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Spectacularly non-obvious, I: Elkus on strategy & games

Friday, October 30th, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — Adam Elkus, Umberto Eco, Chris Crawford and John Robb ]

Rock Paper Scissors, diagram by Enzoklop via Wikimedia


Adam Elkus talks about strategy and games, in the inaugural Center for International Maritime Security “Real Time Strategy” podcast. What delighted me was his commentary on rock paper scissors between the 9.55 and 11 minute marks:

I would say that if I was to pick a single game for people to play in a structured way to understand a lot about strategy. Here’s, actually I’ll probably surprise a lot of you people here, and say they can probably just do well with rock paper scissors, in a sense that a lot of games have representational issues of how realistic or generalizable they are, and at the core a lot of strategy amounts to making choices about what to do without knowing what your opponent will do, and the game that’s one of the most atomic and basic in the way it represents that is rock paper scissors. But not just a one off game, a finite game, if you play repeated games of rock paper scissors, the way people win is by detecting sequential dependencies in the various choices that their opponent makes – so learning about the opponent over time, particularly their choices of what they’re going to field, is a very useful heuristic, is a very useful educational gesture..

Adam has more to say about rock paper scissors at his Zenpundit post, Master and (Drone) Commander?


A couple of additional quotes, from an earlier post of mine in a private venue:

Here’s Umberto Eco in his Search for the Perfect Language:

Recent studies have established that unlike western thought, based on a two-valued logic (either true or false), Aymara thought is based on a three-valued logic, and is, therefore, capable of expressing modal subtleties which other languages can only capture through complex circumlocutions…

And here is Chris Crawford, from his justly famous Art of Computer Game Design:

The advantage of asymmetric games lies in the ability to build nontransitive or triangular relationships into the game. Transitivity is a well-defined mathematical property. In the context of games it is best illustrated with the rock-scissors-paper game. Two players play this game; each secretly selects one of the three pieces; they simultaneously announce and compare their choices. If both made the same choice the result is a draw and the game is repeated. If they make different choices, then rock breaks scissors, scissors cut paper, and paper enfolds rock. This relationship, in which each component can defeat one other and can be defeated by one other, is a nontransitive relationship; the fact that rock beats scissors and scissors beat paper does not mean that rock beats paper. Notice that this particular nontransitive relationship only produces clean results with three components. This is because each component only relates to two other components; it beats one and loses to the other. A rock-scissors-paper game with binary outcomes (win or lose) cannot be made with more than three components. One could be made with multiple components if several levels of victory (using a point system, perhaps) were admitted.


John Robb on The Future of Drone Warfare is worth conasidering here, too, and play nicely with more of Adam’s thoughts in the podcast.

See also my post, Of games III: Rock, Paper, Tank.

And I think I’d best stop here, and make a second post on rock-scissors-paper and threeness games in general.

DoubleQuoting Andreessen with Turing

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — counterintuitive insights are like eddies in group mind ]



Adam Elkus said a while back that he wondered “if @pmarca and @hipbonegamer could team up for a double quote post.”

Well, I’m @hipbonegamer, and @pmarca is Marc Andreessen — and while we haven’t teamed up as such, the DoubleQuote above consists of a tweet from Marc two or three days ago, and a paragraph I ran across yesterday which seemed to echo Marc’s tweet from one of Alan Turing‘s posthumously published essays, and which is juxtaposed with Marc’s tweet as my response. Effectively, Marc made the first move on this two panel board, and I responded with the second — and that’s how this most basic form of my HipBone Games is played.

The degree of kinship between Marc’s tweet and Turing’s para is even stronger if you look up the link Marc offered in his tweet, which goes to a pre-pub paper by Jerker Denrell and Christina Fang titled Predicting the Next Big Thing: Success as a Signal of Poor Judgment, in which they suggest:

The explanation is that because extreme outcomes are very rare, managers who take into account all the available information are less likely to make such extreme predictions, whereas those who rely on heuristics and intuition are more likely to make extreme predictions. As such, if the outcome was in fact extreme, an individual who predicts accurately an extreme event is likely to be someone who relies on intuition, rather than someone who takes into account all available information. She is likely to be someone who raves about any new idea or product. However, such heuristics are unlikely to produce consistent success over a wide range of forecasts. Therefore, accurate predictions of an extreme event are likely to be an indication of poor overall forecasting ability, when judgment or forecasting ability is defined as the average level of forecast accuracy over a wide range of forecasts.

— and then goes on to demonstrate it:

Consistent with our model, both the experimental and field results demonstrate that in a dataset containing all predictions, an accurate prediction is an indication of good forecasting ability (i.e., high accuracy on all predictions). However, if we only consider extreme predictions, then an accurate prediction is in fact associated with poor forecasting ability.


The counterintuitive nature of this prediction is delighful in its own right — there’s a sense in which “going against the tide” of what appears obvious is part of a wider pattern that includes knots in a plank and eddies in a stream, close cousins to von Kármán’s vortex streets. And I suspect it’s that built-in paradox that we perceive as “counterintuitive” that caught the eye and attention of Turing, Denrell and Fang, Marc Andreessen and myself. Once again, form, ie pattern, is the indicator of interest.

So this DQ is for Marc and Adam, raising a toast to Alan Turing, in playful spirit and with season’s greetings.

“Trust in Govt” DoubleQuote from John Robb

Saturday, December 6th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — I’d like to define “thinkers” as those who make us think, John Robb being a prime example ]


Assuming that in this case correlation just might be evidence of causation, what remedy would you suggest?

I imagine a wide swathe of people will think reducing the size of the bureaucracy could well increase confidence in government — but my own hunch, perhaps counterintuitive, would be to increase confidence in government & watch it cleanse itself of those in various offices who serve no helpful purpose.

Of course, there may be feedback loops involved, so I don’t consider this a sure-fire remedy. I’m foolish, I was being just a tad optimistic. And besides, correlation doesn’t prove causation, though it may alert us to its possibility.


John juxtaposes two images there, though, in a thought-provocative way, as is his wont. From a DoubleQuotes point of view — and this is a fine example of what I call “DoubleQuotes in the wild” — the juxtaposition neatly demonstrates the potential benefits of reading DQs both from left to right and from right to left, or more generally, of checking analogies for possible meanings both ways, despite the fact that they often have their own directionality, real or implied.


What I mean to imply when I say “my own hunch, perhaps counterintuitive, would be to increase confidence in government” is that we need to increase the actual trustworthiness of government, the degree of alignment between words and deeds, the sincerity of its practitioners, the degree to which that Gettysburg phrase, “of the people, by the people, for the people” is reflected in actual practice.

That must work primarily at the level of the human individual elected to govern: honesty, decency, and humility rather than self-serving, surely, are the primary values called for — a little dignity would be appreciated, too.

How to Lose a War: A Primer

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski a.k.a. “zen“]

Since Pakistan is now attempting to get its victory over the United States in Afghanistan formally ratified, now seemed to be a good time to reflect on the performance of American statesmen, politicians and senior generals.

It has occurred to me that we have many books and papers outlining how to win wars. Certainly the great classics of The Art of War, The History of the Peloponnesian War and On War are the foremost examples, but there are also other useful classics in the strategic canon, whole libraries of military histories, memoirs of great commanders and an infinite number of PDFs and powerpoint briefs from think tanks and consultants. Strangely, none of these have helped us much. Perhaps it is because before running this war so few of this generation’s “deciders” read them en route to their law degrees and MBAs

We should engage in some counterintuitive thinking:  for our next war, instead of trying to win, let’s try to openly seek defeat. At a minimum, we will be no worse off with that policy than we are now and if we happen to fail, we will actually be moving closer to victory.


While one of these principles may not be sufficient cause for losing an armed conflict, following all of them is the surest road to defeat.

1. War is the Continuation of Domestic Politics:

The point of politics is to acquire, hold and enjoy using power. When we lose sight of this fact due to romantic notions of “national interest” or “duty” and spend too much attention prosecuting a war against foreign armies then our real enemies – the political opposition – can take advantage. What good is overseeing a global victory over an epochal tyranny if the result is you get immediately voted out of office like some hapless loser? While on the surface, it might seem wise during a war to staff a government with able statesmen, experienced generals, capable diplomats and other experts, the truth is that if you do so you will have very few plum jobs left with which to reward the cronies, ideologues, campaign consultants, activists, wealthy grafters and partisan hacks who got you into power in the first place. Without their continued support, you will not be long for political office.

The fact is that the nation can survive many lost wars far longer than your career will survive lost elections.  Once you view the war solely through the prism of how any action might impact your fortune in domestic politics, you will have a marvelous clarity that the war is the best pretext upon which to expand your power at the expense of the opposition and the people.

2. Policy is the True Fog of War:

Having a clearly defined, coherently articulated policy based upon vital interests and empirical facts that sets a few realistic objectives in a way that makes possible shared understanding and broad political support is no way to go about losing wars.

Keeping in mind #1, the point of war policy is to generate a set of politically compelling slogans that remain ill-defined enough to serve as an umbrella  under which many contradictory and competing agendas can cohabit until some of them can be opportunistically realized. These agendas may not be realistic – in fact, it is easier to put them forward as attractive fantasies for the public if your administration is unburdened with officials with genuine expertise in warfare, economics, foreign cultures, history and other inconvenient information that the media and the political opposition will only be too happy to seize upon. The more abstractly and arcanely expressed the policy the harder it is for critics to demolish and the  better it is for losing wars. “Unconditional surrender” for example, is bad because it is too concrete and easily evaluated – either an enemy is totally defeated and in your power or he is not. “Make the world safe for Democracy” by contrast,  is better as it is more ill-defined and subjective, permitting a larger range of politically tolerable bad outcomes.  “Responsibility to Protect” and “War on Terror” are even more abstract, being essentially unlimited, open-ended, process goals that do not have any point of “victory” whatsoever and can thus not only potentially bring about losing wars but very long ones.

3.  Strategy is a Constraint to be Avoided:

Strategy is about lining up Ends-Ways-Means to construct a theory of victory. While that might give us hope of prevailing over an enemy in an armed conflict, forging a strategy – any strategy -comes with a severe cost: namely the discipline of the government adhering to a strategy requires choices be made about the use of limited resources rather than keeping “all options open” to react  to transient and trivial political concerns on a moment’s notice. Strategy for the nation equates with diminished political flexibility and mobility for the politician.

In other words, having a strategy might require elected officials expend their precious political capital in order to pursue it without getting anything in return that might expand their powers or further their personal careers.  Doing strategy would mean prioritizing winning the war over other possible objectives and putting key decision-makers in the uncomfortable position of having to say “No” or “Not now” to powerful and influential people or factions. Worse, having a strategy also implies that the results can be quantified and evaluated for success, costs, failure and ultimately, personal accountability for leaders.

Obviously locking ourselves into a strategy is something to be avoided if we wish to stay in power, so “strategy” is only invoked rhetorically to mean a wide and confusing array of other non-strategy things – tactics, goals, operational art, planning,  public relations, nation-building,  diplomacy, policy, routine procedures, withdrawal dates, theories, fantastical pipe dreams and so on.  When “strategy” means anything and everything it ultimately means nothing.

4. All Lost Wars are based on Self-Deception: 

It is not enough to avoid strategy, there must also be a collective political determination to avoid reality enforced from the inception until the bitter end.

Wars have real and physically destructive consequences for the people who fight them, but unless you are engaged in a desperate struggle to repel a foreign invader, chances are the battlefield is far away from your home territory. This gives political leaders wiggle room to manipulate perceptions – most importantly their own – to political advantage by controlling information about the war and shaping the ideological boundaries of acceptable public discourse. This will eventually lead to a vicious cycle of bad decisions as misinformation and deceit corrupts the OODA Loop, but political leaders will maintain their political advantage over their critics, at least until the day of reckoning arrives.

Here we must begin with an insistence of a position of firmly held ignorance regarding the prospective enemy, their military capabilities, economic resources, the geographic characteristics, their cultural attitudes toward conflict and their history as a people. Should such information become widely known, it might result in popular skepticism about the wisdom of the entire enterprise, the difficulties that might be encountered and the prospects for success. If you wish to lose a war ignominiously, the less you know the better.

Likewise, once war has begun, the initial jingoistic overconfidence that greeted the war will quickly fade unless actively sustained by preventing an honest analysis of  events and providing a steady stream of rationalizations for the gullible public. It would be a good idea to ban discussion that accurately characterizes the form of warfare  or the nature of the enemy, though these things alone will not be sufficient. The intelligence process itself should be corrupted when possible to provide the “right” answers and censored or circumvented when it is not; while public assessments should use irrelevant metrics divorced from their  context so that they will not have to be gamed later.  Critics, truth-tellers, whistleblowers and those not towing the party-line should be retired, fired, demonized and punished.

5. Isolate the War and those Fighting it from the People: 

A war forgotten by the folks at home is a war that is much easier to quietly lose.

At the outset of the war, ask no sacrifice of the people because that will give them too much of a stake in a victorious outcome and raise expectations about your own leadership. Neither raise their taxes (at least not for the war at any rate) nor conscript their sons. Do not even issue a national call to the colors for volunteers, instead encourage people to be at ease and go about their business. Supplement your small regular army that increasingly feels itself a caste apart with highly paid mercenaries and foreign paramilitaries while neglecting the needs of your own troops. Speaking of the troops, always lavish the soldiers with superficial public pieties about service, sacrifice and heroism, but cynically break faith when it comes to your obligations to look after their interests.

6.  Complexity= Opacity and Micromanagement= Power

Most things in war are simple, but they are not easy. By deliberately making everything incredibly complicated, war can also become impossible too

While adding superfluous complexity does not help win wars, it does offer a number of immediate benefits for the political class. First, in real life the consequence of increasing complexity in any governmental endeavor (not just war) is that you will have more jobs and contracts to hand out to followers as bureaucracy and regulations require new inspectors, secretaries, managers, clerks, lawyers, advisers and in a military context, also new commands, staff officers, promotions, headquarters, increased budgets and so on. Chances are, most of these new jobs will continue on, if not forever, for a very long time.

Secondly the sheer complexity and number of offices, bureaus, agencies, departments, teams, commands, commissions and committees offer excellent “cover” for carrying out unpopular or illegal actions “under the radar” and with diffusion of responsibility, should these antics come to light.  If everyone is in charge, then no one is.  So if your military, intelligence agencies, diplomats, cultural advisers, aid and development people and senior administration officials talk and behave as if they are all hailing from different planets, you are well on your way to losing the war.

Third, the control of people at the top is reinforced by excessive complexity because the initiative of lower levels is strangled by micromanagement. If every idea from the field ( or even basic actions) requires two, three or more levels of command approval with consultation with lawyers at each step the answer is always going to be “No” or a very delayed “Yes” long past the point of being useful. This, plus making examples of those who exercise initiative and act without orders, teaches everyone in the system to eschew risk, value passivity, play it safe and wait for higher-ups to spoon-feed them instructions. With modern, networked online communications every colonel, brigadier to three-star can play company commander while the President of the United States can ride virtual shotgun on SEAL team raids.

7.  Enormous Tail, Tiny Tooth: the Worse the ROI the Better

When you regularly use hundred million or billion dollar platforms to kill illiterate tribesmen with AK-47s and RPGs and build food courts in the Hindu Kush, something is eventually going to give.

Generally, a reasonably well governed country at war can afford to employ either a massive military force for a short campaign or a small, “light footprint“, force for the long haul. What few nations in history can afford, unless it is Persia under Xerxes, is to field a massive force disproportionately composed of rear echelon support troops and what used to be called “camp followers” and “auxiliaries” for years on end. There are two ways this can bring you to defeat.

First, obviously, fielding an enormous army for too long can lead to bankruptcy as costs of the war exceed tax revenues and the state begins to rely on various forms of credit, foreign bankers and debasing the currency to carry on. This does not guarantee an economic collapse or hyperinflation as war can also greatly stimulate production and other variables are always in play, but the risk of dire negative economic effects is significantly increased.

The second issue is that if you are moving your armed host into a desperately poor region to wage war against an impoverished enemy, the passage and encampment of your own military introduces the economic surplus to the local economy the enemy needs to afford to wage war. You are like a red hot iron in a bucket of ice water. Through bribery, extortion and theft the enemy will siphon from you money, arms and contraband and eventually, corrupt your own officials and officers.

 8. Cultivate Hatred and Contempt:

If you wish to lose a war, be hated but not feared.

While most principles of losing a war  are political, strategic or operational in nature and therefore the province of incompetent politicians and generals, cultivating contempt and hatred in all observers can be done at anytime by anyone regardless of rank, experience or status. Technology has revolutionized this sphere of losing warfare: where once undermining an entire war effort could only be done by an arrogant national blowhard, today any grinning idiot on a battlefield with a smart phone is only a tweet away from an international media firestorm.

It is import in cultivating hatred to remember that mere violence, an inevitable part of all wars, is not sufficient. One can respect and admire an honorable but fierce opponent. Conveying a bullying attitude of casual cruelty to all onlookers by mistreating prisoners and civilians, especially if you humiliate and abuse them is a surefire goad to hatred while also alienating allies and neutrals, especially when doing so contradicts the nation’s deeply held values.  Hatred can also be stirred in less dramatic ways, from posing with Nazi flags to widespread ignorance of and expressions of disdain for local customs and mores. Disrespect has legs.

Contempt by contrast, is earned more by exhibiting moral weakness and truckling appeasement of the enemy and his sympathizers. For example, have your own PA and diplomatic organs in speaking to the media, repeat enemy propaganda against your own soldiers and abuse the military justice system to prosecute soldiers for splitsecond combat decisions in order to appease these critics. Loudly trumpet the “culturally appropriate meals” to the guys you are going to waterboard and appoint enemy sympathizers as “cultural advisers” and “liaisons” to government security and law enforcement agencies. Do nothing as your own heavily infiltrated host nation “ally” repeatedly frags your soldiers.

9. Protect that Which is Most Unimportant:

Organizations signal what they really value not by what they say, but what they spend time and money on.

Make sure that as the war is steadily being lost that top brass and their civilian overseers frantically emphasize politicized trivialities and institutional martinet nonsense. Reflector belt mania, giving everyone and their brother breathalyzer tests, cultural sensitivity training, counterproductive regs for MEDEVAC helicopters, promoting the gender equality of foreign societies and gender-neutrality of our own should bump out boring, old training exercises for future combat deployment in terms of priority. Remember, the military is not really there to win wars – it is a captive social engineering project for things the wackier members of Congress wish they could impose on their constituents were it not for those damned free elections.

10. Level the Playing Field: Paralyze Your Own Tactical Advantages.

While a war is often lost by having a bad strategy or no strategy at all, the power of crapping away your tactical advantages to no purpose ought not be underestimated. There are thousands of ways to do this but if you are cutting the enemy repeated breaks you can’t go wrong.

First and foremost, you wish to avoid bringing all of your combat power to bear on the enemy’s weakest point in a combined arms assault because he very well may break and then where the hell will you be? You can hardly lose a war if the enemy dies or surrenders first.

Treat your combat arms, services and host nation military as separate, autonomous and almost unrelated units, each with their own objectives and set of ROE guidance more restrictive than required by the Laws of War (while mixing in allied and host nation forces of varying levels of capability and different ROE). Make it difficult for fire support, armor and air to work with your infantry commanders dealing with unforseen circumstances, who you should also spread thin over remote operational areas the size of, say, Iowa to maximize their vulnerability. If a battalion is needed, send a company. If a company is called for, send a squad. Allow the enemy to have safe havens in adjacent countries whose military power is dwarfed by your own by many orders of magnitude. Make sure that your intelligence and public diplomacy services are shorthanded on personnel  fluent in the languages used by the enemy, whom you allow to practice perfidy without punishment.

Remember, there are no guarantees in war. No matter how badly you screw up, the enemy might still be more poorly led and less adaptive than are you. That said, if you practice these ten principles you can become a master of the art of defeat.

The Boston Bombers and Superempowerment

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

My friend Dave Schuler who blogs at the excellent The Glittering Eye and on foreign policy at Dr. James Joyner’s Outside the Beltway , queried me as to what I thought of the Boston Bombers in light of the concept of the Superempowered Individual.

For those not familiar with the concept, the term “superempowered individual” originated in phrase coined by Thomas Friedman and quickly gained traction and evolved in the .mil/strategy/defense blogosphere and communities of interest after 9/11 turned everyone’s attention to the potential reach of catastrophic terrorism. Many people, including myself have written on the topic and while no single, agreed upon, definition of SEI exists, there is a consensus around an individual having the capacity to multiply the scale of the harm they can cause by leveraging or disrupting complex systems, be they mechanical, social, cyber or some combination. I defined SEI’s this way:

To qualify as a superempowered individual, the actor must be able to initiate a destructive event, fundamentally with their own resources, that cascades systemically on a national, regional or global scale. They must be able to credibly, “declare war on the world”.  

Using that definition, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are far from superempowered individuals. They were not “super” anything and rather than being masters of complexity, they ginned up some primitive IEDs  and blundered miserably after their attack on the Boston Marathon. The younger of the two accidentally ran over his own brother with a car, killing him, which gives some idea of the operational amateurism of these culprits. If Islamist terrorism has a Darwin Award, the Brothers Tsarnaev are contenders

Yet the cost of their attack, the Boston bombing, allegedly tops $330 million dollars? Why?

I would argue that the US is systematically “superdisempowering” itself by VASTLY multiplying the costs of any given act of terrorism with absurd and outrageous levels of costly security theater and glitzy paramilitarization of law enforcement that continue to cascade and accumulate long after sorry nitwits like Richard Reid, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or the amazingly incompetent Underwear Bomber have become obscure historical footnotes. It is incredibly counterproductive in every sense and has overwhelmingly negative effects that only add significantly to the costs of terrorism

Timothy McVeigh, in a much more heinous act of terrorism, blew up a Federal building and killed 168 people and injured 800 others with a massive truck bomb and America did not feel a need to dress our police officers like extras in Starship Troopers or it’s airport security like customs officials from a minor Fascist puppet regime. This is not a criticism of police officers who do a dangerous job with professionalism and bravery but of a national policy of paternalism and creeping authoritarianism that is slowly morphing them into asphalt soldiers.

The attacks on September 11 were thirty times worse and far more spectacular than McVeigh’s bombing, transfixing the attention of the whole world, but somehow we got along without President Bush declaring martial law and closing New York city and sending troops door to door to roust citizens in their homes without warrants or probable cause.

We need to take a healthy step back and put the brakes on our own policy and security responses to terrorism and dial them down to a rational minimum level required for investigative effectiveness. If not because these policies have become dangerously injurious to liberty and American democracy or because they are mostly wasteful government spending then we should do it because we have become so expert at making the costs of any act of terror extremely expensive by our own reaction that we are providing the enemy and itinerant crazies with a tremendous incentive to attack us more.


The only thing superempowered right now is own own lack of strategic sense.

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