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Of hot spots and feedback loops

[ by Charles Cameron — with a pinch of humility which, if you ask me, burns hotter than any pepper ]


Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations‘ Politics, Power, and Preventive Action blog raised a question yesterday that I found irresistible:


To be more exact, and exercise just a little humility, the question I found so exciting was really the one Crispin Burke posed, in a tweet pointing to Zenko’s piece:


So I read Zenko’s post with Burke’s term “hot spot” in the back of my head, and when I responded to Zenko, did so in terms of hot spots. Which because they’re like the celebrated “dots” we’re often told we’ve failed to connect, triggered some thoughts that I think are worth repeating, even if the phrasing is a little off from Zenko’s own.

And the only real benefit I can see from my carrying Burke’s “hot spots” over into Zenko’s post is that it raised the issue of peppers, which adds a little spice to my response, and gave me a great graphic to go at the top of this post.

Okay, here’s the key sentence that frames Zenko’s post:

If you ask ten forecasters to predict the next conflict, you’ll likely get ten very different answers. But, they will agree on one thing: it is impossible to know for sure where and when the next conflict will emerge.

Zenko may not mention hot spots as such, but already two things stand out for me: he uses the words “where and when” and “the next” — so he’s thinking in geographic terms and short timelines. In his title, he asks about 2013, which is almost in the greetings card section of my local Safeway by now. And he sees trouble in terms of places, not systems.


Here’s the response I posted at his CFR blog:

A given hot spot may only be hot when coupled with another spot in a feedback loop – and the two spots may be widely separated geographically.

To my way of thinking, an assessment of incipient troubles needs to look for feedback loops, blowback systems, echo chambers – all of them patterned phenomena that are likely to feature both sides of a potential or ongoing conflict from a systems analytic point of view. A microphone isn’t a hot spot, a loudspeaker isn’t a hot spot, but put the two of them in the same acoustic system and you can generate an ear-shattering howl…

I’d look at “strong” versions of Islamophobic rhetoric and “strong” versions of Islamist rhetoric as a single system transglobally, for example, and I’d want to figure out what would cause dampening effects on both sides.

Another tack I’d take is to ask questions like “what’s in our blind spots” and “what’s under the radar” – I vividly recall hearing Ali Allawi tell a session at the Jamestown Foundation that within Iraq, “most of the dissident Shi’a movements not within the ambit of the political process have very strong Madhist tendencies” and that they were “flying under our radar” — despite the fact that US forces had been involved in a major battle with one such group outside Najaf.

I’ll post a more extended response on Zenpundit – but for now, I’d just like to throw in one additional question: is there a Scoville Scale for the “hotness of spots” as there is for peppers? It’s hard to know how to think through potential vulnerabilities without some sense of both intensity and probability of risk…


Forget Scoville and his habaneros — let’s get to the meat and potatoes.

I’ll be straightforward about this. I suspect we’re doing our intelligence analysis and decision-making with only one cerebral hemisphere fully functioning — ie with only half a brain — like halfwits one might almost say, but in a strictly metaphorical manner — without benefit of corpus callosum.

We don’t have the leaf > twig > branch > limb > tree > forest > watershed > continent > world zoom down yet.

We don’t think in systems, we think in data points.

Blecch, or d’oh! — your choice.


So my questions — and I don’t claim by any means to have an exhaustive list, that’s why we have many and varied bright people instead of just one or two — would be along the lines of:

  • how many kinds of metaphorical dry kindling are there in the world, which could turn into metaphorical wildfires?
  • and what sorts of metaphorical sparks could trigger them?
  • where are the rumblings?
  • what are the undercurrents of strong emotion running in different sociological slices of the world, that can be discerned from open sources such as the comments sections of online news media, conspiracy sites, religious group and subgroup (sect/cult) teachings, eccentric political movements, strands of pop culture — fanfic, comics, graffiti — single issue blocs?
  • where are the feedback loops, the parallelisms and oppositions, the halls of mirrors, the paradoxes, the koans, the antitheses, the conceptual antipodes?
  • where does energy drain from the system, and where does it collect, pool, and stagnate?
  • and perhaps most of all, what do we do, ourselves, wittingly or unwittingly, that tends to irritate others enough that they do unto us?
  • and do we consciously want to keep doing those things, and the blowback be damned?
  • **

    Where do we go from here. I think Zen (the Zen of Zenpundit, not the Zen of Zenko in this case) is right: we need to cross-weave our “vertical thinking” tendencies with “horizontal thinking” — see Zen’s posts on understanding cognition 1 and 2, which I take to be foundational for this blog.

    It’s the horizontal part that I’m trying to develop here, in my series of posts under the rubric of “form is insight” — because I think we have the other half of the equation, or the other cerebral hemisphere if you prefer, fairly well in hand.

    As always, it’s our vulnerabilities, dependencies, deficits and blind-spots we should be paying most attention to.

    5 Responses to “Of hot spots and feedback loops”

    1. Lexington Green Says:

      There is a major problem with horizontal thinking.  Horizontal thinkers will (almost) always be marginalized, even when they are right.  People who are granted decision making power, or whose views are influential, are senior people in some existing organization.  They have earned their place by focus and specialization.  They have prestige, and other people want to be associated with them. They are trained to believe that their organization or discipline provides the outcomes or the answers, though the better ones are aware that this is wrong.  A horizontal thinker has necessarily NOT been a person who has driven to the top of one of the stovepipes, to mix a metaphor.  Therefore it is politically risky for others to be associated with that person.  Further, the horizontal thinker will NOT be able to best an insider on the details, so he can be dragged into the weeds in any discussion and discredited for “not knowing what he is talking about.”  The political finesse required to surmount this sort of attack is not always present in horizontal thinkers, who are often unpopular, cranky, offbeat, an outsider, a loner, or otherwise not good at the serpentine awareness of subtleties that allows the successful insider to get his views heard and acted on. Further, the insiders are threatened by someone outside the usual hierarchy offering proposals or suggestions, because if they are accepted it makes the regular players look bad.  So, to the extent horizontal thinkers are noticed, they will not be ignored, but attacked.  There are a few possible resolutions to this.  1.  Be like John Boyd, have an ascetical commitment to your vision and its importance, live on nothing, have nothing that can be threatened, and speak the truth as you see it to anyone who will listen; 2.  Become the trusted advisor to someone powerful enough to protect you, and work through that person, whether employed as a subordinate or as a trusted outside confidante; 3. Become a guru who acquires a public reputation outside the usual stove pipes, which makes you harder to attack and more respectable to pay attention to, e.g Peter Drucker, Marshall McLuhan; 4. Create a community or movement that is of high enough quality that it takes on a collective guru-like quality. 

      The way to think horizontally is one thing, the way to promote action based on horizontal insights is a separate one, and one which horizontal thinkers rarely surmount.  

    2. Dave Schuler Says:

      On the subject of “strands of pop culture” it might be my imagination but it sounds to me as though the Australians are getting increasingly worried about the Chinese.  I ran across an Australian equivalent to Red Dawn recently and stumbled across some unrelated articles complaining about China, Fiji, and China’s involvement there.

    3. zen Says:

      Great post, Charles! Superb 
      The metaphorical wildfires are built from the fuel of myth, iconic image, values and the visceral reaction of the limbic system connecting to a concrete, contemporary, event. Demagoguery is throwing sparks in hopes an act of arson will materialize.
      Hi Lex,
      That was a very good summary.
      I would add that most good horizontal thinkers *are* experts in something rather than being *pure* generalists. Boyd, for example was “the” (not just “an” ) expert (though he hated the title) in aerial fighter tactics and an ordinarily credentialed expert in engineering; the two together made him an expert at critiquing airplane design and performance – moreso than most people actually trained to design and build fighter aircraft. Boyd used multiple tactics you outlined (protectors, advising, asceticism, guru) which compensated in part for his combative personality. 
      It’s hard not to underestimate the effectiveness of EQ/temperament here in being influential as a horizontal thinker. Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman are/were brilliant physicists but they were more readily “heard” outside their own disciplines not only because their intellectual powers were formidable and respected but because they were pleasant, charming and entertaining instead of continuously throwing firebombs at every target within range. 

    4. Mr. X Says:


      To answer the previous commenter’s question, the Aussie Red Dawn (shot apparently with mostly Filipino or Indonesian actors) is called “Tomorrow When the War Began” — the trailer is here and it’s worth noting that the new 2012 redacted (at the Chinese Communist government’s request, apparently) Red Dawn remake opens with a remarkably similar scene, complete with the same style of modern transports disgorging paratroopers on Pacific Northwest (actually probably filmed in British Columbia) small town USA.
      The themes from the early leaked proofs of Chinese ‘rebuilding your economy’ propaganda posters and the Chinese (now North Koreans) coming to claim on America’s (apparently repudiated) debt were removed to make the story more palatable. The violence is also interestingly enough toned DOWN compared to the 1980s original which presented the themes of collaboration, violence and hopeless situations more starkly and perhaps realistically despite the logistically absurd premise that the Soviets would be able to invade the U.S. alongside Cubans and Nicaraguans via Alaska and Mexico. I should add here that the original Red Dawn continues to haunt America’s consciousness in the sense that even a minor exercise involving Russian paratroopers in Colorado induced lots of hysteria recently on the Internet. Why the Pentagon chose COLORADO where the Russian invasion story was set versus Ft. Irwin in California, White Sands in New Mexico or a half dozen other very large military bases where the storyline was NOT set I leave to your imagination. But it certainly looked to me like a pysop designed to provoke the ‘bitter clingers’ into silly season ‘the Russians are coming speculation’ ala Steve Quayle saying an invasion was imminent.

      I thought this link might be of interest to less hardcore, newly arrived readers to Zen, whereby the ‘insurgents’ Mr. Cartalucci of Bangkok, Thailand speaks of are corporatists, not of the X-Files black helicopter or UN flag flying variety, but more garden variety globalist captains of Davos/Bildeberg etc. with contempt for the nation-state and the local communities that they see as so many Lilliputians tying down their ubermensch Gulliver:
      Like I’ve said many times, one need not become an Alex Jones to see transnational corporatism, paired with all the tools of ultramodern surveillance and coercive control over the food and mineral supplies of the planet, as the next great ideological threat if Islamism burns itself out in (partially outsider-instigated) Sunni-Shia bloodbaths like Syria. 

    5. Marshall Says:

      That’s pretty good, Cameron. I like your list of questions a lot.

      I’d want to add to your toolbox of feedback loops the idea of Connectors – something I see in what you write, but without a name quite yet. People are connected in a lot of ways that serve to reduce tension. Obviously, in a hot spot, the Connectors weren’t strong enough to dampen the tension. That doesn’t mean they aren’t still there and they can be used as part of a strategy to mitigate violence.

      I’m somewhat curious about the question Zenko asks. There are already conflicts that should be on the agenda. Why are they less interesting than new ones? To riff off of your response, the already active hot spots are already feeding the tensions in other areas, so maybe one way to head off the new ones is to deal with the current ones?

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