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Downward Spiral as a pattern in conflict — do we study it?

Friday, October 21st, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — a thoroughly impertinent riff on that saying of von Moltke ]

Hw many places could this sentence be applied to?

But the latest attacks, which appear to have been several months in the preparation, threaten to draw the entire population into a downward spiral of deadly confrontations, violent crackdowns by the security forces and toxic relations between local communities and the authorities.

It happens to come from an article about the Rohingya, Richard Horsey‘s Reality bites for Aung San Suu Kyi amid surging violence from the Nikkei Asian Review.

But how many other places might such a sentence apply to?

I ask this because we tend to focus on certain words in a sentence like this: attacks, preparation, threat, population, deadly confrontations, violent crackdowns, security forces, local communities, the authorities. Those are the forces in play, if you will. But their play follows the rules of a certain game, and that game is also named in the sentence.

Its name is downward spiral.


vatican-spiralSpiral staircase, the Vatican, Rome


What I want to suggests that we might learn a great deal if we shifted our attention from attacks, preparation, threat, population and the rest, and thought about spiral.

Spiral is the form that the attacks, preparation, threat, population and the rest — here and in those other places — takes, and as such it’s an archetype that underlies them, not just among the Rohingya, their Buddhist compatriots and Aung San Suu Kyi, but across the globe and through time itself.

Spiral as a pattern in conflict — do we study it?


If, as I suppose, von Moltke can be translated as saying, “no operating concept survives contact,” it would seem we may need to conceptualize contact, ie the complexity of relations, rather than operations, which are far more focused on us — how we “will prevent conflict, shape security environments, and win wars” — than on conflict and wars, both of which are minimally two-party affairs.

And I’m not trying to say anything so terribly new here, just to give fresh phrasing to Paul Van Riper‘s comment:

What we tend to do is look toward the enemy. We’re only looking one way: from us to them. But the good commanders take two other views. They mentally move forward and look back to themselves. They look from the enemy back to the friendly, and they try to imagine how the enemy might attack them. The third is to get a bird’s-eye view, a top-down view, where you take the whole scene in. The amateur looks one way; the professional looks at least three different ways.


sintra-castle-spiral-credit-joe-daniel-price-740x492Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal, credit Joe Daniel Price


The sentence immediately preceding the one from the Nikkei Asia article I quoted above will hopefully illuminate hope in a pretty desperate situation:

The majority of this community and its religious leaders continue to eschew violence.


Image sources:

  • Both spiral images from the Top 10 Spiral Architecture page
  • Quick notes on intelligent intelligence, 2

    Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — on a quote from my fellow whacky Brit, Geoffrey Pyke ]


    Whacky? From a short description of the man by his biographer, Henry Hemming:

    Geoffrey Pyke, an inventor, war reporter, escaped prisoner, campaigner, father, educator–and all-around misunderstood genius. In his day, he was described as one of the world’s great minds, to rank alongside Einstein, yet he remains virtually unknown today. Pyke was an unlikely hero of both world wars and, among many other things, is seen today as the father of the U.S. Special Forces. He changed the landscape of British pre-school education, earned a fortune on the stock market, wrote a bestseller and in 1942 convinced Winston Churchill to build an aircraft carrier out of reinforced ice. He escaped from a German WWI prison camp, devised an ingenious plan to help the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and launched a private attempt to avert the outbreak of the Second World War by sending into Nazi Germany a group of pollsters disguised as golfers.


    And for good measure, here’s Jami Miscik on oddballs:

    To truly nurture creativity, you have to cherish your contrarians and give them opportunities to run free. Leaders in the analytic community must avoid trying to make everyone meet a preconceived notion of the intelligence community’s equivalent of the “man in the gray flannel suit.”

    and Reuel Marc Gerecht:

    And the service can ill-afford to lose creative personnel with a high tolerance for risk.

    It’s a sad fact that the folks who are in government, especially in the “elite” services of the CIA and the State Department, aren’t what they used to be. They are, to be blunt, less interesting. There are vastly fewer “characters” -— the unconventional, often infuriating, types who give institutions color and competence.


    Okay, here’s Geoffrey Pyke in his own capital letters:


    And why does that interest me?

    Well first, today it corroborates my comment just now on David Barno and Nora Bensahel and the importance of their suggestion that “The Army should also reinstate the requirement for every career officer to develop skills in two specialties.”

    And then second, because I have been saying for a while that:

    Two is the first number

    and quoting along the way Aristotle, Jung, and the tenth-century Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’..


    For these reasons, and with a hat-tip to Bryan Alexander, I cherish the contrarian intelligence of Mr Pyke.

    Quick notes on intelligent intelligence, 1

    Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — I do believe this will be a new series ]



    Intelligence, obviously, can mean something along the lines of bright thinking, but also that which is gathered, usually from the extremities of empire or the most hidden of an opponent’s or ally’s secret secrets — but for my purposes here it means the frst of these (the “intelligent” of my title) as applied in the mind of military, analytic or civilian leadership to the second (my title’s “intelligence” by which I mean “intel”).


    David Barno and Nora Bensahel, Six Ways to Fix the Army’s Culture:

    The Army should also reinstate the requirement for every career officer to develop skills in two specialties, rather than to focus narrowly on one. This would produce officers with a much broader range of talents, who would be educated and then employed effectively across more than one skill to support the Army’s disparate needs. These measures would help rising Army leaders think more creatively about the wide range of challenges facing the Army and contribute more effectively at the strategic level within the Department of Defense or the wider interagency arena.

    I’d like to make this more explicit. Not only does the development of skills in two specialties mean that an officer can handle two dofferent kinds of problem set with greater assurance, it also and specfically opens the possibility of cross-fertilization between the two disciplines, in those places where they overlap not on the surface level but at the level of analogy and pattern.

    When Barno and Bensahel say the development of skills in two specialties “would help rising Army leaders think more creatively” it’s not just that they’d be better informed and brighter than they would be with only one such skill, and it’s not just that they could handle issues involving the overlap between specialties (and I actually don’t just mean military specialties like “Transportation officer (88A)” and “Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear officer (74A)” but also realms like cutural anthropology, topology, systems dynamics, art history), it’s that analogies would leap to mind showing that allow insights from one realm, discipline, silo or specialty to illuminate another. As shown in Arthur Koestler‘s image in The Act of Creation, which I never tire of posting:


    Hey, I’ll follow up immediately with related commentary — on a quote from the eccentric, brilliant mind of a British fellow, Geoffrey Pyke, recently memorialized in Henry Hemming‘s book, The Ingenious Mr. Pyke: Inventor, Fugitive, Spy.

    The issue of women as sex-slaves in current news

    Thursday, August 4th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — why grokking is an important quality in analysts and diplomats, policy-makers and journos ]

    Update on the long-running diplomatic snafu between S Korea and Japan:

    Welsh imam explains why sex slavery is okay:


    And here we are in 2016 CE.

    I keep, keep, keep saying this: whether we’re dealing with Japan in WWII or ISIS today, we need to understand that worldviews differ, that the differences matter — and that knowing that intellectually is not enough, we need to be able to know it in the holistic, visceral-to-intellectual way Heinlein’s character Valentine Michael Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land called “grokking“.

    Zengi can be Zangi and Zinki, among others

    Sunday, July 24th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — besides horror at the beheading, there’s an analytic note that needs to be heard ]

    abdullah issa 600
    Abdullah Issa fighting, and wounded — soon to be savagely beheaded

    The ferocity of the beheading has been blurred out in most versions of the video, though ZeroCensorship is still showing it, and YouTube has a version that stops short of the beheading but appears to record Abdullah’s final wish — to be shot, not slaughtered.

    That devastating final wish goes way beyond Shakespeare‘s “to be or not to be, that is the question” — it may well be the most terrfying depiction of a choice made at death-point that I have ever heard.


    I commented recently to a post by Ehsani2 titled The Boy Beheaded by Zinki Fighters, Abdullah Tayseer, Who Was He? on Dr. Joshus LandisSyria Comment blog, noting that the piece used the names Zanki and Zinki without commenting on the difference between them, and asking for clarification. I’d like to thank Dr Landis for a graciously email in response, and am happy to note today that my concern regarding the discrepant names used in the article is not without cause — as Kyle Orton just made clear in his own post on his Syrian Intifada blog, A Rebel Crime and Western Lessons in Syria:

    One of the first complications with al-Zengi is the sheer variety of ways to transliterate the group’s name. Nooradeen can be Nooridin, Noorideen, and Noor/Nur al-Din/Deen; Zengi can be Zangi and Zinki, among others. Harakat means “movement,” though sometimes the organization is referred to as kataib (brigade) instead. Nooradeen refers to the twelfth-century Seljuk atabeg of the Zengid dynasty, whose life’s project was the reunification of the Islamic community.

    No wonder I was confused.


    My point, as so often, cuts against the grain of the conversation on Ehsani2’s post, which is largely about the horrible event itself and the group that performed it, one time support from the US included, and not the ways in which lack of languahger skills can cause confusion where clarity would be preferable — and that’s fair enough. My point, hiwever, is the linguistic one, and I think it’s important in a way that’s perhaps better suited to discussion here than on Dr Landis’ blog.

    My plea is for analysts with special knowledge of places, groups or languages to bear in mind when writing, that there will be some in their interested audiences who may not share those specialities but are still worth reaching — and in particular that non-specialists, while inherently weak in local detail, may nevertheless contribute significant insights from outside linguistic or area-specialist silos, precisely by virtue of not being in the echo-chambers that such forms of specialism themselves tend to erect.

    Zen has from the beginning of this blog stressed the mutual virtues of what he terms “horizontal” and “vertical” modes of knowledge — see his series:

  • Understanding Cognition: part I: Benefits of horizontal thinking
  • Understanding Cognition: part II: Benefits of vertical thinking to horizontal thinkers
  • Understanding Cognition: part III: Horizontal and vertical thinking and the origin of insight
  • I came to my own interest in that topic by being a primarily analogical and only secondarily linear thinker, by hearing Murray Gell-Mann at CalTech speak on the importance of generalist “bridge-makers” who perceive analogical links between otherwise unrelated disciplines, and by my twenty- to thirty-year effort to devised a playable form of the great analogical game loosely described in Hermann Hesse’s brillian (nobel-winning) novel, The Glass Bead Game.

    In prepping a proposal — as yet unfinished — for DARPA or IARPA last year, I formulate my basic message as a sort of motto, thus:

    Out of the box, out of the silo, out of the discipline, out of the agency, out of the explicit known into the “unknowing” — where the future takes shape…

    I could — and in the finished proposal will, God-willing — go far further on this topic, describing the ways in which complexity is far better modeled for us humans by analogical than by linear thinking, by cross-disciplinary than by silo’d thinking, by visual rather than verbal thinking, by human scale (7, plus or minus 2 datapoints) visualization than by big-data viz, and so forth. But let’s make it simple:

    Quirky thinking has a better chance at creative insight than routine thinking, individual contrarian passion than in-group agreement.



    Thanks again to Dr Landis, and back to business..

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