Monthly Archives: April 2012

On the bin Laden anniversary

This will be a short post as I had something planned but then Paul Pillar just wrote something much better.

I’m a bit dubious about using anniversary dates to predict terrorist attacks.  There may have been a time when those sorts of things mattered and perhaps they still do to a particular subset of terrorists but too often dates are just a crutch to appear to talk knowingly about terrorism.

Excessive public focus on terrorist anniversaries is if they want to interpret terrorists’ targets and tactics as well as their timing, all of which are more the product of tactical opportunities than of strategic grand designs.

Besides, for most terrorists (religious, nationalists, etc.) they have centuries of potential dates to pick from if they want to lend their attack the air of precedence and history.

So, sure, something could happen on May 2rd but the same can be said of Memorial Day, the 4th of July, the day Mohammed is believed to have ascended into heaven or any other day.  Let’s not all freak ourselves out.  Ok?

Valborg

Today is Valborg in Sweden (you might know it better by its German name: Walpurgis Night).  The tradition appears to involve lighting bonfires and singing and drinking or something like that (really, though, that describes just about all Swedish holidays).

In Uppsala, there’s a river that runs through the town and there’s a tradition where university students build weird rafts and see if they can make it downstream without capsizing. Keep in mind…this is Sweden in April.  That water is pretty cold.

It’s also the birthday of the King of Sweden, Carl Gustav XVI.  I’ve asked Mrs. TwShiloh what her plans are as a loyal subject and she’s been rather cagey.  I suspect at some point she’ll face Stockholm, bow, take a shot of aquavit and say ‘hurrah’ four times.

So, from one sovereign* to another, happy birthday King Gustav.

*I am, after all, emperor of the TwShiloh media empire.

Just to be clear…

‘Copy’ and ‘paste’ are NOT acceptable as analytic methodologies.

Unfortunately…there are people who haven’t learned that lesson.

First thoughts – The Walking Dead Game

I just picked up TellTale Games’ The Walking Dead game.  Check out the trailer:

So, the first thing to note is this isn’t a zombie shooter.  If you’re looking to make headshots against hordes of the undead check out Left4Dead2, which is quite good.

This, instead, is more of a ‘chose your own adventure’ story with lots of narrative content and a bit of puzzle solving and ‘traditional gameplay’.  The real heart of the player experience, however, is the choices the player is forced to make in dealing with other survivors.  In fact, it might be better to think of this less as a game and more in terms of your being a collaborator in creating new content that serves as a prequel to the comic series or TV show. Once I did that I was able to break away from the Pavlovian gamer response (click…click…yeah, yeah, quit with the talking and let me click for my monkey chow pellet) and enjoy this as a new addition to the Walking Dead universe that I could actually influence.

The game is going to be released in 5 parts (or episodes), each which will take about two to three hours to play.  I’m not sure about its re-playability yet since I’ll need to try it again and choose some different options and see if I can a very different outcome.  If not, I can’t see much of a replay factor here.  Still, 15 hours of gameplay for less than $25 it isn’t too bad of a deal.

The story is good.  The designers did an admirable job of both being able to convey a sense of tension and sympathy for the main characters (Lee and Clementine).  It’s a nice addition to the Walking Dead oeuvre.

 

Is that a sword or are you just happy to see me?

Take a gander at this:

While it may appear to share in the Platonic ideal of what we know as a ‘sword’, upon closer inspection, I’m not sure how well it fits within that categorization. It is referred to as a ‘hanger’ and while it looks like a pretty run of the mill sword it is much more.

Swords were going out of style in the late 18th century and few armies were willing to spend the time training soldiers in a form of combat that no one engaged in anymore. Still, I suspect old habits die hard and there was a need for some sort of melee weapon among some troops and that’s where the hanger came into play.

Rather than a cutting or piercing weapon what was needed was a weapon that could break bones. A broken wrist or collar bone can’t hold a musket. A soldier unable to lift a musket is out of the fight. The amount of skill required to bring a heavy object down upon a foe’s arm or neck is pretty limited. If you can hack, you can do it. So, while the hanger looks like a sword, functionally I think I heard it described to be a bit more like a cleaver.

And while I don’t have a great deal of experience with swords, the weight and balance of the hanger feels ‘off’ if your interested in doing a bunch of parry and thrust or cutting. It feels like a lot of it’s weight is forward of the hilt, which seems like it would hinder precise maneuvering with the wrist. Think of trying to fight with a baseball bat (or maybe even a baseball bat with a weight at the end). That seems to be about how much precision dueling you’ll be able to accomplish with a hanger.

It’s not entirely clear to me when a soldier would resort to using their hanger. After all, they all had their muskets for distance and their bayonets for close in combat. A hanger would force you to get even closer to the enemy and could put you at a serious disadvantage against an opponent with a musket and bayonet. During the American Revolution, many colonial soldiers had non-military muskets that were unable to accommodate a bayonet which might mean that if a grenadier lost his musket you might have a hanger vs. musket sans bayonet situation. I’d feel better there as I have to think the shorter hanger (as clumsy as it appears to have been) would give more control than a musket lacking a pointy end.

According to my good captain:

There are no standardized drills for the men regarding fencing and the use of the hangars themselves in actual combat may have been almost non-existent. In 1784, hangars were abolished, so I imagine little thought was given to them at all in the years prior.

In the years prior to their abolition, hangers were only used by grenadiers.  So, it may be that they were one of those pieces of kit that served no other purpose than to accentuate that elite swagger.

 

Kvick Tänkare

I’m not sure if this is incredibly cool or sad.  Mammoths apparently roamed the earth (well, at least a little part of it) up until 1650BCE.

It’s truly remarkable just how recent 1650 BCE really is. By then, the Egyptian pharaohs were about halfway through their 3000-year reign, and the Great Pyramids of Giza were already 1000 years old. Sumer, the first great civilization of Mesopotamia, had been conquered some 500 years before. The Indus Valley Civilization was similarly five centuries past its peak, and Stonehenge was anywhere from 400 to 1500 years old.

Want a reason to be mad at Norwegians?  How about this…looks like when they were roaming around Western Europe burning and pillaging they didn’t just keep Europe firmly ensconced in the Dark Ages…they also brought us mice.

There is no credible evidence that learning styles exist.”  Whoa…I’ve had all sorts of preconceived notions blown to smithereens lately.

I like to think I’m fairly savvy with new technology.  For some reason, however, I’ve resisted all attempts to get me to buy a smartphone.  No amount of mocking from friends and co-workers has gotten me to budge.  I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one.

Check out this very cool (and a bit trippy) wind map of the US.  They update the data hourly so it’s pretty close to real time.  (h/t phronesisaical)

The NYTimes has a great view of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, seven years after Katrina.  It’s a battle of mankind versus nature as flora and fauna attempt (pretty successfully) to take over properties that were abandoned.  There’s also a nice overview about the (lack of) discussion about what a post-Katrina New Orleans should look like.  It was a decision based on politics and emotions rather than any sort of rational process.

Ok…this is the coolest idea.  A two day cruise between Sweden and Finland with a half dozen heavy metal bands.  Ladies and gentlemen, the Sweden Rock Cruise!  I’d really like to mash this up with a training or conference on intelligence analysis.  I guess I can wait until I get into heaven for that…

The discontents of intelligence analysis

I came across three articles in a 24 hour period that I think are worthwhile to consider together.

Joshua Foust begins with ‘How Short-Term Thinking Makes the U.S. Worse at Fighting Wars‘. He bemoans the problems that arise from short (12 month) tour lengths for soldiers. Namely, that it results in soldiers only thinking in terms of getting through their tours and there’s little to no emphasis on plans that span tours, let alone consistency across the entire temporal scope of operations.

Joshua ends the article on a note of despair, unsure if there’s any practical way to get commanders to think long term. I’m not sure if there is either but I think an essential step finding a way to maintain institutional knowledge. After all, assuming future military missions may last more than a year or two can we expect a commander to make well informed decisions about his area of operations if she has no idea about what happened there two, five or ten years ago?

When I was in Afghanistan, I had numerous incidents where Afghans exhibited distrust or frustration with the coalition based on the actions of soldiers from past rotations. But how were we to know the truth? In any case we were left saying ‘Yes, but that’s not us. Let’s start fresh.’ Which, I imagine, is what those that came after said about us. Left-seat/Right-seat transitions take a few weeks and can’t even begin to cover the events of the past year, let alone the past decade.

I was fortunate enough to be allowed to give a talk on this subject to the Counterinsurgency Center a couple of years back. I agree that it’s going to be very unlikely to get anyone to think about decisions that go beyond their tour of duty. Our evaluation and promotion systems are all about measuring people over a set period of time. Maybe there’s a better way to do that but it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. Therefore, what we need to do is get them to things that will support long term thinking by making it in their short term interests.

I was only thinking in terms of intelligence and within that field you could do some quite impressive things to make the collection, collation and analysis of institutional knowledge. Examples like Wikipedia (or intellipedia) could go quite far in building up a description of an area of operations over time. Such a product would never be ‘done’ but would be handed over from command to command to be added to (and drawn upon). In a way, it could almost be like a captain’s log from old seafaring days.

Where the analysts would come in would be in the organization of information going in and providing context and analysis to it going out.

Once you have that foundation, then you can really begin expecting commanders to (at least) understand their environment better and make more informed decisions.

Small Wars Journal has the wonderfully titled article “The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers” by Benjamin Kohlmann*. Here’s the short version…

The military could benefit greatly by tapping into the entrepreneurial culture and mindset fostered by places like the Harvard Business School rather than focusing on an insular career model that rewards the maintaining of the status quo from the most energetic and innovative members (the young) and withholding the freedom to innovate until they’re so entrenched in the system they won’t be interested (or have the energy) to change.

Now, I’ve got a couple of issues with the article. First, I think the article fetishizes business schools a bit too much and as you’ll see from the comments section there are tons of example of successful entrepreneurs that haven’t gone to such schools. There’s also seems to be a general belief that an advanced degree confers some sort of secret knowledge or perspective. What really seems to be going on there is that advanced degrees (perhaps from only select institutions) are used as a proxy for such knowledge based on the belief that only the most innovative, imaginative, motivated, etc. could be successful in such programs.

I’m just not sure that assumption has ever been demonstrated to be true.

Also, I fear it excludes many, many people who may have the very skills that Kohlmann is talking about but did not attend such schools. As Mrs. TwShiloh says ‘Advanced degrees are more about endurance than brilliance.’ That’s not to denigrate the work that goes into degrees (Mrs. TwShiloh and myself have a couple under our own belts) but I’m just not sure they ‘make’ innovative and ‘disruptive’ thinkers. They may (may) provide focus, context, and other tools that enhance ability but I’m not sure they can create such people. After all, how many graduates of Harvard Business School go on to rather unimaginative or unremarkable careers?

Putting that aside, my other issue is the idea that ‘entrepreneurs’ are the answer to our problems. I think that’s a cultural bias we have as Americans to always look to the business sector as the solution to our problems.** After all, Newton, Gallileo and Einstein weren’t entrepreneurs yet were clearly ‘disruptive thinkers’. So, like above, focusing on entrepreneurs risks excluding other, important thinkers who can provide the disruption we might need. I suspect some people are using the term broadly but it’s not clear.

And that brings me to the role of the analyst***. Fundamentally, intelligence analysts should be the quintessential disruptive thinkers (questioning assumptions, considering alternatives, viewing the world through different perspectives). Yet, their successful cultivation and deployment really requires not only leaders who recognize the value of such disruptive thought but also an environment conducive to such thought.

But what happens if those qualities aren’t present? And while some may disagree with Kohlmann when it comes to military leaders, he’s dead on if he’s talking about analysts:

The future lies with those individuals who can see connections across a myriad of professions and intellectual pursuits…an intellect that recognizes how secondary and tertiary networks are often more valuable than first-order relationships..Or the strategist who understands that crowdsourced, horizontally structured non-state actors pose a greater threat to our security than Nation states.

How does a ‘disruptive thinker’ go about doing the ‘disrupting’, when it’s really part of his job but not within his organization’s capabilities? Should we expect the analyst to also be an expert at marketing and have to ‘sell’ leaders on new methodologies, investigating potential new threats, and innovating new techniques? There’s very little opportunity for analysts to explore their world and innovate new ways to look at it. In part, this is because analysts are ‘support’ personnel and rarely become leaders or decision makers themselves.

Leadership remains a problem so long as the standard for analytical products is for every issue, no matter how complex, to be reducible to a one slide PowerPoint. Good leaders allow for the creation and growth of good analysts. That means getting exposure to different fields of study to allow for cross pollination of ideas. It means experimentation. It means failure.

All of those things, however, are non-starters for the vast majority of analysts. They don’t result in a box being checked. They can’t be graphed to show year on year ‘improvement’ (more widgets moved this month than last month!).

And these leads me to the conclusion that most agencies don’t really want intelligence analysis but have suffered from the imprecise use of language. Instead, I think most agencies would be much happier with people who can search data, summarize the work of others and create charts and presentations. Those may be important functions but they are a fraction of what one should expect from intelligence analysts. So, a question is, why would agencies pay for disruptive thinkers (intelligence analysts) in their agency when, at the same cost, they could hire more of the people with the skills they really seem to want

Finally, another article from the Atlantic called ‘Peak Intel: How So-Called Strategic Intelligence Actually Makes Us Dumber‘ by Eric Garland. Garland, who was a strategic analyst on the private side (working with business and governments) has quit his field. Why?

…the market for intelligence is now largely about providing information that makes decision makers feel better, rather than bringing true insights about risk and opportunity. Our future is now being planned by people who seem to put their emotional comfort ahead of making decisions based on real — and often uncomfortable — information.

This is a nice piece to read in conjunction with the Kohlmann piece above since it pretty quickly puts to bed the idea that the private sector has access to the secret of clearheaded decision making and thinking.

Strategic intelligence is more and more like reading the Harvard Business Review through a fun our mirror.

So, what is to be done?

I’m not sure but I’ve had a lot of discussions about this with analysts lately and the only thing I’ve been able to come up with is that there won’t be any real change unless the system suffers a catastrophic failure. Short of that, everyone is going to want to stay within their comfort zones…reject hearing ‘disruptive’ ideas because…well…they’re disruptive. Most people won’t want to entertain such thoughts unless their interests are in considerable peril and it no longer looks like the strategy of substituting activity for achievement can be maintained.

*The best part of the article is the comments section which I recommend very highly, and not just because there are some nice things said about your humble host (oh, gawd…so this is what masturbatory blogging looks like. eds ).

**As a nice coincidence which underscores this point, I recommend this article from the most recent Atlantic by Michael Sandel titled “What isn’t for sale?” about how ‘market thinking’ permeates our culture and thinking to such a degree that we’re not only unaware of it but that some serious negative consequences may come from that.

***And here I’m taking another liberty with the article and applying to analysts outside of the military. One of the objections to the article in the comments section is that the military is unique for several reasons and there are many times when having a disruptive thinker be…well, disruptive…in the military can, in some circumstances, be very problematic and cost lives and missions. While moving the discussion outside the military sphere into the law enforcement/homeland security ones (for example) don’t eliminate those concerns they do reduce them considerably (I’d say in all but the most extreme circumstances).

In which I give the DHS a rare thumbs up

I believe we’re in a time of relatively low terrorist activity.  I don’t have any hard data to back that up with (mostly because I’m too lazy to do the work) but I’m just not seeing a lot of serious threats of a magnitude beyond the odd crazy shooter.

That being said, what do you do with a homeland security community that finds it just doesn’t have that much to focus on in terms of immediate threats?  Well, you could looks at that sort of thing as an opportunity and take advantage of the time to build subject matter expertise, refine processes, drill practices, that sort of thing.

Alternately, you could flail around, afraid that this dip in terrorist activity represents a threat to your job security and try to latch on to anything that can even remotely be considered a threat.

Case in point:  The Occupy movement.  With the exception of Oakland, the movement has been non-violent and criminal activity has been limited to ‘regular’ criminal activity (what one would expect in any large gathering of people) or activity normally associated with protest activity.  In few exceptions there’s little in the movement that can be described as politically motivated violence (or even property damage) that typically defines terrorist activity.

But, when al-Qaida isn’t around to be a convenient bogey man to ensure job security you take what you can get.

From Gawker (yes, Gawker) comes this story about how DHS resisted attempts to get sucked into the whole Occupy issue, despite proddings from state and local partners.  In fact, early on, DHS appears to have given the correct response to queries about the subject:

In October 2011, the documents show, the Los Angeles Fusion Center (one of dozens of surveillance centers that coordinate state, local, and federal intelligence) sent a query to DHS’s intelligence division seeking information on “any DHS products identifying and/or describing criminal activities and/or potential civil disobedience associated with the Occupy Wall Street protests nationwide” and the number of “arrests…made, type and number of weapons confiscated, communication used to plan these crimes, etc.”…The intelligence division flatly denied the request: “The information being requested does not fall within the scope of I&A’s authorities. Arrests being made at these protests are a criminal matter and the protesters are engaged in constitutionally protected activity…. DHS should not report on activities where the basis for reporting is political speech.”

Ah, yes…fusion centers.  Those *ahem* ‘Centers of Analytic Excellence‘.  And don’t kid yourself into thinking this was just one fusion center.

Unfortunately, DHS was unable to withstand the weight of requests and:

…there are several instances of DHS gathering and distributing intelligence on Occupy protesters without much justification.

…officials in the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties took a hard line on curbing DHS intel-gathering on Occupy after the Pittsburgh Office of Emergency Management released a bulletin, apparently produced with DHS help, on potential threats the movement posed. “Both myself and are somewhat concerned that several items contained in this Intel Bulletin might be advocating surveillance and other countermeasures to be employed against activities protected under the 1st Amendment,” wrote one official in an October 7, 2011.

This is the sort of slippery slope that occurs when you don’t have good procedures and clear standards in place.  Things get sloppy.  Corners get cut.  Mandates expand in an effort to appear relevant.  All without oversight or discussion.  It just evolves that way.

On the plus side (well, maybe for you) the Gawker article has over 300 pages (!) of DHS communications about Occupy that I, dear reader, will go through to see if there’s anything interesting.  Up front, however, part one of the document dump is pretty favorable to the DHS (although one wonders what is under those redactions).  They clearly do not want to get entangled in the Occupy morass regardless of how many requests they get.

Good for them.

As an aside, while part 1 mostly follows one email trail, towards the end of the document you can see the sort of drivel that passes for ‘quality’ intelligence products.  Basically, cut and paste work from open source material laced with wide speculation and unexamined assumptions.

 

Ah…That’s what happened at work today…

If you’re not familiar with gaming you can skip this as it will appear confusing and far too geeky for your tastes.  For the rest of you, laugh or weep as you see fit…

Crazy Swedes

Ladies and gentlemen…another great headline from Sweden.

‘Llama-man’ jailed after nutmeg induced frenzy

Really, is there anything more you could ask from a headline?

What? You want something even more shocking?  How about this?

What your watching is the result of an artist who decided to make a statement to ‘raise awareness’ about female genital mutilation.

Pretty tasteless and racist, huh?  Oh, but that’s not the shocking part.

It took place at the Swedish Modern Museum and the Swedish Culture Minister was there and cut the freakin’ cake! In what world would a politician survive this sort of event for more than an hour? In Sweden.

Say what you like about the American political environment today, dear reader, but at least this sort of behavior is reserved for the ‘Nice job numbnuts, your political career is over!’ file here in the good old U.S. of A.