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  • Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

    The Phobia(s) That May Destroy America

    Posted by David Foster on 21st October 2012 (All posts by )

    I am continually amazed by the level of fear, contempt, and anger that many educated/urban/upper-middle-class people demonstrate toward Christians and rural people (especially southerners.) This complex of negative emotions often greatly exceeds anything that these same people feel toward radical Islamists or dangerous rogue-state governments. I’m not a Christian myself, or really a religious person at all, but I’d think that one would be a lot more worried about people who want to cut your head off, blow you up, or at a bare minimum shut down your freedom of speech than about people who want to talk to you about Jesus (or Nascar!)

    It seems that there are quite a few people who vote Democratic, even when their domestic and foreign-policy views are not closely aligned with those of the Democratic Party, because they view the Republican Party and its candidates as being dominated by Christians and “rednecks.”

    What is the origin of this anti-Christian anti-“redneck” feeling? Some have suggested that it’s a matter of oikophobia…the aversion to the familiar, or “”the repudiation of inheritance and home,” as philosopher Roger Scruton uses the term. I think this is doubtless true in some cases: the kid who grew up in a rural Christian home and wants to make a clean break with his family heritage, or the individual who grew up in an oppressively-conformist Bible Belt community. But I think such cases represent a relatively small part of the category of people I’m talking about here. A fervently anti-Christian, anti-Southern individual who grew up in New York or Boston or San Francisco is unlikely to be motivated by oikophobia–indeed, far from being excessively familiar, Christians and Southern people are likely as exotic to him as the most remote tribes of New Guinea.

    Equally exotic, but much safer to sneer at…and here, I think, we have the explanation for much though not all of the anti-Christian anti-Southern bigotry: It is a safe outlet for the unfortunately-common human tendency to look down on members of an out group. Safer socially than bigotry against Black people or gays or those New Guinea tribesmen; much less likely to earn you the disapproval of authority figures in school or work or of your neighbors. Safer physically than saying anything negative about Muslims, as you’re much less likely to face violent retaliation.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, Medicine, Philosophy, Photos, Recipes, Urban Issues | 31 Comments »

    RERUN–Worth Pondering

    Posted by David Foster on 4th October 2012 (All posts by )

    The seed haunted by the sun never fails to find its way between the stones in the ground. And the pure logician, if no sun draws him forth, remains entangled in his logic. I shall not forget the lesson taught me by my enemy himself. What direction should the armored column take to invest the rear of the enemy? Nobody can say. What should the armored column be for this purpose? It should be weight of sea pressing against dike.

    What ought we do? This. That. The contrary of this or that. There is no determinism that governs the future. What ought we be? That is the essential question, the question that concerns spirit and not intelligence. For spirit impregnates intelligence with the creation that is to come forth. And later, intelligence is brought to the bed of creation. How should man go about building the first ship ever known? Very complicated, this. The ship will be born of a thousand errors and fumblings. But what should man be to build the first ship? Here I seize the problem of creation at the root. Merchant. Soldier. In love with the prospect of faraway lands. For then of necessity designers and builders will be born of that love. They will drain the energy of workmen and one day launch a ship. What should we do the annihilate a forest? The question is not easy. What be? Obviously, a forest fire.

    –Antoine de St-Exupery, Flight to Arras (1942)

    (The above quote is one of a thread of 54 Worth Pondering posts at Photon Courier–the thread starts here)

    Posted in Book Notes, France, Philosophy | 2 Comments »

    Paint-by-numbers versus Connect-the-dots

    Posted by David Foster on 24th September 2012 (All posts by )

    Citrix CEO Mark Templeton, in his NYT interview, made an interesting point:

    There are two strategies for your life and career. One is paint-by-numbers and the other is connect-the-dots. I think most people remember their aunt who brought them a gift for their birthday or whatever and it was a paint-by-number set or a connect-the-dots book.

    So with the paint-by-number set, you know ahead of time what it’s going to look like. Then, by contrast, with a connect-the-dots puzzle, you can only guess at what it might look like by the time you finish. And what you notice about that process is the further along you get, the more clear it becomes. It might be a beach ball, or a seal in a Sea World park or something. The speed at which you connect dots gets faster as the picture starts coming into view.

    You probably get the parallel. This isn’t about what’s right and what’s wrong. This is about getting it right for you. Parents often want you to paint by numbers. They want it so badly because they have a perception that it’s lower risk, and that’s the encouragement they’re going to give you. They’re going to push you down this road, and faculty members will, too, because they want you to deliver on what they taught you. It doesn’t make it wrong; it’s just that there’s a bias in the system. You have to decide for yourself. The earlier you actually get it right for yourself, the faster and the better that picture is going to look.

    And the more time you spend on paint by numbers when you’re a connect-the-dots person, and vice versa, the harder it’s going to be.

    I think he’s correct that parents, in an attempt to guarantee success for their children in an uncertain world, often steer them toward a paint-by-numbers approach to life–and that this is likely to be counterproductive. Today’s credentials obsession, coupled with the nature of most of the educational system, also points toward the paint-by-numbers approach.

    I’ve noticed that people who are overly impressed with their own educational credentials–especially those with advanced degrees of one sort or another–often tend strongly toward wanting to paint by numbers, and want to avoid the (perceived) risk of connecting the dots.

    Related post: Management education and the role of technique

    Posted in Business, Human Behavior, Management, Philosophy | 11 Comments »

    RERUN–Sleeping with the Enemy

    Posted by David Foster on 20th September 2012 (All posts by )

    (originally posted 2/26/10)

    Why has the western world shown such loss of will in defending itself from radical Islamic terrorism? Why, indeed, do substantial numbers of people–particularly those who view themselves as intellectuals–endlessly make excuses for dictatorships and terrorist movements whose values are completely at odds with their own stated values–and even romanticize these goons? I think some clues can be found in a forgotten novel by Arthur Koestler.

    The Age of Longing (published in 1950) is set in Paris, “sometime in the 1950s,” in a world in which France–indeed all of western Europe–is facing the very real possibility of a Soviet invasion. Hydie Anderson, the protagonist, is a young American woman living in Paris with her father, a military attache. Hydie was a devout Catholic during her teens, but has lost her faith. She was briefly married, and has had several relationships with men, but in none of them has she found either physical or emotional satisfaction…she describes her life with a phrase from T S Eliot: “frigid purgatorial fires,” and she longs for a sense of connection:

    Hydie sipped at her glass. Here was another man living in his own portable glass cage. Most people she knew did. Each one inside a kind of invisible telephone box. They did not talk to you directly but through a wire. Their voices came through distorted and mostly they talked to the wrong number, even when they lay in bed with you. And yet her craving to smash the glass between the cages had come back again. If cafes were the home of those who had lost their country, bed was the sanctuary of those who had lost their faith.

    Through her friend Julien DeLattre, Hydie is introduced to a number of Paris intellectuals and and East European emigres. Members of the former group are mostly in denial about the danger of a Soviet attack…many of them have indeed convinced themselves that Communist rule wouldn’t be all that bad. For example, there’s Professor Pontieux (modeled on Sartre)…”He did not believe that the Commonwealth of Freedomloving People had solved all its problems and become an earthly paradise. But it was equally undeniable that it was an expression of History’s groping progress towards a new form of society, when it followed that those who opposed this progres were siding with the forces of reaction and preparing the way for conflict and war–the worst crime against Humanity.” Vardi, another intellectual, says that if he had to choose between the (American) juke box on one hand, and Pravda on another, he isn’t sure which he would pick.

    Madame Pontieux, modeled on Simone de Bouvoir (with whom Koestler had a brief affair) is less ambiguous about her choice among the alternatives. “You cannot enter a cafe or a restaurant without finding it full of Americans who behave as if the place belonged to them,” she complains to an American official. When the Russian emigre Leontiev suggests that France would not survive without American military support, pointing out that “nature abhors a vacuum,” she turns on him:

    “I am surprised at your moderation, Citizen Leontiev,” Madame Pontieux said sarcastically. “I thought you would tell us that without this young man’s protection the Commonwealth army would at once march to the Atlantic shore.”

    “It would,” said Leontiev. “I believed that everyone knew that.”

    “I refuse to believe it,” responds Madame Pontieux. “But if choose one must I would a hundred times rather dance to the music of a Balalaika than a juke box.”

    (The French intellectuals Koestler knew must have really hated juke boxes!)

    Julien is romantically interested in Hydie, but she is not attracted to him, despite the fact that he seems to have much to recommend him–a hero of the French Resistance, wounded in action, and a successful poet. On one occasion, she tells him that she could never sleep with him because they are too similar–“it would be like incest”..on another occasion, though, she tells him that “what I most dislike about you is your attitude of arrogant broken-heartedness.” Parallel to Hydie’s loss of religious faith is Julien’s loss of his secular faith in the creation of a new society. He does not now believe in utopia, or any approximation to same, but he does believe in the need to face reality, however unpleasant it may be. Hydie argues that the Leftists of their acquaintance may be silly, but at least they believe in something:

    “Perhaps they believe in a mirage–but isn’t it better to believe in a mirage than to believe in nothing?”

    Julien looked at her coldly, almost with contempt:

    “Definitely not. Mirages lead people astray. That’s why there are so many skeletons in the desert. Read more history. Its caravan-routes are strewn with the skeletons of people who were thirsting for faith–and their faith made them drink salt water and eat the sand, believing it was the Lord’s Supper.”

    At a diplomatic affair, Hydie meets Fedya, a committed Communist who works for the Soviet Embassy. She is powerfully attracted to him: things get physical very quickly and, from Hydie’s point of view, very satisfactorily. (Fedya is one of Koestler’s best-developed characters. His boyhood in Baku is vividly sketched, and Koestler–himself a former Communist–does a good job in showing how a political faith can become core to an individual’s whole personality.)

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Christianity, Civil Liberties, France, Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Terrorism | 30 Comments »

    Harvey Mansfield on Elections and Democracy

    Posted by Zenpundit on 1st September 2012 (All posts by )

    Cross-posted from

    Professor Harvey C. Mansfield of Harvard University and a fellow at the Hoover Institution is famous for his scholarship on classical political philosophy (I often recommend his edition on Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy) as well as his provocative commentary on social and political issues.  While I liked his take on Machiavelli, I warmed to him further when, after his book on manliness came out and some reporter asked Mansfield if it was “manly” to carry a gun? He answered to the effect, “Yes, but not as manly as carrying a sword”.

    Mansfield has a new article out in Defining Ideas  on the nature of elections and democracy worth reading:

    Are You Smarter Than a Freshman? 

    ….Machiavelli believes that human beings are divided into the few who want to rule and the many who do not care to rule themselves but do not want to be ruled by others either. Then those who want to rule must conceal their rule from the many they rule if they wish to succeed. How can they do this? Machiavelli went about conceiving a “new mode of ruling,” a hidden government that puts the people “under a dominion they do not see.” Government is hidden when it appears not to be imposed on you from above but when it comes from you, when it is self-imposed.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Civil Society, Deep Thoughts, Elections, History, Human Behavior, Morality and Philosphy, Philosophy, Politics | 2 Comments »

    Bourgeois Dignity

    Posted by Michael Kennedy on 4th August 2012 (All posts by )

    I was struck yesterday by a post on Ann Althouse’s blog, and by a Virginia Postrel piece that makes the same point, how wrong Obama was to say “You didn’t build that..”

    The incident, so characteristic of this leftist ideologue president, is the stimulus for theorizing about how economies work, and perhaps why this one is so stuck with Obama in the White House.

    There is an excellent analysis by David Warren printed last year in Canada and which I have saved. It is a comparison of Obama with Gorbachev and brings considerable light on the subject of success of nations.

    Yet they do have one major thing in common, and that is the belief that, regardless of what the ruler does, the polity he rules must necessarily continue. This is perhaps the most essential, if seldom acknowledged, insight of the post-modern “liberal” mind: that if you take the pillars away, the roof will continue to hover in the air.

    Gorbachev seemed to assume, right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall and then beyond it, that his Communist Party would recover from any temporary setbacks, and that the long-term effects of his glasnost and perestroika could only be to make it bigger and stronger.

    There is a corollary of this largely unspoken assumption: that no matter what you do to one part of a machine, the rest of the machine will continue to function normally.

    This brief discussion fits well with the book that was recommended by the Postrel piece.

    The Bad History Behind ‘You Didn’t Build That’
    By Virginia Postrel

    The controversy surrounding President Barack Obama’s admonishment that “if you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen” has defied the usual election-year pattern.

    Normally a political faux pas lasts little more than a news cycle. People hear the story, decide what they think, and quickly move on to the next brouhaha, following what the journalist Mickey Kaus calls the Feiler Faster Thesis. A gaffe that might have ruined a candidate 20 years ago is now forgotten within days.

    Three weeks later, Obama’s comment is still a big deal.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Britain, Business, Civil Society, Conservatism, Economics & Finance, Entrepreneurship, France, Human Behavior, Judaism, Leftism, Morality and Philosphy, Philosophy | 9 Comments »

    Trees: Phototropic Simplexities

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 25th June 2012 (All posts by )

    [ Cross-posted from Zenpundit — this one’s a prose poem: it begins with a statement so tight it needs to be unwound, & unwinds it ]

    I wrote this urgently starting when it “woke” me at 4am one morning in the late 1990s or 2000, and as soon as it was out, I found myself writing another piece in the series, a game design. Together, the pair of them represent a stage in my games and education thinking intermediate between Myst-like Universities of 1996 and my vision today of games in education. In this posting, I have added the words “figuratively speaking” for absolute clarity: otherwise, the piece remains as written all those years ago.


    A copse. Photo credit: Ian Britton via under CC license. Note how the wind sweeps the trees into a group shape.


    Trees: Phototropic Simplexities

    Trees are phototropic simplexities, no wonder we like them they cowork so well too: copses, see.



    Trees we know: I as writer can refer you, reader, safely to them, “trees”, in trust that the word I use will signal to you too — triggering for you, also — pretty much the assortment of branching organic thingies about which I’m hoping to communicate that they are complex entities whose complexity comes from a simplicity of rule — branching — repeated with variations, said variants doing their branching in thirst of light, each trunk rising, limb outpushing, branch diverging, twig evading other twig much as one who seeks in a crowd a clear view of a distant celebrity shifts and cranes and peers — branching, thus, by the finding of light in avoidance of nearby shadow and moving into it, into light as position, that light, that position, growing, and thus in the overall “unified yet various”, we, seekers of the various and unified love them, to see them in greens themselves various in their simplexity is to say “tree” with a quiet warmth; while they themselves also, by the necessity of their branching seeking, if clumped together seek in an avoidance of each other’s seeking, growing, thus space-sharing in ways which as the wind sweeps and conforms them to its own simplex flows, shapes them to a common curve we call aerodynamic, highlit against the sky huddled together as “copse” — this, in the mind’s eyes and in your wanderings, see…



    Trees we can talk about. Simplexity is a useful term for forms — like trees — which are neither simple only nor complex only, but as varied as complexity suggests with a manner of variation as simple as simplicity implies.

    Trees? Their simplexity is conveyed in principle by the word “branching”. Its necessity lies in the need of each “reaching end” of the organism to ascertain from its own position and within the bounds of its possible growing movement, some “available” light — this light-seeking having the name “phototropism”.

    Simplexities — and thus by way of example, trees — we like, we call them beautiful.

    Clustered together, too, and shaped by the winds’ patterns of flow, these individual simplexities combine on an English hilltop (or where you will) to form yet other beauties.



    Trees are phototropic simplexities, no wonder we like them they cowork so well too: copses, see.



    I love trees. Want to talk about simplexities, beauty.

    I wish to talk about beauty because it is beauty that I love, if I love it, that is beauty: love is kalotropic, a beauty-seeking. I am erotropic, love seeking — you can find in this my own simplexity, my own varieties of seeking, of the growths that are my growth, and clumping me with others under the winds, the pressures that form and conform us, you can find also the mutual shapes that we adopt, beautiful.

    Simplexity, then, is a key to beauty, variety, self, character, cohabitation… Tropism, seeking, is the key to simplexity. Love is my tropism. Ours, I propose.



    Beauty is one simplexity perceived by another: the eye of the beholder, with optic nerve, “brain”, branching neuron paths that other simplexity, “consciousness” the perceiving.


    Meaning also:

    That all is jostle, striving — a strife for life, in which the outcome overall is for each a “place in the sun” but not without skirmishes, shadows. The overall picture, therefore, beautiful — but this overall beauty hard to perceive when the specific shadow falls in the specific sought place of the moment, the “available” is not available, and the strife of the moment is paramount.

    Branching being the order behind simplexity, differentiation…

    Differentiation for maximal tropism at all levels — life seeking always the light, honey, beauty, is always and everywhere in conflict also with itself, competitive: and competition the necessary act of the avoidance of shadow, and the shadow creating act.

    And beauty — the light, thing sought, implacably necessary food and drink, the honey — thus the drive that would make us kill for life.

    I could kill for beauty.

    I could kill for honey.

    Figuratively speaking.



    Paradise and Fall, simultaneous, everywhere.

    It is at this juncture, at this branching, that we are “expelled from the garden” — can no longer see the beauty that is and remains overall, that can allow us to say also, “we are never outside the garden” — for the dappling of light on and among the leaves has become to us, too closely jostled, shadow.

    And shadow for shadow we jostle, and life is strife.



    The dappling of light on leaves, beautiful, is for each shadowed leaf, shadow, death-dealing, is for each lit leaf, light, life-giving: a chiaroscuro, beautiful, see.

    Roots, too, have their mirror branchings.

    Posted in Miscellaneous, Philosophy, Photos, Poetry | 1 Comment »

    On “Leverages”

    Posted by onparkstreet on 11th January 2012 (All posts by )

    In a previous post, I asked a question about leverages in terms of foreign policy:

    A key–an essential–question on leverages at Abu Muqawama (Dr. Andrew Exum):

    Where things get tricky is when one tries to decide what to do about that. The principle problem is one that has been in my head watching more violent crackdowns in Bahrain and Egypt: the very source of U.S. leverage against the regimes in Bahrain and Egypt is that which links the United States to the abuses of the regime in the first place. So if you want to take a “moral” stand against the abuses of the regime in Bahrain and remove the Fifth Fleet, congratulations! You can feel good about yourself for about 24 hours — or until the time you realize that you have just lost the ability to schedule a same-day meeting with the Crown Prince to press him on the behavior of Bahrain’s security forces. Your leverage, such as it was, has just evaporated. The same is true in Egypt. It would feel good, amidst these violent clashes between the Army and protesters, to cut aid to the Egyptian Army. But in doing so, you also reduce your own leverage over the behavior of the Army itself.

    Okay, so we have leverage with an Army cracking down on its own people, an Army fattened on US military aid and training. I thought bilateral military training was supposed to mitigate the worst instincts of some armies? Isn’t that the theory? What does it mean to have leverage? To what end? To what purpose? I don’t know the answer and I don’t think anyone does, so Dr. Exum has a point. We have no strategy (link goes to Zen) within which to place “trade offs”. Well, if we do, I can’t see it.

    Greg Scoblete at The Compass (RealClearWorld) asks the question in a much better fashion (I enjoy reading that blog, whether I agree or disagree with specific points):

    But all of this begs an important question – leverage for what? The idea is that the U.S. invests in places like Bahrain and Egypt because it needs or wants something in return. During the Cold War, it was keeping these states out of the Soviet orbit. In the 1990s and beyond, it was ensuring these states remained friendly with Israel and accommodative to U.S. military power in the region. Today, what? What is it that U.S. policy requires from Egypt and Bahrain that necessitates supporting these regimes during these brutal crack downs?

    How should we view American policy toward the Middle East? What is the larger strategic framework within which we ought to view the various relationships? What is the optimal posture for the United States? Folks, I don’t know. I’d love to know your opinions on the subject.

    Posted in Blogging, History, Human Behavior, International Affairs, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Middle East, Military Affairs, Morality and Philosphy, Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Politics, Russia, Society, Terrorism, United Nations, USA, War and Peace | 8 Comments »

    Book Review: A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad

    Posted by Zenpundit on 29th December 2011 (All posts by )

    A Terrorist’s Call to Global Jihad: Deciphering Abu Musab al-Suri’s Islamic Jihad Manifesto by Jim Lacey (Ed.)

    Cross-posted at

    Previously, I read and reviewed Brynjar Lia’s Architect of Global Jihad , about Islamist terrorist and strategist Abu Musab al-Suri. A sometime collaborator with Osama bin Laden and the AQ inner circle, a trainer of terrorists in military tactics in Afghanistan and an advocate of jihadi IO, al-Suri was one of the few minds produced by the radical Islamist movement who thought and wrote about conflict with the West on a strategic level. Before falling into the hands of Pakistani security and eventually, Syria, where al-Suri was wanted by the Assad regime, al-Suri produced a massive 1600 page tome on conducting a terror insurgency,  The Global Islamic Resistance Call, which al-Suri released on to the jihadi darknet.

    Jim Lacey has produced an English digest version of al-Suri’s influential magnum opus comprising approximately 10% of the original  Arabic version, by focusing on the tactical and strategic subjects and excising the rhetorical/ritualistic redundancies common to Islamist discourse and the interminable theological disputation. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Afghanistan/Pakistan, Book Notes, International Affairs, Islam, Middle East, Military Affairs, Philosophy, Religion, Terrorism, War and Peace | 3 Comments »

    Knowledge, Stability, and Black Swans

    Posted by David Foster on 4th December 2011 (All posts by )

    The sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction, and for this reason it often subsists after such a change in the conditions as might have been expected to suggest alarm. The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent.

    –George Eliot in Silas Marner

    I was reminded of the above passage by a couple of recent posts:

    Claire Berlinski excerpts some thoughts by Hernando De Soto, asking “Is the knowledge system broken?” Some good discussion in the thread at Claire’s post; see especially the concept of a “knowledge bubble” in the comment by Late Boomer. Although I’d say that it’s more a matter of an assumed-knowledge bubble.

    Richard Fernandez suggests that “too big to fail” really means “wait for it,” where “it” means a failure on a very large scale. He cites Nassim Taleb:

    Complex systems that have artificially suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile, while at the same time exhibiting no visible risks. In fact, they tend to be too calm and exhibit minimal variability as silent risks accumulate beneath the surface. Although the stated intention of political leaders and economic policymakers is to stabilize the system by inhibiting fluctuations, the result tends to be the opposite.

    Both of the above are very worthwhile reading. See also my related post penny in the fusebox.

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Management, Markets and Trading, Philosophy, Political Philosophy | 12 Comments »

    Thanksgiving 2011: What I’m Thankful For

    Posted by Shannon Love on 24th November 2011 (All posts by )

    What am I thankful for?

    I’m thankful that I can crush my enemies and see them flee before me, that I can take their horses and belongings and hear the lamentations of their women.

    Okay, I’m not thankful for that today but 1,000 years ago I probably would have been. Today, I am thankful that we do not have to repeat the mistakes and evils of our ancestors but that we can go forth to make our own, hopefully lesser, mistakes.

    What else?

    I thank with brief thanksgiving
    Whatever gods may be
    That no life lives for ever;
    That dead men rise up never;
    That even the weariest river
    Winds somewhere safe to sea.

    If it is sad that good people do not live forever, it is joyful that evil ones do not as well. I think Shakespeare’s Anthony was wrong and it is the evil that men do that is (eventually) interred with their bones. The good we leave behind accumulates over the generations. This would not happen if everything lived forever. So, I am thankful that nothing lasts forever and that things and people change. I am thankful even when that change is death.

    I am thankful that the preacher of Ecclesiastes was literally wrong and that there are new things under the sun and that each day brings some new wonder to explore. I am thankful that, even if he was correct in his metaphor that human nature never changes, then at least we can change how we act on the impulses that come from that nature.

    I am thankful that I live in America, where each morning is the beginning of the great tomorrow promised yesterday. I am thankful that I have the right to strive, to experiment and to improve. I am thankful I have the right to fail, to fall and get back up again.

    Most of all, I am thankful that I know to be thankful for these things.

    Posted in Personal Narrative, Philosophy | 3 Comments »

    A Star Trek Utopia? We’re Living in It

    Posted by Shannon Love on 7th September 2011 (All posts by )

    An era of the conceivable made concrete…And of the casually miraculous.

    Adrian Veidt, The Watchmen by Allan Moore

    A while back I found a post by pseudo-intellectual Peter Frase, pulling several mental muscles trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a Star Trek utopia if only it didn’t have intellectual property laws. [h/t Instapundit-->Overcoming Bias] That got me to thinking about how our contemporary world stacks up against Star Trek’s utopian vision.

    Star Trek is often used as a starting point for musing about this or that utopia because everything in Star Trek seems so wonderful. Star Trek is Gene Roddenberry‘s vision of New Frontier democratic socialism evolved to a utopia so perfect that individuals have to head out into the wilds of deep space just to find some adventure. Watching Star Trek, one naturally begins to wonder what it would be like to live in a world so advanced that all of the problems we deal with today have been resolved or minimized to insignificance.

    Well, we don’t actually have to imagine what it would be like to live in a Star Trek-like, radically egalitarian, technologically advanced, “post-scarcity” society because we live in a Star Trek-like utopia right now, right here, in contemporary America.

    How can I say that? Simple, Star Trek the Next Generation takes place 353 years in the future from 2364 to 2370. If we were to think of ourselves as living in a futuristic science-fiction society we would likewise look back 353 years in the past to 1658.

    Image what modern America would look like to the people of any of the world’s major cultures back in 1658! Any novel, movie, TV or comic book set in day-to-day middle-class America would read like astounding science fiction to anyone from 1658. Our society looks even more utopian in comparison to 1658 than Star Trek world 2370 looks to us today.

    I’m not just talking about all the amazing and frightening technology like nuclear power/weapons, spacecraft, cars, cell phones, computers, the Internet, etc. I’m also talking about issues of want, individual dignity and social/political equality.

    Just to start, by the standards of anywhere 1658 ,contemporary America is a land completely devoid of material poverty. No one in 1658 would consider anyone in America, even a street person, to be even marginally materially poor. Poor people today in American have a material standard of living that surpasses that of even the wealthiest individual in 1658.

    For example, just turning on a faucet and getting safe, clean drinking water would look as amazing to a 1658 person as a Star Trek replicator looks to us today.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Human Behavior, Morality and Philosphy, Philosophy, Science, Society, Tech | 12 Comments »

    Carl Prine: recommended reading

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 30th August 2011 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit — war, reading lists ]

    Not exactly delighted by the reading list recently provided by the inbound Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Carl Prine at Line of Departure will be offering a “weekly discussion about how one might know one’s self” – Sun Tzu suggests that such knowledge is of value to the professional soldier — via texts other than the “middlebrow books of a recent vintage, pulp paperbacks” of the Army’s recommended readings.

    Today he opened with an essay on the First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon, and quoted the final paragraph from Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man:

    And here I was, with my knobkerrie in my hand, staring across at the enemy I’d never seen. Somewhere out of sight beyond the splintered tree-tops of Hidden Wood a bird had begun to sing. Without knowing why, I remembered that it was Easter Sunday. Standing in that dismal ditch, I could find no consolation in the thought that Christ was risen. I sploshed back to the dug-out to call the others up for “stand-to.”

    I could only respond with a passage that I first encountered, likewise, on a blog – Pat Lang‘s Sic Semper Tyrannis – from Sassoon’s friend and fellow poet of the Great War, Wilfred Owen:

    For 14 hours yesterday, I was at work-teaching Christ to lift his cross by the numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirst until after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb, and stands mute before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.

    And I think to myself how much more power there is in either one of those paragraphs, than in that quip about “no atheists in foxholes”.

    * * *

    It’s not a matter of one of those “God or no God” debates in which some clergyman might triumph over some atheist, or vice versa, on TV or at the town or village hall. It’s a matter of cultural riches, of having a reference base of image and story that’s strong enough to express the horrors of Passchendaele or the Marne in a way that speaks to the hearts of those who were not there — and of those who will find themselves there, all too really, in other times and other lands.

    It’s about narrative deep enough to go with you to Golgotha and back. It’s about the words, and about the furnace.

    Prine himself puts it like this:

    I care only of your soul and how it might be fired in the smithy of this blog and then hammered by your experiences in the coming years.

    Our culture is the smithy.

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Biography, Blogging, Book Notes, Military Affairs, Personal Narrative, Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Rhetoric, War and Peace | 2 Comments »

    Historical footnotes to game theory

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 21st August 2011 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit — philosophy, psychology, history, game theory, dilemma, commons cooperation, analogy, 9/11 ]


    I have an interest in game theory that is much like my interest in music: I can’t play, but I can whistle. And so it is that I’ve substituted curiosity about the history of the thing, and whatever analogical patterns I can discern there, for any actual ability at the thing itself.

    Somewhere in my analogy-collector’s mind, then, I have these two quotes, cut from the living tissue of their writer’s thoughts, and prepped fpor contemplation. I find them, in retrospect, quite remarkable.

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in On the Inequality among Mankind, wrote:

    Such was the manner in which men might have insensibly acquired some gross idea of their mutual engagements and the advantage of fulfilling them, but this only as far as their present and sensible interest required; for as to foresight they were utter strangers to it, and far from troubling their heads about a distant futurity, they scarce thought of the day following. Was a deer to be taken? Every one saw that to succeed he must faithfully stand to his post; but suppose a hare to have slipped by within reach of any one of them, it is not to be doubted but he pursued it without scruple, and when he had seized his prey never reproached himself with having made his companions miss theirs.

    And David Hume, in A Treatise of Human Nature:

    Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. ‘Tis profitable for us both that I shou’d labour with you today, and that you shou’d aid me tomorrow. I have no kindness for you, and know that you have as little for me. I will not, therefore, take any pains on your account; and should I labour with you on my account, I know I shou’d be disappointed, and that I shou’d in vain depend upon your gratitude. Here then I leave you to labour alone: You treat me in the same manner. The seasons change; and both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security.


    Those two, I believe, are fairly well known – I was delighted the other day to run across a third sample for my collection. William James, in The Will to Believe, writes:

    Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted. A whole train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any one else backs him up. If we believed that the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never even be attempted.


    The first two quotes are of interest as showing the forms that an idea which will later be mathematized can take. They are, if you like, precursors of game theoretic constructs, although neither Hume nor Rousseau appears to be mentioned in von Neumann and Morgenstern‘s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior.

    The third, I think, is even more interesting.. Consider the eerie and heroic “fulfillment” of that third paragraph if read “as prophecy” – in this account from the 9/11 Commission Report of the events on United Flight 93:

    During at least five of the passengers’ phone calls, information was shared about the attacks that had occurred earlier that morning at the World Trade Center. Five calls described the intent of passengers and surviving crew members to revolt against the hijackers. According to one call, they voted on whether to rush the terrorists in an attempt to retake the plane. They decided, and acted. At 9:57, the passenger assault began. Several passengers had terminated phone calls with loved ones in order to join the revolt. One of the callers ended her message as follows:

    “Everyone’s running up to first class. I’ve got to go. Bye.” The cockpit voice recorder captured the sounds of the passenger assault muffled by the intervening cockpit door.

    Yesterday’s highwayman is today’s hijacker, yesterday’s train is today’s plane…


    If there’s anything to be learned here, it’s not a novel way of protecting trains or aircraft from passengers of malicious intent —

    It’s that there’s a subtle thread running from something akin to instinct that’s also close to unspoken common sense, surfacing for a moment in the writings of thoughtful individuals, leading on occasion to the formulation of exact mathematical principles — but also (i) available, (ii) in the human repertoire, (iii) to be acted upon, (iv) cooperatively, (v) as required, (vi) via the medium of human common interest, (vii) which provides the resultant trust.

    Which may in turn offer some reason for hope — for a humanity in various forms of communal distress…

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Civil Society, Economics & Finance, Education, Environment, History, Human Behavior, Miscellaneous, Morality and Philosphy, Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Quotations, Uncategorized | 3 Comments »

    Seydlitz89: Politics Requires People (a Response to “War, the Individual, Strategy and the State”)

    Posted by Zenpundit on 4th August 2011 (All posts by )

    Cross-posted from

    The following is a post by seydlitz89, a noted Clausewitzian commentator who has participated in three round tables here at Chicago Boyz, and who wanted to respond to a recent post of mine that discussed strategy and superempowered individuals, a discussion that also involved Joseph Fouche, Charles Cameron and others. For many readers in this corner of the blogosphere who are interested in strategy, Seydlitz should need no introduction, but for those that do:

    seydlitz89 is a former US Marine and Army intelligence officer who served in a civilian capacity in Berlin during the last decade of the Cold War. He was involved as both an intelligence operations specialist and an operations officer in strategic overt humint collection and now blogs and posts on the internet and can be contacted at seydlitz89 at He lives with his family in northern Portugal and works in education. His writings have appeared at, Defense and the National Interest, Milpub and on three Chicagoboyz Roundtables.

    Politics Requires People (a Response to “War, the Individual, Strategy and the State”)

    By seydlitz89, 3 August 2011


    I would like to first off thank Zen for this opportunity to guest post on his great blog.

    I am essentially a small town Southern conservative who is dissatisfied with both US political parties. I search in vain for a conservative politics worth the name. So my politics are out of the way and any potential ideological influences indicated.

    Strategic theory is a means to understand strategic reality (for lack of a better term). There are times when it’s just kind of interesting and times when it can help you literally survive, say if you and your Greek family lived in Smyrna in 1919 and knew that the Greek Army had just landed to fight the Turks, and that the Turks would probably win this war and treat the Greeks in Smyrna none too kindly. You would probably think it prudent to leave the city and go someplace safer, like Athens, Cyprus or Crete. Strategic theory is kind of like that, it provides understanding to events and possibly a general direction those events may take, although it is primarily a tool of military historical analysis. That is future prediction is not really part of the deal, but sometimes the relation between the stated political purpose and the military means available, not to mention the character of the enemy provide such a clear indicator of how events are going to turn out, that it becomes clear either figuratively or even literally that it is time to “get out of town”, so to speak.

    Strategic theory uses a system of interlocking concepts which comprise for Clausewitzians Clausewitz’s General Theory of war. The General Theory postulates that there exists a system of common attributes to all wars as violent social interactions and that war belongs to a larger body ofhuman relations and actions known as “politics” (all wars belong within the realm of politics, but not all politics is war). While all wars share these characteristics, warfare, as in how to conduct wars, is very much based on the society and level of technology existing at a specific time. War doesn’t change whereas warfare goes through a process of constant change. Clausewitz’s General Theory need only be flexible enough to adequately understand war and act at the same time as a basis for war planning. It need not be perfect and is not expected to be so. Essentially , it need only be better than the next best theory, and so far we Clausewitzians are still waiting for this second-best theory to make its appearance.

    Warfare is thus the specific “art of war” for a particular period ofhuman history, but would have to be compatible (following Wylie) with the General Theory. On War presents at the same time Clausewitz’s General Theory and his art of Napoleonic warfare, that is a theory of warfare for his time, which is one of the reasons readers find the book confusing. As new methods of warfare come into practice, new theoretical concepts emerge. It is one of these potential concepts that this particular paper and the discussion which initiated it is all about, that being the superempowered individual.

    I do this by describing what is an ideal type of the superempowered individual.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Civil Society, Human Behavior, Military Affairs, Morality and Philosphy, National Security, Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Politics, Society, Terrorism, USA, War and Peace | 4 Comments »

    Plus ça change I

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 20th July 2011 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit — backstory of Google+ ]

    Herrad von Landsberg seems to have corralled seven of his best friends — the Septem Artes Liberales— into his “Hortus deliciarum” on Google+ back in 1180.

    Here’s a larger version, for your viewing convenience:


    Posted in Diversions, Education, History, Internet, Miscellaneous, Morality and Philosphy, Philosophy | 1 Comment »

    The Tree of Life

    Posted by Jay Manifold on 2nd July 2011 (All posts by )

    Warning: spoilers, I guess, though with a film like this it’s hard to give anything away so as to really detract from the experience. Maybe a few autobiographical spoilers of my own.

    Having only seen it once so far, I am aware of having gotten at most glimpses of its full intent. I cannot easily describe Terrence Malick’s oeuvre except in superficial ways: mostly out-of-doors, with nature as a significant element; spectacular cinematography; more or less nonlinear storyline; voice-over narrations. I have not seen Badlands but have seen everything from Days of Heaven on.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Biography, Christianity, Diversions, Film, History, Human Behavior, Judaism, Morality and Philosphy, Music, Personal Narrative, Philosophy, Religion, Science, Space, USA, Vietnam | 8 Comments »

    A Lazy Sunday’s Blogging

    Posted by onparkstreet on 10th April 2011 (All posts by )

    From a comment that I left here:

    Human behavior has too many complex variables to be plotted out neatly in graphs and charts and equations, and besides, humans beings lie. To themselves and to each other.

    So the data points you may enter into any equation will always be colored by human fallibility.

    What we want is to predict human behavior. We may be able to predict certain behaviors in very narrow circumstances but even that is fraught with difficulty. Why do people tend to buy a certain type of toothpaste or why do IEDs tend to be placed at certain times of day, etc? But even if we plot a graph and it fits a set of variables, we still don’t really know how or why we got the graph and whether it is related or a statistical fluke. For example, we may predict what toothpaste a category of persons likes to buy, but it’s a lot harder to predict why person A bought toothpaste B in country C at noon on a Sunday. Even if person A buys toothpaste in the same way every single time we have studied that person, maybe one day an old friend calls up out of the blue and says, “meet me for coffee.” No shopping that day.

    Did your linear progression have the variable for a friend calling up out of the blue in it? Adam Smith’s “the invisible hand” and all of that.

    Take for instance, historical examples of good and bad campaigns: sometimes two leaders within an organization just didn’t get along and that affected decision making. How does an equation explain such a human intangible?

    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and predict behavior, it just means that we must understand the limitations of the tools that we use and be willing to reexamine the tools as experience dictates.

    Good discussion!

    *I posted this previously, but in the late 90s the Sokol hoax was a push back from the scientific community (in this case, a physicist) against the use of post-modern literary theory to understand science.

    There were several criticisms:

    1. The post modern theorists didn’t really understand the scientific terms that they were using and were simply decorating their prose with scientific terminology in order to sound more impressive.

    2. An analogy is simply an analogy. When you say something in human behavior is like fluid dynamics, it doesn’t mean that the equations for fluid dynamics can be used on human behavior. An analogy is not the same thing as, well, the same thing.

    I believe the misuse of scientific analogies is discussed in the following:

    Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science

    By the way, all of this is not against using narratives or constructs to understand the world but against the misuse of science. That was the real center of the discussion.

    Tell me what I’ve got wrong in the comments. Tell me a little something about human fallibility….

    Posted in Blogging, Book Notes, Economics & Finance, Human Behavior, Military Affairs, Morality and Philosphy, Philosophy, Predictions | 11 Comments »

    Duel in slow time

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 1st April 2011 (All posts by )

    [ by Charles Cameron — cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

    In slomo –
    as in the slow rotating
    backseat of a hurtling flipping car –
    at that most divine of speeds at which
    concentration arrives and
    all is revealed –
    as when Krishna himself bears
    each arrow loosed from his
    left-handed archer Arjuna’s drawn bow
    to some fine warrior’s
    we see: all contest is
    each edged duel, a true duet…

    Posted in Arts & Letters, India, Philosophy, Poetry, Religion | 3 Comments »

    A HipBone approach to analysis V: DARPA and storytelling

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 27th February 2011 (All posts by )

    [ 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.

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Miscellaneous, National Security, Philosophy, Poetry, Tech | 3 Comments »

    DoubleQuotes and Questions

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 27th January 2011 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

    You know, I really enjoy building my DoubleQuotes. They can be entirely frivolous, as is this one, for instance:

    with its touch of gothic — a taste I share with my friend Bryan Alexander.

    Or they can work like a Necker cube, offering opposite framings with which to view a single topic — in this case, video games.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Anti-Americanism, Arts & Letters, Aviation, Christianity, Diversions, Environment, Human Behavior, Islam, Middle East, National Security, Obama, Philosophy, Poetry, Quotations, Religion, Rhetoric, Russia, Science, Terrorism | 5 Comments »

    Untangling two words

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 17th January 2011 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

    I’d like to take one small data-point and bring it into sharp focus with what lit critics would call a close reading of a two-word phrase from one of Loughner’s videos.

    Maybe it’s because in French conscience means both what we’d call conscience and consciousness in English, when I read the weirdly stilted prose of Jared Loughner with its curious insistence on syllogism, the phrase “conscience dreaming” suggested “conscious dreaming” to me — and I wondered whether Loughner wasn’t perhaps thinking of the activity called “lucid dreaming” in which one knows while dreaming that one is dreaming, and begins to “direct” the dream in much the same way in which a film-maker directs a film.

    The first quote in this DoubleQuote is from one of Loughner’s videos — the second, which confirms my hypothesis, quotes a friend of his.

    I am not suggesting that “lucid dreaming” is responsible for Loughner’s actions — I’m not sure that anything or anyone is, including Loughner himself.

    My point is that here as elsewhere, figuring out what the allusions in an unfamiliar rhetoric mean is an important step in understanding the mental processes that produce it.

    Lucid dreaming is one clue in the tangled mess that was Loughner’s state of mind that day…

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Human Behavior, Miscellaneous, Morality and Philosphy, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Society | 10 Comments »

    An Iridology of the Sciences?

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 3rd January 2011 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

    I for one am delighted to know that we can now play around with the iridology of the sciences, using the software available on the Science-Metrix Ontology Explorer site to view which fields have journals which cross-link to journals in other fields…

    Seriously — that lower image is of the Field Citation Wheel that you can find, suitably enlarged for easy viewing, on that site.


    And it’s heartening for me to know, for instance — taking a closer look at the segment of that image that’s roughly east north-east — that scientific journals do have some links on their pages to works of theology or philosophy:

    , you’ll notice, has more links than history, philosophy, theology, the social sciences (even counting them twice), economics, business, the arts and humanities combined.

    My own field, theology, has to share its thin segment with philosophy, and you can guess how small the number of links to articles on Islamic apocalyptic probably are…

    Which is, in part, why I wonder whether a project like the ETH’s Living Earth Simulator will really manage to map such things as, well, a possible outbreak of global jihadist Mahdism and its consequences.


    But then I look at another gorgeous graphic from the same source, focusing in on a part of the network of knowledge that interests me, and I can just faintly make out, lower left, entirely isolated, the field of music

    What splendid isolation! That’s all of Bach, mind you – and all the Beatles, too.


    Seriously, though:

    • It’s fascinating to be able to see how the various branches of knowledge cross-reference each other.
    • Visual data representation is a gorgeous, fantastic, field.
    • Mapping the all-of-everything is an irresistable lure for keen minds
    • I’m betting the humanities will prove to be at least as good at it as the sciences.
    • And I recall, not without a pang of regret, the time when my beloved Theology was Queen of the Sciences, and one might converse with Abelard on the streets of Paris…

    Posted in Academia, Arts & Letters, Diversions, France, History, Internet, Miscellaneous, Morality and Philosphy, Music, Philosophy, Religion | No Comments »

    A Baghdad DoubleTake and other matters

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 31st December 2010 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

    Zenpundit recently posted a video of a terrific hour-plus-long speech by Doug Hofstadter – one of the best videos I’ve ever taken the time to watch – in which Hofstadter, the guy who brought us Godel Escher Bach and much more, talked about analogy and suggested that it’s at the very core of human cognition.

    I posted a poem and some comments in response — they got a bit mangled in terms of formatting, which may be fixed by the time you read this – and Zen then posed a question:

    Charles – there’s a large portion of visual imagery in the passage you cite: do you think the incorporation of imagery (thus activating a powerful region of the brain) enhances or distorts the underlying conceptual connection in an analogical construction?

    That’s what set me off this time…


    I think of a poem as a braiding of three strands: a strand of sound or music, a strand of image, and a strand of meaning. For convenience, I’ll usually include a fourth – wit – but it’s actually more like a pearl that can be threaded on the strand of meaning.

    From my POV, the poem is thus essentially a screenplay for the mind’s eye – and if a poem begins with strong music, at the very least I’d like it to end with strong music, if it starts with wit or wordplay, I’d like it to end with that too, and if it has imagery, I’d like the images to unspool in a way not unlike the images in a movie…

    When I’m reading poems by others, and particularly if I’m teaching a poetry class, I’ll sometimes notice a sudden disjunction in one of the three strands. If it’s clearly for effect, all’s well and good – but if it’s unconscious, unintended, it will always reveal an aspect of the poem that hasn’t been worked through yet, and applying conscious attention to it will result in the emergence of new material from the unconscious store that enriches the final product. Sometimes, that kind of attention reaches something that was psychologically difficult, a disjunction in soul if you like – and the result of moving through it to the finished poem can be very much like a breakthrough insight in therapy.

    But “poetry is not a hospital” – if Apollinaire didn’t say that, and I used to think he did, I shall.


    From my POV, therefore, there are analogies of sound, analogies of meaning, and analogies of image. There’s an analogy of sound between tomb and womb – we call it rhyme. There’s certainly an analogy of meaning – whence we come at birth, whither we go at death. And if you like, there’s an analogy of image – when I think of the “twinning” of those two words, I see life itself as running across a brief stretch of grass between two caves…

    When as here, the analogy runs across all three braids, you have a very powerful “conceit” or poetic device.

    The graphic match, together with sonic rhyme, between the visuals of a hotel room fan and the rotors of a helicopter at the beginning of Apocalypse Now parallels the sense of explosive heat and frustrated inaction of Captain Willard trapped in Saigon with the sense of freedom and clarity he feels when sent on mission up-river – again, an analogy in three strands.


    But analogy can also cut across the senses in a different way. Here’s Hermann Hesse‘s view of the Glass Bead Game:

    Throughout its history the Game was closely allied with music, and usually proceeded according to musical or mathematical rules. One theme, two themes, or three themes were stated, elaborated, varied, and underwent a development quite similar to that of the theme in a Bach fugue or a concerto movement . A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or from the actual theme of a Bach fugue, or from a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusions to kindred concepts.
    Beginners learned how to establish parallels, by means of the Game’s symbols, between a piece of classical music and the formula for some law of nature. Experts and Masters of the Game freely wove the initial theme into unlimited combination.

    That’s analogy cutting across disciplines, and across sensory modalities too.

    There was a period of about a dozen years when I almost completely stopped writing poetry, and concentrated on devising a variant on Hesse’s game that would be playable on a napkin in a café – conceiving of it as an art that would combine tight form (think: sonnet, sonata) with the entire spectrum or palette of human thought, visual, verbal, numerical, aural.

    Hesse again:

    The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. 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. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

    And that was written before the world wide web allowed us to mingle visual, verbal, numerical and aural elements so directly in a single presentation.

    You can imagine how delighted I was, therefore, to stumble upon Sven Birkerts‘ writing:

    There are tremendous opportunities, and we are probably on the brink of the birth of whole new genres of art which will work through electronic systems. These genres will likely be multi-media in ways we can’t imagine. Digitalization, the idea that the same string of digits can bring image, music, or text, is a huge revolution in and of itself. When artists begin to grasp the creative possibilities of works that are neither literary, visual, or musical, but exist using all three forms in a synthetic collage fashion, an enormous artistic boom will occur.

    That’s what the HipBone Games were all about…


    That’s what I was reaching for, back in the days before I even called my games the HipBone Games — when they were still TenStones Games played on a board whose geometry I borrowed from the Sephirotic Tree – when I played TS Eliot‘s poem, The dove descending, in juxtaposition to Vaughan Williams‘ piece for violin and orchestra, The lark ascending

    …matching music with poem, descent with ascent, dove with lark, and the natural world of the English countryside with the “wrought” world of Eliot’s London in the pentecostal Blitz.

    I don’t think Stephen or I had web browsers at the time – we played that game using AOL’s early texting function, so the music was entirely in the mind…

    And I still think of that game as one of the loveliest expressions of the “hipbone” art.

    Hesse’s game really is, for me, the continuation of poetry by other means…


    But then it turns out that analogy is an incredibly powerful aspect of human thought – and one that, IMO, we haven’t explored very deeply, perhaps precisely because it jumps silos and disciplinary boundaries, and creates fresh insight

    …which is pretty much as Doug Hofstadter was suggesting in that video Zen posted.

    And so this fundamentally analogical frame of mind — which I had developed in a poetic and aesthetic context and applied to the symbolism so dear to the poets, cultural anthropologists, analytical psychologists, and comparative theologians and the like — turned out to be highly applicable and seen as highly creative when applied to real world issues, when I got a job for a couple of years at a small think-tank just outside DC.

    Because if linear causality is the warp of the weave of the world, acausal patterning is its woof (or weft) – and frankly, our current techno-civilization is hopelessly warped in the direction of warp, and has very little understanding of woof, of weft, of pattern — of what can only be learned from analogy.


    Not that there doesn’t have to be enormous care taken to avoid over-reading parallels. But consider the immediacy of the impact of this DoubleQuote, which I composed in 2003:

    QUOBaghdad 1917 2003

    Eh, Zen?

    Santayana echoes Marx refracts Hegel:

    Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
    Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

    Seen from another angle: history has rhymes to match its reasons

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Diversions, History, Iraq, Music, Personal Narrative, Philosophy, Poetry | No Comments »

    North Korea, Juche and “sacred war”

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 27th December 2010 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

    Okay, I am now clear that the correct translation of the Korean phrase that has sometimes been rendered “holy war” in recent news reports is in fact “sacred war”.

    I’d been wondering just what an atheist state was doing threatening “holy” or “sacred” war…


    Juche is the state philosophy of North Korea, and is considered to be the 10th largest religion in the world by the portal, ranking above Judaism, Baha’i, Jainism and Shinto. It developed out of Marxist-Leninism and has more recently incorporated Confucian elements.

    Sunny Lee, writing in a 2007 article in Asia Times titled God forbid, religion in North Korea?, quotes Han Sung-joo, a former South Korean foreign minister, as saying “There is a deification and a religious emotional element [in juche] in the North. The twinned photos of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are everywhere. Every speech says Kim Il-sung is still alive. I think if I stayed another two weeks, I might even see Kim Il-sung. The country worships someone who is deceased, as if he were alive.”

    One Christian site goes so far as to call Juche a “counterfeit Christianity:

    Recognizing the power of Christianity, Kim wanted it to be directed at himself. So he took Christianity, removed God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, set up himself, his wife and son as the new trinity, and called it Juche. At its core, Juche is a counterfeit Christianity that is deathly afraid of true version, and rightfully so.

    I suppose a close comparison here would be with the cult which Robert Jay Lifton described in Revolutionary immortality: Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese cultural revolution.


    In On Juche in Our Revolution, vol II (published in English, 1977), Kim Il Sung writes:

    No military threat of the US imperialists, however, can frighten the Korean people. If, in the end, the US Imperialists and their stooges unleash a new war against the DPRK, in defiance of our people’s patient efforts to prevent a war and maintain peace and the unanimous condemnation of the peace-loving people of the world, the Korean people will rise as one in a sacred war to safeguard their beloved country and the revolutionary gains. They will completely annihilate the aggressors.

    So the “sacred war” phrasing has been around for a while.

    I hope to learn more — these in the meantime are some clues to be going on with…

    Posted in Anti-Americanism, Christianity, International Affairs, Military Affairs, National Security, Philosophy, Religion, Rhetoric | 8 Comments »