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Archive for April, 2010

Echevarria – War in the Post-Clausewitz Era?

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

From the Strategy Conference…….

Epistemology is More Important than Politics

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

I found this interesting. It is science and technology journalist Micheal Specter at TED where he is blasting “science denial”:

I may be wrong, but I suspect that Specter’s political and perhaps, economic, views, are to the left of my own. That’s ok – he has a scientific-empirical-rational epistemology, which means there’s an intellectual common ground where debates can actually be resolved or final conclusions arrived at that can be recognized as sensible, even if disagreement based on value choices remained.

More and more, I run across people on the Left and Right using magical, tribalistic, emotionally atavistic or other variations of irrational thinking to justify their positions. Worse, this intellectual equivalent of grunting tends to be coupled with a churlishly defiant refusal to honestly consider the costs (monetary or opportunity) involved or the logical, and still less, the unintended, consequences. Am I just getting old, or is this social phenomena getting rapidly worse?

Ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of because we are all, in varying degrees, ignorant about many things. The important choice as individuals and as a society is adopting an epistemology of rational-scientific-empiricism that, if steadily applied, allows us to chip away at our ignorance and become aware of our errors and solve problems.  On the other hand, adopting a posture of belligerent, stubborn, defense of our own ignorance by evading facts, logic and the conclusions drawn from the evidence of experience is the road to certain disaster.

Our epistemic worldview matters.

Recommended Reading

Monday, April 26th, 2010


No “top billing” this week.

Thomas P.M. BarnettThe fastest and most likely route to breaking the magic 50 boundary and Feudalism replaced by “Democratic centralism” replaced by feudalism replaced by …?

Medvedev talks of needed modernization, but it is a still-born notion so long as Putin remains co-ruler. Thus the muddle-through option that defines much of Russian history remains operative until word comes definitively from Putin as to his plans in 2012.

Putin prefers a non-competitive environment in which his state-run companies and those piloted in the private sector by his cronies can dominate. So long as that remains the case, Russia’s economy will remain more cannibalistic than innovative.

Chicago Boyz (Lexington Green) –Col. Frederick Gustavus Burnaby 

 Col. Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, late of the Royal Horse Guards (the Blues), author of A Ride to Khiva: Travels and Adventures in Central Asia and On Horseback Through Asia Minor. He was also a pioneering aeronaut, author of A Ride Across the Channel: and Other Adventures in the Air. Col. Burnaby met his death in the hand-to-hand fighting of the Battle of Abu Klea, 1885. Queen Victoria fainted when she heard of his death.

The Duck of Minerva (Bill Petti)Statistics is the New Grammar

….In thinking about this I remembered an argument I had with a number of colleagues while in grad school over why they had to be at least somewhat literate in quantitative analysis and game theory since they never intended to use such methods. Given that we will only see an increase of data and data-based (no pun intended) arguments, policies, and decisions we need to, at a minimum, be able to understand how the results were achieved and whether or not the studies are flawed

Agreed. You don’t need to be a quant or be able to do quant things. You need to be able to recognize when a quant’s work may be incompetent, misleading or is being misrepresented by a third party for nefarious ends.

Wings Over IraqDo Aviators Get COIN–A Resounding “Yes”

I should have brought attention to this post sooner – Starbuck is a victim of my creeping blogging burn-out. 🙂 

  The AH-64 and OH-58 pilots, as a general rule, seemed to understand COIN better than the UH-60 and CH-47 pilots (“skirts”, as we’re known). This is likely because these aviators are employing weapons on the battlefield and have to think about the effects of their weapons systems.

One of the most profound statements came from an Apache pilot, who spent a few weeks in a targeting class. The first few days of the class focused on the principles of Islam and Muslim culture. At first, he found the emphasis a little bizarre; however, upon his deployment to Iraq, he quickly learned the importance of culture. As he looked at the ramshackle buildings and farms below him, he could see a man’s livelihood–his only means of supporting his family. Damaging a farm or killing goats might cause an entire family to go hungry–something we must always consider when employing weapons systems on the battlefield. This shouldn’t be an excuse to never fire–just another factor to take into consideration before firing. Wiping out a farmer’s livelihood might drive him to seek an alternate form of employment: insurgency.

Josh Foust features “Kabul Expat”, who wins points for the following para from How to Write About Afghanistan:

….Never have a picture of a well-adjusted Afghan accompanying your article. (Make an exception for Afghans you want to be president.) A stoned cop, a woman in a burka begging, a scowling man holding a Kalashnikov: use these. If you must include an Afghan who is not miserable or threatening, make sure you get an elderly farmer with very few teeth, or a little girl holding a baby goat.

No teeth….a love of goats….feuding…..Afghanistan is kinda like the Scotland of the Hindu Kush without decent golf or widespread alcoholism.

A weird juxtaposition I’d never expected, Col. Pat Lang blogging on South Park. He also had a pragmatic take on Arizona’s immigration enforcement law.

The Strategist amused many, including me, with the following graphic:

That’s it!

Thought Experiment

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010


Oligarchy is not good.

 ….But as soon as the people got leaders, they cooperated with them against the dynasty for the reasons I have mentioned; and then kingship and despotism were alike entirely abolished, and aristocracy once more began to revive and start afresh. For in their immediate gratitude to those who had deposed the despots, the people employed them as leaders, and entrusted their interests to them; who, looking upon this charge at first as a great privilege, made the public advantage their chief concern, and conducted all kinds of business, public or private, with diligence and caution.

16    But when the sons of these men received the same position of authority from their fathers-having had no experience of misfortunes, and none at all of civil equality and freedom of speech, but having been bred up from the first under the shadow of their fathers’ authority and lofty position-some of them gave themselves up with passion to avarice and unscrupulous love of money, others to drinking and the boundless debaucheries which accompanies it, and others to the violation of women or the forcible appropriation of boys; and so they turned an aristocracy into an oligarchy. But it was not long before they roused in the minds of the people the same feelings as before; and their fall therefore was very like the disaster which befell the tyrants.

                                                       – Polybius

I have made, from time to time, the observation that the elite in American society is trending in its favored policies toward conscious promotion of oligarchy. Over at The Committee of Public Safety, Joseph Fouche quoted a theorist, retired CIA analyst Patrick E. Kennon, who is a delighted advocate of a coming technocratic oligarchy:

“Now, as we enter the twenty-first century, the future of the nation-state is much in doubt…Indeed, tribalism has revived with a brutal savagery from Rwanda and Cambodia to the newly dissolved USSR and the newly unified Germany…At the same time, a kind of shadow empire…is being embraced by elites around the globe. UN bureaucrats and Greenpeace activists, Carlos the Jackal and Mother Theresa, Toyota and Amnesty International, the Cali drug cartel and the World Bank, people who worry about the dollar-yen ratio and people who worry about the ozone layer, all of these consciously or unconsciously look to empire for their profit or salvation. All of these have largely given up on the nation.”

Oligarchs elevate self-interest and class interest over national interest, it’s the signature of oligarchy, be it the Thirty Tyrants or the Soviet nomenklatura. Milovan Djilas knew what the hell he was writing about as much as did Thucydides.

What to do?

The proto-oligarchical class in America, the elite who are the product of “the good schools”, tend to embrace and celebrate progressive taxation and diversity as high moral principles. What if we applied them?

The gateway to membership in the elite and opportunities for fabulous wealth and power runs through the admissions offices of our best universities, the Ivy League and a few other select intitutions and a handful of old, highly exclusive, liberal arts colleges. What if we put a special surtax on the purchase of tuition on a sliding scale that correlated with how many generations that members of a family have matriculated at such schools? Plus a few other tweaks here and there.

For example, a student who is the first in their family to go to college and was accepted by Yale would not be taxed at all, perhaps instead, they would be subsidized with a free ride for four years. But someone like Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, a Dartmouth grad who was the son of a Dartmouth grad and a Ford Foundation executive, his kids might face a steep penalty, maybe a $ 250,000 per annum fee on top of tuition, then an additional surcharge to their income tax rates if they entered government service or certain professions like, say, hedge fund management, for the next couple of decades. Entering a different field, say becoming a social worker, a bowling alley manager or a policeman would not incur any income tax surcharge.

We can argue about the appropriate level of progressive taxation but the basic idea is that we could make it increasingly expensive for a family to continue to perpetuate itself, generation after generation, at the political and economic heart of American power. Not impossible, that would be un-American, but very, very expensive.

The net result would be far greater “diversity” at our flagship educational institutions – far more white ethnics whose last names end in vowels, Catholics, Jews, Eastern Orthodox, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, Southerners, Midwesterners and Westerners, people hailing from small towns or blue collar socioeconomic backgrounds. Currently favored demographic groups might be markedly reduced under such a system but since most of them come from long established UMC to UC families with great connections, they’ll be ok even going to Big State U. and getting a third tier school degree.  No worries.


Thinking With a Fresh Mind

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

A brief anecdote.

Today, a student came to me with a question that their science instructor could not answer (the curriculum is mostly intro to chem with some classical physics). I am in no way, shape or form, a scientist or even a teacher of science, but the students know I’m interested in many odd things and like to reason through intriguing problems with them. The student asked:

“How can a photon – which has 0 mass – have 0 kinetic energy even though it is moving? If it does have mass, how can a photon go the speed of light?”

Now, I knew that the answer had to be explained via quantum mechanics and was fuzzily certain it was because particles did not behave as particles should in this scenario, but the ability to give a coherent and scientifically accurate explanation that related to the student’s current knowledge base was beyond me. I do not have a good enough grasp of the basics of quantum physics to lead the student to particles and waves through a series of questions. So, after complimenting him on his insightful question, I said I would contact an expert, Dr. Von, and get him a concise, equation-free, answer, which Von helpfully provided.

The point here, however, is not the answer (Newtonian physics is invalid at this scale and momentum is redefined in relativity theory which leads to particle-wave duality, uncertainty and other aspects of quantum mechanics) but the excellence of the student’s thinking that went into the question.

The student knew very little about physics except what was presented in the course – essentially, some laws of Newtonian physics, basic constituent parts of matter, simple atomic models etc. Given that information and having – this part is critical – no prior assumptions, having understood the “rules”, in a few minutes he identified a contradiction or paradox that undermined the authority of an elegantly constructed system of great explanatory power, conceived by the greatest genius to ever walk the Earth.

Not too shabby for a younger American teen-ager. Remember him the next time some loudmouthed fool opines how worthless kids are today or how they learn nothing at school.

Obviously, my student is quite bright, but his reasoning was also not polluted with the preconceptions we all pick up as we gain ever greater depth of mastery of a field. It was fundamentally new to him, so he did not yet have the kind of blind confidence in “the rules that everyone knows to be true” possessed by most adults and nearly all experts. He was still skeptical. Few content domain experts are innovaters for this reason. They are mostly overconfident masters with answers – not makers who create or discover the novel by asking questions. They are not skeptics, they are guardians of received knowledge.

We all need to step back, periodically, from the rush of life and our own pride and try to look at the things we think we know with a fresh mind.

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