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Regarding the Lesser and Greater Sludges

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- the warnings, the lack of response, the tragedy, and a diagnosis of the underlying, near-universal human condition ]
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Devastation wrought by the Lesser Sludge, Snohomish County, WA, March 2014

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Hear ye! Hear ye!

The most stunning account I’ve yet seen of the Oso mudslide isn’t really about the slide itself, it’s about how much we already knew and how little we listened. Here’s an interview with geomorph­ologist Daniel Miller, who wrote up the danger of a slide in a 1997 report for the Washington Department of Ecology and the Tulalip Tribes, and followed it up with a report for the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1999, in which he warned of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure”:

Compare and contrast that with the quote from a piece yesterday on Vice Motherboard titled Lidar Mapping Could Save Lives Before the Next Mudslide:

Nevertheless the county believed that it was safe to build homes down by the Stillaguamish River. “It was considered very safe,” John Pennington, head of Snohomish County’s Department of Emergency Management, said at a news conference Monday. “This was a completely unforeseen slide. This came out of nowhere.”

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The Lesser Sludge:

According to Chapter 14, Landslides and other mass movements, in Snohomish County’s 2010 Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan Update:

Mudslides or mudflows (or debris flows) are rivers of rock, earth, organic matter and other soil materials saturated with water. They develop in the soil overlying bedrock on sloping surfaces when water rapidly accumulates in the ground, such as during river of rock, earth, organic matter and other heavy rainfall or rapid snowmelt. Water pressure in the pore spaces of the material increases to the point that the internal strength of the soil is drastically weakened. The soil’s reduced resistance can then easily be overcome by gravity, changing the earth into a flowing river of mud or “slurry.” A debris flow or mudflow can move rapidly down slopes or through channels, and can strike with little or no warning at avalanche speeds. The slurry can travel miles from its source, growing as it descends, picking up trees, boulders, cars and anything else in its path. Although these slides behave as fluids, they pack many times the hydraulic force of water due to the mass of material included in them. Locally, they can be some of the most destructive events in nature.

— and their Hazard Profile comments:

Landslides are caused by one or a combination of the following factors: change in slope of the terrain, increased load on the land, shocks and vibrations, change in water content, groundwater movement, frost action, weathering of rocks, and removing or changing the type of vegetation covering slopes.

Note that no human intervention is required — this is what an insurance writer might call an “act of God” while a scientist might prefer to call it the result of “natural causes”.

As for myself, I would like to refer to the actual mudflow consisting of “rock, earth, organic matter and other soil materials saturated with water” that recently buried much of the small, humanly-populated town of Osa in Snohomish County, WA, as the Lesser Sludge.

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Hear ye!

Listen! Warnings have been issued for millennia — and still the kings, the potentates, the real estate moguls refuse to listen:

Hear ye the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah, and inhabitants of Jerusalem; Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, the which whosoever heareth, his ears shall tingle.

— Jeremiah 19:3

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Managua:

I was in Managua, Nicaragua, shortly after the 1972 earthquake there. I had spent the day before with a 35mm Pentax, photographing square block after square block of demolished housing, with the occasional yellow flag indicating that a body — hence a possible source of infection — had been located there, too deep to be retrieved at that point. And I recall all too vividly what the physician sitting next to me on the plane home said to me:

They will rebuild on this same spot.

Managua had been the site of previous quakes, including one in 1885, and another in 1931 — it was at risk for serious quakes roughly twice a century. But real estate is real estate, Managua as Nicaragua’s capital city was valuable real estate, and the owners of valuable real estate would want to rebuild on their own real estate, no? It only makes logical sense…

And they did.

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What, then, is the Greater Sludge?

What I am calling the Greater Sludge is the mental sludge that somehow lodges itself, not just in this instance but in ten thousand others, between appropriate warnings on the one hand, and acting on the need for change on the other.

The Greater Sludge, in other words, is between our ears and behind our eyes: we cannot see it, and we cannot hear it.

I spent the better part of a decade working and talking with the fine group of social entrepreneurs that Jeff Skoll‘s foundation gathered for discussions at the late, lamented SocialEdge site, and I noticed something that struck me forcibly at the time, and has only become more deeply rooted in my thinking since then: we have Foundations, think tanks, journals, RFPs, and funding reources for all manner of top-down approaches to single-issue problems — depleted or polluted water supplies, lack of housing, education, medicine, you name it. We even have a few people like Anthony Judge and his Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, trying to see the complex interweavings of multiple problems — and a few more like Victor d’Allant and his team at Urb.Im working on bottom-up solutions.

But there isn’t really even a category for approaches to the problem of the Greater Sludge: our need to make across-the-board improvements in mental clarity isn’t even on the map.

And yet mental sludge is the greatest obstacle facing all those who see problems and have the clarity to know how to go about fixing them: from distraction and disinterest to outright denial, the many shades of sludge constitute our one totally interdisciplinary, wholly integral and universal problem.

Conversely, clarity in that invisible space behind the eyes, the ability to hear the quiet voice of sanity above the babel-babble between the ears — that would be the universal solvent.

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Further readings:

  • Critical thinking — cf. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking
  • Bias avoidance — cf. The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis and The Mind’s Lie
  • Systemic thinking — cf. Places to Intervene in a System and Dancing with Systems
  • Associzative leaps — cf. On the HipBone and Sembl games: update and Recap: on HipBone / Sembl Thinking
  • Then read the whole sad mudslide and warnings story at the Seattle Times again, and weep:

    I think we did the best that we could under the constraints that nobody wanted to sell their property and move…

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    Recap: on HipBone / Sembl Thinking

    Monday, March 10th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron -- briefly picking up a strand from an earlier post & running with it ]
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    Some of the fish in the pool HipBone / Sembl swims in - slide credit Cath Styles, & h/t Derek Robinson

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    I just wanted to reiterate an Einstein quote that I slipped into the middle of a post on the Black Madonna and iconography recently, where some readers more interested in the Sembl / HipBone games and their applicability to analytic work and creative thinking may have missed it:

    The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined. There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought – before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of sign, which can be communicated to others.

    The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.

    According to what has been said, the play with the mentioned elements is aimed to be analogous to certain logical connections one is searching for.

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    Combinatory playessential feature in productive thoughtanalogous to certain logical connections one is searching for — these three phrases sum up pretty exactly the congitive training function of the HipBone / Sembl games.

    As I said earlier, I have to wonder how many of our analysts are deeply versed in this “combinatory play” of images and kinesthetic experiences, way below the threshold of conscious thought.

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    Taoism with Intelligence, yeah!

    Monday, December 30th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- this post is useless and a delight, if you catch the same drift I do ]
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    Well you know me, I love juxtapositions and variations on a theme, and I have a keen interest in applying them with intelligence to Intelligence — especially where it meets Religion — so this one’s a natural!

    I mean, you might think the upper panel was an IC logo since it uses the word “intel”, but it’s not — it’s the long-time logo for a brand of computer chips from Intel Corp — now found in both PCs and Macs.

    But the IC was not to be outdone, and — mirabile dictu — has responded with its own “inside” logo. Intel is fine, you see, but frankly Tao is better.

    My own preferred Taoist text is that of Chuang Tzu‘s Inner Chapters — “chapters inside” one might almost say — which you can find translated by the excellent Burton Watson in Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings.

    Open it up, go inside…

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    NSA’s Tao source:

  • Der Spiegel
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    America’s Defense Amnesia

    Friday, November 1st, 2013

    (by Adam Elkus)

    Over at The National Interest, Paul Pillar diagnoses America with an “amnesia” about intelligence. The US, like Guy Pearce’s amnesiac character in Memento, does not perceive that it is caught in a larger oscillating cycle:

    Attitudes of the American public and elected officials toward intelligence go in cycles. There is an oscillation between two types of perceived crisis. One type is the “intelligence failure,” in which things happen in the world followed by recriminations about how intelligence agencies should have done a better job of predicting or warning of the happening. The recriminations are customarily accompanied by “reform,” or talk of it, which chiefly means finding ways to do things differently from what was done before—not necessarily better, just different. Usually there also are accusations of malfeasance by individuals, even though there is an inherent tension between attributing failure to unreformed institutions and attributing it to individuals who screwed up. Often the response also involves additional empowerment of institutions, in the form of added resources or added authorities.

    The other type of crisis involves seeing institutions as too empowered, with the response being to place additional restrictions on them. For U.S. intelligence agencies one of the most conspicuous examples of this phase of the cycle was in the 1970s, with some of the agencies in question already suspect as the nation came out of the Vietnam and Watergate eras, and with the principal response being to erect Congressional and legal checks that are still in place today. Now we are seeing in a somewhat milder form the corresponding phase of another cycle, as the nation comes out of more than a decade of recovery from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which stimulated the most recent burst of empowerment. There is new talk about reducing the powers and scope of activity of agencies and adding more checks and restraints.

    Pillar goes on to explain that the nature of intelligence does not provide easy directions regarding how allied intelligence targets figure into larger geostrategic intelligence factors that impact what policymakers desire out of the intelligence community. It is a great read from a man who is both a veteran of the intelligence world and a consistent critic of US foreign policy and security. However, I’d like to expand Pillar’s metaphor of “amnesia” beyond the intelligence world. We really have defense and national security amnesia.

    After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was not uncommon to hear sentiments arguing that force-on-force, firepower-centric conventional warfare could not cope with the challenges of a “global counterinsurgency.” Indeed, some argued that the previous high-tech military ideas not only were out of date with the nature of the challenge, but almost lost the war altogether. Both manpower-heavy and manpower-light counterinsurgency campaigns were proposed.  The Surge is still seen today in many quarters as the closest thing America has to a recent military triumph. As Antulio Echevarria noted, critics of conventional warfare argued that opponents had adapted around America’s strategic advantages, but it was less clear that there was any causal relationship.

    Circa 2007-2009, however, large-scale occupations in the Muslim world began to go out of style. Critics began to clamor for a light footprint approach heavily based around counterterrorism strike forces and standoff firepower. A presidential candidate promised to hit al-Qaeda hard with flexible counterterrorism forces. Reduce the terrorist threat steadily growing in safe havens, he and his staff argued. The zeitgeist began to turn towards a culture of raiding, characterized by some of the very same assumptions about light and lethal forces that were so widely criticized prior to the counterinsurgency era. Manpower-intensive occupations were out, intensive counterterrorism in the dark was in. Instead of stabilizing failed states, America would use a combination of intelligence, special operations, and statecraft to marginalize and undermine al-Qaeda.

    The age of “dirty war”  became a lightning rod for criticism. But one of the most trenchant criticisms was that an obsession with tactical counterterrorism intelligence was harming America’s intelligence agencies’ traditional specialties in strategic intelligence and counterintelligence. The line between military and intelligence was being “blurred.” The larger cost? Focusing so much on short-term, tangible, and easily justifiable counterterrorism intel requirements blinded America to the larger picture that it needed to see. As a result, it would be perpetually surprised by events like the Arab Spring.

    In light of today’s furor over spying on allies, it is worth examining how this line of argument cast the difference between strategic intelligence and strike intelligence as a military-industrial complex analog of the classic dichotomy between basic and applied scientific research. Basic scientific research is often difficulty to justify in the short term, and frequently does not result in immediate payoff. But none of today’s scientific discoveries would have been possible without it. Hence, as Pillar noted in his essay, in retrospect it is easy to see “failures of intelligence” in areas where ambiguity regarding the purpose of intelligence, targets, and immediate payoff motivated hesitation. Ironically, as Dan Trombly tweeted, most of the intelligence community’s “counterterrorism obsession” critics were silent (with the notable exception of Joshua Foust) when evidence accrued that foreign spying was conducted for non-counterterrorism purposes.

    Returning to Pillar’s opening metaphor, it seems that the American defense and foreign policy community is suffering from a collective case of amnesia. A call for counterterrorism, light footprints, and intelligence leads to an intelligence architecture that supports a raiding posture, and is then promptly and widely criticized for focusing so intensely on counterterrorism. A call for counterinsurgency results in substantial investment in counterinsurgency abilities, and then is promptly and widely criticized for its time and expense.

    My analysis is undeniably unfair in some ways. First, the aggregated commentary of the DC defense commetariat consensus as presented here smoothes out meaningful differences, nuances, caveats, and variations. It was not as simple as I make it out to be, but the consensus of a community is not easily described in a single paragraph. Second, each idea also produced data that was (fairly or unfairly) evaluated. Counterinsurgency theory looked very appealing to many analysts in 2006 but was pronounced dead by war-weary Americans in 2011. Compared to Iraqi and Afghan quagmires, drones and special ops seemed compelling . But as the wars drew down and more press attention focused on the ramped-up counterterrorism campaigns, analysts began to have substantial misgivings.

    That said, the problem is that while the world certainly changes fast, it has not changed fast enough to justify the kind of analytical mood swings that have frequently occurred since the beginning of the COIN era. If one took the last 12 years of national security commentary as gospel, they would believe that some seismic, worldview-invalidating event occurred every 1-3 years and necessitated a wholesale rejection of the policy the previous worldview-invalidating event spawned. Events have complicated and qualified—but not wholly invalidated–the merits and demerits of COIN, special operations and counterterrorism, and strategic intelligence (which includes spying on allies). While all of the arguments I’ve summarized here contradict each other, I can’t say with confidence that any of them are completely wrong.

    The problem with America’s defense amnesia is not “be careful what you wish for.” No one can know exactly how their policy preference will work out. It is not even “remember what you wish for.” Rather, the lesson is to keep in mind that however fast events may move, there are larger and systemic factors and tradeoffs that stimulate day-to-day policy problems. These systemic factors change very slowly, and remain fairly consistent across administrations. Why we cannot comfortably dismiss any of the varying defense memes I’ve cataloged is that each dealt with a segment of a larger problem.

    Being conscious of the unchanging challenges of American national security, from the difficulties of maintaining local outposts of American hegemony to how America’s national position produces incentives for perpetual war, has important intellectual benefits. We can avoid calls for dramatic course correction over hysterias of the moment and keep the longer term in mind. And we gain an appreciation for what has changed and what remains the same. A wider view tells us that war is not more complex, the calculus of strategic intelligence is not simple, and there are costs to both counterinsurgency and standoff counterterrorism that must be evaluated.

    Moreover, we gain a greater respect for the policymakers who must deal with underlying manifestations of deeper and systemic problems instead of behaving (as even I sometimes do) like we have cracked some secret code unavailable to the idiots in Washington. There is some truth behind the disdainful phrase “good enough for government work.” But if the national security and foreign policy problems that government tackles were as obvious or linear as today’s criticism often implies, would our policy demands oscillate as wildly as Pillar alleges? It seems that unless we start tattooing relevant names, events, and information on our bodies (like Pearce’s Memento character does to help him remember), we won’t remember enough to answer that question. Such is the life of an amnesiac.

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    Madame Feinstein and the NSA

    Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

    Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Ca.) is the Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She and her closest aides are privy to some of the nation’s most closely guarded secrets above and beyond that of an ordinary member of the intelligence committee. When a highly sensitive covert operation requiring a presidential “finding” be reported to Congress hers is one of the very few offices in the loop and one of the first to be briefed.

    Senator Feinstein is also suddenly shocked that the NSA, which was set up to spy on foreign governments and has been briefing her for years – is allegedly spying on foreign governments:

    “It is abundantly clear that a total review of all intelligence programs is necessary so that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are fully informed as to what is actually being carried out by the intelligence community,” Feinstein said in a statement to reporters.

    “Unlike NSA’s collection of phone records under a court order, it is clear to me that certain surveillance activities have been in effect for more than a decade and that the Senate Intelligence Committee was not satisfactorily informed.

    With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of US allies – including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany – let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed.

    Lest you be forgiven for thinking that Senator Feinstein was chairing an intelligence committee in some other universe than the one in which we live, she recently had this to say about NSA domestic mass surveillance of ordinary Americans (which the NSA is not supposed to be doing at all except in very narrow circumstances):

    The NSA call-records program is legal and subject to extensive congressional and judicial oversight. Above all, the program has been effective in helping to prevent terrorist plots against the U.S. and our allies. Congress should adopt reforms to improve transparency and privacy protections, but I believe the program should continue.

    The call-records program is not surveillance. It does not collect the content of any communication, nor do the records include names or locations. The NSA only collects the type of information found on a telephone bill: phone numbers of calls placed and received, the time of the calls and duration. The Supreme Court has held this “metadata” is not protected under the Fourth Amendment.

    Set aside the cutesy and deliberately misleading part about the underlying metadata case which was decided in a radically different context than NSA mass surveillance – these two statements together effectively mean that Senator Feinstein is ok with the NSA functioning unfettered as the world’s most powerful secret police agency but not as an agency tasked with acquiring foreign intelligence. Doing things, like, you know, espionage to discover the real views of other world leaders….

    WTF?

    Now fairness admits that there are other possibilities for Chairman Feinstein’s public statements:

    • Senator Feinstein is giving “cover” for allied leaders to save face with their domestic critics up in arms about US spying by throwing them a bone to help them calm their voters and media.
    • Senator Feinstein is playing to the Left wing of her own Party and in the California electorate
    • Senator Feinstein is sticking a well-deserved knife in the backs of a few people high up in the NSA and the White House for previous slights directed at her personally and her committee
    • Senator Feinstein sees herself presiding in nationally televised Church Hearings II, starring the heroic Diane Feinstein
    • Senator Feinstein is a loose cannon

    Your guess is as good as mine, but the idea of America getting out of the foreign intel business or taking German crocodile tears at face value is harebrained.

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