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How shall “in the box” people think “outside the box”?

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — a gadfly question ]

We have seen various conversations online in which its is plausibly suggested that YESness leads to upward mobility across an array of silos and disciplines, specifically including the intelligence community and the military — the end result being risk-averse group-think that is pretty much “inside the box” by definition.

Similarly, we have noted that serious and nuanced issues are frequently debated in the media by those who are known for their general-purpose punditry or seniority, rather than by those with specific knowledge of and insight into the particular issues of concern.

Question: How shall we get outside the box thinking from inside the box thinkers?

Language, language, please!

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron – unclear language gives an out-of-focus snapshot of reality, estimative language hopes to facilitate precision ]

Take a quick look, then skip to the rest of this post & come back later. Unless you already know this thing by heart, and perhaps nurse an inordinate hatred for it. In which case you can skip the whole post — we may even see eye to eye already..

NIE what we mean when we say estimative language


In light of the above, I was a tad surprised to read these words in Time this morning:

“Documents were also found and they prove, without any ambiguity, that the individual was preparing an imminent attack, in all probability, against one or two churches,” Cazeneuve said.

Somehow the combination of “without any ambiguity” and “in all probability” didn’t quite mesh. But the original speaker was French, so I did whatever diligence I could muster, and found this, selon Minister Cazeneuve:

Les perquisitions menées à son domicile ont permis de retrouver, outre de l’armement et du matériel de vidéo, des écrits « établissant sans ambiguïté que l’individu projetait de commettre un attentat, vraisemblablement contre une ou deux églises », a précisé Bernard Cazeneuve.

Apparently Le Monde viewed Cazeneuve as having “clarified” the matter, bringing it to precision.. And I suppose that means we should read the Minister’s words as indicating that the intention to attack was proven “without ambiguity” while the targeting of “one or two” churches was — my French is rusty, so I asked Larousselikely, convincing, or plausible.

All of which is by way of remarking on the necessity for — and inherent problems arising regarding — what’s called “estimative language”. Problems which may be doubly obscure in translation.

Unless someone suggests a “plausible” reference from Walsingham, Marlowe or Shakespeare, a decent starting point for consideration is to be found in Sherman Kent’s 1964 Words of Estimative Probability:

It should not come as a surprise that the fact is far from the ideal, that considerable difficulty attends both the fitting of a phrase to the estimators’ meaning and the extracting of that meaning by the consumer. Indeed, from the vantage point of almost fourteen years of experience, the difficulties seem practically insurmountable.

For a more recent take on the matter, and to see whether we’re surmounting the insurmountable yet, there’s always the chart at the head of this post, taken from the 2007 NIE on Prospects for Iraq’s Stability — something we should still be worrying about eight years later, no?


No sense in beating about the bush: poets can handle this sort of thing better than layfolk, but then – what’s the use? Who can read poetry any more?

Analysis, and the question of trust

Sunday, March 29th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — who was taught to think of “longer term” as extending to our children of the seventh generation ]

Here’s the problem:

Nicole Kidman as analyst Dr Julia  Kelly in DreamWorks SKG's first movie, The Peacemaker

Nicole Kidman as analyst Dr Julia Kelly gets an order in DreamWorks SKG’s movie, The Peacemaker


In the Introduction to Cyber Analogies (Feb 2014, 133 pp., Emily Goldman & John Arquilla, eds) we read:

The project was conceived and carried out to help very senior, busy, responsible people understand topics and issues that are fast-moving and dynamic, and have potentially great consequences for society, security, and world affairs.

I’m never quite sure that “very senior, busy, responsible people” are the right people to task with understanding “topics and issues that are fast-moving and dynamic, and have potentially great consequences for society, security, and world affairs.”


Do I qualify as a heretic yet?

I feel some kinship here with Pundita‘s recent comment:

I venture there are too many Grand Master chess players in America’s defense/diplo establishment and not enough ping pong players.

And the estimated number of exposures varies, I know — but how far would you trust the “very senior, busy, responsible people” who, we now know [1, 2, 3], covered up our poison gas casualties in Iraq?


At the expense of strategic analysis..

I’m thinking about all this because there’s a shift under way in intel circles, as described in the recently issued Report of the Congressionally-directed 9/11 Review Commission, The FBI: Protecting the Homeland in the 21st Century:

Once deployed to the field, many of these analysts have been embedded in operational squads in the field, though their work favors support to tactical and case work at the expense of strategic analysis. The FBI launched a more structured Integrated Curriculum Initiative (ICI) in 2014, with the primary goal to develop a comprehensive basic training program for new agents and analysts that teaches them to operate in a threat-based, intelligence-driven, operationally-focused environment.

More explicitly, Scott Shane wrote in C.I.A. Officers and F.B.I. Agents, Meet Your New Partner: The Analyst:

Some people who study intelligence and counterterrorism are concerned that the pendulum could swing too far. Intelligence analysts, said Amy Zegart, a Stanford scholar who studies intelligence, could become too consumed by daily operations and neglect strategic thinking about threats that could be years away.

At the C.I.A., she said, counterterrorism analysts are already “too tactical,” focused on the next drone target. If the same model is now applied to the rest of the agency’s work, other analysts, too, could be caught up in short-term demands, she said. “Who in the U.S. government,” she asked, “is going to be thinking about longer-term threats?”

Longer-term? You mean, longer than the current electoral cycle?

Lewis Shepherd on the IC/Mil/NatSec Potential of Holographic Computing

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

Lewis Shepherd, formerly of the DIA and IC and recently of Microsoft, has an outstanding post on Microsoft’s exciting ambient/holographic computing interface HoloLens. What I saw in the videos is stunning and I then ran them by an extremely tough, tech savvy and jaded audience – my students – their jaws dropped. It’s that impressive.

Insider’s Guide to the New Holographic Computing 

In my seven happy years at Microsoft before leaving a couple of months ago, I was never happier than when I was involved in a cool “secret project.”

Last year my team and I contributed for many months on a revolutionary secret project – Holographic Computing – which was revealed today at Microsoft headquarters.  I’ve been blogging for years about a variety of research efforts which additively culminated in today’s announcements: HoloLens, HoloStudio for 3D holographic building, and a series of apps (e.g. HoloSkype, HoloMinecraft) for this new platform on Windows 10.

For my readers in government, or who care about the government they pay for, PAY CLOSE ATTENTION.

It’s real. I’ve worn it, used it, designed 3D models with it, explored the real surface of Mars, played and laughed and marveled with it. This isn’t Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance.” Everything in this video works today:


These new inventions represent a major new step-change in the technology industry. That’s not hyperbole. The approach offers the best benefit of any technology:empowering people simply through complexity, and by extension a way to deliver new & unexpected capabilities to meet government requirements.

Holographic computing, in all the forms it will take, is comparable to the Personal Computing revolution of the 1980s (which democratized computing), the Web revolution of the ’90s (which universalized computing), and the Mobility revolution of the past eight years, which is still uprooting the world from its foundation.

One important point I care deeply about: Government missed each of those three revolutions. By and large, government agencies at all levels were late or slow (or glacial) to recognize and adopt those revolutionary capabilities. That miss was understandable in the developing world and yet indefensible in the United States, particularly at the federal level.

I worked at the Pentagon in the summer of 1985, having left my own state-of-the-art PC at home in Stanford, but my assigned “analytical tool” was a typewriter. In the early 2000s, I worked at an intelligence agency trying to fight a war against global terror networks when most analysts weren’t allowed to use the World Wide Web at work. Even today, government agencies are lagging well behind in deploying modern smartphones and tablets for their yearning-to-be-mobile workforce.

This laggard behavior must change. Government can’t afford (for the sake of the citizens it serves) to fall behind again, and  understanding how to adapt with the holographic revolution is a great place to start, for local, national, and transnational agencies.

Now some background…

Read the rest here.

I remarked to Shepherd that the technology reminded me of the novels by Daniel Suarez, DAEMON and FREEDOM. Indeed, I can see HoloLens allowing a single operator to control swarms of intelligent armed drones and robotic over a vast theater or in close-quarter tactical combat as easily as it would permit someone to manage a construction site, remotely assist in a major surgery, design a new automobile or play 3D Minecraft.


WIRED – Our Exclusive Hands-On With Microsoft’s Unbelievable New Holographic Goggles 

engadget –I experienced ‘mixed reality’ with Microsoft’s holographic …

Arstechnica.com –Hands-on: Microsoft’s HoloLens is flat-out magical | Ars …

Mashable –Microsoft HoloLens won’t be the next Google Glass, and …

Gizmodo –Microsoft HoloLens Hands-On: Incredible, Amazing …

New York TimesMicrosoft HoloLens: A Sensational Vision of the PC’s Future 

Intelligence vs the Artificial

Friday, January 16th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — who believes that detours are the spice of life ]

Craig Kaplan:

Craig Kaplan

Maurits Escher:

M Escher


There’s a fasacinating article about Craig Kaplan and his work with tiling that I came across today, Crazy paving: the twisted world of parquet deformations — I highly recommend it to anyone interested in pattern — and I highly recommend anyone uninterested in pattern to get interested!

Kaplan himself is no stranger to Escher’s work, obviously enough — he’s even written a paper, Metamorphosis in Escher’s Art — the abstract reads:

M.C. Escher returned often to the themes of metamorphosis and deformation in his art, using a small set of pictorial devices to express this theme. I classify Escher’s various approaches to metamorphosis, and relate them to the works in which they appear. I also discuss the mathematical challenges that arise in attempting to formalize one of these devices so that it can be applied reliably.

I mean Kaplan no dishonor, then, when I say that his algorithmic tilings, as seen in the upper panel above, still necessarily lack something that his mentor’s images have, as seen in the lower panel — a quirky willingness to go beyond pattern into a deeper pattern, as when the turreted outcropping of a small Italian town on the Amalfi coast becomes a rook in the game of chess


Comparing one with the other, I am reminded of the differences between quantitative and qualitative approaches to understanding, of SIGINT and HUMINT in terms of the types of intelligence collected — and at the philosophical limit, of the very notions of quantity and quality.

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