Wizards of Oz

"Life is fraughtless ... when you're thoughtless."

3.7.08

Decisionmaking

("On They Came" by Mort Kunstler, c/o The Framery)

There has been much dialogue in the 'blogosphere lately regarding information, from Andrew Exum's recent critique of JP 3-13: Information Operations at Small Wars Journal (h/t MountainRunner) to Chet Richards on "Orientation" (the central concept to Boyd's OODA loop) and "Virtual Water Coolers". Earlier posts by ZenPundit, John Robb, Shlõk, Don Vandergriff, Kotare and Coming Anarchy's brilliant series on the Principles of War are excellent contributions to the topic of "decisionmaking", which I believe is the cornerstone of command and leadership.

What makes good leaders? Is it success? Luck? Perseverance? Or is the "harmonious association of powers" that Carl von Clausewitz described in On War (Book I, Chapter III: "The Genius for War")?

Consider the image above. On the afternoon of July 3rd, 1863, Maj. Gen. George Pickett and his division of 5,500 Confederate soldiers formed the right flank of a three-division assault across the gently rising slope from Seminary Ridge toward Cemetary Ridge in the fields south of the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. His shout, "Up, Men, and to your posts! Don't forget today that you are from Old Virginia," is inscribed on a monument at Gettysburg National Military Park. By the time Pickett's men had crossed Emmitsburg Pike and neared the Copse of Trees by the "Bloody Angle", more than half of his division would fall: 3,000 casualties in a matter of minutes, including 15 regimental commanders, six colonels and two brigadier generals.

What prompted a gifted leader like General Robert E. Lee to risk such a venture? Did the loss of Stonewall Jackson to friendly fire two months earlier at Chancellorsville neuter Lee's maneuverist spirit (a spirit that was alive and well with Hood's Texans, who defied direct orders and seized Devil's Den and Big Round Top on the Union left on July 2nd)?

Or did Bobby Lee see something his subordinates didn't? Did his rational calculus consider (a) Ewell's inability to take Culp's Hill on the Union right, (b) Longstreet's misinterpretation of his orders, thinking Lee only wanted him to turn the Union left rather than assaulting it to build on Hood's success the previous day, (c) the lack of coordination across a 3-mile-wide battlefront amongst his artillery, cavalry and infantry that dashed his hopes for a three-pronged assault, and (d) the near-breakthrough in the Union center (at the Copse of Trees) by Anderson the previous day?

The point is, complex adaptive environments have no unique solutions. Martin van Crevald, in Command in War, described two options for organizations needing to act with imperfect information: either increase its information processing capability (the choice of our modern U.S. military) or redesign the organization to allow it to operate effectively with less information (the essence of Boyd's Discourse and his "Organic Design for Command and Control" and the German concept of Auftragstaktik).

Based on the advice available to him on the scene, and his perception of the unfolding battle, Lee made the best choice he could at Gettysburg for the strategic interests of the Confederacy. Similarly, General George Meade (Commanding General of the Army of the Potomac) made great use of his subordinates (particularly Reynolds and Hancock) and -- knowing the Confederate States Army had moved into Pennsylvania -- chose the best line of defense with the Pipe Creek Line in northern Maryland.

Our challenge today is managing an ever-growing bitstream of data, and balancing our own cognitive load so that we are able to make effective decisions in high-stress, high-consequence, time-constrained environments. Some tools are useful in the context of social relationships and temporal "snapshots" (e.g., Twitter) while others give spatial correlation of resources ("Common Relevant Operational Pictures"). But none are adequate for all requirements.

The basic question we need to ask ourselves is: How much control do we really need? The most effective leaders are able to inspire their subordinates to strive for a common goal, then get out of their way. While information technology is beguiling in giving managers the chimera of perfect awareness, that awareness is a mirage on an ever-changing landscape of perception. Instead of focusing on what our subordinates are doing, or who should NOT see what we know through anachronistic classification practices, we should rather be managing our OWN cognitive load in order to anticipate emergent opportunities. MountainRunner sums up the debate nicely in his review of Exum's IO piece:
Understanding the value of shaping and managing perceptions is critical today just as it was critical throughout history. The difference is today fewer people are needed to mobilize for strategic effects, arguably making the precision and result of influence activities that much more important. We can’t afford to ignore this or get it wrong, but then we don’t have to get it absolutely right on the first cut. We must move ahead and realize that everyone is a strategic corporal and everything we do has information effects, some more than others.
Hear, hear!

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24.6.08

On Information

A Twitter "tweet" from @Selil earlier this evening roused a long-dormant post idea. Since Twitter is a "micro-blog", its constraint of just 140 characters limits its utility to low-bandwidth, big-idea (or mundane-activity) broadcasting. Prof. Liles's "big-idea" (in response to @mtanji of Haft of the Spear and CTLab fame) was:
"C4isr as the battle space. More than the Arquilla network centric warfare concept. Beyond hacking. Sun Tzu and Clausewitz"
I certainly agree with Prof. Liles that there is more to the information domain than John Arquilla and net-centric warfare (which always struck me as an attempt to create a self-fulfilling prophesy -- despite the fact that network superiority has no deterrent value). Where I differ is in the proposition that C4ISR is a "battle space".

C4ISR, or (as ADM Giambastiani liked to refer to it during his tour as my boss at U.S. Joint Forces Command, "C2 + C2ISR"), is simply a tool. The technology only provides a medium by which information can be shared, the same way that Roman signal towers allowed information to be conveyed rapidly across great distances millennia ago.

Part of the Tanji-Liles dialog emphasized the lack of any truly "revolutionary" capabilities in recent decades. I'm inclined to agree -- from a purely technological perspective. Our modern technology -- though impressive -- has not ushered in a unique "Information Age". In fact, today's technologies have not created wholly new capabilities; they have simply enriched capabilities that have existed for centuries. Rather than living in "The Information Age", I believe we are actually living in the fifth "information age":
1st: Verbal exchange of information (oral communication)
2nd: Physical representation of information (Sumerian writing)
3rd: Portability of information (papyrus)
4th: Mass-production of information (Gutenberg's movable type press)
5th: Information freed from physical form (telegraph, telephone, Internet)
The most significant effect of proliferating information technology and communications capabilities has been to neuter the initiative and empowerment of subordinates -- stunting the audacity that makes (or breaks) battles. Rigid hierarchies coupled with pervasive communications grids -- with "Net-Centricity" -- are demonstrably less effective than ones with "weak" links (q.v. Linked by Albert-László Barabási).

Consider the "Operational Level of War" -- the level between "Tactics" and "Strategy". Many organizations of the U.S. Department of Defense invest inordinate numbers of labor hours in developing an idea that peaked in Napoleon's time (when it was called "Grand Tactics").

Napoleon's logic was simple: he commanded an army so vast that its interior lines could exceed the distance of daily information propagation. (Information in the late 18th/early 19th century could propagate at approximately 100 miles per day.) But when technology increased the bandwidth of information transfer (as well as the speed, thanks to decoupling it from physical form and allowing velocity=c), the intermediate layer that once served as a proxy for the Imperial edict (i.e., empowerment of the on-scene commander to act on behalf of the Emperor) has remain entrenched.

Modern C4ISR tools have served to perpetuate this folly, giving today's commanders a beguiling sense of "Situational Awareness". MIL STD 2525, the military standard for unit symbology merged with theater-scale maps, can give a commander a "realtime snapshot" of the entire physical battlespace. But as the scale increases (since warfare is not scale invariant), the trade off between "relevance" and "intelligibility" becomes akin to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: as one becomes more precise, the other becomes dangerously less so.

The temptation to treat warfare like a game of chess (with its ordinal moves and perfect battlefield intelligence) is fallacious. ARHerring, a co-contributor at Dreaming5GW, recently opined about the nature of chess on multiple boards -- a closer approximation to the adaptive and complex nature of war. Clausewitz's description of "Genius" in battle is the antithesis of a reductionist thinker who seeks the unique solution to a given problem. Complex adaptive environments can have multiple solutions -- but an even larger number of incorrect options.

Therefore, a better description of an effective military leader is not simply "charisma", but "network fitness": per Barabási, the ability to "attract" links in order to influence their perceptions. This applies not only to COIN, but also to Information Warfare (h/t mtanji) and the renascent field of Public Diplomacy championed by Mountainrunner.

Update: Michael Tanji and Tyler Boudreau (h/t John Robb) sound off.

[Crossposted at Dreaming5GW]

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13.6.08

Generations of War: New Post

After a nearly-four month hiatus, I have posted a new piece over at my co-'blog, Dreaming5GW. Check it out.

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23.5.08

WIRED: Survival Gear

While John Robb pens his next book on Resilient Communities, and Mother Penguin & my fellow Eagles at the National Institute of Urban Search and Rescue plan for GOLDEN PHOENIX this summer in the Southwest, WIRED magazine offers a dozen pieces of survival gear "just crazy enough to work".

As expected, WIRED's piece is two parts serious, one part sarcastic. The most uniquely inventive item on the list? The "HYDRA Collapsible Micro-Wind Turbine System" that uses electricity (converted from wind) to thaw snow, creating 750ml of water per hour:



As I prepare for a weekend camp-out with rising 2nd grade Cub Scouts (who recently received their Tiger Badges and are now "Wolf Cubs"), some of these items look particularly useful... :-)

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17.5.08

Thermodynamics & Resilience

Author and blogfriend John Robb (of Global Guerillas) has done some fascinating "horizontal thinking" lately, tying the concept of "resilience" to thermodynamics. Yesterday's 'blogpost (entitled "Dissipative Structures") combines entropy and complexity -- with special attnention given to the concept of "scale" in complex systems.

John has raised an important point -- one that I echoed in his comments section at GG. If we presume that organizational and political structures exist because they make it more efficient (i.e., less entropic) to live, then we can also presume they will gradually become extinct when people have better options to pursue. "Resilient Communities" may just be one method by which we are able to satisfy Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. From John's comment section:

On the topic of thermodynamics, remember that entropy can be controlled -- but it takes work to do so (otherwise it would be impossible to make ice, an organized lattice of hydrogen-bonded water molecules, from a disorganized liquid).

Organizations are formed in order to accomplish tasks more efficiently. While it is a staple of GG and your own JR blogs (and BNW) to note the declining role of the nation-state, it is worthwhile to remember WHY our nomadic species settled into agrarian communes: because it was more efficient. Therefore, urban centers arose because that was the BEST way to accomplish the tasks required in a civilization dependent on industrialization. Similarly, nation-states were the most efficient mechanism for providing for common defense while creating -- and regulating -- markets in the post-Renaissance era. The former political structures based on the church and the "Divine Right of Kings" were discarded, and we adapted to the new norms.

Have nation-states recently exceeded some threshold of efficiency? Or are there better examples for how we can organize to live, work and play without further disruptions to our environment?

RCs may just be one case -- and I hope you will more fully develop this theory in your forthcoming RC book. It probably deserves and entire section, rather than just a lone chapter.

The premise should be how can we best abide by the 1st Law of Thermodynamics (Energy is always conserved) while also allowing the core social structures to thrive within our environment.


Zenpundit has provided a handy reference of John's work toward his second book (on "Resilient Communities"). Check it out and join the fray.

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17.4.08

Redundancy vs. Interdependency

John Robb has shared some of his early ideas as he brainstorms for his forthcoming book on "Resilient Communities". This recent post describes the need for local capacity in "personal fabrication", opining that "in the longer term, [disruptions don't] need to occur." Communities possessing the ability to create (at low cost and small scale) locally desired goods could, in John's words, "... advance economically and in quality of life faster than communities dependent on traditional centralized sources of production."

The following day, Tom Barnett linked a Bloomberg article under the heading "Early signs of the growing food hyper-interdependency" and Shlõk posted a short piece on "Piggybacking on Existing Infrastructure" (calling it a bad idea).

These two articles underscore the competing notions of of "economic specialization" (which is the at the core of interdependency) and "local redundancy". In an ideal world, with infinite resources, local capacity can be built to suit local needs. However, when resources are finite, the concept of "opportunity cost" becomes paramount: What can I not do if I do this?

For disaster planning, we tend to overestimate the availability (and capacity) of local infrastructure: first responders on the scene, relatively intact communications infrastructures, availability of critical resources like water, ice, medicine. After Hurricane KATRINA in August 2005, however, we saw the impact of lost infrastructure: first responders who had evacuated themselves, cell phone towers with their power generators flooded, impassable transportation grids unable to deliver needed supplies.

I have argued in this 'blog for greater self-reliance -- but how far can we go? What are the practical limits of building and maintaining a local infrastructure that can satisfy all local needs? And would such "islands of self-sufficiency" lead to greater sectarianism?

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9.4.08

REVIEW: Taleb's "Black Swan"

After resting comfortably in my "anti-library" for many weeks, I recently plucked The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb from my dusty nightstand. Since I was embarking on cross-continental flights (albeit with kids), I was looking forward to punctuating the drink-and-peanut monotony of Southwest Airlines (an airline woefully unequipped for flights longer than 90 minutes) with Taleb's insights.

Since my days as a civilian employee of the U.S. Navy, where I evolved from an aspiring systems engineer to a "Science Advisor" to a manager leading the "Red Team" at U.S. Joint Forces Command J9, I have been fascinated with the prospect of "adversarial surprise". Like most analytical efforts under the loose employ of the Pentagon (which has roughly one government civilian employee [tail] for every two active duty soldiers/sailors/airmen/Marines [tooth]), this was a cottage industry.

Taleb's insights echo many of our observations in the Joint Experimentation program, particularly regarding the hubris of intellectualism. His skepticism of inductive logic, his emphasis on the importance of context in perceiving information, and his lionization of Doktor Prof. Sir Karl Raimund Popper (whom I had the pleasure of driving from leland stanfurd junior u. to Cal some 20 years ago in my Nissan Sentra) as well as Henri Poincaré are worthy of note.

However, his self-referential anecdotes are reminiscent of a Tolstoy novel, and his clear disdain for planning (née prediction) creates a scotoma that pulls him into the same abyss of solipsism that consumed David Hume.

The depth of his criticisms can be summarized quite succinctly as:
Don't use quantitative methods for qualitative questions.
Nature is benign, so we can ascribe a comfortable level of determinism to our observations. New data, often obtained through technological innovation, requires modification of obsolete theories (e.g., the Ptolemaic model of the universe to the Copernican; Newton's Laws of Motion to Einstein's Special Relativity; etc.). Key to our understanding (though Taleb would probably insist we understand nothing) is the selection of appropriate parameters -- and to not get too enamored with your own theories, especially if it involves any vestige of "free will".

Fallible? You betcha! Yes, we are inclined to fool ourselves. Yes, we try to cram too many variables into our formulae in some vain hope that we'll "get it right". And yes, our institutions -- particularly financial ones -- tend to reward the wrong kinds of behavior (q.v. Prof. Clay Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma, in which Clay digs into corporate failures vice successes, finding that Wall Street rewards bad behavior). But Taleb's diatribe against the folly of "epistemic arrogance" has created another confirmation bias that only casually addresses the issue of scale when considering complex topics.

I understand that I am straying far from the "anchor" of many blogfriends (John Robb, Art Hutchinson, General of the Hordes Subadei, ARHerring, zenpundit, Chet Richards) who have offered glowing praise for The Black Swan. Perhaps it's my naïveté (or perhaps that I'm a product of the California public school system), but I honestly don't see our civilization marching toward "Extremistan". Quite the opposite: While our awareness of remote events has increased, and our networks have grown exponentially, I believe that the diffuse topology of our networks actually dampens the impact of an extreme event.

Consider the "Butterfly Effect". Do you really think a butterfly flapping its wings in Jakarta is going to eventually cause a hurricane in New York City? Or do you think the minor perturbation is absorbed locally without cascading into some kind of resonance? Yes, there are examples that illustrate the dire consequences of unplanned resonance. Taleb (who waffles at the end of his book as half hyperskeptic, half intransigently certain) abandons the Gaussian bell curve, yet -- with only a single mention of Albert-László Barabási -- firmly embraces Power Law scale invariance as normative.

Despite Taleb's too-casual treatment of scale, I think he would agree with George E.P. Box's statement (c. 1987) that "...[A]ll models are wrong, but some are useful." Abandoning our dogmatic devotion to certainty is essential in any creative, innovative enterprise -- and can reveal hidden opportunities, and hidden abilities.

This requires that we reexamine how we define "success". In my adopted hometown of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the best Calutron operators (the electromagnets that separated Uranium isotopes for the LITTLE BOY bomb at Y-12 during the Manhattan Project) were not the scientists from Berkeley who designed them, but seamstresses with no scientific training. And how many Americans would consider Tommy Franks or Norman Schwarzkopf as the most successful U.S. commanders in the Mid-East? What about Tony Zinni (who didn't win a major theater war, but may have demonstrated even greater skill by avoiding one)?

While many of us point to 9/11 as a "Black Swan", I can say unequivocally that it had a far less dramatic effect on my life than Continental Flight 196 on March 6th, 1993. Could I have predicted when or how I would meet the woman that would be the mother of my children? Of course not.... But was I open to the possibility, and adaptive enough (when jabbed in the ribs by Helen from Purchasing to move up one row on that flight) to take advantage of this blessing?

That may be the best value of Taleb's Black Swan: to jar us out of our collective comfort zones, to remind us how ignorant we truly are, and to encourage us to "Be Prepared!" Good advice, regardless of whether you live in Mediocristan or Extremistan.

____
Update: Überblogger Zenpundit has graciously linked this review -- and will have his own review posted this weekend. (Thx Zen!)

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7.12.07

A Date Which Lives in Infamy

Flags across the United States are at half-mast today in recognition of "a date which shall live in infamy". At 7:52 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, the first wave of Japanese bombers reached the western shore of O'ahu (near today's Lualualei Naval Weapons Station), crested the Waianae Ridge at Kolekole Pass (which connects Lualualei to Schofield Barracks), attacking military airfields as well as the fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor to the south. More than two thousand sailors, Marines and soldiers were killed -- along with 68 civilians -- compared to just 65 Japanese airmen killed.

The photo above has been a staple of my briefings on defense transformation for years. When I show the photo cropped to show only the lower-right quadrant, nearly everyone correctly observes "Battleship Row" at Pearl Harbor. Showing the full photo (from a scale model in wartime Japan) demonstrates the challenge we in a open society face when battling adversaries who don't share our values -- nor our freedoms.

John Robb has aptly noted our vulnerability to "open source warfare" -- a challenge that is exacerbated by the openness of our society. But the solution is not to trade our freedoms for the "warm blanket of security". Rather, we should remember that it is those freedoms -- the freedom to live, to love, to pursue happiness and prosperity -- that make us strong.

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16.9.07

¡Viva México!

On this date, September 16th, in the year 1810, Miguel Hidalgo (a parish priest in the central highlands of the Spanish colony of México) declared independence from Spain. What began as a peasants' rebellion against colonial rule led to nearly eleven years of war, with the coup d'état against Ferdinand VII (the last Bourbon monarch of Spain) in 1820 setting the conditions for recognized Mexican independence.

The annual celebration of "Cinco de Mayo" is not related to early Mexican independence, but rather to México's initial victory over French forces at Puebla in 1862. Cinco de Mayo is a relatively minor holiday in most of México (despite what many cerveza advertisers would have you believe).

Author-Blogger John Robb has posted recently on "system disruptions" affecting PEMEX's distribution pipelines in México; click here (10-Sep) and here (15-Sep). What a way to celebrate your 197th anniversary of independence....

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