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Archive for August 14th, 2006

Monday, August 14th, 2006


A selection from A+ bloggers with two posts apiece.

Tom Scudder at Aqoul with “Lebanon: UN Resolution 1701” and “15 ways of looking at a ceasefire

Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett with “Honoring Art Cebrowski’s legacy for what it is” and “Coming to an understanding with Jim Blaker

John Robb with ” THE COMING CONFLAGRATION ” and “AL QAEDA’S ACHILLES HEAL: RESIDUAL HIERARCHY” (err… should that be ” Heel” ? )

Don Surber with ” Bush should visit Castro ” and ” How to report on spying

Bruce Kesler at Democracy Project with “BBC Makes Joke of Itself ” and “Why not nationalized health care in the United States?

Purpleslog with “Video: Self-Portraits Photos of a Girl Taken Every Day For Three Years” and “Consequences of Open Source Espionage

Lexington Green at Chicago Boyz with “A German Ayn-Randian Guy Talking About Patriotism” and “Quote of the Day“.

The Drs. Eide at Neurolearning Blog with “What Reading Really Does for the Brain” and
The “Dark Side” of Expertise

That’s it !

Monday, August 14th, 2006


Chirol of Coming Anarchy had an incisive post on terrorism ” The Terror Tree“, one that has already caught the attention of Dr. Barnett. An excerpt:

“If you take any given terror plot and look at it through the chart. If it fails but gets media attention like today’s, it still wins in terms of system disruption and creating fear. It would have done the same had it succeeded. The question is one of degree.

…Given the results graphed above, the only total failure is a plot which elicits no reaction. What would such a plot look like? Probably like something we’ve already seen, something that’s yesterdays news, something we are already checking for. Thus, no change is necessary

…When a terrorist can invest a few thousand dollars in a plot, even tens of thousands, and cause a hundred or thousand times more damage, things don’t look good but this is where network resiliancy comes in, but that’s a job for Dan and Mark. “

Dave, Jeff and I have been discussing “wicked problems” and Chirol’s graphic is an excellent visualization of the “wicked problem” represented by terrorism, which has the potential darwinian dynamic of “heads they win, tails we lose”. That is not the feedback loop the United States or the West should accept, and as Chirol has already noted, attention to the principle of resiliency offers a chance to mitigate, minimize or thwart the negative effects of terrorism. Resiliency will not solve the problem of terrorism but it helps limit the potential damage.

To respond to Chirol’s request, the ideal solution to counter system disruption attacks is to engineer all your physical systems, networks, grids, first and second responder plans with multiple layers of redundancy so that no particular “hub” represents a systemic “choke point” whose elimination brings the system in question to a grinding halt. In a country with, in some areas, two centuries of established infrastructure, this would be a financial nightmare to retrofit from the top down. The ideal solution ain’t going to happen here, but in rapidly developing nations, they might consider building all their new systems with great attention to lavishing resources on redundancy. The initially higher costs today ( which can be amortized) represent billions saved in terms of disasters avoided.

The practical solution for the U.S. is to build, as cheaply as possible, decentralized systemic alternatives to the most critical elements existing infrastructure, gaining redundancy by overlaying duplicate systems on top of one another. For example, a national wireless broadband network in addition to the heavily land-based internet-communications network. Being neither an engineer nor a high tech guru, there are more qualified people than myself to offer concrete examples or identify the most critical systems; but economically, given the size and complexity of the diverse systems used in United States, we need to shoot for cheap and simple solutions in order to increase our resiliency.

For more on enhancing resiliency against terrorism, I suggest looking at some of the past posts by Steve DeAngelis at ERMB – in particular, this one and this one.

Monday, August 14th, 2006


For the purposes of promoting clear thinking, Dave Schuler recently had a very informative post “Theseus’s Clew: strategies, meta-strategies, and “wicked problems” “; if you wish to look at the dynamics of conflict based scenarios with a clear ( some might say ” glittering”) eye, then you should read Dave’s post in full.

But for the more slothful of my readers, an excerpt from Dave on the nature of ” wicked problems”:

“Even more unfortunately there are many real-world problems that have neither engineering solutions like the first class or negotiated solutions like the second. These are the difficult problems and, in some cases, these have been called “wicked problems”.

There are many reasons that a problem may be a wicked problem:

* the problem may be ill-defined

* the stakeholders in the problem may have dramatically different world views and framewor for understanding the problem

* the problem may have no stopping rules

* the problem may be unique and previous experience may not be applicable

Or, in many cases, the very act of selecting an approach to solving the problem permanently forecloses other alternatives. It is impossible to arrive at an iterative solution to the problem.

Consider, for example, the mythological Greek hero Theseus. Theseus navigated through the Minotaur’s maze with a clew, a ball of yarn. The clew gave him the ability to trace back to his starting point. Without it he’d have wandered the maze forever.

That’s the key to any iterative solution: you’re able to return to some point of departure and try another way. But when the initial choice precludes returning to the starting point, i.e. the decision has consequences, you can’t just try another way. When you’ve chosen the second branch, the only way out of the maze was through the first branch, and the first branch is no longer accessible to you, you’re stuck. There may no longer be a solution.”

Dave offered some excellent strategies for dealing with “wicked problems”, all of which I find to be both useful and generally correct. But as he asked me for some feedback, I have to say that there is more to the story here and some nuances to “wicked problems” that Dave did not include in his concisely written post.

First of all, not all “wicked problems” were created equally wicked. We must differentiate between those problems that are intractable from those that are merely hard or prohibitively expensive. The latter involves a significant degree of human value choice while the former is effectively beyond any direct solution within our present power to efface. Many cutting edge scientific questions are temporarily intractable until, say for example, computing power increases by a given order of magnitude. Some philosophical or religious questions, perhaps dealing with the nature of God or the afterlife, are intractable in a permanent sense.

“Wicked problems” dealing with conflict in a complex social system are not usually intractable, though we often use that word to describe very difficult to solve conflicts in places like the Middle East or Northern Ireland. What we really mean in such cases is that the problems are exceedingly complicated as well as deeply rooted in terms of psychological and emotional investment for those involved. We often describe the second aspect as being “self-destructive” or ” irrational” but in economic terms it is not irrational behavior if you place overriding value on minimizing your opponent’s gains ( though it may indeed be self-destructive to execute such a strategy at all costs) even if that value-set is a product of your own skewed perception of events.

How to deal with such ” wicked problems”? Here are several options to consider for non-intractable but difficult scenarios:

  • Avoidance: The costs to benefits ratio of becoming deeply engaged in solving “wicked problems” are often unfavorable, even should you be successful. Unlike with the Middle East, the United States has never, for many reasons, invested much prestige or resources in remediating the legacy of 700 years of “Irish troubles” in Northern Ireland. Arguably, without any significant harm to our national interests whatsoever.
  • New Eyes: If you must get involved, force yourself analyze the problem from a wide range of perspectives, the more non-traditional the better. Hone in on those perspectives that yield options with the greatest systemic effects even if those effects do not ” solve” the wicked problem per se.
  • The Gordian Knot: Every social system-based “wicked problem” represents a dynamic that is difficult to solve in part due to the rule-sets under which the participants are operating or the rule -set interacting with a unique environment. You can consider swallowing hard and just cutting through the entire mess by rejecting the entire paradigm in a single bold stroke ( a ” Big Bang” system perturbation) that renders the problem irrelevant. This is of course, a risky move that invites replacing old problems with new and possibly worse ones.
  • Rule set Reset: Somewhat akin to the Gordian knot, old paradigms are replaced with new ones because the advantages of so doing create a new consensus behind them. This is difficult but not impossible to pull-off. The Westphalian system of state sovereignty was a rule-set reset that reduced the geopolitical incentives for pursuing religious-dynastic warfare existing during the medieval world. The combined changes of nuclear weapons, the UN, Bretton Woods, and Cold War bipolarity was a partial rule-set reset from the diplomatic norms of the prewar era.

For “wicked problems” that are not intractable, wickedness is often in the eye of the beholder.


More to come later tonight.

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