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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
  • Wargame boards, from chess to hexagons

    Sunday, August 9th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — who can’t even reach the 7 monute mark in a Stallone movie without seeing a DoubleQuote ]

    Wargame boards, from chess to hexagons — when the map becomes the territory:

    SPEC DQ   hexagons



  • Korzybski: the map is not the territory
  • Lao Tzu: the path that can be mapped is not the pathless path
  • and that second translation is one to set beside my other loose versions after Lao Tzu:

  • 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.
  • The verbal formulation of x is not the x itself.
  • No way the way can be put into words.
  • The problem that can be described isn’t our actual situation.
  • More I grasp you, baby, more you disappear…
  • — which i posted here at Zenpundit in one of the posts that has sadly disappearedc, but which can be found — together with some interesting other commentary — on our emergency site, Zenpunditry.


    At times, the map becxomes the territory, the gameboard becomes the world.

    The upper image in the DoubleQuote above is a teling detail from Maurits Escher‘s great work, Metamorphosis II. The lower image is a screencap of one of the opening shots from The Expendables 3.

    The things I do for science!

    Of actionable and inactionable intelligence

    Saturday, December 13th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — nutshell version: strategy should precede tactics as contemplation precedes action ]

    action should be founded on contemplation robert mcnamara


    Let me grab a quick quote from page 4 of Dr. Rob Johnston‘s Analytic Culture in the US Intelligence Community: An Ethnographic Study, and launch from there:

    Warner reviews and synthesizes a number of previous attempts to define the discipline of intelligence and comes to the conclusion that “Intelligence is secret state activity to understand or influence foreign entities.”

    Warner’s synthesis seems to focus on strategic intelligence, but it is also logically similar to actionable intelligence (both tactical and operational) designed to influence the cognition or behavior of an adversary.


    Look, I’m an amateur reading professional materials, but what I sense here is a distinction between “actionable” and “strategic intelligence” — which for my purposes as a confirmed Taoist might semi-tongue-in-cheek be called “inactionable intelligence” and be done with it.

    But of course while “inactionable intelligence” is certainly intelligence, it is by no means inactionable in any real sense. It is simply actionable at a different level or altitude, one more rareified if you will, closer to the needs of policy makers than those in the field, background hum to the vivid and pressing urgencies and exigencies of battle.

    Let me take, from my reading when I began this post a week ago, and without giving them undue priority over a thousand such pieces that you or I might find, three headlines to illustrate my point:

  • American Conservative: COIN Is a Proven Failure; America risks shoveling more troops into Iraq to replicate a strategy that never worked in the first place
  • EmptyWheel: Over $80 Billion Wasted in “Training” Iraqi, Afghan Forces: No Lessons Learned
  • Informed Comment: Iraq Fail: Shiite Gov’t asks Sunni tribe to fight ISIL, but Sentences Politician from Tribe to Death
  • Agree or disagree with those three individual pieces as you may, each in turn depicts a situation where it is not the single raid or drone strike, firefight or rescue attempt, but the wider grasp of a war and its nth-order ramifications that is at stake. And while having a clear grasp of such things (seeing them in a coup d’oeuil, perhaps?) may not save or kill at the individual, small group, immediate tactical level, it can save tens or hundreds of thousands of lives, and perhaps even avert entire wars and their deranged after-effects, acting as what I’ll call “actionable wisdom” at higher altitude.


    So we have the proposition: true inactionable intelligence is insightful actionable wisdom.

    Now here’s the thing: everyone knows that actionable intelligence is useful — it is almost something you can touch or see — it gives meaning to the view in a sniper’s scope, it is visceral, present, immediate, concrete, practical.

    By comparison, the high contextual intelligence I am calling “actionable wisdom” is more remote, theoretical, abstract — less tangible, less, let’s face it, sexy than “actionable intelligence”.

    Yet it has a wider and deeper reach, and the potential to offer far more positive outcomes and save far more lives.


    I often refer to Castoriadis‘ quote about how different philosophy would be if our paradigm for a “real object” in consiering what reality is was Mozart‘s Requiem rather than a kitchen table — a table seems more real than music, munitions more real than morale — but are they?

    Or to put that another way — and I’m serious, if mildly metaphorical, in repurposing Stalin‘s quote — How many divisions has the Battle Hymn of the Republic?

    As many as it brings courage to, would be my answer.


    Footnoting that McNamara quote: It’s from Robert S. McNamara in Conversations with History, starting from the question at the 11.21 mark onwards. Here’s a more detailed transcript:

    At times I think there is a tension between what you call contemplation and action. But I think there’s less tension than most people believe, and I myself believe a person of action, or let’s say an administrator if you will, should put more weight on contemplation, what you call contemplation, should put more weight on establishing values in his mind, establishing goals and objectives, for himself, for his organization, and those he’s associated with. Let me phrase it very simplistically: I don’t believe there’s a contradiction between a soft heart and hard head. In a sense, I don’t believe there’s a contradiction between contemplation and action. Action should be founded on contemplation, and those of us who act don’t put enough time, don’t give enough emphasis, to contemplation.

    After a discussion of his role introducing safety features in the 1950s auto industry, he continues:

    There’s no contradiction between what I call a soft heart and a hard head, or there’s no contradiction between what I’ll call social values on the one hand and a firm’s financial strength and sustainability on the other – that’s really what I was first trying to prove to myself and then trying to prove to others.

    An English game

    Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

    [ by Charles Cameron — image and Sotheby’s cataloguing via Michael Robinson ]

    Carl Jung told his friend Sir Laurens van der Post:

    One of the most striking testimonies to the quality of the English spirit is the English love of sport and games in a classical sense and their genius for inventing games.


    Exempli gratia:

    Pooh Stcks


    Catalog entry:

    Shepard, E.H.

    Illustration for Chapter six of ‘The House at Pooh Corner,’ the episode “in which Pooh invents a new game and Eeyore joins in.” The game is ‘Poohsticks.’ Sold this morning: £314,500 (US$492,727)

    Shepard, Ernest H. (10 December 1879 – 24 March 1976)
    188 by 148mm, original ink drawing,
    signed “EHShepard” lower left.


    For those who don’t know the game, here’s the relevant excerpt from The House at Pooh Corner:

    Pooh had just come to the bridge; and not looking where he was going, he tripped over something, and the fir-cone jerked out of his paw into the river. ‘Bother,’ said Pooh, as it floated slowly under the bridge, and he went back to get another fir-cone which had a rhyme to it. But then he thought that he would just look at the river instead, because it was a peaceful sort of day, so he lay down and looked at it, and it slipped slowly away beneath him, and suddenly, there was his fir-cone slipping away too.

    ‘That’s funny,’ said Pooh. ‘I dropped it on the other side,’ said Pooh, ‘and it came out on this side! I wonder if it would do it again?’ And he went back for some more fir-cones. It did. It kept on doing it. Then he dropped two in at once, and leant over the bridge to see which of them would come out first; and one of them did; but as they were both the same size, he didn’t know if it was the one which he wanted to win, or the other one. So the next time he dropped one big one and one little one, and the big one came out first, which was what he had said it would do, and the little one came out last, which was what he had said it would do, so he had won twice … and when he went home for tea, he had won thirty-six and lost twenty-eight, which meant that he was – that he had – well, you take twenty-eight from thirty-six, and that’s what he was. Instead of the other way round.

    And that was the beginning of the game called Poohsticks, which Pooh invented, and which he and his friends used to play on the edge of the Forest. But they played with sticks instead of fir-cones, because they were easier to mark.’

    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 ]

    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…


    NSA’s Tao source:

  • Der Spiegel

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