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Ouroboroi noted in passing

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — the poor FBI gets tangled, as does President Trump with his drug of choice ]
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As if in answer to the question “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” — itself a succinct ouroboros:

The FBI closely monitors online communities that discuss ISIS, at times running so many undercover accounts that agents end up investigating one another: An FBI policy guide, obtained and published by The Intercept, notes that online investigations have “previously resulted in resources being wasted by investigating or collecting on FBI online identities,” or employees working undercover.

That’s from a fascinating long read in The Atlantic: How Two Mississippi College Students Fell in Love and Decided to Join a Terrorist Group. There’s a soo a quote in there, not terribly striking or controversial on its own, but useful to me as an indicator of one general context in which the Talmudic saying used to justify preemptivew strikes can be sued — a saying I’ll be exploring in a future LapidoMedia post — Get up early to kill him first (Ha-Ba le-Horgekha Hashkem le-Horgo, Sanhedrin 72.):

American1s expect their government to prevent violence before it happens: Their shared national nightmare is the plot that goes undiscovered before an attack or the known sympathizer who gets away. Faced with such high stakes and uncertainty, the FBI is left to teeter between catching people before they act and walking along with them until they violate the law.

Of minor note also, here’s FBI Director Comey echoing Martin Dempsey on the apocalyptuc nature of ISIS:

ISIS, said Comey, is “putting out a siren song through their slick propaganda, through social media, that goes like this: ‘Troubled soul, come to the caliphate. You will live a life of glory; these are the apocalyptic end times. You will find a life of meaning here, fighting for our so-called caliphate. And if you can’t come, kill somebody where you are.’”

Again, nothing particularly new, let alone actionable, here — just another possible footnote for some future writing that I wanted to capture in passing.

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The FBI’s version of a-Ba le-Horgekha: Rise up early to arrest him first — indeed, there’s an eerie echo of “rise up early” in the Atlantic report’s “but the FBI arrested the pair at the airport early in the morning.”

This is preeemptive arrest rather than preemptive killing — and again, the concept itself deserves scruitiny: how often does this preemptive approach involve entrapment, with Federal agents leading potential recruits farther down the path of radicalization than they would have traveled without Federal support ad encouragement? A fairly random sample:

What happened next in Booker’s case illustrates what many experts say is a major shortcoming in how the US government is responding to the threat of Islamic extremism.

Rather than viewing Booker’s alarming statements as a cry for help from a young man with recognized mental health issues, federal agents sought to build a criminal case against him.

They introduced an undercover operative who told Booker he’d help him join the Islamic State group, but that Booker would first have to prove his devotion to the cause, according to federal documents.

A second undercover operative was introduced, this one posing as a religious leader seeking to conduct terror attacks in the US. After months of discussions, Booker volunteered to carry out a suicide truck bomb attack at a Kansas military base. Federal agents helped him produce his own martyrdom video.

Returning to the Atlantic piece, there’s another option:

There may have been another path for Jaelyn and Moe. When the government or its partners identify ISIS sympathizers online, especially people without criminal backgrounds like these two, they could intervene and deter crimes from committed. This is the approach that “has risen to the top of the heap of counterterrorism issues domestically right now,” Greenberg said: what’s known in the counterterrorism world as “off-ramps.”

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Oh, and there’s the human reality that a terrorism case may be a terrorism case, but the world continues to flow all around it:

The spring after Moe was arrested, his mother, Lisa, died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Then, last December, another member of the Dakhlalla family died: Taqwa, the 2-year-old daughter of Moe’s older brother Abdullah, suffocated in her sleep when a heater malfunctioned in her bedroom. She was just old enough to have met her young uncle before he was arrested.

A terrorism case in the family offers no especial sanctuary from other forms of suffering.

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Let’s close with another ouroboros caught in passing, this one from the New Yorker, How Trump Could Get Fired:

Rarely venturing beyond the White House and Mar-a-Lago, he measures his fortunes through reports from friends, staff, and a feast of television coverage of himself. Media is Trump’s “drug of choice,” Sam Nunberg, an adviser on his campaign, told me recently. “He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t do drugs. His drug is himself.”

Ouroboroi — serpents biting their own tails — are inherently noteworthy, as I never tire of saying. To have oneself as one’s drug is a fne example of the genre.

“KarlreMarks” Sharro moves on

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — from Abu A and Abu B to Steve and Donnie ]
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Karl Sharro is a Middle Eastern architect and satirist based in London, whose two modes of “simply” explaining the Middle East I presented a while back. His third view envisions ISIS as a board game, and asks Who can devise the most convoluted way to wipe out the Islamic State?

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Anyway, KarlreMarx has two jihadist ezxtremists he’s been tracking for some while — Abu A and Abu B:

Outside Sharro’s fevered imagination, ISIS does indeed have an air force — of weaponized drones.

Suicide? No, martydom — and individual ISIS members are as expendable as their goals are lofty:

Sometimes, to be honest, those goals make little sense..

— and besides, eclipses are signs of impending apocalypse..

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Time rolls on, however — and Sharro has shifted his target. As he put it in a tweet today, “I decided to retire Abu A and Abu B and replace them with another radicalised pair”:

Steve and Donnie — two’s company.

We shall see what we shall see..

Mental health and terrorism

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — turbulence (ie complexity) at the confluence of motives ]
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Shaping strategy — Constant turbulence and disruption

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Mental health and terrorism — a major article in today’s CTC Sentinel describes the nuances. From the conclusion:

What we see from the existing research is that lone-actor terrorism is usually the culmination of a complex mix of personal, political, and social drivers that crystalize at the same time to drive the
individual down the path of violent action. This should be no different for those inspired by the Islamic State. Whether the violence comes to fruition is usually a combination of the availability and vulnerability of suitable targets and the individual’s capability to engage in an attack from both a psychological and technical capability standpoint. Many individual cases share a mixture of personal life circumstances coupled with an intensification of beliefs that later developed into the idea to engage in violence. What difers is how these influences were sequenced. Sometimes personal problems led to a susceptibility to ideological influences. Sometimes long-held ideological influences became intensified after the experience of personal problems. This is why we should be wary of mono-causal ‘master narratives’ about how this process unfolds. Mental health problems are undoubtedly important in some cases. Intuitively, we might see how in some cases it can make carrying out violence easier. In other cases, it may make the adoption of the ideology easier because of delusional thinking or fixated behaviors. However, it will only ever be one of many drivers in an individual’s pathway to violence. In many cases, it may be present but completely unrelated. The development of radicalization and attack planning behaviors is usually far more labyrinthine and dynamic than one single factor can explain, be it mental disorders (today’s go-to silver-bullet explanation), online radicalization (another popular silver-bullet explanation), or root causes that encompass socio-demographic characteristics.

We must also bear in mind that the relationship between mental health problems and terrorist engagement is just one part of the story. Given the scale and types of violence being conducted by the Islamic State, many perpetrators will develop mental health problems as a byproduct of involvement as opposed to it being a driver of involvement.

On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: eleven

Friday, October 21st, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — graphical thinking really has pretty much permeated the tech end of our culture at this point ]
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Two more examples of graphics — in the double sense of the word, or graphics squared if you like, where graphs, in the node and edge mathematical & network sense are used within graphics, in the visual or illustrative sense:

The first comes from a page on Carnegie Europe’s Strategic Europe blogpost titled Cyberspace and the World Order:

2016-01-14_cyber_605

The second is from the Eventbrite invite to The Future of Cybersecurity: A Conversation with Admiral Mike Rogers at Georgia State University on Moday 24th at 10am, courtesy of John Horgan.

cdn-evbuc-com

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From a graphic (visual) perspective, the symbolic content is in each case interesting, and I’d be glad to read any comments on why, for instance, there’s a honeycomb hex grid in the upper image, and why the information flow is so much more curvaceous after the lock than before it (assuming a left-to-right reading in temporal sequence) — and in the lower image, why some of the nodes and edges are slowly getting stained red (and here I’m guessing an epidemiological image for the spread of a virus).

From a graphic (graph as potential HipBone game board) perspective, the upper graph doesn’t offer a game board as I envisage them, but the lower one certainly does, albeit this would be a complex game, with the sizes of nodes and lengths of edges to be taken somehow into account.

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Earlier in this series:

  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: preliminaries
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: two dazzlers
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: three
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: four
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: five
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: six
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: seven
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: eight
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: nine
  • On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: ten
  • Of Boxes and Worldviews

    Sunday, October 9th, 2016

    [ by Charles Cameron — this won’t be appearing in the Proceedings, sad to say — luckily, here at ZP I’m my own managing editor! ]
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    Bravely or foolishly, I keep on writing essays about our ignorance, in areas of which I’m ignorant myself. Not surprisingly, I don’t win any prizes, but I do manage to get my feelings about ignorance down and, sometimes, out.

    For example, here’s my Coast Guard Essay Contest 2016 submission:

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    Of Boxes and Worldviews

    What boxes may we imagine we’re in, as we consider this 2016 Coast Guard Essay Contest?

    I ask this, because the challenge presented in the contest is described in part thus:

    No issue is too big or too narrow as long as it makes the Coast Guard stronger. This does not mean authors cannot be critical and take on conventional wisdom and current practices. In fact, we encourage you to push the “dare factor.”

    I’d argue that by now, it’s conventional wisdom to challenge conventional wisdom, that we’re now cosily settled in a box called “out of the box thinking” – that we’re effectively in “nested boxes” – and that what’s needed therefore is a grand scale questioning of the very way we think.

    Is there such a thing as a Coast Guard question? There are certainly questions that have relevance to the US Coast Guard and its future, and some of them are mentioned in the prologue to this contest announcement – issues in the Arctic, which presumably range from sovereignty issues and under-ice flag raising claims, to the impact of methane release on global warming as permafrost melts in what amounts to a vicious circuit, a feedback loop, a serpent biting its own tail – issues of drug interdiction, to include the use of cartel submarines and drones, and so forth.

    My problem with these questions is that they are effectively silos – specialty topics which, yes, the Coast Guard needs to address, and is indeed addressing, but silos, boxes nonetheless. In a word, they tend to the linear, in a world that is inherently cross-disciplinary, feedback-driven, complex – in which even the most straightforward of questions is involved with others in a peculiar web of tensions, arising and dissipating, between numerous vectors and stakeholders, of the sort first identified by Horst Rittel as “wicked problems”, and clarified thus by Dr Jeff Conklin of Cognexus:

    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.

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

    Most projects in organizations — and virtually all technology-related projects these days — are about wicked problems. Indeed, it is the social complexity of these problems, not their technical complexity, that overwhelms most current problem solving and project management approaches.

    Importantly, Dr Conklin notes,

    There are so many factors and conditions, all embedded in a dynamic social context, that no two wicked problems are alike, and the solutions to them will always be custom designed and fitted.

    You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution. Indeed, there is no definitive statement of “The Problem.” The problem is ill-structured, an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints.

    This takes us way past the elegant, non-linear, feedback-aware models that Jay Forrester pioneered ar MIT under the name of Systems Dynamics, way past the simple rules-sets with which agent-based modeling works, and into a rarefied concept-space where the arts and humanities as much as tech and the sciences — perhaps even more – come into play.

    Here the nature of the questions asked is neither disciplinary nor silo’d, the questions are not Coast Guard or Army, Intel or National Security, or even Medical or Aesthetic, Local or Global – but human: human questions, crossing not only the usual disciplinary boundaries, but the great Cartesian boundary between the physical and the spiritual – or as Clausewitz would say, between physical and moral.

    It’s far easier to think in terms of men, women and materiel, all of which can be counted, than in terms of morale – which takes the women and men seriously, after all – because morale is far less easily quantified. Indeed, with the exception of Matrix Games, it is far easier to game the physical side of conflict than the human. And yet Clausewitz says,

    One might say that the physical seem little more than the wooden hilt, while the moral factors are the precious metal, the real weapons, the finely honed blade.

    I suggested above that we need to get out of the Matrioshka-nested boxes of our current thinking, and if I can put that another way, we need to get to the heart of creativity.

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    From the point of view of pure creativity, as diagnosed by Arthur Koestler in his classic book, The Act of Creation, the aha! or eureka! of the creative breakthrough is in fact a “creative leap” — from one frame of reference to another, as shown in this diagram based on those in his book:

    koestler

    From the point of view of cognitive science, as Gilles Fauconnier & Mark Turner illustrate and confirm with neuro-scientific precision in their book on “conceptual blending”, The Way We Think, the tide has now turned from a more literal to a more analogical understanding of mental processing, at the most basic levels, and across all disciplines:

    We will focus especially on the nature of integration, and we will see it at work as a basic mental operation in language, art, action, planning, reason, choice, judgment, decision, humor, mathematics, science, magic and ritual, and the simplest mental events in everyday life. Because conceptual integration presents so many different appearances in different domains, its unity as a general capacity had been missed. Now, however, the new disposition of cognitive scientists to find connections across fields has revived interest in the basic mental powers underlying dramatically different products in different walks of life.

    From the point of view of Marshall McLuhan, writing to the poet Ezra Pound back in the 1940s, the issue is that following the rational enlightenment of the eighteenth century, which brought us today’s scientific and technological breakthroughs but has left us a wasteland in terms of values, threatening our planetary home with our weapons, our eager overpopulation, our fierce tribalisms, and excessive energy requirements, we have lost one central ingredient in human thought: the ability to think analogically rather than logically, in terms of relationships rather than linear causality.

    McLuhan wrote, presciently,

    The American mind is not even close to being amenable to the ideogram principle as yet. The reason is simply this. America is 100% 18th Century. The 18th century had chucked out the principle of metaphor and analogy.

    And computer scientist and Pulitzer prize-winner Douglas Hofstadter has aptly subtitled his book Surfaces and Essences, co-authored with cognitive scientist Emmanuel Sander, “Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking”.

    The analogical leap is the leap out of the box.

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    Thus far I’ve de-emphasized the “Coast Guardness” of my thinking. But let’s view some Coast Guard related issues in light of the above:

    Let’s take a simple lateral comparison first – how does the Chinese Coast Guard compare with our own, what are the physical overlaps and differences, strengths and weaknesses, of theirs and ours?

    Please note that this question cross-cuts, to a greater or lesser degree, with any and all other questions involving the USCG. It also leaps from ours to theirs, responds to Sun Tzu’s “know your enemy”, works by comparison and contrast, invites us into detail – and is far more easily answered in physical terms than in terms of morale. SIGINT is better at locating ships than at reading the mind and heart.

    Budgeting.

    If ever there was a tangled knot, the US system for allocating budgetary items would be it. Not only do the federal services each have a series of individual pulls and pushes, but the fifty states, their senators and congresspeople do too. And then there’s the lame-duck president and the president soon to be elect. Until November, there’s the two party scramble, with voters on both sides of the aisle drifting to and fro between partisanship, frustration, and independence. And there are undertows and swells of popular emotion influencing these other factors.

    The Coast Guard, arriving at its wish list for the next budget, must be single minded as to its objectives, flexible as to its willingness to negotiate – to a point – but balancing its clearly understood urgencies against the shifting tides of political wills in concert and in conflict, in a multi-vectorial tug-o-war, one against many. And there are no doubt similar tussles within the USCG, doctrinal purists and innovators, old hands and new, with their own mixed agendas, their temporary victories and defeats.

    Humans, wily at times, straightforward at others, subject to shame and pride – the conceptual landscape within which any particular problem plays out – let alone the interlocking monster of the whole – is inevitably subject to constant change, closer to the paradoxical understanding of Heraclitus that all is flux than to Coast Guard Office of Strategic Analysis doctrine. Hey – it may well be that the Coast Guard would by its nature have understood the threat-nature of the Iranians in Millennium Challenge 2002 as well as Paul Riper, playing red team, did. From USCG to Marines is a difference of silo, but cross-fertilization is the name of the next game, and Defense Readiness (CG 3-0, Operations, 2.2.4) 1., Maritime interception/interdiction operations, is an area of USCG theoretical expertise and practical experience.

    maritime-governance

    In short, the move is from blocked out and simplified complexity to a far more richly complex way of thinking, analogous to an n-dimensional concept space of shifting weights and tensions, of which this water-loaded spider’s web is a pretty good two-dimensional analog:

    Spider web covered with dew drops

    Imagine each water drop is a player, and that the entire web reconfigures as one drop shifts or is shaken, caroming into another, perhaps stretching one of the strands of the web past breaking point – and all this in an n-dimensional space beyond the capacity of most human minds to cognize, let along predict.

    It is this kind of web into which our massive data inflows are directed, and the interface between the data-crunching capacity of our computers and analytic software, and the multiplex capabilities of the keenest human analytic minds – that’s where the “intel” usefully functions. Before it hits that interface is is data. Within a capable mind, or within the web-like tensions and resolutions of our keenest domain expert, analytic, and hopefully decision-making minds, is where the intelligence becomes meaningful.

    Incalculable data points, multitudinous conflicting interests, and the human instinct for meaning.

    As the US Coast Guard’s European colleagues have been finding out under increasing public scrutiny and with painful intensity, not only are there political and scientific issues to navigate, there can also be strictly humanitarian impacts of the sort that we find occurring in the interdiction of refugee boats making the trip between Turkey and the Greek island of Chios.

    All in all, the work of the Coast Guard is a potent brew, and Computer Go pales before its complexity.

    **

    On a more personal note..

    Do you speak any form of Inuit? Or Athanbaskan? There are in fact 16 indigenous languages with corresponding worldviews in Alaska.

    What are caribou to you? Are you fluent in the magical worldview of the shamans? And what, as climate change drastically reshapes native Alaskan living, takes the place of shamanism in the leadership of native populations – in Alaska, an area of special concern to the USCG?

    If you are of a scientific bent – and the USCG Academy awards Bachelor of Science degrees, so most who have passed through those gates into the Service probably are – how concerned are you by global warming – and how concerned by comparison with the preservation of Inuit or Athabaskan culture?

    The truth is that both go together.

    Military and law enforcement agencies are tasked with setting things right in the external world, but the world of the human psyche has its own specialists – psychiatrists no less than spiritual leaders – and while at some level the US Presidency is often considered the pinnacle of human power, there’s also a category of figures we respect for a different kind of authority, one that is earned above all by integrity and generosity of spirit: the names of Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi and Pope Francis come to mind.

    Each of these four figures embodies the practice of contemplation in action – a practice which looks within the self for a compassionate response to adversity. Among the Inuit, and across the circumpolar region more generally, this practice of looking inward for values is the particular task of the shaman – and more recently, the artist.

    The Yupik, Inupiaq and Irish artist Susie Silook’s work, Looking Inside Myself, is a recent sculptural presentation of this theme:

    susie-silook-ypik-inupiaq-looking-inside-myself

    Cultural anthropology thus opens us to entire worldviews which are themselves both important to local stakeholders and profoundly illuminating in their own right. Indeed, in these worldviews, the whales, walrus, seals, the ravens and reindeer have voices – a concept largely foreign to western thinking until Mr Justice Douglas gave his dissenting opinion in SIERRA CLUB v. MORTON, 405 U.S. 727 (1972), alerting the nation via the Supreme Court that ecological considerations could no longer be ignored in coming to terms with the world we live in. In the arctic, such considerations have peculiar force, by reason of the extreme nature of the human and natural habitat.

    An anthropologist such as Richard Nelson can live in the style that anthropologists term “participant observation” with peoples of very different cultural assumptions than our own for extended periods, and with no other motive than to understand their host cultures — and thus gain both the people’s trust and a depth of insight into their understanding of the world — of which Nelson’s Make Prayers to the Raven, in which he presents an Athabaskan view of the natural world, is a celebrated example. The study of the circumpolar bear cult, as presented by Paul Shepard and Barry Sanders in their The Sacred Paw: the Bear in Nature, Myth and Literature, arguably brings us as close to the archaic origins of religion as human science can bring us.

    Somehow, these matters of extreme subtlety must at times be borne in mind while making the split-second decisions so characteristic of both military and law enforcement practice. And the higher the decision-maker in an action-oriented profession, the greater the need for deep understanding. In Napoleon’s own words, we can see that his actions, too, sprang from contemplation:

    It is not genius which reveals to me suddenly and secretly what I should do in circumstances unexpected by others; it is thought and meditation.

    Thought and meditation are the activities that prepare the mind for what Clausewitz termed the coup d’oeil:

    When all is said and done, it really is the commander’s coup d’œil, his ability to see things simply, to identify the whole business of war completely with himself, that is the essence of good generalship. Only if the mind works in this comprehensive fashion can it achieve the freedom it needs to dominate events and not be dominated by them.

    I have emphasized the cultural and contemplative side of things because Clausewitz’ “comprehensive” fashion of thinking demands it. The USCG Arctic Strategy mentions cultural matters only very briefly, giving far more weight to ecological considerations – which while complex in their own right, and sadly contested in the case of global warming, are far easier for a contemporary western, scientifically-trained mind to comprehend than the diverse human value systems of other cultures.

    Indeed, from an Alaskan native perspective, climate change and the tradition values of the peoples are tightly coupled at the leadership level. From a native perspective, there is a need for a new kind of leadership, one that replaces traditional shamanism, well-adapted to earlier conditions but now lost, with an exacting blend of traditional and modern forms of knowledge. As Steven Becker puts it in “A Changing Sense of Place: Climate and Native Well Being”, in face of an uncertain future, “agile and adaptive leaders” are required, who “can meet the physical, economic, and sociocultural challenges resulting from climate change.”

    These leaders need to be well versed in western science and management, but they must also be thoroughly grounded in their Native language, culture, and traditions (Kawagley 2008). They must see the value in both Native and western science, see the complementary uses of the two, and use both methods appropriately as the basis of true adaptive management (Tano 2006).

    I have emphasized this “new shamanic leadership” issue, not because interactions with native leaders will occupy more USGC time and attention than air-sea rescues or other highly visible, courageous and newsworthy exploits but precisely because they are subtle, not likely to capture headlines, and thus easily overlooked – and also because they touch on my own personal interests.

    But not only are these “agile leaders” (or “new shamans” as I prefer to think of them) leaders with whom forward-thinking Alaska-based USCG members may on occasion fruitfully collaborate, but because they are also emblematic of leadership in general, embodying both the best of scientific and technological “hands on” know-how with the finest human and ecological values.

    In this, they represent the way forward, not just for the Coast Guard or Alaska, but for contemporary civilization in a world of rapid, complex, often dangerous, and ultimately transformative change.

    **

    Well, whaddaya think, eh?


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