A Brief Note

I’ve been offline for a month getting adjusted to my new assignment. Now that I’m back up and running I plan adding new content on a monthly basis. Ideally I will post once a week but no less than once a month.

If you’ve left a comment please forgive my silence. I am still new to blogging and it appears I have mostly spam comments to sift out and delete. Bear with me while I work out the kinks.

Thank you!

Posted in Uncategorized

Truth is a Disco Ball

A few cadets and professors were discussing political philosophy over a few beers. The evening progressed and we came to the topic of truth. One professor proposed an interesting analogy for our consideration. This view compared truth to the light reflected by a disco ball.

A disco ball throws light in myriad directions. Truth,  ultimately, is the light source. Most people, however, only focus on the scattered reflections. Different people fixate on different patches of light, convinced that their little glimmer is the truth. Confusion and conflict occur when the reflections shift as context changes. People hold on to their vision of reflections that are no longer relevant.

If we ignore the disco ball then we do not realize that our seemingly isolated points of illumination originate from the same source. The disco ball analogy is a reformulation of an old idea that simply states: the truth is one. In other words, there are small truths (reflections) which originate from an absolute truth (the light source).

This claim warrants thorough investigation. Its veracity determines how one approaches life itself. The art of an examined life is the successful application of fundamental principles to action. Truth-seeking is the process of discovering these principles.

Many people catch flash of truth in moments of epiphany. Few internalize and act upon their insight. This happens across the spectrum of life, from business, to war, to love. A bit of wisdom or a thoughtful analysis resonates upon first exposure.  But later the insight disappears in the background of our daily lives and we fail to act.

Human nature continues to manifest in the same ways even as context changes. The wisdom of past deep thinkers is still relevant, yet people continue to suffer from same problems. This is because people fail to act upon truth when they find it.

The difficulty of truth is in its nuance. Truth seems clear and self-evident when it is given to us in the form of a wise teaching, for example. Truth seems obscure when we seek it on our own. The wise teaching or and epiphany offers a glimpse of the disco ball. It shifts our focus past the reflections.  Full comprehension, however, is elusive. Only when insight couples with action do we experience full reality of the truth. Through insightful action we see how the fundamental principles operate in the world. This is difficult because it requires presence of mind and continuous effort.

The complexity of truth often leads to oversimplification. Viewing the world in black and white is easier than picking out the shades. The latter approach requires constant critical thinking. People have a hardwired tendency to simplify the world in order to avoid the mental effort of unpacking truth. Mental models or schemas help us navigate everyday reality but they also cause distortions. These distortions manifest as ideologies and opinions that impact how we conduct our lives and relationships.

The discovery of true principles requires a self-aware approach to schemas. It requires that we recognize when our schemas have utility and when they are not sufficient. Critical thinking is the key to seeing beyond our schemas.

Flux is constant, breeding new challenges and opportunities. Successful decision making amidst flux is possible with periodic reevaluations of  our established assumptions. Although the disco ball is one, its reflections are ever-changing. When we focus on the reflections it seems that the truth is relative to changing contexts. The fundamental principles remain but new context blocks approaches that were once clear. It takes mental work to discover how the fundamental principles operate in new contexts. When context changes, old schemas lead us away from truth. This consequently leads to faulty decision making.

Good leaders practice truth-seeking. The purpose of truth-seeking is not merely for knowledge but for informed action. It is an ongoing process of critical evaluation in an environment of constant flux. Truth-seeking offers the greatest potential when leaders apply insight to thought and action.

Posted in Leadership, Living, Mind, Perspective, Philosophy, Uncategorized Tagged , , , ,

Deep Inquiry

Warrior Miyamoto Musashi lived to cultivate knowledge of the fundamental principles of martial arts and life. In 1643, at age 60, the undefeated Musashi retired to a secluded mountaintop to contemplate and record his insights.

During his retreat, Musashi produced a succinct volume titled The Book of Five Rings. This Japanese classic contains wisdom distilled from years of observation and praxis.

Each teaching culminates with Musashi’s  repeated commandment:

“You should investigate this thoroughly”

This precept is crucial to effective knowledge-seeking and self improvement. The idea is simple yet often neglected.

Deep inquiry is necessary for any and all  claims, the acceptance of which would lead to important consequences for the conduct of one’s life. Thus, anything pertaining to the  fundamental questions of the human condition warrants close study. Thorough investigation entails the combined activities of academic study, worldly observation and praxis. This process unveils knowledge.

Knowledge (the basic definition: justified true belief) arises from the interplay of thought and experience. Musashi differentiates between  academic familiarity (book smarts) and true knowledge. The latter comes from the comprehension of truth by way of direct experience. Musashi relentlessly advocates sustained investigation as the path to wisdom.

Along this path, reading is useful to the extent that it prepares ones mind to recognize truth when it reveals itself in experience. Similarly, the study of wise commentary puts words to previously ineffable realities, long understood via experience yet difficult to formulate. The well-rounded seeker of wisdom both studies and interacts with the world. He or she meshes contemplation with active observation and participation.

One potential obstacle to deep inquiry is the power of opinion, especially when fortified by emotion. Opinions are not knowledge because they do not meet the criteria of justified true belief. Yet, many hold as strongly to their opinions as they would truth. This leads to mental inflexibility that impedes thorough investigation.

Musashi’s key lesson is that the initiative and responsibility for one’s own development is completely internal. Teachers are useful guides and mentors but only to the extent that the student verifies their teachings. Musashi does not want his readers to take his word for anything. He provides signposts in the form of nine rules for deep inquiry:¹

1. Think without any dishonesty.

2. Forge yourself in the Way.

3. Touch upon all of the arts.

4. Know the ways of all occupations.

5. Know the advantages and disadvantages of everything.

6. Develop a discerning eye in all matters.

7. Understand what cannot be seen by the eye.

8. Pay attention to even small things.

9. Do not involve yourself with the impractical.

The practice of these guidelines minimizes the danger of adopting misleading opinion. Musashi’s rules are exercises to strengthen one’s critical mind and self-awareness to better recognize truth. The difficult part, as always, is putting words into practice so that we may come to know their validity.

Sources:

1. Miyamoto, Musashi, and William Scott Wilson. “The Earth Chapter.” The Book of Five Rings. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2002. 23-24. Print.

Posted in Gems of Wisdom, Perspective, Philosophy, Reading Tagged , , , , , ,

Makeshift Incense Holder

Good for travelers and cheapskates

Posted in Living, Tradecraft, Travel Tagged , , ,

Body Armor Cleaning Tips

Step 1: Preparation

Brush off loose dirt and debris.

Step 2: Disassembly

Take out ballistic plates and inserts. These are not supposed to be submerged in water. If the inserts do get wet they will dry very slowly. The label sewn into the fabric indicates relevant cleaning information. Water, detergents, and other chemicals may damage the ballistic integrity of the material.  The following instructions are for the non-ballistic outer shell only (shown on the right in the photo).

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Step 3: Stain Removal

Spray deep stains with OxiClean stain remover and scrub with a bristle brush. Use a damp rag to wipe away dirt and oils. You may need to do this several times and repeat between steps as needed.

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Step 4: Soaking

Soak the IOTV (body armor) shell in warm water with OxiClean for about an hour. Rinse and repeat as needed. You may need to continue scrubbing out dirt and oils during this step.

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Step 5: Wash Cycle

Put your shell in a standard washing machine and add a scoop of detergent. Begin wash cycle.

Step 6: Drying

The most expedient drying method is a regular dryer. If this is not available or you want to avoid noise there are several other techniques.

1. Air dry in sunlight.

2. The Oven Method: For this you will need a clean oven. Put your shell in an oven preheated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Leave the oven door open 1/4 of the way. Observe your progress and remove when dry. Obviously there is fire/equipment damage risk using this technique. Be an intelligent adult.  Do not leave your equipment unattended.

3. The Dry Sauna Method: This method works if you have access to a dry sauna. The advantage here is safety (unless you decide to sit in the sauna for three hours while your stuff drys). The disadvantage is security. Someone might steal your gear if you simply leave it drying in the sauna. Mitigate this risk by staying in the vicinity while your gear is drying. This method works according to the same principle as the oven. The heat will expedite the evaporation of moisture from your gear. (Thank you to 2LT Rolph for this tip)

Posted in Military, Tradecraft Tagged , ,

Mitigating Culture Shock in West Africa

Anyone who spends an extended period immersed in a foreign environment will experience a degree of unease and disorientation. This is feeling is called culture shock. Even seasoned travelers are not immune, although the symptoms manifest differently in each person.

I’ve traveled all over the world and  I usually do not experience significant culture shock. When I spent seven weeks in Ghana in 2011, however, my culture shock was particularly acute. I expressed my internal discomfort in visible irritation with certain people and local customs that permeated my daily activities. My culture shock was seasoned by initial confusion over what constituted normal social interaction in the region. Past experience with culture shock gave me the self awareness to recognize that what I was feeling was primarily a product of my own malaise rather than a justified reaction against inherently negative attributes of Ghanaian society.

Prior planning and preparation is not a cure-all for culture shock but it is a powerful vaccination against debilitating bewilderment. Due diligence work before getting on the plane is usually sufficient to ward away any serious surprises. This advice is important for tourists. It is even more important for anyone conducting business, diplomacy, or service work in a foreign country. Culture shock stalks the unprepared mind. When it strikes, culture shock may cause counterproductive reactions that undermine a crucial task or mission. Such reactions may include any combination of self-isolation, offensive social interaction, close-mindedness, anger, depression, etc.

Africa in general is potentially confusing to the outsider. Mental preparation is essential. My seven week experience in Ghana was much more productive because I read a book called African Friends and Money Matters by David E. Maranz. This book covers the basic cultural assumptions that govern everyday social and business encounters in many West African cultures. I referenced Maranz’s book while in country and consistently found its insights both helpful and accurate. Gradually I adapted to my environment.

I read V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River after returning home. Naipaul’s depiction of expatriate and outsider life in Africa resonated with my own experiences in Ghana and Tanzania. This novel would be an superb travel companion on your way to Sub-Saharan Africa.

Finally, check out allAfrica.com, an excellent source of Africa specific news.

Posted in Reading, Travel Tagged , , ,

Winter days / Fuyu no Hi

For anyone interested in Japanese poetry, check out Winter Days. Here is a link to part one.

Winter Days or Fuyu no Hi is a 2003 Japanese film collaboration between thirty-five anime artists.  The movie is an animated version of the 17th Century renga poem by the haiku master Basho.

Renga is a collaborative poetic form that emerged in Medieval Japan and influenced the the subsequent development of haiku. The educated elite in feudal Japan enjoyed creating renga at special poetry gatherings . Individual participants took turns composing short stanzas that linked to the lines of the preceding poet. Much like the poetry, the film Winter Days is an interesting an beautiful example of artistic cooperation.

Posted in Aficionado, Art, Film, Poetry, Reading Tagged , , , , ,

Two Quotes on Education

For Consideration:

“Virtue emerges normally only through education, that is to say, through the formation of character, through habituation, and this requires leisure on the part of both parents and children… Nor can we say that democracy has found a solution to the problem of education. In the first place, what is today called education, very frequently does not mean education proper, i.e., the formation of character, but rather instruction and training. Secondly, to the extent to which the formation of character is indeed intended there exists a very dangerous tendency to identify the good man with the good sport, the cooperative fellow, the “regular guy,” i.e., an overemphasis on a certain part of social virtue and a corresponding neglect of those virtues which mature, if they do not flourish in privacy, not to say in solitude: by educating people to cooperate with each other in a friendly spirit, one does not yet educate non-conformists, people who are prepared to stand alone, to fight alone, “rugged individualists.””

~Leo Strauss,  What is Political Philosophy

“[A] book must be read in its sequence, particularly when it is a book of any kind of significance; for in general, when it is a matter of an intellectual process, it is naturally the representation of the intellectual process, the literary outcome of a meditation, whose sequence could not be changed and which can be used for one’s own formation only if one follows it in the sequence and understands it in the sequence.”

~Eric Voegelin,  Hitler and the Germans

Posted in Living, Philosophy, Reading Tagged , , , , ,

The Supertexts

Steven B. Sample’s Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership is an excellent book on the art. His book collected dust for several years until I recently rediscovered it on my shelf. I finished it in two days and wished I had read it earlier. If you only have time for one chapter, read Chapter 4: You Are What You Read. Here, Sample discusses the notion of “supertexts”. Supertexts are written works that have endured the test of time. These texts retain wide readership centuries after their initial composition.

The supertexts are enduring because they capture and express fundamental aspects the human condition in ways that continue to resonate with readers. They persist as long as their ideas spark connections with humans across time and culture.

Today, Many Americans  are ignorant of philosophical and moral foundations of Western civilization. American educators ought to make a priority of renewing interest in the Western canon lest we loose sight of our robust intellectual foundations and begin to doubt our culture’s future potential.

This list is a combination of recommendations from my West Point instructors as well as a few of my own contributions. I have honed it down to focus on  important works from Antiquity through the Middle Ages.

Many ancient Greek and Latin texts are digitally archived with English translations at the Tufts Perseus Digital Library. This is a great resource for scholars!

Additionally, Project Gutenberg offers free digital downloads of many of the classics. I use this site to load up my kindle. Some of the older English translations seem a bit archaic to the modern reader, however.

Ancient:

  • Thucydides, Peloponnesian War
    - I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the power of political persuasion in Thucydides’ speeches. I found this translation particularly useful during my research. In addition to providing cultural and historical context in the margins, Strassler includes wonderful maps and diagrams.
  •  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
    - This book helped me through a rough period at West Point. Stoic philosophy is especially appealing to leaders, warriors and anyone in the public eye.
  • Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
    - Another great work of Stoic thought
  • Virgil, The Aeneid
    - The mythological origins of Rome chronicling the hero Aeneas’ journey after the fall of Troy.

Medieval:

  • Aquinas, Summa Theologica, On Kingship, Commentaries on Aristotle

Early Renaissance:

Another good list that includes later works is located at the Great Ideas Program website.

Posted in Philosophy, Reading Tagged , , , ,

Afghanistan Books and Articles

For anyone interested in Afghanistan here is a list of useful books and articles. I have not read all of these but they came highly recommended by several officers who know their stuff. Feel free to add suggestions!

Books:

Articles:

 

Posted in Military, Reading, Travel Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,