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A HipBone approach to analysis VI: from Cairo to Bach

Monday, February 28th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron ]


The description of Egyptian troops attacking a Christian monastery that forms the first quote in this DoubleQuote is horrifying in many ways.


Recent events in Egypt had featured mutual support between Muslims and their Coptic Christian neighbors, each group in turn acting as human shields to protect the other while they were praying. Here, by contrast, the army – which is effectively now “ruling” Egypt in the interregnum between the fall of Mubarak and the election of a new President and government – is attacking the humans it is supposed to protect.

But what does that have to do with Bach?


Part I: a monastery attacked in Egypt

This is vile.

Those who are being attacked happen to be Christians and monks, no less human on either account, and just as subject to bleeding as others – so they might ask, with Shakespeare‘s Shylock speaking for the Jews:

If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

That last question of Shylock’s is an interesting one, and gets to the heart of what I want to discuss here, as we shall see.

Specifically, these human beings were monks. Muhammad had a higher opinion of monks than of many others. In the Qur’an, we find:

The nearest to the faithful are those who say “We are Christians.” That is because there are priests and monks among them and because they are free of pride.



These “followers” of Muhammad were attacking Christian monks with live ammunition and RPGs continuously for 30 minutes, wounding 19.

They felt superior to their compatriots the monks, they cried “God is Great” and “Victory, Victory” as they did it.

In this they resemble GEN Boykin, who famously responded to a Somali warlord claiming that God would protect him, “Well, you know what? I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.”

I could easily have made that my second quote here, pairing it with the description of the Egyptian army attack on the monastery, for between the two of them they raise the question of whether weaponry is stronger than belief – and while some Christians might agree with General Boykin, some Muslims might agree no less strongly with the members of the Egyptian military shouting “Allahu Akbar”.


I believe that taking sides here misses the point.

Which I am happy to say, Abraham Lincoln made with considerable eloquence in his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, almost a century and a half ago:

The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.

That point is one which HaShem made to his angels, according to rabbinic teaching:

The Talmud teaches us that on the night that the Egyptian army drowned in the Red Sea, the first true moment of freedom for the Jews fleeing Egypt, God refused to hear the angels sing their prayers, and said “my creations are drowning in the sea, and you will sing songs?”

So, no — revenge is not the way to go…


But please note that the point I am making is not one of moral equivalence.

That God which created “both sides” in any human conflict and loves each and every one of his own creations, might indeed find one creed superior to another, as he might find one scientific law more accurately describing the workings of, say, gravitational attraction than another – or the night sky at Saint-Rémy portrayed by Van Gogh more or less moving than the thunderous sky over Toledo of El Greco.

In the view I am proposing, the “God who takes neither side” in fact takes both, but with this distinction: he sides with the wounded more than with those who inflict wounds – not because one side has a better creed than the other, but because he made us to learn not to unmercifully maim and destroy one another…

…one of whose names is The Merciful, in whose scriptures it is written:

If thou dost stretch thy hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee: for I do fear Allah, the cherisher of the worlds.

…one of whose names is The Lord is Peace, in whose scriptures it is written:

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.


Part II: Bach and contrapuntal analysis

All of which brings me to the second “quote” in my DoubleQuote above: JS Bach‘s “concordia discors” canon in two voices, BWV 1086 – which you can hear or purchase here.

Bach’s mastery was in counterpoint, the play of one musical idea against another, and in this particular work, the two ideas are exact opposite: in musical terms, the melody is played here against its inversion. And the point of counterpoint, if I may put it that way, is not to provide “harmony” but to show how discord can become harmonious and concordant — or to put that in the geopolitical terms that interest me, how conflict and opposition can be resolved…

Not, you understand, that this state of affairs then leads necessarily to the singing of Kumbaya or the kind of ending in which “they all lived happily ever after”.

Concordia discors: the resolution of the present conflict, in a continuing overall “music” of great power and beauty, in which further conflicts will inevitably arise and find resolution.


Here’s the essence: Bach takes contrasting and at times conflicting melodic ideas and makes music.

He teaches us to hear distinct and differing voices, to allow ourselves to hear and feel both the discomfort that their disagreements raise in us, and the satisfaction that comes as those disagreements are worked out. He does this by teaching us to hear them as voices within a choir, ribbons in a complex braid, making together a greater music that any of them alone could give rise to. And in this process, their differences are neither denied nor lost, but resolved and transcended.

Edward Said, whose politics my readers may dislike or like or even perhaps be unaware of, was for years the music critic for The Nation, wrote three books (and an opus posthumous) on music, and with his friend the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim co-founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, named for the West-östlicher Diwan, Goethe’s collection of lyric poems.

Barenboim (the Israeli) wrote of Said (the Palestinian):

In addition to being well versed in music, literature, philosophy, and the understanding of politics, he was one of those rare people who sought and recognized the connections between different and seemingly disparate disciplines. His unusual understanding of the human spirit and of the human being was perhaps a consequence of his revelatory construct that parallels between ideas, topics, and cultures can be of a paradoxical nature, not contradicting but enriching one another.

And there we have it again: Bach’s insight, this time transposed by an accomplished musician into the key of thoughts and ideas…


Said talks quite a bit about counterpoint, both musically:

Musically, I’m very interested in contrapuntal writing, and contrapuntal forms. The kind of complexity that is available, aesthetically, to the whole range from consonant to dissonant, the tying together of multiple voices in a kind of disciplined whole, is something that I find tremendously appealing.


[Said, Power, Politics and Culture, p. 99.]

and politically:

When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes — opposites in the Hegelian sense — that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom.


[Said, Power, Politics and Culture, p. 447.]


As I commented in an earlier post that ties in with this one, the great pianist Glenn Gould was also preoccupied with counterpoint, both in Bach’s music and in conversations overheard at a truck-stop cafe or on long train journeys — he too was “working” the parallel between melodic and verbal forms of counterpoint.

And JRR Tolkien made the reconciliation of discordant musics in a greater concord the central to his creation myth in The Silmarillion, “The Music of the Ainur”, which can now be read online at the Random House site.


Part III: invitation

May I strongly commend to your attention the movie, Of Gods and Men, which just opened in limited release, having won the grand jury prize at Cannes…

Recommended Reading

Monday, February 28th, 2011

These are worth reading:

Top Billing! GrEaT sAtAn”s gIrLfRiEnD – COIN Passé?

…COIN, as done up in Iraq is certainly not a one size fits all bustier and the debate may be more about style over substance.

As world famous Surge Expert and charter member of Great Satan’s cadre of Combat Rock Stars Major Few recently shared about the sexyful upgradation of FM 3-24 – v2.0

 “…Courtney, FM 3-24 was born out of necessity.  GEN Petraeus brought together a team of experts to provide the US military some desperately needed help while Iraq was spiraling out of control.  The majority of the text covers the wisdom of David Galula, the godfather of population-centric counterinsurgency.   It was a good start.  Galula was smart, had a lot of experience, and could write, but, it was only a start.” (GsGf Editorial note -Italics bis mein)

 There’s more than one way to nail a hottie or do a Surge, as Captain Burke of WoI fame psychically predicted.

“Bottom line: keep FM 3-24–updated as necessary–on the bookshelves. While the book is not without its flaws, it does have a number of good lessons applicable from everything from counterinsurgency, to hybrid-style wars, to disaster relief.“Secondly, COIN is an operational framework, not a strategic one. Furthermore, FM 3-24 was written in a specific context, when America was good at offensive operations, but poor at human intelligence gathering and population security.”….

The intrepid Fraulein Messerschmidt was kind enough to solicit a jeremiad from me prior to posting and, knowing that her blog is a favorite read among the COINdinista set, I rode that hobby horse at a gallop. 🙂

Swedish Meatballs Confidential(p.NSFW)The Intel Biz Is Changing As Never Before (Or Should Be)

Good observations here re: wikileaks, authoritarian states and institutions of manipulative antics.

The New Criterion/Arma Virumque (Bruce Kesler)Jawohl Mein Professor!

…The stereotype of ruler-wielding, dogma-enforcing Catholic nuns has nothing on the parody-proofing self-image being created by the AAUP of college professors as academic thugs.

In its latest draft document to define academic freedom, the American Association of University Professors has gone abroad to authoritarian regimes and overboard to try to suck the air out of critiques of academia.

Fabius MaximusAn explanation of the US and Pakistan governments’ odd behavior in the Raymond Davis affair

The US-Pakistani alliance increasingly resembles a bad shotgun marriage between a white-knuckle drunkard and a hysterical mental patient.

TDAXP, PhD.-Review of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers,” by Richard McGregor

Dr.VonMulti-disciplinarity and The Birth Of America

….Building off that theme, a second book, Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and The Birth of America, examines the life and work of Joseph Priestley, and his deep friendships with Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and his influence on those two Founding Fathers as well as John Adams.Priestley began as one of the leading and first modern chemists, whose main contemporary scientific rival was Antoine Lavoisier. Priestley had numerous discoveries, including providing key evidence for the existence of oxygen and its role in combustion and life itself, but what was new for me was his deep friendship with Benjamin Franklin. Franklin and Priestley met and corresponded with each other about science for many years prior to the American Revolution, and influenced each other greatly as far as the development of experiments, analysis and interpretation of data. Their letters show how they were onto the conceptual understanding of the cycling of oxygen and carbon dioxide for all of life, and how ecosystems work in terms of the flow and transformation of different energy types from one to another. These concepts were decades ahead of their time….

Shrinkwrapped – Fully Immersive Virtual Reality May Be Closer Than We Think

Don VandergriffPetraeus’s Last Stand?

Thomas RicksWhy I don’t believe there is really such as thing as an ‘operational’ level of war

Out of my tattered Lands End attaché bag this week came Hew Strachan‘s article titled “Strategy or Alibi? Obama, McChrystal and the Operational Level of War,” which appeared last September in Survival….So far, so good. But then I think Strachan goes off the tracks a bit. Like a doctor whose diagnosis is spot on but who errs in prescribing the remedy, he argues that this sort of operational approach became problematic because it assumed the existence of strategy. But what, he says, if “strategy has been absent throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan”? (166)

I actually think that may have been true in Iraq until late 2006 or early 2007, because until then, American generals tended to offer up aspirations rather than strategy. But I do think we had a strategy under the Petraeus/Odierno/Crocker team. What may have thrown Professor Strachan off the scent is that the strategy couldn’t be stated explicitly. I don’t think I really understood this clearly when I was writing The Gamble, and Strachan’s paper helped me think it through…

I understand Ricks’ point re: Iraq and find it reasonable, but I think there really is an “operational level” of war….at least in the institutional culture of some armies in some historical periods, including  today’s US Army. I’ve previously argued   similarly to Strachan here, albeit not as authoritatively or persuasively and – FWIW – I think China’s PLA is moving in that direction as well (though I’m willing to be corrected by Sinologists out there).

Information Dissemination – US Naval Institute Official Announcement on Mission Change and The Mission of the U.S. Naval Institute by Rear Admiral Tom Marfiak (ret)

Campaign War Room – The dynamic nature of public opinion 

Inkspots Some thoughts on LTG Caldwell’s probably-legal-but-still-wildly-inappropriate influence operations 

Eide Neurolearning BlogMade to Stick Learning

SEEDHumans, Version 3.0

….Neuronal recycling exploits this wellspring of potent powers. If one wants to get a human brain to do task Y despite it not having evolved to efficiently carry out task Y, then a key point is not to forcefully twist the brain to do Y. Like all animal brains, human brains are not general-purpose universal learning machines, but, instead, are intricately structured suites of instincts optimized for the environments in which they evolved. To harness our brains, we want to let the brain’s brilliant mechanisms run as intended-i.e., not to be twisted. Rather, the strategy is to twist Y into a shape that the brain does know how to process.

American ScientistRefuting a Myth About Human Origins

…Premodern humans-often described as “archaic Homo sapiens“-were thought to have lived in small, vulnerable groups of closely related individuals. They were believed to have been equipped only with simple tools and were likely heavily dependent on hunting large game. Individuals in such groups would have been much less insulated from environmental stresses than are modern humans. In Thomas Hobbes’s words, their lives were “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.” If you need a mental image here, close your eyes and conjure a picture of a stereotypical caveman. But archaeological evidence now shows that some of the behaviors associated with modern humans, most importantly our capacity for wide behavioral variability, actually did occur among people who lived very long ago, particularly in Africa. And a conviction is growing among some archaeologists that there was no sweeping transformation to “behavioral modernity” in our species’ recent past.

….The idea of an archaic-to-modern human transition in Homo sapiens arises, in part, from this narrative tradition. All this makes for a satisfying story, but it is not a realistic framework for understanding the actual, complex and contingent course of human evolution. Most evolutionary changes are relatively minor things whose consequences play out incrementally over thousands of generations.


Conversations with History – Ian Morris on Why the West Rules for Now

Gaddafi House Party: Zenga Zenga Song

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

If one of the homeless on lower Wacker Drive could become dictator….. 

I’m not sure what is being said here but as Gaddafi speaks mostly in violent, insane, drivel anyway, the remix satire remains spot on:

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.

The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy and War

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy, and War by Williamson Murray, Richard Hart Sinnreich and James Lacey (Ed.)

Just received this review copy courtesy of Nicole at Cambridge University Press. 

The authors contributing chapters also include Colin S. Gray, Marcus Jones, Jeremy Black and John A. Lynn III and the tome has been dedicated to the current combatant commander of CENTCOMGeneral James Mattis, USMC. Thumbing through, it is an academic but not an abstruse book, one equally suitable for serious laymen interested in foriegn policy and military affairs as well as policy wonks, military officers, scholars and students.

The chapters tackle aspects of strategy that are of much interest to ZP readers and I look forward to reviewing The Shaping of Grand Strategy here soon

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