You can’t hit if you don’t swing

The Mad Scientist Laboratory recently had a good episode with author Zach Schonbrun to discuss his work researching cognition and performance.

It’s great when military podcasts speak with military folk – but it’s refreshing when they step away and speak with the rest of the world.

Since that’s the world we live in.

Two things struck me in this episode:

“What does it mean to say that he’s skilled? What does that actually mean? The sports industry has not really grappled with this question because it involves very difficult assessments beyond just how fast an athlete runs or how high he jumps. Those are the metrics that they tend to focus on because they’re easily measureable [but] I don’t think that tells you very much about what athlete they’re going to become.”

Zach Schonbrun, 414. It’s All In Your Head

“Those are the metrics that they tend to focus on because they’re easily measurable…”

Over and over again, we’re hearing this. We have a problem with metrics. There are dysfunctional consequences of relying on metrics.

And the answer isn’t simply “we need better ways to measure” or “big data and AI will save us.”

There are tangible things that are worth measuring, but there are also intangible things that we’re not paying attention to. And just because we can’t measure them, doesn’t mean they’re not there.

And #2. How do hitters know when to swing?

They’re using prediction. They’re picking up on very subtle cues, that take years and years of practice and expertise, and that has told them this is what they should be expecting in this situation.

Zach Schonbrun, 414. It’s All In Your Head

Prediction versus analysis. Does the hitter have to “prove” that they know when to swing? That they’ll get a hit?

Sometimes (most times) they miss. But each swing is a rep.

We expect batters to miss. It’s part of the game. What would be the effect on a batter if they received a steep penalty for missing?

Think about where that might be happening in other organizations.


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Cao Cao did nothing wrong

“I will rather I wronged all the people under the heavens than for all the people under the heavens to wrong me.”

Cao Cao

I listen to every episode of the Cognitive Crucible, but I don’t always post about them. It’s only if something jumps out at me.

And this time, I almost made it through the last two episodes without jotting anything down, and they both got me as they came to a close.

In episode #111, John Bicknell speaks with Dr. Victoria Coleman on her role as the Chief Scientist for the United States Air Force.

Good episode, I was enjoying it, and just as it was closing, two interesting things happened. First, when John started the “lightning round,” where he says a word or phrase and has the guest respond with whatever comes up, he offers “video games.” Dr. Coleman responded that she doesn’t play video games, but understands the importance.

Ok, nothing crazy there.

But then, when asked to recommend a book, Dr. Coleman offered the Chinese epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

There it is.

At the risk of oversimplifying, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is an epic novel that tells the tale of Chinese unification in the second and third century. Think A History of the Peloppenesian War meets Game of Thrones.

What struck me here, though, was the fact that this is a title and a series that many readers of this blog will know from the video game series that is based on the novel. I first learned of the treachery of Dong Zhuo, the brotherhood of Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei, and the ferocity of Lu Bu through playing the game as a kid (and as an adult). It’s one of the games that introduced me to the idea of palace intrigue and political warfare.

Incidentally, I had used a screen grab from one of the games as the header for a recent post on irregular warfare and the role of diplomats. Diplomacy (and treachery) plays a critical role in Romance, and it seeemed fitting.

If you’re not paying attention to gaming, you’re missing out. Which is why I scribbled the note down here. In the space of just a few moments, there was a serious connection missed between these two things – an epic Chinese novel and video games.

And innovation is connecting.

Now onto episode #112 with Jake Sotriadis.

Another fine episode, this one on the concept of future studies. Almost finished it, and then at the ~43:00 mark they wrap up with the “concept of the right answer”:

“When we’re talking about problems in the strategic environment that are linked to human nature, you realize very quickly that you’re not going to be able to “quant” your way – if you will – out of the problem.”

Thank you.

No matter how many people point this out, senior leaders demand we put a number on it.

There has to be another way.


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Breaking in Combat

John Spencer is having a moment.

I’ve always enjoyed his takes, mostly because the senior NCO always shines through. It’s a rare thing these days and I appreciate it.

He was recently on Mike Burke’s Always in Pursuit where they discusses John’s book, his experiences in combat, and Ukraine.

One thing that struck me was an extended discussion on the concept of “breaking” in combat. John recounts an episode in his experience where a senior NCO in his unit basically checks out. Still deployed, but didn’t do much.

Many of us who have served saw this, or a version of this.

We talk a lot about mental health now, and trying to get people the help that they need when they come home (or even when deployed). But we don’t really discuss the psychological aspects of combat and what happens to soldiers when they are overcome by fear – which is something you would expect to happen on the battlefield. It’s combat, after all.

There are still lots of folks in our ranks who have experienced combat and have seen this in action. But those ranks are thinning every day.

Something to think about.


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“You picked the wrong diplomats”

That’s a line from Ambassador James Jeffrey from the most recent Irregular Warfare Initiative podcast.

There’s a lot in this episode. What I found particularly interesting was a light dissection of the culture at the State Department from a seasoned diplomat. It’s one thing for a defense official to bemoan peculiar aspects of another agency, but another when it comes from someone who has spent much more time within it.

Worth the listen for that alone.

Episode 60 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast explores both the recent history and the future character of insurgency. Our guests begin by arguing that insurgency will play an important role in great power competition, although states’ objectives will change from the transformational nation-building goals of the post-9/11 era to more hard-nosed security and political objectives. They then argue that despite perceived recent failures in counterinsurgency in cases such as the US intervention in Afghanistan, insurgencies rarely win—this has led insurgent groups to adopt new theories of victory. Lastly, our guests discuss policy implications, especially how to balance military and civilian means to counter insurgency.

INSURGENTS RARELY WIN: ADAPTATION IN THE FACE OF FAILURE

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The New Rules of War

Fascinating interview with Sean McFate on one of the latest Cognitive Crucible podcast episodes.

During this episode, Dr. Sean McFate discusses his influential book, The New Rules of War. Sean describes how the Westphalian state system is changing, consequences for conventional war, the rise of mercenaries and international mega-corporations, and information operations. Plus, the Cognitive Crucible gets not only one–but two–Monty Python references.

#110 SEAN MCFATE ON THE NEW RULES OF WAR

Worth a full listen, and I’ve just started the book.

Three things piqued my attention:

What matters in “future” war?

Information.

How should states that wish to compete, compete?

“Below the threshold of international media.”

How do we deter in the era of Great Power Competition?

“Sneaky” deterrence.


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You are your culminating exercise

That was a comment made during a recent Pineland Underground episode.

And it strikes me as true.

When a military school is good, the culminating exercise brings it all together.

If it falls short, it might be worth relooking.


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How to Quit Smoking and Wage Nuclear War

Remember, innovation = connecting.

For a bunch of reasons, Thomas Schelling is in my life right now.

I’ve been reading Arms and Influence, and enjoying it.

It was strange then, when I listened to this episode of Radiolab on habits (You v. You) which featured an aging Thomas Schelling and his struggle to kick a smoking habit.

Zelda Gamson tried for decades to stop smoking. But while one part of her wanted to quit, another part just didn’t want to let go. So, how do you win a tug-of-war with yourself? We decided to ask one of the greatest negotiators of our time for some advice. Adam Davidson from Planet Money introduces us to Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling, whose tactical skills saw him through high-stakes conflicts during the Cold War. But while his strategies worked wonders during nuclear stand-offs, it turns out they fell apart when he tried them on himself…in his own battle to quit smoking. Then one day, he had an idea so diabolical we thought no one would try it. Until we met Zelda, and her friend Mary Belenky, who came up with a contract powerful enough to give Zelda a fighting chance. Neuroscientist David Eagleman helps us untangle the tricky business of cutting deals with oursleves. And producer Pat Walters complicates things–in a good way–with the story of two brothers, Dennis and Kai Woo, who forged a deal with each other that wound up determining both of their futures.

You v. You, Radiolab

For the uninitiated, Thomas Schelling was a scholar and theorist of the Cold War who made major contributions to deterrence theory.

But, as I learned, he was also a smoker.

To kick the habit, he turned to one of the most extreme methods – the Ulysses Pact.

This takes its name from The Odyssey and Ulysses’ decision to tie himself to his ship so that he could still hear the Siren’s Song without losing his life. In Schelling’s case, he gathered his children and said: “…I quit and that they should never have respect for their father again if I returned to smoking.”

He was serious. He put his fatherhood on the line.

And he never smoked again.


As an aside, after doing a bit of a deep-dive on Schelling, I learned that his favorite book was Smoky the Cowhorse.

Schelling, a distinguished university professor of economics and public policy, was a pioneer in game theory, yet his widow, Alice Schelling, says the most influential book he ever read was one for children, the 1927 Newbery Medal winner “Smoky the Cowhorse” by Will James.

“He’d say it was the first time he understood empathy for other human beings,” says Alice Schelling. “I connect that with his sense of empathy for the people who are helped by the Southern Poverty Law Center.”

A Golden Opportunity

Currently reading.


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“A calamity in which we’ve been afflicted”

Drone carpet Afghanistan

The title refers to Osama bin Laden’s characterization of the drone threat.

A fascinating episode of the Irregular Warfare Podcast on the “Bin Laden Papers.”

Episode 59 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast dives into the internal workings and communications of al-Qaeda and uses that insight to draw lessons for counterterrorism strategies. From the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden to the recent strike against Ayman al-Zawahiri, targeting key leaders has long been a cornerstone of counterterrorism strategies, but what do these terrorist leaders have to say about the effectiveness of the campaigns against them?

THE BIN LADEN PAPERS: THE INNER WORKINGS OF AL-QAEDA’S LEADERSHIP

I remember in the mid-2000s when there was a lot of talk about whether the drone war was creating more terrorists than it was taking out. And General Petraeus says the same in this episode, that it was an important consideration.

I remember holding that same thought and being very skeptical of the value of drones.

But having listened to this episode, you can sense just how effective they were. You can make the argument that drones (and the drone infrastructure – intelligence, partnerships, etc.) effectively suppressed Al Qaeda for the length of the GWOT.

Does that invalidate the concerns? No. But it’s possible that those concerns were overblown.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention General Petraeus’ take on one of my favorite lines. At the ~40:30 mark, in reference to a past operation, “We’re getting hammered in the court of public opinion.”

Which, as you know, is basically the same as “we’re getting our ass kicked in the information environment.”


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Gallows humor, smell-triggered memories, and administrative betrayal

Good podcast episode from Always In Pursuit.

SGT Retired Michael Sugrue served as a police officer for 14 years and also served in the Air Force as an officer in the Raven Program. After 8 years as a police officer, he would answer a call that would forever change his life. What ensued for the rest of his career can be described as a perfect storm of trauma. 

There is some really good stuff in this episode. The three things that stood out for me were the ultimate futility of gallows humor, the way that smells trigger memories more than anything else, and the concept of “admin betrayal.”

There’s also a great discussion on the way that service changes over time. Whether it is the military or law enforcement, no one can tell you what it’s going to do to you. You will be changed completely. And even if someone could tell you that, it wouldn’t matter. It’s a strange tragedy.

I’ve written about this before. The dark humor that gets folks in tough jobs through the day (military, law enforcement) doesn’t actually help with processing it over time. There comes a point where you have to turn to “serious talk” if you want to move forward.

Do you remember the smell under the body armor? It remembers you.

Administrative or “admin” betrayal is what happens when the organization that you worked and bled for turns the other way. We see this a lot. Organizations like to be inclusive and like to consider themselves a “family.” Well, what happens when a family member gets in trouble? or is struggling? Does a family throw that person out, or does it help?

A fascinating episode and worth the listen.


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