Monthly Archives: June 2012

A bit more on personality types and intelligence analysis

Yesterday, while writing about a survey I took of intelligence analysts about their Myers-Briggs personality types, Simon left the following comment.

I think that you are on to something here but a potential weakness in your argument so far is that you have not made any qualitative assessment of your respondees. I’m assuming that you have selected your respondees form the upper echelon of intel analysis ability but, noting previous posts on the inability of make intel-related agencies and staff, you could in fact be reinforcing the negative status quo unless you qualify your respondees in some way.

I was going to answer in the comments section but this really deserves its own post.  So, a brief discussion about the respondents without giving out their identities.

All respondents came from an initial pool of around 300 persons involved in several iterations of a 16 week intelligence course in which I was an instructor.  They came from local, state and federal agencies and were primarily involved in law enforcement and homeland security intelligence.  Off the top of my head I’d say it was a 60-40 split between analysts and sworn personnel (mostly analysts). Not all were my students but many were.

Based on the length and difficulty of the course (which I reviewed in its pilot stages as a student here) I’d say these are among the most motivated of their cohort (this was a lot of work if you were just out to get another certificate and there weren’t many opportunities to slack off and mooch off the work of others).

Even though I taught these people, I’m loath to make an assessment of their analytic quality.  I’m very confident to say they had a great deal of raw talent.  That was evident not only from their work in the class but also from conversations with many of them after class.  There was a great deal of discussion about how their individual agencies were inhibiting them analytically.

When the course was finished I created a survey asking the students a number of questions about what they’d like to see out of the profession as well as what they’d be willing to contribute to build a viable analyst community independent of the agency they were currently employed at.  Roughly 100 persons responded and it was this list (who indicated that they were interested in occasional future contact and communication) who were solicited to take part in this survey.

So, I’d consider this the most motivated of the motivated in terms of analysts and sworn law enforcement oriented towards intelligence.

Kvick Tänkare

Star Wars as Spanish soap opera. I’d probably watch this more than I have the original.

What do you get when you combine a lot of free time, the internet and a banana?  This.

The LSE had a surprisingly good lecture on immortality and how the concept has effected human civilization.  It’s about an hour and a half but worth it.

Everything left to float in the North Sea ends up drifting to the small island of Texel.  Here’s a 15 minute documentary about some old guys on that island who take their beach-combing seriously.

How can you not read this article when it has a paragraph like this?

For a brief moment in the early ‘80s, it looked as if the brave new world of Alien studies was going to splinter irreconcilably on the issue of Officer Ripley’s panties—the anti-panty camp accusing the pro-panty wing of uncritical phallocentrism, the pro-panty caucus accusing the anti-panty wing of repressive and self-defeating assumptions about what constitutes sexism.

The DNA of dogs is so jumbled that it isn’t any help in figuring out when or where they were first domesticated.

Zoos are having to make increasingly difficult decisions about which animals to try to save and which to let go extinct.

…the burden feels less like Noah building an ark and more like Schindler making a list.

It’s not good news that World War Z is going through extensive reshoots and script edits.  I suspect this is due to the efforts or the producers to transform the book, which is a collection of anecdotes loosely held together by the concept of a zombie apocalypse, into a cohesive narrative that follows a small number of main characters.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  If you’re going to make this book into some sort of visual media, do it with a TV series where you can change the setting and characters every week.  Make it the Love Boat or Fantasy Island of the 2010s.

The personality types of intelligence analysts

About four years ago I first began advocating for the use of personality tests (like Myers Briggs) in intelligence shops both to help identify cognitive biases among analysts and assist in audience analysis to make products more likely to resonate with consumers.

For reasons that are hidden from me, I recently began thinking about this again and asked a number of people working in the intelligence field to indulge me and take an online test to determine their Myers Briggs personality types.  I received responses from a total of 23 persons* and here are the results:

First the breakdown into the 16 different personality types.

The two columns of percentages compare the percentages of the whole among respondents (titled ‘% of total) and estimates of the distribution of personality types across the entire population.

Note how skewed the INTJ and ENTJ types are.  In my sample, these two types comprise fully 40% of all respondents yet in a random sample of people should make up less than 5% of respondents.  Why so overrepresented? Well, let’s look at some of the commonalities and begin with the NT pairing.  Using the Keirsey temperament sorter, that pairing is described as ‘rational‘.

As described in the Wikipedia:

As the knowledge-seeking temperament, Rationals trust reason implicitly. They rely on objective observations and factual analysis in any given situation. They seek a logical argument as a basis for action. As strategists, Rationals strive to gain as much information as possible, applying what they learn to develop long-term plans and the steps for achieving them. They are characterized by a tough-minded personal style, tending to pursue either power or understanding.

That sounds pretty much like what you’d want from an analyst, no?  But, that personality comes as a bit of a double edged sword if you’re organization is the kind that likes obedience, conformity and/or respect for positional authority.

They are often strong-willed, ambitious, intelligent, and self-determined. Subjective thoughts and emotion have no place in the decision-making process of a Rational. Driven to excel, they work hard to achieve their goals, and they do well where they can take control or work independently on a task.

So, now let’s look at the distribution of the individual characteristics.

Here, the interesting thing is that only in the thinking/feeling dichotomy do the respondents look like the general population.  Other than that there are some pretty significant differences.

The extrovert/introvert difference isn’t too surprising to me as I’ve always thought analysts are more introverted than the general population and these respondents seem to confirm my belief.

Sensing/intuition is seriously out of whack with the general public.  Its described as: 

Sensing (S) Paying attention to physical reality, what I see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. I’m concerned with what is actual, present, current, and real. I notice facts and I remember details that are important to me. I like to see the practical use of things and learn best when I see how to use what I’m learning. Experience speaks to me louder than words.

Intuition (N) Paying the most attention to impressions or the meaning and patterns of the information I get. I would rather learn by thinking a problem through than by hands-on experience. I’m interested in new things and what might be possible, so that I think more about the future than the past. I like to work with symbols or abstract theories, even if I don’t know how I will use them. I remember events more as an impression of what it was like than as actual facts or details of what happened.

I have to admit I would normally think that analysts would conform much more to the general norm here.  My hypothesis is that since a significant number of respondents were associated with law enforcement the emphasis on facts and concepts like ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, ‘reasonable suspicion’, etc. lead to an increased amount of sensing individuals.

The other thing to note is the almost total lack of the ‘perceiving’ trait (the P/J characteristic which is the last of the four letter code).  Whereas, in a ‘normal’ population you’d expect roughly 45% of people to have that characteristic only 4% (one respondent) has it.**

The P/J dichotomy is a bit confusing but here’s what they say:

This pair describes whether you extravert (act in the outer world) when you are making decisions or when you are taking in information.

Some general statements that apply to ‘J’ personalities:

  • I like to have things decided.
  • I appear to be task oriented.
  • I like to make lists of things to do.
  • I like to get my work done before playing.
  • I plan work to avoid rushing just before a deadline.
  • Sometimes I focus so much on the goal that I miss new information.

Some general statements that apply to ‘P’ personalities:

  • I like to stay open to respond to whatever happens.
  • I appear to be loose and casual. I like to keep plans to a minimum.
  • I like to approach work as play or mix work and play.
  • I work in bursts of energy.
  • I am stimulated by an approaching deadline.
  • Sometimes I stay open to new information so long I miss making decisions when they are needed.

I find the complete lack of ‘P’ types (other than me) a bit disturbing since I can’t imagine a complete deficit of a particular personality type being good.***

The next step (which, in all honesty, I won’t do because I just don’t have the logistical mojo to make it happen) would be to test supervisors and (more importantly) consumers of intelligence and see their personality types.  Then, you could do some really interesting comparisons and perhaps draw some interesting strategies for intelligence production that has a better chance of resonating with the audience.

As of right now, this might have some implications for partnering on projects and how to best introduce new ideas and projects between and within analyst circles.  That’s where I’ll try to focus my efforts on next.  Stay tuned.

*This isn’t a representative sample but I think you’ll agree the results are interesting nonetheless.

**That one respondent?  Well…my mom always did say I was unique.

***I’ve gotten three or four additional responses since writing this and the answers really conform to what I wrote here.  I remain the only ‘P’ type out of the bunch which is looking even less like a fluke.

Fifteen Years

Warfare in the 18th Century: Poltava and the Swedes


I just finished The Battle That Shook Europe: Poltava and the Birth of the Russian Empire by Peter Englund.  Definitely a worth your time but here are the bits I found particularly interesting.

The Swedish king Charles the XII, instituted some military reforms including a system of conscription called indelningverk (which, I think, translates into something like ‘group work’). Provinces were broken up into subdivisions that would supply a cavalry or infantry man, house and support him in peacetime and replace him if lost in wartime. When I went to Skanses (the open air museum in Stockholm that focuses on Swedish life throughout history) they had an example of a little house that a farmer or craftsman might have on their property for a soldier to live in (called a soldattorp or soldier’s cottage). In these provincial regiments (which were different from more traditional regiments that apparently existed in parallel with them) promotions were handled differently from many other armies in that the officers had to start their service in the enlisted ranks and were promoted by merit.

The king had a bodyguard called the Drabants which, at least from the description of their service in the battle of Poltava, served as sort of a Secret Service (frequently surrounding the king in order to take the musket or cannon fire intended for him) as well as a body of shock troops. While I’m sure there was a lot of prestige associated with a posting as a Drabant it did have its downside. Of the 147 that began the Great Northern War in 1700, only 14 were still left alive in 1716.

Pay in old armies always interests me in that it provides some indication of what value society put on soldiering (at least where soldiers had some sort of choice in serving and allocating their labor) and what specific skills or activities militaries wanted to encourage (or discourage by withholding pay). Since plunder remained a legitimate form of compensation for some 18th century armies, Englund describes how the spoils accrued at Saladen were divided among the troops:

  • wounded captain: 80 riksdalar
  • unwounded captain: 40 riksdalar
  • wounded lieutenant: 40 riksdalar
  • unwounded lieutenant: 20 riksdalar
  • unwounded NCO: 2 riksdalar
  • wounded private: 2 riksdalar
  • unwounded private: 1 riksdalar

It’s nice to see the wounded given their due but, of course, it’s not clear if that means any wound or a would sufficient to preclude them from further service. The salary descrepencies today are nowhere near what there were listed as here which might reflect the increasing responsibility and autonomy that lower ranks have increasingly been given over the past three centuries.

Ah…but what of the grenadiers? In the period that I reenact, the grenadiers were really well on their way to losing any real difference from other infantry forces. Still, they maintained some (increasingly superficial) differences in uniform (the sword, the matchcase, etc.) and tougher recruitment standards which made them the ‘go to’ troops when you needed that extra bit of confidence that at attack would succeed or a long would hold under pressure. One of the most visible aspects of grenadiers of all nationalities was their tall caps. In part, the height of the caps were designed to create an imposing appearance to strike fear into the enemy. It worked (or didn’t) along the same lines as ancient warriors who had crests of horsehair or other material on their helmets. Englund however, notes another, more practical, use for the the shaped hats:

Their peculier tall caps replaced the normal wide-brimmed three corner hat, which would have impreded them when they slung their muskets before lobbing their hand-grenades.

Swedish grenadier hat from the early 18th century

Even then, grenadiers were regarded as a form of elite soldier, being used as bodyguards, marksmen and to storm fortifications.

The 18th century was kind of a weird time.  The last of the middle age armor had disappeared but firearms still left a bit to be desired both in terms of accuracy and rate of fire.  So, edged weapons hadn’t yet faded into irrelevance yet.  Ladies and gentlemen, the bayonet.

The bayonet was probably most commonly employed when pursuing the fleeing, and killing off wounded opponents. If bayonet to bayonet fighting did occur it was usually of little consequence, only lasting a few confused moments. Nevertheless, if it did come to hand-to-hand combat the equipment of the Swedish soldier gave him a certain advantage. The sword that every Swede carried was probably the best naked weapon that has ever existed, as well suited for thrust as cut. The Swedish bayonet had a more stable fitting than was otherwise normal. It was a considerably better weapon for thrusting than that of many other armies, whose bayonets tended to fall off, or remain embedded when muscle, skin and bone closed around the blade.

I have no idea if that last bit is true or not but as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts it’s not clear to me that the average 18th century soldier had much training with sword or bayonet.  Without training, weapon quality doesn’t matter quite that much.

The whole battle was a mess from the Swedish perspective (great from the Russian).  The Swedes suffered from debilitating overconfidence, convinced that since the Russians were incompetent in the early years of the war that they would forever remain that way.  So overconfident that the Swedes convinced themselves that it would be a good idea to attack an entrenched foe almost twice as numerous as themselves who also had a more than 3 to 1 superiority in artillery.

Let’s just say it didn’t go well for them.

Still, you can’t say the Swedes weren’t brave.  Here’s a description of the opening of the battle as the Swedes advanced towards the Russian lines:

They had approximately 800 meters to cover before they closed with the compact Russian ranks. The first 600 meters would be taken at the normal pace of 100 strides (75 meters) to the minute: a duration of about 8 minutes. The last stretch would be covered at a significantly higher speed, the standards procedure when attacking a rapidly firing enemy.

Cannon began firing at about 500 meters which meant that the advancing Swedes would have to walk (at a pretty slow pace) into firing artillery for 3 minutes before charging into the enemy and knowing that it would only get worse from there on out.

I suspect my response to being given a order to do something like that would have been along the lines of ‘Go fuck yourself.’

But Russian cannon, flintlocks, bayonets and swords isn’t all the Swedes had to worry about.  They also needed to keep an eye over their shoulder at the knuckleheads behind them:

Some calculations estimate that up to 25 percent of all infantry losses arose when the rear lines accidentally shot their comrades standing further forward.

English: Battle of Poltava 1709

And that is how you have your day ruined.

Cover Sheets

h/t to Homeland Security Watch for these images.  I’ve been waiting for these my whole career…


Homeland Disfunction – The true and astounding adventures of Peter Wesley part 2

Part 1 here.

“Ok, everyone.  Gather ’round.” Fred Marko, the Admin officer for the fusion center said aloud, twirling his finger in the air like a cowboy calling for all the chuck wagons to circle.

Peter popped his head over the cubicle wall, saw Fred and quickly looked around at the other cubicles.  He’d learned early to follow the pack before listening to instructions thrown out to the crowd.  The first three times people had called our some variation of “Hey, everyone! Over here!” he’d gone over to the speaker only to find himself alone and selected to attend meetings and given projects whose tediousness was exceeded only by the After Action Reports he was forced to compose for the various supervisors who were supposed to attend in the first place.

His co-workers, meanwhile, kept their heads down and pretended not to hear.  Particularly insistent types would go from cube to cube trying to get the attention of each individual.  Everyone would do some variation of the ‘What? Me?’ look.  Those who were quite adept would always have a pair of headphones on and pretend to have been lost in music.

Mary, his cubicle neighbor, was a master of deception being able to mimic the movements of removing headphones so perfectly that no one had noticed that she never wore them.

“It’s all in how you twist your head.” She explained over coffee.  “Most people over exaggerate their hand movements but leave their heads rigid.  It’s a total giveaway. I spent about four months last year researching how the human brain processes visual information and detecting things that are outside the norm.  Best four months of my professional career.”

“Where’d you do that?” Peter asked.

“Right here.  They assigned my some bullshit project to do that I finished in an afternoon but they forgot about it almost as quickly as they assigned it.  After that, I realized I was in this weird Twilight Zone and unaccountability.  Whenever someone asked what I was working on I told them I was finishing the assignment they gave me.  They were so embarrassed that they forgot what the project was supposed to be that they just smiled and asked how it was going.  Eventually I felt bad for them and handed it in but it happens once or twice a year.  I should finish my Masters Degree next year at this pace.  Next I’m going to learn Italian.”

He practiced the fake headphone trick bu he could never really get it right and resorted to just sticking earbuds in his ears first thing in the morning and taking them out a few minutes before he left for the day.  It almost always worked.

“C’mon, hero.” Mary motioned to him.  “This is one we can’t dodge.”

People began to emerge from their cubicles like survivors coming out of fallout shelters after a nuclear strike.  Looking vaguely disoriented and unsure of what was to come they began to cluster around the large conference table in the center of the office.

“Ok, folks.” Fred began. “I just want to begin by saying you’re all doing a super job.  Really amazing.  I just want to make sure we’re on track to keep up our high standards.

“So, I think there may have been some confusion about our admin reports so I want to take this opportunity to review.”

Peter noticed a collective sagging of everyone’s shoulders.

“I’ve noticed that not everyone is doing their scheduled reports.  Peter, for example.”  All eyes swiveled and locked on Peter.

“Uh, I’ve been doing my Daily Activity Report .  That’s what it says in the handbook.  Right?”

“Well, that’s you D.A.R. and that’s fine but you haven’t been doing your WAR or MAR.”

“My what?”

“You’re Weekly Activity Report and your Monthly Activity Report.  After all, if we don’t have those, how in the world will we be able to put together the Annual Activity Report?”

“Oh” Peter started.  “I wasn’t aware of those.  If you can send me a template I’d be happy to do them.”

“They’re just like the D.A.R. except the columns are shifted around a bit.”  Fred answered.  “After all, we want you to take these reports seriously so we don’t want any ‘cut and paste’ jobs.”

“So,” Peter began slowly, not quite sure he understood. “You want me to fill in the same information just in a different format so that it will take longer?”

“No, not so that it will take longer.  That’s just the way it ends up.  The DAR goes to Human Resources, the WAR goes to management and the MAR goes to the Department of Homeland Security.  Each wanted the information in a specific format.  Then they meet quarterly and annually and check to make sure the reports all match.”

“Yeah, but…” Peter was cut off by a look from Mary.

Don’t bother asking. Her expression said.

“Uh, sure.  No problem.” He finished.

“Great!”  Fred beamed. “Don’t forget now, these reports are forward looking so we want you to describe the activity you’re going to do over the next day, week and month not what you’ve already done or are currently working on.  If you do something that you didn’t anticipate you’ll need to fill out the appropriate correction form, email it to me, the command staff, and Human Resources.  Then, fax a copy the command staff and hand carry a copy to Human Resources, making sure to get a receipt and bringing that back to me.  Once you do that, you should get a confirmation in your email within 96 hours.  If you don’t, you’ll need to send an email to the Command Staff secretary asking to track your request and if they can’t identify where it is in the system you’ll need to repeat the process at the time you file your next report. Got it?  Good!”

Everyone took that as a sign that the meeting was over and began to shuffle back to their cubicles.  Peter looked at his watch as Mary came up alongside him and he stopped in his tracks.

“Two hours?!  That meeting took two hours?  Don’t tell me this watch is busted.  I know it’s a Pakistani knockoff but I still paid a lot for it.”

“It’s not broken.” Mary whispered.  “We were there fore two hours.  Why do you think I gave you the ‘wrap it up’ look.  If you didn’t shut up we would have been there for another two.”

“Wait, what?  How is that possible?  We weren’t there for more than 10 minutes.  It seemed interminable but it wasn’t really that long.”

“Look,” Mary took him by his elbow and pulled him out of the way of the foot traffic. “I guess I’ll have to tell you.”  She sighed.  “This place is kind of funny.  ALL meetings take at least two hours here.  It doesn’t matter how long they really are.”

“Oh,” Peter replied with a smile.  “I get it.  Haze the newbie, right?  Mind games?  What’s the punchline?  You can tell me, I’ll play along.”

“No, you really need to understand me.” Her face became even more serious.  “All meetings here take at least two hours.  You remember a ten minute meeting right?  Well, so do I but I guarantee you we remember different ten minute meetings.  And if you asked everyone else they would all remember different versions of the meeting.”

“I don’t understand.” Peter said.  He was scrambling to try to figure out the angle but Mary didn’t appear to be joking or insane.

“I know.  Nobody is sure why but weird things happen here with time.  Some people think it’s because this place is situated on an old Indian burial ground, others think it’s because of that whole Mayan calendar doomsday stuff.  Me?  My favorite theory is that there’s a microscopic black hole in the center of the earth but not the exact center.  It’s a little closer to this location and the effect of this super massive object being just a few centimeters closer to us results in all sorts of distortions in the space time continuum.  One of the ways that manifests is that all meetings take at least two hours.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The thing about all these theories is that, ultimately, none of them explain the phenomenon here very well and, perhaps more important, believing any one of them really should certify you as bat shit crazy.  Still, once you eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth, right?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Yeah, you’re going to need to stop saying that.  It makes you look stupid.”

“Oh, sorry.  So, I guess I just avoid meetings and I’ll be OK, right?”  Peter attempted to put on his ‘very thoughtful’ face in the hopes of not looking quite so befuddled.

“Well, it’s more than that I think.  It can actually be dangerous.  A little while before you got here there was a guy…Jason, I think his name was.  Maybe Josh.  Something with a J.  Definitely a J.”  She drifted off in thought for a moment.

“Anyway, he booked himself for two meetings 30 minutes apart.  You know, to test this theory.  Now, people remember his being at both meetings in their entirety.  He was at two places at the same time!”

“I don’t…wait, that’s not possible.” Peter was starting to feel like he was in free fall.

“Even weirder, is the fact that he was never seen again.  I can’t find his name on any paperwork or emails.  His desk, the one you sit at now, gradually emptied out but I don’t think anyone actually removed anything from it.  I barely remember him but I’m pretty sure we dated for awhile and I think I may have slept with him.”  Mary put her hand to her chin and looked down, deep in thought.  “Yeah…definitely a name with a J in it.”

Peter really didn’t’ understand what was gong on but clearly repeating that fact out loud wasn’t a winning strategy so he figured he’d try something different.  “So, what are you saying?  Some secret government goons are removing this J guy’s stuff because he uncovered some secret of the universe.?”

“No,” Mary said firmly.  “I don’t think people are doing this.  I think the universe is erasing this guy.  He violated some sort of basic laws of physics and that created an irritant to the underlying structure of reality.  I’m guessing that when that happens things have to resolve in one of two ways.  Either, the irritant has to be erased or the universe does.”

“I knew I should have smoked hash is Afghanistan.  I think this might make more sense if I was high right about now.  So what do the overlords who run this place say about all this?”  Peter needed something stronger than whatever was available at the Keruig machine in the kitchenette.

“Not everyone notices.  You saw Fred.  He thinks these meetings are great.  He describes them as super efficient.  Oh, by the way.  When you fill out your reports, you can’t indicate that these meetings take so long.  It creates all sorts of problems and makes management aggressive.  Make up some bogus project and list that for all the extra meeting time.  Oh, and don’t mention how much time you spend filling our these activity reports.”

The got back to their cubicles and Peter sat down trying to absorb what Mary just told him.  Looking down, he saw a piece of paper peeking out from under the cabinets behind his desk.  He reached over and pulled it out, seeing it was a torn print out of an email.  What was left of the paper read:

This meeting appears to conflict with another appointment you have scheduled.  Would you like to cancel this one?

He looked at the ‘To’ line which is where the tear began on the paper.  The only thing that remained was the beginning of a name.  ‘J’.

Yep, definitely a ‘J’ name.



one product to rule them all


Reflections on soldiering…in the 18th and 21st centuries

Recently I completed my first ‘tactical engagement’ with my ‘new’ unit, the 35th Regiment of Foot, a Revolutionary War reenactment group (well, a whole lot more than that but you can check out the link for more details).  While I’m very new to 18th century military reenactment, I think I’m beginning to make some interesting compare and contrast observations between the 21st century military and our 18th century ancestors.

Drill and ceremony:  I figured that since I had 20 years of marching and drill behind me, that would be the easiest part of my transition to my new unit.  Unfortunately, while one can see how modern drill and ceremony is derived from the 18th century, it’s different enough that I have to unlearn US Army methods and relearn how to march and act the soldier. That’s tougher than it sounds since most of this has passed from conscious thought to muscle memory.

So, for example, in the US Army when you execute a left or right face you turn on the heel of one foot and the toes of the other.  According to 18th cen. British drill, you have to move your right foot (into the arch or heel of the left foot) and pivot on both heels.  Doesn’t sound like a big deal, right?  It is, though, as doing it wrong will become very apparent if you’re standing in the midst of people who are all doing it the other way.

In the modern army, when you march you have some space all between you and other soldiers (generally an arms length both to your sides and in front and behind you).  In British Army drill (and from now on when I say British Army drill or something similar I mean 18th cen.) there is no such space.  You are shoulder to shoulder while standing and marching.  Again, doesn’t sound complicated but my natural inclination is to get a little room for maneuvering.  I suppose feeling your comrades on either side of you gave you a sense of security as you were closing to within 100 yards of an opposing force aiming their muskets at you but the desire to maneuver (or at least have the option to maneuver) is pretty strong.

The other thing that’s striking is how little independent action seemed to play.  In the modern military, even a lowly private is given a sector of fire and expected to be able to select and engage targets with some autonomy.  This was very different in that the unit derives its power from mass action and you only get mass action (with musket or bayonet) through uniformity of action.  So, our sergeant would maneuver us around the battlefield and have us fire in volleys, effectively merging us into on entity. You can talk about feeling like a pawn on a chess board but this type of fighting really drives that feeling home.

This was also my first time firing a black powder weapon only having some verbal instruction beforehand.  I was surprised just how easy it was to operate my musket. A few minutes of instruction and off I went.  I wouldn’t recommend that method if we were actually shooting something but since we weren’t using musket balls and nothing was coming out of the barrel (except some smoke and fire), regular firearm safety rules were adequate.  I’m looking forward to getting some actual marksmanship practice under my belt so I can compare that with the learning curve one encounters with modern weapons.  Today, a new soldier generally spends one or two full weeks on rifle familiarity and practice.  Day after day of shooting, cleaning and shooting again.  Hundreds (probably thousands) of rounds are expended in order to reach a minimum standard of proficiency.

The Long Land Pattern Brown Bess musket The Long Land Pattern Brown Bess musket (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Expectations for accuracy with a Brown Bess are much lower with a modern assault rifle so I imagine you can get to ‘adequate’ much quicker since any targets are going to be closer and there wasn’t nearly the same emphasis on individual marksmanship.  Stay tuned.

Likewise, there was something quite satisfactory about conducting a bayonet charge (I suspect a lot of that had to do with the fact that there weren’t any rounds coming towards us).  The British were renowned for their bayonet charges during the Revolution and I got a hint of why they were so feared.

As an aside, if you happen to go to an 18th century reenactment you may find yourself asking the people there if all those clothes are uncomfortably hot.  Invariably, they will tell you ‘No’ and that the use of natural, breathable fabrics makes them quite comfortable.

That, dear readers, is a load of crap.  There’s no way layers of cotton, linen, wool and wool is cool.  It may not be quite as hot as you expect but it’s still plenty hot.  Modern uniforms have come a long way in helping the soldier moderate their temperature.

Next:  Equipment and maintenance….(or, Holy Crap, this is a lot of work!)

Noise and Intelligence Analysis

Building a better mousetrap is all well and good but first you better make sure their are some mice to catch.

Over the past decade we’ve built up quite an anti-terrorism infrastructure. New governmental agencies, capabilities and personnel at the federal, state and local levels with big budgets and new opportunities to make careers. But what happens if the threat isn’t sufficient to justify all that expense and effort?

Nassib Taleb writes about that in an excerpt from his latest book titled ‘Antifragile’. He discusses the difference between ‘noise’ and ‘signal’. He doesn’t talk specifically about ‘homeland security’ (or any form of focused intelligence) but you the relevance is pretty easy to spot.

He uses, as an example, personal physicians who have to justify their salaries. After all, how long can one expect to continue drawing a paycheck if their recommended course of action is ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing. You’re perfectly healthy.’

In business and economic decision-making, data causes severe side-effects – data is now plentiful thanks to connectivity; and the share of spuriousness in the data increases as one gets more immersed into it. A not well discussed property of data: it is toxic in large quantities – even in moderate quantities.

In the intelligence arena, the way we try to process data (if Taleb is correct) does nothing in particular to solve the problem. And frequently in the intelligence field, there’s little desire to look at anything but the immediate noise.

The more frequently you look at data, the more noise you are disproportionally likely to get (rather than the valuable part called the signal); hence the higher the noise to signal ratio…Say you look at information on a yearly basis . Assume further that for what you are observing, at the yearly frequency the ratio of signal to noise is about one to one…-it means that about half of changes are real improvements or degradations, the other half come from randomness…But if you look at the very same data on a daily basis, the composition would change to 95% noise, 5% signal.

So, when Taleb, a bit later on, makes the case that ‘anyone who listens to news (except when very, very significant events take place) is one step below sucker’, he’s talking to virtually the entire homeland security community (and much of the law enforcement one as well). That’s why after work humor is laced with terms about ‘media-led policing’ (or grant-led policing). As a headline scrolls across that flat screen TV, every agency with CIA-envy decides to scramble personnel to ‘run it to ground’. The result is, more often than not, a regurgitation of what was just reported on the news and, even worse, since everyone has been given the same command, numerous vapid reports ping around the ether for days.

Noise begets noise.

In the intelligence field I remain convinced this is due to the fact that agencies continue to do a very poor job of clearly defining how they intend on converting their mission to practical action. Saying you’re going to ‘detect, deter and defeat’ terrorists is great but if it’s not followed up with a (detailed, clear and realistic) ‘how’, it’s worthless.

Taleb argues that the answer is the rationing of information. That’s a strange recommendation in this day and age that I’m trying to get my head around but it does make sense. In Afghanistan (yes, another war story) I encountered this frequently when I found myself being one of a multitude of competing actors (‘Huh, the Supply Officer has an interesting theory on tribal relations? Oh, he just read an article in National Geographic? Great!’) trying to get my analysis to the appropriate customer.

And yes, I know how elitist that reads. But in the intelligence field not every voice is equally valuable. Not every analytical opinion is equally worthy of consideration. And intelligence consumers can’t be expected to read and evaluate every piece of analysis.

Welcome to the Dark Ages

Map of the "barbarian" invasions of ...

Like many, I’ve always been fascinated with the fall of the (Western) Roman Empire. In particular, from early on I always wondered if people living at that time knew they were in a dramatic shift in civilization or if it was just seen as yet another shitty year in a long line of them but nothing particularly special.* Do people realize when their civilization is in a period of permanent decline or is it just that every society has its share of pessimists and like the proverbial clock, eventually they’ve got to be right?

Beats me but I found this article about how the mayor of Detroit is trying to ‘shrink’ his city to make it more efficient seemed in the same ‘decline and fall’ motif.

Twenty Detroit neighborhood are only 10 to 15 percent occupied…o, the government is instead “phasing out” these neighborhoods by turning off their streetlights.

As we all know, Detroit has been circling the drain for quite some time now and big parts of the city have been abandoned and are being claimed by scavengers, squatters and nature as it slowly winds down. In much the same way (I imagine), Dark Age people would strip stones from Roman Era buildings and walls, some Detroit residents are stealing copper and anything else worth cash from homes (some abandoned, some not). Apparently much of this reclamation is done to fuel drug habits and I’m not sure if (or how much) of it may be recycling in the manner of our Dark Age ancestors (stealing building materials from an abandoned house, for example, to patch up one’s own) but it’s certainly interesting.

I won’t bore you yet again with my grand scheme to convert cities like Detroit into more self sufficient entities by converting abandoned residential space into farm land (Latfundia, anyone?**) but I still say it’s a good idea.

The BBC seem to be thinking along the same lines but on a grander scale by comparing our current time with the disintegration of Roman influence.

The fall of Rome serves to remind us that complex societies can, and do, break down.

First was the widening gulf between the social classes, rich and poor. When rich and poor start to live completely different lives this leads (then as now) to the poor opting out of the state. All studies today show that society is happier when the gap between rich and poor is reduced.

Widen it and you affect the group ethos of society, and also the ability to get things done through tax.

In the Roman West real wealth lay more in land and property than in finance (though there were banks) – but in the 300s the big land-owning aristocrats who often had fantastic wealth, contributed much less money than they had in the past to defence and government.

That in turn led as it has today to a “credibility gap” between ordinary people and the bureaucrats and rich people at the top.

Not surprisingly then, many people – especially religious groups – tried to opt out altogether.

*I know the current view of the fall of the empire is that it was really more of a transition than a dramatic break but I’m not talking about any particular event like the last emperor or the loss of a specific battle. There were a number of changes that occurred, beginning in the late 3rd century, that seem (at least to me) to have been pretty dramatic changes to the system.

**Of course, I’m not really recommending the Latfundia system as that led us to feudalism but I really like the word.  In reality, this would be a bit more of ‘40 acres and a mule‘.