I’ve always been a geek at heart, and I also try to keep one eye on cyber issues because they’re so important to national security.  So lately I’ve been reading numerous books about networking, computer hacking, and hacktivism.

One of the most intriguing books in this collection is We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency by Parmy Olson.  Despite a string of 1-star reviews on Amazon by disgruntled Anonymous members (all curiously posted within a two-day spread shortly after the book’s publication), I thought the book was absolutely riveting.  It is a tour through the digital underground: the IRC chat rooms where attacks are planned and botnets are controlled, message boards where virtual flash mobs are born, and the dark basements where socially alienated teenagers become world-famous hackers.  The exploits themselves are fascinating: social engineering and exploitation, network penetration, data theft, d0xing, denial of service attacks, and many more.  For a nonfiction book, it has plenty of suspense.  I was constantly looking forward to learning what the next attack would be, and enjoyed the progressive revelation of the identities of Anonymous and LulzSec leaders–a subject about which I knew nothing.

The book is also fascinating from a national security and defense standpoint.  It forced me to do some deep thinking about how networks and headless organizations conduct themselves, and how to fight them.  Here are a few of my observations, with the caveat that they are based mostly on this one book.

The author challenges the idea that Anonymous has a powerful hive mind.  In the author’s view, the spread of this belief is one of Anonymous’ greatest feats of social engineering.  In actuality, Anonymous is a brand under which almost anyone can rally, and which has been subject to bitter infighting, splits, and even FBI informing by key members.  Any apparent hive intelligence is less the result of the crowds, and more a result of key leaders or teams within Anonymous.  For example, although hundreds of people participated in some key DDoS attacks, nearly all the computing firepower came from one or two botnet owners.

Following from this, even decentralized networks need leaders.  It’s hard to get anything done otherwise.  It’s interesting that after a period of creative anarchy, some key members of Anonymous broke off to form their own hacking group, LulzSec, which was smaller, more structured, and more disciplined.  Without this kind of centralized structure, groups are mostly limited to lone wolf or one-off attacks.

The very atmosphere of paranoia and anonymity is easy to exploit.  In a virtual environment where nobody knows your real identity, it’s easy for white hat hackers and government officials to roam freely.  The hackers know this, so groups are constantly jumping between communication networks and methods and new, tighter circles of trust are constantly being established and re-established.  As circles slowly expand and trust erodes, new circles form again.  It isn’t easy for groups to function like this.

The author highlights the extent to which core Anonymous hackers manipulated eager wannabes.  During large DDoS attacks, for example, core members encouraged Anons to use free, downloadable software that would allow them to participate in the attacks.  However, they downplayed the legal dangers and didn’t do much to help these less technologically adept recruits mask their identities.  The fun and games were over when the FBI knocked down their doors with arrest warrants.

I had no idea how banal and sordid Anonymous’ beginnings were.  The media plays up the “hacktivist” and libertarian spirit of Anonymous, so I was surprised to hear about the organization’s beginnings on 4chan–within subcommunities that essentially celebrated depravity as a means of escaping boredom.  That included everything from taunting pedophiles, to exploiting and blackmailing young women into sending nude pictures, to swapping photos of appalling violence.  When a new generation of members wanted to steer the hive efforts towards moral or civic goals, they were treated with disdain.  When LulzSec was born, it deliberately rejected crusading and focused on hacking/exploiting for the mere thrill of it.

It’s hard for decentralized organizations to have a coherent vision and mission.  Different individuals and subcommunities came to anonymous with different goals, and these subcommunities could fight bitterly over what they were trying to achieve.  As stated above, libertarian hacktivists collided with those who just hacked to lift themselves out of despair and boredom.

We should be careful when we claim, “it takes a network to fight a network.”  That’s true, but in the defense world, we should only go so far in trying to emulate decentralized networks.  They are fluid and responsive, but they also have severe handicaps.  We should seek hybrid models that allow rapid information sharing and decision-making, but still have strong executive “deciders” who can steer the organization towards a common purpose.

It only takes one mistake to blow your cover.  The Internet is designed in such a way that masking your identity is relatively easy, and a savvy hacker can count on anonymity.  For these reasons, attribution of attacks can be extremely difficult.  However, virtually everything on the net is logged and stored somewhere for future reference, and it only takes the tiniest slip to permanently expose your identity.  In the case of Sabu, one of the core members of LulzSec, a single logon to IRC without his anonymizing software momentarily exposed his IP address. That’s all it took.  So for persistent hackers, it seems like it’s just a matter of time.  Everybody is going to screw up sooner or later.

What you’d expect: many Anons are socially alienated young males living in their mother’s house.  Not all of them, but enough that we can make some hypotheses about why people join groups like Anonymous.  For some it’s really about libertarian ideals and the commitment to the free flow of information, but for others it’s probably not.

Finally, I constantly found myself comparing Anonymous to al-Qa’ida and other jihadi groups.  Not because they pose the same level of threat, but because so many of the organizational dynamics appear to be similar.

Doing disruption right

March 29, 2013 — 5 Comments

IR326 SampleIn my previous post, I told a story about doing disruption the wrong way.  I violated the principles that make disruptive thinking effective, with disastrous consequences.  In this post I’d like to share one time when I really got it right.

When I was a C-17 copilot, Google Earth was still relatively new and pilots in my squadron were trying to put it to work.  It was a great tool for visualizing 3D terrain, especially for airdrop run-ins in Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy to use; there was no way to link it to the DOD’s mission planning software (PFPS/FalconView), so pilots had to manually enter coordinates for each point.  I thought there had to be a better way.

I spent the next year developing a powerful software program that would convert PFPS data into a format readable by Google Earth.  By the time I was done, it could map routes, plot threats, and manage large collections of colorful 3D airspace.  I was extremely proud of the finished product, and released it through a slick website that included a PowerPoint briefing and capabilities demonstration.

The PFPS Google Earth Tool met a legitimate need, and spread quickly among the crew force.  Still, there were obstacles.  Google Earth wasn’t authorized on Air Force computers.  Most of us got around this by running GE from thumb drives, back when that was allowed (sort of), but it wasn’t an optimum solution.  It also wasn’t certified; I couldn’t guarantee the output was 100% accurate.  This was a rough tool to assist pilots, but nothing more.

As the tool caught on, I started getting phone calls.  A C-130 pilot had used GE to create orientation videos of the drop zone run-ins used by his unit.  He sent me a disk.  A Pentagon staff officer in charge of procuring geospatial tools wanted to use my work to build his case for procuring Google Earth.  A network administrator offered to migrate the tool to SIPRNET, so it could be used for classified missions.  The most important call came from a Major at a USAFA think tank known as the Institute for Information Technology Applications.  They were developing a suite of mission planning tools called Warfighter’s Edge (WEdge) and were intrigued by my work.  They paid for a TDY out ot USAFA, where I hung out with their coders and briefed the retired 4-star who ran the Institute.

Until this point, the software had been my baby.  I’d developed it singlehandedly, and was excited to see it take hold around the Air Force.  But I also knew that I was hitting the ceiling of my capabilities.  The WEdge team offered resources I didn’t have access to: a budget, an entire team of engineers and programmers, access to higher Air Force leadership, and the ability to get software products certified for Air Force use.  I made the painful decision to give them all my code, and transfer full responsibility for the product to their office.  In the year’s since, WEdge has integrated my work into a tool called WEdge Viewer.  It is now Air Force-sanctioned, certified for flight, and in use throughout the Air Force.

This was a success story, and it was a success because I obeyed the principles laid out in my essay.  I found allies (or rather, they found me).  We were able to persuade higher leaders in the Air Force, because we had an excellent product to “sell” and it was packaged well.  We offered something positive and constructive, that could meet legitimate needs.  My allies were able to work through difficult challenges, like flight certification and authorization for installation on government computers.

Most importantly (and most painfully) I was willing to share credit.  I let others run with my idea, and they made it into something great.  I’ll admit this hasn’t been easy.  The tool is in use across the Air Force now, but even my own peers now don’t know that I designed the initial application.  But hey, I changed something, and that’s pretty awesome.  Change in a large institution is always a team sport.

 

If you want to be a successful disruptive thinker, I’ll give you a little hint: if you humiliate your supervisors in front of their own bosses, make people cry, and get called behind closed doors for a dressing down, you’ve probably failed.

Yes, it really was that bad.

Let me give some background first.  First, I am a hard INTJ in the world of Meyers-Brigs personality types, meaning that I have a compulsive need to improve everything I come in contact with.  As you can probably imagine, that is a double-edged sword.  Second, before I began Arabic studies at the Defense Language Institute, I had been working as a Flying Safety Officer at my C-17 base.  That meant my entire job was dedicated to continual improvement.  My colleagues and I were constantly tweaking base processes to ensure maximum safety for aircraft operations.  If a mishap occurred, we ran investigations, identified causal findings, and made specific recommendations to reduce the chances of a similar mishap ever occurring again.  My entire job consisted of identifying areas for improvement, then making constructive recommendations.  Nothing about that, I thought, would be controversial in an organization that valued its own improvement.

When I began at DLI, the Arabic program was a work-in-progress.  The school had tripled in size since September 11th, and it had growing pains.  My classmates and I were appalled to discover that the pass rate at graduation was only 14%–so low that the DOD had to re-evaluate its Arabic DLPT.  Because teachers received merit pay linked to student DLPT scores, the entire school–from the lowest students to the highest administrators–was in a state of constant panic.  Methodology seemed to change every week or two.  Students were failing out left and right because they couldn’t handle the stress.  As for our curriculum, it was an experimental monstrosity of more than ten volumes that had just come out of production and had cost more than a million dollars.  It was terrible.

I though the administration might value some feedback, so I did exactly what I’d done as a flying safety officer: typed up a lengthy list of detailed concerns.  For each of them I listed specific, actionable recommendations that would mitigate the concern.  Nothing about this seemed controversial to me, and I ran it by my classmates before sending it up.  We focused our comments specifically on the curriculum, not on particular teachers or administrators.  I provided my feedback to our Military Training Leader, an NCO embedded within the mostly Arab, civilian faculty.  We all felt pretty good about ourselves for trying to make the organization better.

A few days later, I was stunned when I was called into our head teacher’s office–a wonderful mother-bear of a woman who loved us like her own children, but was as vicious and demanding as a drill sergeant.  She was crying.  “Yacoub,” she choked, using my Arabic name.  “What’s this?”  Then she held up a copy of my paper.  “I thought you liked us, Yacoub.”

Oops.

We suffered through a horrible day, as each of our hurt, confused teachers interrogated us about our “complaint.”  Later that afternoon, the administrator who supervised our teachers paid his first-ever visit to our class… to berate us for violating our chain of command, and complaining to the higher administration without coming to him first.

Here’s what had happened: the NCO had taken our feedback directly to the Dean, the head of the entire Arabic school.  The Dean had then called up his subordinate administrators, wanting to know what this was all about, and they were completely blindsided.  The NCO had also left a copy somewhere on the shared drive where, by complete coincidence, my teachers had stumbled across it. Even as the administration was exploding, the teachers were passing around copies of our “secret” complaint.  Everybody felt betrayed.  Even though our critique was focused on the curriculum, our teachers felt that we were complaining about them.  Both they and the junior administrators were humiliated in front of their bosses.  Even though we had intended our feedback as an impersonal means of organizational improvement, few of the civilians understood that.  This was also my first exposure to how complicated cross-cultural relationships can be.  These were teachers from cultural backgrounds in which personal honor was everything, and shame was an unbearable fate.

Damage control took weeks, and some relationships never recovered.  None of our recommendations were put into effect, although to her credit, our lead teacher tossed out the curriculum and began working late every night to create her own.

Epic, disruptive failure.

This was one of the most illuminating experiences of my life.  The INTJ profile says that we “do not readily grasp… social rituals”, which is extremely harsh but also–just maybe–a little bit true.  At the time I dwelled in a world of ideas, and naively thought that good ideas would stand on their own merit.  The inevitable response to our constructive critique, I thought, would be gratitude and implementation of our ideas.  Not so much.  We weren’t dealing with neutral ideas, I realized; we were dealing with people and feelings and careers and pride and shame.

In my SWJ article, the #1 principle for disruptive thinkers is this: “The goal is persuasion.”  That flows directly from this experience.  My classmates and I were in no position to implement our own recommendations.  We needed buy-in from teachers and administrators, so our goal should have been to persuade them.  That meant presenting them with good ideas, but it also meant constructing positive, trusting relationships in which we could sell our ideas as win-win opportunities.  Our failure to do that (which was largely my failure) led to one of the most awkward situations in my career.

I wish I could tell you I changed forever after that, but I’m not always the fastest learner.  In my next post in this series, I’ll share one more story.  Then, right around the time I’ve convinced you that I’m a hopeless idiot, I’ll share some of my positive experiences with creating change.

To complement my article Finding Common Ground: Harnessing Disruption for the Good of the Service, I will be writing a series of posts about my own personal efforts at “disruptive thinking” within the military.

I wish I could tell you that all my advice for disruptive junior officers is born of my own innate wisdom.  Alas, that’s not the case.  I learned most of these lessons the hard way.  In the coming posts, I’ll tell it all.

Only a few minutes after I commented sympathetically on Last Wishes of a Dying General, I read Crispin Burke’s devastating takedown.  The subsequent online discussion about both these pieces has given me a lot to think about.  Although Carr’s essay was received quite well among his readers and colleagues, Crispin’s critique resonated with many other officers, who see Carr’s piece as an arrogant, angry rant.

Because I know Carr and what he stands for, I didn’t read his piece that way.  I think a lot of his frustrations are legitimate, and believe he speaks for a lot of Air Force officers.

But as the discussion has continued, and I’ve had more time to reflect on it, it looks to me like Carr’s piece–and the reaction to it–exactly fits the unproductive cycle that I described in Finding Common Ground.

The essay violates several of the principles I suggest for disruptive officers who want to make a difference.  Its biggest fault is that it’s too personal, severely undermining its legitimate points.  It focuses on problems without proposing specific, actionable solutions.  Finally, it is written in a tone and manner that is not likely to persuade senior leaders.

On the other hand, I haven’t been impressed by some of the reactions from older, more senior officers.  I have seen little engagement with Carr’s concerns, or acknowledgement that these concerns are widespread in the Air Force.  Instead, I’ve seen assaults on Carr’s character, statements of good riddance, and dismissals of his critique on the basis that the private sector is worse.

All of this is quite disappointing, so once again, I point to the suggestions for both junior and senior officers in my essay.  These debates need to move forward in positive, constructive ways and I see responsibilities on both sides.

My friend and former Air Force colleague Tony Carr has written a thought-provoking new piece about dysfunctional Air Force culture, titled Last Wishes of a Dying General.  Tony was a Major when I was a young captain and one of the fastest burners I’ve ever seen in the Air Force.  Air Force Intern program, weapons school, SAASS, you name it… he’d done it all, and anyone who knew him would tell you that he was going to be a general, probably with more than one star.  Then, after completing his squadron command, this would-be general stunned everybody who knew him by separating.  This article explains why, and it has everything to do with the ongoing “disruptive thinking” and “bleeding talent” discussion.

In my recent essay Finding Common Ground, I wrote that it’s not especially helpful to talk about the “best and the brightest” leaving in frustration.  However, this really is an example of the best and brightest leaving in frustration.

I won’t repeat Tony’s points here–you should read his essay for yourself–but I want to hit on a couple tangential issues.

First: most of these frustration/disillusionment discussions have focused on the U.S. Army.  I thought it was obvious that these issues are common to the services, so I was shocked to hear a recently retired Air Force general tell me that this was an Army-only issue.  When I pressed him and offered up numerous stories from my own experience, he told me that I was guilty of projecting my own narrow perspective, then finally suggested that perhaps Air Mobility Command was this way, but we’re oddballs because we have such good career prospects on the outside with the airlines.  I couldn’t believe he actually thought that.  The Air Force is boiling with frustration, and Tony’s essay–and the extensive commentary on it–gives us a glimpse of what personnel are talking about across the Air Force on their lunch breaks or at Flight Level 350.

Second, senior leader response.  Shortly after its publication, this article appeared on an e-mail discussion list that I participate in, one which has many senior military leaders.  Only one senior leader (retired) responded, with a disparaging comment about how if Tony really cared about the Air Force, he would have stayed in to make a difference.  On the one hand, I was once again dismayed by how many senior leaders are content to blow off the exodus of talent–one of the primary reasons I wrote my essay.  On the other hand, I recognize the importance of this point.

Somebody raised this same point in the comments section of Tony’s blog: why don’t you stay in so you can be part of the solution?  Tony’s response is one of the best I’ve seen.  I’ll post it in its entirety:

The reason I ran a 9-yard route is pretty simple. I took a look at what my boss was doing and realized I had zero desire to do it. Then I looked at what his boss was doing and realized I had even less than zero. The problems outlined in this post (and many more not in this post) were so intractable, and the authority to address them at my level and 1-2 echelons above so limited, that I could see very little prospect for “difference making” in the next 5-10 years. My career was always driven by making a difference, which most successful careers are. Thus, it was simple to me … if I can’t make a difference for the next decade in this system, it’s too broken to ask my family to endure what that decade would mean. Most people willing to stay under such conditions are the type who don’t think they can do anything else with their lives … hence the dynamic you describe.

The notion of unfinished business will always haunt me. But I concluded I could probably make a bigger difference from the outside than from within. Many others have felt the same and acted accordingly. I’ll tell you what might make me different … had I been free to write an article this vocal (or speak these words in a boardroom this clearly) without being either professionally ostracized or cast aside as a malcontent … I would have been much more likely to stay. Behind all of this dysfunction is a drive for mental conformity that prevents us from talking openly about, let alone solving, our problems.

At the risk of being labeled a malcontent myself, these paragraphs literally make me ache because they ring so true.  I am driven by that same impulse to make a positive impact on the world, but when I look ahead, I feel despair at the prospects of making a difference within the existing system.  Tony is exactly right: the argument that “you should stay in to make a difference” breaks down, if the system is so rigid that it can’t be changed except from the very top.

As for me, I’m still young and plan to stay in for a while.  I owe the Air Force a lot, especially because it’s entrusted me with a spectacular education.  But the Air Force isn’t making it easy for me, and I earnestly hope that senior leaders somewhere are reading essays like Tony’s and paying attention.

My new article is now available on Small Wars Journal, Finding Common Ground: Harnessing Disruption for the Good of the Service.  It is about how disruptive junior officers and their senior leaders can work together for the continual improvement of their organizations.

If you are visiting Building Peace for the first time from SWJ, welcome!  I began this website to chronicle my time as an Olmsted scholar, and multiply the impact of my education.  Although Olmsted is now behind me, this site continues to follow my ongoing education as a student of war and peace… and whatever else catches my interest.

I love a good post-apocalyptic novel.  The Road shook this young father to the core, and over the years I’ve enjoyed watching the world destroyed countless times over in various ways: alien invasions, plagueescaped biological weapons, economic ruin, gamma ray bursts, and nuclear weapons, just to name a few.  The breakdown of society is a favorite theme in my own writing as well.  My novel The Lords of Harambee is about a peacekeeping operation on a hellish world torn apart by economic ruin and genocide, and my current work-in-progress is about the rapid dissolution of an empire.  It isn’t the ruin I necessarily enjoy; it’s watching human beings stripped down to their essential nature, then fighting to survive and to build something new and good.

So I’ll never shy away from a promising post-apocalyptic novel, but when I downloaded the Audible version of The Grapes of Wrath, that was hardly what I was expecting.  I had fallen in love with East of Eden a couple years ago, and was looking for an equally powerful experience.  I had read “The Grapes of Wrath” in High School and despised it, but I’ve spent my adult years rediscovering and falling in love with many of those books I’d been too young to appreciate.  So when I returned to this novel, I had some idea of what was in store.  However, I was deeply surprised, midway through the book, when I realized I was listening to one of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels ever written.

This is a beautiful and compassionate book, and the Audible version is phenomenal.  Despite a huge cast of characters, the narrator brings each of the main characters to life with a diverse range of believable voices, and does an excellent job managing the many secondary characters. I couldn’t wait to get into the car at the end of each workday, so I could listen to another segment.  But make no mistake: this novel is also brutal.  In the Audible version, the listener has more than 21 hours to witness the tragic dissolution of the Joad family.  By the end, I just wanted it to be over.  I didn’t remember much about the book from High School, but I did remember how it ended, and I knew it wasn’t well.

There are no alien invasions or stray asteroids, but this is John Steinbeck’s apocalypse.  It is nothing less than the destruction of America, and the members of the Joad family are the classic post-apocalyptic survivors, inching their way across a tortured landscape in search of a better future.  Merciless corporations, a runaway financial system, and weak or oppressive government institutions have conspired to make life unbearable for the average American.  While the upper crust of society grows impossibly rich, the masses eek out miserable lives, simply trying to survive.  Many of them don’t, and we watch their downfall in painful slow motion.

Steinbeck’s critique of capitalism might be overstated.  After all, the 20th century was not exactly a race to the bottom, and our lives today are substantially better today thanks to the innovation made possible by a capitalist system.

However, Steinbeck’s devastated world looks uncomfortably familiar today, at a time when something is so clearly broken in American society.  We live in an era when wealth disparity is growing rapidly, and when neither capitalism nor the American government serves the common interest.  The middle class is disappearing, and the masses struggle to stay afloat in the face of the new economic and political reality: crushing debt, unaffordable higher education, disappearing jobs, dysfunctional governance, totalitarian surveillance, unjust legal systems, and dwindling government services.  Thankfully most of us aren’t reduced to the misery and desperation of Steinbeck’s world, but the novel is haunting and familiar for those of us who are worried about where our country is headed.

With all that said, Steinbeck makes one significant deviation from most post-apocalyptic novels.  In the majority of these novels, humanity descends into Mad Max barbarism; every man is for himself, and every stranger is a likely enemy.  Many of today’s survivalists, who anticipate a rapid collapse of society, hoard food and ammo so they can ride out the end of the world in fortified isolation.  But as John Robb pointed out in a blog post I’ve since lost track of, collapsing societies don’t always turn every man against the others; in most cases, neighbors band together to survive.  As national institutions crumble, local ones become essential.  Read the news about Syria, and you’ll read stories about neighborhoods forming local councils to tackle urgent problems and women smuggling medicine into besieged communities.  Anyone who has visited a war zone will testify to these remarkable stories of compassion and bravery.  This is how human beings ride out the end of the world: with every act of terror or tyranny matched by an act of courage or kindness.

“The Grapes of Wrath” illustrates this beautifully.  Despite the horrific world that Steinbeck has created, the weary, destitute refugees show extraordinary generosity to one another.  No man survives at another’s expense.  Every last crust of bread is shared, every favor returned.  At one point Ma says, “I’m learin’ one thing good…If you’re in trouble or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.”  The contrast between rich and poor in the novel is striking, and perhaps exaggerated–but it also rings true, just as Orwell’s treatment of poverty did for me.  Steinbeck succeeded in unsettling this reader’s conscience.

So when you’re planning for the end of the world, don’t limit yourself to stockpiling ammo.  Consider the possibilities for cooperation, generosity, and kindness despite the terror.  And if you’ve had all of the Zombie fiction that you can possibly handle, consider a less orthodox interpretation of the Apocalypse.  Steinbeck’s slow unraveling of American civilization will make you stop and think, and it will absolutely make you feel.

Nathan Lean’s The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims is an important addition to the cultural conversation about Islam in America. I follow this conversation with interest, because as a graduate student in Jordan, I wrote my master’s thesis about different narratives about Islam in the United States. In particular, I focused on the relationship between language and power. I read dozens of books from across the spectrum, from Islam’s most ardent defenders to its most vitriolic critics. My research confirmed by sense that so much of the debate about Islam isn’t fully honest. It is less concerned with debating meaningful issues than with attempting to dominate the debate and squelch dissent. In general, I find this to be true of both “Islamophobes” and “apologists.”

This book fits within my overall sense of the debate. It is an apologetic work, dedicated to defending Muslims by destroying the credibility of Islam’s fiercest opponents. The author offers a relentless exposé of the sheer ugliness of individuals like Pamella Gellar, who profit from and take a perverse delight in hatemongering. This critique is important and necessary. Although I believe many Americans have legitimate concerns about Islam, at some point I have to call a spade a spade: many of the individuals who get involved in this debate are hateful, ignorant bigots. Lean exposes some of them, as well as the financial incentives undergirding their little empire. That is the book’s main strength.

But the book suffers from the same deficiency that so many other apologetic works do; it doesn’t engage at all with legitimate questions or concerns that non-Muslims have about Islam. To cite just one example, Lean tells us how terrible it is that Islamophobic organizations distribute material claiming that Muhammad slept with a nine year-old. However, he never engages with the fact that this tidbit is actually true, according to early Islamic sources. Nor does he engage with problematic aspects of shariah codified in classical Islamic jurisprudence. He writes off concerns about Islamic organizations in the US, despite extensive documentation that many of these groups grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood. The “Islamophobic industry” blows many of these things out of proportion, and I think honest analysis would dissipate many fears, but I don’t find approaches like Lean’s particularly helpful. Pamella Gellar and Robert Spencer may be hatemongers, but they are so successful because their work finds traction among average Americans who see things in Islam that legitimately concern them. Blowing off those concerns will not help things; what this debate needs is more patient, honest discussion about these critical issues. Perhaps Lean would argue that such discussion is beyond the scope of his book, but if he really wants to disarm the Islamophobes, this is where the conversation must go.

Lean’s book does a service in exposing the worst aspects of the Islamophobic industry, but I fear it will only speak to an audience that already agrees with him. Those who have sincere questions or concerns about Islam will find little to satisfy them, and will need to look elsewhere for answers.

This is part II of my series of language learning strategy.  Read part I here.

In my view, the single most important thing to growing foreign language comprehension is the consumption of large amounts of comprehensible input.  Memorizing vocabulary words in isolation won’t get you far; it is far better to read and listen to language in a natural context, to get acclimated to the “flow” and hear how words and phrases are actually used.  In my “clear, hold, build” strategy, I call this “clearing.”  Your goal is to clear as much comprehensible input as possible.

This material should be at the “i+1″ level, where “i” is your current knowledge base.  In other words, you want to consume material that mostly consists of words you already know, but that also pushes you to the next level.

So where do you find new material to clear?

If you’re just beginning a new language, brute force memorization of vocabulary is probably inevitable.  However, there are better and worse ways to tackle this challenge.  I plan to explain my Anki flow in a future post, but it essentially goes like this: when I started Turkish, I create a word template with four fields: English, Turkish, EnglishExample, and TurkishExample.  My flashcards contain both the word and the example, and I strive to embed audio whenever possible.  The result, if done properly, is a flashcard deck with full-audio example sentences.  This deck is extremely versatile, because in the future it’s easy to experiment with different flashcard structures…. for example, cutting out the English entirely and simply showing the Turkish word on one side and the Turkish example sentence on the other.

As you are beginning your new language you can also look for phrases to memorize.  I am a huge fan of Pimsleur language courses as a first step in learning a new language, as these programs use the “i+1″ principle to help you clear a significant amount of material.  They are expensive, but your local library might have them.  Another good source of material is phrasebooks, especially ones that include audio CDs.  For example, In Flight Turkish is a 60-minute CD that consists entirely of common phrases and words.  You will need a system to memorize and practice the material, but the phrases themselves are perfect for “clearing.”  My preferred technique is to use Audacity to strip out the audio for individual phrases, then create flashcards for them in Anki.

As your knowledge grows, your options increase and also become significantly more interesting.  You will obviously want to look for material that suits your current skill level, but you can also use more challenging material if you can somehow make it comprehensible.  For listening texts, that means having access to a written transcript.  And for difficult written texts, it means having access to an English translation.  Such materials make up the majority of my Arabic intake.

BBC is a great place to start, because news articles are written in a simple, direct style with easy vocabulary.  A variety of web browser plugins will give you real-time translation of words or phrases that you don’t know, meaning that if you have a certain baseline skill level, almost any webpage can become comprehensible input.  The vast majority of my early Arabic learning came from reading BBC Arabic with a browser plugin.  I have used several, but my current plugin is Franker for Safari.  I also use the Franker app for my iPhone and iPad.

Don’t underestimate Google.  If you are learning about a specific topic, like getting around an airport, it’s easy to Google “مطار” or “havaalanı” and find websites for major airports.  You’ll certain to see many of your new vocabulary words in context.

Parallel texts are incredibly useful.  Most holy texts like the Bible and Qur’an are available in parallel languages.  Many foreign affairs-related reports, such as those from International Crisis Group, are available in multiple languages.  You can also find books written in parallel languages.  In Jordan I was thrilled to discover a vast series of classic English-language novels (many of them simplified for children, some not) translated into Arabic, with the two languages on facing pages.  They are even rated by difficulty level.  I amassed a huge collection of these novels, and they continue to play an important part in developing my reading comprehension.  I have yet to find anything similar in Turkish, although I did discover some bilingual children’s books in the DLI library.  I also have both the English and Turkish versions of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, so when my Turkish improves I could conceivably study with the two copies side by side.

When it comes to listening, I’m always on the lookout for material that has transcripts.  If you are in the military or are affiliated with a university, you likely have access to SCOLA, which publishes weekly mini-lessons in many languages. Each lesson includes an MP3 and MP4 news clip, a native transcript, an English transcript, and a vocabulary list.  These are perfect for comprehensible input.

Every once in a while you can stumble across a goldmine.  Rob of the now-defunct Arab Media Shack introduced me to the transcript collection on Al Jazeera.  The website has a huge collection of full-length TV episodes, with complete transcripts attached.  More recently, I was delighted to discover a huge repository of dialect clips with bilingual transcripts attached.

Movies with subtitles are another source of comprehensible input.  For example, the web TV series Beirut I Love You has dozens of short episodes in Lebanese, subtitled in English.  And although I could only find one episode with subtitles, the famous Turkish melodrama Gümüş is available on YouTube.  Another great resources is Viki, which lets users crowdsource subtitles for foreign-language movies, TV shows, and music videos.

Lastly, there is no substitute for spending time with native speakers, especially in native contexts.  A good language tutor or partner can make language comprehensible by offering explanations or clarifications when necessary.