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Language as tripwire: Conway’s Game of Life and “emergent” warlords

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- the word "emergent" has an emergent, special meaning -- don't abuse it ]
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Now here’s an interesting little graphic. If you’re interested in cellular automata and agent based modeling, you’ll recognize it as a Gosper’s glider gun from Conway‘s Game of Life:

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It was the use of the word “emergent” in this Stars and Stripes piece, Islamic State leading Mideast into warlord era as nations dissolve, that tripped me into making this post:

The Middle East may be sliding toward a warlord era, with nation-states increasingly struggling to control all their territory and millions living under the rule of emergent local chiefs and movements.

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Who would have thought that this pattern:

glider gun

when subjected to the very simple rules of Conway’s Game:

Any white cell with fewer than two white neighbours turns black
Any white cell with two or three white neighbours remains white
Any white cell with more than three white neighbours turns black
Any black cell with exactly three white neighbours becomes a white cell

where a “cell” is one of the squares on a grid, and a “neighbor” is any cell horizontally, vertically, or diagonally adjacent to the cell in question, would result in this smaller pattern that glides across the grid:

glider

The upper pattern is called a “glider gun” while the lower one is called a “glider”.

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If you want to know more about the emergent warloards, you need HUMINT, you need people who know the languages, the dialects, the cultures, the personalities, the shifting alliances…

If you would like to know more about the various emergent patterns that have been found in Conway’s Game, try this Wikipedia entry. It includes the delightfully patterened “Pulsar”:

And if you want to play around with gliders, you could try Wolfram‘s page:

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Warlords aren’t “emergent” — that’s a buzzword-style use of what has by now become a term of art. They are strongmen already in the terrain, and if we knew the terrain like they do, we’d already know them.

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


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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?

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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.

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

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Education: a call for actors, directors, composers, conductors

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- leaping as far out of the box from Education: on Engineers, the Navy — and excuse me, Jihad as I can manage ]
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Director / Actor Jean Renoir as Octave in Rules of the Game


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Let me dive directly in at the deep end.

If, as Keith Oatley suggests, theatre is “simulation that runs on minds“, what does that tell us about actors (as compared with the rest of the population) as experienced simmers of complex realities, potential scenario planners?

Where does that leave Ronald Reagan vis-a-vis Margaret Thatcher? What about directors vs actors? What of Jean Renoir (depicted above)? Or Clint Eastwood, actor, director — and one time Mayor of Carmel, CA?

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On another tack:

In one of my all-time favorite quotations — because it covers so much ground, aptly, from Middle Eastern politics to JS Bach — the music critic and pianist (and yes, Palestinian, and other things as well) Edward Said once wrote:

When you think about it, when you think about Jew and Palestinian not separately, but as part of a symphony, there is something magnificently imposing about it. A very rich, also very tragic, also in many ways desperate history of extremes — opposites in the Hegelian sense — that is yet to receive its due. So what you are faced with is a kind of sublime grandeur of a series of tragedies, of losses, of sacrifices, of pain that would take the brain of a Bach to figure out. It would require the imagination of someone like Edmund Burke to fathom.

If contrapuntal composers and conductors can hear, feel the conflicts between, and at times, at least for a while, balance and resolve them, what then might Bach be able to teach our analysts, policy and policy makers?

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And finally, to quote Cornelius Castoriadis:

Philosophers almost always start by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is a table. What does this table show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever started by saying: “I want to see what being is, what reality is. Now, here is my memory of my dream of last night. What does this show to me as characteristic of a real being?” No philosopher ever starts by saying “Let the Mozart’s Requiem be a paradigm of being, let us start from that.” Why could we not start by positing a dream, a poem, a symphony as paradigmatic of the fullness of being and by seeing in the physical world a deficient mode of being, instead of looking at things the other way round, instead of seeing in the imaginary — that is, human — mode of existence, a deficient or secondary mode of being?

What then could we learn from Mozart (and Bach, and Shakespeare, Said and Renoir) about the better understanding of our present mode of existance?

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Yes.

I am suggesting that there is in fact such a thing as genius, that it is a “still, small voice” available to any who care to listen — and that we might be wise to center our educational ideas around its care and feeding…

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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 ]
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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>

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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?

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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…

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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.

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

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DoubleQuoting Rex Brynen

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- two books on war-gaming, and one highly unexpected tweet ]
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and:

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Gladiator Eroticvs, at $43.50, appears to be a movie. Directed by John Bacchus.

At these prices, forget the movie — I think maybe I’ll read van Creveld, $27.99, and wait for Henry Hyde, $60.00, to go to paperback.

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