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Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — this post is about comparisons — what you make of them, and what they make of you, death calculus, and Handel ]


Scraped from my morning read, these two quotes — a tweeted headline from Breitbart and a gobbit of the Jerusalem Post — neatly illustrate a paradox I’ve been wrestling with, the way more profound souls wrestle with angels [link is to Rilke].

It’s the paradox of comparison.


On the one hand, I can barely imagine what it would be like to build — with, say, enough funds for a latter-day Manhattan Project — a Department whose job it was to monitor all activities and ensure even-handedness in the allocation of resources.

So that not ever would a Presidential aide on vacation receive a security detail until each and every ambassador had an equivalent force of marines around them at any given moment, in embassy or out.

I mean, what about consuls, or CIA heads of station — are they ambassadorial enough? Members of the cabinet on vacation? Members of the National Security Council? How far do we need to go with our even-handedness? Is Benghazi different from London? Londonistan?

How would one possibly assure oneself that no “hand” of government, left, right, center, upper, lower, or oblique to all of the above, ever arranged things in a way that compared foolishly with the way some other “hand” of government had arranged something more or less similar?


Let’s go to what my friend Bryan Alexander calls the death calculus. Since we’re interested in terrorism here, I’ll pull quotes from a couple of pieces that you can read in full if this topic interests you. Two paras from TomDispatch:

In 2008, 14,180 Americans were murdered, according to the FBI. In that year, there were 34,017 fatal vehicle crashes in the U.S. and, so the U.S. Fire Administration tells us, 3,320 deaths by fire. More than 11,000 Americans died of the swine flu between April and mid-December 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; on average, a staggering 443,600 Americans die yearly of illnesses related to tobacco use, reports the American Cancer Society;5,000 Americans die annually from food-borne diseases; an estimated 1,760children died from abuse or neglect in 2007; and the next year, 560 Americans died of weather-related conditions, according to the National Weather Service, including 126 from tornadoes, 67 from rip tides, 58 from flash floods, 27 from lightning, 27 from avalanches, and 1 from a dust devil.


The now-infamous Northwest Airlines Flight 253, carrying Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his bomb-laden underwear toward Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, had 290 passengers and crew, all of whom survived. Had the inept Abdulmutallab actually succeeded, the death toll would not have equaled the 324 traffic fatalities in Nevada in 2008; while the destruction of four Flight 253s from terrorism would not have equaled New York State’s 2008 traffic death toll of1,231, 341 of whom, or 51 more than those on Flight 253, were classified as “alcohol-impaired fatalities.”

Two paras from a Salon piece [copied here sans links and emphases]:

“The number of people worldwide who are killed by Muslim-type terrorists, Al Qaeda wannabes, is maybe a few hundred outside of war zones. It’s basically the same number of people who die drowning in the bathtub each year,” said John Mueller, an Ohio State University professor who has written extensively about the balance between threat and expenditures in fighting terrorism.

Last year, McClatchy characterized this threat in similar terms: “undoubtedly more American citizens died overseas from traffic accidents or intestinal illnesses than from terrorism.” The March, 2011, Harper’s Index expressed the point this way: “Number of American civilians who died worldwide in terrorist attacks last year: 8 — Minimum number who died after being struck by lightning: 29.” That’s the threat in the name of which a vast domestic Security State is constructed, wars and other attacks are and continue to be launched, and trillions of dollars are transferred to the private security and defense contracting industry at exactly the time that Americans — even as they face massive wealth inequality — are told that they must sacrifice basic economic security because of budgetary constraints.


My points?

On the one hand, that the world is far too complex to avoid disparities that can draw mockery down on the heads of those one might wish to mock.

And on the other, that comparisons also have an invaluable role to play in giving us a sense of the relative peaks and valleys of the terrain we live in — and may be literally or metaphorically mountaintop removal / valley fill coal mining in preparation for our children’s children…


Here’s a “DoubleQuote” for you:

Or for the musically inclined:

Now there’s a fascinating comparison (between the mining and the music) that doesn’t tell you much. Or does it?


Onwards to the issue of that sacred plateau in Jerusalem, featured as my second “reading for the day” at the top of this post.

It appears that you can be arrested for carrying a concealed knife on the Noble Sanctuary — or tallit or tefillin on Temple Mount — same place, different perspective.

That’s the sort of comparison that makes me catch my breath with wonder.

As the Famous Thinkers School might ask, giving you a pencil and a blank sheet of paper: can you draw this conclusion?


The full text of Matthew 6.3 reads in the KJV:

But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:

Marangolo P and associates uses a significant variant of that verse in the title of a learned paper: Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand knoweth. The case of a patient with an infarct involving the callosal pathways.

Brain malfunctions (and brain surgeries) can provide windows of considerable interest on our human condition, as the writings of Oliver Sacks so eloquently demonstrate.

One bead for a rosary

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — one bead from NASA for the glass bead game as rosary ]

photo credit: Norman Kuring, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Consider her sacred, treat her with care.

High Ground

Monday, May 21st, 2012

Hat tip to Kanani Fong of Kitchen Dispatch

The award -winning film HIGH GROUND  is due for release in August 2012:

Since 2002, almost 50,000 U.S. soldiers have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan with their lives radically altered by war. With the improvement of battlefield medical treatments, these soldiers return alive yet not whole, and face long painful paths to recovery.

Full integration back into their community and the civilian world is a treacherous road, fraught with obstacles and pitfalls. After initial rehabilitation, these veterans are often left to fend for themselves, and struggle with physical and mental roadblocks, depression, and alienation.

This issue affects every aspect of society, not just families and hometown communities, but our national character and our legacy. How these wounded soldiers transition is one of the most important repercussions of these wars and an adversity with which we will contend for generations.

igh Ground was a showcase expedition bringing together disabled war veterans with world recognized mountain climbers to demonstrate what could be achieved by climbing a Himalayan giant. A key outcome of the expedition was to produce a documentary film that would tell the inspiring stories of these heroes and spread a healing message to a national audience.

This film, featuring stunning cinematography and capturing powerful emotions, will touch the hearts of concerned citizens, military families, outdoor enthusiasts and most of all, soldiers who find themselves wondering how to face the days and months and years ahead. It is an honest and gripping portrayal of our American warriors, telling an action packed story that unfolds in unexpected ways as the team makes their way high into the mountains, through the villages of Nepal, over raging rivers and up terrifying steep terrain risking injury and death for a chance at the summit.

A second and equally important goal is to continue to impact those thousands of injured soldiers in the midst of their own daunting recoveries through the use of the film at veteran’s hospitals and military bases around the United States. In the fall of 2011, a multi-city nationwide tour will be launched to welcome our soldiers home, celebrate their spirit and sacrifice, and to encourage them to pursue their dreams.

Efforts are currently underway to assess the potential of additional expeditions and to create a long-term strategy as a non-profit organization. By getting involved and supporting this project you can participate directly in this vital process and connect your company to the message that our soldiers can indeed… return home to live again.


The Said Symphony: move 19

Sunday, March 18th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron – extended analytic game on Israeli-Palestinian conflict — for those who wish to catch up, our game thus far consists of an intro to the game and game board, followed by moves 1-5, 6-9, then moves 10-11 which together constitute a meditation, moves 12, 13-15, 16-17, and most recently before this, move 18 with cadenza ]

Move 19: The view from above

Move content:

Discussing strategy, the very canny LTG (USMC, Ret’d.) Paul Van Riper had this to say:

What we tend to do is look toward the enemy. We’re only looking one way: from us to them. But the good commanders take two other views. They mentally move forward and look back to themselves. They look from the enemy back to the friendly, and they try to imagine how the enemy might attack them. The third is to get a bird’s-eye view, a top-down view, where you take the whole scene in. The amateur looks one way; the professional looks at least three different ways.

A bird’s-eye view, a hawk’s eye view, a top-down view, an overview, a view from 30,000 feet, a God’s eye view, a view from above, a zoom…

If move 18 and its cadenza gave us a view of the depth of vision or insight that is necessary for a full and rich understanding of the world we live in — its qualitative or spiritual scope, if you like — this next move, with its picnic and drone-sight, addresses its breadth in space and time — materially and quantitatively speaking.

The classic expression of the sheer material scope of the universe was put together by Charles and Ray Eames in their justly celebrated film, Powers of Ten, from which the lower of these two images is drawn:

Here are some other relevant scans of the scope of things, in terms of time and space:

The Scale of the Universe 2
A Brief History of The Universe
The Known Universe
A Time-Lapse Map of Every Nuclear Explosion Since 1945

These are impressive videos to be sure, but as an aside I’ll invite you to ask yourselves how well they compare with this zoom in words, a poem by the zennist, ecologist, essayist and poet Gary Snyder, from his book, Axe Handles: Poems:

Such breadth of vision, such craft.


If this “material scope of things” too has a cadenza, it would be that all of this is shot through with some primary oppositions, dappled as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would have it, with swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim — as indicated in the drone-sight and picnic double image at the head of this move.

This dappling, this constant flux of opposites, takes many forms — day and night lead to the more abstract light and dark, which can then be interpreted morally as good and evil, to which we respond with repulsion and attraction as the case may be, building our worldviews from love or fear…

At different scales the opposites that matter most to us may have different names and shadings, but here I’d just like to draw attention to the dappling of our world with:

competition and cooperation
Darwin‘s natural selection and Kropotkin‘s mutual aid
duel and duet (ah! — a favorite phrasing of mine)
war and peace

Provocatively, we find this dappling in scriptures, too, wherein the ripples of such verses as “The LORD is a man of war: the LORD is his name” (Exodus 15.3) dropped like a stone into the pond of the human mind, meet with the ripples of other verses such as “God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him” (I John 4.16).

There are times when we take such oppositions literally, perhaps too literally, and times when we begin to see oppositions as abstract and theoretical end-points to what is in fact a yin-yang process continually unfolding…

Which brings me by a commodius vicus of recirculation to this image of the great opposition between war and peace, its dappling, its unfolding:

Links claimed:

To the Lamb, move 18: this move presents the material scope of the universe in counterpoint to its visionary scope as laid out in move 18 with its cadenza.

To Revelation, move 17 — the word revelation means unveiling, as we have seen, and our sciences and technologies, with their spectra of telescopes, microscopes, cameras and zooms, are unveiling and revealing to us much about the physicality of the world we live in — much that was accounted for in other times and places through intuition, vision and poetry.

This scientific and technical revelation of material existence, for many of us moderns, has largely eclipsed the mode of visionary revelation of move 17 — yet it cannot eradicate it. Implicit in this move, then, is the sense that we carry with us both subjective and objective, inner and outer, qualitative and quantitative understandings — though the data that “sight” and “insight” provide us with may be different in kind, and resolving them may be something of a koan to us, the deep problem in consciousness as philosophers of science have named it — and that we can discount neither one if we are to have and maintain a rich sense of our situation.


If the two previous moves have shown us the scope of the universe we co-inhabit, perhaps we should now make our own zoom in, much as James Joyce did when he had the schoolboy Stephen inscribe his name and address in his geography book as Stephen Dedalus, Class of Elements, Clongowes Wood College, Sallins, County Kildare, Ireland, Europe, The World, Universe – an address that Stephen then read both forwards and backwards, finding himself in one direction, and finding in the other that he had no means of knowing what might lie beyond the universe…

Imagine then, skipping rapidly from (unimaginable) cosmos via such things as the intriguingly named End of Greatness to galaxy or nebula…

…solar system and planet — whence we can slow down and zero gently in on the Middle (or as my friend Ralph Birnbaum would call it, the Muddle) East, Israel / Palestine, Jerusalem / Al Quds / the Temple Mount / Noble Sanctuary – and to such matters of contemplative vision and tribal passion as the first, second and projected third Temples, the al-Aqsa mosque.

Our increasing focus will bring us, then, to that the rock which Jews believe marks the place where Abraham bound his son Isaac (the Akedah), and which Muslims believe to be the place of ascent of the Prophet to the celestial realms (the Mi’raj) on his Night Journey (Qur’an, Al-Isra).

Here again myth and history collide, and both visionary and material considerations merge in the heart of the what my friend the Israeli journalist Gershom Gorenberg has justly called “the most contested piece of real estate on earth”.

Observations from the Pointy-End

Monday, October 31st, 2011


An interesting new blog. An operator type, an Iraq and Afghan vet,  quesopaper blogging from AfPakland on situational awareness and much later in the post, on leadership:

Running To Contact

….I thought we’d cover danger in Afghanistan again by examining, “When Insurgents attack.”

A quick aside…over the years one develops a sense for explosions. Some are “ours”…outgoing mortars, rounds from a gun or controlled detonations. We learn the sounds of different weapon systems. A helicopter followed by a high pitched drone and several whooshes is an Apache firing it’s main gun and rockets. Whomp Whomp Whomp  is an M60/M240. Ma duece says Bum Bum Bum. Artillery is LOUD and has a pointy sound when outgoing. Incoming is more spherical.

We also develop a sense of distance and direction for the booms…it’s all part of our survival mechanism. Another aspect is awareness of our surroundings. We constantly scan and consider what to do if we are attacked …where is the nearest bunker or where is the closest safest place?

This sounds frightening, but we all do this. Motorcycle riding is a good analog. When riding we have to be aware of spacing. Scanning for threats and escape routes saves a rider’s life.

The sound that puts me face first on the ground are mortars wobbling towards me. They make a unique sound that I can’t quite describe. Sort of of a frantic flutter…the closest sound I can come up with is the rattle of a door stop when accidentally brushed. Rockets and their vibrating engine sound are also unnerving. If you can hear them flying, they are too damned close…

Very relevant to past blog discussions of fingerspitzegehful and the OODA Loop – a good descriptive narrative, in fact, of OODA working correctly. Theory is not the interest of the quesopaper gent, but his firsthand observations of COIN in Afghanistan are intriguing, for those interested in military policy or theory. Ideas that are often great on a whiteboard or ppt slide but may not seem quite as great once they collide with reality.

Another post from quesopaper, in the vein of theoretical rubber meeting the practitioner road:

What do they Need?

….indulge me while I inject some confusion into our clarity regarding Afghans. This is a paraphrased version of a Benedictine Grima tale from her field work. If one desires knowledge about AfPak, particularly the female’s role, Ms Grima is THE source.

The tale….Two men travel to village 1. While there, they commit robbery and murder. These crimes are detected by local police. The police debate their response, and decide to chase the perpetrators.

They enter the criminal’s village (village 2) where locals set upon the police and kill them. These villagers for whatever reason don’t appreciate nor require police involvement in their affairs. Villages 1 and 2 are content to solve crimes of any type within their own system of justice. In response to the police incursion, village 2 blocks outside access to the road preventing further police/outsider interference. Up the road a bit, the next village (village 3) hears of this incident. The road blockage makes them fighting mad. A village 2 v. village 3 mini-war occurs; people die. Why? Village 3 needs that road to survive or, shoot-some other reason. We don’t and honestly; we can’t know.

The point isn’t “should we” or “shouldn’t we” be here; that’s a different blog…Fact is we are here.

So let’s do this…Let me take you to a village. You comment below on how we are going to help….maybe we’ll all learn something….

Read the rest here.

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