April 15th, 2014

Shifting Fires

Having wrote a long entry in pieces over the last month (and scheduled it for yesterday) I realized it didn’t quite get across what I wanted to say. So here’s an attempt at making a shorter and more compelling version. 

Posting here (already fairly erratic) is going to become very scarce and also much more compact. I’m going to stop writing at Logics of Transformation entirely, leaving it open more or less as just a record of some thoughts I had over the last year and a half on academic matters. I’m going to still contribute occasional pieces on strategy, national security, and academic-ish topics etc to the group blogs I’m a member of as well, but those will be much more polished than my average output and obviously infrequent.

Lastly, I’m going to start a new blog that fulfills LoC's original purpose: a research notebook, with expanded research notes, short literature dives, code, and some pseudocode/mathematical notes. This blog will become my primary personal blog, and RS will become mostly dormant. I’ve obviously changed blog formats a lot since I began blogging in 2006, but this is a new shift that has little to do with whether Tumblr was better than Typepad. Why?

It’s less fun to write as a generalist defense and strategy blogger these days. First, I’m fairly lonely right now — Abu MuquwamaInk Spots, and similar blogs of the kind of niche this blog roughly occupies are gone. Many people, including my friend and former co-blogger Dan, have either put it on the backburner or moved on entirely. I wrote a lot of off-the-cuff pieces here and other places on basic defense and strategy in large part because I found being part of a community of thinkers exciting. It isn’t exciting anymore because that is a pale reflection of what it once was. 

What’s left? Besides a vastly reduced number of generalist strategy/defense analysis blogs, there are a mass of specialist blogs on various functional and regional security topics. Everything else is either journalism (I’ve always been open that I’m an analyst, not a reporter that generates original information) or gifs and listicles. 

Publishing about defense, natsec, and related topics at a group blog or online magazine like War on the Rocks, CTOVision, any of the others I’m a part of is more appealing than continuing to use a solo blog actively. It offers more comradeship as well as better in-house editing and feedback opportunities for making what content I do choose to write polished and have more reach. Given the fragmentation of the audience I once wrote for, I’m no longer comfortable putting, say, a 1,000 to 3,000+ word blog out just because I have a burning desire to get a thought into the world. Having it be part of a group environment and especially having it be polished and more infrequent matters more to me at this point. Otherwise the thought and effort feels squandered. 

Though I do plan to drop things here, they will be very short and more like the occasional links I’ve been posting lately than the more substantive content I’ve put here since I started RS up in 2011. 

My interests and desired in-crowd also have changed. In the last couple of years I’ve become much more integrated with social science academic bloggers, tech bloggers, and the computational social science area where both meet. This is more where most of my energy ought to go, as it develops skills (programming, mathematics, modeling, revising literature, theory-building) I am currently building. It also helps me connect with people I want to meet and facilitates  connections that I want to make.  

I’ve been meaning to blog on these subjects for a while, but I’ve experienced something of a kind of stage fright at showing my programs, ideas, etc that comes simply from it being a new environment for me. The best way to get over such anxiety is the same way I overcame my anxiety over blogging over the last 7 years: practice, practice, and practice. Lastly, it’s also a better way to briefly review questions, literature, and thoughts, and register some works-in-progress with footnotes, embedded graphics, math, and code.

This doesn’t mean that I’m completely abandoning writing about strategy and natsec. As I’ve often noted, I spent 7 years of my life studying military, strategic and diplomatic history, international affairs, military science, strategic theory, and both interstate and intrastate political violence. All of these subjects constitute my substantive base of knowledge even if the foreseeable future involves spending perhaps just as long of a time building up a methodological knowledge base. The methodological base that will help me do more interesting things with my substantive knowledge base (and other interests I have) besides just write essays and think-posts.

Even so, I also care too much about this subject to abandon commenting and writing on it. I came of age during the Iraq War years, and it’s not like the US has somehow become so strategically adept that I feel no urge to pen a critique of some flawed strategy or idea at 2AM in spite of my knowledge that I’m growing older and need the sleep.

However, I also have to make the painful realization that the audience and community that once motivated me has fragmented — and adapt accordingly. I’m lucky that I — since I began working with Bob Gourley and others on cybersecurity issues and began a long journey into a more technical world — found another passion, and one that can still help me work on my interests in a different way. I know a lot of people that sunk a good deal of time studying the things I have and now don’t know how to adapt to a changed landscape. 

The ironic thing is that just as I devote my time to technical subjects, I’ve met hackers like The Grugq that evince the kind of interest I have now in technical things about subjects that are no longer are new and exciting to me in the national security, strategy, and security world. It was very heartening to see someone like FireEye’s Richard Bejtlich thinking out loud on Twitter about Civil War command and strategy — one of the many topics I studied to prepare for my BA thesis on the theory of operational design and campaigns.

Perhaps we’re just converging. People like me that come from a liberal arts-historical-social science background are turning to computer science theory and artificial intelligence as conceptual and practical tools (along with mathematical tools that go with them) for sources of new insight and to do things in the world. And I’ve seen more and more technically gifted figures like Grugq and Bejtlich start to become interested in the conceptual things that I once thought would be my life. 

My hope in starting a new blog oriented around code demonstrations, programming, mathematics, and research note and mini lit-reviews is that it will do something more than just join and participate in an existing community (my old goal for blogging). Rather, instead of feeling caught between computation, social science, and security/strategy topics I can help create a new community that fuses them together.

in sum: Rethinking Security, after a brief resurgence as the primary home for my applied defense, IR, and natsec stuff after Andrew Exum closed Abu Muquwama, will go back to being what it was when I blogged at Abu M: an mostly dormant place where I stick things that don’t fit anywhere else and very short and fleeting thoughts. 

I thank loyal readers and commenters, particularly those that stuck with me from the beginning when I blogged on strategy out of my college dorm room. That was a time when I never considered the possibility that I would occupy the same Infinity Journal issue with personal heroes like Colin S. Gray or David Betz or blog at a place like Abu Muquwama that a younger version of me would have given anything to get a link or favorable nod from.  When my new site is set up, I will post a link here and I look forward to continue engaging with you. 

As I’ve said throughout this entry, there will still be some signs of life here at RS every now and then.But not much. 

December 17th, 2013

A Note Regarding Format

As readers may have observed, my style of writing here and at other places has changed a lot over the last three years. Most of the ways I’ve learned to write privileged a “neutral” tone and prose style, or at the very minimum a third-person argumentative format. 

That made a lot of sense when I was mostly firing missives into the digital ether, and my commenters were the most immediate source of feedback. But it seems kind of silly to do it when most of the people cited in these blogs are people I correspond with on Twitter or (in the case of Dan Trombly and others) hang out with in person here in the DC area.

Hence I seem to have settled on a comfort zone with a mixture of op-ed style writing, the odd biographical anecdote (or extended anecdote of value), alternations between bluntness and subtlety, academic writing, colloquial language, and a general first person style that I seem to have unconsciously copied from memoirs. 

My spelling mistakes and grammatical tics are obvious, but if I did anything more than a once over I probably would not have energy to blog to begin with. Much of the blogging is done in between various things, or collected from scraps of notes taken over long periods of time. As a blogger at Abu M, I tried to aim for shorter, but sometimes I feel that the only way to satisfy a certain itch I feel is to go long. When I blog for others (at Zenpundit or Fair Jilt I split these longer posts up), but here it feels better to get it all out. 

January 7th, 2013

Context and Blind Spots

Perhaps one of the most deeply frustrating things for me as an analyst of security and strategy is the tendency of observers to ignore contextual factors when denouncing recurring military or strategic trends that they presume to be modern and endogenous to the organizations and actors they critique. My friend Dan Trombly is very skilled at conjuring up history to look at the deep roots of these trends and deflating technologically-based explanations. But I think his work has evolved in a more useful direction lately: from making a claim to precedent to explaining why these trends recur over time.

I ran into this problem when trying to write an Ab M post about the “militarization” of the CIA. Certainly I looked at historical precedent, policymaker demand, and the means by which the CIA and the military have always had a fairly porous relationship. But then something really obvious smacked me over the head: we’ve been engaged in 11 years of nonstop war, including two large stability operations with substantial regional elements. Every arm of the USG and military was enjoined to support the wars—why should we be surprised that the CIA also adapted itself to short-term projects heavily oriented towards military support? People cheered when Robert Gates backhanded the services for not “fighting the wars we’re in,” but boo the CIA for doing the same? There is an element of having one’s cake and eating it too in such critiques, if only because they ignore the context of war inducing greater militarization in response to policymaker demand.

In the cyber realm, I’ve felt a similar sense of aggravation when remembering my reaction to the crestfallen reaction to the Sanger leaks on Stuxnet. There was an attitude, reflected in op-eds written at the time, that Stuxnet meant a loss of innocence in cyberspace akin to nuclear warfare’s perversion of atomic science. Never mind the extensive interest by foreign armies and intelligence services in computer network operations. Never mind that those same foreign militaries built up said cyberattack capabilities over a period of 20 years because they perceived American cyberpower and its ability to enable net-centric conventional military operations as a existential threat. Americans have normalized this structural power to the point where it is invisible, but others have not. Does this mean the US should give up on its structural cyberpower? Not at all. But let’s put the blame for the emerging “cyber arms race” where it belongs: on adversary adaptations to counteract American military power and cyberspace’s role in enabling it.

Thankfully, I’m not alone in thinking context is important. I’ve been enjoying reading this book as I chase shiny object after shiny object in formulating my dissertation topic, and it is useful for policy audiences as well. Haven’t quite gotten to the end, but goes a long way to explain how contextual understandings can enrich any sort of inquiry.

May 15th, 2012

Slouching Towards Graduation?

A big congrats to friend Dan Trombly of Slouching Towards Columbia for finishing out his undergrad degree at George Washington University. Yes, he is going to graduate from college in a couple of days. The best is yet to come.

April 17th, 2012

Limited War and Other Things

At SWJ, I have an article looking at what limited war really is.

I’ve also written an extended take on the issue of policy relevance in scholarly work at my side blog Chimera of Austerlitz.

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A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng