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The car that hated vanilla ice cream!

November 1, 2010 4 comments

I was speaking to a colleague today and he commented that the terrorists who tried to send a bomb from the Yemen to a Chicago synagogue were pretty stupid. His view was that any package sent from the Yemen to a synagogue in the US would be suspect – and so the terrorists had to be stupid.

In competitive intelligence it is important not to make assumptions – and assuming that your competitor is stupid is one of the most dangerous assumptions you can make. It is possible that they are stupid. Alternatively, it is also feasible that they see things differently from you – and their viewpoint may be rational and logical from their perspective. Effective competitive intelligence should always involve you trying to see things from the perspective of your competitor rather than from your own, possibly subjective and biased standpoint.

I cannot really understand the rationale of the Yemeni terrorists sending their bomb, presumably intended to blow up en-route, with an address of a synagogue. It does seem stupid – but that is because I am not an Islamist terrorist. However trying to see things from that perspective I could envisage a conversation such as this:

Terrorist 1: So what address shall we use – something that would not be suspicious?”
Terrorist 2: How about a synagogue – the Jews control the USA / World so they must get lots of mail. Also they need to print their subversive material so won’t suspect our fake printer cartridges packed with explosives.
Terrorist 1: Good idea – which synagogue?
Terrorist 2: Obama came from Chicago. Let’s find the synagogue that he would take orders from….

Of course belief in a Jewish world conspiracy is nonsense, as is the idea that President Obama takes orders from a Jewish cabal. However that is not the opinion of large parts of the Moslem world – who sincerely believe in this, and that the 9-11 destruction of the Twin Towers was a Jewish plot, etc. If that is your world view, then sending suspect packages to a synagogue probably is completely logical and rational and the best way to ensure that they don’t raise suspicion.

The point is, that even if your enemy IS stupid, they will act based on their own warped rationale. In order to anticipate their actions you need to try and see things as they see them. This is even more important if in fact you are the one who is wrong – as in that case, switching your viewpoint should allow you to spot where your mistakes actually are.

There is a great story that illustrates this point – that what seems crazy may in fact not be. The story is apocryphal – and may be true.

Several years ago, the Pontiac Division of General Motors received a complaint:


     This is the second time that I have written to you. I don’t blame
     you for not answering my first letter as I must have sounded crazy.


     In our family, we have a tradition of having ice cream for desert after
     dinner each night. Every night, after we’ve eaten, we vote on which
     kind of ice cream to have – and I drive down to our local store to
     buy it. I recently purchased a new Pontiac and since then I’ve had a
     problem when I go to the ice cream store. Every time I buy vanilla
     ice cream and go back to my car it won’t start. If I buy any other
     type it starts first time. I realise this sounds insane but it’s true.


     Please help me understand what it is that makes my Pontiac fail
     to start when I purchase vanilla ice cream and easy to start with
     any other type.

The complaints department was naturally skeptical about this letter. However it was obviously written by somebody educated who knew how to write clearly and lucidly. Furthermore the area the writer came from was an affluent area – and a Pontiac is not a cheap car. They decided to take it seriously and an engineer was sent to investigate. The engineer arranged to meet the man just after dinner time – and the two drove to the ice cream store. That night, the vote had been for vanilla ice cream – and just as the man had said, the car wouldn’t start. Bemused, the engineer returned the following night – and the night after that. The car started first time – the votes had been for chocolate on the first night, and strawberry the second night. The fourth night, the choice was again for vanilla – and the car failed to start.

The engineer now realised that there was a problem that needed identification and fixing. He started to log what happened from the moment they arrived at the store – arrival time, time taken to make the purchase, and several other factors. Soon he had a clue – purchases of vanilla ice cream took less time than the other flavours. The reason was that the freezer containing vanilla ice cream was at the front of the store near a quick purchase till,  while other flavours were at the back and required lining up to get checked out.

Quickly the engineer realised that this was the answer to the problem – not the ice cream flavour, but the time required. When purchasing vanilla ice cream there was a vapour lock which prevented the car restarting. With the other flavours, there was sufficient time for the engine to cool down, allowing vapour to dissipate and the car to restart.

Of course the moral of the story is that even if something sounds crazy it may not be. Competitive Intelligence analysts should always bear this in mind when they look at a competitor and fail to understand why they are doing something that seems stupid.

Reading the news

June 18, 2010 Leave a comment

In 1979 I visited Turkey for the first time. I like Turkey – it’s a great and beautiful country with lots of history. It also shows how Islam and extremism don’t go hand-in-hand and how an Islamic country can also be a liberal democracy. Like all free countries, it has its share of extremists who spout forth nonsense that would guarantee a jail sentence or death in the autocracies that govern most of the world. However that is not what this post is about – although Turkey is the seed for the post.

It was August 1979, and I was backpacking, staying in cheap hostels. A standard item of conversation back then was whether it was safe to travel through Afghanistan on the overland route to India. Turkey was one of the first stopping places on this route that travelled through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and on to India.
From a 1970s Trailfinders brochure showing suggested routes to India
Travellers were talking about the attacks on tourists journeying through the country and how some tourist buses had been shot at.

A postcard sent to me by a friend I’d met when travelling through Europe who wanted to go on the overland routes to India. Karla had hoped to go through Afghanistan but as I’ve highlighted, felt it wasn’t safe. This postcard was sent the day before the Iran hostage crisis and shows the atmosphere in Iran at the time.

I knew nothing about Afghanistan at all and when I got back to the UK started to read up. There was very little in the press – and certainly no headlines. However reading between the lines, I realised that not only was there a civil war going on, but that this was threatening the Southern borders of the Soviet Union. The situation was unstable and something had to happen.
Over Christmas in 1979, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan with the aim of bringing back order to the country. The Soviet aim was not to colonise the country but to prevent the ferment from spreading and leading to sectarian movements on the Soviet borders. However that is not how the world, led by the USA saw things. This was the time of the cold war. Any way that the West could score points against the Soviet bear was legitimate. The initial response was massive anti-Soviet propaganda, ignoring the initial context. Later on, the US funded the Mujahaddin fighting against the Soviets, including Osama Bin Ledin – a case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
My response however was different. I saw that the Soviet incursion had been an obvious solution to a problem that they faced, and that the correct approach was to treat it as such, rather than as a global problem. Afghanistan had been a flashpoint that the world had seemingly ignored. It led, eventually, to the break-up of the Soviet Union, when it became impossible to hide the costs in both lives and money by the secretive Soviets. I believe that Perestroika and the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union was partially a result of the Soviet’s Afghan adventure.
The point of all this is that newspapers publish
  1. what their editors view as of interest to their readership
  2. news when they have sufficient information for a story.
This is important for competitive intelligence, business analysis and common sense. Without this realisation people are likely to jump to incorrect conclusions based on what they read. The only way to read a newspaper is to question each story and ask why it was published – to understand the hidden agenda.
When there is insufficient information or where it is dangerous for journalists to publish a news story, then however potentially important that news story is, it won’t get published. That is why so few bad news stories highlighting lack of freedom, atrocities and so on are published on the autocracies that rule much of the world. Instead, news focuses on countries where there is a relative freedom to publish, and journalists can report on what is happening unimpeded by the authorities.
If something is not fashionable then it won’t be published or what is published will correspond to what people want to read. This is the case with much reporting on Israel. Israel is now seen as a “shitty little country” (as described by a former French Ambassador to the UK). It’s definitely not fashionable to support it – despite the fact that it is the only full democracy in its region with a free and functioning press, Arab parliamentarians, and equal rights for all its citizens. It has also been at war for over 60 years – with its enemies being countries that, in general, are totalitarian and that imprison, torture and execute dissenters. It has been attacked with missiles fired daily at its cities, yet is lambasted when it responds – most recently by blockading the territories from where the missiles were fired (Gaza). Israel is condemned for trying to protect its citizens and for fighting a territory ruled by a group, Hamas, that is viewed as a terrorist group by Western countries, including the US, the EU, Japan and Canada.
In contrast to the situation in Israel – where every action is microscopically analysed and hits the headlines, much less appears on newspaper front pages and as headline news about the very recent massacres of Uzbeks in Kyrygyzstan. Virtually nothing came out about the Syrian destruction of the city of Hama in 1982, in contrast to the blanket reporting of the events at Sabra & Chatila in the same year. Even in this case, Israel is blamed for the actual attacks while in reality the massacre was carried out by Christian Phalangists in revenge for earlier attacks on them by the Palestinians. The reason for all these examples is that much less information was available from Syria and Kyrygyzstan. Both countries don’t have the free press that Israel has, and in both cases, publishing such news could lead to the journalists being arrested, and probably tortured or killed. As a result very little is seen.
The same selectivity appears in the business press too. Currently BP is under the spotlight for its responsibility for the US oil spill. Although I’m sure that BP bears much of the blame for this disaster, very little has been written about the other companies involved including Transocean and Halliburton. Although BP was the largest shareholder in the well, Texas based Anadarko Petroleum owned a quarter and the Mitsui Oil Exploration Company via its MOEX Offshore subsidiary owned 10%. Transocean owned the rig and of the 126 people working on the rig, 79 were Transocean employees (against only 7 BP employees). Halliburton cemented into place the casing for the well that blew. In fact, the other companies bear some of the blame – if only by not ensuring that best practice was followed and allowing BP to cut corners (if that is what happened). The US regulator, the Minerals Management Service, that had approved the well should also shoulder some responsibility.
It is now fashionable to attack BP – with President Obama (showing an anti-British prejudice), referring to the company as British Petroleum, when the correct name has been BP for many years, reflecting the fact that more of its employees are American than British (BP has 23,000 US employees and under half that number of British employees. Of its 9 senior executive members there are more non-UK members than UK ones with four US positions). The problem is that sometimes it is better for those in power to hide the truth – whether they run a company or a country.
Competitive Intelligence means looking behind the news and doing an analysis to find the truth. That is not the role of newspapers. Their role is simple: to sell and make profits for their owners. If that means subjective reporting, then so be it. Fortunately the quality press sometimes does publish unfashionable news stories and carries out independent analysis. An excellent recent example is an article by Jose Maria Aznar – the Prime Minister of Spain between 1996-2004. Aznar writes (in the London Times – 17 June 2010) about Israel and how failure to support Israel threatens Western values overall. He states that the Gaza episode “is a distraction” and that “Israel is the West’s best ally in a turbulent region“. A shame that there is not more analysis of this type. As this is what true objectivity involves.
Proof of Aznar’s thesis can easily be found. For example, a recent Twitter tweet lamented the loss to the Moslem world of Andalucia, and advocated the route of the martyr, and reaching for life in the hereafter in preference to life in this one.

@Jnoubiyeh the second we lost andalus we lost dignity. wars came 2 remind us again. We lost it was when we chose this life over hereafter

Unfortunately publicising such views are unfashionable and often suppressed – so instead we draw incorrect conclusions and victimise the victim (e.g. Israel) and praise the oppressor (e.g. Hamas).

A tale of two countries

December 18, 2009 Leave a comment

I’ve just read the story of James Bain who was freed after DNA evidence proved that he was innocent. Bain was apparently convicted on the evidence of a line-up despite other evidence not linking him to the crime he was accused of. Of course Bain is not white – and so the US justice system – certainly that from 35 years ago – was prejudiced against him.

Contrast this to the cries against the Italian justice system that has just convicted an American citizen and her Italian boyfriend of a brutal murder – also based on DNA evidence. In the case of Amanda Knox and Rafaelle Sollecito it wasn’t just DNA evidence either. There were bloodied footprints, erratic behaviour post-murder with changing and inconsistent stories, evidence of antagonism between Knox and her victim, plus more.
Too often, the American legal system seems prejudiced against those least able to defend themselves – look at the differences in the ethnicity of people sentenced to death versus those who escape a capital sentence.
Now contrast this to the Italian legal system where a white, affluent Italian, and his white affluent girl-friend were treated equally to Rudy Guede, a black Ivory Coast accused – sentenced earlier.
The only bias here is not the Italian legal system but the Americans who believe that you can only get justice in the USA, and that the Italian legal system and the judgement is flawed.
If this was the only example of hypocrisy emanating from the US it could be excused – but unfortunately it isn’t. Another example is the US “justice” system’s hounding of Gary McKinnon – an Asperger sufferer who has been accused of exposing weaknesses in US military computers and so has to be sentenced so that those who failed to protect the system can get off free.
So what has this to do with competitive intelligence? Maybe nothing – on the surface. However if you think about, a lot. As it shows how important it is to remain objective – unlike with Gary McKinnon; to avoid prejudice – as was shown with the Bain case and also the objections to the Knox case; and to ensure that there are multiple lines of evidence before coming to a conclusion and making a decision – as in the Knox case but not in the Bain case.
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