Obama the community organizer

Andrew Sullivan, in his British Sunday Times column yesterday, finally analyzes the MO of Barack Obama in terms of his background as a community organizer:

Obama is also, at his core, a community organiser. Community organisers do not jump into a situation and start bossing people around. They begin by listening, debating, cajoling, inspiring and delegating. Less deciders than ralliers, community organisers explain the options, inspire self-confidence and try to empower others, not themselves. If you think of Obama even on a global stage, this is his mojo. And those community organisers do not tell you to expect instant results. It takes time when you try to build real change from below. But the change is stronger, deeper and more real when it comes.

I guess I have to wonder what took you so long, Andrew?

Tony Benn in Rhodesia

Normblog today quotes an interview with former British Cabinet Minister and MP Tony Benn, talking about visiting Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during WW II:
When I was there, there was no democracy at all: all the good land had been stolen and given to white farmers, no African had votes, it was a criminal offence for an African to have a skilled job; and now we lecture Zimbabwe on democracy – total hypocrisy.”
First, as so often with Benn, rhetorical effect takes priority over truth.   The franchise in Southern Rhodesia was not based on race, but on age, property ownership, income, and a test of English literacy.  Despite the inherent bias of these conditions (made worse by the use of a definition of “property” which excluded cattle, the main traditional form of black wealth), some black Rhodesians qualified to vote from the granting of self-government in 1923.  Of course, the number of black voters enrolled was tiny (in 1948, 248 non-whites to 48,000 whites enrolled), but even 248 is not zero.    Such a system allowed many white Rhodesians to convince themselves their electoral system was not racist.    The electoral situation in Rhodesia was undemocratic enough without Benn having to exaggerate it.
Second, the fact that any non-whites had the vote at all was due to British government insistence against the wishes of most of the Rhodesian white population, from 1898 onwards (see West 2002).  Benn’s statement jumps from a description of Southern Rhodesia in WW II straight to Zimbabwe in 2009, ignoring the campaigns for majority rule in the 1950s and 1960s, the international struggle and sanctions against the illegal UDI regime of Ian Smith, the British-sponsored negotiations leading to British-led peace-keeping forces, majority rule, and independence in Zimbabwe in 1980, and the political, technical, moral and financial support given by Britain for the newly-elected democratic Government of Robert Mugabe.   It is Mugabe and his ZANU-PF henchmen, not Britain, who have failed to honour the standards of democracy.   Like Norman Lamont in his deplorable support for the Chilean murderer Augusto Pinochet, Tony Benn seems to apply one standard to elections in Britain and another standard elsewhere.    As with Lamont, let me ask Benn:  Would it have been OK for John Major to have terrorized and murdered his opponents and refused to leave office when he lost the British election of 1997?  If not, then why is it OK for Robert Mugabe to do so?  Such a double standard strikes me as treating black people differently to white people.
POSTSCRIPT (2009-07-07):
The advisory Legislative Council established by the ruling British South Africa Company in Southern Rhodesia in 1898 had 6 appointed and 5 elected members, who were, from its creation, chosen under a non-racial franchise (see Walker 1953, p. 104).   This franchise was that in force in the Cape Colony, which itself dated from a Municipal Ordinance of 1836, which created a conditional, but colour-blind, franchise for some local governments based solely on ownership or rental of fixed residential property above stated monetary values.   Other tests, such as literacy in English, were added later to the conditions.  Indeed, the history of white rule in southern Africa in the 19th century can be seen as a fight between liberal, often colour-blind policies imposed from the Colonial Office in London but opposed by far-less-often liberal settlers, particularly those of Afrikaaner origin, who repeatedly left the area under British colonial jurisdiction to establish their own settlements further inland.
Michael O. West [2002]:  The Rise of an African Middle Class:  Colonial Zimbabwe 1898 – 1965. Indiana University Press.
Eric A. Walker [1953]: The franchise in Southern Africa. Cambridge Historical Journal, 11 (1): 93-113.

Art as Argument #2

Following my earlier post about the possibility of a work of art being an argument, I want to give another example.  This example is also drawn from Australian aboriginal society, and involves a 1997 claim for legal title to land by the Ngurrara people over land in the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia.  Frustrated by their inability to convince the Native Title Tribunal of their right to the land, the Ngurrara community decided to create a collaborative painting (photographed below) which would demonstrate their traditional rights. The painting was presented, and accepted, as evidence before the Tribunal and is therefore a work of argument, as well as a work of art.
Ngurrara II Canvas 1997
(The Ngurrara Canvas. Painted by Ngurrara artists and claimants, coordinated by Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency, May 1997. 10 metres x 8 metres. Photo: Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency.)
The case is mentioned in a 2003 New Yorker magazine article about aboriginal art by Geraldine Brooks, who says:

“In 1992, the Australian government first recognized the right of Aborigines to claim legal ownership of their ancestral lands – provided they could show evidence of having an enduring connection with them. Before proceeding to court, Aboriginal groups had to make their case before a Native Title Tribunal. Frustrated by their inability to articulate their arguments in courtroom English, the people of Fitzroy Crossing decided to paint their “evidence”. They would set down, on canvas, a document that would show how each person related to a particular area of the Great Sandy Desert – and to the long stories that had been passed down for generations.
“Ngurrara I”, the first attempt, was a canvas that measured sixteen feet by twenty-six feet and was worked on by nineteen artists. It was completed in 1996. But Skipper and Chuguna [two of the artists involved], in particular, didn’t feel that it properly reflected all the important places and stories, so more than forty additional artists were invited to produce a more definitive version. In 1997, “Ngurrara II”, which was twenty-six feet by thirty-two feet, was rolled out before a plenary session of the Native Title Tribunal. It was, one tribunal member said, the most eloquent and overwhelming evidence that had ever been produced there. The Aborigines could proceed to court.” (page 65).

Geraldine Brooks [2003]: “The Painted Desert“, New Yorker, 28 July 2003, pp. 60-67.
Australian National Native Title Tribunal [2002]: Native Title Determination Summary – Marty and Ngurrara.  27 September 2002.  Background press release here.
Also, here is a transcript of a radio story (broadcast 1997-07-15) on Australian ABC radio about the submission of the painting as evidence to the Native Title Tribunal.
More on different forms of geographic knowledge here.

Step right up! Step right up!

Good morning and welcome to everyone who’s just arrived from Normblog!  Do come right in, and make yourself at home.  There are still seats up here near the front, and also over there by the poets.  (We apologize for the peanut shells some of the Beat poets left on the floor over there.)

Feel free to engage in an argument with us, especially regarding decision-theory or forecasting or even prophecy.  Although professionally we are interested in market planning and marketing strategy, we also have a special  interest in that hard-proving ground for data gathering, inference and complex reasoning, intelligence.  Indeed, some of our heroes worked in that arena, as well in politics and telecommunications and project management.  Eventually, though, even heroes become history.

What’s that? Oh, our tagline?  It’s from the opening of The Scalp Hunters: A Romance of Northern Mexico, by Captain Mayne Reid, published in 1860, and one of the young Teddy Roosevelt’s favourite books:

Unroll the world’s map, and look upon the great northern continent of America. Away to the wild west, away toward the setting sun, away beyond many a far meridian, let your eyes wander. Rest them where golden rivers rise among peaks that carry the eternal snow. Rest
them there.

So, browse around, stay as long as you wish, and do visit with us again when you have a free mo’.

Poem: Cat in Empty Aviary

Another poem from Aidan Coleman, whom I thank again for his permission to post this.

is a day for weather:
with a scattering of popcorn.
I’ll let the phone
and only answer the kettle,
idleness and bliss
from next-door’s lounging
who dares a judgment
to come:
a prisoner
of nothing but sun.

cat in sun
Aidan Coleman [2005]:  Avenues and Runways.  Australia: Brandl & Schlesinger Poetry.
Some more poems by Aidan Coleman can be found in an ABC Radio National podcast,  here.
Previous poetry posts can found be here.

Epistemic modal logic at the CIA

Jim Angleton
A recent issue of the TLS ran a review by Terence Hawkes of the biography by Michael Holzman of Jim Angleton, head of counter-intelligence at the CIA.  Holzman’s book, although mostly written from secondary sources, is a fine summary of Angleton’s life and career.  It is marred, however, by (a) Holzman’s annoying (academic) habit of quoting something or somebody and  then repeating, verbatim, key words from that very quotation in the following paragraph, as if we readers were idiots, unable to read for ourselves or contemplate an idea for longer than a paragraph.  And, (b) by a casual sloppiness about dates.  Call me old-fashioned, but I think a historian should not simply say “in  May that  year”  when the last mention of the specific year was some tens of pages and several anecdotes or set-pieces back.   No doubt Holzman always knows which of the 71 years of Angleton’s life and the various ones before or since he is currently referring to, but this is rarely obvious to the reader of this book, even to a careful reader.   In view of the subject matter and Holzman’s theme (that Angleton’s training in so-called practical criticism was invaluable to his career in counter-intelligence), one has to wonder if such sloppiness is deliberate.
Holzman also does not tell us much about the actual theory and practice of counter-intelligence, despite the title and the claims he makes up front.   In particular, his treatment of the Nosenko case is misleading, partly he believes the official CIA line and because he does not refer to the most recent publication on the case, namely the book by Bagley. Hawkes seems to have followed Holzman in his garden-path-up-straying.
Unlike literary criticism, espionage is not only about what to believe, it is also about what to do.  It may be the case that Yuri Nosenko was a genuine Soviet defector, as Holzman claims CIA eventually came to believe.  Others closely involved in the case, such as retired CIA agent Tennent Bagley (2007) have argued compellingly that Nosenko was in fact a KGB plant, not a genuine defector.
Whether or not Nosenko was a genuine defector, and whether or not CIA leadership believed him to be a genuine defector, CIA would also need to concern itself with what impact a revelation of their beliefs would have on KGB, as I have argued before, and thus on what proposition to seek to have KGB believe about CIA’s beliefs in the matter.   If CIA were seen by KGB to accept Nosenko’s testimony (inconsistent and incomplete, by his own admission) too quickly, KGB may not accept as genuine any CIA profession of belief in his bona fides.  So, some delay and equivocation in decision-making was called for.  If CIA professed to believe that Nosenko was a plant or allowed KGB to conclude that CIA believed Nosenko to be a plant, then CIA risked signalling to KGB that they (CIA) were also rejecting all the testimony he arrived in the west with, which included detailed protestations of KGB non-involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.    Whether or not CIA believed that KGB were involved in that assassination, they may or may not have wished to let KGB know what they believed, at least at that particular moment.  In any case, perhaps a clever (and cunning) CIA would seek to have KGB believe that Nosenko was believed, in order to see how the game played itself out.
So, one possible course of action for CIA was to signal to KGB that they accepted Nosenko as a genuine defector, but to signal also that they came to this decision only slowly and painfully.   How better to do this than to interrogate the man at length and (allegedly) harshly, and then, after years of apparent indecision and multiple internal investigations (some of which may even have been genuine), decide to accept him publicly as a true defector.   This public acceptance – consultancy fees, letters, flags, medals, and all – even now, four decades later, may have absolutely no connection whatever with what CIA leadership really believed then or, indeed, what they believe now.
It’s not only litcrit that gets an outing in these events.  If any philosopher reading this wonders about the practical usefulness of dynamic epistemic modal logic, wonder no more.
Tennent H. Bagley [2007]:  Spy Wars.  New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press.
Terence Hawkes [2009]: “William Empson’s Influence on the CIA.”  Times Literary Supplement, 2009-06-10.
Michael Holzman [2008]:  James Jesus Angleton, the CIA and the Craft of Counterintelligence.  Boston, MA, USA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Art as argument

Can a work of visual art be an argument?  I believe the answer to this question is yes.  In this and in some future posts, I will give examples, drawn from Australian Aboriginal art and from pure mathematics.
In August 1963, the Yolgnu people of Yirrkala  (eastern Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory) petitioned the Australian Government for legal rights to traditional land.  The petition was in the form of two painted bark panels.  The argument for land rights was made in three ways — in English text, in Gumatj text, and in the surrounding art, which depicted the traditional relations between the Yolgnu people and their land.   It is important to note that the visual images are not mere decoration of the text, but a presentation of the same argument in a different language, a visual language.
Yirrkala Bark Petitions 1963-1
Yirrkala Bark Petition 1963-2
The artwork of the Yolngu Bark Petition (copied above) is a form of argument, for a claim asserting traditional rights to particular land.  The reason that the artwork is an argument derives from the general nature of traditional Australian Aboriginal art, which presents a diagrammatic or iconic description of a particular geographic region, identifying the landscape features of that region (eg, rivers, hills, etc) along with the dreamtime entities (animals, trees, spirits) who are believed to have created the region and may still inhabit it. (The “dreamtime” is the period of the earth’s creation.)    The art derives from stories of creation for the region, which are believed to have been handed down (orally and via artwork) to the current inhabitants from the original dreamtime spirits through all the intermediate generations of inhabitants.
Accordingly, the only people who have the necessary knowledge, and the necessary moral right, to create an artistic depiction of a region are those who have been the recipients of that region’s creation story.   In other words, the fact that the Yolngu people were able to draw this depiction of their region is itself evidence of their long-standing relationship to the specific land in question.   The existence of the art-work depicting the local landscape is thus an argument for their claim to ownership rights to that land.  (Note that the art work’s role as argument arises primarily from the special nature of the claim it supports;  the art is not, and could not easily be, an argument for any other kind of claim.)
In support of this position, I present some quotations, the first several as explanation for people unfamiliar with Australian aboriginal mythology and art.
Judith Ryan (1993, p. 50):

 The term “Dreaming” is difficult for us to comprehend because of its use as noun and adjective in imprecise and ungrammatical ways to refer to the creation period, conception site, totem, Ancestral being, ground of existence, and the notions of supernatural, eternal or uncreated.”

Jean-Hubert Martin (1993, p. 32):

One can more or less imagine what “Dreaming” is:  that link between the individual and his land, between the clan and its territory.   The paintings [of Aboriginal artists] show figured spaces representing spaces both physical and mental, but it is difficult to go much further than that.
Following Aboriginal explanations one can recognise and name the various elements in these paintings.  The thought structure, the references and the signifance of these words and fragments of speech – which reach us distorted by translation – still remain an enigma despite the valiant attempt to explain them in the ensuing texts.  A not inconsiderable difficulty is posed by the mystery surrounding certain rituals and their formal depiction.  And, one has to remember that what we see today of Aboriginal art is only that which we have been allowed to see.”

Ulrich Krempel (1993, p. 38) quotes  C. Anderson/F. Dussart (1988, p. 18), as follows:

When asked about their paintings, [Australian Aboriginal] artists usually respond that the painting “means” or is “my country”, that is, it is a depiction of the painter’s territory.  When queried further about the “Dreaming” story, the artist will often identify the main Ancestor depicted and perhaps the primary site at which the Ancestor undertook the actions portrayed in the painting.   It is possible for an outsider, especially if working in the local language, to gain further insight into the narrative of events described in the painting, but even then access to the different levels of meaning may be restricted.”

Three quotations from Horward Morphy [1991]:

From a Yolngu perspective, paintings are not so much a means of representing the ancestral past as one dimension of the ancestral past . . .” (page 292)
Yolngu art also provides a framework for ordering the relations between people, ancestors, and land.” (page 293)
Paintings [in Yolngu society] gain value and power through their incorporation in such a process [of cultural definition], through being integral to the way a system (of clan-based gerontocracy) is reproduced, and through being part of its ideological support.  Paintings gain power because they are controlled by powerful individuals, because they are used to discriminate between different areas of owned land, because they are used to mark status, to separate the initiated from the uninitiated and men from women.  Their use in sociopolitical contexts creates part of their value. However, their value is also conceptualized in other terms, in terms of their intrinsic properties.” (page 293)

Janien Schwarz (1999, pp. 56-57):

In the first section, I argue that an understanding of the Bark Petitions is inseparable from an understanding of Yolngu relations to land.  In Yolngu culture, the painting of designs is regarded as constructing an interface between the ground, its spiritual essence, and specific groups of people.  The designs on the Petition are inseparable from these associations, in particular from the geographic locations at which they originated during Creation or wangarr.  Putting the Petitions’ clan designs in a Yolngu cultural context reveals their strong artistic and political links to the Yolngu people and their land.  With mounting pressures on land use from outsiders, Yolngu people have disclosed their designs (and inferred connections to land) through the context of art and art exhibitions as a political means of laying claim to their country which is under threat by bauxite mining.  I present the Petitions as part of a larger history of Aboriginal people negotiating for land rights and cultural recognition through the production and presentation of painted barks and other objects of spiritual significance.  . . .  I contend that the painted motifs on the Bark Petitions merit interpretation as land claims and that, by extension, the paintings are a form of petition.”

C. Anderson/F. Dussart: “Dreamings in Acrylic: Western Desert Art”.  Catalog for Exhibition:  Dreamings:  The Art of Aboriginal Australia. P. Sutton, Editor. Ringwood, Melbourne, 1988. p. 118.
Ulrich Krempel [1993]: “How does one read “Different” Pictures?  Our encounter with the aesthetic product of other cultures”, in Luthi and Lee, pp. 37-40.
Bernhard Luthi and Gary Lee (Editors) [1993]:   Aratjara:  Art of the First Australians. Exhibition Catalog. Dusseldorf, Germany: Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen.
Jean-Hubert Martin [1993]:  “A Delayed Communication”, in Luthi and Lee, pp. 32-35.
Horward Morphy [1991]:  Ancestral Connections:  Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge.  Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press.
Judith Ryan [1993]:  “Australian Aboriginal Art:  Otherness or Affinity?”, in Luthi and Lee, pp. 49-63.
Janien Schwarz [1999]: Beyond Familiar Territory: Dissertation: Decentering the Centre. An analysis of visual strategies in the art of Robert Smithson, Alfredo Jaar and the Bark Petitions of Yirrkala; and Studio Report: A Sculptural Response to Mapping, Mining, and Consumption.  PhD Thesis, Canberra School of Art, Australian National University, Canberra,  Australia.    Available from here.

Scenarios and possible worlds

Herman Kahn was the inventor of scenario analysis, and he first applied it to analysis of US military options in the Cold War with the USSR in the 1950s. I was struck when I read his books by the fact that scenarios were developed in the same decade as possible worlds semantics for logical systems or languages, and both at a time when most people felt there was a choice of only two or three over-arching political systems. (In contrast, from the fall of the Berlin Wall until the Global Financial Crisis, most people probably thought there was no such choice, western capitalism having prevailed over all alternative systems.  Now, of course, nobody knows anything.)
Herman Kahn
I don’t think these simultaneous facts of scenarios and possible worlds were coincidences.  Which leads me to a question that has long intrigued me: just who did develop possible worlds semantics? Although the idea dates at least to Leibniz, Saul Kripke is usually credited, and so these semantics are often called Kripke frames.

But there are other candidates:

  • Richard Montague, logician and linguist, who published in 1960, but had presented his work at a conference at UCLA in 1955.
  • Carew Meredith and Arthur Prior in 1956. According to Jack Copeland, these two logicians developed the first possible worlds semantics for propositional modal logic in a one-page note dated 1956. Meredith was a near contemporary of Frank Ramsey at Winchester and Trinity College, Cambridge.
  • Charles L. Hamblin, whose London University PhD thesis submitted in October 1956 presents a possible worlds semantics for question-response interactions.
  • Hugh Everett, who presented the first formal possible-worlds theory of quantum mechanics in physics, in his 1956 Princeton University PhD thesis.
  • Jaako Hintikka, who developed a possible worlds semantics for logics of belief.  Although published in 1962, I understand Hintikka’s work was completed as early as 1957.
  • Stig Kanger, who published in 1957.
  • A. Bayart, a Belgian logician, who published in 1958 and 1959.

As I said, it is exceedingly odd that all these works were published around the same time. In addition, both Everett and Kahn were at Princeton University in the 1950s, although I don’t know if they overlapped. Also, Kahn had studied physics, so may have been aware of recent developments in the subject.


A. Bayart [1958]: Correction de la logique modale du permier et du second ordre S5. Logique et Analyse, 1 (1): 28-45.

A. Bayart [1959]: Quasi-adéquation de la logique modale du second ordre S5 et adéquation de la logique modale du premier ordre S5. Logique et Analyse, 2 (6-7): 99-121.

B. J. Copeland [1999]: Notes towards a history of possible worlds semantics. pp. 1-14 in: The GoldBlatt Variations: Eight Papers in honour of Rob. Uppsala Prints and Preprints in Philosophy, Number 1. Uppsala, Sweden: Department of Philosophy, Uppsala University.

H. Everett [1956]: The Theory of the Universal Wave Function. Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press. Reprinted as pp. 3-140 of: B. S. DeWitt and R. N. Graham [1973]: The Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press. The main results of Everett’s PhD were published in: H. Everett [1957]: “Relative State” formulation of Quantum Mechanics. Review of Modern Physics, 29 (3): 454-462.

Robert Goldblatt [2006]: Mathematical modal logic:  a view of its evolution.  D. M. Gabbay and J. Woods (Editors): Handbook of the History of Logic. Volume 7.

C. L. Hamblin [1957]: Language and the Theory of Information. London, UK: PhD Thesis, Logic and Scientific Method Programme, University of London. Submitted October 1956, awarded 1957.

J. Hintikka [1962]: Knowledge and Belief. Ithaca, NY, USA: Cornell University Press.

H. Kahn [1960]: On Thermonuclear War. Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press.

H. Kahn [1965]: On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios. Pall Mall Press.

S. Kanger [1957]: Provability in Logic. Stockholm Studies in Philosophy. Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist and Wiksell.

S. Kripke [1959]: A completeness proof in modal logic. Journal of Symbolic Logic, 24: 1-14.

S. Kripke [1963]: Semantical analysis of modal logic I: normal propositional calculus. Zeitschrift fur mathematische Logic und Grundlagen der Mathematik, 9: 67-96.


How environment shapes cosmology

Further to the post below about the relationship between language and thought, a friend has just remarked to me that the absolute (East-West-North-South) spatial reference system in the language of the Kuuk Thaayorre is in fact a relative system, relative to the magnetic poles or (since they are unlikely to have known about the poles) relative to the movements of the sun.  Accordingly, such a language would have been unlikely to have developed in parts of the world with continuous cloud cover.   Which observation brought to mind a famous article by French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincare, where he considered what type of mathematical physics humans may have  developed if the earth had been always covered in cloud:  no theory aiming to predict the return of meteors, no models of planetary motion, not much study of ellipses and related number theory, and perhaps a theory of gravitation long delayed.  (Thanks:  DW).