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Elites at Cross Purposes

Monday, July 15th, 2013

[recycled by Lynn C. Rees]

Vertical conflict, where non-elite rises against elite, is a strong, ancient, and obsessive current of fear that flows through political thought. Only elite had surplus time to craft political thought. Hence their antagonism toward vertical conflict saturated political thought for most of written history. The opposing vein of political thought, while less well-represented in history, had an equally ancient past: non-elite fear of elite oppression.

Both variations have good and bad.

Those above and those below have good reasons to fear each other. Elite were outnumbered ~95 to 1. They controlled the vast majority of a political community’s wealth. They were often scattered throughout the population, isolated in a sea of non-elite.

Moreover, elite was somewhat aware that non-elite had concrete reasons to eat them raw. Elite wealth was extracted from the sweat of non-elite brows. The means used to extract this wealth leaned toward the unpleasant or unfair. This rude leaning bred resentment among its non-elite targets. Fortunate elite: the power that let them live off non-elite also guaranteed they normally had little to fear from non-elite: elite become elite through their effective predominance over violence and threat.

Elite should fear another form of conflict, one far more deadly than vertical conflict to them: horizontal conflict. The real threat is conflict within elites between elites. Few vertical conflicts succeed without having their way paved by horizontal conflicts breaking out first.

Unified elite? Non-elite have little chance.

Divided elite? Non-elite opportunity beckons.

Escalation of internecine horizontal conflict frequently tempts one elite faction to appeal directly to non-elite for backing against competing factions. Elite factions often race to outbid each other as they attempt to win non-elite allies against their elite rivals. This has been known to open the way for successful non-elite vertical conflict. Even if vertical conflict is averted, intra-elite horizontal conflict may decimate elite ranks, leaving a vacuum at the top.

Horizontal conflict is a major theme of the cliodynamics of Peter Turchin, an attempt to shape the study of history into “analytical, predictive science”. The mere thought is enough to make neo-Seleucid Nassim Nicholas Taleb foam, wildly gesticulate in dangerously pointy ways, and rant about ice cubes, naive models, charlatans, and infidels. Turchin, in Taleb’s construction, is pushing the “narrative fallacy” to dangerous extremes.

Imagine the dangerous Taleb gesticulations Hari Seldon would produce.

Turchin faces an uphill battle in creating his psychohistory. That said, some of his initial thoughts have interest.

Focusing on pre-industrial agricultural societies, Turchin argues that the primary reason for the rise of empires is a notion of Ibn Khaldun‘s called asabiyah. Asabiyah is the “strong force” that gives a human group its ability to cooperate. Turchin extends Ibn Khaldun’s notion by arguing that it’s specifically along “metaethnic frontiers” that empires rise. Along metaethnic frontiers, not only are societies diametrically opposed in means of production (e.g. pastoralist vs. agriculturalist) but diametrically opposed in cultural norms as well. They are true borders with the Other.

Some examples of metaethnic frontiers that Turchin offers are those between his native Russia and the Crimean Tatars, European Americans and American Indians, Han Chinese and Huns/Turks/Mongols/Manchus, Christian Spain and Muslim al-Andalus, Republican Rome and the Gauls, and Imperial Rome and the German tribes. The vast cultural differences between cultures bestride a frontier produce asabiyah by their clashes more effectively than frontiers between peoples with similar cultures (e.g. the Franco-German frontier). Such asabiyah is often strong enough to drive a political community along a metaethnic frontier to aspire and even ascend to empire.

For the forces that maintain asabiyah, Turchin points to studies based on the ultimatum game:

The ultimatum game is a game  often played in economic experiments in which two players interact to decide how to divide a sum of money that is given to them. The first player proposes how to divide the sum between the two players, and the second player can either accept or reject this proposal. If the second player rejects, neither player receives anything. If the second player accepts, the money is split according to the proposal. The game is played only once so that reciprocation is not an issue.

Results of some of these experiments seem to reveal the presence of three classes of people within any human group: knaves, saints, and moralists. Turchin writes in War and Peace and War:

During the 1990s, several economists, most notably Ernst Fehr at the University of Zurich and his colleagues, decided to test the assumptions of rational choice theory experimentally…[and] what these experiments, and many others like them, reveal is that society consists of several types of people. Some of them – perhaps a quarter in experiments with American college students – are self-interested, rational agents – ‘the knaves’. These will never contribute to the common good, and will choose free-riding unless forced to [contribute] by fines imposed upon them. The opposite type, also about a quarter, are the unconditional cooperators, or ‘the saints’. The saints continue to contribute to the common pool and lose money, even when it is obvious to everybody that cooperation has failed (although most of them reduce the amount of their contribution). The largest group (40 to 60 percent in most experiments) are the conditional cooperators, or ‘the moralists’. The preference of the moralists is to contribute to the pot, so that everyone would be better off. However, in the absence of the mechanism to punish noncontributors, free-riding proliferates, the moralists become disgusted by this opportunistic behavior, and withdraw their cooperation. On the other hand, when the punishment option is available, they use it to fine the knaves [even though imposing a fine comes at a cost to them…and] the group [eventually] achieves the cooperative equilibrium at which, paradoxically, the moralists do almost as well as the knaves, because they now rarely (if ever) need to spend money on fining the free-riders.

Moralists maintain asabiyah:

The  experiments also point to the key role of the moralists…. Self-righteous moralists are not necessarily nice people, and their motivation for the ‘moralistic punishment’ is not necessarily prosocial in intent. They might not be trying to get everyone to cooperate. Instead, they get mad at people who violate social norms. They retaliate against the norm breakers, and feel a kind of grim satisfaction from depriving them of their ill-gotten gains. It’s emotional, and it’s not pretty, but it does ensure group cooperation…. [Moreover,] that capacity for trust and moralistic punishment are wired into our brains. At some level, they are as basic as our abilities for finding food, or finding mates. It does not mean all humans will always behave in a cooperative manner. People are different…[and] societies differ in their ability to sustain collective action. But the capacity for cooperation (even if it is never exercised by many people) is part of what makes us human….[In addition,] as a result of our ability to use symbols, the idea of a social group (‘us’) has a peculiar grip on human imagination. Because of our psychological makeup, we tend to think of social groups, such as nations, as more ‘real’ than they are ‘in reality.’ And, because people treat nations as real, they behave accordingly and, paradoxically, make them real…Two key adaptations enabled the evolution of [human] ultrasociality. The first one was the moralist strategy: cooperate when enough members in the group are also cooperating, and punish those who do not cooperate. A band that had enough moralists to tip its collective behavior to the cooperative equilibrium outcompeted, or even exterminated, bands that failed to cooperate. The second adaptation, the human ability to use symbolic markers to define cooperating groups, allowed the evolution of sociality to break through the limits of face-to-face interaction, [and] the scale of human societies increased in a series of leaps.

Turchin argues that empires decline when asabiyah-driven imperial conquest brings wealth, security, and power. High asabiyah societies have strong vertical and horizontal cohesion and cooperation between elite and non-elite and within elite and non-elite, reenforced by moralists among elite and non-elite. Much of this asabiyah formation is driven by pressure from external attack. Imperial conquest removes the immediate threat of external attacks. This lack of immediate external threat saps asabiyah as elite and non-elite pursue increasingly divergent agendas. This further saps the influence of moralists. This leads to elites divide that opens opportunities for internal non-elite and external actors. This frequently pushes elite over the edge into atomized oblivion.

But losing your elite doesn’t have to be a net loss. Rotating elites is usually required to reinvigorate a society. However, getting there is frequently unpleasant for elite and non-elite alike and unpleasantness is a powerful source of asabiyah cultivation.

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Red lines and the credibility arms race

Friday, April 26th, 2013

[The views and opinions expressed here are solely the responsibility of Lynn C. Rees. They may not necessarily reflect the official views or opinions of Zenpundit] 

To deter, Barack Obama has publicly drawn a red line between tolerable and intolerable. We now watch to see and (perhaps) learn if open signaling of red lines has deterrent effect.

Open red lines intended to stave off the intolerable without ending in blows are as ancient as territorial instinct. Red frequents coloration of animals who’ve evolved warning signals embedded in their anatomy. Lines, though marked more by scent or suggested by signal, are also abundant among Man and nature.

“Bear”, my brother’s late Shar-Pei, vociferously defended my brother’s chain-linked fence line. All his toing and froing facing down suspicious pedestrians even wore a second line into the front lawn that paralleled the fence. His vigorous bark emerged from wolven ancestors to draw lines red in tooth and claw in wolven mind so it didn’t come to lines red in tooth and claw in wolven reality. 

But, if bluffs are called and barks prove to have more volume than bite, a red line will prove only as substantial as the bite and fight beyond it. If warning is not credibly conveyed and things fall apart, nothing may remain except bite and fight.

Bear’s bark proved a poor red line. While it sounded loud and formidable, when you opened the front gate and entered the yard, Bear would casually mosey up, sniff you, and promptly return to the barking line. Shar Peis are renowned for even-tempers. Bred as guard dogs in China, they often had to be brutalized or drugged into fight and bite. Bear was neither brutalized nor drugged so he lacked credible fierceness.

There is no certain calculus in drawing red lines. My calculus teacher wisely taught that variables have only one invariable certainty: they tend to vary. Man is not only variable, he is contrary. His contrariness not only votes present, it votes with real impact. If it were otherwise, you’d have a sort of Clausewitzian “red line by algebra: tally up one side of a red line in one column and tally the other side in another column. Then, when clearly displayed in public, those on either side would be forced to agree on how substantial the red line was and openly acknowledge its deterrent psychology.

Politics, the division of power, varies most in the intensity in which its division of power escalates confrontation toward violence. Some political contestants’ escalation is too hot. Others’ escalation is too cold. For others, their escalation will be just right. Some draw red lines and aggressively escalate political intensity based on broken red line theory: one small crack in your red line, like someone publicly urinating on it, means the entire red line will be stripped down to its bare chassis overnight if small infractions aren’t predictably and promptly punished. Others use them to draw folks along, perhaps as bait, perhaps as stalling tactics, while they do something else somewhere else. Some red lines are implicitly understood by all as being for entertainment purposes only.

Unfortunately, we’re armed with only a few rules of thumb to guide us in drawing and escalating red lining, most centered on creating intrinsic credibility:

  • …every power ought to be commensurate with its object…
  • …the means ought to be proportioned to the end…
  • …there ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect a purpose, which is itself incapable of limitation…
  • A government ought to contain in itself every power requisite to the full accomplishment of the objects committed to its care, and to the complete execution of the trusts for which it is responsible, free from every other control but a regard to the public good and to the sense of the people.
  • As the duties of superintending the national defense and of securing the public peace against foreign or domestic violence involve a provision for casualties and dangers to which no possible limits can be assigned, the power of making that provision ought to know no other bounds than the exigencies of the nation and the resources of the community.
  • As revenue is the essential engine by which the means of answering the national exigencies must be procured, the power of procuring that article in its full extent must necessarily be comprehended in that of providing for those exigencies.
Beyond that, it’s a matter of converting intrinsic credibility into fully mobilizable and then field-deployable credibility. Angelo M. Codevilla writes:

John Quincy Adams, a student as well as a practitioner of statesmanship, believed that governments understand their own and others’ interests quite well. His involvement in diplomacy, which lasted from 1778 to the end of his presidency in 1829, convinced him not that negotiations are superfluous, but rather that they ratify the several parties’ recognition of existing realities regardless of agreements or lack thereof. Diplomacy can make it more comfortable to live with reality by clarifying mutual understanding of it. On the other hand, Adams’ magisterial notes on his 1823 recommendation that America spurn the invitation to join Britain in a declaration disapproving any attempt to recover Spain’s American colonies—that jointness would have added nothing to the reality of parallel British and U.S. opposition to such a venture—underlines the central fact about diplomacy: though it conveys reality, it does not amend it.

In 1968, Fred Ikle published How Nations Negotiate, which is used by diplomatic academies around the world. Too many graduates, however, forget its central teaching, which is that the diplomat’s first task is to figure out whether agreement is possible on the basis of “the available terms”—in short, whether both sides’ objectives, though different, are compatible. Only if they are can negotiations proceed according to what Ikle calls “rules of accommodation”—making sincere proposals, honoring partial agreements, etc. If the objectives are incompatible, the diplomats may choose to walk away, or to “negotiate for side effects”—to use the negotiations to undermine the other side’s government, sow dissention among its allies, deceive it, pocket partial agreements and renege on commitments, buy time, gather intelligence, etc. Disaster looms when one side follows the rules of accommodation while the other negotiates for side effects. The essence of Ikle’s teaching is that the negotiator’s primordial job is to judge correctly whether the other side is negotiating for “available terms” or is waging war through diplomatic means, and hence to choose whether to negotiate for agreement, walk away, or treat the diplomatic table as a battlefield. That choice is “perpetual,” he writes, because human motives are variable.

When the president publicly drew his red line:

Michelle and I have used a strategy when it comes to things like tattoos — what we’ve said to the girls is, ‘If you guys ever decide you’re going to get a tattoo, then Mommy and me will get the same exact tattoo in the same place,'” he said. “And we’ll go on YouTube and show it off as a family tattoo. And our thinking is that it might dissuade them from thinking that somehow that’s a good way to rebel.

He’s made his “primordial job” as a parent public. Under public scrutiny, he has to “judge correctly” whether Maliah or Sasha are negotiating for “available terms’ or “waging war” through tattooed means. He has to publicly choose whether to negotiate for agreement, walk away, or treat tattoos as a battlefield. As a parent, his choice is “perpetual”.

His credibility in deterring tattooed rebellion does have some fight and bite behind it. The Christian Science Monitor observes:

They’re still kind of young. Malia is 14 and Sasha is 11. They’re not marching into any tattoo parlor near Sidwell Friends School in upper northwest DC. First, there aren’t any – they can’t afford the rents there. Second, you’ve got to be 18 to get a tat in the city, we believe. The City Council approved that move recently.

This move may represent sufficient “provision for casualties and dangers to which no possible limits can be assigned” coupled with “the power of making that provision”. But whether tattoos escalate to where parent-child disagreement knows “no other bounds than the exigencies of the nation and the resources of the community” is the other half of Maliah and Sasha’s measure of President Obama’s credibility amd the deterrent quality of YouTubed shame over their coming teens.

The CSM doubts it. Conceding the president’s stratagem is “sort of based on assured mutual deterrence. Or preemption – you could call it that, too” and that it’s “interesting, in the sense that it’s a fairly coherent and intellectualized way to approach this common parental problem”, it observes:

…the real reason the preemption strategy probably appeals to the Obamas right now is that their daughters still listen to them. They can process cause and parental reaction and weigh options. They haven’t entered that period where common sense gets suspended, and they focus mostly on their own needs and wants, because that’s what teenagers do…

Once they are 18, they will be away from daily parental authority and tattoos might seem like a better idea. At that age, they don’t really think about long-term consequences, so they might get body art just to spite their parents. Or because they forgot their parents’ we-will-do-it-too vow. Or because they don’t care. Or just because… 

And then what happens? The president of the United States will probably feel obligated to get a tattoo of a butterfly at the base of his neck, because he vowed he would; and if he does not follow through, opponents will doubt his strength of will, or something like that.

I disagree. Rather than being “obligated”, the president retains his God-given agency. America’s greatest strategic thinker of the last fifty years will give him some advice:

You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away, know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table,
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done

His choices as a parent are there “because human motives are variable”. As such, they will tend to vary, moment by moment, place by place, tattoo by tattoo. The president should carefully consider where and when he draws red lines, especially in public and especially when publicity is a key component of his red line’s hypothetical deterrent effect. Better to learn to gauge when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em now before the sarin calls of adolescence come around. Only then maybe there will be time enough for counting when the teenage years are done.

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E.O. Wilson on the Evolutionary Origin of Creativity and Art

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

E.O. Wilson 

Last summer, eminent sociobiologist E.O. Wilson published an article in Harvard Magazine:

On the Origins of the Arts 

….By using this power in addition to examine human history, we can gain insights into the origin and nature of aesthetic judgment. For example, neurobiological monitoring, in particular measurements of the damping of alpha waves during perceptions of abstract designs, have shown that the brain is most aroused by patterns in which there is about a 20 percent redundancy of elements or, put roughly, the amount of complexity found in a simple maze, or two turns of a logarithmic spiral, or an asymmetric cross. It may be coincidence (although I think not) that about the same degree of complexity is shared by a great deal of the art in friezes, grillwork, colophons, logographs, and flag designs. It crops up again in the glyphs of the ancient Middle East and Mesoamerica, as well in the pictographs and letters of modern Asian languages. The same level of complexity characterizes part of what is considered attractive in primitive art and modern abstract art and design. The source of the principle may be that this amount of complexity is the most that the brain can process in a single glance, in the same way that seven is the highest number of objects that can be counted at a single glance. When a picture is more complex, the eye grasps its content by the eye’s saccade or consciously reflective travel from one sector to the next. A quality of great art is its ability to guide attention from one of its parts to another in a manner that pleases, informs, and provokes

This is fascinating.  My first question would be how we could determine if the pattern of degree of complexity is the result of cognitive structural limits (a cap on our thinking) or if it represents a sufficient visual sensory catalyst in terms of numbers of elements to cause an excitory response (neurons firing, release of dopamine, acetylcholine etc. ) and a subsequent feedback loop. Great art, or just sometimes interesting designs exhibiting novelty can hold us with a mysterious, absorbing fascination

Later, Wilson writes:

….If ever there was a reason for bringing the humanities and science closer together, it is the need to understand the true nature of the human sensory world, as contrasted with that seen by the rest of life. But there is another, even more important reason to move toward consilience among the great branches of learning. Substantial evidence now exists that human social behavior arose genetically by multilevel evolution. If this interpretation is correct, and a growing number of evolutionary biologists and anthropologists believe it is, we can expect a continuing conflict between components of behavior favored by individual selection and those favored by group selection. Selection at the individual level tends to create competitiveness and selfish behavior among group members—in status, mating, and the securing of resources. In opposition, selection between groups tends to create selfless behavior, expressed in
greater generosity and altruism, which in turn promote stronger cohesion and strength of the group as a whole 

Very interesting.

First, while I am in no way qualified to argue evolution with E.O. Wilson, I am dimly aware that some biological scientists might be apt to take issue with Wilson’s primacy of multilevel evolution. As a matter of common sense, it seems likely to me that biological systems might have a point where they experience emergent evolutionary effects – the system itself has to be able to adapt to the larger environmental context – how do we know what level of “multilevel” will be the significant driver of natural selection and under what conditions? Or does one level have a rough sort of “hegemony” over the evolutionary process with the rest as “tweaking” influences? Or is there more randomness here than process?

That part is way beyond my ken and readers are welcome to weigh in here.

The second part, given Wilson’s assumptions are more graspable. Creativity often is a matter of individual insights becoming elaborated and exploited, but also has strong collaborative and social aspects. That kind of cooperation may not even be purposeful or ends-driven by both parties, it may simply be behaviors that incidentally  help create an environment or social space where creative innovation becomes more likely to flourish – such as the advent of writing and the spread of literacy giving birth to a literary cultural explosion of ideas and invention – and battles over credit and more tangible rewards.

Need to ponder this some more.

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Book Mini-Review: Makers: the New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson 

This is a fun book  by the former editor-in-chief of WIRED , author of The Long Tail and the co-founder of 3D Robotics, Chris Anderson. Part pop culture, part tech-optimist futurism and all DIY business book, Anderson is preaching a revolution, one brought about by the intersection of 3D printing and open source “Maker movement” culture, that he believes will be bigger and more transformative to society than was the Web. One with the potential to change the “race to the bottom” economic logic of globalization by allowing manufacturing entrepreneurs to be smart, small, nimble and global by sharing bits and selling atoms.

Anderson writes:

Here’s the history of two decades of innovation in two sentences: The past ten years have been about discovering new ways to create, invent, and work together on the Web. The next ten years will be about applying those lessons to the real world.

This book is about the next ten years.

….Why? Because making things has gone digital: physical objects now begin as designs on screens, and those designs can be shared online as files…..once an industry goes digital in changes in profound ways, as we’ve seen in everything from retail to publishing. The biggest transformation, but in who’s doing it. Once things can be done on regular computers, they can be done by anyone. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing happening in manufacturing.

…..In short, the Maker Movement shares three characteristics,  all of which I’d argue are transformative:

1. People using digital desktop tools to create designs for new products and prototype them (“digital DIY”)

2. A cultural norm to share those designs and collaborate with others in online communities.

3. The use of common design file standards that allow anyone, if they desire, to send their designs to commercial manufacturing services to be produced in any number, just as easily as they can fabricate them on their desktop. This radically foreshortens the path from idea to entrepreneurship, just as the Web did in software, information, and content.

Nations whose entire strategy rests upon being the provider of cheapest labor per unit cost on all scales are going to be in jeopardy if local can innovate, customize and manufacture in near-real time response to customer demand. Creativity of designers and stigmergic /stochastic collaboration of communities rise in economic value relative to top-down, hierarchical production systems with long development lags and capital tied up betting on having large production runs.

Interesting, with potentially profound implications.

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Innovating Institutional Cultures

Monday, January 11th, 2010

John Hagel is in a small category of thinkers who manage to routinely be thinking ahead of the curve ( he calls his blog, where he features longer but more infrequent posts than is typical,  Edge Perspectives). I want to draw attention to the core conclusion of his latest:

Challenging Mindsets: From Reverse Innovation to Innovation Blowback

Innovation blowback

Five years ago, John Seely Brown and I wrote an article for the McKinsey Quarterly entitled “Innovation Blowback: Disruptive Management Practices from Asia.” In that article, we described a series of innovations emerging in Asia that were much more fundamental than isolated product or service innovations. We drew attention to a different form of innovation – institutional innovation. In arenas as diverse as motorcycles, apparel, turbine engines and consumer electronics, we detected a much more disruptive form of innovation.

In these very diverse industries, we saw entrepreneurs re-thinking institutional arrangements across very large numbers of enterprises, offering all participants an opportunity to learn faster and innovate more effectively by working together. While Western companies were lured into various forms of financial leverage, these entrepreneurs were developing sophisticated approaches to capability leverage in scalable business networks that could generate not just one product innovation, but an accelerating stream of product and service innovations.

…. Institutional innovation is different – it defines new ways of working together, ways that can scale much more effectively across large numbers of very diverse enterprises. It provides ways to flexibly reconfigure capability while at the same time building long-term trust based relationships that help participants to learn faster. That’s a key breakthrough – arrangements that support scalable trust building, flexibility and learning at the same time. Yet this breakthrough is occurring largely under the radar of most Western executives, prisoners of mindsets that prevent them from seeing these radical changes.

Read the whole thing here.

Hagel is describing a mindset that is decentralized and adaptive with a minimum of barriers to entry that block participation or information flow. One that should be very familiar to readers who are aware of John Boyd’s OODA Loop, the stochastic/stigmergic innovation model of John Robb’s Open Source Warfare, Don Vandergriff’s Adaptive Leadership methodology and so on. It’s a vital paradigm to grasp in order to navigate and thrive in the 21st century.

Western executives (think CEO) may be having difficulty grasping the changes that Hagel describes because they run counter to cultural trends emerging among this generation of transnational elites ( not just big business). Increasingly, formerly quasi-meritocratic and democratic Western elites in their late thirties to early sixties are quietly embracing oligarchic social stratification and use political or institutional power to “lock in” the comparative advantages they currently enjoy by crafting double standards through opaque, unaccountable authorities issuing complex and contradictory regulations, special exemptions and insulating ( isolating) themselves socially and physically from the rest of society. It’s a careerism on steroids reminiscient of the corrupt nomenklatura of the late Soviet period.

As the elite cream off resources and access for themselves they are increasingly cutting off the middle-class from the tools of social mobility and legal equality through policies that drive up barriers to entry and participation in the system. Such a worldview is inherently zero-sum and cannot be expected to notice or value non-zero sum innovations.

In all probability, as an emergent class of rentiers, they fear such innovations when they recognize them. If allowed to solidify their position into a permanent, transnational, governing class, they will take Western society in a terminal downward spiral.

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