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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:

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.

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 ]
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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:

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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.

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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 ]
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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.

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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..

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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.

and:

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.

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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

WYSIWYG

Friday, January 18th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — what you see is what you get: WYSIWYG — and possibly also TEOTWAWKI ]
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See buildings, walls, handrails, reflections, rows of windows, and people he’s walking past vanish and reappear as a man dressed for mountain climbing sets out into a blizzard of snow, video snow and special effects…

Hat-tip — Shlok Vaidya.

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We knew that Iran could photoshop extra rockets into a widely distributed news image –

and that Russian dissidents could makeover Kirill as his friend Putin

But the video above, with it’s vanishing and reappearing everythings? Simple — it’s a stunning portrayal of just what patience and skill can manage with video tampering using Photoshop CS5 or the like. Hence — this may also be the time to announce TEOTWAWKI. The end of the world as we know it. As we believe we know it.

You only need one of those effects, remember, to fake out a geopolitical tipping point…

Watcher, beware.

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But then there’s my friend Howard Rheingold, who points out that our whole world is a constructed reality:

We habitually think of the world we see as “out there,” but what we are seeing is really a mental model, a perceptual simulation that exists only in our brains. …

Cognitive simulation — mental model-making — is what humans do best. We do it so well that we tend to become locked into our own models of the world by a seamless web of unconscious beliefs and subtly molded perceptions. And computers are model-making tools par excellence, although they are only beginning to approach the point where people might confuse simulations with reality.

That’s a quote from his piece in Brenda Laurel‘s 1990 classic Art of Human-Computer Interface Design — and it seems to grow more prescient by the day!

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Three topics, at least somewhat related, we can maybe talk about later:

  • Who it was that spread the word about the Innocence of Muslims trainer.
  • The disputed Muhammad al-Durrah incident at the Netzarim junction. And
  • Zero Dark Thirty.


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