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Planning and doing, mapping and going

Monday, September 28th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — still catching up with unfinished posts — here, wicked problems & John Henry Newman ]

I’ve just been re-reading Jeff Conklin‘s Wicked Problems and Social Complexity, which includes these two diagrams:


— so I was struck by this tweet:


There’s a similar sense of a jagged path in the final verse of Bl John Henry Newman‘s great hymn, The Pillar of the Cloud, better known by its first line, Lead, Kindly Light:

So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

It is sung here at the Hyde Park vigil on the occasion of Pope Benedict XVI‘s visit to the United Kingdom, with a final verse added by an Anglican Bishop of Exeter, Edward Henry Bickersteth:


The first two items appeal to my intellect, whereas Newman’s hymn can bring me to tears.

When the problem is a moving target

Saturday, September 19th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — the AUMF and “wickedness” ]

The essence of the insight that Horst Rittel and more recently Jeff Conklin bring to our attention under the rubric of “wicked problems” is the idea that what is viewed as a problem from one standpoint may be seen from another perspective as having a different emphasis, a different center of gravity — so that a move that solves a given problem from the first viewpoint may partially or wholly fail to solve it from that second perspective.

Add to that, the idea that the problem may itself morph as circumstances vary over time — as some interested parties drop out and others become interested, deadlines pass and new techniques and avenues of approach arise — and it becomes clear that the naive label “the problem” covers something far closer to an evolving and poorly defined entity than to one that is clearly defined and unchanging.


Gregory Johnsen had a fine piece on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Buzzfeed titled 60 Words And A War Without End: The Untold Story Of The Most Dangerous Sentence In U.S. History. Those sixty words say:

That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

In his extensive commentary on how those words have been interpreteted, he writes:

Unbound by time and unlimited by geography, the sentence has been stretched and expanded over the past decade, sprouting new meanings and interpretations as two successive administrations have each attempted to keep pace with an evolving threat while simultaneously maintaining the security of the homeland. In the process, what was initially thought to authorize force against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan has now been used to justify operations in several countries across multiple continents and, at least theoretically, could allow the president — any president — to strike anywhere at anytime. What was written in a few days of fear has now come to govern years of action.


It seems to me somewhat naive as a general principle to think that words framing in a problem and or solution from one perspective, in one time, and under one set of circumstances, will necessarily “fit” it some later time, under changed circumstances and perhaps from a different perspective.

One could surely apply these words of Conklin’s in Wicked Problems & Social Complexity to the AUMF:

Moreover, the field is changing so fast that new options become available, and others drop into oblivion, almost every day.


My question is: what do we do about the fluidity of change in a world of verbally-fixed laws? And I see that as an inevitable question arising in light of Lao Tzu‘s twin dicta which I have variously phrased or seen phrased as:

  • The pronounceable name isn’t the unpronounceable name
  • The flow that can be capped isn’t the overflowing flow
  • The quantity that can be counted is not the unaccountable quality
  • No way the way can be put into words
  • The problem that can be described isn’t our actual situation
  • the path that can be mapped is not the pathless path
  • and so forth.. or as Korzybski has it:

  • the map is not the territory
  • Sunday surprise 6: the Game of Broken and Fix

    Sunday, September 29th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — problem & solution? comedy & tragedy? cause and effect? I do love me a little Dylan ]

    The logical order for these two clips would be the one in the title, but here I’m going to give you the Fix first, and leave you afterwards with the Broken — by all means tell me if I’m wrong:

    How successful d’you think that strategy will prove in the world we now live in?

    People are talking about Dylan getting the Nobel again. But what does that mean? Everything is broken?

    Wicked problems, mind mapping, and IBIS

    Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

    [by Lynn C. Rees, after a reminder by Charles Cameron]

    Wikipedia defines a mind map as:

    …a diagram used to visually outline information. A mind map is often created around a single word or text, placed in the center, to which associated ideas, words and concepts are added. Major categories radiate from a central node, and lesser categories are sub-branches of larger branches. Categories can represent words, ideas, tasks, or other items related to a central key word or idea.

    Using visuals to represent and explore issues has long interested me. The primary tool I use now is Freeplane, a software application for drawing mind maps. While many mind mapping applications are available, I use Freeplane because:

    1. it’s free/open source software (FOSS)
    2. it’s trivial for me to customize and extend its core features with my own software

    A central and popular conceit of FOSS is Linus’ Strongly Worded Suggestion Law:

    “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”; or more formally: “Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix will be obvious to someone”

    This conceit, over-hyped for most FOSS projects, is true in narrower cases. Since I use a few obscure Freeplane features, I’ve encountered a few obscure Freeplane bugs. Since Freeplane’s source is freely and publicly available and I’m a software engineer, I fixed some of those bugs myself. Some bugs I merely reported for Freeplane’s developers to fix. Some bugs I fixed but the fix hasn’t been merged into the main program.

    This isn’t a significant issue. Since it is FOSS, I can take Freeplane’s source code, apply my fixes and customizations to it, and run my own version of the software which, under the terms of the GNU General Public License, I also make publicly available. Hoping to benefit from Linus’ Law myself, I’ve released source for some of my custom Freeplane add-ons for the Freeplane user community to use.

    An add-on I released today is a first attempt to represent and explore a not infrequent topic here at Zenpundit: wicked problems.

    Horst Rittel, who first devised the concept, ascribed ten characteristics to wicked problems:

    1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
    2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
    3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but better or worse.
    4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
    5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
    6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
    7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
    8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
    9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution.
    10. The planner has no right to be wrong (planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).


    Rittel’s own solution for solving wicked problems was the Issue-Based Information System (IBIS). IBIS involves four elements:

    • questions
    • ideas
    • pros
    • cons

    An IBIS map starts with one root question (simplified here for posting efficiency):

    First step

    First step

    A question can be responded to with an idea.

    Step two

    Step two

    Within IBIS, an idea is:

    1. a potential answer or solution to a question
    2. a trigger for further questions


    Pros and cons can only respond to ideas.

    Step three

    Step three

    Further questions can also respond to ideas, pros, and cons.

    Step four

    Step four

    Following these few rules, Rittel argued that even wicked problems could be mapped. While IBIS can be used for individual visualization of wicked problems. Rittel designed it for a group. Used with other methodologies like dialogue mapping, Rittel figured a shared map could help establish shared understanding, facilitating distributed problem solving.

    Rittel may be correct. I don’t know. While other structured analysis approaches exist, many of them suffer from too much representational granularity. Too much fine parsing tends to lead to inevitable ontological crisis.

    For my own efforts, IBIS has a nice balance between too little structure and too much. This new Freeplane add-on facilitates use of IBIS within my existing toolchain.

    Some ZP readers may find it interesting to experiment with. It requires Freeplane, available as a free download for Windows, MacOS X, and Linux. The initial version of the add-on, FreeIBIS 0.1.0, is available as a free download here. If Freeplane is installed, all you should have to do is double click it to have it install. Commands are accessed under the Tools  freeIBIS menu within Freeplane.

    I use the keyboard for mind mapping so I assigned the four IBIS functions to these keyboard shortcut combinations on MacOS X:

    • ? for question
    • > for idea
    • = for pro
    •  for con

    It may use the Control key instead of  under Windows. I don’t know. I don’t run Windows.

    Fortunately, Freeplane has a convenient point and click way to reassign keyboard shortcuts under Tools → Select hot keys.

    I am exploring further ways to integrate visualization techniques like Freeplane and IBIS with other structured techniques like ACH. Hopefully we’ll see more emerge in this area going forward.

    Red lines and the credibility arms race

    Friday, April 26th, 2013

    [The views and opinions expressed here are solely the responsibility of Lynn C. Rees. They may not necessarily reflect the official views or opinions of Zenpundit] 

    To deter, Barack Obama has publicly drawn a red line between tolerable and intolerable. We now watch to see and (perhaps) learn if open signaling of red lines has deterrent effect.

    Open red lines intended to stave off the intolerable without ending in blows are as ancient as territorial instinct. Red frequents coloration of animals who’ve evolved warning signals embedded in their anatomy. Lines, though marked more by scent or suggested by signal, are also abundant among Man and nature.

    “Bear”, my brother’s late Shar-Pei, vociferously defended my brother’s chain-linked fence line. All his toing and froing facing down suspicious pedestrians even wore a second line into the front lawn that paralleled the fence. His vigorous bark emerged from wolven ancestors to draw lines red in tooth and claw in wolven mind so it didn’t come to lines red in tooth and claw in wolven reality. 

    But, if bluffs are called and barks prove to have more volume than bite, a red line will prove only as substantial as the bite and fight beyond it. If warning is not credibly conveyed and things fall apart, nothing may remain except bite and fight.

    Bear’s bark proved a poor red line. While it sounded loud and formidable, when you opened the front gate and entered the yard, Bear would casually mosey up, sniff you, and promptly return to the barking line. Shar Peis are renowned for even-tempers. Bred as guard dogs in China, they often had to be brutalized or drugged into fight and bite. Bear was neither brutalized nor drugged so he lacked credible fierceness.

    There is no certain calculus in drawing red lines. My calculus teacher wisely taught that variables have only one invariable certainty: they tend to vary. Man is not only variable, he is contrary. His contrariness not only votes present, it votes with real impact. If it were otherwise, you’d have a sort of Clausewitzian “red line by algebra: tally up one side of a red line in one column and tally the other side in another column. Then, when clearly displayed in public, those on either side would be forced to agree on how substantial the red line was and openly acknowledge its deterrent psychology.

    Politics, the division of power, varies most in the intensity in which its division of power escalates confrontation toward violence. Some political contestants’ escalation is too hot. Others’ escalation is too cold. For others, their escalation will be just right. Some draw red lines and aggressively escalate political intensity based on broken red line theory: one small crack in your red line, like someone publicly urinating on it, means the entire red line will be stripped down to its bare chassis overnight if small infractions aren’t predictably and promptly punished. Others use them to draw folks along, perhaps as bait, perhaps as stalling tactics, while they do something else somewhere else. Some red lines are implicitly understood by all as being for entertainment purposes only.

    Unfortunately, we’re armed with only a few rules of thumb to guide us in drawing and escalating red lining, most centered on creating intrinsic credibility:

    • …every power ought to be commensurate with its object…
    • …the means ought to be proportioned to the end…
    • …there ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect a purpose, which is itself incapable of limitation…
    • A government ought to contain in itself every power requisite to the full accomplishment of the objects committed to its care, and to the complete execution of the trusts for which it is responsible, free from every other control but a regard to the public good and to the sense of the people.
    • As the duties of superintending the national defense and of securing the public peace against foreign or domestic violence involve a provision for casualties and dangers to which no possible limits can be assigned, the power of making that provision ought to know no other bounds than the exigencies of the nation and the resources of the community.
    • As revenue is the essential engine by which the means of answering the national exigencies must be procured, the power of procuring that article in its full extent must necessarily be comprehended in that of providing for those exigencies.
    Beyond that, it’s a matter of converting intrinsic credibility into fully mobilizable and then field-deployable credibility. Angelo M. Codevilla writes:

    John Quincy Adams, a student as well as a practitioner of statesmanship, believed that governments understand their own and others’ interests quite well. His involvement in diplomacy, which lasted from 1778 to the end of his presidency in 1829, convinced him not that negotiations are superfluous, but rather that they ratify the several parties’ recognition of existing realities regardless of agreements or lack thereof. Diplomacy can make it more comfortable to live with reality by clarifying mutual understanding of it. On the other hand, Adams’ magisterial notes on his 1823 recommendation that America spurn the invitation to join Britain in a declaration disapproving any attempt to recover Spain’s American colonies—that jointness would have added nothing to the reality of parallel British and U.S. opposition to such a venture—underlines the central fact about diplomacy: though it conveys reality, it does not amend it.

    In 1968, Fred Ikle published How Nations Negotiate, which is used by diplomatic academies around the world. Too many graduates, however, forget its central teaching, which is that the diplomat’s first task is to figure out whether agreement is possible on the basis of “the available terms”—in short, whether both sides’ objectives, though different, are compatible. Only if they are can negotiations proceed according to what Ikle calls “rules of accommodation”—making sincere proposals, honoring partial agreements, etc. If the objectives are incompatible, the diplomats may choose to walk away, or to “negotiate for side effects”—to use the negotiations to undermine the other side’s government, sow dissention among its allies, deceive it, pocket partial agreements and renege on commitments, buy time, gather intelligence, etc. Disaster looms when one side follows the rules of accommodation while the other negotiates for side effects. The essence of Ikle’s teaching is that the negotiator’s primordial job is to judge correctly whether the other side is negotiating for “available terms” or is waging war through diplomatic means, and hence to choose whether to negotiate for agreement, walk away, or treat the diplomatic table as a battlefield. That choice is “perpetual,” he writes, because human motives are variable.

    When the president publicly drew his red line:

    Michelle and I have used a strategy when it comes to things like tattoos — what we’ve said to the girls is, ‘If you guys ever decide you’re going to get a tattoo, then Mommy and me will get the same exact tattoo in the same place,'” he said. “And we’ll go on YouTube and show it off as a family tattoo. And our thinking is that it might dissuade them from thinking that somehow that’s a good way to rebel.

    He’s made his “primordial job” as a parent public. Under public scrutiny, he has to “judge correctly” whether Maliah or Sasha are negotiating for “available terms’ or “waging war” through tattooed means. He has to publicly choose whether to negotiate for agreement, walk away, or treat tattoos as a battlefield. As a parent, his choice is “perpetual”.

    His credibility in deterring tattooed rebellion does have some fight and bite behind it. The Christian Science Monitor observes:

    They’re still kind of young. Malia is 14 and Sasha is 11. They’re not marching into any tattoo parlor near Sidwell Friends School in upper northwest DC. First, there aren’t any – they can’t afford the rents there. Second, you’ve got to be 18 to get a tat in the city, we believe. The City Council approved that move recently.

    This move may represent sufficient “provision for casualties and dangers to which no possible limits can be assigned” coupled with “the power of making that provision”. But whether tattoos escalate to where parent-child disagreement knows “no other bounds than the exigencies of the nation and the resources of the community” is the other half of Maliah and Sasha’s measure of President Obama’s credibility amd the deterrent quality of YouTubed shame over their coming teens.

    The CSM doubts it. Conceding the president’s stratagem is “sort of based on assured mutual deterrence. Or preemption – you could call it that, too” and that it’s “interesting, in the sense that it’s a fairly coherent and intellectualized way to approach this common parental problem”, it observes:

    …the real reason the preemption strategy probably appeals to the Obamas right now is that their daughters still listen to them. They can process cause and parental reaction and weigh options. They haven’t entered that period where common sense gets suspended, and they focus mostly on their own needs and wants, because that’s what teenagers do…

    Once they are 18, they will be away from daily parental authority and tattoos might seem like a better idea. At that age, they don’t really think about long-term consequences, so they might get body art just to spite their parents. Or because they forgot their parents’ we-will-do-it-too vow. Or because they don’t care. Or just because… 

    And then what happens? The president of the United States will probably feel obligated to get a tattoo of a butterfly at the base of his neck, because he vowed he would; and if he does not follow through, opponents will doubt his strength of will, or something like that.

    I disagree. Rather than being “obligated”, the president retains his God-given agency. America’s greatest strategic thinker of the last fifty years will give him some advice:

    You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
    Know when to walk away, know when to run.
    You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table,
    There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done

    His choices as a parent are there “because human motives are variable”. As such, they will tend to vary, moment by moment, place by place, tattoo by tattoo. The president should carefully consider where and when he draws red lines, especially in public and especially when publicity is a key component of his red line’s hypothetical deterrent effect. Better to learn to gauge when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em now before the sarin calls of adolescence come around. Only then maybe there will be time enough for counting when the teenage years are done.

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