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Four angles plus one on reading Trump

Sunday, July 31st, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — on the need for an analytic open mind — or hedging one’s bets? ]

I suppose we have to start with Trumpian Fundamentalism — by wbich I mean, taking the literal meaning from whatever he says. This view is simple, even simplistic.

One down, three to go.


There’s Lt. Gen. Flynn‘s view:

In the linked Politico article, Flynn is quoted thus:

Former Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn says he’s trying to get Donald Trump to be more precise in how he talks about foreign policy, but he defended some of his hardline proposals as simply opening offers in negotiations on world affairs.

“First of all, I don’t agree with everything that he said. But he’s an individual who’s willing to take on a challenge,” the retired lieutenant general, a former President Barack Obama appointee who advises Trump on foreign policy, told Al Jazeera English’s “UpFront.” “The other aspect is there must be more precision in the use of the language that he uses as the potential leader of the free world. There has to be more precision, and those are the types of pieces of advice that I’m trying to get into him to say [to] be more precise, be more conscious about what you say about foreign policy issues because they are complicated.” [ .. ]

In Trump’s defense, Flynn said the real estate mogul sees the world from the perspective of a global businessman and suggested the billionaire’s bombastic rhetoric is just a starting point for negotiations.

Trump’s strategy is to “start really, really high and really, really hard, OK?” Flynn explained. “And then, be prepared to get down to where you think you can actually negotiate.”

This view has the advantage of following a business model, and Trump may or may not be anything else, but he’s surely a businessman. It also leaves a lot of room for “play” between his stated intentions on the one hand, and what he’s liable to settle for when talk comes to signature on the other.


Third, there’s Trump’s ghostwriter’s view:

Schwartz‘ tweet was quickly paired — for instance — with:

This angle has the advantage of psychological plausibility.

How can I put this kindly? The poet Rumi is quoted as saying “Many of the faults you see in others, dear reader, are your own nature reflected in them.”



I gather there is or was until fairly recently a US submarine defensive system called a MOSS (mobile submarine simulator) MK70 — a decoy launched from a torpedo tube which Wikipedia tells us [1, 2] lacked an explosive warhead but was “able to generate both an active sonar echo and a passive sound signature recorded to be extremely similar to that of the launching submarine” — thus effectively simulating a full size submarine.

I learned this today after looking up “chaff” in the belief that Trump may simply be scattering all manner of provocative yet contradictory statements in his wake, with a view to confusing the hell out of his enemies — whether his fellow Republicans, his presumptive Democratic opponent, or potentially hostile state and nonstate actors abroad.

Call that the Kim Jong Il factor — and consider by way of analogy Why it’s sane for Kim Jong-il to be crazy.


And quintessentially?

Those were my four original angles — but thought of Trump and Kim Jong Il reminded me of talk of Trump and Vladimir Putin — and I can’t really leave this topic without noting blog-friend Cheryl Rofer‘s recent writings on the subject:

  • Cheryl Rofer, Trump and Russia
  • Cheryl Rofer, Trump’s Russian Deals
  • Cheryl Rofer, What Trump Has Said About Russia
  • Cheryl Rofer, Donald Trump: Fellow Traveler Or Useful Idiot?
  • **

    In my view, reading Trump comes close to qualifying as a wicked problem:

    A wicked problem is one for which each attempt to create a solution changes the understanding of the problem. Wicked problems cannot be solved in a traditional linear fashion, because the problem definition evolves as new possible solutions are considered and/or implemented. The term was originally coined by Horst Rittel.

    Wicked problems always occur in a social context — the wickedness of the problem reflects the diversity among the stakeholders in the problem.

    Perhaps this explains in part why there’s such considerable polarization in our various responses to Donald J Trump and his many tweets and speeches.

    For more on wicked problems:

  • Jeff Conklin, Wicked Problems and Social Complexity
  • The epigraph to Conklin’s chapter is from Laurence J. Peter, and reads:

    Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.

    I have to say, I feel that way a lot these days.

    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.

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