REVIEW: Taleb's "Black Swan"
After resting comfortably in my "anti-library" for many weeks, I recently plucked The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb from my dusty nightstand. Since I was embarking on cross-continental flights (albeit with kids), I was looking forward to punctuating the drink-and-peanut monotony of Southwest Airlines (an airline woefully unequipped for flights longer than 90 minutes) with Taleb's insights.
Since my days as a civilian employee of the U.S. Navy, where I evolved from an aspiring systems engineer to a "Science Advisor" to a manager leading the "Red Team" at U.S. Joint Forces Command J9, I have been fascinated with the prospect of "adversarial surprise". Like most analytical efforts under the loose employ of the Pentagon (which has roughly one government civilian employee [tail] for every two active duty soldiers/sailors/airmen/Marines [tooth]), this was a cottage industry.
Taleb's insights echo many of our observations in the Joint Experimentation program, particularly regarding the hubris of intellectualism. His skepticism of inductive logic, his emphasis on the importance of context in perceiving information, and his lionization of Doktor Prof. Sir Karl Raimund Popper (whom I had the pleasure of driving from leland stanfurd junior u. to Cal some 20 years ago in my Nissan Sentra) as well as Henri Poincaré are worthy of note.
However, his self-referential anecdotes are reminiscent of a Tolstoy novel, and his clear disdain for planning (née prediction) creates a scotoma that pulls him into the same abyss of solipsism that consumed David Hume.
The depth of his criticisms can be summarized quite succinctly as:
Don't use quantitative methods for qualitative questions.Nature is benign, so we can ascribe a comfortable level of determinism to our observations. New data, often obtained through technological innovation, requires modification of obsolete theories (e.g., the Ptolemaic model of the universe to the Copernican; Newton's Laws of Motion to Einstein's Special Relativity; etc.). Key to our understanding (though Taleb would probably insist we understand nothing) is the selection of appropriate parameters -- and to not get too enamored with your own theories, especially if it involves any vestige of "free will".
Fallible? You betcha! Yes, we are inclined to fool ourselves. Yes, we try to cram too many variables into our formulae in some vain hope that we'll "get it right". And yes, our institutions -- particularly financial ones -- tend to reward the wrong kinds of behavior (q.v. Prof. Clay Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma, in which Clay digs into corporate failures vice successes, finding that Wall Street rewards bad behavior). But Taleb's diatribe against the folly of "epistemic arrogance" has created another confirmation bias that only casually addresses the issue of scale when considering complex topics.
I understand that I am straying far from the "anchor" of many blogfriends (John Robb, Art Hutchinson, General of the Hordes Subadei, ARHerring, zenpundit, Chet Richards) who have offered glowing praise for The Black Swan. Perhaps it's my naïveté (or perhaps that I'm a product of the California public school system), but I honestly don't see our civilization marching toward "Extremistan". Quite the opposite: While our awareness of remote events has increased, and our networks have grown exponentially, I believe that the diffuse topology of our networks actually dampens the impact of an extreme event.
Consider the "Butterfly Effect". Do you really think a butterfly flapping its wings in Jakarta is going to eventually cause a hurricane in New York City? Or do you think the minor perturbation is absorbed locally without cascading into some kind of resonance? Yes, there are examples that illustrate the dire consequences of unplanned resonance. Taleb (who waffles at the end of his book as half hyperskeptic, half intransigently certain) abandons the Gaussian bell curve, yet -- with only a single mention of Albert-László Barabási -- firmly embraces Power Law scale invariance as normative.
Despite Taleb's too-casual treatment of scale, I think he would agree with George E.P. Box's statement (c. 1987) that "...[A]ll models are wrong, but some are useful." Abandoning our dogmatic devotion to certainty is essential in any creative, innovative enterprise -- and can reveal hidden opportunities, and hidden abilities.
This requires that we reexamine how we define "success". In my adopted hometown of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the best Calutron operators (the electromagnets that separated Uranium isotopes for the LITTLE BOY bomb at Y-12 during the Manhattan Project) were not the scientists from Berkeley who designed them, but seamstresses with no scientific training. And how many Americans would consider Tommy Franks or Norman Schwarzkopf as the most successful U.S. commanders in the Mid-East? What about Tony Zinni (who didn't win a major theater war, but may have demonstrated even greater skill by avoiding one)?
While many of us point to 9/11 as a "Black Swan", I can say unequivocally that it had a far less dramatic effect on my life than Continental Flight 196 on March 6th, 1993. Could I have predicted when or how I would meet the woman that would be the mother of my children? Of course not.... But was I open to the possibility, and adaptive enough (when jabbed in the ribs by Helen from Purchasing to move up one row on that flight) to take advantage of this blessing?
That may be the best value of Taleb's Black Swan: to jar us out of our collective comfort zones, to remind us how ignorant we truly are, and to encourage us to "Be Prepared!" Good advice, regardless of whether you live in Mediocristan or Extremistan.
Update: Überblogger Zenpundit has graciously linked this review -- and will have his own review posted this weekend. (Thx Zen!)
5GW Attack on JFCOM?
Yesterday a good friend from Virginia sent me an article from "DataTech Government Newsletter" that harshly criticizes the "Training Transformation" program at U.S. Joint Forces Command (one of ten joint [all-service] Combatant Commands in the U.S. military). Besides harshly maligning the corporate culture at my former employer (claiming the parking lot isn't full until nearly 9:00am, and almost empty shortly after 4:00pm), it also accuses the Joint National Training Capability of failing to deliver a product despite a budget of over $170 million.
The curious thing about this article is that "DataTech Government Newsletter" returns zero hits on a Google search. And a search for "Bob Gerlach", the alleged "AFU Correspondent" who penned the article, yields a similar doughnut of results. Furthermore, there is no date in the excerpted pages as one would expect from a legitimate publication. And the reference to the current four-star USJFCOM commander (Gen. Jim Mattis, USMC) as "Lt Gen Mattis" (using the U.S. Air Force honorific for a three-star general, not the U.S. Marine Corps "LtGen") further erodes the credibility of the piece. Lastly, the subsequent article references a non-existent "North American Health Logistics Forum" (again, zero Google hits) and "Section 16 under USC Code [sic] 27", the portion of U.S. federal law that addressed Prohibition and has been repealed for more than seventy years. You can download the excerpted 1.4MB .PDF file here.
Could this be an elaborate hoax -- an attack designed to change the very context by which an entity is perceived -- to discredit U.S. Joint Forces Command's training activities? When I asked a former colleague I was told that not only are they aware of this piece, but that Major General Kamiya (the Joint Training Director) distributed it to all personnel. When faced with an anonymous foe who wants to distort perceptions, I think MG Kamiya's response was very appropriate.
[Crossposted at Dreaming 5GW]
A Date Which Lives in Infamy
Flags across the United States are at half-mast today in recognition of "a date which shall live in infamy". At 7:52 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, the first wave of Japanese bombers reached the western shore of O'ahu (near today's Lualualei Naval Weapons Station), crested the Waianae Ridge at Kolekole Pass (which connects Lualualei to Schofield Barracks), attacking military airfields as well as the fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor to the south. More than two thousand sailors, Marines and soldiers were killed -- along with 68 civilians -- compared to just 65 Japanese airmen killed.
The photo above has been a staple of my briefings on defense transformation for years. When I show the photo cropped to show only the lower-right quadrant, nearly everyone correctly observes "Battleship Row" at Pearl Harbor. Showing the full photo (from a scale model in wartime Japan) demonstrates the challenge we in a open society face when battling adversaries who don't share our values -- nor our freedoms.
John Robb has aptly noted our vulnerability to "open source warfare" -- a challenge that is exacerbated by the openness of our society. But the solution is not to trade our freedoms for the "warm blanket of security". Rather, we should remember that it is those freedoms -- the freedom to live, to love, to pursue happiness and prosperity -- that make us strong.
Redezvous with Destiny
At the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, California, a former Democrat named Ronald Reagan gave a nomination speech for Senator Barry Goldwater, a conservative from Arizona. This speech, called "A Time for Choosing" (televised again the week before the election, on Oct. 27th 1964), is considered one of the most effective speeches made on behalf of a candidate and catapulted Reagan into national politics.
Some key excerpts that are germane today:
There can be no real peace while one American is dying some place in the world for the rest of us. We are at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in his long climb from the swamp to the stars, and it has been said if we lose that war, and in doing so lose this way of freedom of ours, history will record with the greatest astonishment that those who had the most to lose did the least to prevent its happening. Well, I think it's time we ask ourselves if we still know the freedoms that were intended for us by the Founding Fathers.
This is the last stand on Earth. And this idea that government is beholden to the people, that it has no other source of power except to sovereign people, is still the newest and most unique idea in all the long history of man's relation to man. This is the issue of this election. Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves. You and I are told increasingly that we have to choose between a left or right, but I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down--up to a man's age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order--or down to the ant heap totalitarianism, and regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.
Much of Reagan's "call to arms" against Soviet totalitarianism is apt today, in our present fight against Islamofascism and the forces of nihilism. Our choice is the same: whether we will choose a "... policy of accommodation [and] appeasement [that] gives no choice between peace and war," or if "[w]e will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, [rather than] sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness."
Terror vs. the Marines: Beirut
At 6:22am local time in
The flatbed truck turned onto the access road toward the Marine compound, circled a parking lot, and accelerated toward the sentry post. Since “suicide bombing” was a relatively new development in the post-kamikaze age (perfected by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka in the previous few years), force protection measures pale in comparison to today: there were no “Jersey barriers” obstructing direct access into the compound, the only barricades were sewer pipes behind a raised gate, nearby perimeter fencing was simple barbed wire, and “Rules of Engagement” for the sentries were so restrictive that they could not load and raise their weapons until the truck had already crashed into the lobby of the four-story cinderblock barracks building.
Nearly 12,000 pounds of explosives were detonated by the driver, lifting the building from its 15’ circumference footings and causing it to collapse into rubble. 241
Almost simultaneously with the attack on the Marine Barracks, an identical attack was made against the barracks of the French 3rd Company of the 6th Parachute Infantry Regiment, killing 58.
In 2003 a U.S. District Court judge declared that the Islamic Republic of Iran was responsible for these attacks, since Hezbollah was entirely dependent on
Today, 1/8 continues to proudly serve our nation as part of 2nd Marine Division under II Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF). They are currently under the able leadership of
Last Friday afternoon, at the Military Reporters and Editors Luncheon, LTG(ret) Ricardo Sanchez -- former commander of the Army's V Corps and the top U.S. commander in Iraq until 2004 -- leveled a series of broadside blasts at the mainstream media, the ineffectiveness of the National Security Council, and the partisan bickering in Washington.
If you read any of the copious media reports this past weekend (like these gems from AP and the NYTimes), you undoubtedly read the most damning accusations of a national "nightmare with no end in sight", that "America has failed". However, of all the vitriol he let slip last Friday, the only parts covered by the major media outlets were those most critical of the war and the Bush administration.
Too bad the media didn't present the full story. Thankfully, the blogosphere is replete with pundits who have called the media on their fundamental failure to adhere to their own ethical standards of truthfulness and fairness.
First, and most importantly, is the complete transcript of General Sanchez's remarks (c/o his hosts last Friday). It clocks in at just over 3,400 words and about 10 pages, but it is well worth a careful read.
A sampling of blogs who have called the mainstream media on their "selective hearing":
this 'blog is intended to be a forum for challenging our mainstream opinions, [and] for identifying the Wizards in our midst, I encourage you to each view all the available evidence and decide for yourself what message General Sanchez intended.
Happy Navy Birthday!
On 13 October 1775, the Continental Congress of the fledgling United States passed a resolution to purchase and fit out two vessels as warships. This naval force was intended to intercept British supplies that were supporting and sustaining the occupying forces in America. That same resolution also created a Marine Committee consisting of John Adams, Silas Deane and John Langdon to oversee naval affairs. The Continental Navy was born! The resolution read:
Resolved, That a swift sailing vessel, to carry ten carriage guns, and a proportionable number of swivels, with eighty men, be fitted, with all possible despatch, for a cruise of three months, and that the commander be instructed to cruize eastward, for intercepting such transports as may be laden with warlike stores and other supplies for our enemies, and for such other purposes as the Congress shall direct.
That a Committee of three be appointed to prepare an estimate of the expence, and lay the same before the Congress, and to contract with proper persons to fit out the vessel.
Resolved, that another vessel be fitted out for the same purposes, and that the said committee report their opinion of a proper vessel, and also an estimate of the expence.
For nearly ten years of existence, the Continental Navy served to bolster American morale during the Revolutionary War. However, its cultural success far exceeded its tactical success -- virtually every ship constructed was either sunk or captured. Those that weren't were eventually auctioned off, the last remaining vessel (USS Alliance) being sold on 01 August 1785 for $26,000.
After the American victory at Yorktown and the disarmament that followed (since many felt that having a standing military force would "only serve to involve America in conflicts it had no service in being a part of" ), it would be nearly 13 more years until Congress authorized the creation of a permanent naval force in response to an overseas threat. The United States Navy was formally chartered in April 1798 to protect America's growing interests abroad, and to thwart the threat posed by the Barbary Pirates.
On this date, September 16th, in the year 1810, Miguel Hidalgo (a parish priest in the central highlands of the Spanish colony of México) declared independence from Spain. What began as a peasants' rebellion against colonial rule led to nearly eleven years of war, with the coup d'état against Ferdinand VII (the last Bourbon monarch of Spain) in 1820 setting the conditions for recognized Mexican independence.
The annual celebration of "Cinco de Mayo" is not related to early Mexican independence, but rather to México's initial victory over French forces at Puebla in 1862. Cinco de Mayo is a relatively minor holiday in most of México (despite what many cerveza advertisers would have you believe).
Author-Blogger John Robb has posted recently on "system disruptions" affecting PEMEX's distribution pipelines in México; click here (10-Sep) and here (15-Sep). What a way to celebrate your 197th anniversary of independence....
An xGW Primer (Abridged)
Since my good friends Zenpundit, tdaxp and General of the Hordes Subadei Ba'adur have offered primers on the "generational" model of different approaches to warfighting, I respectfully offer this abbreviated primer:
"Zeroth" Generation Warfare:
First Generation Warfare:
Second Generation Warfare:
Third Generation Warfare:
Fourth Generation Warfare:
Fifth Generation Warfare:
Too bad Mel Gibson (the architect of warfighting archetypes) wasn't in the ultimate 5GW movie:
Mountain Runner has provocatively asked how robots fit into 21st century warfare, and what impact they have on perception management, counterinsurgency, and reconstruction.
As a science advisor for the Dept of the Navy (in my previous career), unmanned systems offered a compelling promise of "security without risk". After all, the greatest limitation in modern systems engineering is making a platform hospitable for humans. Remove the human from the fighter aircraft, watch John Boyd's Energy-Maneuverability Theory grow quadratically -- and get a platform that can turn 25Gs while evading even the most advanced surface-to-air missiles.
Today MQ-9 REAPER unmanned aerial vehicles, armed with HELLFIRE missiles, roam the skies over Iraq and Afghanistan. Their pilots sit comfortably in a U.S. homeland Air Force base. Minimal risk, minimal U.S. casualties, and all is well, right?
Except that any power that chooses to trade its hardware for the adversary's lives is no longer conducting a "Just War". In particular, the notion of "proportionality" in conducting a just war is defeated -- and, more worrisome, the insurgency is incentivized to grow.
And what of advances in artificial intelligence, or A.I.? What if we develop sensor grids that can pass the Turing Test and demonstrate the capacity for independent thought and action? (The U.S. Navy already does this to a lesser degree aboard their AEGIS cruisers and destroyers: the SPY radar system has rigid "rule sets" to detect and engage threats, like anti-ship cruise missiles.)
The technology is emerging to allow the U.S. to project power without endangering its citizen soldiers -- akin to Rome's outsourcing of risk and security in the latter days of Empire. Mountain Runner's question is provocative because it identifies the core issue: not technology, but rather the perception of that technology and its moral implications.
Cresting "The Hill"
At 8:35pm EDT tonight, I will complete my fourth decade on this earth. Since we've heard the iconic Raquel Welch declare that "60 is the new 40", does this mean "40 is the new 20"? I guess I need to go back to campus and find a kegger or two... :-)
To kick off my "Cresting 'The Hill'" weekend, last night I decided to climb the hill -- literally -- by riding my trusty steel-frame Moab mountain bike over Blackoak Ridge on the Dept of Energy "North Boundary" Greenway. Usually I'm able to crest the 400' vertical climb (7-8% grade for about 1-1/2 miles) without much trouble; this time I had to stop three times. Feeling old and decrepit as I stored my bike, I noticed that the rear tire rim (which I had removed earlier to replace the tube) was rubbing against the still-hot brake pad. So while I take solace in the fact that my physical stamina is as good as ever, my mechanical skills have clearly atrophied...
(BTW: The photo in my profile, as well as my "hyperlocal" personalized WIRED cover for the July 2007 issue, show my Moab in much better operational condition.)
In the Blogosphere, Dan tdaxp and Tom Barnett yesterday made similar posts on the quest by some for the "compassionate" side of conflict. Dan's is the second installment of his six-part "Dreaming 5GW" series, this time delving into the deliberate and explicit thought processes needed to conduct war: war, that is, except in the 5th Generation. Paralleling Zenpundit's recent post on Superempowered Individuals (exceptionally intelligent "lone wolf" actors who dispassionately leverage and exploit society's complex systems) Dan underscores the implicit and esoteric nature of the 5th Gen. warrior's ethos.
Tom's post is a critique of James Taranto's July 26th Op-Ed in the WSJ, decrying the circular logic apparent in the Democratic Party's platform on U.S. interventionism abroad. Tom, one of the most optimistic people I've ever met who always sees opportunity for growth and betterment, aptly notes the dichotomy between his lifelong registration in the Democratic party and Bill Clinton's self-deprecating psychoses in Rwanda and elsewhere as he whines that he should have done something. Tom has truly embraced the entrepreneur mantle, which (as our mutual boss Steve DeAngelis has written) demands optimism.
I believe these posts are very positive developments in our collective understanding of conflict. Regardless of how we segregate the historical evolution of warfare, the basic tenets of "Just War" doctrine remain apt in any conflict. [Donning flame-retardant coat in expectation of a thumping critique from 4GW and 5GW theorists...]
As for birthday festivities, Household 6 presented me with a very cool "Life is Good" technical t-shirt after a morning run with Deichman the Younger (who, at 6, demonstrates far greater physical abilities than I did at 16). With the New York City Marathon barely three months away, it's time to get serious about training -- and to consume as much carrot cake as possible to ensure my glycogen stores remain fully stocked! :->
Dream-Quest of Unknown 5GW
Dan at tdaxp has begun a six-post series on "Fifth Generation Warfare". His first post, set against the backdrop of H.P. Lovecraft's dream city Kadath, is a concise summary of the most familiar of Boyd icons: the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act loop. Like his cohorts at Dreaming 5GW, Dan has crossed into the Cold Waste to free our minds from their attritionist prison so that we can re-orient our perspective for the challenges that lay ahead. After all, how many of us judge the success (or failure) of a campaign by the "body count" reported in the media? And how devastating is such a singular fascination when warfare turns to more cerebral methods?
I encourage you to drop over to tdaxp. Make the climb to Kadath. And maybe you'll discover the silver key to unlock our well-known past, and in so doing find the Sunset City that binds our collective futures on this planet.
Welcome to the Emerald City
I've long been fascinated by the story of the "Wizard of Oz": from the movie (a staple of most Americans' childhood) to, later in life, L. Frank Baum's 1900 book and our all-time favorite Broadway play Wicked.
Beyond the feel-good tale of a young girl who just wants to go home, Oz presents numerous character studies that are germane to many of my professional and personal fascinations.
Central to these is the role of the Wizard. To some, he is simply helping others liberate the talent already within them. But to others, he is a charlatan with no real powers of his own who uses fear and intimidation to preserve his authority.
I fall in the latter category. After all, what did the Wizard ever really do for the Cowardly Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow except give them placebos in the place of real solutions? A ticking clock for a heart? C'mon...
Therefore, the Wizard is a master of Fifth Generation Warfare -- able to twist perceptions so that the very context by which we judge the world is altered.
The story is further enriched by Gregory Maguire's 1995 novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and Stephen Schwartz's brilliant Broadway musical adaptation Wicked, which challenge all of our presumptions about the characters in Baum's original work. It's a telling tale of our willingness to accept what we're shown (be it from the mainstream media, our schools, our churches, or any other seemingly authoritative source of information) rather than to think for ourselves. The subtitle on this 'blog (Life is fraughtless ... when you're thoughtless!) is a quote from the character Fiyero, a vain and lazy prince we encounter in Schwartz's play.
So, this 'blog is intended to be a forum for challenging our mainstream opinions, for identifying the Wizards in our midst, and for seeing the true intentions of the Witches in our hearts.