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Archive for January, 2011

Egypt: tear-gas and hotels

Monday, January 31st, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron, cross-posted from Brainstormers on the Web ]

Here are two data-points to drop into the mind-pool as we think about current events in Egypt, the Middle East in general, and the way the world turns.

DoubleQuotes is my name for the format I’m using here, which I came up with a few years back on Brainstorms. The idea is simply to generate fresh insights by juxtaposing two thoughts – be they images, quotes, or even equations (I don’t have the technical chops for music or film clips yet) — in condensed, haiku-like form.

Think of them as pebbles dropped in a pond, watch the ripples…

[ note to Zenpundit readers: I'll say more about Brainstorms and Brainstormers on the Web in a week or two, once the "on the Web" blog gets under way ]


Recommended Reading Round-up on the Egyptian/Arab Revolution

Monday, January 31st, 2011

I had intended to write an analytical post about the tumultuous events in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world and then I recalled that a) I do not speak or read Arabic b) am not versed in contemporary Egyptian politics c) am not an Arabist by academic training d) have never visited the Middle East and e) even those who are all of these things are often doing more news updating on twitter than deep analysis.

Egypt is the demographic and geographic center of the Arab Sunni world – but without the economic resources to make Egypt the power that Nasser once aspired that it would be in the heady era of postcolonial, nationalist, Pan-Arabism. So Nasser became a client of the Soviets, who could fund his ambitions and Egypt was a quasi- Soviet satellite until Sadat kicked the Soviets out for trying to undermine him in favor of a more pliant stooge, and accepted American patronage. Sadat’s assassination gave us Mubarak and his hated familial-military-party oligarchy (Ok, the military and party were largely there, but Mubarak’s rule has discredited them).

So, instead of my projecting what will happen next, I’ll devote this recommended reading to other bloggers and news sources who are freer with their conjecture:

Top Billing! Thomas P.M. Barnett Preliminary scenario voting results at Wikistrat’s Egyptian war room (updated 1630 EST Sun) and First ever Virtual Strategic War-Room Launched following Egyptian Chaos and the Wikistrat Virtual Strategic War Room site.

No Tom is not an Arabist either, but he does have experience with designing and participating in professional war games and futurism sessions inside the USG and out. The war room, to my casual observation, seems like an IT effort to synthesize expert analysis and crowdsourcing a primitive/structured prediction market. Interesting.

Abu MuqawamaAn Open Letter to the Egyptian PeopleEgypt: A Humble Request.

Arabist.net The who’s who of the has-beens

Marc Lynch -Washington eyes a fateful day in Egypt and Obama’s handling Egypt pretty well

Col. Pat Lang-The Outlook for Egypt and the Middle East Is Grim By – Robert K. Lifton , More sensible attitudes on Egypt today, Omar Suleiman sworn in as VP

SWJ Blog - Days of Unrest (Update)

STRATFOR -  The Egypt Crisis in a Global Context: A Special Report | STRATFOR

Fabius Maximus -Important information about the riots in Egypt and Why do we fear the rioters in Egypt?

HNN (Haider Khan)Egypt, What Next?

Global Guerrillas – EGYPT: How to Lead and Open Source Protest , EGYPT: Mubarak’s Survival Strategy and EGYPT: Looting as Counter-Insurgency

Juan Cole -Egypt’s Class Conflict

Outside the Beltway -Egyptians Upset With U.S. Response To Crisis and Egypt and the Limits of US Power

That’s it.


A Recommended Blog for Metacognition

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

A while back, I added Ribbonfarm to the blogroll, which is written by Dr. Venkat Rao, a corporate scientist typeafter John Hagel featured in his twitterstream an old but amusing post by Rao analyzing sociopathology in corporate life via characters from The Office. Clever. I thought I would blogroll him and check in periodically.

Later, I noticed that Rao makes frequent references to Clausewitz in his posts and that he is writing Tempo, a book on decision making that will be of great personal and professional interest to many readers here. At this juncture, I’m intrigued.

Then last week, Rao featured a lengthy post on metacognition where he made some excellent points. Here’s a few of them, but as I can only put up a small selection, you should go read the full post:

Boundary Condition Thinking:

 ….To build mathematical models, you start by observing and brain-dumping everything you know about the problem, including key unknowns, onto paper.  This brain-dump is basically an unstructured take on what’s going on. There’s a big word for it: phenomenology. When I do a phenomenology-dumping brainstorm, I use a mix of qualitative notes, quotes, questions, little pictures, mind maps, fragments of equations, fragments of pseudo-code, made-up graphs, and so forth.

You then sort out three types of model building blocks in the phenomenology: dynamics, constraints and boundary conditions (technically all three are varieties of constraints, but never mind that).

Dynamics refers to how things change, and the laws govern those changes. Dynamics are front and center in mathematical thought. Insights come relatively easily when you are thinking about dynamics, and sudden changes in dynamics are usually very visible.  Dynamics is about things like the swinging behavior of pendulums.

Constraints are a little harder. It takes some practice and technical peripheral vision to learn to work elegantly with constraints. When constraints are created, destroyed, loosened or tightened, the changes are usually harder to notice, and the effects are often delayed or obscured. If I were to suddenly pinch the middle of the string of a swinging string-and-weight pendulum, it would start oscillating faster. But if you are paying attention only to the swinging dynamics, you may not notice that the actual noteworthy event is the introduction of a new constraint. You might start thinking, “there must be a new force that is pushing things along faster” and go hunting for that mysterious force.

This is a trivial example, but in more complex cases, you can waste a lot of time thinking unproductively about dynamics (even building whole separate dynamic models) when you should just be watching for changes in the pattern of constraints.

….Historians are a great example. The best historians tend to have an intuitive grasp of this approach to building models using these three building blocks.  Here is how you can sort these three kinds of pieces out in your own thinking. It involves asking a set of questions when you begin to think about a complicated problem.

  1. What are the patterns of change here? What happens when I do various things? What’s the simplest explanation here? (dynamics)
  2. What can I not change, where are the limits? What can break if things get extreme? (constraints)
  3. What are the raw numbers and facts that I need to actually do some detective work to get at, and cannot simply infer from what I already know? (boundary conditions).

Besides historians, trend analysts and fashionistas also seem to think this way. Notice something? Most of the action is in the third question. That’s why historians spend so much time organizing their facts and numbers.

Nice. There’s a multitude of places here to jump off and generate further epistemic analysis, and I am sure that some of the admirers of Boyd, Polanyi, Wohlstetter, Feynman, Kahn and Clausewitz in the ZP readership might do so in the comments. Or my co-blogger Charles might weigh in from the imaginative/mythic/visual domain. We’ll see.

Regardless, I think if you are following blogs like Metamodern, Thomas P.M. Barnett,  Open the Future, Global Guerrillas, John Hagel’s Edge Perspectives, Eide Neurolearning Blog or liked the old Kent’s Imperative (suddenly live again after being dormant for 2 years), you’ll want to consider adding Ribbonfarm to your RSS feed or blogroll.


Ed at Project White Horse, another fine site for your blogroll, is also blogging on boundary conditions:

Stall, Spin, Crash, Burn and Die – Boundary Conditions for 2011

….You can’t fix things without some understanding, real understanding of the problem – nor can there be real leadership without actionable understanding. That’s where establishing boundary conditions as a vehicle to frame the problem – and therefore garner greater insight – become important.

Drilling for oil at a depth of 5000ft and in open ocean – Deepwater Horizon – should have been/should be seen as a “crisis” in waiting no matter the historical track record. Proper understanding would have meant that the National decision making level immediately recognized the high potential for the initial crisis migrating into a severely complex catastrophe after the explosion and acted, not waiting to see if BP’s response plans would work. Activities in “Blue Water”/open ocean are not a linear extrapolation from “inshore,” nor is 5000 ft a linear extrapolation from 200ft or 500ft. depths.  BP’s plans might have been up to the problem, but the shear nature of the environment, if scrutinized in context of “unconventional” as described below, should have been a trigger to initiate intermediate action.  Rather, the declaration of an Event of National Significance was 30+ days in coming??? A significant point, I believe, is the problem generated by not recognizing the nature or even acknowledging the existence of a different kind of  problem, one potentially very complex or stochastic in nature – an “unconventional crisis.”


666.6 recurring?

Saturday, January 29th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron ]

I’m hoping to give an extended treatment to Glenn Beck’s new documentary on Mahdism and Iranian nuclear ambitions shortly, not because I think Mahdism is unimportant – I don’t – but because I don’t think Beck is listening to some of the people with the most in-depth knowledge of the situation.

In the meantime, I couldn’t resist the screen-grab from the docu in Quote #2, which accompanied Joel Rosenberg saying:

This end times theology is not only what he believes, but it is why Ahmadinejad is putting his foot to the gas of accelerating Iran’s nuclear weapons development program, and the ballistic missile development as well – because once Ahmadinejad is able to acquire nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them, Ahmadinejad could do in about six minutes what it took Adolf Hitler about six years to do, and that is to kill 6 million Jews.

You can have Nero for 666, or Aleister Crowley, or Ronald Wilson Reagan, or this Pope or any previous holder of that title, or Muhammad, or bar codes, or Ahmadinejad – but surely not all of them at once.


I’m shifting from talk about 666, the number of the Beast, to talk about the Antichrist now — which may or may not be a different topic, see for instance these notes from Scofield on Revelation


Joel Richardson, an email friend of mine who is the author of The Islamic AntiChrist and is featured in the documentary, believes the Antichrist and the Mahdi are one and the same: he calls the expectation of the Mahdi’s coming an “anti-parallel” of Christian expectation of the Second Coming of Christ, and says “Islam has literally taken the whole story and flipped it on its head”. Joel Rosenberg, whose latest thriller is titled The Twelfth Imam, and who is also featured, says that in his view the Mahdi may be “an” – but not “The” – Antichrist.


Back to the Beast:

Rev. Ian Paisley, Baron Bannside, still says 666 is the Pope — but then he’s both a minister of religion and a Unionist politician from Northern Ireland.


DoubleQuotes and Questions

Friday, January 28th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron ]

You know, I really enjoy building my DoubleQuotes. They can be entirely frivolous, as is this one, for instance:

with its touch of gothic — a taste I share with my friend Bryan Alexander.

Or they can work like a Necker cube, offering opposite framings with which to view a single topic — in this case, video games.

They can also work like Rorschach blots — this one compares two prophecies, one from the Quran and one from a contemporary Christian prophet (if I’m not mistaken, President Obama quoted him recently) –

– but it is left up to the reader to determine the value of each…

And they can also pose fundamental questions of preference:

Has science simply replaced myth, d’you think? or is science for the facts, perhaps, and the mind — while poetry and myth are for the heart, and truth?


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