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A Recommended Blog for Metacognition

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

A while back, I added Ribbonfarm to the blogroll, which is written by Dr. Venkat Rao, a corporate scientist typeafter John Hagel featured in his twitterstream an old but amusing post by Rao analyzing sociopathology in corporate life via characters from The Office. Clever. I thought I would blogroll him and check in periodically.

Later, I noticed that Rao makes frequent references to Clausewitz in his posts and that he is writing Tempo, a book on decision making that will be of great personal and professional interest to many readers here. At this juncture, I’m intrigued.

Then last week, Rao featured a lengthy post on metacognition where he made some excellent points. Here’s a few of them, but as I can only put up a small selection, you should go read the full post:

Boundary Condition Thinking:

 ….To build mathematical models, you start by observing and brain-dumping everything you know about the problem, including key unknowns, onto paper.  This brain-dump is basically an unstructured take on what’s going on. There’s a big word for it: phenomenology. When I do a phenomenology-dumping brainstorm, I use a mix of qualitative notes, quotes, questions, little pictures, mind maps, fragments of equations, fragments of pseudo-code, made-up graphs, and so forth.

You then sort out three types of model building blocks in the phenomenology: dynamics, constraints and boundary conditions (technically all three are varieties of constraints, but never mind that).

Dynamics refers to how things change, and the laws govern those changes. Dynamics are front and center in mathematical thought. Insights come relatively easily when you are thinking about dynamics, and sudden changes in dynamics are usually very visible.  Dynamics is about things like the swinging behavior of pendulums.

Constraints are a little harder. It takes some practice and technical peripheral vision to learn to work elegantly with constraints. When constraints are created, destroyed, loosened or tightened, the changes are usually harder to notice, and the effects are often delayed or obscured. If I were to suddenly pinch the middle of the string of a swinging string-and-weight pendulum, it would start oscillating faster. But if you are paying attention only to the swinging dynamics, you may not notice that the actual noteworthy event is the introduction of a new constraint. You might start thinking, “there must be a new force that is pushing things along faster” and go hunting for that mysterious force.

This is a trivial example, but in more complex cases, you can waste a lot of time thinking unproductively about dynamics (even building whole separate dynamic models) when you should just be watching for changes in the pattern of constraints.

….Historians are a great example. The best historians tend to have an intuitive grasp of this approach to building models using these three building blocks.  Here is how you can sort these three kinds of pieces out in your own thinking. It involves asking a set of questions when you begin to think about a complicated problem.

  1. What are the patterns of change here? What happens when I do various things? What’s the simplest explanation here? (dynamics)
  2. What can I not change, where are the limits? What can break if things get extreme? (constraints)
  3. What are the raw numbers and facts that I need to actually do some detective work to get at, and cannot simply infer from what I already know? (boundary conditions).

Besides historians, trend analysts and fashionistas also seem to think this way. Notice something? Most of the action is in the third question. That’s why historians spend so much time organizing their facts and numbers.

Nice. There’s a multitude of places here to jump off and generate further epistemic analysis, and I am sure that some of the admirers of Boyd, Polanyi, Wohlstetter, Feynman, Kahn and Clausewitz in the ZP readership might do so in the comments. Or my co-blogger Charles might weigh in from the imaginative/mythic/visual domain. We’ll see.

Regardless, I think if you are following blogs like Metamodern, Thomas P.M. Barnett,  Open the Future, Global Guerrillas, John Hagel’s Edge Perspectives, Eide Neurolearning Blog or liked the old Kent’s Imperative (suddenly live again after being dormant for 2 years), you’ll want to consider adding Ribbonfarm to your RSS feed or blogroll.


Ed at Project White Horse, another fine site for your blogroll, is also blogging on boundary conditions:

Stall, Spin, Crash, Burn and Die – Boundary Conditions for 2011

….You can’t fix things without some understanding, real understanding of the problem – nor can there be real leadership without actionable understanding. That’s where establishing boundary conditions as a vehicle to frame the problem – and therefore garner greater insight – become important.

Drilling for oil at a depth of 5000ft and in open ocean – Deepwater Horizon – should have been/should be seen as a “crisis” in waiting no matter the historical track record. Proper understanding would have meant that the National decision making level immediately recognized the high potential for the initial crisis migrating into a severely complex catastrophe after the explosion and acted, not waiting to see if BP’s response plans would work. Activities in “Blue Water”/open ocean are not a linear extrapolation from “inshore,” nor is 5000 ft a linear extrapolation from 200ft or 500ft. depths.  BP’s plans might have been up to the problem, but the shear nature of the environment, if scrutinized in context of “unconventional” as described below, should have been a trigger to initiate intermediate action.  Rather, the declaration of an Event of National Significance was 30+ days in coming??? A significant point, I believe, is the problem generated by not recognizing the nature or even acknowledging the existence of a different kind of  problem, one potentially very complex or stochastic in nature – an “unconventional crisis.”

The World According to Meatballs

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

I have been remiss in linking but the off-color psyops analysts at Swedish Meatballs Confidential are back to posting again.

Where o’ where are the Imperating Kents though ?

Credit Where Credit is Due

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

After my Two Quite Reasonable Observations post, I had some uncharacteristically swift and well-informed feedback that pointed to IC amd military working groups, quietly engaged in the very kind of strategic futurism that I hoped to see the USG explore. As I cannot share confidential correspondence, I was delighted that the gents at Kent’s Imperative took up the same cudgel in public.

Vision and error

The recurring debate regarding such matters has once again surfaced in a series of blog posts at Global Guerrillas, Fabius Maximus, Zenpundit, and Opposed Systems Design.We must take exception with John Robb’s comment that there “isn’t a single research organization or think tank that is seriously studying, analyzing or synthesizing the future of warfare and terrorism”. Such statements, of course, are a common enough type of criticism which stems from what is also unfortunately a common error – the assumption that because one is not aware of a particular effort, then it must not exist. While not every shop which concerns itself with the problems of contemporary asymmetric conflict looks up from the current fight, there are a number of efforts which have attempted to answer the question of “what next” alongside the other work exploring the “what” and “so what” which tends to dominate current publications. Among just a few of the recent public aspects of such efforts that we can name off the top of our heads are the Proteus project, JFCOM’s Deep Futures project, and several of the publications authored by folks at the USMC’s Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities, the Naval War College and Army War College, the Naval Postgraduate School, the Air University, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, the National Defense Intelligence College, and many other elements within the khaki tower. Of course, to this we should also add the Global Futures Forum effort where it touches upon related areas of interest.

….We would also argue that this is already occurring to some extent within the intelligence community itself, particularly given the emerging style of smaller, more specific papers circulated in an almost academic fashion as discussion points. Indeed, we see this beginning to reshape coordination efforts prior to more formalized, and more visible assessments for major publications. We certainly see a greater role for outside subject matter experts and other thinkers in the process, but while far from perfect, this is quickly evolving given recent emphasis on analytic outreach.In short, the there that these gentlemen appear to be reaching for is already there – just not evenly distributed….”

This is certainly good news, from my perspective. Hopefully, those readers out there – and there appear to be more than I had realized – who have their hands in this process on ” the inside” will continue to push the USG’s intellectual range and bureaucratic boundaries. We are all well-served by their sub rosa efforts and I offer a hearty “Huzzah!” in their honor.

A Great Find For Intel Buffs

Tuesday, January 29th, 2008

Kudos to the “Imperating Kents for their pointing to the digital archive of the private papers of Allen Dulles, the OSS spymaster and seminal DCI whose tenure was responsible for much of the CIA’s later cultural mystique. KI had it right when they declared:

It is thus with great interest we note that Princeton University has opened a digital archive of the private papers belonging to former DCI Allen Dulles. The variety and volume of materials is simply extraordinary, and although it is organized by librarians (rather than intelligence professionals or modern search engine experts) it is well worth the time to explore these virtual stacks. Given that the gentleman’s 1963 text The Craft of Intelligence, is still reprinted for use as a basic text at many university level programs, these further materials are both substantively illuminating and historically invaluable. Of particular interest are the French and German language items, which may never have been previously referenced in depth during intelligence studies research on the matter.

Eisenhower’s role as a decisive voice in IC operations during his administration has been frequently underestimated by historians, with the consequent inflating of the role played by Allen Dulles. In reality, Dulles was deeply influential, given Ike’s high level of interest in intelligence matters and his brother John Foster Dulles as SecState and sister Eleanor also in several consequential bureaucratic position at Foggy Bottom, including a stint in State’s intelligence bureau, creating a formidible familial troika. But Dulles was not a free-lance operator in any sense of the word. That was something a hot-tempered President Eisenhower would never have tolerated for an instant, despite cultivating a public image of genial, grandfatherly, disconnection; nor was it in Dulles’ character to personally micromanage operations to the extent that being a “rogue” DCI would require.

Dulles might have been America’s master spy but as DCI he carried out the orders of his political masters – to both great success and global scandal.

Is there an Intel Ark for the Coming of the Exaflood ?

Thursday, December 13th, 2007

An intriguing post from the loudly mysterious Kent’s Imperative:

SIGINT in the exaflood environment

“There has been a lot of talk recently regarding the implications of the rising rate of data exchange for policy issues such as network neutrality and broadband penetration. The term exaflood – coined by one particularly lobbying group – is apt enough, even if one doesn’t necessarily agree with their proposed solution approaches.

….Traditional SIGINT techniques – even within the relatively new realm of digital network intelligence – are the products of an earlier era, in which the target set and its emanations were distinct enough from its environment to be amenable to capture and analysis using a certain degree of discrimination. The kinds of intelligence that will be required against the adversaries of tomorrow will be increasingly less able to rely on the traditional tradecraft which is undergirded by such assumptions.

We do agree with the statement, frequently attributed to former Assistant Director of Central Intelligence for Analysis & Production Mark Lowenthal, to the effect that “there is no such thing as information overload, only poor analytical strategies.” However, the exaflood will challenge both collection and analytical strategies such as never before. Against this backdrop, we look to the continuing infrastructure, language, and human resources challenges faced by those in this section of the community, and greatly wonder if our future community will be adequate to the task.”

Read the rest here.

Hmmm. What does this mean then? Will the digital environment itself be the target with “the system” set to by stymied by ( and thus alert human operators to the existence of) processing of data pattern anamolies ? Looking for “non-haystack”, however defined, to stand out from a sea of carefully studied hay? How do we know the exact parameters of a continuously evolving complex system of systems of networks ? My head spins.

I am thwarted in my attempt to comprehend by my inherent  non-geekiness. My kingdom for a slide rule!

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