Arab Idols and the Religions of Jahiliyah

This is such a simple and well put-together podcast. I love every episode.

On the eve of Islam, Arabia was a mixture of hundreds of competing tribal gods, monotheism, Christianity and Judaism.Ā  Sorting the history from the legends of this pre-Islamic past remains a challenging task.

65 – (0.2) The Religions of Pre-Islamic Arabia

Photo: 2nd century AD relief fromĀ HatraĀ depicting the goddessĀ al-LatĀ flanked by two female figures, possibly al-Uzza and Manat.

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Plan Your Own War

In the mid-2000s I became obsessed with productivity blogs and systems. I followed 43 folders (dead since 2011), Lifehacker (turned into listicles and clickbait), and read article after article on the ā€œGetting Things Doneā€ (GTD) system. Over the ensuing decade (+), Iā€™ve built a monster of a system for organzing my life and things Iā€™m trying to do – both personally and professionally.

This system consists of:

  • A daily review (about 5 minutes total, split up between morning/evening)
  • A weekly review (normally done on Sunday mornings – takes 30-45 minutes of focused work)
  • A monthly review (normally done on the closest weekend to the 1st of the month, takes 30-45 minutes of focused work)
  • A yearly review (I start thinking about it on 1 December and capturing notes, and I usually complete the review during the week between Christmas and New Years – multiple sessions of reflection and work)

Iā€™m not going to go into the details of what is in each review (if you’re actually interested, let me know). It is a system that I continually improve andĀ massage (thanks John). However, when I look back at the reviews I did a decade ago versus today, itā€™s really incredible how much Iā€™ve tacked on over the years. The process has grown and become much more focused and professional. Just about every year though, I have to prune it so it doesnā€™t get out of control.

At its core, the whole thing is a goal setting / reflection exercise that answers the following questions:

1) What is it that Iā€™m trying to accomplish?
2) How am I doing?
3) What do I need to do to get better?

I know others go through a similar process, but my sense is that this is something most people donā€™t really do at all. Itā€™s way beyond just making a to-do list and scheduling things on a calendar. And Iā€™m aware that this process takes a lot of work and time – sometimes Iā€™ll wonder if Iā€™m spending more time planning when I should be executing.

But arenā€™t you worth it?

We spend so much time planning other peopleā€™s wars or projects – isnā€™t it worth putting some time into your own life?

As an aside,Ā after more than a decade, Iā€™ve stopped using Evernote. Until now, I’veĀ used Evernote exclusively to do this planning, capture articles, and even build my digitalĀ ā€œI love me book.ā€ Recently, and without warning, Evernote stopped providing the ability to maintain ā€œlocalā€ notebooks, meaning everything would have to live ā€œin the cloud.ā€ It was an abrupt change and other note apps have come a long way, so I made the migration to Appleā€™s native Notes app – which works just fine.

Anyway, if youā€™re interested in going deeper on reviews, check these out:

The Art of Non (Yearly Review).Ā Ā Another site I follow that talks about the annual review. I lifted the concept of assigning a “theme” to your year. An overarching organizing principle.Ā Remember, good artists copy, great artists steal.

Who moved my brain?Ā I revisit this video fromĀ Merlin MannĀ every couple of years to remind me that the two things that really matter areĀ timeĀ andĀ attention. The video isĀ long and meandering, but if you stick with it you ingest a reallyĀ importantĀ message. And this is one of those videos where I think youĀ haveĀ to soak in the whole thing to really get it. You canā€™t just stick to the punchline.

The scary – but true quote – that sticks with me:

ā€œIf I just grabbed you on the street, and I said ā€˜whatā€™s the most important thing in your life?ā€™ you would say something like your family, or your church group, or you know, maybe your career, maybe your kid or your pet or whatever. And the thing is, in some part of your heart, thatā€™s absolutely true.Ā 

But do you have a sense of the extent to which your time and attention tracks to actually doing good stuff for that thing that you claim is really important? Do you have an internal barometer that tells you how well thatā€™s going? In fact, is the thing that you claim is important really important?Ā 

Because if a lot of people actually looked at where there time and attention went – the parts that they do have control over – it would look like the most important thing in their life was Facebook.”Ā 


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The Kodak Conundrum

Two things from this recent IWI episode.

The first, on assessments:

“We are now aware of the technological ubiquity, and we are disproportionately relying on assessments of capabilty – raw capability – like we used to, rather than understanding use.”


This applies in lots of places – not just intelligence.

Second, is the “Kodak Conundrum.” I had never heard of that before, and after some searching, it references the demise of the Kodak company, and specifically, their failure to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

Simplifying here, but the problem is that Kodak saw themselves to be in the film business as opposed to the photography business. And they failed to adapt quickly enough.

Very similar to the Red Queen Hypothesis.

 ā€œThe railroads are in trouble today not because the need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, even telephones), but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves. They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. The reason they defined their industry wrong was because they were railroad-oriented instead of transportation-oriented; they were product oriented instead of customer-oriented.ā€ 

Theodore Levitt, ā€œMarketing Myopiaā€, Harvard Business Review, July-August 1960

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Social Sciences as Sorcery (Complete)

nier replicant girl

All of the excerpts from the Social Sciences as Sorcery series.

#1 – Social Sciences as Sorcery – Introduction post.

#2 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – On the manipulation of crowds.

#3 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – Jargon and frameworks.

#4 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – The pseudoscience of counting.

#5 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – Grandma’s wisdom.

#6 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – The gravest kind of danger.

#7 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – Do it with math.

#8 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – On ideology.

#9 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – On socialization.

#10 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – Vague associations.

#11 – (More) Social Sciences as Sorcery – The Americans.

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Propaganda is a tricky word

Episode 105 of the Cognitive Crucible – Tom Ken on Persuasion in the Developing World.

An interesting point on “propaganda” at about the 23:00 mark.

Western countries… dislike very much the idea of ‘propaganda,’ and God bless us. We shouldn’t do propaganda to the extent that propaganda means putting out false information. But, I don’t think that advocating for what Western offer, advocating for our liberties and so forth is propaganda. I think it’s just true, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say what we believe.

Propaganda is such a tricky word. And for a long time, it wasn’t even a bad word. Maybe a post for another time.

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Ideology is the science of idiots

Maybe you’ve seen a variation of this meme.

Well, that’s not what he said.

But maybe it’s what he meant?

3. Vols of Idiology!ā€ Pray explain to me this Neological Title! What does it mean? When Bonaparte used it, I was delighted with it, upon the Common Principle of delight in every Thing We cannot understand. Does it mean Idiotism? The Science of Non compos menticism. The Science of Lunacy? The Theory of Delirium? Or does it mean the Science of Self Love? of Amour propre? or the Elements of Vanity?

John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 16 December 1816

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Sing to me of a time long past

There was the leak, then the hint, and now the announcement.

There are some games that I play simply because I enjoy them, and there are others that teach lessons.

This is one of them. This is Game of Thrones.

I’ll be playing when it comes out and I’m looking forward to going through it for a third time, this time, teasing out whatever I can.

I’ve referenced Tactics Ogre in the past on topics ranging from military deception (2013), war advice (2014), the permanence of death (2014), and proxy wars (2021).

Off the top of my head, there’s room to explore irregular warfare, great power competition, propaganda, rumors, loyalty, military careerism, and more.

This one goes deep.

There’s so much more to pull – and I’m excited to get the chance. Look for more this November.

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A Blue-Collar Approach to Assessments

green goo dripping

If you’ve been here a while, you know how I feel about assessments and measurements. If you haven’t, you can go through the social sciences as sorcery posts.

But, simply stated, I think that our hyper-focus on assessments and our obsession with metrics hinders us.

Early this summer, I wrote about the ‘dysfunctional consequences’ of measurements (originally in the newsletter), and a friend of the blog recommended this article – A Blue-Collar Approach to Operational Analysis: A Special Operations Case Study (NDU Press).

The article discusses how the authors ditched traditional assessment methods in favor of a different approach.

That, by itself, is brave.

We say we want to be innovative, but we often roll our eyes or dismiss new ideas. Especially when it comes to assessments and measurements.

The article is worth reading in its entirety by anyone interested in the topic, but I’ve excerpted some particularly interesting points below.

On how they did it before – no surprise here, always with math.

We compounded these mistakes by quantifying and aggregating everything through a complicated system of questionable mathematical models.

The new method – ditch the MOPs and MOEs and go for RoI (Return on Investment).

In late 2015, we scrapped our existing methods and charted a new path. We stopped adhering to common practices, including the strict mechanical process rooted in MOEs and MOPs. Instead, we developed what we view as a ā€œblue-collar business caseā€ analysis focused on measuring and articulating SOCCENT return on investment (RoI) to resources in areas of operation (AOR).

When there isn’t a clear requirement (ie: sell more widgets), measuring returns is difficult. So how do you do it? Well, this does require a little sorcery, unfortunately.

In the financial world, the requirement is clear: apply human and physical capital to generate a profit, and measuring returns is a simple accounting drill. In organizations not driven by profit, such as the military or other public-sector entities, measuring and articulating RoI is more challenging. For example, no commonly agreed-upon method exists for measuring and comparing investments and returns between training a partner SOF unit, conducting a key leader engagement with partner special force commander, or exploiting the information environment to degrade support for violent extremist organizations.

I liked their deliverables: desired returns and actual returns.

  • Desired returns: Objectives in regional plans, or the state of the operational environment that SOCCENT expected to materialize by applying SOF resources to them.
  • Actual returns: The observable impact SOF resourcesā€”through the execution of operations, actions, and activities (OAAs)ā€”had on objectives

On the importance of going to the source to collect data, as opposed to relying on passive collection streams. Related here, is the concept of doing things in person, as opposed to via email or over the phone.

To overcome this plight, we physically went to the source of the data. 

On resisting the urge to turn everything into data. This is important. Saying things with stories and pictures is way more effective than bludgeoning with data.

After we collected, validated, and adjudicated the data, we did not aggregate the results. We kept our sleeves rolled up and wrote nuanced, qualitative descriptions of progress and gaps at the effect and IMO levels.

And finally:

Instead of stating we were yellow on a scale of red to green, we found that a narrative focused on successes and gaps in the context of each objective was the most effective form of articulating RoI. 

A good paper. And while this is geared towards operational assessment, it has application in other domains.

But, there is still work to do.

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The Pomodoro Technique

I’m writing more lately, and that requires focus and attention. It’s easy to get distracted.

I had to dust off this old technique I learned in graduate school – the Pomodoro technique.

It’s very simple. Set a timer (I do 50 minutes) and then work until the timer goes off. Then, take a break and do whatever you want (I do 10 minutes).

I find that once I set the timer, I’m more inclined to sit and do the work, and often I can get into the flow.

There are lots of apps out there that have this feature built-in. Or you can do it manually.

I also like to have “do not disturb” on while I’m working to eliminate notifications.

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