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Recommended Reading—Summer 2016

Monday, July 11th, 2016

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Storm of Creativity2017



white horsewashington


The Storm of Creativity, by Kyna Leski

2017 War With Russia, by General Sir Richard Shirreff

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

Serendipities, Language and Lunacy, by Umberto Eco

Paradise, Dante Alighieri, translated by Mark Musa

Undertow, by Stanton S. Coerr

The White Horse Cometh, by Rich Parks

Washington The Indispensable Man, by John Thomas Flexner

This list starts the first week of May, so perhaps the title should be Spring/Summer. Most of these books are quick reads and all are recommended.

I picked up Ms. Leski’s book at an MIT bookshop on a business trip in early May and read on the train ride home. Books on creativity are ubiquitous, but Ms. Leski takes an interesting approach by describing the creative process using the metaphor of a storm. Several ZP readers will find of interest.

2017 was recommended by a friend. The author was the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the book focuses on a Europe/NATO response to a Russian invasion of the Baltics. Written in a Tom Clancy-like style, the plot is fast-paced even though the good general provides sometimes provides detailed insights into the inner workings of NATA and the North Atlantic Council (this is one of the values of the book—bureaucracy writ-large).

David McCullough’s Wright Brothers delivers an approachable and human accounting of the first men of powered flight. Some reviews on Amazon complain McCullough lifts and uses too many quotes to tell the story. At times the quotes were distracting, but not enough to prevent the enjoyment of the story of two brothers who changed the world. This book was a gift otherwise I probably would not have read.

Serendipities is a short book, but was a long read for me. Eco explains how language and the pursuit of the perfect language has confounded thinkers since time immemorial. He refers to Marco Polo’s unicorn (also used in his Kant and the Platypus which is excellent) explaining how language is often twisted to meet a preconceived notion or idea. The first couple of chapters were quite good, chapters three and four did not hold my interest or were over my head. The closing chapter was good enough to convince me I’ll need to read this little book again. (My Eco anti-library has been growing of late.)

Eco’s book led me to reread Musa’s excellent translation of Paradise. My son gave me the deluxe edition with parallel Italian and English, plus commentary. Eco referenced Canto 26 and 27, and I enjoyed the break so much I read the whole thing!

Undertow is my good friend Stan Coerr’s second book of poetry.  His first book Rubicon was a moving collection of poetry of men at war. Undertow deals more with the heart and is quite good, too. You won’t be disappointed.

White Horse is also a book by an old friend, Rich Parks (we’ve known each other since the mid-80’s). White Horse is self-published and in places it shows, but the overall story is quite good for a first book (I’ve already told him his book would make an excellent screenplay.). The plot is quick and entertaining even if a bit unbelievable, but the story is fiction. Rich is following up with a sequel in August in 2016 and I’ll be reading it, too.

Mr. Flexner’s Washington was a gift, too. In this quick biography Washington is made approachable and human. And when I say “quick,” I mean quick…Trenton and Princeton took one chapter compared to David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing which took up a standalone book. If someone were looking for a first Washington biography, this would be a good place to start.

This isn’t the conclusion of my summer reading, but a pretty good start.What are  you reading this summer?

Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, The Classic Works of Alfred Thayer Mahan Reconsidered, a review

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, by Jon Tetsuro Sumida

As of August 2012 this is the best non-fiction book I’ve read this year. Professor Sumida brings a potentially dry topic to life making Alfred Thayer Mahan relevant in the process; as indeed, he should. At a mere 117 pages of moderately footnoted text, Sumida provides the reader a grand tour of Mahan’s life work, not just The Influence of Sea Power 1660-1983. Sumida includes the major works of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s (ATM) father Dennis Hart Mahan, as he introduces ATM’s major works, lesser works, biographies, essays, and criticisms.

Sumida begins his chapters with quotes, and weaves his recounting of ATM’s work with musical performance, Zen enlightenment, and naval command; which is quite a combination, but convincing. Of ATM’s “approach to naval grand strategy” he writes:

Mahan believed the security of a large and expanding system of international trade in the twentieth century would depend upon the creation of a transnational consortium of naval power. His handling of the art and science of command, on the other hand, was difficult, complex, and elusive. It is helpful, therefore, to achieve an introductory sense of its liminal character by means of analogy.

This is where musical performance and Zen enlightenment become relevant and instructive. Sumida writes on musical performance:

Teaching musical performance…poses three challenges: improving art, developing technique, and attending to their interaction.

Sumida goes on to illustrate the parallels between learning musical performance and naval command/strategy and the common thread is performing or, “doing it.” He writes that most musical instruction is through the understudy watching demonstrations by the master, but the higher purpose of replicating the master’s work is “to gain a sense of the expressive nature of an act that represents authentically a human persona.” In other words, the development of relevant tacit knowledge, or as I have come to refer to this as “tacit insight.”

Sumida continues with six short chapters that pack a powerful punch and a good introduction to the trajectory of Mahan’s work from the beginning to end. My favorite was Chapter Six, The Uses of History and Theory. In this chapter Sumida deals with complexity, contingency, change, and contradiction, naval supremacy in the Twentieth Century, Jomini, Clausewitz, and command and history. Quite a line-up, but a convincing inventory of Mahan’s influences and how his work remains relevant today. Sumida writes:

Mahan’s role as a pioneer and extender of the work of others has been widely misunderstood and thus either ignored or misused. The general failure to engage his thought accurately is in large part attributable to the complexity of his exposition, the difficulties inherent in his methods of dealing with several forms of contingency, changes in his position on certain major issues, and his contradictory predictions about the future and application of strategic principles…His chief goal, however, was to address difficult questions that were not susceptible to convincing elucidation through simple reasoning by analogy. He thus viewed history less as a ready-made instructor than a medium that had to be worked by the appropriate intellectual tools.. Mahan’s analytical instruments of choice were five kinds of argument: political, political-economic, governmental, strategic, and professional.

The first three were used in grand naval strategy, the latter two with the “art and science of command.” The section of Command and History is particularly relevant given two recent posts, one at the USNI Blog, The Wisdom of a King, by CDR Salamander, and the other in a September 2012 Proceedings article by LCDR B.J.Armstrong, Leadership & Command. Here’s why: Sumida quotes Admiral Arleigh Burke, who latter became Chief of Naval Operations, during WWII. Of “Decentraliztion,” Burke wrote:

…means we offer officers the opportunity to rise to positions of responsibility, of decision, of identity and stature—if they want it, and as soon as they can take it.

We believe in command, not staff. We believe we have “real” things to do. The Navy believes in putting a man in a position with a job to do, and let him do it—give him hell if he does not perform—but be a man in his own name. We decentralize and capitalize on the capabilities of our individual people rather than centralize and make automatons of them. This builds that essential element of pride of service and sense of accomplishment.

The U.S. Navy could do worse than return to this “father” of naval strategy and give his ideas more attention; Professor Sumida’s little book would be a good place to start.

Strongest recommendation—particularly to active duty Navy personnel.

Cross-posted at To Be or To Do.

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.

Educating Divided Minds for an Illiberal State

Friday, May 4th, 2012

Adam Elkus had well-constructed argument about the Thomas Friedman-Andrew Exum exchange:

Education and Security

Andrew Exum’s has a useful critique of Thomas Friedman’s recent piece. In a nutshell, Friedman makes the old argument that the US could buy friendship and allegiance by giving Middle Easterners more education and scholarship opportunities. To this, Exum has a rather terrific rejoinder:

“I am a proud graduate of the American University of Beirut, but do you know who else counted the AUB as their alma mater? The two most innovative terrorists in modern history, George Habbash and Imad Mughniyeh. U.S. universities and scholarship programs are nice things to do and sometimes forge important ties between peoples and future leaders, but they can also go horribly wrong and do not necessarily serve U.S. interests. There is certainly no guarantee a U.S.-style education leads to greater tolerance or gender and social equality.”

Habbash and Mughniyeh are hardly alone. Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog famously observed an distinct overrepresentation of scientists, engineers, and other highly educated professionals in both violent and nonviolent groups with illiberal ideologies. Gambetta and Hertog make an argument that the black-and-white mindset of certain technical groups correlate well with extremist ideologies, but I am unfamiliar with how this has been academically received so I won’t endorse their claims. To be sure, a look at 20th century history would also reveal a significant confluence of intellectuals in the humanities and social sciences being involved in either state or non-state illiberal movements. 

Indeed, the problem here may be the imbalance of educational systems that produce divided minds, where lopsided cultures of thought interact with enough disturbed individuals with a will to power. Stalin demonstrated what Communism looked like when a former Orthodox seminarian presided over a police state run by engineers; Mao one-upped him with Communism as the mystical rule of an all-powerful poet.

One of the more unfortunate trends among many bad ideas currently advertised as “education reform” is the denigration of the humanities and the reduction or elimination of the arts and history in public schools in favor of excessive standardized testing of rote skills and reasoning at the lowest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, mostly due to Federal coercion. That this has become particularly popular with GOP politicians (though many elitist Democrats echo them) would have appalled erudite conservatives like William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk or old school libertarians who would have seen nationalization of k-12 education policy as worse than the status quo.

In an effort to appear genuinely interested in improving education, some politicians couple this position with advocacy for STEM, as the teaching of science has also been undermined by the NCLB regime and a grassroots jihad by religious rights activists against the teaching of evolution in high school biology classes. While STEM in and of itself is a good thing and better science instruction is badly needed, STEM is no more a substitute for teaching the humanities well than your left hand is a substitute for your right foot.

The modes of thinking produced by quantitative-linear- closed system-analytical reductionist reasoning and qualitative-synthesizing-alinear-imaginative -extrapolative are complementary and synergistic. Students and citizens need both. Mass education that develops one while crippling the other yields a population sharing a deeply entrenched and self-perpetuating lacunae, hostile and suspicious of ideas and concepts that challenge the veracity of their insular mental models. This is an education that tills the soil for intolerance and authoritarianism to take root and grow

Education should be for a whole mind and a free man.

Before Disruption….Thinking

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

“What you think, you become”

    – Buddha

“We are what we frequently do”

    – Aristotle

There has been a lively and still evolving debate in the milblogosphere regarding “disruptive thinkers”, starting with Benjamin Kohlman’s post at SWJ whose editor Peter J. Munson has done a fine job steering, collecting and commenting upon. A selection:

The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers by Benjamin Kohlman

Disruptive Thinking, Innovation, Whatever You Want to Call It is Needed for a Military in Crisis by Peter J. Munson 

The focus on disruptive thinkers coincided with a different but relevant debate over professional military education (PME) when a scathing blast was recently  leveled at the US Army War College by Major General Robert Scales (ret.) , himself the former commandant and a strong advocate of rigorous PME.  A few of the criticisms made by General Scales at a gathering at FPRI were mentioned in a post by Thomas Ricks who believes in shutting down the service academies and war colleges and maybe just sending everyone to Yale, Princeton and Harvard for MBAs. Or something.
What was interesting to me is that many authors and their points had less to do with a close examination of cultivating cognitive skills than related topics of changing organizational culture, the perils of groupthink, rehashing ideas from Frans Johanssen’s The Medici Effect and John Kao’s Innovation Nation, the superiority of entrepreneurshiphidebound military bureaucracy and other tangents to indirectly create an environment in which insightful or innovative behavior might happen.  Only Mike Mazarr zeroed in to the heart of the matter, writing:
….We need to improve, for example, in the detail and specificity of critical and creative thinking methodologies that we integrate into the curriculum.
There’s nothing wrong -in fact, much to the good – with the call of Kohlman and others like Joan Johnson-Freese to deliberately combine students and faculty of radically different professional backgrounds. Such a personnel mix is a good base for horizontal thinking to take place, where discussions can range across fields generating insights and analogies and accelerating learning.
However, just assembling a broad mix of talent and putting them together in a building is not enough because it is not any more goal oriented than a MENSA social. Good things might happen, sure, but just as easily not. This is why DARPA is a lot more productive of an organization on an annual basis than the Institute for Advanced Study. There needs to be a mixture of problem-solving and play, free inquiry or experimentation and unifying goals. Communities of interest have to first have a sense of community for the vibrantly sharing and inspiring “minds on fire” effect to take place.
If the military or more broadly, American society, wants a larger number of creative, innovative, “disruptive”, strategic or whatever kind of thinker, then the answer is to actively and purposefully teach students creative, critical, insight-generating and strategic thinking skills and to value intellectual curiosity, skepticism, imagination and empiricism over ideology and conformity. The other indirect, “better environment”, stuff certainly improves your chance of success, but systemic improvement will only come about by making such objectives the focus of instruction and learning rather than a haphazard byproduct.
At Best Defense, Ricks has provided a copy of his prepared remarks on PME as well as a link to the audiofile that I could not pull up the other day. Check out what he has to say.

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