Saturday, February 04, 2012

Reading :: The Next 100 Years

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century
By George Friedman

As I mentioned in a recent review, Friedman is CEO of Stratfor, an Austin-based provider of geostrategic analysis. In this book, Friedman attempts to forecast the geostrategic challenges of the next century. Given the tremendous changes of the last 100 years, one might consider this undertaking to be well beyond the ability of even a foremost geostrategic analyst. Friedman acknowledges the point and emphasizes that he can't predict the details of the future - just the broad outlines. For instance, Friedman predicts that the US will continue to be the dominant global power, despite predicted challenges from Russia (2020s), an alliance between Turkey and Japan (2050s), and Mexico (2080).

Those challenges may seem oddly specific, but Friedman argues that they flow from the geostrategic implications of each country. Russia has become a net commodities exporter, meaning that it has a limited window to achieve security by reclaiming a buffer region via satellite countries, including Poland - which will not want to go back into the fold. Japan is a net importer and must guarantee the steady flow of imports for its own strategic security, and that need will clash with US interests in the Pacific. And Mexico, Friedman says, will pose a challenge late in the century not just because it will be a first-world nation at the US border but also because the US border region will become culturally much more similar to Mexico. So Friedman confidently predicts that these issues, involving these entities, in roughly this timeframe, will come to pass.

Friedman does also speculate in greater detail about these conflicts, though he marks these as speculation. This speculation reaches its height in Chapter 11, where Friedman plots out a war in which Japan and Turkey join to attack US' ally Poland in the 2050s. The war begins when Japan's moon base launches missiles to disable the US' orbiting battle stations, providing cover for Turkey to invade Poland in super-soldier exoskeletons - well, you get the idea. Chapter 11 would make a great plot for a science fiction story.

Reading this book is like reading vintage Toffler. As a thought experiment, it's intriguing, and the timeline helps us to consider how geostrategic issues such as borders and imports may lead to conflicts later in the century. But for every prediction Toffler got right, he had at least one that went wildly wrong. Yes, we have adhocracies all over the place, but we don't have undersea villages. Similarly, this book's value is more in how it helps us to consider geostrategic issues and their implications than it is in providing specific predictions. If that's something you're interested in doing, certainly take a look.

Reading :: America's Secret War

America's Secret War: Inside the Hidden Worldwide Struggle Between the United States and Its Enemies
By George Friedman

George Friedman is the CEO of Stratfor, an Austin-based provider of geostrategic analysis. Stratfor has unfortunately been in the news lately because it was hacked over the holidays, about a week after I read this fascinating 2004 book on the Global War on Terror.

America's Secret War describes "the Fourth Global War," the current war that the US faces against Islamic extremists. The first three wars were World War I, II, and the Cold War - and perhaps it's a function of the book's 2004 publication date that Friedman sees the GWOT as a similarly scaled struggle.

In any case, Friedman tells a compelling story of how al Qaeda prepared for September 11, what drove them and their allies, what space they operated in, and what strategic and tactical decisions they made. He then turns his attention to the Bush Administration's response, also in strategic and tactical terms. What I appreciate about this account is its Machiavellian evaluation of how these strategic and tactical responses worked and how they operated within the larger geostrategic context. For instance, Friedman builds the case that the Bush Administration invaded Iraq in large part because doing so would help them put substantial pressure on the Saudis to crack down on AQ supporters. Friedman reports these decisions dispassionately: in a characteristic statement, for instance, he says that "The decision to invade Iraq was not a good one and very few in the administration thought it was. It was simply the best decision available given the limited menu." If that statement seems overly generous to the administration, compare it to the discussions on how the administration trusted Chalabi - Friedman is neither a Bush apologist or antagonist, but simply a geostrategic analyst.

How accurate is his analysis? I have no idea. I'm not a geostrategic analyst myself, and Friedman provides few citations to help us independently verify his points. But as an account that provides a starting point for  understanding the strategic and tactical choices of all players - al Qaeda, the US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Europe, etc. - this book is intriguing and highly readable. See what you think.

Reading :: Smart Thinking

Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done
By Art Markman

Art Markman is a psychology professor here at UT and the director of our Human Dimensions of Organizations program. He's very smart and engaging, and that personality comes through in this very accessible, lifehacker-ish book. Think Dave Allen meets Lifehacker backed by deep research experience in cognitive psychology.

The book is aimed at a general audience, and contains a lot of useful advice. Smart thinking, Markman explains, is "the ability to solve new problems using your current knowledge." So Markman gives us plenty of advice and exercises on increasing mental agility, absorbing more information, single-tasking during multitasking (it turns out that I probably shouldn't check my email during meetings - who knew?), and maximizing one's memory. All of these are backed with research, although Markman keeps the citations light, and all are associated with solid exercises.

Smart Thinking is not itself a research book, nor is it meant to be. It's an afternoon read that is accessible to everyone, useful to everyone, and full of advice that can help readers improve their mental agility. Take a look.

Reading :: The Wolf and the Prince

The Prince and the Wolf: Latour and Harman at the LSE [Kindle Edition]
By Bruno Latour, Graham Harman, and Peter Erdelyi

A while back, I reviewed Graham Harman's The Prince of Networks, in which Harman, a philosopher, examined Latour's work in terms of metaphysics. Although I have a hard time staying engaged with philosophy, the book was still interesting to me.

Think of The Prince and the Wolf as the "behind the scenes" companion to The Prince of Networks. It's the transcript of a symposium involving Latour and Harman at the London School of Economics, February 5, 2008, when Harman's book was in draft form. Harman had not yet finished the final chapter, but the bulk of the book was complete enough for Latour and the relatively small audience to read in advance of the dialogue.

Latour and Harman are both witty speakers and they both field solid questions from each other and the audience. Unfortunately, the dialogue did not manage to engage me in the way that The Prince of Networks did: it's heavy on philosophy, and I bore easily. But if philosophy pulls you in the way that (say) methodology pulls me in, or if you want to gain a deeper understanding of how The Prince of Networks developed, definitely pick up this book.

(Did you miss me?)

My blogging has been very light lately, not because I've stopped reading, but because I've been far too busy. So I have a backlog of several books. I may not blog them all, but I will try to make a dent in the pile over the next week or so.