his hobby in Red Dragon (1981) and again in Silence of the Lambs (1988):

So — church collapses?


As you can tell from that last comment in the Silence of the Lambs quote — to my mind the most brilliant presentation of the problem of theodicy for our day — if there’s a God worth defending, it has to be a God who allows sparrows to fall, typhoid to accompany swans in the vast ecology of existence, churches to collapse on worshipers, and “bad things to happen to good people” from time to time.

And such things, specifically including collapses of religious buildings atop worshipers, do indeed happen in fact as well as fiction.

And they don’t only happen to Christians, either… Bon is the shamanistic religious tradition of Tibet, prior to — and later, somewhat assimilated by — Buddhism


The thing is, when I read that Hannibal Lector collected church collapses, it not only made me start to take note of them myself, it also made me think of Simonides. As Frances Yates tells us in her book, The Art of Memory:

At a banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honour of his host but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him halfthe sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests to death beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the crash. And this experience suggested to the poet the principles of the art of memory of which he is said to have been the inventor. Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies, he realised that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory.

And by way of reinforcing my Lector-Simonides conjecture, Lector certainly had a remarkable interest in memory, as we learn from his dialogue with Clarice Starling:

“Did you do the drawings on your walls, Doctor?”
“Do you think I called in a decorator?”
“The one over the sink is a European city?”
“It’s Florence. That’s the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo, seen from the Belvedere.”
“Did you do it from memory, all the detail?”
“Memory, Officer Starling, is what I have instead of a view.”

A belvedere, from the Italian, is “a structure (as a cupola or a summerhouse) designed to command a view” — and a beautiful view at that. Belvedere is also, ironically, the name of the town in Ohio where Buffalo Bill, Lector’s serial killer ex-patient, lives…


So it didn’t surprise me to discover that in Hannibal (1999), the book that follows Silence, this brilliant man who as we have seen collects church collapses and has an exquisite memory in place of a view, is revealed as a practitioner of Simonides’ art:

The memory palace was a mnemonic system well known to ancient scholars and much information was preserved in them through the Dark Ages while Vandals burned the books. Like scholars before him, Dr. Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr.Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s own harp.

Hannibal Lecter’s palace is vast, even by medieval standards. Translated to the tangible world it would rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul for size and complexity.

We catch up to him as the swift slippers of his mind pass from the foyer into the Great Hall of the Seasons. The palace is built according to the rules discovered by Simonides of Ceos and elaborated by Cicero four hundred years later; it is airy, high-ceilinged, furnished with objects and tableaux that are vivid, striking, sometimes shocking and absurd, and often beautiful. The displays are well spaced and well lighted like those of a great museum. But the walls are not the neutral colors of museum walls. Like Giotto, Dr. Lecter has frescoed the walls of his mind.

Brilliant. And a delight, years later, to have my hunch connecting the church collapses and prison cell with only memory for a view with Simonides and the Art of Memory confirmed by the third book and film in the series…

You’ll note, btw, that the Lector (caveat lector) of the first two books has now become Lecter in alignment with the films starring Anthony Hopkins.


I love symmetries, so let’s move from the most monstrous criminal mind in literature, to the greatest detective…

Sherlock Holmes — in his latest television incarnation — builds memory palaces of a sort, though I’m not sure Simonides would recognize them.

I’m posting the clip from the series here to honor my son Emlyn, with whom I have been watching the series…


And then there’s the Jesuit whose use of the Art is explored in Jonathan Spence‘s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci:

In 1596 Matteo Ricci taught the Chinese how to build a memory palace. He told them that the size of the palace would depend on how much they wanted to remember: the most ambitious construction would consist of several hundred buildings of all shapes and sizes, “the more there are the better it will be,” said Ricci, thought he added that one did not have to build on a gradiose scale right away. One coul create modest palaces, or one could build less dramatic structures such as a temple compound, a cluster of government offices, a public hostel, or a merchants’s meeting lodge. If one wished to begin on a still smaller scale, then one could erect a simple reception hall, a pavilion, or a studio. And if one wanted an intimate space one could use just the corner of a pavilion, or an altar in a temple, or even such a homely object as a wardrobe or a divan.

You’ll note that in this early example of virtual reality as an pedagogical technology, Ricci doesn’t start with the easy stuff, the single wardrobe or divan — he begins with “the most ambitious construction”…

Enough for now. When I want to talk about in a follow up post is detail… the crucial importance of detail.

Corn’s Caliphates in Wonderland

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

They Just Don’t Make Caliphates Like They Used To….

SWJ Blog featured a lengthy (30 page) essay by Dr. Tony Corn on….well….many things. Corn begins with caliphates and then sort of takes off much like a blown up balloon abruptly released by a child prior to tying a knot in the end.

The Clash of the Caliphates: Understanding the Real War of Ideas by Dr. Tony Corn

….For one thing, within the global umma, there appears to be as many conceptions of the ideal Caliphate as there are Muslims. This grass-roots longing for a symbol of unity should be heard with the proverbial Freudian -third ear,?? and seen for what it really is, i.e., a symptom rather than a disease. For another, by agreeing to establish diplomatic relations with the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), America and Europe have, in essence, already granted the OIC the status of a Quasi-Caliphate.

More important still, it is time for Western policy-makers to realize that the ideological rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran that has been going on since 1979 constitutes nothing less than a Clash of the Caliphates. Through a soft power strategy blurring the distinction between -public diplomacy?? and -political warfare,?? -humanitarian aid?? and -religious propaganda,?? the two states have been the main drivers of the re-Islamization process throughout the Muslim world. The one-upmanship dynamic generated by the rivalry between these two fundamentalist regimes is the main reason why, from the Balkans to Pakistan, the re-Islamization of the global umma has taken a radical, rather than moderate, dimension.

Ok, “caliphates” as a metaphor/analogy for geopolitical rivalry of Muslim states works but it is not really what Islamists or normal Muslims would mean by the term. It is a very odd usage. I’m not overly bothered by that because I tend to like analogies but Corn’s device here is apt to make the heads of area studies and Islamic history scholars explode. The whole essay is in this meandering, idiosyncratic, vein.

Now that is not to suggest that you should not read the piece. Dr. Corn held my attention all the way through and he has a number of excellent observations on many, loosely related, subjects. For example, after discussing the pernicious effects of Saudi donations and Edward Said’s agitprop theory of “Orientalism” on the intellectual objectivity of academia, Corn writes:

…The combined effect of the House of Saud and the House of Said is the first reason why the Ivory Tower has done such a poor job identifying the nature of Muslim Exceptionalism. A more indirect, yet more insidious, reason is that, unlike in the early days of the Cold War, American academics across the board today are trained in social sciences rather than educated in the humanities. For social scientists, Explanation (erklaren) and -theory-building?? take precedence over Understanding (verstehen) and -policy-making. The victory of the -numerates over the -literates in the 1970s has produced a generation of scholars who show a certain virtuosity when it comes to -research design, but display an amazing lack, not just of historical literacy, but of -historical empathy as well. Not to make too fine a point: the Long War is being waged by a generation of policy-makers who, however articulate, never learned anything about history in their college years

Corn is spot on here. Not only is it spot on, it is likely to get much worse. After a brief qualitative “bump” from Iraq-Afghan war  language trained vets, diplos, analysts and spooks peters out, we will have the Gen Y kids with K-12 educations scrubbed free of history, foreign languages and science graduating from college with communication and marketing degrees and entering government service. Hang on to your hat when that happens.

What Corn really requires to vault his essays to the next level are the services of an experienced editor because less would be more. The man is erudite and insightful. He writes forcefully and raises a number of points that are important and with which I agree. Corn, commendably, also makes more of an effort to connect the dots than most. But maybe, if you have an essay that references David Kilcullen, Trotsky, neo-Ottomanism, lawfare, Sam Huntington, neo-COIN, Nasser, Vatican II, the Comintern, the Hapsburgs, Ataturk, public diplomacy, al- Qaradawi, social media, Fascism, Marc Lynch, Youtube, network theory, the UN, hybrid wars and the Protestant Reformation, it might be time to up the Ritalin dosage a notch. Jesus, there’s either a book proposal or four different articles in that kitchen sink of an op-ed!

Read it and take what is useful.

Quite Cool, But…..

Friday, January 14th, 2011

Commercialization of a step toward singularity.  Impressive!

Now, all those in favor of having corporations record your unique brainwave patterns and share that data with third parties raise your hands.

More Mackinlay – On Why the USG Doesn’t “Get” AQ as a “Global Insurgency”

Monday, April 19th, 2010

I continue to be impressed with Dr. John Mackinlay‘s  The Insurgent Archipelago . You might not agree with everything Mackinlay has to say on insurgency or COIN theory but his book is deeply thought-provoking the way The Pentagon’s New Map, Brave New War or The Genius of the Beast are thought-provoking books. As a reader, you highlight. You underline. You scribble praise, condemnation or some relevant factoid in the margins.

This is going to be an influential text.


In Mackinlay’s view, America and the West have failed to adequately understand what and whom they are fighting in the War on Terror. The phenomenon that has eluded them is that alongside older, Maoist iterations of guerrilla warfare, the cutting edge of insurgency has evolved up into a decentralized, networked, partly virtual, Post-Maoism. General staffs, intelligence services, national security officials and diplomats remained hypnotized by the Maoist model that was so frequently aped in the 60’s and 70’s by secular leftists and Third World Marxists in Vietnam, Algeria and subsaharan Africa.

Some excerpts, followed by my analysis, which you are free to disagree with or just put in your own two cents about in the comments section:

Mackinlay writes [p. 164]:

….NATO governments and a majority of their security staff did not recognize post-Maoism as a form of insurgency either. Although they lived in a post-industrial era and directly experienced its social consequences, they dealt with post-9/11 insurgent phenomenon from a Maoist perspective; they neither saw it nor engaged it as a global movement that involved a greater array of dispersed supporters. They also failed to recognize it as an insurgency.

Very true. Even though if the organizational behavior of al Qaida and its affiliated movements had taken place within one nation-state, Cold War era graybeard officials and international law NGO activists of 2001-2004 vintage would have called them a guerilla movement; that al Qaida’s activities took place across many international borders seriously confounded them in an intellectual sense. Obviously, they must be common criminals, no different than junkies who stick-up a 7-11, to be properly mirandized! Call the FBI and have OJ’s dream team ready when we make an arrest! Or Osama is a state-sponsored terrorists of Saddam! No, wait, of Iran!

And so it went, and still goes on to this day as the USG contorts itself into a legal pretzel  in order to never have proper war crimes trials or execute convicted war criminals. Or even admit they are “Islamists” motivated by a reified ideology (Mackinlay’s term “Post-Maoist” may soon come in to vogue at the NSC).

America is like the Gulliver of COIN, bound fast by the cords of politically correct nonsense.

….Because few academics had explained insurgency as a multidisciplinary, as opposed to a narrowly military, process they failed to see how their own populations were vulnerable to insurgent movements, and that when it happened to them it would not look like its classic Maoist antecedent. Countering insurgency required a counterintuitive effort and making this intellectual leap was problematic when military planners had such an idee fixe of insurgency as eternally Maoist form.

I interpret this paragraph as Mackinlay blending the Euro-Anglo-American state of affairs, but it does not apply equally to all, in my view.

Humanities and social science academics are simply not as good at or as intellectually comfortable with true multidisciplinary thinking as are their counterparts in the hard sciences. Nor are the social science faculty particularly friendly, in most universities, toward the US national security and intelligence communities or the Pentagon (though I suspect the situation in 2010 is better than in 2000 or 1990). Nor are American universities oversupplied with military historians or scholars of strategic studies.

Academia, however is not at fault as much as Mackinlay indicates. Even if we had Clausewitz collaborating with Ibn Khaldun and Marshall Mcluhan to write our white papers, the USG interagency process is fundamentally broken and could not execute their recommendations. State is grossly underfunded, institutionally disinclined to turn out FSO’s in the mold of Errol Flynn and is in need of a systemic overhaul. USIA and USAID need to be reborn as heavyweight players. The CIA has problems almost as severe as does State and does not play well with others, including the DNI. There is no “whole of government” approach present that could approximate an “operational jointness”, so presidents increasingly rely on the military as the hammer for all nails ( the military may not do the right thing but at least it does something, as the saying goes).

Mackinlay writes [p. 164-165]

….By 2008 the most up-to-date doctrine was still stuck in expeditionary form, in other words focused on a campaign epicentre that lay in a particular overseas territory and its traditional, or at best modernising, society. The following characteristics that distinguished post-Maoism had not been engaged:

  • The involvement of multiple populations which challenged the concept of a center of gravity
  • Mass communications and connectivity
  • The migration factor
  • The virtual factor
  • The centrality of propaganda of the deed in the insurgent’s concept of operations
  • The bottom-up direction of activist energy
  • Absence of plausible end-state objectives in the insurgent’s manifesto

Mackinlay gets much right here but some things wrong – and what is incorrect is arguably quite important – but as an indictment of the failure of the West to adequately address globalized insurgency, it is spot on in many respects.

First, in regard to Mackinlay’s attack on Clausewitzian theory, I am not persuaded that a “center of gravity” for our enemies does not exist or apply so much as its form is not a particularly convenient one (i.e. -easily targetable) or politically comfortable for our elites to acknowledge.

We could conceive of al Qaida’s CoG being Bin Laden’s inner circle hiding somewhere in Pakistan – probably Rawalpindi – that we do not yet dare to strike. Or we could say that the CoG is al Qaida’s “plausible promise” that the “far enemy” of radical Islamism, the US, can be brought down, as was the USSR, by being bled to death by drawing America into endless and expensive wars. Or that the CoG is al Qaida’s peculair, Qutbist-inspired, takfiri, revolutionary Islamist ideology. Our elites recoil from openly confronting any of those possible scenarios but that does not mean that a CoG is not present, only that we lack the will to attack their CoG head-on.

US COIN doctrine is expeditionary – essentially internal COIN for America ended with the Compromise of 1877 and the end of three centuries of “Indian Wars”. Political correctness, not doctrinal rigidity, precludes recognizing Islamist lone wolf terrorists like Maj. Hasan as anything other than mentally ill spree killers, no different from the school shooters at Columbine or Andrew Cunanan. The USG would not recognize an insurgency in the states as an insurgency even if it had flags, a government-in-exile, an air force and armored divisions. Even the capture of verified and admitted members of al Qaida inside the United States, who are covered by a properly authorized AUMF, causes an epidemic of pants-wetting among the elite, if we proceed to try them with military tribunals or commissions.

We do not have a political elite as a national leadership who are prepared to entertain the full strategic ramifications of the existence of a “globalized insurgency”. They do not ignore it completely – the COIN doctrine articulated best by David Kilcullen and John Nagl is to de-fang al Qaida as a strategic threat by isolating it from the “Accidental Guerrilla” groups whose Islamist concerns are parochial and national in character rather than global. So, al Qaida is seen by the American national security community as a de facto globalized insurgency with a reach that extends everywhere – except of course inside the United States. Unless we intercept foreign Islamist terrorists crossing the border or boarding a plane, any violent actions committed here resembling terrorism are purely a law enforcement issue and must be wholly unrelated to Islamist extremism.

It’s a bizarrely illogical strategic worldview – and I fear its’ ostrich-like mentality has already spread from War on Terror policy to matters related to the empirically demonstrable, but continuously downplayed, spillover effects of Mexico’s growing narco-insurgency, where high officials prohibit unvarnished “truth telling” from practitioners in the field from reaching the ears of key decision-makers. It’s no way to run a war – or a country – unless the intent is to lose the former by systematically crippling the ability to respond of the latter.

Mackinlay’s characteristics of “Post-Maoism” strike directly and the political and methodological nerve clusters of a Western elite whose power and status are invested in hierarchical, bureaucratic, institutional structures that are defended from urgent demands to reform, in part, by their ideology of political correctness.

Books For a Near Future Review

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable by Mark Gilbert

Inside Cyber Warfare: Mapping the Cyber Underworld by Jeffrey Carr

Received courtesy review copies of two books that will serve to “stretch” my knowledge base and increase my cognitive map.

Mark Gilbert is a financial columnist and bureau chief for Bloomberg News in London and he has written a hard hitting deconstruction of the great credit collapse and crisis bail-out of 2008-2009. Gilbert is telling a story of breathtaking risk assumption, regulatory capture, academic hubris, central bankers as naked emperors and unrepentant banksters who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing from the crisis. My personal background in credit issues is rooted solidly in the dustily agrarian economic history of the 19th century and the painful transition from yeoman “book debt” to gold standard dollars, so I look forward to broadening my understanding of modern financial systems from reading Complicit.

I will probably review Complicit in a cross-blog conjunction with Lexington Green, who also has a copy in his possession.

Jeffrey Carr is the CEO of GreyLogic and a researcher, presenter and consultant on issues related to cybersecurity, hacking, cyberterrorism and asymmetric conflicts in virtual domains. Carr offers a cohesive and compact look at the major problems and players in the uncertain crossroads of national security and cyberspace. Non-geeks (like myself) will appreciate Carr’s focus in Inside Cyber Warfare on the connection to the worlds of intelligence, law enforcement, international law and military operations and doctrine. As an added bonus, the foreword is by Lewis Shepherd, another blogfriend and the former Senior Technology Officer of the DIA.

Originally, I had wanted to review Inside Cyber Warfare before last Christmas, so now that I have the book, I will move it to the top of my titanic reading pile.

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