Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Book Review: Command Culture

I'm just finished reading Command Culture by Jörg Muth. To give it it's full title - Command Culture, Officer Education in the U.S and German Armed Forces, 1901-1940 and the Consequences for World War II. The book charts a period of history which is all too often wrapped up in the mystique which surrounds any victorious army. The assumption of too much history is that the US armed forces were better led than the Germans, backed up by overlarge characters, like Patton, or Eisenhower.

The reality presented by this book is rather more complex and nuanced, sparing little praise for the US military, which was at the time mired in a culture of hazing, rigid schooling and restrictive doctrine. By contrast the German military is presented as a flexible and adaptive institution, able to react to circumstance and innovate internally.

The key theme is one of leadership, and the exploration of the strengths and weaknesses of each institution has a great deal of value for anyone looking at how institutions function best. The key weakness of the American military it seems was the inability of senior officers to challenge and change the institution they had grown up in, with a steady ossification occuring over time. Few individuals were keen to give new entrants an "easy ride" compared to the misery they had endured to get through to high rank.

By contrast the German schools were far more open, allowing for an integrated education, including civilian schooling. They were also far more focussed on merit based promotional systems, which ensured that truly capable candidates rose swiftly, protecting against hazing of the American type, since today's junior could be tomorrow's boss.

I'd recommend this book to anyone looking at how management itself works, since there are a great many lessons to be had here. The "no right answer" doctrine (using that word in it's loosest possible sense) is rare even in the civilian world, and written orders of extreme detail are equally common. The German schools seem to have had a great deal of success in ensuring that officers (managers) were able to take their appropriate level of responsibility, avoiding the tendancy to micromanage, since it was never taught in the first place.

The author describes the difference between American orders, which would be extremely detailed and explain the path by which the senior expected his juniors to achieve an objective, vs the German style, which would simple state the goal, leaving the path to victory to be determined by officers on the ground. This is something which all too often business training and education utterly fails to impart to rising managers. The need to relinquish control on the assumption that juniors can be trusted should be part of standard business practice, however all too often managers feel they cannot do this until trust has been earned, and then ensure the circumstances never arise to earn that trust due to micromanagement.

A tightly written and elegant book, Command Culture is a delight to read and an enjoyable exploration of a key part of history. It is enhanced by it's brevity, and each point is clearly and consisely made, with little spare prose to weaken the text.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in the concept and execution of leadership.

Monday, 30 July 2012

3D printed weapons now a fact of life

From BoingBoing, the reality that 3D printed weapons are now part of our lives:

An amateur gunsmith, operating under the handle of "HaveBlue" (incidentally, "Have Blue" is the codename that was used for the prototype stealth fighter that became the Lockheed F-117), announced recently in online forums that he had successfully printed a serviceable .22 caliber pistol.
Despite predictions of disaster, the pistol worked. It successfully fired 200 rounds in testing.
HaveBlue then decided to push the limits of what was possible and use his printer to make an AR-15 rifle. To do this, he downloaded plans for an AR-15 in the Solidworks file format from a site called CNCGunsmith.com. After some small modifications to the design, he fed about $30 of ABS plastic feedstock into his late-model Stratasys printer. The result was a functional AR-15 rifle. Early testing shows that it works, although it still has some minor feed and extraction problems to be worked out.
 While there are still some details to sort out, it's pretty clear that making weapons at home using 3-D printers from commonly available materials is going to become much more commonplace in the near future. In fact, as 3-D printing technology matures, materials feedstock improves, and designs for weapons proliferate, we might soon see the day when nearly everyone will be able to print the weapons of their choice in the numbers they desire, all within the privacy of their own homes.

The only limitations for the spread of this are lack of technical skill, awareness of the technology and the availability of ammunition. The first two will be solved by the simple spread of 3D printing technology, which is going to spread steadily into the home and work environment (my employers, market researchers all, are toying with buying one for prototype demos). The problem of ammunition will be quickly solved by innovating alternate deliver systems. Plastic rather than metal bullets, gas fired, or electrically fired, would both solve.

This assumes of course that 3D printers will only stick with copies of existing guns, which seems vanishingly unlikely. Innovation will occur. And the only people discussing the rights and wrongs of this technology are the curators at Thingiverse. Ponder on that for a bit.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Admiral James Stavridis on security

Thanks to Charles Cameron over at ZenPundit for this one. Excellent talk on security by Admiral James Stavridis. Presented without comment (largely because I don't have time for a writeup.


Thursday, 26 July 2012

Book Review: Kill Decision

I don't tend to review fiction on here unless it's pretty exceptional, and Daniel Suarez's new book Kill Decision is definitely that. I've been looking forward to this book after reading Daemon and Freedom some years ago, and it's fair to say that Suarez hasn't lost his ability to take existing technological and social trends and translate them into a tight fictional narrative.

My only complaint about Suarez's style is that he tends to plunge everyman characters (in this case a biologist with a specialisation in ants) into situations which would guarantee post traumatic stress in a grizzled 20 year combat veteran and then have them walk out absolutely fine. Compared to Daemon however there are a lot more grizzed veterans and far fewer civilians, so it's a little more credible than previously.

The book is about drones, and the future of  warfare as humans are taken out of the "kill decision" and replaced by autonomous drones. It explores the transitional state from Reaper style drones towards drone swarms, and whether or not human operators will be involved in operating this type of weapon. In essence taking something like this:

And turning it into a vast swarm of semi specialised killing machines.

The sad fact is that Suarez's vision of the future is pretty likely to come true in some fashion. Swarm based drones are far superior to the heavy Reaper and Predator platforms in almost all situations. High altitude survelliance may always belong to the heavier platform, but the closer you get to the ground, and the higher the risk to the individual platform, the more it makes sense to have a platform which costs less to build, and which can be lost without any great fuss.

Taking humans out of the chain will also come in time, if only at a theoretical level at first. There will always be an argument that it's necessary to have drones which can act autonomously, in case of enemy action, and it wouldn't do any good if a terrorist leader got away would it? Far better that the drones go ahead and kill him even if they do lose their connection to home base.

Suarez also explores the importance that an increasingly privatised military machine will have on warfare. When companies are making their greatest profits during warfare, is that not the same as incetivising them to create (or at least strongly encourage) that very same activity? Drones are very much part of the civilian world, and the technology is now part of the public domain. Drones will form a major part of the Internet of Things, ensuring that private companies have access to the most up to date drone software pretty much from inception.

I don't want to give too much away, so I'll leave it there, suffice it to say this book is necessary reading.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

More law enforcement disruption

I recently found out about a site called The Silk Road. Well worth reading up on, the site is 'hidden', in the sense that users must access it through TOR. This ensures that all users are anonymous from the outset, and further, guarantees they will have a certain (low) level of technical skill online, this ensures that the clientel of the site are of a standard which the operators are comfortable with.

And what does The Silk Road do? Well, it's a drug market. Simple as that. Whatever you can imagine is for sale, from heroin, to steroids, to plain ol marijuana. Set up to emulate sites like Amazon sellers are rated and ranked. It's easy to find what you need. Ultimately it's all about user convenience.

User privacy is further protected by allowing purchases only in anonymous bitcoins. Due to it's nature this online currency is almost untracable (absolutely untracable if certain precautions are taken), and has a real world value, along with plenty of people who will buy them up. Currently 1 bitcoin is worth around 8-9 dollars, and for the most part has steadily risen over the last few years since it's inception.

So, right now, there's a website which allows the purchase of virtually any illegal drug, provides (indeed demands) anonymity, and is self policing.

At what point is the war on drugs lost?

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

3D printing redux

A long time back I wrote a piece on 3D printing and it's potential to impact upon conflict, using the particular case of narco gangs in South America. The essential question being, what happens when criminal organisations control the means for supply for weapons and/or ammunition?

The trend towards distributed production, and the transfer of proprietary technology from the state toward civilians has taken another step along this path with the emergence of 3D printed generic keys to two of the main types of handcuffs:

In a workshop Friday at the Hackers On Planet Earth conference in New York, a German hacker and security consultant who goes by the name “Ray” demonstrated a looming problem for handcuff makers hoping to restrict the distribution of the keys that open their cuffs: With plastic copies he cheaply produced with a laser-cutter and a 3D printer, he was able to open handcuffs built by the German firm Bonowi and the English manufacturer Chubb, both of which attempt to control the distribution of their keys to keep them exclusively in the hands of authorized buyers such as law enforcement.

The demonstration highlights a unique problem for handcuff makers, who design their cuffs to be opened by standard keys possessed by every police officer in a department, so that a suspect can be locked up by one officer and released by another, says Ray. Unlike other locks with unique keys, any copy of a standard key will open a certain manufacturer’s cuff. “Police need to know that every new handcuff they buy has a key that can be reproduced,” he says. “Until every handcuff has a different key, they can be copied.”
What this means, in essence, is that we're on the cusp of a minor but significant disruptive event. Criminals, particularly those who make their living by committing crime, have the opportunity to equip themselves with multiple keys (secreted around their person in the same way knives can be now) for common cuffs, and have a good chance of making an escape.

This is only the beginning of the coming 3D printing revolution, but a good example of what is to come. Of course police can move over to zip ties, or some other form of binding, but the ubiquity of hand cuffs is not accidental, metal bracelets will always be preferable to plastic.

This is part of a growing trend, with technology challenging the effectiveness of law enforcement. Whether it's distributed communication in the London riots last year, printed AR15s or simply implanting doubt about the effectiveness of handcuffs.

Innovation is the art of removing problems then getting out of the way. Law enforcement is run as a public service organisation, with vast amounts of rules and regulations, along with a command structure which is not steeped in emerging technology. Criminals on the other hand tend toward distributed networks, which can innovate on multiple levels at great speed, and then proliferate that learning both horizontally and vertically.

A dangerous trend for the stability of the state.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Book Review: Blindsight

It's a crime that I've not reviewed Blightsight by Peter Watts previously, it's one of my favourite books, as well as being one of the cleverest in terms of delivering fascinating and advanced concepts in an accurate and accessable way. It's a rare book which can do this, retaining the science, without losing the story, or vice versa.

The book concerns humanity's first attempt to contact an alien species, a fairly classic science fiction trope, and one richly deserving of having new life pumped into it. The narrator is a member of the crew, who is tasked with the job of watching the remaining crew, so he can report back to Earth as to what is occuring on the ship. The reason for this addition, the crew is comprised of individuals who have been radically altered from the human baseline, and thus are incomprehensible to 'normal' human beings at times.

The book's science ranges widely throughout, from biology, to physics, to neurology. The author comes up with one of the most consistent and logical explanations for vampires that has ever been done, and the alien's the crew encounter are one of the rare examples of a truly alien existance. However, the core of the book concerns are about conciousness and what it means to be intelligent. Also explored is the idea of different types of conciousness, and whether damaged (in terms of mental illness) minds can be as valuable as what we currently call 'normal'.

I don't want to spoil the plot for anyone who goes on to read this, as it's too well constructed to want to interfere with the voyage the author takes the reader on. Suffice it to say, by the end, the reader is left wondering if the "I" behind their eyes is as valuable as they have thought all their lives.

The other rather wonderful feature of this book is that it can be obtained for free from Peter Watt's website (which I have linked at the  top). PDF and ebook variants are all avaliable. Go forth and obtain a copy, and if you like it, I'm sure Watts will be happy to take your money.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

A predictable failure

There's something tiresomely predictable in the fact that this:
Private companies will be running large parts of the police service within five years, according to [the head of G4S

Has become this:
Security guards provided for the Olympics by the firm G4S may not be able to speak English, the company's chief executive has admitted.

And this:
He confirmed that G4S stood to lose up to £50m because of the fiasco, which forced the government this week to call up 3,500 troops to meet the shortfall in security for the Games.

...in the space of only a few weeks.

The Olympics are increasingly coming to represent all that is wrong with the relationship between the state and the private corporations who are endlessly seeking still greater power at the expense of the state.

Corporations have been allowed to brand the Olympics as their own, gaining sweeping powers to eliminate even the vaguest acknowledgment of their competitors from anywhere near the games. Barclays Bikes are to be parked 15 minutes away from the site, just in case anyone remembers they exist whilst anywhere near the actual Olympic site. You're not allowed to possess "any objects or clothing bearing political statements.

Here's my favourite:
Locog have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep Mcdonalds, one of the Olympics' main sponsors, happy. A note distributed to catering teams within the Olympic Park has emerged, which reads: "Due to sponsorship obligations with McDonald's, Locog have instructed the catering team they are no longer allowed to serve chips on their own anywhere within the Olympic park. The only loophole to this is if it is served with fish.
That's right, foods which aren't produced by Olympic sponsors cannot exist within the site.

Of course, the argument runs that Corporations are spending a lot of money to get the games going. The target (which wasnt reached) was for £700m to come from sponsors. But the whole project has cost around £9.3bn. Sponsorship is less than 10% of the overall cost, the rest being paid largely by the taxpayer, one way or another.

The state endlessly kowtows to overmighty corporations who do not pay their way, then howl that they are being treated unfairly. They fail to meet their obligations, or even try to meet their pledges. G4S has single handedly disrupted the operations of the entirety of the British military because it cannot manage to get enough security personnel, then reveal those it does have might not speak English. It's hard to feel the Olympics is secure when such basic things are utterly beyond such a major company.

Yet I'll open the paper tomorrow to be told that something new should be privatised, that the Government can learn oh so much from the public sector.

A pathetic and predictable failure.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The challenge facing the online advertising market - GfK crosspost

This is a post I wrote for the TechTalk blog at GfK (my generous employers) on the potential for future disruption in the online advertising space. Please direct any comments to that blog, and take the time to look around, some excellent pieces of work on there. Article follows:

Online advertising is a big deal; in 2011 approximately £4.8bn was spent in the UK alone on this medium, a rise of over 14 percent on 2010[1]. The biggest growth area within this is the Real Time Bidding (RTB) market. RTB allows advertisers to specify a consumer type they want to target, the site they want to target them on, and then bid against competitors to display their particular ad. This happens at a rate of billions of slots for ads being auctioned every day[2], and has led to the creation of a highly complex and extremely rewarding system, both for advertising agencies, and the businesses which use them. However, the problem is that like any complex and established system, it is at risk of disruption if the underpinnings of this system start to unravel. New technology is emerging which begs the question, is that disruption about to occur?

To service the demand for data, online tracking has increased exponentially in recent years. Advertisers and big data retailers can use tracking cookies to build a surprisingly detailed footprint of individual internet users. On the 50 most visited websites, data collection volume increased 400 percent year-over-year since November 2010, according to new research by Krux Digital[3]. What does that mean in real terms?

According to Krux, “the average visit to a web page [within the top 50 sites] triggers 56 instances of data collection.”[4] Thus, a model has emerged based on advertising agencies tracking the consumer online in real time. Without that knowledge it’s impossible to know which ad is being shown to which consumer. With online advertising revenues set to pass print ad revenues this year, the need for targeting has never been so critical.[5] And yet, this is the fundamental weakness of the model as it stands.

Consumers have become progressively aware of tracking, and for some, the level of data scraping is too much. This has led to the creation of technologies like Ad Aware[6], which can remove and block tracking cookies, and AdBlock[7], which uses a variety of data sources to identify and block ads from appearing on user’s screens, rendering tracking cookies irrelevant. Previously these might have been the preserve of the privacy conscious, but increasingly the technology is built direct into the internet browser.

There are also moves to create an international “Do not track” (DNT) standard for websites, which would give consumers more rights whilst adding another stumbling block for advertising agencies, and the businesses that use them. DNT is a setting contained in most browsers which tells any site you visit that tracking is not welcome, if the user chooses to enable it. Right now, sites have to make it clear there are tracking cookies in use but DNT is not a legal standard, although European regulators are starting to take a tougher stance, saying that consumers should be prompted by their browser to ask if they want to turn DNT on, with an explanation of what it means to do so.[8]

The fact that such a standard is being discussed reveals a well-known truth: people want to control their data, whilst advertisers and big data resellers want to possess and monetise it. Of course, the market is reacting; Twitter recently moved to adopt the DNT, whilst Microsoft is indicating that Internet Explorer 10 is likely to ship with DNT turned on as standard[9], stating the move was “an important step in the process of establishing privacy by default, putting consumers in control and building trust online.”[10]

With such significant disruption on the horizon, it’s not surprising that some new models are being considered to enable advertisers to continue to target consumers. One novel idea is being proposed by the creators of the site Megaupload. Despite well-publicised legal troubles, they claim to be on the cusp of launching “Megabox[11]”, a service which will provide free music to users. The catch is that in order to access music, you have to download an app which will put advertising in your browser, or you can pay a monthly amount for ad-free access. Similarly, apps like Angry Birds have been successful by providing ‘in-game’ advertising in return for free versions of the app.

Ultimately though, it is user preference that will guide the market. Whilst internet users express a broad preference towards greater privacy online, the reality is far muddier, with consumers often giving their data away, whether knowingly or unknowingly. However, as the technology to better secure privacy becomes more accessible, in particular with consumers being prompted by their browsers, it may well be that advertisers have to start to find new ways to target consumers.

What isn’t in doubt is that disruption is coming, whether consumer driven, inspired by a corporation or imposed by regulators. Whoever is able to find a solution may be first off the mark in reaping the rewards of this major advertising sector.


Thursday, 5 July 2012

More things to read

I'm a little swamped at the moment with work related things, and some writing I'm doing for non Campaign Reboot locations to blog a lot, so instead, here are some articles which I've found interesting over the last few days:

Tech President article on the potential for an intersection between big data and democracy:

At the center of this controversy is Behavioral Targeting. Think of Behavioral Targeting as the intersection between Big Data, Moneyball, Network Theory, Cognitive Psychology and Businesses. Depending on where you stand this alliance is either the Holy Grail of marketing or the ultimate in Unholy Alliances of consumer manipulation. The most disturbing mainstream article on this trend, published in the New York Times, outlines how Target gathers data on consumers to develop a pregnancy prediction score, to know when a customer is pregnant so they can use that moment to change their buying habits. The article was sort of a wake-up call to the general public, a glimpse into how marketers are using all this data to effectively manipulate consumers and maximize profit margins. Fair enough, that’s what they do, and we can have the debate later about whether or not this type of behavioral targeting is a good idea, or to what extent we should regulate it. Instead I want to ask a more interesting, and to me more important question: what happens when you replace businesses with political actors in the above equation. That is . . .
What do you get when you cross Big Data, Moneyball, Network Theory, Cognitive Psychology and Democracy?
The answer to me is pretty clearly something not very good for the public. Indeed while I am generally fairly optimistic about the effect of the digital network on public formation, I think this is one area we need to be concerned about. It seems to be mixing this type of behavioral targeting with democracy seriously undermines the democratic process, from multiple angles.
Supported by this article in the New York Times about how Target uses its behavioural tracking data to figure out when it's customers are pregnant, in order to better target their direct marketing:
As the marketers explained to Pole — and as Pole later explained to me, back when we were still speaking and before Target told him to stop — new parents are a retailer’s holy grail. Most shoppers don’t buy everything they need at one store. Instead, they buy groceries at the grocery store and toys at the toy store, and they visit Target only when they need certain items they associate with Target — cleaning supplies, say, or new socks or a six-month supply of toilet paper. But Target sells everything from milk to stuffed animals to lawn furniture to electronics, so one of the company’s primary goals is convincing customers that the only store they need is Target. But it’s a tough message to get across, even with the most ingenious ad campaigns, because once consumers’ shopping habits are ingrained, it’s incredibly difficult to change them.

There are, however, some brief periods in a person’s life when old routines fall apart and buying habits are suddenly in flux. One of those moments — the moment, really — is right around the birth of a child, when parents are exhausted and overwhelmed and their shopping patterns and brand loyalties are up for grabs. But as Target’s marketers explained to Pole, timing is everything. Because birth records are usually public, the moment a couple have a new baby, they are almost instantaneously barraged with offers and incentives and advertisements from all sorts of companies. Which means that the key is to reach them earlier, before any other retailers know a baby is on the way. Specifically, the marketers said they wanted to send specially designed ads to women in their second trimester, which is when most expectant mothers begin buying all sorts of new things, like prenatal vitamins and maternity clothing. “Can you give us a list?” the marketers asked.
And finally, the first part (or preview) of an article in Vanity Fair on the culture which destroyed Microsoft's ability to innovate internally, a really eye opening piece:
Eichenwald’s conversations reveal that a management system known as “stack ranking”—a program that forces every unit to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, good performers, average, and poor—effectively crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed—every one—cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Eichenwald writes. “If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”


Sunday, 1 July 2012

Some recommended reading/watching

First up is this superb article on the BBC of all places on COIN. Rare to see something like this on the ol' Beeb, or indeed any mainstream media outlet. Probably the best piece I've seen as a summary of the COIN discipline, it gives an overview of the benefits of COIN and the 'dark side' which has emerged at times throughout history. I will note that the author does go after COIN pretty heavily as a universally negatively used set of tactics, which I think is unfair at times, but he does have the decency to back it up:
I thought I would tell the history of how Counterinsurgency was invented, why it was discredited in America, and how it returned in 2007 to dominate and brutalise the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a fascinating and weird story that is far odder than anything Jack Idema could have dreamt up - it involves Mao Zedong, John F Kennedy, French fascists, the attempted assassination of Charles De Gaulle, and strange Potemkin-style villages in Vietnam where women get pregnant for no discernible reason.
This piece in Armed Forces Journal touches on some important problems with promotion within the military. The author is actually artificially limiting himself in his piece, as many of the problems he identifies are just as severe in the private sector as they are described to be in the military:

[T]he employment expectations of highly talented people changed a generation ago. The desire for lifetime employment has been replaced by a desire for lifetime employability. That means they vote with their feet when employers fail to reward performance, fail to give people a voice in their work and fail to fire bad bosses.

Indeed, a 2010 study by the Army Research Institute found that the main reason talented people leave is not the lure of a lucrative civilian career, but because mediocre people stay in and get promoted.

Year-group systems promote high talent at nearly the same pace as mediocre and below-average officers during their first 20 years of service. For instance, the active-duty Army promoted 99 percent of lieutenants to captain and 95 percent of captains to major during its 2011 boards. In 2010, selection rates for Army O-5s were 94 percent and above 85 percent in all other services. This is unheard of in the private sector. It rings loudly of institutionalizing mediocrity at best, and poisoning the pool of future senior leaders at worst

A short list of overdue changes to the military personnel system includes efforts to:
  • Promote top performers only when they are selected for higher responsibilities.
  • Eliminate year-group and “time in grade” promotions.
  • Find and release the worst performers at all levels.
  • Establish a job posting system.
  • Give senior leaders responsibility for assessing, hiring and developing talent.
  • Allow top talent to choose non-command assignments.
  • Establish succession-planning processes.
  • Create assignment flexibility between active and reserve components.
  • Learn from exit interviews.
Last but not least, I usually wouldn't such a blatantly partisan piece, but this was too good not to at least mention. Texas Republicans don't want students placed in an environment where their "fixed beliefs" are "challenged". Clearly the last thousand or so years of developing rational thought have been wasted in Texas: