Wednesday, 23 January 2013

On Lincoln

I've been reading the highly enjoyable Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, an enjoyable biography which sets Lincoln in his historical context. Although I believe the book is likely too slow to criticise (indeed, at times it gushes praise) this historical giant there may be a reasonable claim to be made that Lincoln is a historical figure it is hard to criticise.

The book makes the reader dwell extensively on the concept of leadership, not only the leadership qualities of Lincoln himself, but also his Cabinet and the figures he chose to surround himself with. Part of the power of Lincoln seems to have been a robust desire to ensure that any decision he made was based on rational consideration, rather than emotional response. Although he sometimes gave way to his emotions, most often due to the pressures of the Civil War, on the majority of occasions it seems he took time to consider his actions within the context of the environment he found himself in. Even when provoked, for example by Salmon Chase's attempts to displace him as President, he was able to step back before reacting, choosing a wiser course.

One question this book has roused in me however is what does it change in our leaders when they are separated from the common man. I'd like to steal a device used often by Charles Cameron (of ZenPundit fame) for a moment to compare some images which I want to use to make a rather simple point:

Historical leaders (A. Lincoln)

Modern leaders (D. Cameron, B. Obama)

Modern leaders are enormously isolated and protected from the general population, steel barriers and security mean that even though they might kiss the odd baby their interactions are limited to vanishingly small and meaningless events. They'll smile and nod for a few moments and then move on. By contrast leaders not so removed from us historically were forced to be out in the public eye and deal with "real people" constantly. Lincoln often rode to work on a horse, indeed we are only a couple of generations removed from when the public could walk down Downing Street and there was a direct risk a Prime Minister looking out the window might see someone his policies could impact upon. Downing Street now  is a sterile guarded enclosure, where only a small number of people may tread, most often to have their photo taken outside the closed door of Government.

Return to the first photo and reflect upon the fact that without the indicator it would most likely be impossible to identify the President of the United States in it. A man, in Lincoln's own words, "Clothed in immense power" and appears to be mingling, unprotected, amongst soldiers who he has soon to send into one of the most devastating wars seen in the last 200 years.

There are of course good reasons why the public is kept at arms length from our leaders. The risk of assassination has never been higher (or so we are led to believe), but the risk of a leader being forced to relate to a member of the public has also never been higher. Due to the need to present an "image" of leadership, it is arguable which one is seen to be the bigger threat, being shot or accidentally being revealed to have absolutely no idea how to relate to the average voter.

In an era when our leaders are closer than they have been for many years to the oligarch class, which is a fixed part now of many of the world's developed countries, the artificial isolation imposed on them cannot be a good thing. One might argue that there is no need for them to meet "the public" as they are given enormous access to experts, to vast departments to implement their whim, to reams of data on what "the public" think. I wonder however, how many of our leaders have sat, staring at the wall, as Lincoln is known to have done, after shaking hands with soldiers hours before they entered battle. Perhaps the rush to war might be slowed by such actions, or it's prosecution might be more aggressively maintained, rather than soldiers finding out that they will lose their jobs while serving in a war zone.

It's a strange tragedy that our leaders fail to recognise that their closest bonds should be with the majority of the population, rather than social elites.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Going viral

Tucked away in the midst of a relatively generic article on viral media are some interesting details of a study being done on what viral media meant in the 19th century:

What can studying viral culture from 200 years ago tell us about viral culture online today? As it turns out, the impressions Cordell has formed studying a period so long ago are exactly those that would lead you to believe that Twogirlsandapuppy would have a chance at catching on, but would at the same time lead you to dramatically underestimate the velocity and degree to which it would do so. Nineteenth century viral culture is quite like today's Internet culture. And then again, it's something totally different.

"I mean, first of all, we know obviously that cuteness does well on the Internet," Cordell said. In the 19th century? Well, it was a bit different then, as we're talking about texts more so than images, but the kinds of content that did well, at the broadest level of characterization, share qualities with what tends to go viral today. Many of these are obvious: Brevity, comedy, charm, and resonance with cultural values (in the 19th century, those were often religious ones) all increased the likelihood of virality. "Even 200 years ago, it still wasn't complex philosophical treatises that were going viral. It was a short little pithy story that taught you a lesson," Cordell observed.

One of the more surprising ways that the Internet age resembles the pre-Civil War period Cordell studies is not culturally nor technologically, but legally. "The period that I work on is before a lot of modern copyright law went into effect," Cordell told me. "It's kind of a wild west back then, when something that's printed in a newspaper or magazine -- obviously there's no video -- and anyone down the line could simply reappropriate it; they could reprint it; they could attribute it; they could not attribute it. And there was really relatively little anyone could do about it." Publishers and authors fretted about how to control their works, and make sure they could make money from their use.
Cordell says that it's much the same today. "In many ways, it feels like the Internet has reopened up things that got codified and changed toward the end of the 19th century, the beginning of the 20th century. That wild west really gets tamped down; journalism becomes very professionalized; systems are set in place to prevent the kinds of rampant sharing that was happening before. In some ways, when the Internet came along, that open, wild sharing atmosphere had returned."
We're in an interesting transition currently, where the free wheeling nature of the internet is being on the one side, colonised by media organisations who want to appropriate popular elements of the internet to popularise their products. On the other, Governments (and lobbyists) who want to lock down content flows to ensure that "objectionable" content isn't available.

On the advertising side, the most obvious example is Virgin Media's appropriation of Success Kid for a recent campaign. The owner of the photo got on board with this use and now the image of the fist pumping infant is plastered across billboards all over London. On the Governmental side so far there has been almost no success in the developed world in limiting the internet's content flow, despite widespread attempts to do so. In large part this has been due to the unwillingness of the general public to tolerate the idea that "their internet" should be limited.

This article however hints at the pathway which has previously been adopted when an unrestricted content flow is unwelcome. Regulation, restriction and commercialisation.

At least that's the plan

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Mental models

At some point I'll get around to reading The Wisdom of Psychopaths, it's certainly on my to do list, but in the interim I highly recommend this illuminating article, adapted for the same:

Mental toughness and fearlessness often go hand in hand. Of course, to many of us lesser mortals, fearlessness may seem quite foreign. But Leslie explains the rationale behind this state—and how he maintains it. “The thing about fear, or the way I understand fear, I suppose—because, to be honest, I don't think I've ever really felt it—is that most of the time it's completely unwarranted anyway. What is it they say? Ninety-nine percent of the things people worry about never happen. So what's the point?

“I think the problem is that people spend so much time worrying about what might happen, what might go wrong, that they completely lose sight of the present. They completely overlook the fact that, actually, right now, everything's perfectly fine.

“So the trick, whenever possible, I propose, is to stop your brain from running on ahead of you.”
Leslie's pragmatic endorsement of the principles and practices of what might otherwise be described as mindfulness is typical of the psychopath. A psychopath's rapacious proclivity to live in the moment, to “give tomorrow the slip and take today on a joyride” (as Larry, rather whimsically, puts it), is well documented—and at times can be stupendously beneficial. In fact, anchoring your thoughts unswervingly in the present is a discipline that psychopathy and spiritual enlightenment have in common. Clinical psychologist Mark Williams of the University of Oxford, for example, incorporates this principle of centering in his mindfulness-based cognitive-behavior therapy program for sufferers of anxiety and depression.
The fascination with the psychopathic mindset is understandable, but I posit that it is in fact misrepresented. People are fascinated by a mental framework that doesn't fit within their own heads, they are unable to create a model of their own which allows them to understand the psychopath.

One of the greatest challenges we can face is to form a comprehension of someone else's mental model. Of course any model within a model is by necessity going to emerge imperfect and limited, but seeking to comprehend a psychopath is not a bad example of how it is possible to do so. As my housemate pointed out to me a few moments ago, part of the fascination with being a student of history is trying to understand the mental models of history's greatest heroes and villains.

A rather more simple example involves counting. Almost all our mental models include an assumption that 10 is a number of significance. It's built in. We have 10 fingers and so we place greater significance on 10 and it's multiples. A way of exploring a different mental model is to try and hold in your head a counting system other than base 10. I recommend Base 8, but first a quick explanation of bases:
Base systems like binary and hexadecimal seem a bit strange at first. The key is understanding how different systems “tick over” like an odometer when they are full. Base 10, our decimal system, “ticks over” when it gets 10 items, creating a new digit. We wait 60 seconds before “ticking over” to a new minute. Hex and binary are similar, but tick over every 16 and 2 items, respectively.
Base 8 is good because it contains sufficient numbers to be easily recognisable (unlike binary, which is almost perversely too simple, or hex, which is extremely complex), the number ticks over after every 7. So... 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,10,11,12,13,14,15,16,17,20... and so on. Although "10" remains the number of significance, it retains the value that was previously occupied by the number 8. Imagine if as you were counting every 8th value held the same intrinsic (and yet meaningless) significance as 10 currently does, that's a curious and strange world to live in, and one which most of us aren't set up to deal with.

Being able to function in base 8 may seem a relatively meaningless example, but at it's most fundamental it is something similar. A base 8 thinker operates in a way which is difficult to comprehend, in the same way someone without empathy, or concerns about their actions is difficult to comprehend. F. Scott Fitzgerald sums it up rather neatly:

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."
I'd argue that there's no need to hold "opposing" views in your head, but rather the more useful trick would be to hold your view, and the view of an opponent in ones head and understand the motivations for both. The comprehension of your opponents motivations will of course contain greater imperfection than your comprehension of your own position, but both will be flawed on some level. The trick is to accept that, and to develop processes which allow you to more swiftly refine the model you're seeking to understand. Of course as a campaigner I want to do that in order to best understand how to change a mind, or at least influence it, but you're welcome to come up with less sinister reasons.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Book review: Passion of Command

I've been meaning to read Passion of Command by Col B P McCoy USMC for quite some time. I'll admit that I read the kindle edition, which is very condensed (I ripped through it in a day), but in it's 88 pages it covers an enormous amount of ground.

I am an abiding admirer of the USMC, and this book was recommended to me by a former member of the Corps. My experience of Marines is that they are in the main highly educated, driven and passionate individuals. The Corps seems to generate intensely thoughtful people, many of whom are extremely widely read and able to deploy that knowledge at will. Col McCoy typifies that type of character, and from that standpoint this book is a delight to read. Well informed, well sourced and elegantly written. Strip away the military language and much of this book is absolutely right for civilian leaders.

The central contention is that the provision of strong leadership is in itself a moral act. The implication (never expressly stated) is that a leader who doesn't seek to become the best leader they can be is acting in an immoral way. That's a powerful statement, and contains a raw challenge to a great many leaders who assume their roles by simple advancement within an organisation, relying on their instinctive skillset to carry them through.

Something this book also captures is something that I think isn't unique to the USMC, although it is one of the better organisations when it comes to inspiring it. That is an ability to generate in it's leaders, at all levels, a broad dissatisfaction with any form of status quo. Again, it is the moral imperative of a leader to seek to improve the likelihood of those they lead to succeed, again, as true in military as civilian life.

Highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the concept of leadership. This book explores it through one angle, that of a military leader, but much of the conceptual side is entirely relevant to a civilian.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

USMC Reading list

Just a short post tonight due to other things weighing on my time. Thanks to the various people who recommended the Marine Corp Professional reading list, which has been updated for the new year.

As a lover of books and a lover of strategy I've long had an affection for this particular reading list, as it provides me with new ideas and insights as to what to read that year. Although a certain amount of the books are of primary interest to a Marine (or a combat soldier) there are plenty which jump off the page as having greater value. My priority reads from this edition will likely be:

The Warrior Ethos - Steven Pressfield

The Killer Angels - Michael Shaara

Attacks - Erwin Rommel (I've read this before, but never felt satisfied with my reading of it, so I'll likely revisit it in 2013)

Curiously this is one of the first times when I've read the goodly number of the non military texts, which include staples such as Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell and Sources of Power by Gary Klein.

One sub category which deserves calling out is that of Strategic Thinking, which is a truly superb list for the strategist. I've read too few of these books, but know they're all of exceptional quality.

I'll finish this post off with a quote I picked up at the Boyd and Beyond conference
It is incumbent upon the Marine officer to be constantly teaching his men, his junior officers and himself
- General Leonard F. Chapman, Jr
24th Commandant of the Marine Corps

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Dealing with demons

Blogfriend ZenPundit points out this rather superb piece, entitled Schumpeter's Demon on RibbonFarm. It sets up a novel thought experiment and plays it through to it's rather troubling (largely because of how close they are to real life) issues:
Imagine a town of a thousand people, with some mix of rich, middle-class and poor people.  The town has been ravaged by uncertain economic times.  The people live and work in a few hundred buildings: homes and workplaces. There is a general gloomy consensus that the town can only hold out for another year before nameless, inchoate horrors descend. But nobody is quite sure what those horrors are.

On this gloomy scene, a schizoid malevolent-benevolent demon appears.

The demon declares that after exactly one week, he will destroy half the buildings and kill half the people. The townsfolk can decide which buildings and people to sacrifice by marking doors and foreheads with red X’s. If they fail to do so, he will choose randomly.

But the demon also promises to leave behind a huge treasure as compensation, once he’s had his fun. He does not specify the nature of the treasure, beyond dropping a few hints about where he’s hidden it. But he promises that it will be enough to rebuild the town and its economy thrice over, put it back on the path to increasing prosperity, and raise more than enough children to replace the adults lost.
To make things more confusing, the demon throws in an exchange clause: the townsfolk can choose to trade three lives for one building, in either direction.

And to build in time pressure, he offers to trade time for either people or homes, at the exchange rate of an extra day for every additional home or every additional three people marked for sacrifice.
Most real life choices have positive and negative outcomes, as well as unforeseen elements which cannot be accounted for, so the metaphor is a strong one, and valid since it explores the mental model most of us have when it comes to decision making. That is to say react (a spectrum of activity) or defer, with each having it's own unique consequences.

In this case the consequences are as one might expect:
A town meeting is convened. The rich generously supply cheap beer. Three basic conversations get underway.
  • The Futurists: One group ignores the immediate situation and furiously sets about debating what to do with the treasure, based on the little that is known about it through the demon’s hints, and the priorities suggested by the town’s woes.
  • The Situationists: The second group ignores the promise of treasure and furiously debates the question of which buildings and lives to sacrifice, based entirely on notions of fairness, values, rights and responsibilities as understood within the existing social order.
  • The Pragmatists: And the third group, the smallest, frantically tries to merge the conversations and talk about how to distribute the impending destruction in order to leave behind the social order best able to exploit the promised treasure.
Id-superego-ego in short.
While deliberations are in progress, a few start to despair of the the debate getting anywhere.
Some of them simply sneak off and camp outside the town limits. They pray that the demon’s random malevolence will not cross those limits, but that its promised benevolence eventually will. 

These are the wannabe freeloaders looking for a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose solution.

Others bravely decide to go seek the treasure itself, based on the demon’s tantalizing hints, and steal enough for themselves outside of the bargain with the town. They meet with some success, but can never be quite sure whether they’ve found a piece of the promised treasure, or something else. Some return to town with what they’ve found, and rejoin the deliberations.

The ones who return are the entrepreneurs. The ones who never return are the anarchists.

And still others assume that the townsfolk who choose to stay will be unable to engineer anything other than a worst-case outcome. They leave, and make plans to return and rebuild after the demon is done. They find themselves waiting a lot longer than they expected to.

These are survivalists of various sorts, permanently waiting for an apocalypse that seems to be taking its time.

No conclusion is reached by the end of the week, so the townsfolk hurriedly use the time extension clause, and buy another day by sacrificing the three most drunk people, who are too drunk to notice the X being painted on their heads. When they sober up and look in the mirror, despair descends.
The cycle repeats itself, a few days at a time, depending on the number of clueless drunks around. Occasionally if there are enough drunks from the same part of town, the more sober ones mark both the drunks and their buildings with X’s, buying a lot more time at once.

And all the while, people are also being born or dying in the natural course of events. Buildings are falling down and new ones being built, implicitly changing the terms of the deal with the demon.
We see this type of behaviour in all aspects of our lives, but no more so than in politics, where decisions often carry high levels of consequence. I'm reminded of a scene from Zero Dark Thirty, where a final decision is asked as to whether a particular house in Pakistan contains Osama Bin Laden. 4 characters give their assessment, ranging from 40% - 60%, until it gets to the hero of the piece, who boldly declares (and I paraphrase) "It's 100%, well, it's 95% because I know certainty freaks you guys out". The character knows that deferral is a required option, and providing a 100% certainty means action is required.

John Stewart characterised the fiscal cliff in the following way (again, I paraphrase), "The fiscal cliff is like an asteroid, which we built ourselves, and fired at ourselves, to convince ourselves we really had to build defences against asteroids". Again, he's right, and the outcomes of the fiscal cliff deal have in the main been deferrals (although some action has been taken it is neither complete nor comprehensive).

One might look at the scenario above as a type or organisational stasis, however in reality that is illusionary, since the organisation is changing, as is the deal over time. The change however is as a natural consequence of time passing, rather than being a guided process. Indeed the longer the townspeople wait the more unknowable the outcome of whatever deal they end up making as the environment will have shifted so far that it bears no relationship to the original reality. Perhaps the terminology could be "active organisation stasis" in the active decision making ability has been shut down in favour of passive change over time.

The only way to break the demon's power is to make a final decision. This means that regardless of the outcome (worst case, the demon lied and the townspeople get nothing) the opportunity will exist to react to the situation left in the aftermath. However, that replaces the immediate gain (an unchanging and manageable situation) with the risks of an uncertain future, something decision makers are fundamentally uncomfortable with.

So, do you make a deal with the demon? Or try and live with his constant threat?

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The value of science fiction

I adore science fiction. I have a huge horde of it stashed away, covering authors from the late 19th century through to the current day. Anything with even the broadest science fiction concept on television is worth at least a shot (although the genre has more or less been abandoned on TV now). At it's best I consider it the most enthralling type of story telling.

I had a superb discussion on Twitter today about the impact different science fiction concepts could have on defence/attack. We came to the conclusion that the Death Star was the equivalent of the cannon, in that it utterly defeated previous forms of fortress style defence (planetary defence). That planets are inherently "downhill" and offer the attacker all the advantages. Planetary based societies should focus on limiting their "noise" (radio etc) to hide from attackers, and make the transition to artificial non planet based habitats as quickly as possible.

By happy coincidence I was then provided with this, a writeup of the 2012 Cumberland Lodge Conference.
Daniel Nexon of Georgetown University kicked off the programme with a discussion about the importance of science fiction/speculative fiction to the discipline of international relations. He argued that science fiction provides a space for cognitive estrangement that allows us to think through political concerns using the notion of laws of counterfactuals. He stressed that international relations scholars need to do speculative fiction if they are going to be able to help guide us in a world where linear projections based on current trends suggest massive changes in the basic ways that the world works. These changes might or might not render theories we have developed about the nineteen or twentieth century completely, possibly or partially irrelevant hence the need to engage in counter factual reasoning.
The speakers seem to have addressed some of the best science fiction concepts and I'm extremely jealous of anyone who was able to attend.

This hits right on the nub of the most important aspect of science fiction, the ability to extrapolate forward from current events toward a meaningful future. The best science fiction tends to explore a philosophical concept (e.g. The Culture series by Iain M Banks as a metaphor for Utopia), or the outcomes likely to be generated by a meta trend in the environment (e.g. Climate change and bioscience in The Windup Girl). These books are written by synthesists.

So what are the best books out there? There are dozens, but a few of my favourites (I've tried to steer away from the classics, such as 1984. Partial credit also goes to Cameron Schaefer from this post):
  • The Culture Series - Iain M Banks - Explores concepts of Utopia and what a post scarcity human society might look like, and require
  • The Algebraist - Iain M Banks - Probably one of the best books on what interstellar war might look like
  • Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card - A truly sinister and troubling book, asks the question of whether we can truly understand an enemy and how far we will go to defeat the
  • The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi - Beautifully written, elegant and simple, concerning what it is to be human
  • Daemon/Freedom - Daniel Suarez - What happens when humanity has free will stripped away by another, benevolently dictatorial, entity?
  • Avogadro Corp - William Hertling - Similar to Daemon/Freedom, albeit from a very different angle, the accidental emergence of AI and what it might mean to mankind
  • The Lensman series - E.E 'Doc' Smith - The books which went on to inspire the Green Lantern books, gloriously entertaining and light hearted. Written between 1948 and 1954 they reflect their time
  • The Authority series - Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch - A comic book series about a group of superheroes who decide that the world isn't being run right, and set out to correct it. At it's core it's a story about the unintended consequences of meddling with international affairs
  • Blindsight - Peter Watts - Examines what conciousness is, what it's value might be, and what it's relationship with intelligence is.  
This only touches on some of the best. These books aren't selected because they're the best for strategists, but I think they're some of the best in terms of how they draw on multiple threads of ideas and theories.

I'll try and add more as time goes by, but I would imagine anyone who would read this blog would enjoy reading any of these.

UPDATE: As has swiftly been pointed out to me, there is no mention in this post of the superb Grand Blog Tarkin, which regularly addresses this exact topic. Thanks to blogfriend Brett Friedman for putting me straight.