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Archive for November, 2007

Can You Feel the Beat ?

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

One of the numerous interesting people I met at the Boyd 2007 conference seminar was Gustave Reininger, a producer of movies and television crime dramas, with whom I shared a few drinks at the Quantico Officer’s Club and exchanged colorful stories about Chicago history. It was, as I recall, a very enjoyable conversation.  At the time Gustave had mentioned a number of film projects that he was working on; now one of them has moved closer to fruition.

Corso: The Last Beat, which is due out in 2008, comes on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s totemic bestseller, On the Road and like Kerouac’s Sal Paradise, the lead figure, the Beat poet Gregory Corso ,is on an existential quest:

“The “Beats” are back.  Ever “cool”, ever “hip”, this poignant, humorous film will introduce today’s youth market to the inner circle of the American Icons of “the Beat Generation” – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Gregory Corso. “The Last Beat” follows Corso, the most colorful of them. After the death of Allen Ginsberg, his best friend, Corso goes “On the Road” to rediscover himself as the “Last Beat.”

Many of my students have been Generation Y/NetGen/Echo Boomers. While more cheerfully self-confident than the Silent Generation and less megalomaniacal than the Boomers, whom they match in demographic size, they share with these postwar-coming-of-age generations a collective yearning for identity, for a meaning larger than themselves.

This film may strike a cultural chord.

(Hat tip to A.E.)

The Cognition of a Society of Visual Imagery

Tuesday, November 27th, 2007

My friend Dave Schuler had a very thoughtful post at The Glittering Eye , one that contemplates a quiet paradigmatic shift that may be taking place within society today. It’s one of those posts that merits being read in its entirety because excerpting it, as I will do here nonetheless for the benefit of the slothful, shortchanges the argument:

The Visual Imagery Society

“Until about five thousand years ago, the primary method of communication among our species, the method by which we did what Alfred Korzybski characterized as “time binding”-storing and transmitting information, was speech. When you wanted to know something, you asked someone. When you wanted to give information to other people, you spoke to them. Around five thousand years ago we developed an additional method of storing and transmitting information: writing.

….However, writing also had some disadvantages over the spoken word. It was expensive both in materials and in the investment in education and, although practically everybody learns to speak, not everybody could or did learn to read and write….Speech, obviously, has never vanished but it was supplanted by writing as the primary means of communication in any number of fields including mathematics, philosophy, and, at least to some degree, business. History, by definition, is written.

Almost 150 years ago we began to develop the technology to transmit and store first writing then speech. And a little more than 100 years ago we began to store and then transmit visual imagery…..I wonder if there are signs that visual imagery is supplanting the written word, at least in certain areas, the written word just as the written word supplanted the spoken word in some fields….The transition from an oral society to a literate one had implications that extended far beyond just the means of communication or the costs of transportation for an unexpected reason: literacy reorders consciousness.

….Will a transition to a visual imagery society result in an analogous reordering of consciousness to that of the transition from oral to literate? I think there’s reason to believe that there is, it’s happening now, and the visual imagery society resembles the oral society more than the literate society that it supplants.

….I’ll conclude this speculation with questions rather than answers.

  • Is visual imagery overtaking the written word as the dominant form of communication, especially for communicating new knowledge?
  • If so, what are the cognitive implications of the change?
  • What are the social and political implications of the change in cognitive behavior? “

While I made a number of comments at The Glittering Eye, Dave was particularly interested in the cognitive aspects and I infer from his post that he views the trend toward – hmmm – ” Visualcy” with alarm and I would like to address that aspect here.

Increasing proliferation of visual content in the media as a percentage of net data transmission carries real risks because the visual medium is exceedingly powerful in a neurolearning sense and affect a diverse span of cognitive activity . Where simplification and sophistry took a great deal of time to diffuse through the population by word of mouth or in text, visuals in broadcast or digital format are virtually instantaneous and tend to be accepted in a cognitively passive state by the audience, in the sense of bypassing rigorous and critical analysis. Dave is correct here when he points out the dangers of the modality and liability toward abuse, distortion or manipulation.

On the other hand, visualization media need not be passive. It can easily be both active and  interactive as well as an efficient method of transmission of valid data and the interactivity can be intentionally structured to require and enhance critical thinking. Unfortunately, that effort to create cognitive tools lags behind the power and range of our aesthetic tools to create the images themselves. What Dave is asking for is an effort in futurism but I’m not certain the present moment is a valid baseline given the speed with which new technologies are emerging and evolving.

To answer Dave’s first question, I think visual imagery is overtaking the written word, given that Americans reportedly watch about 8 hours of TV a day on average and newspapers are dying off for lack of new readers –  though I think it is unlikely in the case of academic or scientific definitions of ” new knowledge”, where peer-review journals still rule. I also will grant Dave that a visually-oriented society, at the intellectual level of current television programming, trending toward celebreality shows and infotainment “news” is one sliding toward an anarchic mob – and not a very bright mob at that – one easily swayed by charismatic demagogues and charlatans but more likely, simply uninterested in their own governance. A dystopian Brave New World of sheep-like proles of limited attention who can articulate their interests, much less press them, only with the greatest difficulty.  It’s not a vision that I find appealing.

However, I think that a visual imagery society can probably develop along the same continuum of conceptual complexity that characterized previous eras of oral tradition and the written word. Not all ancient Greeks sat with rapt attention through recitations Homer and the Romans scrawled scatalogical graffitti that would make a Marine sergeant blush more frequently than they wrote like Ovid or spoke like Cicero. Except for scholars of the mundane, we’re much more cognizant of the great cultural achievments of past civilizations than we are of their versions of bathroom humor, comic books and trashy romance novels.

Bright people will always be attracted to complexity, abstraction and depth regardless of the medium and are better placed to weigh the relative value of their choices; the less intelligent will gravitate to simpler fare and will be oblivious to what they are missing. The rub is the demographic segment of the population who have the intellectual potential, which goes wasted for lack of stimulation and engagement in serious thought. If we took greater effort as a nation to invest in and repair a declining system of public education we would have far less to fear in a future society that was more reliant upon visual imagery.


Monday, November 26th, 2007

To those two dagger-in-clenched-teeth, swashbuckling blogs, Coming Anarchy and Pacific Empire, for their recent mention of zenpundit.com. Much obliged gents!

Recommended Reading

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

A crisp but cool Sunday morning yields some intriguing reads….lotta mil-theory out there today….

Chuck Spinney at DNI “Will A Strategic Bombing Campaign Defeat Iran?”

As much a critique of EBO as it is of the wisdom of a making war on Iran by one of Colonel John Boyd’s collaborators.

Adam Elkus at Dreaming5GW – “Darknet: A Model For 5GW Organization

John Robb at Global Guerillas – “GUERRILLA GROUP SIZE IN IRAQ

Steve DeAngelis at ERMB – “Modeling Swarm Behavior

Robert Kaplan – ” It’s the Tribes, Stupid

Fabius Maximus – “The Essential 4GW reading list: chapter 3, David Kilcullen

A comprehensive online bibliography of Dr. Kilcullen’s work.

The PMC Blackwater has signed up Graf von Zeppelin !!  ( Hat tip to JR at Edgewise and to Blackwater Facts)

The USG declassifies the origins of nuclear warfighting strategy -” Massive overkill” SIOP-62, SIOP-63

That’s it!

UPDATE:  Matt at Mountainrunner was all over the airship thing a long, long time ago.

A Remarkable Disconnect From Context and Causation

Sunday, November 25th, 2007

I was surfing over at the always engaging, Left of center blog, The Newshoggers, when I saw a post by Cernig discussing a NYT op-ed by Martin Walker giving the lion’s share of the credit for the end of the Cold War to Mikhail Gorbachev, a position Cernig strongly endorsed, expounding upon the” Reagan won Mythtique”.  A key section from the Walker op-ed:

“According to both Schell and Rhodes, the cold war ended not because Reagan stood firm at Reykjavik but because Gorbachev and his supporters had already decided to stop waging it, or as Gorbachev’s adviser Giorgy Arbatov once put it to this reviewer in Moscow, “to take your enemy away.” Gorbachev understood that the arms race was ruining his country. And then he learned that the radiation fallout from Chernobyl was the equivalent of a single 12-megaton bomb.It was a wondrous accident of history that saw Gorbachev, the determined reformer of a sclerotic Soviet system, coincide with Reagan, the anti-Communist conservative who nonetheless dreamed of a world without nuclear weapons. After Reagan came the first president Bush, whose initial caution about Gorbachev gave way to such enthusiasm that he unilaterally scrapped America’s vast arsenal of land- and sea-based tactical nuclear weapons. Between them, the three men put an end to the first nuclear age.”

The first paragraph begs the question of “Why?” – particularly when Gorbachev’s recent predecessor as General-Secretary and longtime political godfather, Yuri Andropov, had such a drastically different reaction to nearly identical circumstances, despite being perhaps the best informed Soviet leader to ever rule the Kremlin. Walker ( leaning heavily on the writings of Jonathan Schell and Richard Rhodes) credits the Chernobyl disaster causing a Paul on the road to Damascus political conversion in the highest reaches of the Soviet nomenklatura. I find that such a thesis strains credulity, to put it mildly.

Walker would have us believe that a totalitarian system that weathered: approximately 20 to 25 million war dead in WWII, plus; another 20 to 30 million Soviet citizens who vanished into the Gulag under Stalin; that went to the brink of nuclear war with the U.S. under Khrushchev and with China under Brezhnev; that was, at the time, accepting tens of thousands of casualties annually in Afghanistan under Gorbachev; was suddenly undone morally and spiritually by a comparative handful of dead in an industrial accident at a nuclear plant and subsequent bad Western P.R. This is not history but wishful fantasy of an adolescent kind.

Let us be clear, Mikhail Gorbachev deserves significant credit for his share in bringing the Cold War to a sane and relatively soft landing.  He exercised intelligent restraint at a number of critical junctures where an ideologue would have provoked a civil war – something the coup plotters who toppled Gorbachev almost did. Gorbachev also understood that the Soviet system was fundamentally incompatible with the emergence of a globalized and highly technological information economy and that if his country did not adapt quickly, it would be left behind. At no time in power, however, did Gorbachev intend to destroy the Soviet Union or abandon “socialism” ( though what socialism was to be in the future, became increasingly vague in Gorbachev’s pronouncements) – these were the unintended consequences of trying to square a circle and make the USSR into a “normal” state via perestroika. A herculean task that exceeded even Gorbachev’s considerable political talents.

The facts are that Gorbachev and the USSR lost the Cold War and then sued for peace out of necessity, not from moral superiority or anti-nuclear altruism. It is a further truth that Ronald Reagan was substantially more correct than most of his contemporaries, Left and Right, on the proper American stance toward the Soviets; and that without his tough but flexible policies, the USSR might have limped along on life support for some time longer, as has North Korea.  Possibly, without the challenge of Reagan in the first place, the Soviet politburo might have opted for yet another ailing octogenarian to warm Lenin’s seat after Chernenko died and the “youthful” Gorbachev might have idled as a second tier leader for another decade.

No, Ronald Reagan did not win the Cold War by himself but he contributed to that victory and all attempts to spin Mikhail Gorbachev, a tough-minded and daring apparatchik who wanted to save the Soviet Union, into the grand savior of humanity are just that – empty spin.

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