Thursday, June 30, 2016

Finding big ideas

A valuable post on innovation and the mind-set of discovery:

Where to Look for the Next Big Thing
This is a key point:

Great innovators are not just smart, they are curious. They are rarely purists or polemicists, but are courageous enough to venture outside their domain.
Howard Gardner touched on this in his book Changing Minds.
[Gardner] is especially pessimistic on our capacity to change our own minds. We do not, on the whole, accept new facts and revise our theories. Rather, we interpret or disregard the new information to make it fit our theories. This is not a matter of IQ or lack of education. He points out that intellectuals are "particularly susceptible" to removing cognitive dissonance by "reinterpreting" the facts.

Among the forces that exacerbate this tendency to lock-in a theory are emotional commitment, public commitment (pride makes it hard to climb down when everyone is watching), and an absolutist personality. (Source)
(Further discussion of this problem here)

Also relevant is David Gelernter's ideas about the mind and creativity.

Gelernter argues in The Muse in the Machine that creativity has three distinctive traits:

1. At base it "is the linking of ideas that are seemingly unrelated."

2. It is not an incremental process, rather inspiration comes as a bolt from the blue."

3. It occurs "in a state of unconcentration." Hence, "hard work does not pay. You can't achieve inspiration by concentrating hard, by putting your mind to it."
I've always liked David Ogilvy's advice on finding big ideas:

Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science, and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret. Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you.

Monday, June 06, 2016

"If we can’t capture a port, we must take one with us.”

Both the Allies and the German army understood that the key to the Battle of France was logistics. It did not matter how many men Britain and the US landed on the beach; to defeat the Germans they had to land tanks, heavy equipment, and an unfathomable quantity of ammunition, fuel, and other necessities. To accomplish that, the Allies woulld need ports and harbors.

After the raid on Dieppe in 1942, the allies also recognized a direct assault on a port was almost certainly impossible.

The German General Staff, a body governed in its military thinking solely by logic, had early figured the problem out to its one logical conclusion—cold logic showed a successful invasion to be impossible. Their advice to Hitler consequently had been, “Hold the ports and we hold everything.” And thus ran their reasoning (which no one, whether on the German side or on ours, could refute): A large, mechanized army, such as von Rundstedt and Rommel had, covering the Atlantic Coast from Denmark to Spain, could be defeated (if at all) only by a larger, better mechanized army—an invading army of a million men, at least, formidably equipped. Conceded that the Allies might, with their superior sea power, somehow land somewhere on the open European coast the larger army needed, they still could not land the heavy tanks, the big guns, the mechanized equipment and continuously disembark the immense quantity of supplies required to make that army an effective fighting force, without the wharfs, the harbor cranes, and the huge protected harbors necessary in all kinds of weather to handle ashore heavy equipment and supplies in such vast quantity.


The only possible conclusion? An invasion, yes, if the Allies are so mad as to be willing to offer up a million ill-equipped men to be massacred by Field Marshal Rommel’s mechanized forces. But a successful invasion? Obviously an impossibility! To that conclusion, the German General Staff, the British War Office, the American strategists, including Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, General Walter Bedell Smith, ultimately all subscribed without dissent.
And this is why GB Shaw was correct: "All progress depends on the unreasonable man."

But the British are a most illogical and stubborn race. Had they been more logical and less stubborn, they would swiftly have surrendered to Hitler after the Fall of France, and the question later of how successfully to stage an invasion impossible of success would never have risen to plague them. But running true to British doggedness even in the face of inevitable defeat, they neither accepted defeat after Dunkirk nor the impossibility of landing once again in Europe, even after their disastrous attempt at Dieppe. Doggedly the British planners continued to butt their heads against the stone wall of that impossibility. They continued to get nothing for their efforts except more headaches.
And then the pay-off:

The embattled planners, stymied, could only glare ferociously at each other across the conference table, blood-pressures rising dangerously. At this juncture, when it seemed most likely that British officers and gentlemen were about to forget that they were either, Commodore John Hughes-Hallet, senior Royal Navy planner, rose, stood a moment rolling his pencil briskly between his palms, then with mock solemnity tossed in his solution for the impasse.

“Well, gentlemen, all I can say is this—if we can’t capture a port, we must take one with us.”

All hands—soldiers, sailors, airmen alike—roared heartily at this merry conceit—fancy that, a whole seaport afloat, being towed across the Channel. A good joke, Commodore, worthy of more wine! They had it. Tensions relaxed. With everyone still laughing, the meeting broke up, with any solution to the port problem no nearer than before.

But by morning, the uproarious jest of the night before had begun to haunt both the jester himself and the most important of his hearers—Lieut. General Sir Frederick Morgan, Chief of the Planning Staff. That silly idea—floating a seaport across the Channel—was the only alternative. Silly then or not, might not that sole alternative, taken seriously somehow be made a reality? Morgan and Hughes-Hallett, looking hopefully at each other next morning, agreed that possibly it might. Hughes-Hallett was assigned to develop it. And so in June of 1943 was conceived what was to become Operation Mulberry.
The Mulberry harbors performed wonders. When combined with Allied air power, which strangled German resupply efforts, they gave the West the crucial edge in the build-up which set the stage for victory in the West.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Whatever they are, they aren’t ‘strategists’

One of my pet peeves with cable news is the way they’ve completely devalued the word ‘strategist’ and stripped it of meaning.

PR flunkies, advertising hustlers, fast-talking pollsters, and fund-raising scammers-- they all become “strategists” when they are introduced at the start of a “news” segment.

Meaning-free titles for the cynical players on fact-deficient news shows.

And we wonder why Trump won?

Monday, May 23, 2016

We really are ruled by inept experts

Brutally honest takedown of Ben Rhodes:

As Boyish Ben Rhodes Drops Truth Bombs, Obama’s Media Mask Crumbles
Democratic presidents once received foreign policy advice from men like Gen. George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and Henry Stimson. For Obama, we get advisers like Marie Harf, Tommy Vietor, and Ben Rhodes.

Yet almost nothing about Mr. Rhodes is exactly normal. In the first place, as highlighted by the piece’s author, David Samuels, the president’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications has zero background in anything to do with national security. Instead, Mr. Rhodes is a novelist manqué, born into a well-connected family on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (his brother David is president of CBS News), who picked up an MFA in creative writing from NYU with plans to become famous for his novels. However, 9/11 caused him to ponder current affairs and he wound up a speechwriter to Barack Obama during his successful 2008 run for the presidency. Per the cliché, the rest is history.
Something to keep in mind for those in the MSM who worry that Trump lacks foreign policy experience and the right sort of advisors:

Then there’s the awkward fact that White House reporters may be every bit as inexperienced and unworldly as they’ve been described--but so is Ben Rhodes. Before becoming Mr. Obama’s factotum he had done no more in the national security arena than most of the uninformed reporters he’s criticized.
Tom Ricks also minces no words about Rhodes:

A stunning profile of Ben Rhodes, the asshole who is the president’s foreign policy guru
Ben Rhodes let the cat out of the bag, he destroyed the pretensions of the MSM and the foundations of what Power Line called “mediated democracy.”

We live in a political system that has not yet been adequately described, but one might call it a "mediated democracy." Mediated by a self-appointed, generally ignorant but highly opinionated "elite" that is not elite by any conventional measure--income, intelligence, education, social position--but that successfully dictates the terms of political discourse even though it no longer controls (exclusively, anyway) the means of production of the news.
The MSM, which sees itself as the main enforcers of this corrupt system, failed utterly with Obama and the people around him. They were gullible; they got played. And now they want this story to go away. They have work to do. Some one has to explain why Hillary is the only rational choice for POTUS and preach that Trump is outside the accepted (i.e. MSM defined) bounds of political discourse and experience.


Making sense of the Age of Obama

How we live now: The rule of the inept experts

Logic only a journalist could love

MSM to public: "Sure we're in the tank for Obama, whatcha' gonna do about it?"

Notes on the current crisis

Friday, May 06, 2016

“An audacious decision can be arrived at by one man only."

Helmuth von Moltke may have been the most important military leader of the nineteenth century. Napoleon was a brilliant shooting star but his ‘methods’ (such as they were) required a genius to make them work. Moltke, in contrast, refined and developed a system and architecture for military leadership that is still used by modern militaries today.

The Prussian system of command was not at all like the stereotype of mindless automatons in spiked helmets. It, instead, combined meticulous pre-war planning with audacious, decentralized leadership when the shooting started.
Hajo Holborn summarized Moltke’s views thusly:

No war counsel could direct an army, and the chief of staff should be the only advisor of the commander with regard to the plan of operations. Even a faulty plan, provided it was executed firmly, was preferable to a synthetic product. On the other hand, not even the best plan of operations could anticipate the vicissitudes of war, and individual tactical decisions that must be made on the spot.. In Moltke's view, a dogmatic enforcement of the plan of operations was a deadly sin and great care was taken to encourage initiative on the part of all commanders, high and low.
On several point Moltke agreed completely with Napoleon. One of the latter’s maxims was “One bad general is worth two good ones.”


If one surrounds the supreme commander with a number of independent men, the situation will worsen both as their numbers increase and the more distinguished and intelligent they are. The commander will hear the counsel of the one, then of the other. He will carry out one proper measure up to a certain point, then a better one in another direction. Then he will recognize the entirely justified objections of a third and the proposals of a fourth advisor. We will wager a hundred to one that with the very best-intentioned measures he will probably lose his campaign.
In business this is the dynamic which helps fuel fad surfing

Another point of agreement.


In war there is but one favorable moment; the great art is to seize it!

An audacious decision can be arrived at by one man only.
In the decades between Waterloo and Sedan, the telegraph had revolutionized communications. Moltke did not see this as a boon to commanders or a justification for centralized direction on the battlefield:

But the most unfortunate of all supreme commanders is the one is under the most supervision, who has to give an account of his plans and intentions every hour of every day. The supervision may be exercised through a delegate of the highest authority at his headquarters or a telegraph wire attached to his back. In such a case all independence, rapid decision, and audacious risk, without which no war can be conducted, ceases.
In the Prussian system, this independence was expected at all levels of command. Moltke is especially discerning on the temptation of micro-management and its negative consequences.

The advantage, moreover, which the commander believes to achieve through continuous personal intervention, is mostly only an apparent one. He thereby takes over functions for those whose fulfillment other persons are designated. He more or less denigrates their ability and increases his own duties to such a degree that he can no longer fulfill them completely."

Moreover, it must be pointed out that if one orders much, then the important thing that needs to be carried out unconditionally will be carried out only incidentally or not at all because it is obscured by the mass of secondary things.
So we are left with a series of paradoxes: Battlefield audacity depends on leaders with self-control which can look like passivity. Effective leadership requires independence and self-confidence but also the capacity to defer to those lower in the chain of command.

Another Prussian Paradox:

When hard work doesn’t pay

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Europe's terror threat: Beyond self-radicalized lone wolves (UPDATED)

This is an excellent piece of reporting by the BBC

Europe's Terror Networks
It's a little less than a half hour and well worth the listen.

Three items really caught my attention:

1. ISIS has a logistical system set up in Europe. They have found ways to move explosives and firearms and get them into the hands of their operatives.

2. As was the case in Mumbai (2008) the November 2015 attacks in Paris utilized multiple, simultaneous attacks so that police and counter-terror forces would be dispersed and unable to mount a quick, overwhelming response.

3. The killers studied their targets. They obtained detailed floorplans of the theater and set up an ambush in the alley outside one of the main avenues escape.

UPDATE 5/17/2016

An interview with Jesse Hughes of Eagles of Death Metal. Harrowing account of the carnage that took place inside the theater. Also, Hughes remains convinced that members of the security/facility staff helped the terrorists.

Surrendering to Death

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Reading and liberty

Why the best way to honor Frederick Douglass is to read a good book

Is the Future of Reading at Risk?

Some educators are beginning to worry that the wired generation is going to give up serious reading altogether. Judging from our experience here at St. John’s, the future of reading is not at risk. Our students prove every day that it’s perfectly possible to be fully plugged in and at the same time to be absorbed by the greatest books ever written. And that’s a good thing, because the art of reading is critical to our freedom and our happiness.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Gleichschaltung and the erosion of liberty

Ran across this old item by Ed Driscoll. Even more relevant today:

From Gaius Gracchus to the Gleichschaltung

Gleichschaltung is a German word (in case you couldn’t have guessed) borrowed from electrical engineering. It means “coordination.” The German National Socialists (Nazis) used the concept to get every institution to sing from the same hymnal. If a fraternity or business embraced Nazism, it could stay “independent.” If it rejected Nazism, it was crushed or bent to the state’s ideology. Meanwhile, every branch of government was charged with not merely doing its job but advancing the official state ideology.

Now, contemporary liberalism is not an evil ideology. Its intentions aren’t evil or even fruitfully comparable to Hitlerism. But there is a liberal Gleichschaltung all the same. Every institution must be on the same page. Every agency must advance the liberal agenda.
(The quoted passage is from Jonah Goldberg)


This is a great article by Robert D. Kaplan:

The Post-Imperial Moment
This seems to fit quite well with the Goldberg quote:

Witness the Islamic State, which does not represent Islam per se, but Islam combusting with the tyrannical conformity and mass hysteria of the Internet and social media.

Halsey and Nimitz: Leadership and loyalty

Chester Nimitz and William Halsey were as different as two admirals could be. Nimitz was a submariner while Halsey was a carrier commander AND a carrier pilot. Where Nimitz was quiet and outwardly serene even in moments of intense stress, Halsey was loud and profane. Yet in the dark days of 1942 they forged a winning partnership in the Pacific. After Pearl Harbor, when Admiral Nimitz took over command of the Pacific Fleet, he quickly realized that the one carrier admiral he could trust with any mission was Bill Halsey
Edwin Hoyt, Closing the Circle
Nimitz gave Halsey perhaps the two toughest mission of the Pacific War: The Doolittle Raid and the defense of Guadalcanal when the issue was truly in doubt. His trust was amply repaid. In the Solomons Halsey bloodied the Japanese Navy, held Guadalcanal, and began the long advance toward Tokyo Bay.

So, of course, Nimitz was on Team Halsey in 1942 and 1943.

I am more impressed with his actions later in the war and in the post-war period. Victory not only has a hundred fathers, it also brings forth a thousand quibblers and scribblers and ankle-biters. Halsey was (and is) a frequent target for that crowd.

We lack eyewitness records of what happened next, but we know that Halsey barged into the CinCPac conference that day or the next and cleared the air by sounding off loudly, and no doubt profanely, against the defeatism he found. He then and there permanently endeared himself to his commander in chief by backing him and the raiding plan to the hilt. Because he was a vice admiral and Commander, Aircraft, Battle Force, and was liked and respected by all, his words carried decisive weight. Long afterward, when Halsey came under criticism, Nimitz recalled this difficult period and refused to participate in the general censure. "Bill Halsey came to my support and offered to lead the attack", he said. "I'll not be a party to any enterprise than can hurt the reputation of a man like that
E. B Potter, Nimitz

Supporting the man who supported you even when you no longer need his support. That’s loyalty. And without reciprocal loyalty, real leadership is impossible.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Lessons in Leadership: Admiral William Halsey

Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery noted that there is one acid test for leadership:

A leader must have infectious optimism. The final test of a leader is the feeling you have when you leave his presence after a conference. Have you a feeling of uplift and confidence?
By that measure, Admiral William F Halsey qualifies as one of the greatest military leaders in our history. No matter what else he did, the man could inspire confidence and optimism.

On 13 April 1942 the USS Enterprise and her escorts rendezvoused with the USS Hornet carrying the Doolittle raiders. Bill Halsey took to the ship’s loud speaker and announced: “This force is bound for Tokyo.”

And the men on board cheered.

They had seen the smoking ruins of the US battle fleet in Pearl Harbor. They knew that the Japanese Empire was sweeping across Asia and the Pacific. Singapore had fallen. American forces had just surrendered on Bataan.

Now the old man on the bull horn said that this small task force of two fragile carriers and a dozen light escorts was heading right to the center of the empire.

And the sailors and flyers cheered.

Infectious optimism indeed.

The informality of his approach to command and his carelessness worried his senior staff and led to serious errors, but the air crews and the lower deck would do anything for him and probably gave him more than they gave any other commander. He was always on their side, the very model of a sailor’s admiral.
Dan van der Vat, The Pacific Campaign
One does not become a “sailor’s admiral” overnight. Halsey had earned his men’s trust through a hundred gestures and actions.

One day he won the training squadron emblem for stupidity: the Flying Jackass, a large aluminum likeness of a donkey, awarded to anyone who broke a safety regulation. He wore it for two weeks until another student pilot won it away from him. Beut he insisted on keeping that particular badge. When he took command of the Saratoga, he said, he would hang it on the bulkhead of his cabin. Any time he got ready to raise hell with some pilot for an infraction of rules, he was going to look at that Flying Jackass and think twice.

Such tales began the legend of Bill Halsey, the only really flying commander of a carrier, and the true aviators got to love him. When he took over his carrier, he continued to add to bits to the legend. From the Saratoga he went to the Enterprise, one of the new carriers of the fleet, as commander of Carrier Division Two [COMCARDIV Two] and he was promoted to admiral. One day a young officer made an error that delayed the launch of planes. Admiral King was present at the time, and King was a noted disciplinarian (who put an end to the advancement of one naval captain because he ran a cruiser aground in a fog trying to get King back to Washington to make an appointment).

'Who was responsible for the delay?' King demanded by signal, and on the bridge of the Enterprise souls quaked as the message was taken to Admiral Halsey's bridge.

'COMCARDIVE Two', was the reply.

There was no further word from the flagship. But on board the Enterprise the story went from keel to masthead. Admiral Halsey was the sort of officer who protected his men, it said
Edwin Hoyt, Closing the Circle

The US Navy of 1942 still operated under the Prohibition imposed on it by Woodrow Wilson. Halsey had no time for such nonsense when his flyers were fighting and dying. He ordered gallons of bourbon for his flight surgeons should they wish to ‘prescribe’ it for pilots. Not everyone in Washington was happy with his action but as Hoyt notes, “a fighting admiral was not to be gainsaid in 1942, when there were so few of them, and Halsey had his way."

Halsey also shows us that real leaders also make invaluable subordinates:


After Pearl Harbor, when Admiral Nimitz took over command of the Pacific Fleet, he quickly realized that the one carrier admiral he could trust with any mission was Bill Halsey
And this:

Bloch pressed his views on Nimitz, both in conference and in private. In effect, he put an avuncular arm around Nimitz's shoulder and proceeded to tell him how to run the war. Nimitz considered himself fully competent to do the job without such tutelage, but he was at a disadvantage because most of the air officers agreed with Bloch, and Nimitz was not an aviator and had never commanded carriers.

On Wednesday, January 7, the Enterprise force returned to Pearl from patrol and its commander, crusty warrior VAdmn Halsey, came ashore. Halsey's ferocious scowl, which announced to all that he hated the enemy like sin, could not conceal a twinkle in his eye that bespoke his affection for his fellow sailor's, particularly those who served under him.

We lack eyewitness records of what happened next, but we know that Halsey barged into the CinCPac conference that day or the next and cleared the air by sounding off loudly, and no doubt profanely, against the defeatism he found. He then and there permanently endeared hismself to his commander in chief by backing him and the raiding plan to the hilt. Because he was a vice admiral and Commander, Aircraft, Battle Force, and was liked and respected by all, his words carried decisive weight.

E. B Potter, Nimitz