Wizards of Oz

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


Reconstruction and Stability Ops

Several Bloggers have described the value of simple solutions for complex problems. Last summer, at the STRONG ANGEL III Humanitarian Relief Exercise in San Diego, I met Vinay Gupta. Vinay has the complexion of a south-central Asian, and the voice of a Scottish Highlander. His innovation, the Hexayurt, is another great innovation to provide rapid, relevant relief to people in need:

Vinay is addressing the most overlooked element of Maslow's Hierarchy of Need: the middle tier of "Affiliation".

While many focus on the bottom tiers (food & shelter; security), and post-modernist look at the top (esteem and actualization), the quickest path to stability is by allowing people to preserve their own affiliations.

The irony is that the relief mechanisms of the world do not allow this. The U.N. drops a 100-lb. bag of rice, and the refugee camp grows where the sustenance is delivered. This creates a spiral of disaffect that creates greater security challenges, and delays the restoration of stability.

A better approach, like those postulated by Vinay, is to provide people the means of achieving the lower tiers of Maslow's hierarchy -- while also preserving their native affiliations.

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Future Warfare?

Mountain Runner has provocatively asked how robots fit into 21st century warfare, and what impact they have on perception management, counterinsurgency, and reconstruction.

As a science advisor for the Dept of the Navy (in my previous career), unmanned systems offered a compelling promise of "security without risk". After all, the greatest limitation in modern systems engineering is making a platform hospitable for humans. Remove the human from the fighter aircraft, watch John Boyd's Energy-Maneuverability Theory grow quadratically -- and get a platform that can turn 25Gs while evading even the most advanced surface-to-air missiles.

Today MQ-9 REAPER unmanned aerial vehicles, armed with HELLFIRE missiles, roam the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan. Their pilots sit comfortably in a U.S. homeland Air Force base. Minimal risk, minimal U.S. casualties, and all is well, right?

Except that any power that chooses to trade its hardware for the adversary's lives is no longer conducting a "Just War". In particular, the notion of "proportionality" in conducting a just war is defeated -- and, more worrisome, the insurgency is incentivized to grow.

And what of advances in artificial intelligence, or A.I.? What if we develop sensor grids that can pass the Turing Test and demonstrate the capacity for independent thought and action? (The U.S. Navy already does this to a lesser degree aboard their AEGIS cruisers and destroyers: the SPY radar system has rigid "rule sets" to detect and engage threats, like anti-ship cruise missiles.)

The technology is emerging to allow the U.S. to project power without endangering its citizen soldiers -- akin to Rome's outsourcing of risk and security in the latter days of Empire. Mountain Runner's question is provocative because it identifies the core issue: not technology, but rather the perception of that technology and its moral implications.

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Cresting "The Hill"

At 8:35pm EDT tonight, I will complete my fourth decade on this earth. Since we've heard the iconic Raquel Welch declare that "60 is the new 40", does this mean "40 is the new 20"? I guess I need to go back to campus and find a kegger or two... :-)

To kick off my "Cresting 'The Hill'" weekend, last night I decided to climb the hill -- literally -- by riding my trusty steel-frame Moab mountain bike over Blackoak Ridge on the Dept of Energy "North Boundary" Greenway. Usually I'm able to crest the 400' vertical climb (7-8% grade for about 1-1/2 miles) without much trouble; this time I had to stop three times. Feeling old and decrepit as I stored my bike, I noticed that the rear tire rim (which I had removed earlier to replace the tube) was rubbing against the still-hot brake pad. So while I take solace in the fact that my physical stamina is as good as ever, my mechanical skills have clearly atrophied...

(BTW: The photo in my profile, as well as my "hyperlocal" personalized WIRED cover for the July 2007 issue, show my Moab in much better operational condition.)

In the Blogosphere, Dan tdaxp and Tom Barnett yesterday made similar posts on the quest by some for the "compassionate" side of conflict. Dan's is the second installment of his six-part "Dreaming 5GW" series, this time delving into the deliberate and explicit thought processes needed to conduct war: war, that is, except in the 5th Generation. Paralleling Zenpundit's recent post on Superempowered Individuals (exceptionally intelligent "lone wolf" actors who dispassionately leverage and exploit society's complex systems) Dan underscores the implicit and esoteric nature of the 5th Gen. warrior's ethos.

Tom's post is a critique of James Taranto's July 26th Op-Ed in the WSJ, decrying the circular logic apparent in the Democratic Party's platform on U.S. interventionism abroad. Tom, one of the most optimistic people I've ever met who always sees opportunity for growth and betterment, aptly notes the dichotomy between his lifelong registration in the Democratic party and Bill Clinton's self-deprecating psychoses in Rwanda and elsewhere as he whines that he should have done something. Tom has truly embraced the entrepreneur mantle, which (as our mutual boss Steve DeAngelis has written) demands optimism.

I believe these posts are very positive developments in our collective understanding of conflict. Regardless of how we segregate the historical evolution of warfare, the basic tenets of "Just War" doctrine remain apt in any conflict. [Donning flame-retardant coat in expectation of a thumping critique from 4GW and 5GW theorists...]

As for birthday festivities, Household 6 presented me with a very cool "Life is Good" technical t-shirt after a morning run with Deichman the Younger (who, at 6, demonstrates far greater physical abilities than I did at 16). With the New York City Marathon barely three months away, it's time to get serious about training -- and to consume as much carrot cake as possible to ensure my glycogen stores remain fully stocked! :->

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Dream-Quest of Unknown 5GW

Dan at tdaxp has begun a six-post series on "Fifth Generation Warfare". His first post, set against the backdrop of H.P. Lovecraft's dream city Kadath, is a concise summary of the most familiar of Boyd icons: the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act loop. Like his cohorts at Dreaming 5GW, Dan has crossed into the Cold Waste to free our minds from their attritionist prison so that we can re-orient our perspective for the challenges that lay ahead. After all, how many of us judge the success (or failure) of a campaign by the "body count" reported in the media? And how devastating is such a singular fascination when warfare turns to more cerebral methods?

I encourage you to drop over to tdaxp. Make the climb to Kadath. And maybe you'll discover the silver key to unlock our well-known past, and in so doing find the Sunset City that binds our collective futures on this planet.

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New toy

After running my Treo 600 into the ground for more than 2-1/2 years (after buying it used on eBay, no less), I have finally upgraded to a new-in-box, copper colored Treo 680 (Palm OS).

Since the old 600's camera started to get grainy, the screen started showing lines, the shift and "0" keys began sticking and the stylus digitizer began to drift, it was time.... Now my wife will inherit the hand-me-down so she can play Klondike solitaire in color.

As someone who has used the Palm OS since the 1990s (Graffiti and all), I have no intention of crossing over to Windows Mobile. Unfortunately PalmOne's decision last year to start offering Windows Mobile on its PDAs may mean this is the last Palm OS device I'll be able to buy new.

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A fresh perspective on Iraq

David Kilcullen's recent post at Small Wars Journal, "Understanding Current Operations in Iraq," provides a ground-eye perspective on "the surge" -- and a frank appraisal of GEN Petraeus's strategy. David, the Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor for Multinational Force-Iraq, underscores the shift in focus from an attritionist, "2nd generation warfare" approach (i.e., kill insurgents) to a population-based approach that seeks to deny insurgents sanctuary.

Some may view his comments on "positioning" as an attempt to justify lack of perceived progress to date, while others may profess skepticism at the willingness of the Iraqis to accept increased U.S. presence in their neighborhoods.

But David's article also raises substantive ideas that will enrich our popular understanding of counterinsurgency. In particular, his grasp of our own limitations in contending with a "fluid" adversary -- and that opponent's dependence on the fixed elements of Iraqi society -- are important for an honest appraisal of GEN Petraeus's success come September.

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Tools for Search, Fun

Zenpundit is test-driving a cool new visual search tool called searchCrystal. This tool allows you to visually compare, remix and mash hits from a variety of feeds in one simple interface. To wit:

Although this is a neat GUI for quickly comparing multiple search engines, even allowing the user to manually adjust the radius of the concentric circles, I found myself wondering "what's missing?" from the display. As one who frequently tailors and refines my Boolean searches until I get a good sense of what's available, I found the "top ten" default display deck for each engine on searchCrystal too constraining.

But rather than do a true in-depth review of searchCrystal, I decided to help the kids make our own "The Simpsons" avatars:

Matt Groening has come a long way from the Life in Hell comics I enjoyed in college! If you want to make your own avatars, go to The Simpsons Movie. H/T to Younghusband of Coming Anarchy (whose own avatars are uploaded to flickr).

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Large Numbers

A famous thought experiment postulates that a monkey, strumming unintelligently on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time, would eventually create all of the works of Shakespeare. Although often attributed to T.H. Huxley, a 19th century English biologist, it is a metaphor used in a 1913 essay by Émile Borel to describe large, random sequences of numbers.

During the 2007 Boyd Conference in Quantico, Virginia, LtGen(ret) P.K. Van Riper, USMC, described the rapidly-escalating variance in chess moves. Even though the chess board is a tightly constrained "battlespace" (8x8 grid, 32 pieces), after five moves there are more than 800,000 possible combinations. After six moves, this number increases to more than 9,000,000. And Wolfram's MathWorld shows that the possible number of positions after 40 moves is more than 1E120 -- a "1" followed by 120 zeros. This is nearly a billion-trillion times larger than the number googol (1E100, or the inspiration for the unintentionally-misspelled Internet search engine Google).

To give this number context, scientists today postulate that there are only 1E80 particles in the visible universe. And the age of the universe is estimated at 1.4E10 (14 billion) years.

So let's go back to our monkey. As an undergraduate physics major at Berkeley, one of the first homework problems in my thermodynamics class was a variation of the "infinite monkey theorem": we had to determine the probability of a trillion monkeys, typing randomly without pause at 10 keys per second, to randomly type the words of Hamlet. By assuming Hamlet was comprised of approximately 100,000 characters, and that a typical keyboard has 40 keys (without regard for punctuation or capitalization), the probability of a random string is 1/40 * 1/40 * 1/40 ..., repeated 100,000 times.

Despite having a trillion (i.e., 1E12) monkeys typing continuously at 10 keys per second, our solution was that it would still take more than 1E1000 years -- in other words, nearly googol (1E100) times the age of our known universe -- before reaching a 50% probability.

This is important for anyone charged with analysis or decision making responsibilities. We live in a world where just three significant figures (e.g., 99.9%) is considered accurate enough, and "six-sigma" (six significant figures, "1-in-a-million") is the ultimate achievement in performance. Too often we overlook the dynamics of our complex world, and we tend to dramatically underestimate variance in subsequent effects of actions.

So, if someone suggests to you that they can predict future actions in, say, a battlefield, just remember these facts:
  • The number of chess moves after a 40-move game is 1E120
  • The fastest computers in the world process about 1E15 operations per second
  • There are 1E80 particles in the visible universe
  • We still can't predict the weather accurately -- and nature isn't trying to deceive us!
Caveat emptor...

(H/T to Zenpundit for the post idea.)

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Welcome to the Emerald City

I've long been fascinated by the story of the "Wizard of Oz": from the movie (a staple of most Americans' childhood) to, later in life, L. Frank Baum's 1900 book and our all-time favorite Broadway play Wicked.

Beyond the feel-good tale of a young girl who just wants to go home, Oz presents numerous character studies that are germane to many of my professional and personal fascinations.

Central to these is the role of the Wizard. To some, he is simply helping others liberate the talent already within them. But to others, he is a charlatan with no real powers of his own who uses fear and intimidation to preserve his authority.

I fall in the latter category. After all, what did the Wizard ever really do for the Cowardly Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow except give them placebos in the place of real solutions? A ticking clock for a heart? C'mon...

Therefore, the Wizard is a master of Fifth Generation Warfare -- able to twist perceptions so that the very context by which we judge the world is altered.

The story is further enriched by Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Tim
es of the Wicked Witch of the West and Stephen Schwartz's brilliant Broadway musical adaptation Wicked, which challenge all of our presumptions about the characters in Baum's original work. It's a telling tale of our willingness to accept what we're shown (be it from the mainstream media, our schools, our churches, or any other seemingly authoritative source of information) rather than to think for ourselves. The subtitle on this 'blog (Life is fraughtless ... when you're thoughtless!) is a quote from the character Fiyero, a vain and lazy prince we encounter in Schwartz's play.

So, this 'blog is intended to be a forum for challenging our mainstream opinions, for identifying the Wizards in our midst, and for seeing the true intentions of the Witches in our hearts.

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Taking the red pill ...

It's about time I got serious about 'blogging (other than the occasional family vacation 'blog).

So, in the spirit of Tom, tdaxp, Zenpundit, Shlok, Soob and many others, let's see how deep this rabbit hole goes....