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Archive for May, 2011

2011, meet 1997 (and 1995, and 1943…)

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — creativity, IARPA, HipBone Games, h/t Hermann Hesse ]

Funny thing, that.


In 1997, Derek Robinson wrote a short piece about my HipBone Games, indicating what they were good for. Read it – then read the IARPA solicitation that just came out.

My approach is to lure people into discovering analogies, metaphors, parallels and oppositions by playing a game which elicits them as game moves — a live process, and one that cuts to the very heart of creativity — IARPA wants an automated version, which will be clunky by comparison. And as Derek points out in his piece — pointed out, that is to say, fourteen years ago, quoting an even earlier (1995) comment from Douglas Hofstadter:

If, instead of using the real world, one carefully creates a simpler, artificial world in which to study the high-level processes of perception, the problems become more tractable.

That’s what my games are — “a simpler, artificial world in which to study the high-level processes of perception” — specifically, “of analogy, metaphor, resemblance, the making and taking of meaning”.

I’ve been working on this stuff for at least fifteen years… inspired by a book Hermann Hesse published in 1943.


And oh yes, there’s a “future of search engines” hiding in there, too.

Book Review: The Shaping of Grand Strategy

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy, and War by Williamson Murray, Richard Hart Sinnreich and James Lacey (Ed.)

As readers of this blog know, grand strategy is an important and timely subject that speaks directly to the difficulty American leaders have had in navigating the ship of state in the waters of the international arena. The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy, and War by Williamson Murray, Richard Hart Sinnreich and James Lacey (Ed.) and contributing authors Colin S. Gray, Marcus Jones, Jeremy Black and John A. Lynn III postulates what grand strategy is and explain from historical case studies how statesmen struggled to fashion one in peace and war.

The Shaping of Grand Strategy has a number of strengths to recommend it to the serious student of history or strategic practitioner:

Focus: The case studies are all anchored in the Westphalian state system starting with the early modern period of European absolutism and apex of “national” monarchies and transitions through a Bismarckian 19th century to finish with the West’s cataclysmic 20th century battle with totalitarianism. This gives the chapters by different scholars a sense of cohesion and chronological succession.

Balance: The Shaping of Grand Strategy gives scholarly treatment from both the theoretical, strategic studies perspective as well as the historical case study. I learned some things about Louis XIV’s Europe and the Great Britain of the Pitts and the Hanoverian dynasty of which I was unaware. Theory bookends history in this tome.

Nuance: Each scholar gives his subject an adult treatment. Controversial points are interesting rather than shrill and each author engages an impressive synthesis of historiographic material as they cover a broad ground in investigating grand strategy. Each chapter is sound and engaging.

Limitations, such as they are, to be considered:

Absent: Powerful non-Western case studies. The ancient world.  Revolutionary war (French, Soviet or Islamist insurgent) as a grand strategy. Geoeconomics asnd political economy as a foundation for grand strategy. 

Weak: Insufficient treatment of the impact of nuclear weapons and deterrence on grand strategy, which frankly deserved a chapter of it’s own.

If you are composing a syllabus for a class on grand strategy or strategy, The Shaping of Grand Strategy would serve as an excellent generalist core for the course, supplemented by cognate, specialist or subtopical readings.

Some things that struck me while reading The Shaping of Grand Strategy:

  • Colin Gray’s distillation of the strategic dilemmas faced by Truman and an almost Boydian implicit explanation of what grand strategy is and why it needs a compelling moral power:

High policy does not emerge in a vacuum, though it can be invented in a hurry without much forethought when necessity presses. Policy requires a North Star for guidance that can inspire, yielding to would-be leaders the fuel they require to recruit and satisfy their followers

  • James Lacey’s realistic and granular treatment of the relationship between military strategy and grand strategy in the WWII Anglo-American Alliance and his generally admiring assessment of FDR as a strategist vs. a critical treatment of George Marshall.
  • Marcus Jones’ emphasis of the importance of the strategist himself and the uncertainty of decision making in his chapter on Otto von Bismarck.
  • The drawing of historical parallels with today  by John Lynn and Richard Sinnreich as well as the investigation of the reasons for grand strategic failure of British appeasement by Williamson Murray.

The Shaping of Grand Strategy is a tight, concise and focused academic book that furthers the discussion of grand strategy by providing coherent and detailed examples as well as a readable an interesting analysis from which both the professional or the the student can profit.

Strongly recommended.

What amazes me is the *speed* of the moral descent

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — the importance of undertows, archaisms, blind-spots ]
Zen writes, in a comment on his post, Skulls & Human Sacrifice:

What amazes me is the *speed* of the moral descent.

Yup. Bingo!  Yes!! Exactly…

That’s why I think it’s so important to track undertows as well as tides – the archaic rituals and myths, the archetypal dreams and nightmares of people like AQ, or La Familia, or even Harold Camping.

They’re below the surface, beneath our radar – until they “show”. And then they blow our minds.


That’s why I think apocalyptic movements are so significant.

By the time the Chinese Government found ten thousand or so qi gong practitioners protesting at Zhongnanhai in 1999, there were arguably as many practitioners (70 m) across China as there were members of the CPC (60+ m) – and any number of them might be listening to Li Hongzhi‘s Falun Dafa tapes while cultivating themselves in the park… The recognition that the Party might have a movement on its hands to compare with the Taiping rebellion (20 m lives lost) was what drove the fierce repression that followed…

It was as though Falun Gong came out of nowhere.

And who knew that Harold Camping’s prophecies broadcast out of a radio station in Oakland, CA could move “several thousand Hmong followers of a sub-Christian messianic cult” to gather for the end in Muong Nhe district, Dien Bien Province, Vietnam – conflating the prophecies of their own messiah figure, “a 25-year-old man named Zhong Ka Chang, now renamed Tu Jeng Cheng, meaning ‘the important one'” with Camping’s returning Christ, and expecting him to “appear and establish a pan-Hmong kingdom” (quotes from Compass Direct).

We laugh at Camping. But he touched a nerve.


Pretty much by definition, societies are and choose to remain unconscious of their unconscious contents until it’s too late, so they always surprise us.

They’re in our blind-spot, by definition.

Anglosphere Rising? The New Joint National Security Strategy Board

Tuesday, May 24th, 2011

Aaron Ellis of Egremont alerted me to this story today in The Guardian:

Barack Obama agrees to form joint national security body with UK

Barack Obama will announce during his first state visit to Britain this week that the White House is to open up its highly secretive national security council to Downing Street in a move that appears to show the US still values the transatlantic “special relationship”.

A joint National Security Strategy Board will be established to ensure that senior officials on both sides of the Atlantic confront long-term challenges rather than just hold emergency talks from the “situation room” in the White House and the Cobra room in the Cabinet Office.

….Britain believes that co-operation between the British and US national security councils marks a significant step. One British government source said: “The US and UK already work closely together on many national security issues. The new board will allow us to look ahead and develop a shared view of emerging challenges, how we should deal with them, and how our current policy can adapt to longer-term developments.”

The new board is a rare step by the White House, which guards the secrecy of the national security council. Founded in 1947 by Harry Truman, the NSC was in 1949 placed in the executive office of the president, who chairs its meetings.

Cameron tried to replicate the council when he established a body with the same name on his first full day as prime minister. It is chaired by the prime minister and designed to co-ordinate the work of the three Whitehall departments responsible for foreign affairs – the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development.

One government source said that Ricketts and Donilon would have to tread with care. “There is a little bit of disconnect between the two. The US national security adviser is a political appointment, whereas Sir Peter Ricketts is a civil servant. But this does make sense. We have a highly developed relationship with the USA where our military and intelligence officials work closely together. This is a useful move…

It is a start and I am heartened by the decision to formally include “strategy” as the body’s brief, that and the transatlantic nature coupled with bureaucratic differences may lead the new board to concentrate to a greater degree on looking at isues a strategic perspective rather than the S.O.P of wading into granular bureaucratic minutia. Given that I recently floated the idea of a Grand Strategy Board here ( along with Aaron), I can only be pleased to see a trend in that general direction from the Obama administration and our British allies.

Aaron was first on this story at Egremont, but he expresses some deep skepticism:

The Special Relationship lacks a purpose for the 21st century

….What immediately came to mind was the Combined Chiefs of Staff which, had it continued, might have become such a board. The engine to drive the Special Relationship forward. However, unless the UK is willing to throw away 40 years of foreign policy, the National Security Board (NSB) could be nothing more than a fair weather institution. The shared strategic interests that kept the alliance alive in the 20th century disappeared at the end of the Cold War. Other countries may prove more useful partners this century.

The given rationale for a NSB is to keep senior officials in touch with the broader challenges that face the two countries. Unfortunately, there are reasons why it might not succeed.

As global power shifts eastwards and emerging Asian states challenge US hegemony, Washington will be increasingly concerned with security and stability in the western Pacific. This is their broader challenge and President Obama is pursuing the correct policies in that region. The UK does not have a similar strategic clarity. If we want to enjoy the kind of relationship we enjoyed last century then our defence and foreign policies must expand east of Suez. Professor Michael Clarke, the head of the RUSI, has written that such a radical move “would represent the most judicious, and audacious, use of the hard/soft power combination yet seen in contemporary politics”. So far, however, the Government has shown no sign that it plans to make as big a shift as this in its ‘Big Picture’ thinking. Yet without it the NSB may prove fit only for fair weather.

….Nor do I see how the NSB can solve the institutional problems that I outlined last month. The board is supposed to move beyond crisis management, with senior officials from each side of the Atlantic focusing on the bigger picture. Given both countries’ bureaucracies have been promoting problem solvers at the expense of strategists, it isn’t evident that thinking will suddenly become more long-term. The same people will be shaping things, just this time sharing hats with Anglo-Saxon cousins. As with the Grand Strategy Board, the NSB’s utility also depends on the extent to which it taken seriously by our leaders. “You can organise government all you like, but strategy is an essentially political process that comes from the top,” Julian Lindley-French told MPs last September.

I think Aaron is spot on with the last paragraph.

Strategy is the crystallization of a kind of thinking process that needs to be present in the room or what you will have in the NSSB is a “coordination council” rearranging the deck chairs instead of charting the course. The British Cabinet and the Obama administration should strongly consider adding a few mutually acceptable wise men who do not have to juggle the supremely hectic schedules of a Foreign Secretary or a National Security Adviser, or at least some executive staffers recommended for the excellence of their strategic thinking.  It will help lean against the relentless and universal gravitational pull of bureaucratic and political culture toward the short term time horizon and the tactical details.

And a couple more DVDs

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — Mahdism, pacific and militant, Sunni and Shi’ite ]


So here are a couple more DVDs for your collection…

The Awlaki “End of Time” DVD that I mentioned earlier today has an obvious apocalyptic aspect, but here are a couple of DVDs with specific reference to the MahdiHarun Yahya (aka Adnan Oktar) has a massive publication-machine behind him, and much of his effort is directed to his islamic version of creationism.  It is interesting that his (Sunni) Mahdi, in contrast to al-Awlaki’s, is a peace-bringer.


The Iranian movie, on the other hand, may well be a move on the part of Ahmadinejad in his current efforts to use popular Mahdist sentiment to win power for the presidency and diminish the authority of the scholars in Qom — with a sop thrown to Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Authority, in the form of a role for him (along with Ahmadinejad himself) in the projected soon-return of the Mahdi from occultation.
If so, the move would appear at this point to have backfired — perhaps because the movie was leaked ahead of time — with the Supreme Authority and mullahs of Qom lining up against Ahmadinejad.
By way of commentary:
Were the Mahdi to appear, he would be “rightly guided” by definition — infallible — and only those on whom he showed his favor would hold any religious sway among his followers. It is this disquieting thought which made, e.g., the religious authorities (hawza) of Najaf so upset about a Mahdist uprising a few years back… the Returning One axiomatically trumps all those previously holding positions of spiritual authority.

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