Monthly Archives: July 2012

The end of civilization…bit by bit

I don’t really think civilization is ending but like much of the rest of society I’m swept up in apocalyptic fever . I can remember, even as a teenager, looking at maps of the Roman Empire at its peak and wondering at what point (if ever) some minor government official, soldier, merchant, priest, whatever listened to the news at the forum, looked at a map of the known world or saw the dust of an invading barbarian army and thought to himself ‘Game over, man. Game over.’

The realization that this wasn’t a temporary glitch and things weren’t going to get any better. Not tomorrow. Not next year. Probably not ever. Does that sort of realization change you in some way? I suppose it has to at some level just in practical terms. If you’ve got a bit of extra food, perhaps you squirrel it away, tighten your belt and eat less because you can see days with no food in your future.

So, please indulge me as I occasionally through out indicators of the coming collapse.

As the Roman empire collapsed, cities emptied out. Farmland was laying fallow and often under the control of someone other than those who ran the cities so it just wasn’t possible to support big cities with lots of empty bellies. Rome went from its estimated peak of 1 million people to (again, an estimate) 20,000. In the dark ages, European ‘cities’ of 10,000 people were considered huge. Today we consider them a middling sized town.

What do you do if you’re one of those 20,000 people wandering around in a city that was built for a million? Well, there are a lot of empty buildings out there. Some people ‘re-purposed’ them, (in an audio course I just finished, the instructor spoke of evidence of people living in a Roman bath. After all, if everything ended today, how many of us would know how to build a house? And remember, you aren’t going to the Home Depot for materials…that’s gone too. Do you have the time, know-how and available labor to source the materials and put them together? Much easier to find a structure that’s already standing and move in.

As years turned into decades and centuries, the problem of materials was serious. You might be able to look your Home Depot for awhile (of course, everyone else will be looking to do so as well) but sooner or later, the last piece of plywood and box of nails will leave the shelves. We’d have to do what those poor sods in the Dark Ages did. Start pulling down Roman buildings for the well cut stone, pull nails out of whatever we could find. Tare down the old wolrd in order to build the new.

I suppose this has been peculating a little close to the front of my mind after finishing Soft Apocalypse a couple of months ago. It’s quite good and I recommend it. In fact, I’m thinking I might want to give it a reread and think about it a bit more deeply. It’s a fictional account of the general winding down of civilization over a ten year period beginning in 2023. I think does about as good of a job of portraying people’s lives in the midst of a collapsing civilization. No meteor strikes…no hordes of zombies. Just the accumulation of many small effects, countermeasures to retain/regain some sense of normalcy which, in turn, have their own unintended consequences which, before you know it, it’s all gone.

And what got me thinking about that was this article from Pacific Standard:

In 2008, according to the Eaton Blackout Tracker, there were 2,169 power outages in the U.S. affecting 25 million people. In 2011, there were more than 3,000 outages affecting 41.8 million people…the number of power outages affecting more than 50,000 people a year has more than doubled, and blackouts now drain between $80 billion and $188 billion from the U.S. economy every year.

I can’t evaluate the following but I think it’s what got me thinking about our Roman ancestors, realizing that Rome wasn’t coming to fix those nice roads, send the legions to beat back those raiding barbarians or anything else.

Once the province of survivalists and hippies, so-called normal people extoll going off the grid, especially after a grueling blackout. The remote Texas town of Presidio even got a giant battery to protect itself against shutdowns.

Creating private, or ultralocal, hedges against failing power without investing in the greater grid is the electric equivalent of creating a gated community. And this is what has happened in countries with lots of blackouts: Cities in Nigeria and India are full of private generators belching out fumes.

Huh…think it’s time to go and split some firewood. Winter gets cold around here.

Reflections on counterinsurgency (audio edition)

So, a bit belated but the Kings College War Studies podcast had two great episodes recently that focused on Counterinsurgency and I highly recommend them.

The first is an interview with Lt. General Jonathan Riley and Professor Theo Farrell. The General is from the UK who has lots and lots of experience in combat zones all over the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan. He was the deputy commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2007 which makes his candor in this interview all the more interesting.

Here are some of the highlights I thought were particularly interesting:

Campaigns in Iraq vs. Afghanistan: ‘A lot of people went to Afghanistan thinking it was Iraq with mountains.’

0989436-R1-013-5 0989436-R1-013-5 (Photo credit: iago18335)

Obviously, it’s not but it’s interesting that even around the 2006-2008 time frame (which appears to be when he was talking about) there must have been many senior people who were that clueless about Afghanistan. Not surprising…just interesting. He further remarks that Afghanistan is much more like Africa than Iraq in terms of looking for mental models of how to conceive of the operating environment. I don’t think I’ve heard of that before or the idea that operations in Africa might provide better insight into Afghanistan than lessons learned from Iraq but it makes sense. I suspect the Iraq/Afghanistan equivelance issue was due to the following in some mixture:

  • the were occurring concurrently
  • there were lots of US troops in both
  • we had lumped them under one catagory (war on terror) and so assumed they must have operational similarities

British deployment into Helmand in 2006 was a jumble of misunderstandings that hampered any real progress. Those misunderstandings include ones that seem a bit out of place for a modern army:

  • size of the operating area (bigger than many planners thought)
  • the size and number of populated areas within the province
  • the scope of narcotics trafficking across the border

The first two, at least, appear fairly straightforward and should be within the capabilities of the coalition to acquire and absorb. Yet, apparently that didn’t happen.

Provincial Reconstruction Teams don’t work. They don’t report to ISAF but instead report back to their individual national command structures which essentially precludes any sort of unity of effort.

The second podcast addresses the issue of counterinsurgency more broadly. In particular they talk about the concept of counterinsurgency and how COIN chic has evolved and where it might be headed. There isn’t anything specific I’d like to pick out here but it’s a nice primer on COIN, the debates surrounding the concept and how COIN theory might evolve post Iraq and Afghanistan.

From the broad back down to the specific, the New Yorker has an interview with Dexter Filkins and Steve Coll about Afghanistan and what it will likely look like after 2014. Let’s face it, there aren’t many ways to paint Afghanistan in a good light today and these guys don’t try. It’s a mess and as Steve Coll says, what we leave behind isn’t going to be pretty and might not be any better than when we found it.

They have a brief discussion about ‘when did things go wrong’ in Afghanistan and I have to agree with Coll that to answer that question we really need to look at the very beginning. The rot began way back in ’01-’02 which is why I think the sense of being adrift was (at least to me) firmly established by the time I got there in 2003. Coll points to specific decisions that were counterproductive:

  • the question of whether to go in ‘light’ (which we did) or ‘heavy’. The idea was that we could primarily fight this war through proxies. Tora Bora was the first big, red flag that wouldn’t work but it took years before anyone actually did anything about it. That’s because…
  • the focus on Iraq. Planning for Iraq clearly began early and even if no ‘official’ decisions were made, the US was keeping its powder dry and wanted to be able to pivot quickly to Iraq.
  • Whether to engage in ‘nation-building’. There was a general reluctance to help build governing institutions or coordinate aid programs. That was either seen as somebody else’s job or…who knows…a bunch of liberal do gooderism?
  • Underestimating the Taliban and equating them with al-Qaida. This esentially eliminated the opportunity for any negotiations and encouraged the insurgency to rebuild their strengths and capabilities. This also led, in some parts of the country, into the Taliban beginning to morph into a national liberation movement.
  • Failure to account for Pakistan. Both the overt support of elements of the Pakistani government but also the pourus border. Obviously, pretending the problem didn’t exist was not a winning strategy.
  • The Afghan government we established (or, as Dexter called it, a ‘Vertically Integrated Criminal Enterprise’). Just a mess from top to bottom. Our weak attempts to claim early on that Afghanistan was soverign and therefore the U.S. didn’t want to meddle too much in internal affairs wasn’t effective because everyone knew that we were the only thing keeping the Afghan government going, both with military and financial support. Who believes we’d give all that money and then not demand some sort of accountability? In the end, they have a corrupt, inefficient government and it looks like we’re the puppet masters.

The ‘surge’ of 2009 didn’t do much other than check the Taliban’s momentum from 2007-2008 leaving us in a stalemate. We therefore failed to break the Taliban’s back which we thought would establish our own momentum for nation building and drive them to the negotiating table. The unfortunate thing about these hail mary pass type moves is that if they fail your opponent can now be confident that they’ve taken your best shot and they can now wait you out.

In 2014, expect news stories from Afghanistan (if anyone will be writing such things) to be all about the new civil war and the wisdom of the pundits will be ‘well, that place is just naturally ungovernable…nobody could build a state there.’ It’ll make everyone feel better but it won’t be true.

Coll makes the interesting observation that ‘nation building’ was easier in the 19th century than today. I wonder if that’s just because it was easier to use brutal methods then, if there was some cultural component (from the point of the occupiers, the occupied or both) or something else.

The depth of goodwill most Afghans had upon our entry into the country is hard to overstate. Even by 2003/2004, you could feel it among the population. We had it for years and refused to capitalize on it and by 2009 had to build a population-centric strategy in order to win the population over. For me, that’s one of the key missteps of the war that demonstrated an inability to see the critical components of this war.

Dexter thinks a ‘best case’ scenario (in terms of trying to prevent Afghanistan from sliding into chaos and civil war) will involve a commitment of approximately 15,000 troops for 20-25 years. That might work, provided casualties stay low but if insurgents can pull off a Kobar Towers-like incident I imagine the patience for continuing that mission would be pretty limited (which will play in well with the pundit narrative I mentioned above).

The Thing tells all

My enduring affection for Jon Carpenter’s The Thing is no secret.  Clarkesworld Magazine has a most excellent story by Peter Watts that is written from the point of view of the creature.

Very interesting and imaginative perspective.  Check it out.

Scandinavian drama

Mrs. TwShiloh and I have recently stumbled upon a couple of Scandinavian dramas that we can recommend highly.  I’m not sure what’s going on with those Scandinavians but they’re making some pretty good TV and movies lately.

First is Anno 1790, which is a crime drama that takes place in Stockholm at the end of the 18th century.  That time period is pretty exciting as it’s right after the French Revolution and a few years before the Swedish king will be assassinated.  The main character is a sympathizer of the enlightenment but finds himself working for the powers of the status quo.

I’ve watched fewer than half of the 10 episodes and it definitely getting a Holmes/Moriarty feel to it.  It’s not derivative though and there’s a lot of 18th century and Scandinavian newness here to keep you occupied.  You can get the whole season from Amazon with English subtitles.

Here are the first 15 minutes from the first episode:

The second series is a Norwegian series called Lilyhammer.  It revolves around a NY mafia member who decides to testify against his former compatriots.  In exchange we wants to enter the witness protection program.  Unlike other mob informants, however, he demands to be set up in Lillehammer, Norway.  I’d describe this as a cross between My Cousin Vinny and the Sopranos.  Not as over the top comedic as the former or heavy and grim as the latter.

Prediction markets as an intelligence tool

A few months ago I mentioned that I was part of a pilot project to determine if prediction markets could be helpful for intelligence analysis. The project ended today and here are my results:

Questions participated in: 14 (of a total of 19questions)

# of correct predictions: 14 (that’s 100% for you keeping track at home!)

Starting money and rank: $6,000/ 45 participants

Ending money and rank: $32,264.14 / 1 out of 45 particpants

While fun I’m not really sure prediction markets (as set up in this experiment) were particularly helpful. The questions were so specific (a hypothetical question: Will the French attack the World Series with a VBIED?) and the time frame so limited (April to July) that I felt I could play the odds, run out the clock and pull down a pretty decent haul.

My second hesitation about prediction markets involves this article about the abject failure of their utility in some pretty big events. Now these weren’t ‘black swan’ events but rather were policy/political questions were the parameters of the issue were known, a lot of specific information was available and yet the predictions were way off. They failed horribly over the Supreme Court decision to uphold the ACA and ended up looking much like they just followed the punditocracy.

By going a bit back in Ritholtz’s archives, I think he hits upon the key that explains the rather uninteresting futures questions AND the ease with which someone like me can achieve a 100% success rate.  After all, I know I think I’m brilliant but even I can’t be that good.

“The “wisdom of crowds” is a colloquial way of describing the market as a complex system. The work on wisdom of crowds shows that when certain conditions are met—diversity, aggregation, and incentives — markets tend to be efficient. Conversely, when one or more of those conditions  are violated, markets can and do become inefficient (i.e., price is no longer an unbiased reflection of value).

And, what the prediction market I was involved with lacked those conditions.  There wasn’t (as far as I could tell) much diversity in terms of participants (and therefore, ideas).

It didn’t seem that there were sufficient incentives for many participants.  We were giving notional money and I was interested and checked in frequently to check the health of my ‘portfolio’, the static value of many participants led me to conclude that after they signed up they never participated again.

Aggregation is the platform in which to bring all these opinions together.  The market in the pilot project did a fine job of that.  They made a concerted effort to recruit people into the project.  So, no problems there.

David Leonhardt points out that while prediction markets clearly have flaws, the whole reason they’ve taken off recently is that old ways of peering into the crystal ball of the future where at least as unsatisfactory.

The answer, I think, is to take the best of what both experts and markets have to offer, realizing that the combination of the two offers a better window onto the future than either alone. Markets are at their best when they can synthesize large amounts of disparate information, as on an election night. Experts are most useful when a system exists to identify the most truly knowledgeable — a system that often resembles a market.


As far as the use of prediction markets in intelligence analysis goes, I suspect we’ve still got a number of kinks to work out.  Aggregation appears the easiest part to solve but what sort of incentive system would be appropriate?  Perhaps even more importantly, how do we build diversity when there would be all sorts of security and confidentiality concerns?

Beats me…but at least I got braggin’ rights for ending up in the #1 slot.

Wither al-Qaida revisited

Original ‘Wither al-Qaida’ here.

William Macle has a great long read up in Reuters about the direction al-Qaida may be heading in. I say ‘great’ because it conforms to my preconceived notions and allows me to say ‘Ah, ha! That’s what I’ve been saying for months now.’ Never underestimate my capability for self-congratulation.

In short, the article asserts that the success in decimating al-Qaida’s core leadership over the past year or so, coupled with ‘franchising’ the AQ brand to groups more focused on local conflicts has turned the organization into one that is less capable on the international field and less influential on the world’s stage. Involvement in local conflicts across the Middle East and Africa lead al-Qaida affiliates down the same dangerous path that al-Qaida in Iraq faced. Namely, involvement in conflict is most likely going to be brutal and endemic leading to a disaffected  local population and retaliation. You may be able to assert control for awhile (like the Taliban did, AQAP is doing in parts of Yemen or al-Shabaab in parts of Somalia) but it’s unlikely we’re going to go back to the ‘glory days’ of pre-9/11. Neighbors aren’t going to want a destabilizing force so close and locals are going to be wary of the chances of living in a ‘live and let live regime’. These local affiliates are often their own worst PR enemy.

For what it’s worth, Peter Bergen seems to agree with me*:

– Al Qaeda hasn’t conducted a successful attack in the West since the bombings on London’s transportation system seven years ago that killed 52 commuters. And the terrorist group, of course, hasn’t carried out an attack in the States since 9/11.

– Even terrorists influenced by al Qaeda-like ideas have only killed 17 people in the United States since 9/11.  About the same number of Americans are killed every year by dogs. In other words, in the United States during the past decade, dogs have been around ten times more deadly than jihadist terrorists.

– Polling data from across the Muslim world in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and Turkey indicate that support for al Qaeda has plummeted.

– Al Qaeda played no role in the Arab Spring and hasn’t been able to exploit in any meaningful way the most significant development in the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

On top of that, based on open source reporting of the latest underwear bomb plot indicates that not only are countermeasures getting better but that we may have finally gotten to the point that we’re actually inside the OODA loop of AQ and at least some of their affiliates.

I have to agree with his central thesis.  If we’re not yet at the point where we can regulate AQ and some of its affiliates to ‘minor irritant’ we’re damn close.

The next question is what will the homeland security/counterterroism industrial complex going to turn its sights on in order to continue being fed?

Abu Muqawama riffs off that article hedging his bets a bit more:

 It is undoubtable that at the very least, tactically and operationally (and many would argue strategically) that the U.S. has inflicted grievous blows on al Qaeda. But the persistent capability and possibility of al Qaeda’s thus-far unbroken will translating itself into coercive power make a political declaration a liability. Indeed, were an attack to occur after such a declaration, the response would likely severely undermine the wartime credibility of civilian leadership and inaugurate an even more costly and ambitious conception of retaliation and counterterrorism, which is particularly problematic since Bergen’s goal is to redirect resources away from the war on terror.

Despite the fact that al Qaeda’s operational capability to conduct attacks on the continental United States is undoubtedly weaker than during 9/11, it retains strategic options to imperil US interests. Al Qaeda retains the ability to expand the battlefield against the U.S. and threaten Western assets outside of American soil. Bergen argues that our extensive defense establishment is part of the logic behind declaring victory, but if the goal of declaring victory is to refocus assets from that establishment, and deploying overwhelmingly superior resources is our defense, the benefits of declaring victory remain slim and potentially counterproductive. Because the U.S. hasn’t decisively stemmed the growth of local affiliates – which can still kill U.S. citizens and personnel or target critical assets abroad – the potential remains for the al Qaeda threat, however operationally reduced, to exact politically significant costs.

I just don’t know how you break free from that trap.  When do you get to the point when AQ (or anyone for that matter) can’t “kill U.S. citizens and personnel or target critical assets abroad”?  I mean, that seems a pretty low bar to continue exerting a whole lot of effort.  I’m not arguing that we ignore AQ completely but we’re fast approaching (or past) time to seriously consider a post-AQ world.

*That shouldn’t be interpreted in any way to imply that Peter Bergen even knows I exist.**

**That note shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that I’m particularly interested in Peter Bergen’s approval or dig his mojo.

The silent terrorist?

Failure magazine (really, talk about niche programming) has an article about a series of strange attacks against eucalyptus trees in California. The trees (a non-native species) has been attacked by a series of non-native insects since 1985. At least one researcher has asserted that the introduction of the invasive eucalyptus killers appears to be by design rather than the result of accidental introductions.

Who cares? Well, this actually can lead to fairly substantial costs as eucalyptus trees are frequently used as landscaping features. Their removal (and I assume replacement) was big bucks.

The story begins in 1985 when Paine’s department began receiving calls from county officials relaying concerns that large numbers of eucalyptus trees were dying and costing upwards of ten-thousand dollars each to remove. First the calls came from residents in southern California but they soon began coming from the San Francisco Bay Area too. “At its peak, the University of California (San Diego) were saying they could spend their entire landscape budget for the whole campus just taking out eucalyptus trees,”…

The article calls this ‘bioterrorism’ but I think that’s a misuse of the terms. After all, one of the key components of terrorism is that someone (the victims, government or some social, religious or political subgroup) has to be coerced to some sort of change. I’d suggest that in order for that to happen, that target group needs to know it’s being terrorized purposefully and is not just subject to the whims of nature and chance. If, in fact, this introduction of invasive species is purposeful, then it might be better to call this ‘biovandalism’.

The idea that this is done by design rather that by accident isn’t universally accepted but they do highlight a cognitive bias among scientists in the field. According to a researcher at Oklahoma State University, many in her community suffer from ‘suspicion inertia’:

We tend to think of everything as just being natural-even an unfamiliar set of symptoms-and it is rare for someone to take the perspective that it might not be.

This lack of consideration of a sufficiently broad range of hypotheses is common in the intelligence field as well and has been remarked on for years. The advantage the academic field has in areas like this is that they (at least) have a peer review process in place. While imperfect it allows for alternative hypotheses to be presented and subjected to scrutiny by the larger community. While that may occur within the federal IC, there’s nothing like that occurring at the state and local level. Criticism and questioning of assertions is still often interpreted as a personal or institutional attack and frowned upon as being in bad taste. That allows really bad (and I mean really, really bad) analysis, perhaps with unsubstantiated conclusions, flawed data or gross errors in fact, to continue to float around the community without a word being said about it. The only hopes of preventing such analysis from lodging in the community psyche are:

  1. informal word of mouth communication to avoid that product – hardly satisfying in terms of reaching enough people or being able to maintain awareness in the collective consciousness (which, if it exists, probably isn’t up to the task) long enough to pass along concerns to the next generation of practitioners. And given the high rates of analyst turnover, ‘new’ generations may come on the scene every couple of years.
  2. that few people will read such a document anyway. That’s kind of a double edged sword. Many people don’t read intelligence documents but of those that do, I suspect there’s a serious deficit in being able to read such products critically. In other words, to identify flaws, inconsistencies or unanswered questions that a particular product has.