Monthly Archives: August 2010

Am I a hypocrite?

My last post has been bugging me all day.  After all I’ve written many, many times about organizational change and the need to try alternate ways to forcing the system to change when traditional methods don’t pay off.  And so, what do I do when somebody does what I’ve been advocating?  I trash the dude.

So, nertz to me.

Update:  ARGH!  Now I see a number of bloggers have decided to write about things they got wrong making it appear I’m a mindless lemming, slavishly following their lead.

Oh well.  At least I’ve never been wrong about anything else…

PowerPoint takes another hit

So, what to make of the recent editorial by Col Sellin in which he describes ISAF Joint Command (or IJC which is an acronym within an acronym and kind of seems like an ouroboros to me) as a do-nothing HQ which focuses on:

…endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals in order to spoon-feed them information.

I didn’t find the substance of what Col. Sellin said particularly shocking.  I mean, c’mon.  HQs are always bloated, overly choreographed affairs, aren’t they?  I mean, I can remember being at JRTC in the late ’90s and being amazed that the staff officer in charge of the evening shift change brief would start pestering us for our slides at 10am!  I agree, you’d hope that sort of nonsense would fall to the wayside when there was actually a war going on (and one we’re struggling with) but I can’t say I’m totally surprised.

In that regard, I’m really coming to appreciate Afghanistan circa 2003.  Bagram was relatively stable and secure yet it was so new that the bureaucracy hadn’t yet had a chance to crystallize.  It was a time when a couple of NCOs or some company grade officers could actually do stuff without having to figure how to maneuver through a byzantine system (Of course, that was a bit of a double edged sword and there were plenty of bad things that came about from that system too…).

He does hit on what I think is an important point (yeah, go ahead and plug one of your own posts again.  eds.).  The information we’re collecting isn’t being collated and organized so it isn’t getting absorbed into the collective conscious.  Instead, we’ve got…

Each briefer has approximately 1 or 2 minutes to impart either information or misinformation. Usually they don’t do either. Fortunately, none of the information provided makes an indelible impact on any of the generals.

One important task of the IJC is to share information to the ISAF commander, his staff and to all the regional commands. This information is delivered as PowerPoint slides in e-mail at the flow rate of a fire hose. Standard operating procedure is to send everything that you have. Volume is considered the equivalent of quality.

Unfortunately, I’d have to say that’s not unique to Afghanistan or even the military.  Current law enforcement thinking on the use of ‘fusion centers’ is all about pumping information out and not so much on giving it context or meaning.  I suspect that’s just a feature of the ‘lessons’ we’ve internalized over the past 10 years:  that the chief flaw in our failure to prevent 9/11 was that information wasn’t being shared enough.  So now, we share everything ‘just in case’ or hoping that the right piece of information will stick in the right place if thrown around enough.

And this is where Col. Sellin falls short.  He’s got a platform to talk and reach a lot of people and what does he do?  He confines himself to pissin’ and moanin’ about how everything sucks and leaves us hanging.  Look, he clearly knew he was putting his position in risk by writing this article so could he have really said anything that would have worsened his position?  If you’re going to start your article professing what big balls you have (“Throughout my career I have been known to walk that fine line between good taste and unemployment. I see no reason to change that now.”) then don’t soft peddle it when you get to the end.  If the ICJ needs to be disbanded or every one, two and three star general needs to be relieved for incompetence than say so (maybe bring back decimation?).

And that’s where I have a bit of doubt.  Col. Sellin was in his position for two months when he wrote that letter and had obviously reached a position of total disgust (and believe me, I totally sympathize with the guy…I’ve been there…several times).  It would be interesting to know what, if anything, he did to try to change the system he describes.  Even in a place where you ‘can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a colonel’ you’ve got leeway.  There are always some workarounds.  And even for someone as impatient as me, two months isn’t a terribly long time to exhaust all the potential possibilities for change, is it?

And so, is it possible that Col. Sellin’s letter was a self inflicted wound?  A guy who decides that this gig isn’t quite as fun/interesting/important/whatever that he originally thought and needs to find a way out?  Sure, he could pull a Cpl. Klinger but this letter did quite a good job.  Is there any way they could have kept him there?  After all, he essentially called every general officer in range a mindless drone.  How could you keep the guy around without threatening good order and discipline? And he did tell Danger Room “I feel quite rather alone here at the moment.” (Uh, yeah…you just called everyone in your vicinity an idiot..it may be true but did you really expect a group hug afterwords?)

Sellin says he tried to send constructive criticism up the chain before he typed out his UPI piece. He gave his superiors a briefing on “proven organizational methodologies” to streamline IJC, but it went nowhere. “It was only my rant that everyone read,” he says. …The irony? His briefing was a five-slide PowerPoint.

Gentlemen, we have met the enemy and he is us….
UpdateTom Ricks has a letter from Col. Sellin who gives a bit more of his perspective:
I was assigned to the ISAF Joint Command (IJC) in Kabul for the last two months. Since arriving in Afghanistan my job had changed twice and in both cases I had no clear duties. Twice I asked my superiors for a more substantive assignment.
With that in mind and after two months of observing the IJC function and speaking with people from all the sections, I decided to write a tongue-in-cheek description, an obviously over-the-top and sarcastic article hopefully containing threads of constructive criticism woven into the text.
It’s my experience that if you need to explain how a piece of writing was satire and lay out more plainly the central ideas of what your were trying to say you probably didn’t do a very good job to start with.  Especially if your primary theme is that the general officers (the ones who can institute the change your talking about and, therefore, one of your primary audiences) are a bunch of knuckleheads, you probably don’t want to go for subtle threads of ideas.  You want to knock them over the head.  Besides, what are they going to do?  Kick you out of a war zone?
But, here he identifies some important issues:
A second theme was the way in which organizations function and why they don’t e.g. stovepipes, ad hoc or absent processes, run-away egos or adding bodies as a solution to every problem.
Maybe it’s just me but I much prefer this second letter (as a means to an end) to the first.
I, unfortunately, can completely relate to Col. Sellin’s frustration and sympathize with his position.  Events like this are a sign that you have a motivated person whose energy is being stifled.  That energy is going to express itself one way or another, if you suppress it through stupefying bureaucracy you’re likely to get events like this.  (Or a blog named after your dog, right?  eds.)
I suspect these organizations are simply too big to change, even if everyone agreed they were all screwed up without some major shock to the system.  Col. Sellin just ended up being collateral damage.
(h/t P.K.)

Late for work

Yeah…I’ve been there

Devouring your brain through your earbuds

Just a notice that the quite excellent full cast zombie podcast ‘We’re Alive‘ is back with season 2.  I strongly recommend listening to the whole thing (you can download and listen to season 1) but if you don’t have the time they actually made a two episode recap of the first season so you can jump right into the new stuff.

The War of Transnistria

EnglishRussia has some photos from the War of Transnistria from back in 1992.  From Wikipedia:

The War of Transnistria involved armed clashes on a limited scale that broke out between Transnistrian Republican Guard, militia and Cossack units, supported by the Russian 14th army, and Moldovan troops and police forces as early as November 1990 at Dubăsari (Russian: Дубоссáры, Dubossary). Fighting intensified on 1 March 1992, with the accession of newly independent Moldova into the UN and alternated by ad hoc ceasefires, lasted throughout spring and early summer 1992 until a ceasefire was declared on 21 July 1992, which has held ever since.

How old is this kid?  12?

And, I’m not sure how good this thing would be in a fight.  It might do fine in a zombie apocalypse though…

Check it out, there’s lots more to see.

I’ll see your list and raise you another!

The Armchair Generalist riffs off a post about the best Sci-fi movies around.

Scientific American has its own list of its favorite apocalyptic fiction…The list has some fluff in it and so it’s not a ‘best of’ (how could it be with ‘Armageddon’ and ‘Deep Impact’?)  Still, there are some gems there so here’s my distilled list of favorites from theirs:

And now…a bit of fun.

Friday Music

Tapping the Vein – Broken

Heather has a phenomenal voice…

Expert or just an incredible imitation…

Once in awhile I get asked a question, deferred to on some matter that implies I know  what the hell I’m talking about.  On particularly rare occasions I’m explicitly identified as knowledgeable in my field.  I always feel uncomfortable in those circumstances.  While I think I usually have a fairly decent grasp of what’s going on there’s always that nagging feeling that just at a critical moment my doppleganger will rise up from the back of the room and shout “Stop that man!  He’s a fraud!”  Gasps and shock ensues, rioting and looting erupts, cows lay eggs and chickens give milk.

Dan Drezner has a nice post about what it means to be an expert and how one gets there from here.  It’s sort of geared for students but, really, applies to everyone.  A quick glance at the list shouldn’t reveal anything too surprising yet allow me to draw your attention to item #2 on his list:

2)  Read a lot.  I mean, read a whole damn lot.  Don’t just read the books and articles that are assigned to you in class.  Read the stuff that you notice popping up repeatedly in the footnotes and bibliographies of your assigned reading.  Read the classics.  Read cutting edge work.  Read anything that seems of value.  When you get to the point where you think you’re seeing recurring arguments, then you’re approaching the cusp of expertise.

I’ve known and worked with a lot of analysts in the military and civilian field.  I’m stunned (I mean totally baffled) by how little most of them read.  I suspect part of this is due to the shabby selection process most agencies have for selecting analysts or, even more problematic, they’re hiring what they want and just calling them analysts because they don’t really grasp what they’re talking about.  It may sound elitist but serious warning bells start sounding in my head when I hear someone in an analyst position say something like “Yeah, I don’t really like to read.” or “Nah, news and politics and junk…that stuff’s totally boring.”

Hmmm…perhaps as a testament to my commitment to reading  I just stopped writing this to mosey over to Amazon and picked up two books…

A biography of Mannerheim (apparently just about the only thing you’ll find on the guy in English, which is interesting since he was alive just a few decades ago and is considered the father of his country) and The Shock Doctrine.

Danes invade Sweden!!! It’s war!*

Clearly taking advantage of the upcoming Swedish election season, the vile Danes have decided to launch a sneak attack on their northern neighbors.

Danish fishermen have been caught fishing outside the Swedish island Hallands Väderö, a natural reserve, where both governments have agreed that fishing is illegal.

Yeah, sure.  ‘Fishing’.  It’s clearly an euphemism for an armed incursion.  But, if they thought they could bully the Swedes around, they were sorely mistaken.

…shortly after the report was released the Swedish Minister of Agriculture Eskil Erlandsson called his Danish counterpart, Henrik Höegh, to discuss the situation. Höege had already told Danish radio that the fishermen would be punished for violating the ban.

‘Punished’. That’s another way of saying their going to kick their Hans Christian Anderson asses back to Copenhagen and give ‘em a healthy dose of what for!  That’s it.  The Swedes have been patient enough with those Danish bullies.  It’s time to settle this once and for all.  The Swedish king needs to act now, kick the Danes out of Denmark and send them packing to Greenland or something (and they better watch out and not poach the Icelandic fishing grounds or they’ll have to answer to the Viking Squad.  How hard could it be?  I imagine the Swedish General Staff discussing the operation:

General Wingersson: C’mon, it’s Denmark. We zip in, we pick ‘em up, we zip right out again. We’re not going to Moscow. It’s Denmark. It’s like going into Wisconsin.
General Ziskey: Well I got the shit kicked out of me in Wisconsin once. Forget it!

*For years I’ve been trying to elicit a rabid nationalistic response from Mrs. TwShiloh by describing a variety of ‘outrages’ against Sweden as part of an experiment to see how hard it is to turn a Swede into an extremist.  She has thus far failed to take the bait and I have been unable to even get her to adopt and spread the reasonable slogan of ‘Moderation or death!’ among her fellow Swedes.  Clearly more study is needed….

A little bit of this and a little bit of that

I know my posts have consisted of a bit more fluff than usual but:

  1. I’m working on a project at work and need a bit of a break when I get to blog and,
  2. that’s one of the things I really enjoy about my little project here.  I can follow my whims and not get bound by artificial restrictions.

Anyway, I imagine I’ll be getting back to more weighty topics next week.  But for now:

Your Swedish headline of the day:

Blow for bishop as orgasm church flops

Comrade Bear shoots a whale.  Does the Kremlin count as his lair or should he really have a base under a volcano or something?

Putin held his balance in a rubber boat that was being tossed around in choppy waters off the Kamchatka Peninsula, and eventually hit the whale with a special arrow designed to collect skin samples.

Courtesy of Balko, more homeland security nonsense.  Seven people dressed up as zombies and decided to go to the local mall to protest consumerism.  Someone saw their PA system and, freaking out, called the cops who arrested them for:

…disorderly conduct and said the zombies’ homemade public address rig looked like a weapon of mass destruction.

The zombies sued and the city council decided to settle for $165,000.  Good for them.

YT sent me this article about the unveiling of the Iranian drone bomber thingy.  Leave it to the Iranians to screw up on the messaging…

“The jet, as well as being an ambassador of death for the enemies of humanity, has a main message of peace and friendship,” said Ahmadinejad at the inauguration ceremony, which fell on the country’s national day for its defense industries.

WTF does that mean?!  I guess he had an extra dose of crazy with his breakfast.

Is it me or would Putin, Assange and Ahmadinejad make a great league of super villains?  It wouldn’t be a stretch to give them superpowers…Putin could be like Colossus, Assange could be the Leader.  I’m not sure about Ahmadinejad…someone crazy and out of touch with reality…Green Goblin, maybe?