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Strategy at the speed of stupid

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

[by Lynn C. Rees]

Warren Buffett claims his master, champion investor Benjamin Graham, observed: “In the short-run, the market is a voting machine […] but in the long-run, the market is a weighing machine.” The Graham school of investment teaches focus on the weighing machine. Its students heed the call of the voting machine only when it gets them on the right side of the weighing machine. Favoring weight over vote let many Graham students profit more from weighing than others profited by voting. They gained more, and suffered less.

In the division of power between men in the larger market for power that is world politics, heeding the frenzy of voting over the slow tilt of weighing is as dangerous as it is desirable. Danger, like desire, comes clothed in bright flashing noise. Man is primed to vote when he should weigh by the cravings of the panicked beast deep in his fallen nature. Vivid easy commands more unthinking loyalty than just plain hard. With small things, this is survivable. With big things, this is life-threatening.

The current moment offers an easy and vivid contrast between vote bait and weight bait.

In one corner, we have the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), better known to Western voters as ISIS. ISIL is classic vote bait. ISIL is all vivid easy: they use easy and vivid theatrical atrocity to win the attention that wins votes. They have to. While theatricality is a luxury for the strong and ambitious, it’s a necessity for the weak and ambitious. It’s what you do when you have as little weight as ISIL.

Gorgeous George told young Cassius Clay, “A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous.” Clay saw wisdom: “I saw 15,000 people comin’ to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said, ‘This is a gooood idea!'” Gorgeous George was not the best professional wrestler, but he was easily the most vivid professional wrestler. His theatricality drew votes, increased his stock, and led viewers to vote him into being larger than life.

Through the hadith of Gorgeous George, “Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat!”, ISIL is now a top vote getter. It makes the voting machine ring with frenzy. While ISIL has no claim to be the most weighty strategic draw, it has a clear shot at the title for most votey strategic draw.

In the corner opposite, we have Russia. Russia is classic weight bait. Lots of classic weight bait. While ISIL seeks victory by cloaking its lightweight self in vote-drawing clamor, Russia seeks victory by cloaking its continent-spanning mass in weight-shifting silence. Crimea is taken by men without attribution. Russians without borders fight in the Donbass. Russia fights what the Arthashastra calls silent war, the War Which Cannot Be Named. Invasion happens by walking around.

Yet the unsleeping but easily distracted eye of official attention is reflexively drawn to the flash in the pan that is ISIL. ISIL jumps violently up and down, yelling “Look at me! Look at me!” with Made for YouTube clickbait barbarism. If there is a button for causing the voting machine to mindlessly suck up strategic bandwidth, be it genocide, retconned eighth-century nostalgia, florid rhetoric, scary men with beards, and over-the-top B-movie supervillainy, ISIL will furiously press it until its fingers fall off. They want to be seen: they have a scripted rendezvous at Meggido three hundred miles too north. If they can’t be a kufir magnet, they can’t be anything.

Since the most limited resource in today’s West of material plenty is attention, the blinking of ISIL diverts real power away from weightier matters. What Russia does carries more weight that what ISIL does. And ISIL can’t do much outside its territory except inflict bad theater on its viewers. Russia has nukes. ISIL has has YouTube. YouTube is huge to voting machine watchers. It’s marginal to weighing machine monitors except as just one input building towards a cumulative weight that tilts the weighing machine one way or the other. Nukes unleash weight with a speed that makes even the most shallow of flash voting look tardy.

Weighing Russia by investing sustained attention is strategy at the speed of smart. Voting for ISIL with any attention at all is strategy at the speed of stupid.

The Sounds of Silence and Your Own Mind

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

Scott Shipman had an excellent book review post An Unknown Future and a Doubtful Present: Writing the Victory Plan of 1941 — a review-lite and a few questions in which he discussed the intellectual seriousness and evolution of war planner   Major Albert C. Wedemeyer as a military officer and strategist:

….Wedemeyer was an honor graduate of the Command and General Staff College, and his performance earned him the opportunity to attended the Kriegsakademie, the German staff college. However, coupled with impressive academic preparations, Kirkpatrick writes that Wedemeyer’s curiosity exposed him to a “kaleidoscope” of ideas and methods. Kirkpatrick summed-up Wedemeyer: “Competence as a planner thus emerged as much from conscientious professional study as from formal military education…” Going on to say:

In common with many of his peers, much of Wedemeyer’s professional and intellectual education was less the product of military schooling than of personal initiative and experience in the interwar Army.

Wedemeyer’s intellectual development was purposeful and paid off. In Wedemeyer’s deep study of his profession he used the prescribed paths, but also explored on his own. How common is that today? 

As often happens, the discussion can take an unexpected turn in the comments section. Lexington Green weighed in with this:

Think about George Marshall in China, traveling around on horseback.  No cell phone, no email.  The man could actually think.  Or Eisenhower meeting with Fox Connor to talk about the books Connor had him read. Telephone calls were not even common.  The military might do well to have two days once a quarter of silent retreats, only emergency communication permitted, with literally no unnecessary conversation, for groups of officers and non-coms, with some assigned reading and some self-selected on the same theme, then an open discussion after dinner. It would cost virtually nothing and would be an intellectual and mental oasis, and some good ideas might come out of it.  Religious silent retreats which last a couple of days and are truly life-restoring. This would probably be useful as well.

That in turn provoked this response from Marshall:

My sense is that many of us live, work, and fraternize in a culture of crisis. Everything is urgent. One response is to just shut off the moment we get some downtime. TV, drinking, schlock fiction, immersion in pop culture, video games, blog reading are some of the ways I’ve coped. I grew out of those as timewasters as I realized that I no longer had time to shut off if I wanted to do something.

But I still live in a culture of crisis. Almost everybody around me “has no time”. It doesn’t really matter what is being proposed, the sense of urgency kills all ambition toward progress. Defending myself and my space form this is a daily challenge – and some days I lose.

I’m visiting family this week on a long-scheduled “vacation” that has been interrupted by my office several times already, but always with the promise, “just this thing, Marshall, we don’t want to take you away from your family”. And these are the people I choose as my allies!

The culture of crisis doesn’t believe in people’s choices. It says that time will only be wasted, so we have to keep our people busy. After all, see how they spend their “free” time? Dissolute wastrels the lot of them. And then the culture of crisis tells us that we need to recharge by shutting off our minds. You need to vege out, man, you’re stressed; turn on the TV and have a beer, mate. Or else fire up your e-mail and write six more. And, hey, sorry about your insomnia, but it lets you get a jump on the day, amirite? [….]

The discussion moved on, but I have been mulling upon this exchange ever since.

The first thing that came to mind is that what we mean by “silence” really isn’t silent, what is really meant is that there is an absence of human voice pulling at our limited capacity for attention. Cognitive load is probably a real, if variable, limit on human cognition and the nature of hyperconnected information society is that all too frequently we are -and feel – “overloaded”.

When human voices are absent the “background” environmental noise comes “forward” , natural (wind through trees, animals etc) or mechanical (various humms and clicks) that we unconsciously tune out as a matter of routine focusing on conversation or distracting hearsay, broadcasts and so on. The processing in the brain is significantly different depending on what kinds of sounds you are listening to, for example:

1. Listening to Music

2. Listening to Language

3. Listening to unpleasant sounds (nails on chalkboard etc.)

So eliminating human speech from your environment but not hearing (earplugs) itself allows other regions of your brain to become more active than usual, depending on whatever else you may be doing at the time (walking, chopping wood, smelling a flower, scanning the horizon and so on).  Your brain’s performance and how it varies when thinking under conditions of different combinations and levels of sensory stimuli – “crossmodal processing” – is not yet well understood as research is in early stages of investigation.

I will speculate here that what is important for enriching your thinking is that taking your brain out a linguistic-saturated environment (let’s include the “soundless noise” of intruding textual symbols as well from smartphones, iPads, laptops)  gives it an opportunity to operate differently for a time and establish new neuronal network patterns of activity. Various forms of meditation – which involves both silence and an intentional modulation of attention – also  alters normal  brain activity.

I will now go further out on a data-free analytical limb and hypothesize that making a practice of “silence” and/or meditation might improve your thinking by making moments of creative insight more likely. Studies on insight tend to show that as a cognitive event, insight  comes about as a kind of a “pulse” of activity and relaxation in the brain:

….Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has spent the past fifteen years trying to figure out what happens inside the brain when people have an insight. Jung-Beeman became interested in the nature of insight in the early nineteen-nineties, while researching the right hemisphere of the brain. Mentions Jonathan Schooler. Jung-Beeman decided to compare word puzzles—or Compound Remote Associate Problems (C.R.A. Problems)—solved. He teamed up with John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexler University, and they combined fMRI and EEG (electroencephalography) testing to scan people’s brains while they solved the puzzles. The resulting studies, published in 2004 and 2006, found that people who solved puzzles with insight activated a specific subset of cortical areas. Although the answer seemed to appear out of nowhere, the mind was carefully preparing itself for the breakthrough. The suddenness of the insight is preceded by a burst of brain activity. A small fold of tissue on the surface of the right hemisphere, the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG), becomes unusually active in the second before the insight. Once the brain is sufficiently focused on the problem, the cortex needs to relax, to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere that will provide the insight. As Kounios sees it, the insight process is an act of cognitive deliberation transformed by accidental, serendipitous connections. Mentions Joy Bhattacharya and Henri Poincaré. The brain area responsible for recognizing insight is the prefrontal cortex. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at M.I.T., spent years studying the prefrontal cortex. He was eventually able to show that it wasn’t simply an aggregator of information, but rather it was more like a conductor, waving its baton and directing the players. In 2001, Miller and Princeton neuroscientist Jonathan Cohen published an influential paper laying out their theory of how the prefrontal cortex controls the rest of the brain. It remains unclear how simple cells recognize what the conscious mind cannot. An insight is just a fleeting glimpse of the brain’s huge store of unknown knowledge.

Another interesting data point to consider re: “silence” and insight is that the mental illness of schizophrenia, where delusions and other mental “noise” exists is significantly negatively correlated with insight.  Researchers are currently investigating if meditation can ease the symptoms of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.

For myself, I find my best ideas come via insight when I am doing something primarily physical requiring steady but not all of my concentration and I am alone – working out, walking the dog, a household chore and so on. Relatively useful ideas can happen when I am reading or writing or debating (i.e. interacting with a text or a person), but they tend to be analytic and derivative, sort of an intellectual “tweaking” or “tinkering” but not ones that are fundamentally creative or synthesizing.

Lexington Green may be right – Silence is golden.


One bead for a rosary

Friday, June 22nd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — one bead from NASA for the glass bead game as rosary ]

photo credit: Norman Kuring, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Consider her sacred, treat her with care.

“No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” – Madhu

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

As mentioned recently, I’m reading Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, by Jon Tetsuro Sumida. Chapter 2 is complete, however Sumida included one sentence at the end of the Introduction that has been nagging me. Professor Sumida said, speaking of Alfred Thayer Mahan:

“It remains to be seen whether readers exist with the mind and will to accept his guidance on what necessarily is an arduous intellectual and moral voyage into the realm of war and politics.” (emphasis added)

The phrase “whether readers exist with the mind and will” jumped off the page. Over the last few days I’ve seen several articles of warning of the West’s decline, and while many shed light on symptoms that would indicate decline, most are tired old bromides masquerading as “new thought.” For instance, a few days ago, a friend on Twitter (an Army officer) shared a Tweet from The New Atlanticist of an article called, “Why We Need a Smart NATO.” He tweeted, “Call me a cynic, but haven’t we ALWAYS needed a smart NATO?” Good question. In my estimation, “smart NATO” is yet another venture into sloganeering. While it may call into question my judgement, my first thought on reading “smart NATO,” was a line from the cult movie Idiocracy (if you haven’t seen it, get it) and one scene where the time traveling protagonist is attempting to explain the importance of water to plants to people of the future who use a sports drink instead. Here is the clip:

but it’s got electrolytes…

We’re living in a world of unprecedented availability of information, yet our meta-culture seems indifferent to anything that takes more than a few minutes to consume. Among too many military colleagues I know, it is not uncommon to hear the phrase, “I’ve not read Clausewitz through….nobody does…” And I respond, “But if not you, then who will?” If the practitioners of a profession as serious as the profession of arms don’t read and think deeply, who will? And what will become of the timeless principles learned and recorded at the cost of blood and treasure and how those principles translate into how we fight? I have an abiding fear our military, not out of malice but neglect, is cutting the intellectual cord with the past by making it culturally acceptable to be intellectually indifferent and incurious, to sloganeer instead of think, allowing slogans and PowerPoint as woefully inadequate substitutes. There is no app for intellectual development.

We can’t afford to allow the profession of arms to be anything but intellectually robust and challenging. Zen wrote an excellent summation of the recent posts on disruptive thinkers (which may for some have the ring of sloganeering). However these posts are evidence a lot of the young guys “get it” and want more. Good news, but recognition of the problem is not enough; action is required. Action that may damage a career.

I’m a member of the US Naval Institute, and an on-going concern of the Institute is relevance to the young folks. Yep, relevance. Relevance with a mission statement like this:

“To provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense.”

Reading, thinking, speaking, and writing requires what Sumida referred to as “mind and will.” Leaders create this condition and desire by example, unambiguous expectations, and by listening, adapting, and sharing their knowledge with subordinates and encouraging them to push their intellect. Good leaders will create a space where deep thinking is expected, where curiosity isn’t the exception, but the rule. Many of our folks in uniform compete in the physical fitness arena and do the hard work necessary to be the best physically, but we need more intellectually rigorous competition in both formal schools and at the unit level. Leaders create this environment, for the best leaders want their people to think. Robert Leonhard in his excellent book, The Principles of War for the Information Age said it best:

“The greatest legacy that a leader can leave behind is a subordinate who is not afraid to think for himself.”

While we can’t pretend to be in good condition or physically fit, some may be tempted to pretend on the intellectual front. Which brings me back to Madhu’s quote: “No one is really listening, they are just pretending.” Doc Madhu, a blog friend and frequent commenter at zenpundit, was commenting on an excellent essay by Mike Few at Carl Prine’s Line of Departure. The essay was titled Finding Niebuhr, and Mike reminds us of Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer:

“Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Courage and wisdom are virtues enabled by a well-developed, well-rounded, curious intellect. “Pretending” in the profession of arms can have deadly consequences, and more often than not, the pretenders are trying to “be someone” instead of “doing something.” More often than not, this is a group effort, enabled by a crippled culture dominated by groupthink.

Boyd’s challenge continues to ring true:

“To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?”

This is cross-posted at To Be or To Do.

A nation subdivided into religions — or a religion subdivided into nations?

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — ISAF apologizes to Afghans, Taliban thinks the Ummah is offended, and an insight from Bernard Lewis ]

Responding to the burning of “religious materials, to include Qurans” by coalition forces in an incinerator at Bagram, Gen. John R. Allen, commander of ISAF, is quoted in an ISAF release as saying:

On behalf of the entire International Security Assistance Force, I extend my sincerest apologies to the people of Afghanistan.

Commenting on the same incident, an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan / Taliban statement said:

Last night, the American invaders, in accordance with their barbaric characteristics once again burnt copies of the sacred book of the Muslims (Holy Quran) with the purpose of desecration and with this perverted action, aroused the sensitivities of one billion Muslims worldwide including the Afghans.


As is often the case, the devil is in the details.

Note that the ISAF addresses its apology to “the people of Afghanistan” while the Islamic Emirate describes those offended by such actions as “one billion Muslims worldwide including the Afghans”.

I am reminded of Bernard Lewis‘ observation:

For a long time now it has been our practice in the modern Western world to define ourselves primarily by nationality, and to see other identities and allegiances—religious, political, and the like—as subdivisions of the larger and more important whole. The events of September 11 and after have made us aware of another perception—of a religion subdivided into nations rather than a nation subdivided into religions…


The converse of this is that those in Afghanistan and elsewhere who identify more readily with the Ummah than with an individual nationality will also more easily think of a war seemingly fought against the Ummah as being the work of Christendom aka “the Crusaders” — an idea that fits well with a centuries-long sense of history — rather than by a UN-mandated coalition that includes troops from Jordan, Turkey, and the Emirates…

Not that the 2,000-odd ISAF troops from those particular countries are likely to be the ones who burn Qur’ans.

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