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Redux: I’d like to game an idea entering a mind

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — another angle on the whole idea of qualitative node-&-edge graphs for concept mapping ]

Image of a virus letting its DNA loose in a cell, from the Bjork app-game-song

The other day I found myself re-reading a comment I’d made on Zen’s post The Games People Play back in January 2008, which I’d been searching for in the back of my mind for months — too attic-like and cobwebbed, probably not the best place to look for it. In any case, now I’ve found it I’ve dusted it off and offer it here for your consideration:


Ideas can be infectious.  We know this, and thus we can explore the spread of ideas using models drawn from epidemiology, an approach which Malcolm Gladwell takes in his book Tipping Point. Ideas can also be viewed as existing in an ecosystem, and thus what we know of genetics can be applied to them, as Dawkins suggested in coining the term "meme". Having said that, I’d still like to game an idea entering a mind.

Specifically, I would like to game the way in which the idea that constitutes "martyrdom" (shahada) in an al-Qaida mind enters a mind that’s primed with the ideas of Tablighi Jamaat, for instance, and once it’s "in," conforms the idea of "obligation" (fard) that’s already present in TJ’s non-violent and apolitical version into the al-Q sense of the word — that "to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty (fard ‘ayn) for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it"… I’m thinking of something along the lines of the kind of research that allows someone to write, describing the John Cunningham virus (JCV):

the JC virus enters the central nervous system by fastening itself to the 5HT2AR receptor for serotonin, which is found on the surface of glial cells.  When this receptor for serotonin is triggered, it opens the pathway that allows the virus to enter the cell.

The thing is, we can manage a very brief verbal sketch of how an idea enters a mind and becomes part of a person’s "thinking" — and we can model in some detail the way that an idea spreads through a population — but we’re not very good at modeling, or gaming, thought processes.  And from my POV, that’s the most fascinating challenge of all.

My question is: what kind of game should this be, how do we set up the board, what markers shall we have for ideas or parts of ideas and for views or congregations of ideas, what rules do we need to use in combining them, etc — how do we get as close to a mental conversation as humanly possible?

I happen to think that meditators will have quite a bit to teach us here, that the Tibetans may have a better vantage point than we as a culture do… because they’ve been watching the mind, and in particular watching its various coiled springs uncoil, and putting the process into words, for longer than we have. But it will take a whole new series of aha!s to really figure this out.


The result wouldn’t look like the image at the top of this post — it might look more like a PERT chart, but with sequences of ideas rather than actions. And it would be based on narratives, not theories. Above all, it would be multi-voiced, polyphonic, fluid — like that diagram from Edward Tufte about the Ocean of Stories:

That’s it — what say you all?

The Bjork Virus video can be found here, the Virus app-game-song can apparently be downloaded here.

Of Kony and Constellation

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — non-linearity, complexity, “constellational thinking”, a quick spin around the blogosphere, history, Walter Benjamin — following on from Nancy Fouts ]

image: Galileo Galilei, Siderius Nuncius (i.e. The Starry Messenger), 1610

The novelist Teju Cole has a piece in the Atlantic that’s triggered by the Kony2012 business, and zooms out to touch on much else besides. His piece is titled The White Savior Industrial Complex, and as I was reading it, I came across a phrase that tweaked my keen interest. Cole is talking about Nicholas Kristof, and writes:

His good heart does not always allow him to think constellationally. He does not connect the dots or see the patterns of power behind the isolated “disasters.” All he sees are hungry mouths, and he, in his own advocacy-by-journalism way, is putting food in those mouths as fast as he can. All he sees is need, and he sees no need to reason out the need for the need.

By my lights, “he sees no need to reason out the need for the need” is a powerful tongue-twister, but it’s the phrase “to think constellationally” that interests me here.

Cole returns to a slight variant on the phrase later, this time saying:

Success for Kony 2012 would mean increased militarization of the anti-democratic Yoweri Museveni government, which has been in power in Uganda since 1986 and has played a major role in the world’s deadliest ongoing conflict, the war in the Congo. But those whom privilege allows to deny constellational thinking would enjoy ignoring this fact.

Constellational thinking, then, connects the dots, sees the patterns behind isolated events, sees not just the events themselves but also the circumstances that caused them – and its absence allows us to reduce complexly-interwoven reality to one or more simplistic polarities — better suited to sound bites than to analysis.


Cole also points us to Rosebell Kagumire‘s video response to the Kony affair, and she in turn has her own way of addressing the same kind of reduction of complexity to simplicity. She wrote, back on March 8th:

For the last many hours i have followed a campaign by Invisible Children NGO called KONY2012 that has gone viral getting more than 20 million hits on Youtube. I am a story teller and i know the danger of a single story.

So simple, that: I know the danger of a single story.

Remember the Ocean of the Streams of Story diagram in my post almost a week ago, Countering Violent Extremism: variants on a theme? Edward Tufte designed it, to illustrate a paragraph by Salman Rushdie

The truth of a complex situation lives in the interweaving of many stories, not in a single strand, a single view.


Constellations — of thoughts, of ideas.

image: Eugen Gomringer, Constellation, ca 1960

I did some digging – I’m not the Oxford English Dictionary, and I can’t say for sure that any particular use of “constellation” marks its first appearance in the sense that interests me here – Eugen Gomringer‘s Constellations (from 1954 onwards, example above) may be relevant in an avant-garde way– but my search brought me to a post by Liz Danzico at Bobulate titled Celestial History, in which Liz wrote:

Teaching constellations is an exercise in storytelling. You see, dots, these anonymous light encrusted patterns, must be memorized and categorized, and it’s only through stories that one can make sense of them. Starting with the north star, and systematically creating relationships in the winter sky among Hercules and Sagittarius, Libra and Polaris, we told tales. We’d trade stories on top of the old stone building in the middle of dark campus until late into the night. Creating these stories, giving Hercules a relationship to Cassiopeia — true or not, good or not, believable or not, it didn’t matter — what mattered were that patterns were found and marked.

Marking patterns and making content accessible through stories is what we do. And often, still, when we begin, we’re in the dark.


This post in turn lead Robin Sloan at Snarkmarket to write a quick note of praise, Explosions in the sky, which drew a comment from Tim of Short Schrift that said:

After the Copernican revolution, a constellation isn’t even a constellation. Instead, it’s a two-dimensional flattening of a three-dimensional reality. Actually, we should probably say a FOUR-dimensional reality. The light from stars at varying distances, leaving their sources at various times in the distant past, gets mistaken, from our earthbound point-of-view, as a simultaneous two-dimensional pattern.

BUT! That distortion, that accident, produces something extremely powerful — both imaginatively and practically.

Take “constellational thinking” and apply it to something besides stars in space. Let’s say — history.

Over here, you’ve got the Roman Republic, over there, the French Revolution. Distant in time, distant in geography, no kind of causal proximity let alone a relationship between them.

But bam! Slap them together. View them as a single event, a collapse of time.

Now you begin to see the French Revolution the way part of the Revolution saw itself, as an explosion of the continuum of history.

Now — and sorry if I slow-played this — you’re in Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History.” Now you’re performing a genuinely three-dimensional nonlinear reading of historical time.

Consider that process, spelled out in the phrases “Distant in time, distant in geography, no kind of causal proximity let alone a relationship between them. But bam! Slap them together. View them as a single event, a collapse of time.”

Consider how that “fits” the same Arthur Koestler model of thinking I was on about yesterday in my post Nancy Fouts and the heart of the matter, in which I described:

the “release of cognitive tension” that occurs when some form of analogy, similitude, overlap allows the mind to join conceptual clusters from two fields in a “creative leap”


Well, I’m not along in finding this sort of thing useful. Here’s bethr from Mixed Bits writing on tumblr:

Constellational thinking

Omigosh… I’ve been using this phrase in numerous conversations for at least 4 years, usually when attempting to describe how I seem to process information and think, in contrast to the linear thinking which is more prevalent and encouraged in my profession. I’ve never heard anyone else use this phrase…it excites me that others have applied the same phrase and metaphor to the same idea and have articulated it much better than I ever have.


And Walter Benjamin:

image: Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920

Turning to Walter Benjamin’s On the Concept of History for a moment, we find a remarkable and justly celebrated paragraph about the angel depicted above, a 1920 Paul Klee painted etching which Benjamin himself once owned, now housed in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem:

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.


More prosaically, Benjamin then gives us the twinned realities to which Tim had pointed in his comment at Snarkmarket:

For Robespierre, Roman antiquity was a past charged with the here-and-now, which he exploded out of the continuum of history. The French revolution thought of itself as a latter day Rome. It cited ancient Rome exactly the way fashion cites a past costume. Fashion has an eye for what is up-to-date, wherever it moves in the jungle of what was.


Benjamin’s “moment” — his here-and-now — has passed, perhaps. The nuances discoverable through juxtaposition, counterpoint, overlay, constellational thinking, remain.

Countering Violent Extremism: variants on a theme

Saturday, March 17th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — modeling / scoring CVE as a flow of ideas, with related matter from Hesse, Melville, Tufte, Rushdie and John Seely Brown ]

[ graphic: McCants / Berger, see below ]

I am interested in thoughts: in the way thoughts connect to one another, differ from one another, lead to one another, parallel or echo one another, and oppose one another…

That’s my interest, that’s me.


So when Will McCants of Jihadica posts the first two parts of his three-part series on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), two points in particular strike me:

McCants proposes his own definition for CVE – “Reducing the number of terrorist group supporters through non-coercive means” – in part 1 of his presentation, indicating what in his view it should and shouldn’t involve, and in supporting this definition, he notes (recommendation #3):

The focus is not on reducing support for ideas, which is difficult to judge, but rather support for specific organizations that embody those ideas and seek their realization, which is easier to document and more closely related to criminal behavior.

In part 2, he mentions “thought police” twice, the second time saying:

But if counter terrorism is to involve more than just locking people up, it should not stray too far from stopping bomb throwers into social engineering and thought policing.

I’m definitely not into thought police either — but while I’d agree that ideas are by nature difficult to track or assess, that’s nonetheless where my own curiosity and creativity finds its level.


Just how CVE should operate in general is outside my scope — but since I do tend to focus in on ideas, I have the sense that paralleling McCant’s diagram of the approximate stages of support for terrorist groups:

or the version JM Berger reworked with McCants and posted on Intelwire, which I’ve placed at the top of this post — there could in theory be a diagram of the evolution of thought that accompanies those stages, and that such a diagram, intricate though it would undoubtedly be, might still be of some use.


It seems to me that two main streams off thought – some might say “narrative” — would tend to flow together towards the eventual outcome of full radicalization and active jihad.

  • One stream would begin with dissatisfaction and wend its way through a general sense of injustice in the world to the idea that Islamic nations and groups in particular are being targeted for military interventions by America and its allies, perhaps with a detour though the issues associated with “underdog” Palestinians, and thence towards a sympathy for jihadists, some level of identification with the Ummah, formal acceptance at some point of Islam (ie the taking of the Shahada), to an acceptance that jihad is an individual obligation for able Muslims under present circumstances…
  • The other stream would arise from religious seeking and theological speculation, finding in Islam a simple and clear-cut answer to the seeker’s questions, via further discussion and the taking of Shahada — and then move along roughly the same trajectory that Daveed Gartenstein-Ross meticulously chronicled in his first, less widely known book, My Year Inside Radical Islam: A Memoir, with an emphasis on an increasingly “puritanical” salafi / wahhabi / deobandi interpretation of the religion, which can then lead in turn to a sense of potential political ramifications, again that the West is involved not merely in wars that happen to be in Muslim countries but in wars against the Ummah, and thence again to the acceptance of jihad as individual obligation.

That individual obligation (fard ‘ayn) being, I suspect, the likely “bottleneck” where any and all such streams would converge.


For those interested in how this ties in with wider currents in contemporary thought, and with the bead game in particular:

I said above that I am interested in thoughts. I mean by this that my natural focus is more on thoughts than on people. Not that this is better or worse than some other focus…

In Hermann Hesse terms, I’m more interested in the great game of juxtaposed cultural contents played by the Castalians in his book Magister Ludi:

All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number.

than I am in the game that Hesse tells us he played in reverie while raking and burning leaves in his garden — visualizing the great men of all times walking and talking together across the centuries – a game which quite a few great minds seem to have stumbled upon, and which Hermann Melville describes in his novel, Mardi:

In me, many worthies recline, and converse. I list to St. Paul who argues the doubts of Montaigne; Julian the Apostate cross- questions Augustine: and Thomas-a-Kempis unrolls his old black letters for all to decipher. Zeno murmurs maxims beneath the hoarse shout of Democritus; and though Democritus laugh loud and long, and the sneer of Pyrrho be seen; yet, divine Plato, and Proclus, and Verulam are of my counsel; and Zoroaster whispered me before I was born… My memory is a life beyond birth; my memory, my library of the Vatican, its alcoves all endless perspectives, eve-tinted by cross-lights from Middle-Age oriels…

Both modes are valuable, I’d suggest, both are worth pursuing.


Edward Tufte has the above diagram in Visual Explanations, one of his several beautiful and profound books. That diagram in turn is based on Salman Rushdie‘s description of the Indian epid Kathasaritsagara or Ocean of the Streams of Story in his book Haroun and the Sea of Stories:

…the Water Genie told Haroun about the Ocean of the Streams of Story, and even though he was full of a sense of hopelessness and failure the magic of the Ocean began to have an effect on Haroun. He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and [the Water Genie] explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories…

That diagram offers a quick approximation to the idea that I’d like to be able to model / diagram / score the ideas in play in CVE.


If an idea is timely, it will find its kin — that’s one way to check that you’re not hopelessly out to lunch — and I certainly feel kinship with Tufte, Rushdie and Hesse here.

This, from John Seely Brown‘s opening keynote [video] at the 2012 Digital Media and Learning Conference, also strikes a kindred note for me:

How do you participate on the ever-moving flows of activities, knowledge and so on and so forth; how do you move from being like a steamship that sets course and keeps going for a long time to what you might call whitewater-kayaking, that you have to be in the flow, and you have to be able to pick things up on the moment, you gotta feel it with your body, you gotta be a part of that, you’ve gotta be in it, not just above it and learning about it. … In this new world of flows, participating in these knowledge flows is an active sport. And the whole catch is, how do you participate in these flows…?


Ideas as flows, radicalization processes as flows — it’s mapping, modeling, and scoring them that really catches my own interest. It is still early days as yet…

Happy Birthday, Emlyn, and Applause, xkcd

Sunday, March 20th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron ]


My son, Emlyn, turns sixteen today.

He’s not terribly fond of computers to be honest — but he does follow xkcd with appreciation, as do I from time to time: indeed, I am led to believe I receive some credit for that fact.

So… this is a birthday greeting to Emlyn, among other things. And a round of applause for Randall Munroe, creator of xkcd. And a post comparing more reliable and less reliable statistics, because that’s a singularly important issue — the more reliable ones in this/ case coming from a single individual with an expert friend, the less reliable ones coming from a huge corporation celebrated for its intelligence and creativity… and with a hat-tip to Cheryl Rofer of the Phronesisaical blog.

The DoubleQuote:


Radiation exposure:

Today, xkcd surpassed itself / his Randallself / ourselves, with a graphic showing different levels of radiation exposure from sleeping next to someone (0.05 muSv, represented by one tiny blue square top left) or eating a banana (twice as dangerous, but only a tenth as nice) up through the levels (all the blue squares combined equal three of the tiny green ones, all the green squares combined equal 7.5 of the little brown ones, and the largest patch of brown (8Sv) is the level where immediate treatment doesn’t stand a chance of saving your life)…

The unit is Sieverts, Sv: 1000 muSv = 1 mSv, 1000 mSv= 1 Sv, sleeping next to someone is an acceptable risk at 0.05 muSv, a mammogram (3 mSv) delivers a little over 50,000 times that level of risk and saves countless lives, 250 mSv is the dose limit for emergency workers in life-saving ops — oh, and cell phone use is risk-free, zero muSv, radiation-wise, although dangerous when driving. [I apologize for needing to write “mu” when I intend the Greek letter by that name, btw — software glitch with the ZP version of WordPress.]

The xkcd diagram comes with this disclaimer:

There’s a lot of discussion of radiation from the Fukushima plants, along with comparisons to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Radiation levels are often described as “ times the normal level” or “% over the legal limit,” which can be pretty confusing.

Ellen, a friend of mine who’s a student at Reed and Senior Reactor Operator at the Reed Research Reactor, has been spending the last few days answering questions about radiation dosage virtually nonstop (I’ve actually seen her interrupt them with “brb, reactor”). She suggested a chart might help put different amounts of radiation into perspective, and so with her help, I put one together. She also made one of her own; it has fewer colors, but contains more information about what radiation exposure consists of and how it affects the body.

I’m not an expert in radiation and I’m sure I’ve got a lot of mistakes in here, but there’s so much wild misinformation out there that I figured a broad comparison of different types of dosages might be good anyway. I don’t include too much about the Fukushima reactor because the situation seems to be changing by the hour, but I hope the chart provides some helpful context.

Blog-friend Cheryl Rofer, whose work has included remediation of uranium tailings at the Sillamäe site in Estonia (she co-edited the book on it, Turning a Problem Into a Resource: Remediation and Waste Management at the Sillamäe Site, Estonia) links to xkcd’s effort at the top of her post The Latest on Fukushima and Some Great Web Resources and tells us it “seems both accurate and capable of giving some sense of the relative exposures that are relevant to understanding the issues at Fukushima” — contrast her comments on a recent New York Times graphic:

In other radiation news, the New York Times may have maxed out on the potential for causing radiation hysteria. They’ve got a graphic that shows everybody dead within a mile from the Fukushima plant. As I noted yesterday, you need dose rate and time to calculate an exposure. The Times didn’t bother with that second little detail.

In any case, many thanks, Cheryl — WTF, NYT? — and WTG, xkcd!


Once again, xkcd nails it.

I’ve run into this problem myself, trying to use Google to gauge the relative frequencies of words or phrases that interest me — things like moshiach + soon vs “second coming” + soon vs mahdi + soon, you know the kinds of things that I’m curious about, I forget the specific examples where it finally dawned on me how utterly useless Google’s “About XYZ,000 results (0.21 seconds)” rankings really are — but the word needs to get out.


Paging Edward Tufte.

Sixteen today:

Happy Birthday, Emlyn!

A HipBone approach to analysis V: DARPA and storytelling

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — cross posted from DIME/PMESII ]

I seem to be writing some mini-essays that braid together more of the various strands of my interests and thinking than usual – geopolitics and poetics, games and reality, warfare and peacemaking.

Here’s one that I posted yesterday, on a list devoted to modeling and simulation, in a topic discussing DARPA’s STORyNET briefing tomorrow.


DARPA and Storytelling:


Sophocles, pushing the human mind to its limit, genius, wrote the Oedipus trilogy. His plays, which turn on the parallel guilt and innocence of a man who – unknowingly, the fated plaything of cruel gods — kills his father and sleeps with his own mother, were performed by the great actors of his day in the great amphitheater of Epidaurus, the sanctuary of Aesculapius to which the Greeks went for healing.

Freud, also brilliant, also concerned with the human mind and healing, reduced Sophocles’ plot to his own “Oedipus Complex” – which he would then painstakingly find in the murkiest regions of his patients’ mental processing.

Further reduced, the concept becomes a word of abuse so radical it takes two letters, one hyphen and ten asterisks to print it – and finally, it slides into song and speech as mofo, all meaning leached from the two words, let alone the complex insights of Sophocles or Freud.


Story, you might say, has a trunk, limbs, branches, lesser branches, twigs…

Trees and ferns, we now know, are fractal. The mathematical “story” of a tree is arguably just one story: branching. Different trees branch differently, the yucca pushing out its limbs in 90 degree rotation, oaks and birches, beeches and cottonwoods, poplars and ferns each having their own mathematical characteristics, and each individual of each species answering to certain specifics of context – water, sunlight, wind forming clusters of trees into copses.

For the purposes of lumber, the “trunk” of a story may be enough, or trunk and limbs, mofo or m*****-f***** an adequate telling of Sophocles tale. For a winter wood supply, cords of sawn branches, for a camp fire, some branches some twigs — for Sophocles, for Ansel Adams, the one pushing the human mind to its limit, genius, only the full tree, root, stem, branch, and leaf, rich in all its detail and context, will suffice.


So there are six stories, there is only one, the stories in the ocean of stories are infinite, as Salman Rushdie, another of those who pushes the human mind to its limit tells us:

… the Water Genie told Haroun about the Ocean of the Streams of Story, and even though he was full of a sense of hopelessness and failure the magic of the Ocean began to have an effect on Haroun. He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and [the Water Genie] explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories …

— and as Edward Tufte, another of the pushers of the mind, illustrates for us in his beautiful book, Visual Explanations, in a page or two of which this snapshot gives only a poor glimpse.


So there is utility in the single equation, the single story line, and there is use for the outlines of the major branchings and knowing the main varieties of trees, and there is beauty and insight and pushing the mind to its limit in the whole tree, individual and splendid in all its detail, the great story, magnificently branching from its seed-story under the influence of a Shakespeare, a Kafka, a Dostoyevsky, a Borges, a Rushdie…

The full spectrum of understanding that narrative might bring us will be found when the full spectrum from “one story” through “six” or “sixteen” to Rushdie’s “infinity” is taken into account, when we weigh the insights of the great novelists and poets of all cultures – Rumi, Shakespeare, Kalidasa, the anonymous singers of the Navajo Beautyway – alongside those of the critic, the psychoanalyst, the guy who puts together the Cliff’s Notes, and the editor with a headache’s headline version of the tale.

We need the forester and the lumber baron, the watercolorist and the fellow who identifies the habitats of the Lepidopterae

Narrative goes all the way from the obvious platitude to the work of genius. Somewhere along that scale, each one of us will have our area of interest, the place where our skill set fits and perhaps stretches. Numbers of board feet and likely return on investment can be assessed by quantitative means: the beauty of a particular oak tree in the eye of the novelist John Fowles is entirely qualitative, as is the language he must use to describe it.


I suspect DARPA may be stuck at the quantitative end of the spectrum. The mind of a Musab al-Suri demands a finer level of interpretation.

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