Saturday, May 10, 2008

Surreal Saturday: Brilliant Crows (Serious Play)

Josh Klein, the Principal Technologist for Frog Design, spoke at the Serious Play Conference on Friday about his work with crows. Crows are apparently quite bright and live wherever humans live. Klein showed the video below as part of his presentation. He prefaced the video by saying that the crow had been taught to use a piece of wire to spear a grub in the bottom of the glass tube in the video. He said the researcher then put the grub out of reach of the crow (either by shortening the wire or by lengthening the tube; Klein did not say which). Watch what happens next:

Apparently the crows will then teach this trick to their young. Klein also indicated that crows have enormously long memories. He told the story of a bunch of crows who were fooled by some experimenters on a campus one day. The next days the crows recognized the experimenters and set up a ruckus when they saw them coming. The crows kept this up for four full years until all of the researchers had graduated. Now, experimenters wear masks so that they won't get taunted by crows.

For more crow weirdness/goodness you'll have to go here. For me, I am off to put in my IARPA grant paperwork...

Friday, May 9, 2008

Jump Ropes And Magic (Serious Play)

I got tired last night and couldn't write about the other two things that really impressed me yesterday at the Serious Play conference. The first was the talk given by Helen Hood Scheer. She has recently finished a documentary movie, called Jump, about the growing competitive (!) sport of jumping rope. She also brought with her the best jump rope team in the country to perform. Beyond the sheer athleticism required (see the trailer for her movie below), I was enormously impressed with the way she talked about cooperation and collaboration in the sport. Apparently, the athletes want to take the sport to the Olympics (don't laugh, you can compete in 40 countries at the national level in jump rope...) and are willing to cooperate in ways that might actually hurt their own individual chances. It gives one hope for the Intelligence Community...

The other speaker that was interesting was the magician, Jamy Ian Swiss. Swiss teaches people how to be professional magicians. He did a number of pretty spectacular sleight of hand tricks. While they were impressive, I was more interested in some of the hints he gave about the art of performing. First, he said you should try to act away your mistakes and not explain them away. He indicated that the natural response to a mistake is to try to talk it away and that some of that is inevitable but he also showed how, by including some movement or other action, it made the mistake have much less impact. I intend to figure out a way to incorporate this insight into my classes on presenting intelligence to decisionmakers.

Swiss also stated that a good performance was inevitable not obvious. In magic, everyone knows that the trick will work. It has to. No matter what happens, no matter how disastrous things seem to be going, it is all part of the trick -- and we know that. That's inevitability. Obvious is coming out and just doing the trick or, even worse, explaining it. Obvious trivializes, inevitable seems more profound. Inevitable also captures attention (the key to learning) much better than obvious. I think about the best classes I have attended and I realize that there was more of the inevitable about them than the obvious.

Related Posts:
Cosmology, Psychology And The Mathematics Of Crease Patterns ... And That Was Just Day One (Serious Play)
Livebogging The Serious Play Conference

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Cosmology, Psychology And The Mathematics Of Crease Patterns ... And That Was Just Day One (Serious Play)

The Serious Play Conference is nothing if not intellectually stimulating (almost exhausting). It will take several weeks to synthesize everything I have seen. Here, however, are some of my notes and a few of my first impressions:

The Conference has been moderated by John Hockenberry of NPR. His opening remarks talked about our "inner zealotry" that drives us to be creative even when there is no apparent use for or purpose to it.

The morning presentations were given over to cosmology which may not, at first glance, seem to have much to do with design or serious play. The presenters were Dr's George Smoot and Charles Elachi. Smoot is a Nobel Laureate (if you think it was pretty cool to have basic cosmology explained by a Nobel Laureate, you are right) and Elachi is the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Apparently, there is a quite a strong connection between JPL and The Art Center. As the morning went on, it became obvious why -- elegant, useful design is critical to JPL's success. They have recognized this and tap into The Art Center for ideas. We got to see a full scale mock up of the Phoenix lander (scheduled to touch down on Mars on 25 May) and they showed us a cool movie about the challenges of the descent and landing (which you will have to go here to see).

One of the things I liked about the conference is the way they would take a break from the speeches (which were all pretty good anyway) and just show something interesting. The video below, an ad for a South African mobile phone service, is a good example of one of these creative interludes:

The afternoon sessions had a number of good presentations but four stood out (I will only talk about two here and save the other two for tomorrow). Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play, talked about his work studying animals at play and his early work in the importance of play in humans. He made a number of interesting observations. First, he said that the opposite of play is not work; it is depression. He cited several studies where animals that were not allowed to play were much less well adapted to their environment than those who had been allowed to play. He stated that "play signals" (like a dog bending down on its front legs with its tail wagging) are, in some sense, trust cues -- something that tells the other animals that it OK to drop their guard and just play. He showed some amazing photos of a wild polar bear and a chained huskie "agreeing" to play instead of the bear just eating the huskie. My notes may not be quite right but I thought he even said that flirting in humans was essentially a play signal. I had never thought of it quite that way...

He went on to claim that there were all sorts of reasons to believe that play is very important to humans. First, he rejected the notion that play is somehow related to preparing oneself for the future. He said it was more than that. He claimed that 82% of the memories recorded by families in the obituaries about loved ones after 9/11 had some element of play about them. I was reminded all the while of Rebecca West's comment concerning the people of the Balkans in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon; something to the effect that life is about more than just taking the bad things out of it. It is also about putting the good things into it.

I was also very taken with the presentation by Dr. Robert Lang, a physicist turned origami virtuoso. He has figured out the mathematics of origami such that he can, with a large enough single piece of paper (and without cutting), make anything. Really. Anything. His software is called "Treemaker" and is apparently free to download and play with. His work reminded me of Gerd Gingerenzer's book Gut Feelings and Mike Lyden's thesis research into Accelerated Analysis in that they are all looking for fast and frugal methods that explain the most amount of info with the least amount of work. While Lang has used his work in origami to help JPL figure out how to fold up its antennae and solar panels on their spacecraft, his discussion of crease patterns made me think that there might be something there, either metaphorically or mathematically, to help understand patterns of significance to intelligence analysts.

Liveblogging The Serious Play Conference

The Art Center College Of Design, in Pasedena, California, is sponsoring its biennial conference and the theme is Serious Play. I will be here capturing anything that looks interesting. I like idea factory conferences like this one (TED also springs to mind). I think design concepts, in particular, can help intelligence students and professionals think about new ways to present and facilitate intelligence analysis. I hope to come away with some new ideas about how to improve communication without seeming to sell my analysis and and how to facilitate collaboration/interaction without demanding it. I am also looking for new ways to make teaching more interactive and hands-on.

Serious Play may seem a pretty big leap outside the realm of intelligence and analysis but I believe that truly new and useful thoughts can come from looking at your current experiences through totally different lenses (See! I have only been on the west coast for a couple of hours and I am already starting to speak like a Californian!). Going to professional conferences within one's discipline does make a lot of sense but, if your goal is to push the outside of the envelope a bit, it also seems to make sense to mix it up a little.

The list of speakers is eclectic and the venue seems designed to generate new ideas. This evening I will be able to participate in a workshop with David Macauly, author of the wonderful The Way Things Work book among others. He will be talking about how to draw what you know (a workshop tailor made to meet my first objective, I think).

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Mercyhurst Report On Second Life Covered By Reuters (

The Second Life Bureau of the Reuters News Agency got wind of the strategic intelligence project done by Mercyhurst graduate students on the prospects for terrorist use of Second Life and filed a report on it today (full text of Reuters piece available here).

Eric Reuters (nom de plume for Eric Krangel, a New York based technology journalist) did a good job, I thought, of discussing the history and level of concern over the possibility of terrorist use of Second Life for training, communications or money laundering. Well worth reading for the background as well as for the props to our grad students.

Related Posts:
Jihadist Use of YouTube, Second Life Over Next 12-24 Months

DNI's Brand New Page (DNI via Threat Level)

Wired's Threat Level gets credit for first noticing the DNI's brand new website. Very slick! My favorite part is the inclusion of RSS feeds. My least favorite part is that there is no single aggregate RSS feed that allows all of us DNI junkies to track all things DNI without checking five individual feeds.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Serendipity At Work: Psychology Of Intelligence Analysis On World's 5th Most Popular Blog! (Boing Boing)

Talk about serendipity! Within less than 24 hours of singing praises for Dick Heuer's Psychology Of Intelligence Analysis here on SAM, it shows up again but this time listed on the world's 5th most popular blog -- Boing Boing. That ought to drive some traffic to the CIA's website...Boing Boing get nearly 7 million viewers per month.

NGO Intel: Southern Poverty Law Center's Hate Groups Map (

One of the trends I have been noticing for some time now is the increasing use of intelligence by Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO's) to accomplish their missions. The Southern Poverty Law Center is a long time producer of intelligence on hate groups in the US dating back to 1981 and the old Klanwatch Newsletter. As the Klan became less of a focus, the SPLC changed the name to the Intelligence Project in 1998.

The SPLC publishes a monthly Intelligence Report and a weekly INTSUM. Most recently they put out a product that is almost certainly to be of interest, at least, to intel studies students and academics and law enforcement intelligence professionals -- the 2007 Hate Groups Map. The picture below is just a screenshot (Hint to NGO's: Please make interesting content embeddable in blogs!) so you will have to go here to find the interactive version but it is worth the trip. The SLPC has mashed up the Google Maps API with their own data to create an easy to navigate and use product.

"New" Version Of Psychology Of Intelligence Analysis Released (

I don't know how I missed it but Dick Heuer and Randy Pherson (of Pherson Associates) apparently teamed up some time ago to come out with a re-print of Dick's classic, The Psychology Of Intelligence Analysis. We use it (along with Clark's Intelligence Analysis: A Target Centric Approach and Lowenthal's Intelligence: From Secrets To Policy) in our freshman classes as a textbook and have had to rely on the web version of the text on the CIA's site since the original version is out of print.

If you are not familiar with this book, then you owe it to yourself to read it immediately. Our students really enjoy it as it is easy to read, interesting and informative. Most of them are only vaguely aware of how their cognitive biases can impact their analysis and the book is a real eye-opener. It also contains the most lucid description of the Analysis Of Competing Hypotheses method available.

I have heard a rumor that Dick is working on a updated version of the book but until that one comes out you can order individual copies from Amazon or Pherson Associates and bulk orders from Pherson (You'll need to get in line behind me, though...).

Related Posts:
What Do Words Of Estimative Probability Mean?

Monday, May 5, 2008

New Intelligence-related Wikipedia Articles (Wikipedia)

Wikipedia has become the de facto tertiary source of choice for many researchers. Like any tertiary source, some of Wikipedia's content has to be taken with a grain of salt, but, in many cases, the articles are well-written and researched and provide a useful place to start.

One of the things that has always bothered me, however, is the quantity of intelligence related articles. While I am generally able to find at least something of use on even the most obscure topic using Wikipedia, I have often been surprised at the number of intel topics that came up, well, not just short, but missing entirely.

In order to try to rectify that but, more importantly, to give students in my Intelligence Communications class an opportunity to become familiar with MediaWiki software (the same software used by Intellipedia) as well an opportunity to learn to operate in an environment with strict style guidelines and intense editing, I asked them to put together the articles below (in no particular order):

Eberstadt Report (aka First Hoover Commission)
Schlesinger Report
United States Intelligence Budget
1985: The Year Of The Spy
Analysis Of Competing Hypotheses
Intelligence Collection Plan
National Intelligence Strategy Of The United States Of America
US Commission On National Security/21st Century
US Intelligence Community Oversight
Target Centric Analysis
Failure In The Intelligence Cycle
Words Of Estimative Probability
Dulles-Jackson-Correa Report

I let them select the topic as long as it had not already been covered by another Wikipedian. I also had the great good fortune to have an experienced Wikipedian in our second year grad class to help out (Thanks again, Pat!).

All of the articles have already been noticed by the swarm of people that contribute their time to editing and adding to Wikipedia and some of the articles have already changed from their original format or content (if you are thinking of trying this with your classes, you can easily use Wikipedia's history function to see where a student's work ends and an editor's begins. You can also see how other Wikipedians view the work by clicking on the "Discussion" tab. Articles are often ranked by other Wikipedians using a standardized ranking scale).

All in all, I was very pleased with the work the students did. They had to climb a number of difficult learning curves and while, undoubtedly, the pages will change over time as new editors and writers add detail and nuance to the articles the students started, they have made a contribution of which they should be rightly proud.

Related Posts:
Non-State Actors In Sub-Saharan Africa: Likely Current And Future Roles
Jihadist Use Of YouTube, Second Life Over Next 12-24 Months
The Impact of Chronic And Infectious Diseases On US National Interests
A Wiki Is Like A Room...And Other Lessons Learned

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Sunday Funnies: Computer Generated Joke Recommendations (Jester)

Jester, from the brilliant minds at UCal Berkeley, gives you a few jokes and asks you how funny you think they were on a sliding scale. Based on your input, the program then sends you jokes that the computer thinks you think will be funny and then continues to hone its selections based on your input until you are rolling on the floor...or something like that. It worked pretty well for me.

Related Posts:
Sunday Funnies: Save The Antelope!
Sunday Funnies: Trunk Monkey