August 2007

You turn on the nightly news. You see a burning car in a foreign country. Ambulances carry away bloody bodies while angry men scream at the camera. You change the channel. You hear a story of a beautiful blonde college girl gone missing on vacation. You change the channel again and listen to a story of a schoolbus accident in California.

If anyone makes an argument based on those examples, they are using the appeal to emotion fallacy. But what is the effect on you, the viewer? Even if you distrust these stories and believe they are sensational exaggerations of rare events, they still impact your impression of reality.

After seeing a vivid event, you believe that such events are more frequent than they really are. In fact, if I was a beautiful blonde college girl I would be too terrified to go on a vacation.

I want to propose a simple model of the dynamics of insurgencies. In traditional warfare, two or more states will directly fight one another to achieve victory. Insurgencies defy this framework, not because insurgents avoid fighting, but because the victory objectives are substantially different.

In an insurgency, two or more forces compete for control over a common resource and objective – the civilian population. The insurgents organize to change the status quo. They have to win the support of the civilians by any means in order to gain victory.

Insurgent and government forces need a civilian “ecology” to gather resources, material, and intelligence to win.

Tyler Cowen reviews Charles Karelis’ Persistence of Poverty which describes why economic ideas from wealthier individuals and societies do not help the poor. The problem is not the amount of money or lack of effort.

The poor, due to their position, have different marginal preferences than the rest of us.

Most murder victims are criminals, not random innocents. In Baltimore 91% of murder victims were criminals. Other cities collected similar statistics.

Most crimes are not random or pointless. Most criminal activity is a violent competitive business – like gangs running drug operations.

As a matter of speculation, how can you shut down a nation-state with a series of highly targetted strikes? Why would I do this? I don’t want to. I’m merely pointing out how.

Economic systems are vulnerable to disruptive attacks. This won’t break the state itself, but it can impoverish it. In particular, I would look for system infrastructure that is old, has a high failure rate, and is in high demand.

Chinese officers and American officers are thinking along the same lines. The Chinese call this unrestricted warfare; Americans are calling it 4th Generation Warfare. Terrorism as a tactic failed. Now we’re seeing insurgents become more creative by attacking civilian economic networks rather than civilians. So let’s imagine ourselves as clever insurgents. What can we easily attack that can seriously harm out nation-state enemies?

Nuance is supposed to be about subtle distinctions between ideas. It describes complex things rather than simple ones. And it is almost always wrong.

Practitioners of nuance presume that more subtle and complicated answers are superior to simple and concrete answers. In reality, nuance relies on logical fallacies which  lead to wrong answers.

Californians will decide on a proposal to allocate electoral votes to the winners of Congressional Districts rather than a state-wide winner take all vote. A Field poll shows surprisingly strong support for the idea: 47% of registered votes supported the reform while 35% oppossed. Explaining the partisan disadvantages makes more Democrats oppose the plan, but even then 49% support it and 42% oppose.

It’s a good idea but only if other states like Texas make the same reform. Maine and Nebraska already use the Congressional District system.

Speculating about others’ motives is a dangerous action. It leads us to wrong conclusions while ignoring the empirical consequences.

When someone disagrees with us on an important issue, we often assume they have an evil motivation. When someone agrees with us, they are kind and intelligent people.

Shankar Vedantam’s recent articleDisagree about Iraq? You’re Evil shows how pervasive these beliefs are.

LTC Grossman’s story of sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs is something of a classic essay for military and police men.

When I was younger, I was always fascinated by how things worked. I wanted to know how technology worked, how the economy worked, how any system worked. But I wasn’t going to be an engineer or an economist.
My second thought was always “how do I break it?”
My third thought was “how do I stop someone from breaking it?” Asking the third question made me think like a sheepdog. Soon I’ll be trained as one.

The city continues to sink due to natural causes. This is what happens on River Deltas. Meanwhile, the NOLA Levee system is still defective and may fail again.

The government pumped $127 billion and accomplished little. Right now, we should encourage more people to leave the city and reduce it to a safer lever (around 50,000). The risks are severe so insurance rates should climb, unless the government uses price controls to stop “abusive price gouging” so people will underestimate risk and drown instead.

This is an old Edge essay, but still relevant. Jaron Lanier warns of hive mentality. Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism
His intro:

“The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it? [Wikipedia] is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it’s now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn’t make it any less dangerous.

Read it all.

China is running out of skilled workers and wages are rising, which means the prices of manufactured goods will rise too. This is starting to happen in India as well. China and India are undergoing the same process Japan did in the past.

OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. Commanders have limited information and limited time in their decision-making process. Col. John Boyd describes a dynamic decision-making (pdf) to outperform your enemies.

OODA is designed to overcome wicked problems relating to friction and enemy action.

And for all our politicians:

Heartland has a list of good geopolitical maps.

For example: Jihadi Bases, World Energy Flows, Iran’s strategic provinces, A possible Iran War, and many more.
Here’s one that makes an important point: Iraq Sunnis control the oil pipelines and energy flows in Iraq. The oil and gas fields are in the Kurdish and Shia portions of Iraq, but the flow passes through Sunni dominated territory.

Before we get carried away with a wave of “power-laws here there and everywhere!” craziness, we have to stop and test our conjectures. Here’s one paper that tests a large number of conjectures: Power-law distributions in empirical data

Sometimes the data tricks you by creating an illusion of a power-law distribution. This could be the result of incomplete or biased samples, or different mechanisms which produce something that superficially looks like an self-organized power-law but is just random.

Here’s the Investigative Project on Terrorism website, run by Steven Emerson (from the Counterterrorism blog).

It’s dedicated to militant Islamist organizations and their public relations front organizations.
And check out the US terror map. Those are just uncovered cells. We’ve had a lot of misses.

Col. Austin Bay describes Gen. Petraeus’s September as a “pivotal strategic gambit.” Truly we’re in a strange world where media events matter more than the battlefield.

But then, warfare was never very deadly in first place. It was always about perceptions. Can Petraeus win? Or will he be ignored by those who prefer fantasies?

Grand Strategies are not a plan of action, so much as a general process to handle a problem. They must be flexible and adaptable to changes in enemy behavior. The best strategy to combat the Islamist Global Insurgency is to attack its ideological center of gravity, rather than its organizations. The Grand Strategy is one of Disaggregation. We must aggressively drive wedges between enemy factions in this war.

Ideological Wars

“The fight against the enemy nearest to you has precedence over the fight against the enemy farther away… In all Muslim countries the enemy has the reins of power. The enemy is the present rulers.” – Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj

There is a civil war going on in the Muslim world for the past 80 years.

Next Page »