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From the caliphate to Ferguson and back, it’s a small world

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- starting with the news, closing with Jay Forrester & the impact of systems dynamics on our understanding of cause and effect -- a catchup post ]
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Clearing the decks grom the last few days, I found this DoubleQuote in the Wild from Ferguson staring out at me from my twitter feed — suggesting just how intricately interwoven our world really is:

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Souad Mekhennet has a piece titled Even the Islamists of ISIS are obsessing over Ferguson in the Washington Post:

You can understand if President Obama would rather talk about the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq, where he has scored some victories, than talk about the unholy mess in Ferguson, Mo. Surprisingly, though, ISIS militants are following developments in the St. Louis suburb, and some of them would rather focus on that. According to interviews and social media, members of the group and sympathizers with its jihadist ideology are closely tracking the events in the St. Louis suburb, where protesters and police have clashed. In it, they see opportunity.

Here are a couple of ISIS-fan tweets:

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Look, the point I’m making isn’t about Ferguson, it isn’t about the Islamic State, it has to do with the way that an event in one place whill have myriad unexpected effects downstream. The classic case which really opened my eyes to this was Aum Shinrikyo — the group that released sarin in the Tokyo subway system — sending a planeload of its members to Zaire in an attempt to collect Ebola samples for their biochem weapons labs.

Someone in a medium size yoga cult in Japan read the New Yorker and learned that Ebola esisted and was lethal, and the next thing you know there’s a religious terror group, led by a guy who reads Nostradamus, Asimov and Revelation — and has been granted a photo op with the Dalai Lama — working diligently to get that capability.

That was back in the last century, but Ebola’s in the news again these days, and it turns out that epidemiology needs to take into account pervasive belief in some affected corners of Africa that the whole business is a conspiracy designed to imprison Africans in “clinics” — the result being riots against at least one clinic, and blood-stained bedclothes and live virus carriers being dispersed into a poorly protected slum.

Epidemiology as theorized and modeled should be cleaner than that. But then there are other factors — in the case of polio, there’s CIA use of a vaccination team as cover for an attempt to obtain bin Laden’s DNA in Abbottabad, resulting in widespread rumors of conspiracy, refusal of vaccinations, and a resurgence of the disease.

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Big question: how can you figure out the unknown unknowns represented by riots affecting quarantine? words spoken when a mic supposedly off is in fact on? the impact of large scale climate engineering.

One of the ideas that has most influenced me in my thinking about games, simulations and models over the last dozen or more years comes from Jay Forrester. I’ll quote him from section 4.1, Cause and Effect Not Closely Related in Time or Space, in his 2009 paper, Learning through System Dynamics as Preparation for the 21st Century, though I think I first ran across the idea in one of his books, probably Urban Dynamics (1969) or World Dynamics (1971):

Most understandable experiences teach us that cause and effect are closely related in time and space. However, the idea that the cause of a symptom must lie nearby and must have occurred shortly before the symptom is true only in simple systems. In the more realistic complex systems, causes may be far removed in both timing and location from their observed effects.

From earliest childhood we learn that cause and effect are closely associated. If one touches a hot stove, the hand is burned here and now. When one stumbles over a threshold, the cause is immediately seen as not picking the foot high enough, and the resulting fall is immediate. All simple feedback processes that we fully understand reinforce the same lesson of close association of cause and effect. However, those lessons are aggressively misleading in more complex systems.

In systems composed of many interacting feedback loops and long time delays, causes of an observed symptom may come from an entirely different part of the system and lie far back in time.

To make matters even more misleading, such systems present the kind of evidence that one has been conditioned by simple systems to expect. There will be apparent causes that meet the test of being closely associated in time and in location. However, those apparent causes are usually coincident symptoms arising from a distant cause. People are thereby drawn to actions that are not relevant to the problem at hand.

That stunned me. But it gets a little worse:

Comments such as I have just made about cause and effect carry little conviction from being stated in a text. Only after a student has repeatedly worked with models that demonstrate such behavior, and has had time to observe the same kinds of behavior in real life, will the idea be internalized and become part of normal thinking.

I don’t think that’s quite right, I think we’re now seeing generations arise for whom system dynamics and networked thinking seem progressively more “intuitive” — more in tune with the zeitgeist.

But the decision makers? As far as I can see, they are largely impervious to the kinds of thinking necessary to navigate our complexly interwoven envirorment.

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Fantastic to watch the Goddess Pele knock out a mere Hurricane…

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- an example of imaginative, poetic, non-literal, science-based theology ]
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My Facebook page today included the following video clip from KHON2 News:

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I am pretty sure my dear friend Mimsy Bouret, who posted this video clip under the title Fantastic to watch the Goddess Pele knock out a mere Hurricane…, intends to convey a sense of wonder, close kin indeed to worship, while not confining herself to literal belief in a reified goddess.

Here we see the imagination at play: Mimsy’s combination of words and video draws on the best of modern technology with a rich sense of natural wonder, to see and say something more than the science alone can manage. Science here is a part, but not the whole, of Mimsy’s vision: in it, through it, she experiences something richer and more human — the turning away of a threat to those she loves, in the interaction of forces way beyond her control.

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Poetico-religious thinking: there’s more depth and height to it than we often suppose… and hurricanes are not to be trifled with, though mountains on occasion can deflect them handily.

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A Sustainable National Security Posture?

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- and what about climate change, Mike Mazarr? ]
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Is there even a Cheney-esque one-percent possibility that 97% of climate scientists (NASA’s estimate) are right?
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I just opened up Michael Mazarr‘s NDU Strategy Study Group report, Discriminate Power: A Strategy for a Sustainable National Security Posture. It’s quite far from my usual apocalyptic and more generally religious interests, but he and I once co-led a Y2K scenario role-playing game at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, so I have a friendly interest in what he’s up to.

What interested me next, though, was the overview to their report that Mazarr and company present in their Introduction. Their purview:

In the coming decade, the constraints on U.S. foreign and defense policy — fiscal, social, Geopolitical — are likely to intensify. At the same time, the security environment is evolving in ways that pose a more diverse array of risks, threats and opportunities. While foreign threats have dominated national security planning in the past, for example, future wars may more typically involve nontraditional foes and means threatening the homeland. This will change how we perceive and provide for national security, even as we confront new constraints.

This paper summarizes the work of a study group chartered to assess strategy under austerity for the next ten years. A core conclusion was that the United States is buying systems, forces and capabilities increasingly mismatched to the challenges, threats, and opportunities of the emerging environment. Military power, for example, cannot resolve many of the most complex and pressing challenges we confront — and yet our investments in national security remain vastly over-weighted to military instruments. The most likely threats to the U.S. homeland will come from nontraditional challenges such as biological pathogens, terrorism, cyber, and financial instruments, and yet resources for these issues remain minimal compared to traditional military instruments. At the same time, on our current trajectory, we will end up with a national security establishment dominated by salaries, health care, retirement costs, and a handful of staggeringly expensive major weapons systems. We are spending more and more to get less and less, in terms of relevant tools and influence.

There’s some ambiguity in here. There’s a segue from “foreign threats” to “future wars” without so much as a hiccup — but the actual threats our National Security strategy will need to address are presented as “nontraditional challenges such as biological pathogens, terrorism, cyber, and financial instruments”.

That’s a far broader array than “future wars” to be sure — but maybe still within the ambit of “foreign threats”. What I’m interested in, in the present context, however, is climate change. And unless my .pdf search function is deceiving me, I can find no mention of either “climate” or “warming” in the entire report.

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Compare these Remarks by Tom Donilon, National Security Advisor to the President At the Launch of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy from a month ago:

The national security impacts of climate change stem from the increasingly severe environmental impacts it is having on countries and people around the world. Last year, the lower 48 U.S. states endured the warmest year on record. At one point, two-thirds of the contiguous United States was in a state of drought, and almost 10 million acres of the West were charred from wildfires. And while no single weather event can be directly attributed to climate change, we know that climate change is fueling more frequent extreme weather events. Last year alone, we endured 11 weather-related disasters that inflicted a $1 billion or more in damages – including Hurricane Sandy.

Internationally, we have seen the same: the first twelve years of this century are all among the fourteen warmest years on record.

Or the White House’s National Security Strategy of 2010:

Climate Change: The danger from climate change is real, urgent, and severe. The change wrought by a warming planet will lead to new conflicts over refugees and resources; new suffering from drought and famine; catastrophic natural disasters; and the degradation of land across the globe. The United States will therefore confront climate change based upon clear guidance from the science, and in cooperation with all nations — for there is no effective solution to climate change that does not depend upon all nations taking responsibility for their own actions and for the planet we will leave behind.

And given what WSJ SWJ calls the Obama administration’s strategic shift to the East — what about Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III?

America’s top military officer in charge of monitoring hostile actions by North Korea, escalating tensions between China and Japan, and a spike in computer attacks traced to China provides an unexpected answer when asked what is the biggest long-term security threat in the Pacific region: climate change.

Harvard’s 2012 Climate Extremes: Recent Trends with Implications for National Security report?

Or the Council for Foreign Relations report, Climate Change and National Security: An Agenda for Action — from 2007?

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I know, the CIA has (quietly) closed its Center on Climate Change and National Security, although as the NYT’s Green blog told us:

Todd Ebitz, a C.I.A. spokesman, said that the agency would continue to monitor the security and humanitarian challenges posed by climate change as part of its focus on economic security, but not in a stand-alone office.

But if you’re still interested, take a look at The Center for Climate & Security’s page On the Record: Climate Change as a Security Risk According to U.S. Administration Officials.

Their list is far more comprehensive than mine.

Okay. I know Mazarr’s report will have been written to fulfill certain criteria, specified or unspecified, and I’m not the one who set them — but isn’t climate change a part of the context that would need to be addressed, if “how we perceive and provide for national security, even as we confront new constraints” is the topic under discussion?

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Sensitive dependence on initial conditions — & more

Saturday, November 3rd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- on human impact, with a quick glance at Pundita's wide-angle thinking ]
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The “butterfly effect” identified by meteorologist Edward Lorenz suggests that when you are dealing with highly complex systems such as weather patterns, what eventually happens may be “sensitively dependent on initial conditions”. Very small differences at one moment in such systems may result in very large differences later on. As Lorenz explains in the upper quote above, however, we’re dealing with a myriad of influences simultaneously, and it’s entirely possible that our own meteorological impact exceeds and outweighs that of the butterfly species…

I’ve chosen to post this particular pair of quotes, in fact, because both examples point to severely deleterious effects of human impact on our home environment in the larger sense — “the world we live in” — at a level where human individuals may not feel they have much of an individual impact, but where the cumulative effect is much greater: global warming? devastating storms? loss of rain forest? — narcarchy?

Narcarchy: hereby defined as rule by cartel — see this fascinating news piece, and note in particular the presence of a significant religious thread in the midst of the drug / crime / warfare picture.

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On the question of sensitive dependence on initial conditions, this graphic paints the picture nicely and with nuance, for those who “think in pictures”:

I found it attached to the Wikipedia entry on Lorenz’s Butterfly Effect which may also help if like me you’re a lay reader, mathematically speaking.

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I also wanted to juxtapose the two quotes above because they give me a chance to talk about “wide angle views” and their virtues, and to point you to a recent Pundita post that set me thinking along those lines. The post is Then and Now: Instructive parallels between 9/11/01-Benghazi and Katrina-Sandy storms, and part of my comment read as follows:

…you have an amazing breadth of thought going on here – especially in your paragraph:

It’s as if a new era arrived, with its vast changes in weather patterns and attack patterns, and nobody is yet fully processing the nature of the threats. I guess such an observation is actually old news. But Sandy coming on the heels of Benghazi struck me as a kind of exclamation mark to the fact that civilizations start to fall at the point where they’re no longer able to process the cumulative effects of their past.

Seeing parallels between Benghazi and 9/11, or between Sandy and Katrina, would be one thing – but managing to see parallel changes in both “weather patterns and attack patterns” is quite another — and even though people may want to question and qualify some of the details, the overall scope and view is breathtaking.

We need this kind of wide-angle thinking, it seems to me, and I offer my two quotes here in much the same spirit.

So if “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” is one analytic thought pattern I’m promoting here, “wide-angle thinking” and the capacity to zoom from significant detail to global context is surely another.

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When photoshop is as strange as fiction

Friday, November 2nd, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron -- an intriguing resemblance, is all ]
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The upper image is a photoshopped (fake, fictive) image of Hurricane Sandy over New York — an image which apparently went a little viral on the web a day or two ago — while the lower one is from the cover illustration of an edition of Arthur C Clarke‘s science fiction novel, Childhood’s End, in which the aliens arrive to hover (and lord it, somewhat benignly) over us — in this case, over London.

Simply that: two images, quite different, yet curiously similar.

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