UAVs, UGVs, and the Reduction in Land Forces

I read this morning about work that’s been ongoing at Lockheed Martin as part of the ARES program sponsored by DARPA, and something clicked.  I immediately thought of three other news items from the last 30 days or so: two about using robots to do logistics work in warfare (on one hand, the ho-hum automatic driving of trucks, and on the other, crazy horse-shaped robots).  The third item came out yesterday (I think): Secretary of Defense Hagel announced the planned reduction of the US Army (and Marine Corps) to their smallest size, manpower-wise, since WWII.

A pair of robotic mules from Boston Dynamics. Boy, would I have enjoyed a pair of those during a 12 mile foot march.

My opinion on the reduction is, you get you pay for.  Indeed, the money we save by cutting end strength now may ultimately be overshadowed by what we have to spend to play catch up in money and lives when the next war begins (see the ramp-up for WWI, WWII, and the Korean War).  However, all is not doom and gloom.  A large proportion of the manpower in the Army and Marine Corps is devoted to logistics: feeding, fueling, and fixing in support of the fighting.  I hope that the above articles are indicative of how DoD intends to maintain or increase capability at the dangerous, pointy end of the military, while reducing costs.

Organizational Lessons from the Skatepark

I’ve visited a neat park near my home with my family several times lately, named Swift-Cantrell Park. Each of the last few times, we have been fortunate enough to drop by the new skate park overflowing with kids of all ages, and saw some amazing things–but probably not in the way that you are expecting.

The kids ranged from roughly age 7 or 8, all the way up to 17-18, with a smattering of adults (including one guy I judged to be in his 50’s!) Nearly all of the kids were gawky–skinny, scrawny, awkward. A few looked a bit overweight. All of them fit the slacker stereotype–floppy knit caps, white kids with dreadlocks, saggy pants, scraggly facial hair. Not a single one I saw looked like they would fit in with the athletic or popular kids in their peer group. However . . .

Amazing observation #1: Dozens of them–probably 100-150–were using this skate park at the same time. There was no central authority enforcing the taking of turns or the rules. From what I saw, there were no fights or even tensions–I didn’t even see anybody run into one another (though there were some near misses).

Amazing observation #2: Watching these kids attempting their tricks, they had much, much more failure than success. Unlike many of the endeavors we embark upon, the consequence of failure for these kids was, at minimum, looking like a fool. Worse outcomes for these failures include the potential for scrapes, bruises, broken bones, twisted ankles, and cracked skulls. Yet they still come out, trying and failing over and over and over again to get that one little trick perfected.

A young skater prepares to launch.
A young skater prepares to launch. From this Youtube video–not the day I was at the skate park, but similar to everything I saw.
Ends in a faceplant, though.  No big deal--dust off and try it again.
Ends in a faceplant, though. No big deal–dust off and try it again. From this Youtube video–not the day I was at the skate park, but similar to everything I saw.

Not being a skater myself, I can’t claim to really understand the cultural forces at work here. However, I will go out on a limb here and try to draw some conclusions from what I saw that might be useful for organizations:

Foster a sense of mutual respect and shared purpose to create an environment where people take real risk, can fail over and over again, yet get up again and persevere until they succeed. These skaters would not throng to these parks if they worried that they would face ridicule for the inevitable falls and crashes. To the contrary, there seemed to be a nonchalance about failure at this park–if you mess up, no one will pay you particular attention, because hey, they’ve all been there before.

Give people a mission, some rules about how to interact, then let them go. These kids, given an environment where they could ‘fail safely,’ were motivated to put in an incredible amount of effort. The reward? Simply the pride and pleasure of mastering a trick. In fact, the existence of a central authority in this mix probably would have inhibited all the hard work that was going on. This seems to be part and parcel of Automattic’s incredible success, as detailed in The Year Without Pants (my review).

Hard work and passion can come from anywhere–don’t get stuck on the stereotypes of what successful people look like. The persistence that I observed in these kids is exactly the kind of thing that makes organizations great. Try to look behind the image that a person projects and find a way to measure the things that will really make a difference.

The Rules

A few weeks ago, I published a review of James Fallows’ China Airborne, and referenced a few articles written by my father-in-law, David Bishop.  Because I thought they were worthwhile, I’m republishing these articles in their entirety here, with his permission. You can find the original here.

Many years ago, in the days before everyone had email, someone sent me a fax with the title at the top, which simply read “The Rules.” It was a humorous list of guidelines about the relationships between men and women, and although I cannot remember all of “The Rules,” I have never forgotten the first 3:

Rule 1. The female always makes the rules.

Rule 2. The male can never know all of the rules.

Rule 3. If the female ever suspects that the male is about to learn all of the rules, she must change some of the rules.

For an American working in Asia, one of the most important things to understand are these three rules but with a slight substitution:

Rule 1. The Asians always make the rules.

Rule 2. The foreigner can never know all of the rules.

Rule 3. If the Asians ever suspect that the foreigner is about to learn all of the rules, the Asians must change some of the rules.

Every American who has ever lived or worked in Asia has a funny story or two about the time when he or she was just getting comfortable with social “rules of engagement” only to find out that the rules had been changed.

Some 30 years ago in Korea, I had visited in a rural area for three days, enjoying simple Korean hospitality at its finest. I was the guest of honor in every place that I visited, and while this may be nice a couple of times, after a while it can weigh thin on an independent American who likes to just take care of himself.

It was midwinter, and in every home, I was given the place of honor sitting in the corner under which a hot charcoal briquette was burning just a few inches below me. In Korean homes, you sit on the floor, so this meant I had to shift my weight constantly from one part of my backside to the other in order to keep from having it blistered! Further, I was constantly plied with tea, coffee and sweet drinks with no indoor plumbing when I reached the point of overflowing.

This three days was a great experience, but when it was time to return home, I was really looking forward to going back to my family and home with Western furnishings and surroundings that would allow me to have a little more personal space and control. As I was about to climb into my van (which had four rows of seats) for the one hour trip back across the mountains, my main host asked if a lady from the community could have a ride as she was visiting relatives in the city where I lived. Of course, with all that space, I was happy to oblige. This is where the story actually begins.

In Korea, as in many Asian countries, it is considered impolite to show up at a friend or relative’s home without a gift in hand. There is even a Korean proverb which states, “It is rude to visit empty-handed.” Remember that one – we’ll get back to it.

Another “rule” in many Asian countries is that when one is asked if he/she wants something to eat or drink, the first polite reply is usually, “No, thank you.” However, unless the host has asked three times and there have been three refusals, the host cannot assume that the person is truly declining the refreshment. So, you have to keep asking. A friend once told me that she asked a visitor who had come to meet with her husband if he would like coffee. The visitor declined, but a few minutes later, when she passed through the room again, the visitor asked, “Where is my coffee?”

With my passenger seated on the third row of seats of my van, I had several of these “rules” swirling in my head as we headed over the mountains for the one-hour trip. Before I left home, my wife had packed a few snacks for me, including some western style cookies that were wrapped in a very stiff plastic wrapper. They were beside me on the front seat, and I was craving something familiar, so I was tempted to open them. I was really tired from all of the social interaction and attempts to follow the “rules,” so as I looked in the rearview mirror, I hesitated to open the package and offer her any. It wasn’t that I did not want to share – I just did not want to engage in the complex social interaction that I knew would follow.

About 30 minutes into the trip, I looked back again and saw my opening. My passanger had fallen asleep, so I thought that I could surreptitiously scarf down a couple of cookies. As I reached down with one hand to remove the plastic wrapper, the crinkling of the stiff, noisy plastic woke her up! At this point, I thought, “Okay, here we go!” I asked her if she would like some cookies, extending my arm backward over the seat. Rather than politely refusing as I expected, she leaned forward, took the cookies, said “Thank you,” and put them into her bag. I never got to eat one of my own cookies! More importantly, Rule No. 3 applied here: I thought I knew the rules, so she was obliged to change one of the rules!

She was going to visit a friend or relative, and up to this point she was “empty handed.” Rather than engaging in a social interaction for which I thought I had learned the “rules,” she now had a solution to her problem for her immediate future.

Key takeaway: It is truly impossible for a foreigner, no matter how much an “acceptable outsider” he/she may become, to ever learn all of the complex cultural rules of engagement in Asian countries. That does not mean that you should not learn all that you can because honest attempts to engage will always be appreciated by those in the host culture.

Harmonious Chaos

A few weeks ago, I published a review of James Fallows’ China Airborne, and referenced a few articles written by my father-in-law, David Bishop.  Because I thought they were worthwhile, I’m republishing these articles in their entirety here, with his permission. You can find the original here.

I have taken many groups of Americans with little or no international experience into China and other Asian countries, and I always like to watch their reactions to traffic patterns. Some are frightened; some are amused; some are hostile or condecending; some have a mixed reaction. None of these responses are surprising as the traffic can be so erratic with drivers so aggressive in many countries. Someone in Korea once quipped that it took the greatest salesman in the world to sell line striping paint for the roads. To be fair, I was back in Korea a few years ago, and traffic patterns had changed dramatically for the better. In fact, driving behavior is quite dynamic and continues to evolve based on factors such as the growth in the number of vehicles, development of infrastructure, economic advancement and many other factors from country to country. With this concession, either driving or riding in a vehicle across Asia can still be an adventure.


In most Asian countries, the presence of large numbers of automobiles and other motorized vehicles is a fairly recent phenomenon – probably dating back to the early 1970s. My American friends who were in Korea in the early 1960s told me many stories of their experiences in Land Rovers on all dirt roads. During my first short trip into mainland China in 1982, I saw an equal mix of vehicles with steering wheels on the right and left with most driving on the right side of the road, but with larger trucks usually driving wherever they wanted.

Those early vehicles were sharing the road with ox carts and pedestrians, and there was some sense of equality between all of those together on the way. The drivers of those early vehicles clearly understood their responsibility to look out for the slower, non-motorized vehicles and people.

There were no formal hand signals for turning or changing lanes, and drivers learned that they must anticipate unexpected movements of those in front of them. Before I ever went to Asia for the first time, a professor who had spent many years in Japan introduced me to a concept known as amae that has served me well through the years. The concept is one that is similar to what we would call relatedness or interdependency, and in the case of traffic, it refers to the fact that a person going in one direction can depend on those behind him to watch out for him. He related that the school where he taught was only a 10-minute walk from his home, so he walked to school and home and back again at lunchtime and finally, home in the evening.

Being an American who had learned all his life to walk facing the traffic (so that one may be responsible for one’s own safety), he found himself constantly forced to jump out of the way of oncoming cars or bicycles that were about to strike him. He complained to a Japanese colleague of how rude the drivers and the cyclists seemed to be in that area. His colleague asked on which side of the street he was walking, and upon learning that the professor was facing traffic, he advised him to cross the street and walk with the traffic at his back. The professor was incredulous, but after hearing the explanation of this amae concept, he tentatively gave it a try. He reported that from that day forward, he was never again threatened with being hit nor did anyone honk at him or otherwise seem annoyed that he was taking up a part of the narrow street.

As a pedestrian (and as an avid runner for the past 30 years), I have tested this concept in at least a dozen Asian countries, and I have found it consistent in every one. As a general rule of this Asian interdependent logic, the concept is quite simple: If you are looking out for yourself, I don’t have to look out for you. If I can see you, but you cannot see me, then I am responsible.

I have observed another major difference between traffic patterns in the west from those in Asia. Western vehicle drivers tend to drive with a sense of strict linear progression. That is, you have a lane, and unless you signal that you are changing, you should stay in it – otherwise you deserve whatever consequences come your way. By contrast, Asian drivers tend to think spatially. They seem to have a “feel” for the traffic all around them which includes cyclists, pedestrians and pushcarts. This results in a “give and take” that I almost never see in the West.

A scary personal experience illustrates this ability to drive “spatially” and “feel” the traffic. Many years ago, I was driving a van loaded with five other persons along a narrow, two-lane road with narrow shoulders built up above the rice paddies. I was cruising along at about 50 mph, but the oncoming lane was moving at only a creeping pace. About 200 yards ahead of me, a driver pulled out of the oncoming lane heading straight for me, obviously not having seen me before he pulled out. I had no time to stop before what I was certain, for a split second, would be a head-on collision, and he could not get back into his line. However, the approaching drivers, moving at 5 – 10 mph, quickly adjusted so that their right wheels were on their narrow shoulder. I made the exact same adjustment on my side (having nowhere else to go), and the offending driver zipped right up the middle. Had this same scenario occurred in the USA, I truly believe I would be dead now.

Further, while I have seen drivers get into altercations following a fender bender in Asia, I have never observed anything close to what we call “road rage” in the West. And this includes the routine occurrence of drivers cutting each other off in heavy traffic. Drivers honk their horns constantly, but it is usually not as an impatient warning. Rather, it is a more of an “announcement” to make sure that a vehicle’s presence is known. In Korea, I was told that if a vehicle struck a pedestrian, consideration was given if witnesses could testify that the driver first sounded his horn. In China, on an almost daily basis, I have seen drivers perform a 3-point turn during rush hour traffic, stopping traffic in both directions for several blocks, but other drivers do not get angry, honk their horns or shake their fists. I have often speculated that this is because most every one of them anticipates that they may make a similar maneuver within the next five minutes!

So, what is harmonious chaos? It is a concept that includes much more than just traffic. Many things in China and across Asia appear completely chaotic to the untrained eye, but this is where there arises the need to look carefully below the surface to understand what is really happening. Harmony is an extremely important value all across Asia and especially in China. When one considers the high population density in so many Asian nations, the sheer numbers require that people find ways to get along in such close interactions. Further, in countries that have had such tight controls and limited freedom throughout their histories, this high level of tolerance for the behavior of others may be for some, a means of expressing their own sense of individualism and finding some areas where they may do as they please. Or that may NOT be the explanation. Whatever the deep psychological or historical reasons involved, with a lot of people living and interacting closely, they make it work.

Key takeaway: Of the many things in Asia that are so different than in the West, the one that is immediately “in your face” for most westerners upon arrival is the approach to driving and vehicle traffic patterns. If newcomers are able to get past their initial fright, they may come to understand much more about the Asian mindset than what may at first, may appear to be little more than recklessness.

Chinese Icebergs

A few weeks ago, I published a review of James Fallows’ China Airborne, and referenced a few articles written by my father-in-law, David Bishop.  Because I thought they were worthwhile, I’m republishing these articles in their entirety here, with his permission. You can find the original here.

There is an old saying about Americans who go to China that goes something like this:

If an American goes to China and spends two weeks, he (and sometimes she) thinks he could write a book. If he stays for six months, he begins to doubt some things he was so sure about in those first two weeks. If he stays 10 years, he must finally admit that as a foreigner, one can never be absolutely sure about ANYTHING in China.


I have only lived in China for three years, but I have been traveling there for 15, and I have lived, traveled and worked throughout Asia for almost 30 years. After all this time spent in China and within the region, I have learned that what I do know and what I do not is not the central issue. What is essential is to understand how much there is YET to learn and how to use the tools of observation and inquiry effectively to continue to build a useful base of useful knowledge.

Entering any unfamiliar culture is much like approaching an iceberg on the horizon. No matter how massive the mountain of ice in front of you may appear, 90% of it is below the surface of the ocean. If you doubt this or if it is too difficult for you to get to a region of the North Atlantic where you can do a study of southbound icebergs in the spring, just drop a chunk of ice (or even an ice cube) into a bucket or bathtub. No matter the mass, the same laws of physics will keep 90% below the surface.

This is true when you first encounter any culture for the first time, but it is especially true in China. The Chinese may have more English speakers, more Starbucks, more iPhones, more blue jeans and more modern cities than the USA and many other western countries combined, but all of these elements are only a small part of the 10% above the surface. The other 90% is made up of the attitudes, habits and practices that have become ingrained in the Chinese psyche during the last 5,000+ years of their history. This creates a web of complexity that no outsider can ever fully relate with or understand.

Many years ago, I had the good fortune, along with about 15 others, to participate in a 3 day workshop led by legendary linguist Don Larsen. One of the concepts that he often spoke and wrote about is that in most cultures—especially in Asia—a foreigner may never hope to become an insider, but over time and with enough effort at learning customs, culture and possibly language, the best he/she can hope for is to become an acceptable outsider.

It is my opinion that many Chinese also do not fully understand their own culture—it’s just that they know how to live in it much the way that a fish cannot explain the molecular makeup of water, but knows how to swim in it very well.

To further complicate matters (and maybe even prove my previous point), when a foreigner challenges a Chinese about most any situation that does not seem right, the answer is likely to include some statement about the foreigner not understanding Chinese culture. When asked for an explanation, there is seldom anything beyond an indication that this is “just the way things are” or “this is China!”

Some three decades ago when I was studying the Korean language (Korean language and culture were historically extensions of Chinese language and culture), it was explained that in Korean, there are two different sets of numbers (one set derived from Chinese numbers and one set referred to as “pure Korean”), and their use has very specific rules according to the situation.

One particularly exasperating example involved the fact that when telling time, the hour is stated using the Korean number, but minutes are stated using Chinese numbers. After about 30 minutes of struggling to grasp this concept from the explanations provided by my teacher and processing them using my western logic, I finally asked, “Why is it this way?” She stared at me incredulously for a long moment before responding that I could not ask “why.” I just had to accept it and learn it this way.

Never forgetting that frustrating lesson, I eventually learned (and accepted) over the years that why is almost never the right question in Asia. A better hope for gaining understanding is to watch closely and observe over time the various factors influencing any given situation. Often, after some time to process these observations, a pattern will begin to emerge which may lead to some level of understanding. Still, no matter how many times you repeat this process, as a westerner, you can never hope to gain complete understanding of Chinese (or any Asian) culture. The most that may be reasonably hoped for is to learn how to observe and discern patterns, which may ultimately help you become an acceptable outsider and to know what you don’t know!

Key takeaway: Americans who travel to China for the first time are often very pleasantly surprised by all of the modern western influences that they see which were completely unexpected. However, this may quickly create a false sense of understanding and confidence about how to proceed with accomplishing their objectives. What they are able to observe during that short visit is only a small part of that 10% of the iceberg that sits above the surface, and to ignore the other 90% can quickly lead an otherwise potentially successful venture to the same fate as the Titanic! Further, although a foreigner may be able to put on a wet suit and make short forays below the surface, there is too much there and the environment is not conducive to ever exploring the entire iceberg.  Developing keen observation skills can lead to the ability to discern patterns and gain incremental levels of understanding.