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Sunday surprise: Ernst Haas

Sunday, March 22nd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — beauty is in the viewfinder of this beholder ]

Two bodies of water:

Ernst Haas, Tobago Wave
Tobago Wave, photograph by Ernst Hass, with permission of the Ernst Haas Estate


The closest correlation to this image that comes to mind is from Genesis:

And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.


I’d like us to explore this juxtaposition of two bodies of water a little farther. Here, for instance, is Terence Stamp, retelling The Tale of the Sands from Idries Shah‘s Tales of the Dervishes:

And to bring that tale, lyrical as it is, home to the realities of twenty-first century living — and indeed the context of national security — consider the matter of the Rios Voadores or Flying Rivers, as described in a National Geographic piece this February, Quirky Winds Fuel Brazil’s Devastating Drought, Amazon’s Flooding:

The loop starts in the Atlantic Ocean, where the winds carry moisture westward over the Amazon. Some falls as rain, but as the air passes, it also absorbs moisture from trees. When these “flying rivers” hit the Andes, they swing south, showering rain over crops and cities in eastern Bolivia and southeastern Brazil.

Beginning a year ago, however, a phenomenon called “atmospheric blocking” transformed that wind pattern. Marengo, a senior scientist at the Brazilian National Center for Early Warning and Monitoring of Natural Disasters (CEMADEN), likens this to a giant bubble that deflected the moisture-laden air, which instead dumped about twice the usual amount of rain over the state of Acre, in western Brazil, and the Bolivian Amazon, where Cartagena lives.

At the same time, cold fronts from the south, which cause precipitation over São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, were shunted aside, and as the system lingered, the drought took hold ..

Here’s a video to give you a glimpse..


Did I mention national security? Here’s what Chuck Hagel said in the second paragraph of his Foreword to the Pentagon’s 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap:

Among the future trends that will impact our national security is climate change. Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.

I have an analytic post forthcoming on Lapido Media about Water shortages and violence in the Middle East. A hat tip to blog-friend Pundita, who has been blogging intensively on water shortages recently [1, 2, eg]. And my grateful thanks to Victoria Haas for her gracious permission to use her father’s superb photograph at the head of this post.


The master’s eye — to catch the two-in-oneness of sky and sea, cloud and wave, water and water so exactly, in so balanced a form.. and then, within that massive, unmissable symmetry in blue and green, the milder asymmetries he captures of left and right — the billowing, the surging. Exquisite.

It is Sunday: treat yourself to a viewing of his portraits of Marilyn Munroe, of Jean Cocteau, of Albert Einstein, his extraordinary Sea Gun. Who has both the wanderlust to find and the eye to see such a thing?

Does Culture Trump Strategy?

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

The always interesting John Hagel tweeted a link recently to an old post at  Mill’s-Scofield Innovanomics, a blog run by a business strategist and consultant with a science background, Deb Mills-Scofield.

Summer’s Trump Cards 

….Culture Trumps Strategy: The best made plans are worthless if they’re not aligned with the culture. Sometimes the strategy can help transform the culture (for good or bad), but if the culture doesn’t support it, it won’t happen.  Perhaps that’s why I think CEOs need to be CCS’s – Chief Culture Stewards.

Challenge:  Start to check the health of your culture – really, be brutally honest -before the end of August.

This was interesting to me.

Obviously, Mills-Scofield was concerned here with “business strategy” and organizational theory and not strategy in the classical sense of war and statecraft. As Dr. Chet Richards has pointed out, unlike a military leader in war, businessmen are not trying to destroy their customers, their employees or even their competition, but while not the same kind of “strategy”, the underlying cognitive action, the “strategic thinking”,  is similar. Perhaps the same.

So, shifting the question back to the original context of war and statecraft, does culture trump strategy?

On twitter, I had a brief twitter discussion on this with Marc Danziger who was sympathetic to the proposition of cultural supremacy. I am not so sure, though I think the relationship between culture and strategy is an iterative one, the degree to which culture matters in strategy is highly contextual and is determined by how broadly you define cultural values as being directly operative in driving the scenario. Some disjointed comments:

  • Your own cultural-societal worldview shapes politics, policy and politik. So indirectly, culture will be a determining factor in conceiving “Ends” worth spilling blood and dying for – particularly in wars of choice. When war, especially existential conflict is forced upon a state by an enemy attack, some of the initiative and room for constructing artful or limited “Ends” has been lost and becomes secondary to survival. Even Stalin’s normally overweening and murderous ideological preferences mattered somewhat less in Soviet policy and strategy the day after Operation Barbarossa began than the day before.
  • If the Ends in view imply forcing a political settlement upon the enemy – “compelling him to do our will” – than the enemy’s culture matters a great deal. All the moreso, if the war entails COIN, military governance of an enemy population and reconstructing an enemy state to our liking. The enemy culture is part of the operational environment because our use of military force (destruction) is going hand in glove with substantial political activity (construction) – mere physical control of the population is not enough, though it is a precondition for success. MacArthur’s role as SCAP in post-war Japan demonstrated an exceptionally shrewd blend of coercion and concession to traditional Japanese cultural touchstones.
  • If our Ends are much more limited – degrading enemy operational capacity and/or simple, spasmodic, punitive expeditions to impose costs on an enemy state or entity in retaliation for aggression; or, if we intend to stand off-shore and strike with air and naval superiority – than the enemy culture matters far less. Force is being used to “bargain” at a very primitive level that does not require much cultural nuance to understand and the message of “we will hit back” . Likewise, if the war is an unlimited one of extermination and Carthaginian peace, enemy culture matters far less than your military capacity to execute your strategy.
  • Your cultural worldview shapes your grand strategy or statecraft because great and lesser powers are not coldly playing chess for material interests alone when they engage in geopolitical conflict and warfare but are establishing, evolving and protecting a national identity on the world stage. What Thucydides called “Honor”, the British “Paramountcy”, Richard Nixon “Credibility” and Joseph Nye “Soft Power” may all have been intangible expressions, difficult to quantify, but are very much part of the strategic calculus of war and peace.
  • Finally, it is important to note that strategic employment of brute force has a large role in setting the parameters of where and when cultural nuance and interpretation matter and exercise political leverage during war. Extreme violence disrupts and warps the cultural norms of belligerents, usually for the worse. It was the wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon that awoke the romantic pan-German nationalism of the 19th century that eventually united Germany and transformed it into the terror of the world in the 20th. The First World War ushered in a century of ideological monstrosities and revolutionary state terrorism on an epochal scale of murder unequaled even by the butchery of the Romans or Mongols. War is often the Abyss that looks into you.


Metaphors as Catalyst and Scaffold

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Via John Hagel, a particularly interesting NYT article on the neroscience of metaphors. I have always considered metaphors and analogies to be a “spark” or a “catalyst” to insight but they appear to be potentially structural organizers or “signal switches” of information processing:

This Is Your Brain on Metaphors

….Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act. We can learn that a certain combination of sounds put together by Tchaikovsky represents Napoleon getting his butt kicked just outside Moscow. And that the name “Napoleon,” in this case, represents thousands and thousands of soldiers dying cold and hungry, far from home.

And we even understand that June isn’t literally busting out all over. It would seem that doing this would be hard enough to cause a brainstorm. So where did this facility with symbolism come from? It strikes me that the human brain has evolved a necessary shortcut for doing so, and with some major implications.

….This potential to manipulate behavior by exploiting the brain’s literal-metaphorical confusions about hygiene and health is also shown in a study by Mark Landau and Daniel Sullivan of the University of Kansas and Jeff Greenberg of the University of Arizona. Subjects either did or didn’t read an article about the health risks of airborne bacteria. All then read a history article that used imagery of a nation as a living organism with statements like, “Following the Civil War, the United States underwent a growth spurt.” Those who read about scary bacteria before thinking about the U.S. as an organism were then more likely to express negative views about immigration.

Another example of how the brain links the literal and the metaphorical comes from a study by Lawrence Williams of the University of Colorado and John Bargh of Yale. Volunteers would meet one of the experimenters, believing that they would be starting the experiment shortly. In reality, the experiment began when the experimenter, seemingly struggling with an armful of folders, asks the volunteer to briefly hold their coffee. As the key experimental manipulation, the coffee was either hot or iced. Subjects then read a description of some individual, and those who had held the warmer cup tended to rate the individual as having a warmer personality, with no change in ratings of other attributes.

From this simple associative effect are the conditions from which a “eureka” moment of insight can crystallize, as it did for Archimedes in his bath:

Effect—-> Association —-> Orientation ——> Insight ——> Extrapolation/Generalization


Curtis has commented and expanded the discussion, though his comments seem to go into my akismet spam folder. Should be fixed now:


There is the potential not only for insight but also for deception, whether the deceivers are others in our milieu or we ourselves (and our brains) may be deceivers….

True. Metaphors and analogies can crystallize insughts but they can also become powerfully attractive distorions of reality – sort of “anti-models” or  “false models”.

….As a model of what might be called metaphorization, these similarities make sense.  The OODA in all its forms, including the WOODA which includes World, represents a dynamic process of cycling (although perhaps not always uniform and unidirectional cycling) of information.  The focal point of the A-OODA, Observe above, is the abstract locus of observation:  New information received from without comes into contact (abstractly speaking!) with previously built understandings, or Mental Constructs, and relatively newer insights, or Conditional Constructs.  These diverse abstract observations have, to some extent, already prepared the mind for interpretation of new information and, these observations taken as whole create an opportunity for triangulation (of a sort.)  Using Mark Safranski’s terminology, after the information is Associated, it is Oriented through analysis and synthesis, Insights may form the basis of new hypotheses which may either be conditional (re-looped into further observation w/ outside information and previous understandings) or may be accepted as finalized understandings about what one has observed (Extrapolation/Generalization).

Hmmmm…. I have read that “insight” as a neurocognitive event tends to occur in two brain regions, the lateral inferior prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. The associative work of insight correlates with the former region but the “combinatory play” cited by Einstein and referenced , if I recall, by Charles and leading to new hypothesis correlates with the latter.  I am not a neuroscientist, so I am now wondering if insight is a distributed, parallel processing, brain function or if we are really talking about two separate cognitive effects – an “Insight 1” and “Insight 2”?

Anyone who cares to weigh in here, feel free…..

John Seely Brown: “The Power of Pull”

Monday, November 1st, 2010

John Seely Brown, who is the co-author of The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion along with blogfriend John Hagel and Lang Davison, is primarily speaking about education and learning in an ecological paradigm.

Note to self: I need to read this book.

That said, “pull” is the fulcrum for all 20th century orgs that hope to adapt to the 21st, not just public education. Hierarchies, including states, can no longer completely dominate, only aspire to generally arbitrate, or concentrate their powers in an asymmetric fashion. To do this, over the long term, requires putting  attracting the allegiance of clients and allies capable of taking independent initiative in harmony with the org’s vision rather than relying primarily upon coercion to force people to mechanistically follow orders.

Not sure that too many people in our hallowed institutions “get it”.

Sir Ken Robinson on Educational Paradigms: Animate Version

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

I have featured Sir Ken Robinson here previously. I saw this short 11 minute “talk” today in John Hagel’s   twitterfeed. It’s great!

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