Saturday, March 1, 2008

24 Barrels, 40 Rounds Per Second, 288 Round Magazine... ( via Techeblog)

One of the most amazing demonstrations of firepower I have ever seen (the real action begins about a minute and a half in). Watch the video and for more info, see this feature article or this site.

Friday, February 29, 2008

China's Future (A Warm-up), The Dangers Of Pakistan And Talking To Iran (

The first couple of videos might be a good warm-up for the Black Swan Web Conference on Monday, March 3 and the rest provide insights into some of the other crises and issues around the world. All are under 5 minutes.

China's Political Scenarios

Johns Hopkins University author-in-residence James Mann discusses possible political scenarios for China.
Program and discussion:

Examining the China Fantasy
Johns Hopkins University author-in-residence James Mann examines the China Fantasy, the premise from his latest book of the same name.
Program and discussion:

The Dangers of Pakistan
Madeleine Albright discusses the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan and asserts that Pakistan is currently the most dangerous country in the world.
Program and discussion:

Dealing with Iran Intelligently
Barbara Slavin stresses that dealing intelligently with Iran is extremely important for every future president of the United States.
Program and discussion:

Oil Wealth Fueling Boom In Islamic Finance (Moody's via Research Recap)

I stumbled across Research Recap (which provides summaries of reports available for sale through its parent company, Alacra) a couple of weeks ago and have found it to be a very useful resource on matters of international finance.

Most of the reports, while interesting, don't have a direct impact on intelligence trends or issues but this recent summary on the rise of Islamic financing due to increased oil revenues I found particularly worth reading. Based on a $550 report from Moody's (who seems to cover the Islamic financing market fairly well), the author's of the summary highlight the massive increase -- to almost $35 billion in 2007 -- in "sukuk" bonds (or bonds that comply with Shari'ah law) mostly from Malaysia and the Gulf.

One of the primary benefits of this article, though, was to make me do some research on Islamic finance and banking in general. I didn't really know anything about it previously but a brief search led me to some fascinating results. The extent to which this system's importance is increasing makes it critical, in my mind, for understanding everything from the economies of Islamic countries to the options available for financing Islamic-oriented activities at any level. Basically, much of what you may have learned in a western economics class will not help you here. Wikipedia has a pretty rough primer on Islamic financing but the law firm Freshfields, Bruckhaus and Deringer has an excellent background paper on the basic principles and structures of Islamic finance (you can download the full text here).

Part 3 -- The Exercise And Its Learning Objectives (What Do Words Of Estimative Probability Mean)

Part 1 -- Introduction
Part 2 -- To Kent And Beyond

The issue of the use of Words Of Estimative Probability (WEPs) is one of the most significant theoretical issues in the intelligence profession. What is the best way to communicate the results of intelligence analysis to decisionmakers? If it is to be through WEPs, shouldn’t we know what they mean? This is why I think the work of Kent, Heuer, Rieber and, soon, Kesselman, (all referenced in the last post) is so enormously important.

At Mercyhurst, we have been teaching WEPs as the “best practice” for communicating with decisionmakers for at least as long as I have been here (2003) and probably well before that. While we teach it as a best practice, we do not avoid the controversy surrounding this practice. The classroom exercise that I am about to describe is specifically designed to highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of WEPs. My goal is to get my students to understand the limits as well as the utility of WEPs, to get them to think about the boundaries implicit in any theory and not just to “know stuff”.

Therefore, this classroom exercise does not present the meanings of WEPs as a fait accompli to the students. The exercise is designed to capture both the point value (Heuer) and the range of values (Rieber) behind a select series of WEPS. The WEPs I choose to use are those that come directly from the recent series of National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs). These NIEs, which I have discussed in detail earlier, all include a sort of scale that leaves the impression of the probabilities associated with particular words without actually mentioning any numbers. I have included a graphic (taken from the most recent NIE on Iran and its nuclear ambitions) of the scale below.

To set the stage for the exercise, I converted the scale above into the graphic below. Note that I left the two right hand column headings empty and that I separated the words "probably" and "likely" into their own rows. I did this in order to help me make some key teaching points later on.
I hand out this sheet to each student and ask them to state, in terms of a single number (as with the study reported by Heuer), what each word means in terms of probability. I usually give them an example such as: "If you think "remote" means a 1% chance of whatever it is you are studying happening, then write "1" in the block for remote." I always choose "remote" or "virtually certain" for these examples as I know I run the risk of anchoring the students when I give such an example and I figure it is safest to anchor at the extremes where it is less likely to influence the overall outcome.

Once all of the students have filled in the first column, I ask them to label the next two columns, "Low" and "High". I ask them to write the lowest and the highest percentage they would assign to each word in those two columns. Once they have completed this task, I ask them to calculate the difference between each word in the "odds" column (For example, if a student wrote 1 for "remote" and 20 for "very unlikely" then the difference would be 19). I also ask them to calculate the range of their answers for each word (For example, if the low score for "very unlikely" was 10 and the high score was 30, then the range would be 20). In this part of the exercise, I am clearly mirroring the study reported by Rieber.

Handing out the forms, explaining the instructions and actually having the students fill in the sheets can take as little as 5 or as many as 15 minutes depending on the types of students you have and the level of sophistication with WEPs in general. In my last class where I used this specific exercise I think it took me all of 5 minutes but that class was quite bright and very used to the concept of WEPs. Once all the numbers have been entered and the calculations complete, it is time to start making teaching points which I will discuss in the post on Monday.

Monday -- Teaching Points

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Part 2 -- To Kent And Beyond (What Do Words Of Estimative Probability Mean?)

Part 1 -- Introduction

The discussion of Words of Estimative Probability (WEPs) starts with Sherman Kent’s seminal essay on the topic but hardly ends there. Linguistics experts have done a large number of studies on what they refer to (among other things) as “verbal expressions of probability”, “verbally expressed uncertainties” or “verbal probability expressions”. Others, in the fields of finance, health (Thanks, Rob!) and meteorology have also wrestled with this question.

I am advising one of our graduate students, Rachel Kesselman, on her thesis which will address all these literatures at some length. She is scheduled to present her preliminary findings at the ISA conference at the end of March and will likely complete her thesis (which focuses on the historical use of WEPs in National Intelligence Estimates) sometime in May or June. I won’t steal her thunder, then, but suffice it to say that this is a well studied topic outside the IC.

Within the IC, though, there appears to be a limited number of studies on the topic. Steve Rieber presented his own paper on the meaning of WEPs a couple of years ago at the ISA conference. At the time, he cited only two studies as major research findings within the realm of intelligence analysis: One in Dick Heuer’s classic, The Psychology Of Intelligence Analysis, and one (at least part of the basis for Rieber's paper) from a study of Kent School analysts. In the study cited from Heuer, analysts gave a single numerical probability for each word. For example, one analyst might claim that the word “likely” suggests a 75% probability while another might claim that it suggests only a 60% probability. Kent School analysts, on the other hand, were asked to give a range of values for each word. The charts showing both results are below (Heuer's is on top and Rieber's is on bottom).

The conclusion from both studies was that the level of agreement was rough, to say the least. There was a distinct difference between words at either end of the spectrum (such as “highly unlikely” and “highly likely”) but differences between words that were closer together in meaning (such as “probably” and “likely”) hardly seemed to be differences at all.

Other writers have tried to more or less establish statistical meanings to the words by simply declaring that certain words have certain probabilistic meanings. Kent's own attempt fell much along these lines as does the recent attempt (Thanks, Ted!) by the authors of Joint Publication 2-0, "Joint Intelligence", Appendix A (published 22 JUN 07). The fundamental problem with dictating these intervals is that it ignores the considerable evidence (including the two studies cited above) suggesting that people don't think about these words in these rigid ways (The problems with the Joint Pub run even deeper as it unnecessarily confuses the ideas of probability and confidence and is, as a consequence, 180 degrees out from what the National Intelligence Council was promulgating at approximately the same time! All this argues, I might add, for a need for more research into intelligence theory and, in the interim, some standardized estimative language that reflects the current best practice.)

What is clear, however, is that decisionmakers want clarity and consistency in the language of intelligence estimates. One of our former grad students, Jen Wozny, did a very strong thesis on this subject a number of years ago (Available, unfortunately only through inter-library loan at Mercyhurst's Hammermill Library). She looked at what over 40 decisionmakers, from the national security, business and law enforcement fields, wanted from intelligence. Two of the items that consistently popped up were clarity and consistency in the language that intelligence analysts used to communicate the results of their analysis. Peter Butterfield, in a comment to yesterday's introductory post, indicated similar concerns on the part of his decisionmakers.

Tomorrow -- The Exercise And Its Learning Objectives

Convert 2D To 3D Online For Free! (Stanford AI Lab)

Ashutosh Saxena and his team of brilliant computer programmers at the Stanford AI Lab have created an intensely cool bit of web based software. The site, called Make3D, allows you to upload a 2D image and then the software renders it as a 3D image, sends you an email telling you its ready and posts it to a personal page for your viewing.

I converted a number of images (taken from .mil sites) last night. The process was painless. You can see an example below (you need to have the Shockwave plugin installed to see these images. You can get this plugin for free here):

To get the full effect you need to use the arrow keys, the page up and page down keys and the Shift+Arrow keys to navigate. As you play around with it, you will notice the picture tends to get distorted pretty quickly. You can always go back to the original image by hitting the "reset view' button. All of the images I uploaded are available for viewing here. My favorites are this one, the "Para Jump" and the "Patrol On the Roof".

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

What Do Words Of Estimative Probability Mean? (Part 1 -- Introduction)

(Note: This is another attempt at what I call "experimental scholarship" (See this series for my first attempt). The discussion regarding the use of blogs as a way to publish scholarly works (or, in my case, more-or-less scholarly works...) is pretty hot and heavy right now. However, I found writing an article in the form of a series of blog posts extraordinarily useful the first time, if only for the comments that I received that I am sure will make any traditional journal article just that much better. It was the positive feedback I received from that experience that makes me want to give it another go.)

I was cleaning my office this week in anticipation of a new term (we are on a quarter system at Mercyhurst) and I ran across the results of a classroom exercise I conduct regarding the meaning of words of estimative probability (such as “likely” or “virtually certain”) or as they are commonly referred to around here, WEPs. I thought some discussion of the exercise I use and the results of that exercise would be of interest to intelligence studies students and educators.

The value of WEPs is, of course, an ongoing question both within the intelligence community and among its critics. At one end of the spectrum are those, like Michael Schrage, who call for numeric estimates -- x has a 75% chance of happening plus or minus 10%, that sort of thing. At the other end of the spectrum are those who Sherman Kent called “poets” who believe that it doesn’t matter what an analyst says, policymakers and others will interpret the analysis however they wish. The intelligence community (IC) has recently moved further in the direction of a position that, while not quite as extreme as Schrage’s, is clearly on that side of the spectrum as the “best practice” for effectively communicating the results of intelligence analysis to decisionmakers.

Much of the reason for using WEPs instead of numbers centers around the imprecise nature of intelligence analysis in general, coupled with the misunderstandings that could arise in the minds of decisionmakers if analysts used numbers to communicate their estimative judgments. A large part of the argument against WEPs, on the other hand, has to do with the imprecise meaning of the words themselves. In other words, what exactly does ‘likely” mean? That is where I intend to go next.

Tomorrow -- To Kent And Beyond!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Creating A Stable And Secure "Iraqracy" (CSIS)

If you haven't seen Anthony Cordesman's latest (13 FEB) briefing from the battlefield on Iraq out of the Center For Strategic And International Studies you should take the time to download it (full text can be downloaded here. Caution: It is a large file -- 7.3 MB). Cordesman is both comprehensive and current in his generally positive assessment of the situation in Iraq. Of particular note are the wide variety of graphs and charts he uses (the map below is of ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq). These alone are worth the price of admission...

Highlights from the synopsis on the website include:

  • "No one can spend some 10 days visiting the battlefields in Iraq without seeing major progress in every area. A combination of the surge, improved win and hold tactics, the tribal uprising in Anbar and other provinces, the Sadr ceasefire, and major advances in the use of IS&R have transformed the battle against Al Qaida in Iraq."
  • "At the same time, this progress is dependent on major additional Iraqi government action well beyond the passing of the Iraqi FY2008 budget, the provincial powers act, and the laws easing de-Baathification."
  • " is clear that Iraq can only succeed with years of additional US support in security, governance, and development."
  • "It will take strong US involvement throughout the life of the next Administration to succeed, and it may well take US aid through 2016. There is a strong case for limiting troop reductions beyond a force of 15 brigade equivalents to patient conditions-based steps that ensure there will be no need to rush back US forces or see Iraqi forces become vulnerable. There is an even stronger case for sustained aid in governance and development until the Iraqi central government learns how to spend effectively and do so with limits to waste, corruption, and ethno-sectarian bias."
  • "Serious threats can still bring defeat or paralysis over the coming years, although this seems significantly less likely than during the fall of 2007:"
    • "A central government failure to move funds to key provinces, improve services, fund development, and employ young men."

    • "A central government failure to reach out to the Sunni and Shi'ite Sons of Iraq and incorporate many into the Iraq security services."

    • "Potential Arab-Kurdish-minority divisions over Kurdish autonomy in the north, and creating some form of Kurdish federal zone."

    • "The risk of Shi'ite divisions and infighting in the south, particularly between the Hakim and Sadr factions, and Sunni-Shi'ite tensions over some form of Shi'ite federalism."

    • "Continued Iranian support of militias and divisions and growing Iranian influence in Basra and the south."

    • "The need for local legitimacy through provincial and local elections in 2008, and open lists and local representation in the COR election in 2009."

    • "Moving towards full development and sustained employment, and for a fair sharing of petroleum wealth a resources."

Monday, February 25, 2008

Chinese Hackers, Travel Safety And What's Running On My Computer? (Resource Roundup)

The Dark Visitor. I ran across this blog this weekend and while it may be well known to some, it was new to me. While I am no expert on China or on hacking, I was impressed by the depth and scope of the offerings. The credentials of the author also seem quite robust. If Chinese hacking is an area of interest, this is likely a blog well worth watching.

International Travel Safety Information For Students. The State Department has put out a press release that any student thinking about going abroad for the summer should check out.

exeLibrary. Push Ctl-Alt-Delete on your windows based computer, click on Task Manager, click on the Processes tab. Do you understand what your computer is doing? Ever wonder what "realsched.exe" really is? This is the place to make sense of all that stuff running in the background on your computer. McAfee Site Advisor gives it a "green check" so it is unlikely a deceptive or malicious site.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sunday Funnies: The Trunk Monkey

If you haven't seen the trunk monkey ads (for some auto dealer out in Oregon) you owe it to yourself to take a look. Funny and entirely appropriate for Sunday morning...