zenpundit.com » model

Archive for the ‘model’ Category

Boko Haram “makes Kony look like child’s play”

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- some angles on Boko Haram ].

Boko Haram is irreducibly complex, quoth Tehu Cole:


To get a little understanding of that “irreducible complexity”, I turned to a Daily Trust May 4th interview with Kashim Shettima, Governor of Borno State, What Boko Haram Fighters Told Me About Sect

Shettima holds “there are two major factors that drive the Boko Haram sect, which are spiritual belief and economic desires.” It’s the first that concerns me here, and he has some pithy observations to make:

Bishop Matthew Kukah told me in an interview that Government does not understand the Boko Haram sect, that is why it has been difficult to tackle it. As governor, what are the mindsets, demands, motivation that have kept the sect alive?

In life, the most inspiring force is a strong spiritual belief regardless of the rightness or wrongness of the action. As Blaise Pascal rightly captured it and I quote “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” When you have spiritual belief in something, one might go to any extent to attain that goal. Though, to me, there can never be a belief that should lead a man into slicing the throats of fellow innocent humans for the simple reason that those humans share different ideology or faiths. [ ... ]

Those with spiritual beliefs are led into believing that when they kill, they obtain rewards from Allah and the rewards translate into houses in paradise. When they are killed, they automatically die as martyrs and go to paradise straight away. In other words, death is the beginning of their pleasure. [ ... ]

One dangerous thing about their ideology is their belief that when they attack a gathering or a community, any righteous person in the sight of God, who dies as a result of their attack, will go to paradise, which means they would have assisted the person to go to paradise in good time by their actions, and any infidel killed by their attack will go to hell, which to them is what he or she deserves and no regret for his death. This is the spiritual aspect that drives the sect, to the best of my understanding.

Useful quote to remember:

Blaise Pascal rightly captured it and I quote “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

Powerful phrasing:

In other words, death is the beginning of their pleasure.


The economic situation and its impact, family by family, is the other main driver Shettima sees:

Last year, when the President ordered the release of some detained suspects, some teenagers were brought to us at the Government House and when we asked them why they were arrested, some of them said to everyone’s hearing that they were being paid as little as N5,000 to set our schools ablaze. Some of them were paid less to spy on soldiers and make calls to insurgents to report their vulnerability so insurgents could ambush them. The teenagers obviously were either feeding their parents or taking care of themselves. This means, if there was spread of wealth through job opportunities, the teenagers would have no business depending on themselves. Their parents would have taken care of them.

Those children who become independent as teenagers in their search for economic fortunes are the same people exposed to all manner of religious preaching and manipulations. They develop independence over their parents to live with their views, while the parents can hardly influence them since they feed their parents. The element of lack is man’s worst nightmare. From Islamic point of view, our noble Prophet, Muhammad Sallallahu Alaihi Wa Sallam, has enjoined Msulims to pray against poverty; it is a dangerous disease. [ ... ]

If you will take a sample of the backgrounds of majority of the sect members, you are likely to discover that most are children from backgrounds that have been deprived of economic opportunities. [ ... ]

As I have always said, beneath the mayhem of Boko Haram, underneath the nihilism of Boko Haram lies the underlying cause, which is social exclusivity and extreme poverty. Once we engage the youths, once we create jobs, this nihilism, this madness will evaporate.


Describing the situation in terms of just two drivers doesn’t exactly model the “irreducibly complex” — but it does features two factors, one supposedly “underlying” the other, when people have a tendency to want to sweep one or the other off the table, either because religion isn’t something they takes seriously, or because they have a particular religion they dislike, and want to paint it in the darkest hues possible.

So having both religious and political (in this case, economic) drivers succinctly stated together is a plus — and the real complexity comes into view, it seems to me, when one tries to visualize or otherwise explain the ways in which these two types of drivers are interwoven — how they interact, the feedback loops, the braidings… And please note, I’d probably include some other cultural anthro and depth psychological stuff (rites of passage; archretypal symbols & rituals, eg) along with religion, and many varieties of external circumstances (familial and tribal affiliations, resources, education, territory, militias and warlords, to name a few) to the political.


I’m also a comparativist, so I was interested to read Juan Cole‘s blog-post Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army: Hunted Children & the Problem of Fundamentalism in Africa, in which he suggests:

Boko Haram is the Nigerian Muslim counterpart of the Ugandan Christian LRA

— which ties us back in with Teju Cole’s tweet at the top of this post.

So that’s an added dimension to the complexity — we can and should investigate the two groups separately, for their uniquenesses, always with an eye for the interweaving of broadinly “political” and “religious” drivers, and then search out the specific convergervces and divergences between them as they manifest across their two respective religious and territorial situations — and perhaps even gain some sense of how they balance and where they don’t, in terms of rhetoric, scriptural basis, economic situation, men and materiel, cruelty, territory and reach, levels of success…

And all that is no small task…


Okay, it’s an “irreducibly complex” set of issues — but we can still attempt to understand and model it — we just need our inputs to be wide as well as deep, and our minds to be open as well as shrewd.


Never bring a sword to a pen fight?

Monday, March 24th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- in which I suggest that reality may be more like a river, our understandings more like canals ]

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, "Moon of Enlightenment" from One Hundred Views of the Moon


I read a couple of things this morning that struck me. The first was in Zen’s post, Dealing with the China we Have Rather than the China we Wish to Have:

Getting your adversary to negotiate with powerless and ill- informed representatives while the real decision makers sit at a remove is a time-tested tactic in bargaining.

The side that uses this approach gets at least two bites at every apple which means the other side increasingly has to give further concessions to secure what they thought had already been agreed to. It is a classic example of negotiating in bad faith. Furthermore, the side using it is the one interested in winning or at best, in buying time, not in reaching an agreement.

When presented with this dynamic the smart move is to walk away and immediately implement whatever the other side would rather you not do or give up the game and move on to something else. Agreements and treaties have no intrinsic value unless they advance, or at least preserve, interest. If the other party has no intention of abiding by the terms at all then they are less than worthless, being actively harmful.

There’s this business about words and realities, or maps and territories if you prefer. The word is not the thing, the finger pointing is not the moon, the name that can be named is not the true name… and gaming a war is not the same as fighting it.

And yet troop movements near a border “in an exercise” are still troop movements, and thus threatening. And a threat is what? — an implicit form of violence?

Alex Schmid, in his Revised Academic Consensus Definition of Terrorism, #3, writes of “physical violence or threat thereof employed by terrorist actors”…

A threat, a promise, a plan, a scenario, a prediction, a prophecy, a self-fulfilling prophecy — words and images have impact, the pen can be mightier than the sword, just as it can be cut down by it. How does the saying go? Don’t bring a pen (or sketch-pad) to a swordfight? or should it be — never bring a sword to a pen fight?

So how do we talk about the disjunction Zen mentions, the “negotiating in bad faith” mechanism, in game theoretic terms? What kinds of maps allow us to note the positioning of minds as well as mortars?

And what if the minds themselves are split — how do we model that?


Which brings me to the second thing I read today — this one in Graeme Smith‘s The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan, p 96:

Like many Afghans, my translator’s extended family included both government workers and insurgents. Not all of them disagreed with each other ideologically; sometimes they followed the pragmatic tradition in which Afghan families hedge their bets, sending their sons to serve in a variety of factions in a conflict.

I’d seen this division of familial labor mentioned some years ago, and today a review of Smith’s book brought the memory back to me, and again I wondered — what does that do to all those network maps that show who knows who?

I guess what I’m saying is that reality is inherently fluid — like a river if you will, with its shifting banks and oxbow lakes — while our categories for thinking about reality tend to be as straight and inflexible as a canal.


How do we transition, in understanding, from the neat, crisp idea to the rumpled reality? From the finger pointing, to the moon?


Big Pharaoh: Levels of complexity in presentation

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- Syria, yes, but with a focus on networks, tensions, mapping, and understanding ]

Binary logic is a poor basis for foreign policy, as Tukhachevskii said on Small Wars Council’s Syria under Bashir Assad: crumbling now? thread, pointing us to the work of The Big Pharaoh. Here are two of the Big Pharaoh’s recent (before Obama‘s “undecided” speech) tweets:

Each of those tweets is non-linear in its own way, but via its implications — we “complete the loop” by knowing that the “mass murderer” is the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad and the “cannibal” is the Syrian rebel, Abu Sakkar, and that Al-Qaeda typically cries “allahu Akbar” after killing Americans, while Americans typically rejoice after killing Al-Qaeda operatives. So these two tweets are already non-linear, but not as complex as what comes next>


The Big Pharaoh also put this diagram on his blog, and Max Fisher picked it up and blogged it at the Washington Post as The Middle East, explained in one (sort of terrifying) chart:

I’d have some questions here, of course — one about the directionality of the arrows, which only seem to go in one direction — okay for the “supports” and “has nu clue” arrows, perhaps, but surely the “haters” would mostly be two-way, with AQ hating US as well as US hating AQ? There’s no mention of Jordan, I might ask about that… And there are no arrows at all between Lebanese Shias and Lebanese Sunnis — hunh?


What really intrigues me here, though, is that while this chart with fifteen “nodes” or players captures many more “edges” or connections between them than either or even both of the two tweets above, the tweets evoke a more richly human “feel” for the connections they reference, by drawing on human memories of the various parties and their actions.

Thus on the face of it, the diagram is the more complex representation, but when taken into human perception and understanding, the tweets offer a more immediuate and visceral sense of their respective situations.

And scaled down and in broad strokes, that’s the difference between “big data” analytic tools on the one hand, and HipBone-Sembl approach to mapping on the other. A HipBone-Sembl board may offer you two, or six, ten, maybe even a dozen nodes, but it fills them with rich anecdotal associations, both intellectual and emotional — a very different approach from — and one that I feel is complementary to — a big data search for a needle in a global needlestack…


But I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point you to Kerwin Datu‘s A network analysis approach to the Syrian dilemma on the Global Urbanist blog. He begins:

A chart by The Big Pharaoh doing the rounds of social media shows just how much of a tangled mess the Middle East is. But if we tease it apart, we see that the region is fairly neatly divided into two camps; it’s just that one of those camps is divided amongst itself. Deciding which of these internal divisions are fundamental to the peace and which are distractions in the short term may make the diplomatic options very clear.

and goes on from there, offering a series of network graphs of which is the fourth:

from which he draws the following observation:

What can we do from this position? If the US decides to pursue a purely military route to remove Assad from power, it will incur the ire of Russia, Iran and Lebanese Shias, but it can do so with a broad base of support including the Syrian rebels themselves, Israel, Qatar, Turkey, Lebanese Sunnis, and even Al Qaeda. However if it chooses a diplomatic route to curry support to remove Assad it must isolate him in the above graph by making an ally out of Russia and/or Iran (assuming that making an ally out of Lebanese Shias would have little impact). Russia doesn’t hate the US but it does hate the Syrian rebels, making it an unpromising ally against Assad. Iran hates the Syrian rebels and the US hates Iran, but the Al Qaeda is a thorn in both their sides, making it a potential though unlikely source of cooperation.

Really, you and I should read the whole piece, and draw our own conclusions.


Or lack thereof. I’ll give the last tweet to Teju Cole, who articulates my own thoughts, too:


Redux: I’d like to game an idea entering a mind

Tuesday, July 9th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- another angle on the whole idea of qualitative node-&-edge graphs for concept mapping ]

Image of a virus letting its DNA loose in a cell, from the Bjork app-game-song

The other day I found myself re-reading a comment I’d made on Zen’s post The Games People Play back in January 2008, which I’d been searching for in the back of my mind for months — too attic-like and cobwebbed, probably not the best place to look for it. In any case, now I’ve found it I’ve dusted it off and offer it here for your consideration:


Ideas can be infectious.  We know this, and thus we can explore the spread of ideas using models drawn from epidemiology, an approach which Malcolm Gladwell takes in his book Tipping Point. Ideas can also be viewed as existing in an ecosystem, and thus what we know of genetics can be applied to them, as Dawkins suggested in coining the term "meme". Having said that, I’d still like to game an idea entering a mind.

Specifically, I would like to game the way in which the idea that constitutes "martyrdom" (shahada) in an al-Qaida mind enters a mind that’s primed with the ideas of Tablighi Jamaat, for instance, and once it’s "in," conforms the idea of "obligation" (fard) that’s already present in TJ’s non-violent and apolitical version into the al-Q sense of the word — that "to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty (fard ‘ayn) for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it"… I’m thinking of something along the lines of the kind of research that allows someone to write, describing the John Cunningham virus (JCV):

the JC virus enters the central nervous system by fastening itself to the 5HT2AR receptor for serotonin, which is found on the surface of glial cells.  When this receptor for serotonin is triggered, it opens the pathway that allows the virus to enter the cell.

The thing is, we can manage a very brief verbal sketch of how an idea enters a mind and becomes part of a person’s "thinking" — and we can model in some detail the way that an idea spreads through a population — but we’re not very good at modeling, or gaming, thought processes.  And from my POV, that’s the most fascinating challenge of all.

My question is: what kind of game should this be, how do we set up the board, what markers shall we have for ideas or parts of ideas and for views or congregations of ideas, what rules do we need to use in combining them, etc — how do we get as close to a mental conversation as humanly possible?

I happen to think that meditators will have quite a bit to teach us here, that the Tibetans may have a better vantage point than we as a culture do… because they’ve been watching the mind, and in particular watching its various coiled springs uncoil, and putting the process into words, for longer than we have. But it will take a whole new series of aha!s to really figure this out.


The result wouldn’t look like the image at the top of this post — it might look more like a PERT chart, but with sequences of ideas rather than actions. And it would be based on narratives, not theories. Above all, it would be multi-voiced, polyphonic, fluid — like that diagram from Edward Tufte about the Ocean of Stories:

That’s it — what say you all?

The Bjork Virus video can be found here, the Virus app-game-song can apparently be downloaded here.


A woman, a ladder, four goats, and a cow named Bessie.

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- the four goats go with the woman, the cow called Bessie belongs with Hiyakawa's Ladder of Abstraction ]


My friend the anthropologist Peter van der Werff recently wrote this paragraph about a woman he met in India:

The very poor woman explained me she and her four goats needed the shadow of a tree to escape from the blistering afternoon sun in their semi-arid part of India. There was a tree at the edge of the village, but the owner did not allow her to come near that tree. Therefore, she and her goats suffered from the heat, at the cost of her health and the productivity of the goats.

I was reminded of SI Hayakawa‘s Ladder of Abstraction.


Caution: you really do need, as it says, to “read” this image from the bottom up…

See Bessie, the Cow, in SI and AR Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action, pp. 83-85, 5th ed..


Why did I think of Hayakawa’s ladder?

Here are two other things m’friend Peter had to say about the woman and her goats, the merciless sun, and that tree with its abundance of merciful shade:

As long as economists don’t include oppression and exploitation in their models, they cannot understand poverty.


Such cruel relationships occur in many of the 750,000 villages of India. Without including those oppressive and exploitative realities, real poverty is not captured. We may invite economists to fit this reality in the computer.


We humans can do it. But how do we configure models that can hold those levels of granularity and abstraction — of individual human concern and global decision-making necessity — close enough together to give our grand plans humane flexibility?

I suspect writers such as Lawrence Wright know more about this than the number crunchers — and that the well-selected anecdote must become as significant as the well-chosen statistic


Switch to our mobile site