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Archive for October, 2011

Observations from the Pointy-End

Monday, October 31st, 2011


An interesting new blog. An operator type, an Iraq and Afghan vet,  quesopaper blogging from AfPakland on situational awareness and much later in the post, on leadership:

Running To Contact

….I thought we’d cover danger in Afghanistan again by examining, “When Insurgents attack.”

A quick aside…over the years one develops a sense for explosions. Some are “ours”…outgoing mortars, rounds from a gun or controlled detonations. We learn the sounds of different weapon systems. A helicopter followed by a high pitched drone and several whooshes is an Apache firing it’s main gun and rockets. Whomp Whomp Whomp  is an M60/M240. Ma duece says Bum Bum Bum. Artillery is LOUD and has a pointy sound when outgoing. Incoming is more spherical.

We also develop a sense of distance and direction for the booms…it’s all part of our survival mechanism. Another aspect is awareness of our surroundings. We constantly scan and consider what to do if we are attacked …where is the nearest bunker or where is the closest safest place?

This sounds frightening, but we all do this. Motorcycle riding is a good analog. When riding we have to be aware of spacing. Scanning for threats and escape routes saves a rider’s life.

The sound that puts me face first on the ground are mortars wobbling towards me. They make a unique sound that I can’t quite describe. Sort of of a frantic flutter…the closest sound I can come up with is the rattle of a door stop when accidentally brushed. Rockets and their vibrating engine sound are also unnerving. If you can hear them flying, they are too damned close…

Very relevant to past blog discussions of fingerspitzegehful and the OODA Loop – a good descriptive narrative, in fact, of OODA working correctly. Theory is not the interest of the quesopaper gent, but his firsthand observations of COIN in Afghanistan are intriguing, for those interested in military policy or theory. Ideas that are often great on a whiteboard or ppt slide but may not seem quite as great once they collide with reality.

Another post from quesopaper, in the vein of theoretical rubber meeting the practitioner road:

What do they Need?

….indulge me while I inject some confusion into our clarity regarding Afghans. This is a paraphrased version of a Benedictine Grima tale from her field work. If one desires knowledge about AfPak, particularly the female’s role, Ms Grima is THE source.

The tale….Two men travel to village 1. While there, they commit robbery and murder. These crimes are detected by local police. The police debate their response, and decide to chase the perpetrators.

They enter the criminal’s village (village 2) where locals set upon the police and kill them. These villagers for whatever reason don’t appreciate nor require police involvement in their affairs. Villages 1 and 2 are content to solve crimes of any type within their own system of justice. In response to the police incursion, village 2 blocks outside access to the road preventing further police/outsider interference. Up the road a bit, the next village (village 3) hears of this incident. The road blockage makes them fighting mad. A village 2 v. village 3 mini-war occurs; people die. Why? Village 3 needs that road to survive or, shoot-some other reason. We don’t and honestly; we can’t know.

The point isn’t “should we” or “shouldn’t we” be here; that’s a different blog…Fact is we are here.

So let’s do this…Let me take you to a village. You comment below on how we are going to help….maybe we’ll all learn something….

Read the rest here.

The Myth of British Counterinsurgency?

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

This SSI monograph by Dr. Andrew Mumford should stir some robust debate in the COIN community:

Puncturing the Counterinsurgency Myth: Britain and Irregular Warfare in the Past, Present, and Future

Most of Mumford’s points are valid criticisms but I need to quibble with Myth # 1 The British Military is an Effective Learning Institution:


According to John Nagl, the British succeeded in Malaya-in contrast to the American failure in Vietnam-because the British army had an organizational culture akin to a so-called “learning institution,” whereby the army quickly adapted to COIN conditions and changed tactics accordingly.2 The array of operational activity, ranging from limited to total war, that the British army has experienced has arguably led to a greater degree of pragmatism in its military outlook. A dogmatic adherence to rigid military doctrine has been absent, which, when compared to the generation-long postmortem on the failure of U.S. strategy in Vietnam, perhaps explains more than most other factors why an almost mythic reputation has descended upon the British. However, this does not explain, nor should it obscure, the languid application of appropriate irregular warfare tactics and the absence of swift strategic design. When it comes to COIN, the British are slow learners.

The early phases of nearly every campaign in the classical era were marred by stagnancy, mismanagement, and confusion. The military was 2 years into the Malayan Emergency before it conceived of a cohesive civil-military strategy in the form of the Briggs Plan. The crucial early years of the troubles in Northern Ireland were marked by displays of indiscriminate force and an inability to modulate the response.3

The Director of the United Kingdom (UK) Defence Academy also concedes that, in relation to Northern Ireland, “[I]t is easy in the light of the later success . . . to forget the early mistakes and the time it took to rectify them.”4 As Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely rightly observes, the Malayan Emergency was, “a much lauded counterinsurgency campaign, but often overlooked is the fact that in the early years . . . the British Army achieved very little success.” In COIN terms, therefore, the British have been consistently slow to implement an effective strategy and achieve operational success. Moreover, the vast body of campaign experience has not translated into a cogent COIN lesson-learning process within the British military. The very need to re-learn COIN in the post-September 11, 2001 (9/11) conflict environment has undermined assertions as to the British military’s being an effective learning institution. Such amnesia has created an imperative for the armed forces now to hone their lesson-learning abilities while simultaneously adapting to the intricate challenges of sub-state and transnational post-Maoist insurgent violence in the third millennium.

What sort of time frame is reasonable for “organizational learning” – that is, transforming a large, hierarchical, bureaucratic entity’s conceptualization and understanding of a situation and reforming and adapting it’s practices in light of experience? How fast can this really happen? An org is not an individual, two years while under fire does not seem slow to me. Am I missing something in Mumford’s argument?

Furthermore, I infer from the third paragraph that Mumford expects evidence of learning were for the Brits to have arrived in Basra good-to-go on COIN doctrine. Learning, whether in a person or org, is not represented by doctrine (lessons frozen in time) but rather a capacity to adapt to new circumstances. Mumford is on firmer ground criticizing British general officers for their blind assumption that they had all the answers on counterinsurgency  while the ragtag Mahdi Army bullied and ran circles around British units.

A monograph worth reading.

Hat tip to Lexington Green and SWJ Blog)

Rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods and the OWS library

Friday, October 28th, 2011

[ by Charles Cameron — Jefferson, economics of possession and ideas, Occupy COG, library ]


photo credit: Monique Zamir for Untapped Cities



Let’s start with Thomas Jefferson. I don’t know if he was the first to mention this curious distinction on record, but he makes the point nicely:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

John Perry Barlow quotes that gobbit of Jefferson as the epigraph to his essay, The Economy of Ideas.


Here’s Lawrence Lessig, in his essay Against perpetual copyright:

Tangible goods are rivalrous goods

For one person to gain some tangible item, another person must lose it. For one person to gain the ownership of some piece of land, the previous owner must surrender ownership. T his is the ordinary state of physical property, and the laws around physical property are designed around this fact. Property taxes, zoning laws, and similar legal constructs are examples of how the law relates to physical property.

Intellectual works are non-rivalrous

Intellectual works are ordinarily non-rivalrous. It is possible for someone to teach a work of the mind to another without unlearning it himself. For example, one, or two, or a hundred people can memorize the same poem at the same time. Here the term “work of the mind” refers not to physical items such books or compact discs or DVD’s, but rather to the intangible content those physical objects contain.


As someone whose work falls almost entirely in the “non-rivalrous” category, I am naturally very interested by this distinction, both for my own sake, and because (if the coming economy is an “information” or “imagination” economy) it may be the hinge on which the future of that economy turns…


Which brings me to the Occupy movement, and to this curious fact which I found in an article I didn’t otherwise read. It’s from David Graeber, On Playing By The Rules – The Strange Success Of #OccupyWallStreet :

It’s no coincidence that the epicenter of the Wall Street Occupation, and so many others, is an impromptu library: a library being not only a model of an alternative economy, where lending is from a communal pool, at 0% interest, and the currency being lent is knowledge, and the means to understanding.

In quoting this, I mean neither to endorse nor to condemn the movement, but simply to note that its center of gravity as described here (although technically, books are rivalrous goods) falls clearly within the non-rivalrous category: it is a market-place of ideas.


As a one-time tank-thinker, I was trained to spot early indicators.

I don’t know what this one means, but I suspect it’s an indicator.  Give me another to pair it with, and I may be able to foresee a trend.

What do you see?


I spotted a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov‘s  The Master and Margarita in one of the photos.


photo credit: Blaine O’Neill under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license

and DH Lawrence, Sons and Lovers and Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories; Strindberg, The Plays and Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape; Dr Who, yeah and Star Wars too; William Gibson‘s Neuromancer and his Mona Lisa Overdrive; Max Marwick‘s Witchcraft and Sorcery; Orson Scott Card‘s Ender’s Game and Lewis Carroll‘s Alice in Wonderland — and for the politics of it all, Marina Sitrin, Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina and Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict… which I’ve linked for your convenience.


For what it’s worth…

Nathan Schneider‘s article, What ‘diversity of tactics’ really means for Occupy Wall Street, cites blog-friend David Ronfeldt‘s study (with John Arqilla) Swarming & the Future of Conflict — along with (among others) Gene Sharp, whose work I discussed here a few months back.

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.

Request for Information from the Readership

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Need some help with a project at work. 

Looking to assemble a fast-and-dirty reading list for laymen that deals with the following topics:

Social intelligence, Emotional self-regulation, Emotion and learning, De-escalation of conflict, Attention, Self-Efficacy

Interested in both academic (for reference) and middlebrow (for distribution) titles, particularly those that contain interpersonal strategies and organizational culture angles. Links to journal or magazine articles or whatever else you deem useful will also be appreciated.

Fire away, the more the better.

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