The Dangers of Crowdsourcing

There are a lot of people who are passionate advocates for “crowdsourcing” as a solution to everything from software (such as “Linus’ Law” ) to military culture (see point number 3 from: ).

Actually, it’s that second link that inspired this whole post, as I’m not sure that “crowdsourcing” is necessarily part of the “right mix” of techniques that will make the Army better. Nor am I convinced that an “experimental culture” is appropriate for an organization that has a core mission function of conducting large scale combined arms maneuver warfare. The most obvious problem with crowdsourcing is illustrated by a thought experiment that has played out many times in reality: if we take a look at the problems presented by a crowdsourced game of chess. If you take a chessmaster, and pit him or her against a thousand, or ten thousand, random Americans in a one versus “crowdsource” you’ll see the chessmaster win time and time again. The outcome will never be in doubt, as every time this experiment has been executed, the outcome is the same. The wisdom of the crowds is irrelevant to the expertise of an individual.

So why does crowdsourcing work with projects such as Free Open Source Software such as Linux, but not work with a game of chess? Here is my first real attempt to show why “crowdsourcing” works for Linux, but not for chess.

  1. Linux is a project with highly structured approval for changes and version control that allows a team of experts to pick the best contributions for inclusion. Chess is a game where “democracy wins” on the most popular next move has no real review structure, and if there were a review structure of experts, the opinion of non-experts would be irrelevant to their choice.
  2. Linux is a project that has no defined end state, which means bad input can be rolled back through version control, or patched in the the future. Chess is a linear game where the consequences of past choices determine the outcome of the game, so there is no opportunity to “patch in” a lost piece at a critical time (unless you are playing a variation like bug house, but that’s a game for hard core chess nerds).
  3. The people contributing to Linux are experts, or passionate amateurs gaining expertise, within the realm of computer science and engineering. The random crowd of chess players against the expert are largely not experts, and will never spend the “ten thousand hours” focusing on becoming experts at chess.
  4. Linux as a project came into a lot of external support early on from academia and established projects such as GNU, and Linux as a project continues to receive external support because it is the “goose that lays the golden egg” for a lot of tech companies. There really is no parallel for crowd sourced chess.

So, given these scenarios, do you want a military that embraces “crowdsourcing” as a function? Honestly, no. You want a military that effectively applies combat power to problems to advance the interests of the Nation. As much as we talk about wanting a military that is flexible, adaptable, and able to achieve positive outcomes with minimal guidance and intelligence, in reality we need a military that can bring forth violence and death at a moments notice. I hate to quote Clausewitz but he did point out the “dual nature” of war, the violence and the politics.

In 2003, the United States and the “Coalition of the Willing” crushed the Iraqi military for the second time in just over a decade. The culture of training to “task/condition/standard” and force on force exercises worked. Unfortunately it did not create a military force that was able to forestall an insurgency (a task never even identified for training) or work effectively with the US State Department to rebuild a country (despite have a lot of doctrine written to do just that). And that should be a stark reminder to people that crowdsourcing is not a smart way to wage a war, as the passionate but uninformed will likely say “Just bomb ’em like we did in WWII!” which ended up being the same strategy in Vietnam which turned into a failure. War adapts to local conditions, and without expertise on those actual conditions, we are all uninformed idiots who shouldn’t offer opinions on what the military ought or ought not do in a given situation.

Getting back to the Linux example, companies that capitalize off of open source software usually do not stay on the “cutting edge” of the release cycle. FOSS has a habit of “breaking stuff” with patches and upgrades. Libraries, versions, and dependencies cause things to not work right that worked just fine the day prior (I’m looking right at you Python). Microsoft had the exact same problem with Windows to the point where they require new programs to run without external dependencies (other than approved ones of course, such as .net) because version control for software between different generations of Windows was becoming a royal ass pain for Microsoft. At one point you had “windows on windows” emulators to keep legacy third party software running on the boxes because people wanted their favorite program from ten or fifteen years ago to run on the latest Windows release.

So, if you are going to see benefits of crowdsourcing you seem to need the following:

  1. A community of experts who contribute from their expertise.
  2. A review process that controls what inputs get synthesized into the outputs.
  3. A cohesive vision that allows everyone to work in a common direction and understand how each contributing effort works towards overall success.

You know what that sounds like, right? It sounds like a military staff conducting mission planning using a planning process or design methodology. I have issues with every single one of those planning methods as they will always come up with a plan of military action, but won’t necessarily give you the right plan for the nation.

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A conversation about race, and judging a book by the cover.

As I walked through Barnes and Noble the other day I saw a book titled: “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism.” By Robin Deangelo. I didn’t purchase the book, but if you want to spend an hour and a half of your time you can watch the author’s talk and reading sections from that book on youtube.

So…I reject “racism” as a system, which makes me part of the problem so to speak. The definition of “racism” had to be expanded to “a system” to keep the problem of race relations relevant to people who make a business out of grievance. The grievance business is an incestual mix of academics, activists, and politicians.

“She was a white girl. She deserved it because us minorities have been through slavery,” Temar Bishop, 23, allegedly said to someone who witnessed the bloodied 20-year-old woman after the assaults, according to a criminal complaint.

“This is what they used to do to us. This is what they did to us during slavery. They used to beat us and whip us.”

I also reject the idea that we are supposed to treat everyone equally beyond basic politeness and expected social courtesy. Everyone the same is a really stupid way to do the threat calculations. A well dressed gentleman calmly shopping the computer programming language section of the bookstore is less of an obvious threat than the homeless man ranting at the streetlight outside. And we judge people by their appearance, which is why we have the saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

I admit that I’m not culturally aware of every culture from everywhere. That doesn’t mean it is racist of me for to be ignorant of someone else’s culture anymore than it would be racist for them to assume that all Scandinavians enjoy fermented seafood dishes (hint, we don’t, lutefisk and harkel are straight up survival foods).

I reject that “white” and “black” are enough to describe people. If you want to see normal “white Americans” be comfortable around a “black” person, just have them interact with a “black” Jamaican who is polite, well dressed, and well groomed.

The second part of this idea of “white fragility” that I reject is the idea that “whites” are fragile because they don’t know their own history. This is because there is no “white history” anymore than there is a “black history.” There is only the history that you are personally aware of, and the history of which you are ignorant.

What I do believe: Americans are among the least racist people on the planet. America does have racist people in it, but they are a small minority. If America were so racist and horrible, Africans wouldn’t fly to South America to make the trek north to our southern border. By any real measure of racism, the US is very tolerant.

What I do believe, we can’t have a conversation about race because one side wants to do all the talking to get to the conclusion that “whites” are the problem, and no other race or ethnicity has any culpability in their situation.

The candidate most fervently backing reparations, though, is Marianne Williamson, a self-help guru and spiritual adviser who wants to set aside $200 billion to $500 billion for a reparations program.  (note, 500 billion dollars divided by 3.9 million would be a $128,205.12 per slave freed in the Civil War, equal to about 8,590 dollars in 1866, or a “good healthy sum of money”)

If we really want to have a talk about race, we need to have a talk about human history. The strong cultures overtook the weak cultures, and exterminated or assimilated them. In the United States today, an amalgamation of Europeans and Asians are the stronger culture, a least in terms of demographic success. If “whites” were systemically racist, why are the Asians (east and subcontinental) who are obviously different by skin tone, doing so well in America? The answer to this question is often the “history and impact of slavery” And to that I call BS, as the “history and impact of slavery” was well on it’s way to being a non-entity when Johnson started the “war on poverty” and created the modern welfare state that traps so many into a permanent underclass. One author lays the blame firmly at the hands of FDR with well documented justification:

We can’t have a conversation about race or racism until we can talk about how no one living today caused any event in the past, and no one in the present is responsible for anything in the past. No “black American” is responsible for their ancestors being conquered by other Africans and sold to European slave traders. No current African is responsible for their ancestors conquering other tribes and selling them into slavery. No “white” American is responsible for their ancestors who purchased slaves, and then had them freed without compensation. Even the sticky issue of what about black slave owners? Would a black descendant of a black slave owner get reparations for slavery? The clear moral answer is “no” but there could be an argument of “well, then reparations for Jim Crow!” which brings up the question, “what about blacks who lived in states without Jim Crow laws?” and so forth and so on.

The truth is that the United States of America, like Zimbabwe or Belgian Congo, is a former colony of a European power. However, the United States rose from a “post-colonial” era into an era as a global power by drawing deeply on some of the functional culture and thought from Europe, especially in creating a Republic rather than some other form of government. If America were still a crap hole backwater filled with the the “poor white trash of Europe” there really wouldn’t be much angst wasted on “white fragility” or talk of “reparations.”

After the civil war 3.9 million slaves were free, and at no point have we created a society with truly equal opportunity or equal outcomes.  However, no society has ever achieved that goal, so as long as progress is being made towards and unattainable goal, I’ll be happy. The days of blatant racism that fueled the Civil Rights era are gone, Jim Crow is a thing of the past. The Revolutionary Fervor for justice denied has served its purpose. To call every “white person” an active and passive participant in “systemic racism” is a self serving position only for those who have something to gain by preventing greater social harmony between all ethnic groups in the United States.

A graduate of America’s West Point military academy has become a celebrated viral sensation after he was photographed crying with emotion during his graduation parade.

Second Lieutenant Alix Schoelcher Idrache, who was born in Haiti, graduated from the academy as the top-ranking physics student and aims to become a pilot.

America is more than any single characteristic or stereotype. Our history is what it is, warts and all. Today Africans come to the United States both legally and illegally looking for a better life.

The immigrants in Texas were mostly from the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola. Cameroonians have also been traveling up through Mexico and into the U.S. in larger numbers and seeking asylum at ports of entry. On recent Saturday in Tijuana, there were 90 Cameroonians lined up to get on a waiting list to request asylum that has swelled to about 7,500 names. Also on the waiting list are Ethiopians, Eritreans, Mauritanians, Sudanese and Congolese.

The truth is that Africa, run by Africans, is just as warlike and genocidal as Europe run by Europeans for most of recorded history. Ironically the most peaceful period in European history has been the post WWII era where the United States set up permanent military bases in the countries of former enemies and put NATO together after kick-starting the European economy with the Marshall plan. Unfortunately for Africa, it wasn’t very industrialized prior to WWII, and simply became yet another proxy battleground for the Cold War, and the current US aversion to “imperialism” in foreign policy makes it unlikely that any sort of large scale assistance to Africa will ever come to fruition beyond security assistance, as China really has the African economy locked up.

Sorry to ramble, all these things are connected together. The European slave trade to the colonies in the united states, the American Revolution, and Civil War, the rise of the US as a world power in WWII and the Cold War. The French assisting us in the Revolutionary war caused the British to commit their navy to protecting assets in the Caribbean rather than the colonies, which allowed the land battle to be won. Western culture isn’t pretty, but it has been one of the largest forces for good leading to the age of modern prosperity, even in places like China where experiments with capitalism have literally brought billions out of poverty.

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Pruning, growing, passing

There are stories of people growing into their destiny. “The Hero’s Journey” is probably the oldest story type, and it will continue to be told. Some of these are fantastical tales of people who gain abilities, powers, special items, favored companions. Some of these are tales of sacrifice, leaving behind loved ones, childish hopes, even optimism in the face of the reality before them.

In the front yard there were three trees. Now there are two, as one grew so much that the roots broke into the sewage tap and cost a pretty hefty replacement. I cut that one down then dug around the roots and cut the stump down below the ground line. Now fresh grass grows on top of where it used to be, hiding the evidence of its existence from the world.

The second tree, a beautiful dwarf maple variety, grew a branch that began to overhang the power line feeding the house. That branch was pruned.

The third tree grows close to the driveway, and was not properly pruned for years before we moved in. Vertical “water sprouts” have thickened and entangled the canopy. My oldest son likes that tree, so I’ll probably give it a thorough pruning next March. Clean out the canopy, remove the entangled branches, give it better airflow.

It means nothing, but a friend of mine was lamenting at how we wear all our ribbons on our dress uniform, and not just a few as GEN Eisenhower did. Sometimes less is more in men’s fashion, as Patton had a distinctly opposing view on how much military bling should be worn by a general officer in the US Army. As the discussion went on, people argued over the validity of awards, some given out for little more than showing up, some acts of service and valor ignored because of an indifferent command, shoddy paperwork, or combination of the two. But it got me to thinking, every tiny piece of cloth I put on my rack represents a bit of my life given in exchange. What should be pruned out? Not the campaign medals, those should probably stay even if they are simply “I was there” awards. The awards that are ribbons only can go, for overseas service or professional development, as are the enlisted only medals for good conduct. In the end I could probably prune it down to four pieces of cloth that would let another servicemember have a quick look and understand a bit about where I went, even if it leaves out what I did there.

But getting back to the beginning of this post, about “The Hero’s Journey” I see a lot of veterans lose pieces of themselves along the way. I’m not talking about physical body parts, although that happens too, but more like how the intense training for a thoroughbred horse eventually leaves nothing that isn’t a race horse, the act of service leaves nothing left but what is needed to do the mission, and just enough of themselves to stay sane or human. The experience prunes away what would have been, and leaves behind what is.

Eventually both the pruned and wild tree will be gone, and evidence of existence fading under new growth. And that is normal, how time is ruthless and cares nothing for cares, hopes, or dreams of mankind. The form of the tree is irrelevant, the medals you wear or don’t are irrelevant, and what is left that matters is the journey you take, and how you took it.

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LMTV Rollover at West Point.

The Army released the name of Cadet Christopher J. Morgan as the fatality in the MTV roll over this past Thursday. May God comfort his family as they deal with his unfortunate death in the service to the nation.

I do know about the trucks used. The Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles fully replaced the “Deuce and a Half” and all but the last of the “5-Tons” in the US Army. They are a good vehicle, however, when you take them off road you run the risks of being off road.

I do know about the culture of safety in the Army. Traditionally the US Army has lost more people to accidents than any other cause. This cause the US Army to invest in safety personnel, enact inane and ineffective but highly visible nostrums like the infamous “PT Belts” and a culture where leaders would be crucified for not conducting a thorough risk assessment. Be assured that a thorough investigation into the “Class A Accident” at West Point will be conducted. Any incident with loss of life or permanent disability of a person is a “Class A Mishap.”

So what do I believe I know about this incident? Well having spent more than my fair share of life in an LMTV or FMTV, there are only two likely reasons for the rollover. The first reason is environmental, such as rain softening the ground and giving way causing the vehicle to roll. The weather yesterday was supposedly partly cloudy, and the incident happened over an hour past sunrise. The second is operator error, either going to fast, or choosing a path of travel too steep of a side slope for the vehicle. At this point either option is equally valid, and investigators will go to the scene and attempt to discover the truth from the evidence. Sometimes it’s human error, sometimes it’s an “act of God” on the final report.

What I do know for sure, is that the remaining Cadets who survived the roll over, will never pencil whip a risk assessment. Going through an experience like that, where thorough planning, and control over the execution of operations. And even with all their care, men and women serving will still die, because Army operations, like everything, are impossible to reduce to zero risk.

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Ash and dust

I did not know my wife’s biological father very well. We only met a few times, and each time I got the impression that he was happy his little girl married me and not some other guy. He passed away last year, the day before Thanksgiving (in November, as opposed to the Canadian version). The autopsy report confirmed what we knew, he was a man in poor health who passed away due to his body just finally giving out.

For nearly six months, between then and now, my brother in law kept the 15 pounds of cremation ash on his home office desk. This morning my wife and I retrieved the ash and drove to a fairly remote cemetery and spread the ash over his mother’s grave. He is not memorialized by a headstone, and only in the memories of those who still live and various legal records and historical artifacts such as school attendance or small town news articles.

My oldest son cried, sad for the loss of a grandfather he never truly knew. But for the rest of us, it was really just a last goodbye. He was a man who destroyed relationships with those around him, only late in his life working to salvage the relationship he had with his children to some extent. Neither hero nor villain, just a man who lived his life in his own way, and never with any obvious malicious intent, but also not a man who could pass on highly functional relationship skills.

In the end, we are all ash and dust, and the lasting impacts we have are only in the people left behind. And as they grow old, their memories will fade and like the ripples in a pond, the ripples from the impact will dim until it was as if they were never there. But they did exist, and their impact was felt, and life will go on regardless.

Tomorrow my brother in law will wake up to a desk without the remains of his father for the first time in six months, and will then get married to a lovely woman who has a daughter the same age as his. The white ash on the cemetery grass will wash into the soil, and the next time my wife and I visit, there will be no trace.

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Grandpa’s 35 Remington

My grandfather had a Marlin 336 in 35 Remington. He passed on, and my Grandmother is holding that rifle for my Uncle to take possession. I had the opportunity to visit with my Grandma, and she let me take a look at some of Grandpa’s ammunition stash. I set aside the 22lr and 35 Rem for my Uncle to take when he retrieves the rifles. There was some 30-30 Win, that didn’t go with any rifle that Grandpa had that I knew of, and three loose rounds of 7×61 Sharpe and Hart. I wish Grandpa were still around to tell me about why he had three rounds of 7×61 S&H, as I knew Grandpa like to “wheel and deal” and trade work for items, sell items for cash, and barter whenever he could.

Of all the old hunting cartridges that popped up around the turn of the last century, only a few are still commercially viable. The 35 Remington is an interesting little cartridge, very good at what it does in terms of terminal ballistics on animals, which is why you can still buy a Marlin 336 in that chambering. The 35 Remington and the 30-30 Winchester are both holding on, putting meat in the pot of families across the world. The velocity levels those cartridges can produce do not require any special bullets, old soft nose lead bullets do the job just fine. They aren’t particularly sexy in the era of magnumitis, and long slender extremely low drag secant ogive bullets, but they do well in the field where it counts.

Looking around on gunbroker, I see a lot of Marlin 336s from Pennsylvania showing up, going for around 300 to 400 dollars. When the 35 Rem is about two bucks a trigger pull, and no one in the family hunts because they moved into a city to find work, it makes sense to sell of some old deer rifle.

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for old medium bore cartridges such as the 35 Rem. I had a custom Mauser built into a 9.3×62 so I could have a real safari rifle, and I have several more in the original 8×57. The 35 Rem is less powerful than either of those, as it was originally designed for the semi-automatic Remington Model 8, either famous or infamous for use in the killing of Bonny and Clyde.

There is no issues with handloading 35 Remington, if you can find the brass. The common .470 case head is just a tad larger than the .457 case head of the 35 Rem, meaning there isn’t an easy way to convert common brass into rare brass. Brass is generally available though, and for hunting you don’t need thousands of rounds like you would with a competition rifle, so a few hundred can last you a very long time. And while there are plenty of commercially available bullets in .358 caliber that you can use, casting your own is a perfectly viable option as well.

In the end, the 30-30 Winchester is still going to reign supreme for the lever rifles, and for hunting in Alaska where “stopping power” is a more critical factor than in the lower 48 states the bigger cartridges like the 444 Marlin, 45-70, and 450 Marlin are all readily available for anyone venturing into the land of the big bears. The marginal increase in terminal ballistics over the 30-30 Win offered by the 35 Rem might have been a selling point to someone who might get a once in a lifetime shot at an elk or black bear and didn’t want to have to learn to use a more powerful rifle than their standard deer rifle, but now the times have changed and a cheap 308 Win, 270 Win, or 30-06 of high accuracy can be had from multiple manufacturers. The popularity of the levergun is fading into a niche culture, although one that I do hope continues for a long time.

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Relieving Generals and re-arranging deck chairs.

Thomas Ricks has an idea that the US Army was more effective in WWII because GEN Marshall fired a bunch of senior officers and then presided over the relieving of many more Generals over the course of the conflict. Ricks contends that when relief is not a career ending event, it can be a useful development tool for senior leadership. In the context of WWII, where there was never a lack of professional generals to choose from, maybe Ricks’ idea has some merit.

The youngest American General to be a Division Commander in WWII was “Jumpin Jim” Gavin, who commissioned from West Point in 1929. That meant that his sum total experience as an Officer was less than 15 years of service. The famous “Stars Fell on the Class of 1915” is true, but the vast majority of all Generals in the Army in WWII were West Point Alumni, although Marshall was a notable exception graduating from the Virginia Military Institute. My point here is that all of these men had survived the lean times in the US Army and knew who was a good person, and who was going to be worthless or counter productive.

The context of Korea, and Vietnam, was different. Unpopular wars, units rotating in and out, less fighting as Divisions and more fighting as Brigades, Battalions, and Companies. In this context, relieving a commander is much like re-arranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship. The classic example of Matthew Ridgway coming into Korea to clean up MacArthur’s mess really is an example of one West Pointer (MacArthur) being replaced by another West Pointer (Ridgway).

All of this incestuous West Point musical chairs is interesting, but in the context of WWII, the massive expansion of the US Army, from 190,000 to 9,000,0000 in a few years caused massive promotions for trained and educated Officers. Jim Gavin went from 2nd LT in 1929 to a Division Commander in 15 years. A normal Army career creates a “Senior Major” or “Below the Zone selected LT Colonel” in 15 years. There wasn’t a ready bench of experienced talent, and Marshall had famously fired about 200 Colonels and Generals to get rid of the dead wood back in 1939.

Were Generals more effective because they had less experience? They certainly had more casualties, which leads us to the sensitivities of commanders who take risks and don’t win big for it. The place for “thin safety margins” in the US Military lies with Special Operations. Tom Ricks has opined that Petraeus and McChrystal were equal in warfighting, but Petraeus was the more politically savvy officer (this opinion was given before Petraeus fell from grace).

Additional context change from WWII until now is that America does not allow her sons to be drafted and lead by rapidly promoted Generals who may or may not know what the hell they are doing. The post Vietnam reforms, including Goldwater-Nichols, have created a military that American citizens and politicians expect to be professional, and ready. This means that every level of command tests an Officer for promotion, and the best continue up the ranks. But now, those that are relieved are done, although the career of LTC William B. Ostlund as a BN Commander in the 173rd Airborne Brigade was stained by an investigation, he persistently fought the findings until he was exonerated, promoted to Colonel and lead the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division in RC-South, Afghanistan before ending his career as the Director of Military Instruction at West Point. That is the only stained career I know of in modern history, although he did not make Brigadier General.

Lastly, the context of Korea, Vietnam, the War on Terror (Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria) are not conflicts where WWII tactics of “full economic mobilization to a war of attrition against a peer nation state” is applicable. Korea was a proxy war with both Russia and China, as was Vietnam. The War on Terror activities are simply not things that can be won through more bullets, bombs, or taking territory. There is no “decisive victory” in the war on terror because there is no enemy commander to surrender, no enemy state to conquer. The international terror organizations simply adjust their area of operations elsewhere and leave the nation state military forces to play “whack a mole” when they pop up again.

So, due to these contextual differences, I have to say that there is very little evidence that Ricks’ assertion that relieving commanders would have any effect on outcomes. It would give the most senior leaders in the Army more looks at who would be a good Division or Corps commander, but currently that stands at a total of 14 people in three Corps command slots and eleven Division slots (one of which is a non-deployable HQ only Division). In WWII there were twenty six Corps, and ninety one Divisions. That’s 117 command positions at the two and three star level. Swapping out one Division Commander today would have the same organizational effect as swapping out nine Division Commanders in WWII. Swapping out one Corps Commander today has the same impact as swapping out nine Corps Commanders in WWII.

So contextually, the Army is much smaller, although over twice the size of the Army in the late 1930s.

I do agree that a reprimand, relief, or less than stellar performance should always be first used as a teaching moment and development tool rather than a way to kick someone out of service. However, the “up or out” policies approved by Congress highly incentive each Service to kick out Officers for even the most trivial infraction. Generals in WWII weren’t being kicked out for having a mistress, or keeping a bottle of whiskey at their desk. Both of those are firing offenses now, as if the class of man who is deemed fit to rain down death and destruction upon the targeted enemies of America must somehow remain a pillar of unquestionable virtue. Not every warrior is a paladin, and how virtuous a man is has little to do with combat leadership ability.

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