Thursday, May 24, 2018

More Tom Wolfe

This is from the commencement address at Boston University he delivered in 2000.

It has one of the best dissections of modern intellectuals you will ever read:

It's the fact that we live in an age in which ideas, important ideas, are worn like articles of fashion - and for precisely the same reason articles of fashion are worn, which is to make the wearer look better and to feel à la mode.

Now, we must be careful to make a distinction between the intellectual and the person of intellectual achievement. The two are very very different animals. There are people of intellectual achievement, who increase the sum of human knowledge, the powers of human insight, and analysis. And then there are the intellectuals. An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others.

If you become indignant, this elevates you to the plane of "intellectual." No mental activity is required. It is a rule, to which there has never been an exception, that when an actor or a television performer rises up to the microphone at one of these awards ceremonies and expresses moral indignation over something, he illustrates Marshall McLuhan's dictum that "moral indignation is a standard strategy for endowing the idiot with dignity."
I also liked this:

This university has been a shining lighthouse of independent thought and of liberal democracy in the classical meaning of "liberal" as John Silber has so wonderfully defined it over the years. I choose the image of a lighthouse very carefully, John and Jon, because lighthouses are built to stand alone and to bear the brunt of the storm, no matter what that storm may be.
We cannot all be geniuses like Tom Wolfe. But we can strive to be lighthouses.


Tom Wolfe, RIP

What a difference a year makes

The mark of a great editor


Virginia Woolf: Nietzsche on the fainting couch

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Kaus-Reynolds Paradox

Instapundit had a good question after the Parkland school shooting:

Looking for 'solutions' to mass killings? Start with punishing failure.

Law enforcement keeps failing, and people keep dying. Where are the consequences? Where is the accountability?

And yet these repeated failures among others keep getting swept under the rug as we look for “solutions” to the problem of violence.
“Accountability” for government died in the fires of Waco.

Mickey Kaus was really on point on this at the time.

Am I alone in thinking there's something perverse, even a bit obscene about the current lionization of Attorney General Janet Reno?

She made a disastrous decision that resulted in the loss of more than 70 lives. Then she accepted ''responsibility.'' In a bizarre bit of political alchemy, this somehow protected her from suffering any of the consequences that normally attend disastrously handled responsibilities. Far from restoring accountability, Reno seems to have hit on the formula for avoiding it. Make a dreadful mistake? Go immediately on "Nightline." Say the buck stops with you. Recount in moving human terms the agony of your decision. And watch your polls rise. Truman plus Donahue equals Absolution.
Over and over we see the Kaus-Reynolds paradox play out:

1. A government agency fails.

2. When it finally ‘fesses up, the failure is immediately consigned to the memory hole.

3. The consequences of its failure are then used as a justification for giving that agency more power over ordinary citizens who had nothing to do with the failed policies and botched operations.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Wargames that really mattered

Good article article on the role wargaming played in the Royal Navy's anti-Uboat campaign.

Wargaming the Atlantic War (.pdf)
After Hitler lost the Battle of Britain, the Atlantic Campaign was his only real hope to force Great Britain out of the war.

The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.... Our lifeline, even across the broad oceans and especially in the entrances to the island was endangered. I was even more anxious about this battle than I had been about the glorious air fight called the Battle of Britain....

So we poised and pondered together on this problem. It did not take the form of flaring battles and glittering achievements. It manifested itself through statistics, diagrams, and curves unknown to the nation, incomprehensible to the public.
Winston Churchill,
Their Finest Hour
The Royal Navy did a remarkable job exploiting wargaming in this case. The combined games and after action reports from combat to solve problems and improved doctrine and tactics while the campaign was raging.

I also had no idea that the Women's Reserve Naval Service played such a critical role.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Understanding MAGA and Trumpland

This is one of the best discussions of Trump and his appeal that I've read. From Charles Kesler and the Claremont Review of Books:


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Tom Wolfe, RIP

I still stand by this from 2006:

The Great American Novelists

Missing from the list is Tom Wolfe. That is no surprise. Wolfe does not win literary prizes and is despised by many of the biggest names in the literary pantheon. (Check out "My Three Stooges" in Hooking Up). But Wolfe has this going for him: if the mark of greatness is having something to say about "where we are and where we are going", he trumps everybody on the list. Does anyone in Denver look up from her Sunday paper and say "this sounds just like a John Updike novel"? How many people turn on the cable news programs and think "Is Philip Roth scripting this"? Yet from Tawana Brawley to the Duke Lacrosse case, Tom Wolfe scouted the territory before anyone else.

So we were wrong. We are sorry, I guess. But we really don't care and will do it again.

I find these stories maddening.

Everyone Got The Pulse Massacre Story Completely Wrong
Sure, it's nice that some reporters note incorrect stories. But i doubt the guild's commitment to the truth because they never change their behavior.

They keep playing their pointless and stupid reporter games:

The profession plays by a set of rules which add excitement and permit score-keeping. The former is superficial and the latter is spurious, BUT THE PRACTITIONERS NO LONGER RECOGNIZE THIS. They think such things matter in the larger scheme of things.
And they do not recognize that their "Get it fast even if it if is wrong" mindset has long-lasting consequences to public discourse.

A few months ago I wrote a review of Changing Minds by Howard Gardner for Strategy and Leadership. He 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.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Proverbs 4

Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evildoers.
Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way.
For they cannot rest until they do evil; they are robbed of sleep till they make someone stumble.
 vv: 14-16

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Understanding intelligence

Robin Winks:

[There are] no secret documents in the romantic sense of the words. On any important subject, there is no single document or even group of documents that contain "the secret." No spy could know enough to spot such a document if it existed, and no vacuum cleaner approach to espionage, even should it gather up two or three documents of the highest importance, would lead without all the analytical skills of the humanists to any valid conclusions. Documents do not speak: they do not declare that they are "the offbeat thoughts and recommendations of a highly-placed but erratic advisor," not a draft intended only for discussion, not a record of a decision rescinded orally the next day.
Research and analysis are at the core of intelligence . . . . [Most] `facts' are without meaning; someone must analyze even the most easily obtained data.
Cloak and Gown
William Millward:

'Intelligence' refers to both a skill and end-product. As a meaningful concept it has been spoilt by Fleming, le Carre, and many other less talented writers. In the present context I would define it as the method employed by Sherlock Holmes; not the sleuth on the trail with his magnifying glass, but the intellectual sitting quietly and consuming his ounce of shag. It means reviewing known facts, sorting out significant from insignificant, assessing them severally and jointly, and arriving at a conclusion by the exercise of judgment: part induction, part deduction. Absolute intellectual honestly is essential. The process must not be muddied by emotion or prejudice, nor by a desire to please. The skill is largely innate, but can be sharpened by a course of rigorous academic training. The Americans talk about 'intelligence analysis' and 'analysts' and the terminology is crossing the Atlantic. It is not ideal, since the process is as much synthesis as analysis.
"Life in and out of Hut 3"
Code Breakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park
John Keegan:

There is no such thing as the golden secret, the piece of 'pure intelligence', which will resolve all doubt and guide a general or admiral to an infallible solution of his operational problems. Not only is all intelligence less than completely accurate; its value is altered by the unrolling of events.
Intelligence in War

Friday, May 11, 2018

Coping with a VUCA world

VUCA= Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous

Found here:
Want to Be a Better Leader? Follow Satya Nadella’s 3 Rules for Disruption
While we may give lip service to the idea that the world is VUCA, our actions say that we are liars.

1. Our business and public policy schools still rely heavily on traditional case studies. The meta-lesson of nearly every case study is that the world and its problems are easily and quickly understood.

Case Studies

One of the real problems with business education is the heavy use of prepackaged case studies. While they purport to hone critical thinking skills, they also impart false lessons. Future managers come to believe that the information in front of them is complete, reliable, and predictive. The only thing left to do is exercise some thinking and then make a decision.

In real life it will never be that simple. Numbers are shaky and dirty data is a persistent problem. In the beginning there won't be enough critical information on the matter at hand. At the same time , there will be a flood of trivial and irrelevant material that demands attention.

It is tempting to wait until more data and better data can be obtained. Unfortunately, time is often a critical competitive dimension.
2. Our leading business and management thinkers proffer theories which make the world look more predictable and malleable than it really is:

Clausewitz vs. Porter

Clausewitz presents descriptive theories, his aim is to help the future commander prepare himself for the challenges he will face. In contrast, Porter's work is intensely prescriptive. His Five-factor framework and generic strategies are templates waiting for the executive's implementation.

Porter's, then, implies that the key to business strategy is "knowing". The doing will almost take care of itself. Clausewitz never presumed that the science of war (which gets studied in peacetime) could ever supplant the art of war (which wins actual battles and campaigns).
See also:
Waiting for our Clausewitz
3. Our public institutions are ill-prepared to deal with the inevitable jolts and crises of a VUCA world:

What was the Fed thinking in the summer of 2008?

There was no real planning or preparation for crisis. They did not have contingency plans for the post-Lehamn fallout just has they did not have a clear understanding of what the failure of a TBTF institution would mean.
See also:
A catastrophic failure of imagination

Fortunately, we have ways of coping with these challenges. If we cannot predict the future, we can become more resilient when surprised.

We know how to study the past to prepare for (not predict) the future.

The historian Michael Howard wrote a brilliant article ("The Use and Abuse of Military History")* on the right way for officers to study military history. He offered up three general rules:

1. Study in breadth. Look at wars and campaigns over a long sweep of time. Look for both similarities and discontinuities.

Only by seeing what does change can one deduce what does not.

2. Study in depth. Look at a single campaign by reading a variety of histories, memoirs, letters, diaries, etc. Recognize the confusion, chaos and varying perspectives at work. (Clearly, this is the antithesis of the classic business case study.)

3. Study in context. Do not just look at the military action, study the sociology and politics of the nations involved. Again, these are perspectives that are usually absent in the analysis of strategy foisted on executives and students.
See also:
Wargames in the classroom

Wargames and crisis management