Strategy with Stratfor

Stratfor is the global intelligence consultancy that came to public prominence in 2011 when they were hacked by anonymous.

I didn’t pay them much mind beyond those news reports until recently, when I stumbled across a video called “The United Kingdom’s Geographic Challenge” via r/GeoPolitics on reddit. It’s only 2 minutes long and after watching it I was strikingly unimpressed, largely because it was made by Stratfor, and I therefore expected something pretty big in terms of insight, and which I felt was lacking. I scanned the reddit thread and found folks similarly unimpressed. I then read the Youtube comments, which I don’t often do. There was only one substantial exchange, between someone called Random Videos (RV) and someone called Zarrov. RV was unimpressed, Zarrov somewhat bluntly explained that RV was missing the context…

Thats why I said that I dismissed your comment. It would take too much time to explain basics. You just don’t understand strategy. You think in superficial, layman terms, thats “ability to amass invasion” means “omg, agression, they WANT to attack us”. Not so. The very existence of power warps relations with others. The most obvious mistake you make is to assume that history happens because of random events, and that it does not repeat itself. You do not ask yourself question why all states, despite changing times, regimes, technology, societies and leaders behaved in patterns. To think, that “well, today we are safe” and proejct (sic) that into the future is very basic mistake. — Zarrov
So I went back and watched it again. And then watched another 6 or 7 of them, for a range of different countries. And I found my opinion transformed, and not just in a subtle fashion. I found myself extremely impressed, and in receipt of the insight I had originally expected. Awesome.
The videos most certainly are about strategy, grand strategy. The strategy that is informed by that most immovable of fundamental factors, the geography of a nation. The videos are a mixture of the implications of various geographic realities, the relations they hold with the seat of power in a nation and a little of the history each nation has experienced.
I had originally dismissed the first one I watched, because it seemed to be a very basic history lesson. The 180 degree flip came from realising that the geographic factors that informed the UK’s strategy in times of empire, are still informing its strategy in today’s time of economic European union. The other videos are similarly impressive. Below I have posted the videos for the UK, France and Egypt as well as one explaining the importance of the Yangtze river in China. If like me you enjoy these you should also spend a happy hour or so scanning through their Youtube channel looking for others in the series.

Reading impro by Keith Johnstone


I’ve read 2 recommendations for this book, both emphatically positive, overwhelmingly so, and so far 100 pages in I’ve not been disappointed at all. My favourite quote at the moment…

The first school I taught at had one woman teacher. When she went out shopping at lunchtime, the men pulled their chairs round and told dirty stories non stop. Down in the playground, as usual, the children were swopping similar stories, or writing ‘shit’ or ‘fuck’ on the walls, always correctly spelt; yet the staff considered the children ‘dirty little devils’ , and punished them for saying things which were far milder than things the teachers themselves would say, and enjoy laughing at. When these children grow up, and perhaps crack up, then they’ll find themselves in therapy groups where they’ll be encouraged to say all the things that the teacher would have forbidden during school.

The book is about teaching improvisation in the theatre, but as billed by those that recommended it, its much more than that.

Fun with Wikipedia

Ever found yourself in an office, several floors up looking out of the window, a large window that in fact stretches from the floor to the ceiling? I have, quite a few times actually (not that its anything special). On a few occasions I have leaned against the glass trusting that it would be secure, and the evidence of this being written of course tells that it was. On a few other occasions I have pondered the idea of testing the glass with something more substantial than a simple lean. Its a very easy idea to walk away from. I am never going to run at the glass to test that it is strong enough to prevent me falling to my death. If only Garry Hoy felt the same way he wouldn’t be dead. Running at the glass was Garry’s party trick until one day the whole pane popped out of its frame and that was the end of him.


Then there is Sir Adrian Paul Ghislain Carton de Wiart and officer in the British army. He was possibly the hardest man who ever lived. From his Wikipedia listing.

He served in the Boer War, First World War, and Second World War; was shot in the face, head, stomach, ankle, leg, hip, and ear; survived two plane crashes; tunnelled out of a POW camp; and bit off his own fingers when a doctor refused to amputate them. Describing his experiences in World War I, he wrote, “Frankly I had enjoyed the war.”

Meet J002e3f an object found to be orbiting earth in 2002. This was a mystery as it had long been the accepted wisdom that the moon was the only substantial body in orbit in our skies. Originally it was assumed to be an asteroid but eventual analysis showed that the electromagnetic spectrum of the object was consistent with the paint used by NASA for the Saturn V rockets. Its no longer flying around us as the moon helped to slingshot it out of our orbit, although it is expected to return some time in the 2040’s. The first link shows its orbital path as it flirted with hitting us.

I have recently found a number of Wikipedia entries that just purport to function as simple nodes for crowd sourced lists. A nice dynamic resource. Here are 3 of them. Objects in the solar system by size, science in 2013 by month and emerging technologies by sector.

Charlie Don’t Surf…….

…..or, so we were told anyway. Considering what was going on, on the beach at Mekong at the time, it might seem as though Charlie was quite sensible with regards to his surfing habits.

I’ve been pondering a very different type of surfing lately, digital surfing. And although it might seem somewhat frivolous to try and build a point from such a seminal movie snapshot as the one I have referenced here, there is actually something to be said for it.

apocalypse mug

OK, so Colonel Kilgore is commenting on the generic surfing habits of the indigenous population of the Mekong delta, rather than their innate desire to surf or not, today. But if we depart from the fictional imagery just a little we can ask 2 questions that are actually relevant.

Considering how much is going on, on the internet in general, at any one point in time. And considering that the average number of friends someone has on facebook is 234. And considering that the average twitter feed follows between 30 and 50 people. And considering that many now have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, G+, Instagram, Quora, Pinterest etc. And considering that most of these people will also have a personal email and a work email and a smartphone with several content apps (even if they are only news apps) and some form of SMS or messaging tool. And considering that some people actually still visit the open web itself, even if that’s via a reader or heaven forbid just nakedly on a website itself.

Right, so considering all that…

How? How do you do it? How in the world can anyone keep up with all that content?

Getting back to my, somewhat criminal, bastardisation of Apocalypse Now.

Charlie Don’t Surf. Not at all. The best we can say, maybe, is that he’s flapping about in the broken waves on the beach, What he certainly isn’t doing is majestically carving across the surf for his and others pleasure.

Answers that include any automation along the lines of Tweetdeck or the algorithms that charge Google reader for example, are not adequate mitigations I’m afraid.

The one (Tweetdeck) does nothing much to help you read more great content, it just helps you to filter out the dreck according to filters you choose, to which I respond, why are you following the dreck in the first place?

And the same goes for the Google readers of this world. There are a variety of schemes that people set up to prioritise their content feeds, but essentially what we are faced with is some form of automation telling you what you might like to read.

And, whereas that might be mighty useful (and at least one person I know who I hold in high regard, swears by this approach to using Google reader), it’s not really surfing, it’s more like sitting in a dinghy (apologies but temptations to stretch the analogy are too much sometimes).

Charlie don’t surf. He just doesn’t.

That was the simple question of the 2. The harder and more valuable question is this.

If we accept, and I think we should, that someone out there is surfing then how are they doing it?

Why should we accept that premise? Well, because for the web to act as a filtration mechanic, utilising all the data that feeds the various search algorithms and all the data generated by social interactions and the data generated by whatever sharing mechanic you care to mention. For the various mavens and respected bloggers whose advice and admonitions to read this or read that are eagerly followed by the rest of us mere mortals.

For all that, someone, somewhere is reading enough stuff to understand and say, read this, don’t read that.

And I want to know how they do it.

One of my favourite blogs is Confused of Calcutta, written by JP Rangaswami of

JP writes deeply researched, heavily cross linked posts that can take a week to consume (sharing time with my other life obligations) in full, notwithstanding that the comments section will be valuable also and often generates new thoughts via the discourse there.

Now, somewhere on his site I once read that he keeps up with the writing of 300 people. Subsequently that number has become a glittering beacon for me, a target, an aspiration. Definitely an aspiration, because not only do I not keep up with the writings of 300 people, I haven’t yet even identified the 300 people whose writing I want to keep up with, but whose best intentions to inform me I shall surely fail.

And JP also has a job too! A big job.

Another blog that features highly on my list is Ribbonfarm, where you will find Venkat Rao (amongst other places, as far as I can tell he blogs in at least 3 locations). Venkat also writes deep dense and long posts that are full of ideas and often warrant multiple readings which yield subsequent values.

I’m not able to keep up with all the output of either of these guys, so I come back to them on a stop start basis, consuming their content in binges. (A sign of age, I no longer binge drink, I binge read blogs. Doh).

Venkat was the one to start me thinking on this whole topic actually.

Something that he does very well, and that I find particularly useful, is that he reads the huge fat books, often histories, which fill me with dread and fear. The books, in short, that I feel I probably should read, but I don’t. And then he writes blog posts about them. Not trivially either, or as a review. He might typically write up an 8,000 / 10,000 word essay, inspired by a book he’s reading which is also informed and made more valuable by his wider thinking and / or reading of other relevant texts. And, those? Those posts I gobble up greedily.

As I realised that this was an effective proxy, for me, to gain some of the insights and learning from those big scholarly tomes, I also realised that the same might also hold true at different levels.

And so I came up with this, a consumption cascade, each level potentially informing the next, sometimes in one direction, sometimes in the other.

1. The damn big intellectual book (DBIB)

2. The damn big intellectual blog post/essay (DBIBP)

3. The damn big blog post (x8) (DBBP) – other people’s opinions

4. The aggregated big blog post (ABBP) – assimilating other people’s opinions

5. The blog post as perspective (BPAP) – commenting on a part of the DBIBP

6. The blog post as reportage 1st party (BPAR 1) – this happened to me

7. The blog post as reportage 3rd party (BPAR 3) – this happened to her

Some fuzzy observations:

1. Posts at all levels could have been influenced by the damn big book at the top, even if the author has never even heard of it

2. As you go from 1 to 7 it takes less time to write a post, and less time to read it

3. As you go from 1 to 7 the size of the audience increases

4. Sometimes content from the top and content from the bottom comes together to make really valuable content in the middle

And now you are thinking, so what?

Which is a fair question. When I had finished putting it together I realised it was much more useful if you were writing content rather than simply reading it. I enjoyed that realisation as it fits with the observation that today’s reading involves a lot of writing (and vice versa).

From that perspective it has, essentially, sharpened my research habits.

However, because my writing is organic (in as much as I write about what comes at me from my reading) it seems a little OTT to call it research, as it’s mostly reactive not active. Usually when a number of pieces of content (that I am reading) start to converge in an area, that’s when I start to plan a post.

And that struck me. It struck me that that was a little like a filter, a content algorithm, but an organic one that only existed in my head and probably under any deeper examination defies the definition of an algorithm.

So I looked at how I consume content, and what I do with it. Neither of which I had ever deliberately structured.

The single most important tool in my content sorting behaviour is Pocket (formerly Read It later) because it’s the interface most available to me during reading opportunities (my commute for example).

Content goes in, usually from my laptop browser, and some gets read really quickly. The length of the piece is a factor, without a doubt, but so is how interested I am in it. How busy I am is another factor that massively influences how much I get to read, as is whether or not I am currently bitten by a traditional book (less and less these days) and for a small number of writers, who has written it is also important.

But then, over time there are bits of content that have been in the app for a while, and they fall into 2 categories. Stuff that I just don’t want to read, adjudged by it simply getting looked over so often (that eventually gets binned), and stuff that I really really want to read, but are substantial commitments because they are big pieces of writing. Nathan Myhrvold’s 20,000 word memo was one of those. I think it sat in pocket for 3 months before I eventually made an active decision to put aside 2/3 hours one weekend to read it properly.

There is one other behaviour with regards to pocket. As I get to a point where a certain blog post is forming, brewing, I find I might prioritise pieces that are relevant. I use the favourite feature in 2 ways. To remind me what I need to read, and also to mark out certain articles that are to be referenced in a post, or that are to be formative thinking for a post.

But here’s the thing, I’m telling about you these behaviours as observations not as a functional thought out scheme for consumption. I never decided to consume like this, it was an emergent behaviour that fell automatically out of installing the Pocket widget in my browser and on my phone.

It works, for me.

Now, if someone can tell me how JP keeps up with 300 writers I’d be very grateful because, whereas I suspect a big part of it is simply that he’s stunningly clever and reads very fast, and has considerably more efficient cognition, I also suspect that there must be something in his consumption scheme, even if that scheme is as organically derived as mine. And, If I can copy even a small advantage that really would be nice.

Writing stuff down

Thinking back to my school days, my exam MO involved ignoring everything until there was barely any time left to learn it, then frantically cramming as much as possible.

And there was one clear technique that worked, for me. Writing. Writing down the facts, the data, the story I was learning, the equations, the relationships, whatever I was stuffing into my head. Sometimes again and again and again, but really pretty much just once or twice, which considering I was such a dreadful procrastinator, and had no time, actually makes sense.

I was more than a little surprised the first time it became clear that the difference between how well my revision had been converted to memory, or not, was as simple as writing it down. No-one had ever told me. They had told me to write stuff down, but they hadn’t told me in any way at all, that this could be the single most effective differentiator of success, for me, in remembering stuff.

Just making a note, in case I forget to tell someone too.