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Honor, Shame, Scandal and Integrity

Friday, March 8th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — reflecting on the anthropology of honor – shame, its relevance to cover ups of many kinds, and its potential for impact in our search for a more peaceable modus vivendi ]

Cardinal O'Brien & Lord Lennard, their images as juxtaposed on the Cranmer blog


Recent political news in the United Kingdom, from The Telegraph:

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has been forced to admit that his office knew for years of claims that a senior party figure might be sexually molesting volunteers and staff.

The Deputy Prime Minister changed tack in a statement on Sunday evening over the sex scandal which is engulfing his party.

He broke into the end of his holiday to admit for the first time that his office had been aware of the allegations surrounding his former chief executive Lord Rennard since 2008. But he said he was personally unaware of the claims.

Nick Clegg admits his office knew of Lord Rennard rumours for five years


In today’s Wired, concerning a cover-up in the US Air Force:

A military jury found Lt. Col. James Wilkerson guilty of groping a sleeping woman’s breasts and vagina. But the Air Force wasn’t done with the “superstar” F-16 pilot. It reinstated Wilkerson to active duty and wiped away his conviction — but, to save face, is pledging not to promote him to full colonel.

[ … ]

Now the embarrassed Air Force is looking for a face saving way out of its institutional mess. Its answer thus far, reports Stars & Stripes, is to remove Wilkerson’s name from its promotions list. There’s an opportunity for Wilkerson to appeal the decision.

Air Force Accountability for Sexual Assault: Not Promoting Convicted Officer


And concerning Lockheed and China, a short while back from emptywheel:

I’m just wondering out loud here: what if China did more than just steal data on the F-35 when it hacked various contractors, and instead sabotaged the program, inserting engineering flaws into the plane in the same way we inserted flaws in Iran’s centrifuge development via StuxNet?

[ … ]

I don’t know that we would ever know if this clusterfuck was caused with the assistance of China. It’s not like Lockheed would publicize such information, just as it asked for another $100 billion. And I don’t want to underestimate the defense industry’s ability to screw up all by themselves.

What if China Not Just Hacked — But Sabotaged — the F-35?


I think one of the least appreciated parts of our human make-up is what anthros call the honor-shame system. It considers the honor of a larger group — the family, the regiment, the city, the nation, the corporation, the church — as of overriding importance, with personal considerations clearly secondary. And by honor I mean the respect with which the rest of society views it.

That’s the system that gives us “honor killings” in a swathe of countries, and in modified western form it’s also at the root of every cover-up, every attempt by hacks and flacks to put a good face on things — and it’s very much something that investigative journalism exists to uncover, just as PR attempts to cover it up.

To my mind, this is one of the big battlefronts in the world today, comparable perhaps to the battle post-Descartes between “enlightenment” and “superstition”. And when there’s murky business to cover up or admit to, corporations are often slower than individuals to ‘fess up — if only because the stock market favors appearances rather than realities. Until the bubble bursts.

And much the same is true for politicians and the electoral market, and for churches and the market in faith.


My mentor Richard Landes believes honor-shame is a large part of the battlefront between “the Israelis” and “the Arab world” — he quotes these two definitions:

Politeness is not saying certain things lest there be violence; civility is being able to say those certain things and there won’t be violence.

and writes:

In an honour culture, it is legitimate, expected, even required to shed blood for the sake of honour, to save face, to redeem the dishonoured face. Public criticism is an assault on the very “face” of the person criticised. Thus, people in such cultures are careful to be “polite”; and a genuinely free press is impossible, no matter what the laws proclaim.

Modernity, however, is based on a free public discussion, on civility rather than politeness, but the benefits of this public self-criticism – sharp learning curves, advances in science and technology, economic development, democracy – make that pain worthwhile.

Leaving aside their applicability to the Israeli-Arab issue, are those fair distinctions between two modes of being? How much of the battle between those forces can be found in the world around us, in our politics, our economics situation, and so on?

How much impact did the differences between honor cultures and modernity have, in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Where else might this kind of conflict of values confront our leaders and ourselves?

How can we best handle interfaces between these two ways of experiencing, evaluating and acting in our shared world?

Two Cheers for the State?

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

An excellent post from Adam Elkus – strongly recommended!

The State Problem In National Security Policy

….The report makes a lot of comments about the rise of individual autonomy, the empowering of regional network-cities, and technology’s acceleration of the power of non-state actors. Wired interpreted part of this as signaling a decline of the statewhich has been a popular theme since Martin van Creveld’s work on theTransformation of War. I think that is an accurate characterization of the parts of the 2030 report that talk about the empowerment of non-state actors and the rise of international networks. I’m less interested in the report, though, than in the general narrative of state decline in national security policy discourse.

We’ve heard that states are in decline, and both benign and malign networks and private actors are on the rise. This isn’t a new theme—if you look back a few decades the rise of multinational corporations and the multilaterals prompted a similar debate about sovereignty and power in the modern world. The state-centric defense practitioner is enjoined to move beyond caring about states and embrace a new reality.

…. What we have been dealing with, however, is an unfortunate tendency to write the non-state actor and transnational network out of the last few centuries of history. But he (or she) stubbornly refuses to go away. We can talk about some of the reasons why this might be the case in the international environment but it is also worth talking about why we often assume much more coherence and cohesion in our domestic environment than reality may justify.

….In Charles Tilly’s book Democracy, he argues that four processes are necessary to create and sustain a democratic state: the growth of state capacity by suppressing alternative sources of power, the reduction of categorical inequalities, and the integration of strong tie-based trust networks into public life. Warlords and kingpins that predate make it difficult for rights to be guaranteed. Categorical inequality lessens the ability of the people to meaningfully control their own destiny. And strong trust networks that cannot express themselves in political and social life also have the potential for predation and the erosion of state authority. Tilly casts these processes as never-ending in scope, and states are capable of backsliding on any one of them.

Very rich food for thought.

Trust networks are an interesting way to look at broader social networks and discern, at times, the presence of modularity (and therefore specialized skills, capacities, knowledge etc.) within a looser network structure (weak ties and links vs. highly interconnected sets of hubs with strong ties). We tend to graph these things in simple diagrams, like concentric circles with “al Qaida hard core” in the center, but really, they are more akin to clumping or clotting or uneven aggregation within a less dense field of connections.

Adam is also right that the irregular, the illegal, the tribal, the secret society, the rebellious peasant was largely ignored by nationalistic  historians in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century – and when they came back in vogue in the 1960’s with revisionist, labor, social, cultural etc. schools of historians, they tended to groan under the heavy yoke of dogmatic Marxist class analysis and then later the radical academic obsessions with race, gender and sexual orientation “oppression”. Too seldom, were these people and their doings found to be interesting in themselves so much as puppets for a very tortured, abstract passion play to exorcise demons and pursue petty grudges against other scholars.

In any event, Adam is worth reading in full.


David Ronfeldt’s TIMN video

Friday, May 25th, 2012

[ posted by Charles Cameron ]

Blogfriend David Ronfeldt posted this video on his own Visions from Two Theories blog, and I’m cross-posting it here with his permission. It’s an excellent short introduction to David’s ideas about social evolution and the development of the quadriform TIMN (Tribe-Institution-Market-Network) social environment in which we find ourselves.

David writes:

The presentation proceeds in three segments. Segment One is about how TIMN got started. It provides background and a basic description of TIMN.

Segment Two is about how TIMN works. It relates my sense of TIMN’s system dynamics, emphasizing general propositions that hold across the evolution of all four TIMN forms.

Segment Three is about where TIMN is headed. It focuses on the rise of the network (N) form and prospects that a new sector may develop around it. It reflects recent posts at this blog about Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, as well as about Red Toryism, P2P theory, and monitory democracy.

My presentation indicated that there would be a slide about follow-up readings at the end of the video, but it’s missing from this somewhat shortened version. So I’m inserting it here:

There is still much to be discerned and said about all these matters. And I am lagging way behind on my intended arc of postings. Yet, for now, the video provides a good update, and points in the right direction — or so I hope.

The video was originally offered as David’s contribution to the Highlands Forums.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, a review

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

 [by J. Scott Shipman]


Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson, the acclaimed author of biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein, has produced a definitive and up-close biography of Steve Jobs. The book is a very readable 571 pages that took only a couple of days to read. Jobs approached Isaacson to write his bio in 2004, but Isaacson resisted until 2009 when  Jobs’ wife Laurene Powell “said bluntly, “If you’re ever going to do a book on Steve, you’d better do it now.”” Isaacson insists no restrictions were placed on him, in fact, Jobs and his wife facilitated access to many people who do did not hold Jobs in high regard—the man excited passions good and bad. I found it ironic that Jobs, a man who obsessed with control would willingly relinquish control in what will probably be the definitive biography of his life.

Isaacson offered early that his book is really about innovation. He offers: “At a time when the United States is seeking ways to sustain its innovative edge, and when societies around the world are trying to build creative digital-age economies, Jobs stands as the ultimate icon of inventiveness, imagination, and sustained innovation.” Given Apple’s growth, his point is well taken.

Isaacson clearly admires Jobs, but he does not spare the reader of Jobs volatile and brutal out-bursts directed at just about anyone he considered a “bozo” or worse. From the beginning, Jobs was a very difficult person to work with. He did not tolerate mediocrity and punished what he thought was mediocre thinking, often publicly. Isaacson offers some insights and ideas as to the cause of Jobs distinctly caustic personality, but most ring hollow. Jobs was a driven and passionate man, with very little empathy—even for family members. Isaacson suggests “people who were not crushed ended up being stronger” and many of the folks interviewed agreed—Jobs drove people to do things they didn’t know they could do. As one of Jobs colleagues Debi Coleman said, “You did the impossible, because you didn’t realize it was impossible.” So the folks he didn’t scare off, appear to have been inspired. Tim Cook, Jobs’ successor offered, “What I learned about Steve was that people mistook some of his comments as ranting or negativism, but it was really just the way he showed passion. So that’s how I processed it, and I never took issue personally.”

My favorite parts of the book were Isaacson’s liberal use of quotes from Jobs. Some quotes bristle with passion, and a few were profound. This one appealed to my notions on pattern cognition:

Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases,  people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them.

Isaacson covers Jobs journey at Apple, NeXT, Pixar, and his triumphant return to Apple. I did not know much about Jobs at Pixar and found it interesting that Jobs was CEO at both companies simultaneously—and both companies had a “different” versions of Jobs. Isaacson says, “Pixar was a haven where Jobs could escape the intensity of Cupertino. At Apple, the managers often excitable and exhausted, Jobs tended to be volatile, and people felt nervous about where they stood with him….It was a Pixar that he learned to let other creative people flourish and take the lead.” Jobs was more hands-on at Apple I sense because he considered it his creation—essentially an extension of his person. I suspect Jobs viewed his role at Pixar as more that of a steward in comparison.

Jobs hated slide presentations (I agree—one great thing about Boyd & Beyond is the general ban on PowerPoint) and said, “People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.” There is a poignant passage towards the end where Jobs was meeting with his team of doctors and the doctor had a PowerPoint presentation. Jobs gently suggested the Apple Keynote program was better.

Jobs, despite his bristly exterior, reached deep in his Zen training and life experience (particularly after his cancer diagnosis) when he spoke at the 2005 Stanford commencement:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices of life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.  

We are a Apple/MacBook Pro family, we have iPhones, iPods, and the iPad on our wish list. Isaacson discusses one thing I’ve noticed with every Apple purchase; the thought put into packaging of the product. Apple packaging is patented and it shows. Jobs alter ego and head Apple designer Jonathan Ive, said, “Steve and I spend a lot of time on the packaging…I love the process of unpacking something. You design a ritual of unpacking to make the product feel special. Packaging can be theater, it can create a story.” I believe we have kept every box our Apple products arrived in—they are works of art.

This book will elicit the spectrum of emotions, there are parts where I was embarrassed or appalled at Jobs poor behavior, there were tender moments towards the end of his storied life that brought a tear to my eye. Isaacson has given us a valuable portrait of a man mathematician Mark Kac “called a magician genius, someone whose insights came out of the blue and require intuition more than mere mental processing power.”

Isaacson’s Steve Jobs comes with my highest recommendation.

NOTE: This is admittedly a different book review for this site. I’ll admit up front that I’m a fan of Jobs and his products—and I know many people hate him passionately and with good reason. I’m sharing this review because Jobs was an iconoclast very similar to John Boyd: people either loved him or hated him. Both men were driven, had poor people skills, and both left rich legacies in completely different areas, and are eminently interesting figures.

Innovating Institutional Cultures

Monday, January 11th, 2010

John Hagel is in a small category of thinkers who manage to routinely be thinking ahead of the curve ( he calls his blog, where he features longer but more infrequent posts than is typical,  Edge Perspectives). I want to draw attention to the core conclusion of his latest:

Challenging Mindsets: From Reverse Innovation to Innovation Blowback

Innovation blowback

Five years ago, John Seely Brown and I wrote an article for the McKinsey Quarterly entitled “Innovation Blowback: Disruptive Management Practices from Asia.” In that article, we described a series of innovations emerging in Asia that were much more fundamental than isolated product or service innovations. We drew attention to a different form of innovation – institutional innovation. In arenas as diverse as motorcycles, apparel, turbine engines and consumer electronics, we detected a much more disruptive form of innovation.

In these very diverse industries, we saw entrepreneurs re-thinking institutional arrangements across very large numbers of enterprises, offering all participants an opportunity to learn faster and innovate more effectively by working together. While Western companies were lured into various forms of financial leverage, these entrepreneurs were developing sophisticated approaches to capability leverage in scalable business networks that could generate not just one product innovation, but an accelerating stream of product and service innovations.

…. Institutional innovation is different – it defines new ways of working together, ways that can scale much more effectively across large numbers of very diverse enterprises. It provides ways to flexibly reconfigure capability while at the same time building long-term trust based relationships that help participants to learn faster. That’s a key breakthrough – arrangements that support scalable trust building, flexibility and learning at the same time. Yet this breakthrough is occurring largely under the radar of most Western executives, prisoners of mindsets that prevent them from seeing these radical changes.

Read the whole thing here.

Hagel is describing a mindset that is decentralized and adaptive with a minimum of barriers to entry that block participation or information flow. One that should be very familiar to readers who are aware of John Boyd’s OODA Loop, the stochastic/stigmergic innovation model of John Robb’s Open Source Warfare, Don Vandergriff’s Adaptive Leadership methodology and so on. It’s a vital paradigm to grasp in order to navigate and thrive in the 21st century.

Western executives (think CEO) may be having difficulty grasping the changes that Hagel describes because they run counter to cultural trends emerging among this generation of transnational elites ( not just big business). Increasingly, formerly quasi-meritocratic and democratic Western elites in their late thirties to early sixties are quietly embracing oligarchic social stratification and use political or institutional power to “lock in” the comparative advantages they currently enjoy by crafting double standards through opaque, unaccountable authorities issuing complex and contradictory regulations, special exemptions and insulating ( isolating) themselves socially and physically from the rest of society. It’s a careerism on steroids reminiscient of the corrupt nomenklatura of the late Soviet period.

As the elite cream off resources and access for themselves they are increasingly cutting off the middle-class from the tools of social mobility and legal equality through policies that drive up barriers to entry and participation in the system. Such a worldview is inherently zero-sum and cannot be expected to notice or value non-zero sum innovations.

In all probability, as an emergent class of rentiers, they fear such innovations when they recognize them. If allowed to solidify their position into a permanent, transnational, governing class, they will take Western society in a terminal downward spiral.

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