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Taking Aim at the Black Swan

Thursday, April 10th, 2008

Shane Deichman reviews Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable and finds it wanting:

Perhaps it’s my naïveté (or perhaps that I’m a product of the California public school system), but I honestly don’t see our civilization marching toward “Extremistan”. Quite the opposite: While our awareness of remote events has increased, and our networks have grown exponentially, I believe that the diffuse topology of our networks actually dampens the impact of an extreme event. Consider the “Butterfly Effect”. Do you really think a butterfly flapping its wings in Jakarta is going to eventually cause a hurricane in New York City? Or do you think the minor perturbation is absorbed locally without cascading into some kind of resonance? Yes, there are examples that illustrate the dire consequences of unplanned resonance. Taleb (who waffles at the end of his book as half hyperskeptic, half intransigently certain) abandons the Gaussian bell curve, yet — with only a single mention of Albert-László Barabási — firmly embraces Power Law scale invariance as normative.Despite Taleb’s too-casual treatment of scale, I think he would agree with George E.P. Box’s statement (c. 1987) that “…[A]ll models are wrong, but some are useful.” Abandoning our dogmatic devotion to certainty is essential in any creative, innovative enterprise — and can reveal hidden opportunities, and hidden abilities.

Read the whole thing here.

Unlike most reviewers, Shane could go head-to-head with Taleb on things mathematical ( though you hardly need a math background to understand The Black Swan) and Shane is right that networks that are intrinsically and generally resilient are better suited to enduring unexpected, system perturbing, black swans.

Hope to have my review up Sunday evening.

Third Post in Nuclear Policy Series: Wizards of Oz

Saturday, December 22nd, 2007

See the introductory post here.

Blogfriend Shane Deichman of Wizards of Oz, who is also a nuclear physicist, warmed to the challenge put forward by Cheryl Rofer. An excerpt from Shane’s post:

Bloggers for Nuclear Policy” 

“One thing that becomes clear, touring the various historic sites around Oak Ridge, is the magnitude of effort needed to manufacture nuclear weapons. This is not something where a couple centrifuges can be turned on in a basement and voilà! you have material to build a bomb. The undertaking is complicated, laborious and time-consuming — and this is a good thing. The skill sets needed to preserve and maintain a credible stockpile are scarce — and this is not so good of a thing (I’ll cover this in “stockpile management” below).

This creates a taxonomy of “Nuclear Powers”:

  1. Those that have it
  2. Those that want to have it
  3. Those that don’t want it
  4. Those who can never make it

Obviously, those in the first category want to preserve their “exclusivity” — because after all, the logic of nuclear warfare is that you can never logically use them. This led to policies like the Baruch Plan after World War II (which the Soviets rejected because, in their opinion, it would have preserved the U.S. nuclear monopoly) and today’s proper emphasis on nuclear non-proliferation (a great success to date, in my opinion).”

Read the rest here.

Sunday, September 30th, 2007


Tom Barnett pointed out this tome to me in the comment section of his blog:

As I have not read a new economics book since Freakonomics came out, I’ll grab this the next time I run over to Border’s ( despite Col. Frans Osinga’s Science, Strategy and War, sent courtesy of Shane, sitting there, staring me in the face, taunting me). Idoru needs to be finished too and…

So many books. So little time.

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007


My friend Shane Deichman of Enterra and IATGR has jumped with both feet into the blogosphere at The Wizards of Oz. I’d like to welcome Shane to blogging and I encourage you to check out his latest post – “Large Numbers “. An excerpt:

A famous thought experiment postulates that a monkey, strumming unintelligently on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time, would eventually create all of the works of Shakespeare. Although often attributed to T.H. Huxley, a 19th century English biologist, it is a metaphor used in a 1913 essay by Émile Borel to describe large, random sequences of numbers.

…So let’s go back to our monkey. As an undergraduate physics major at Berkeley, one of the first homework problems in my thermodynamics class was a variation of the “infinite monkey theorem”: we had to determine the probability of a trillion monkeys, typing randomly without pause at 10 keys per second, to randomly type the words of Hamlet. By assuming Hamlet was comprised of approximately 100,000 characters, and that a typical keyboard has 40 keys (without regard for punctuation or capitalization), the probability of a random string is 1/40 * 1/40 * 1/40 …, repeated 100,000 times.Since we had a trillion (i.e., 1E12) monkeys typing continuously at 10 keys per second, our solution was that it would likely take 1E1000 years — in other words, nearly googol (1E100) times the age of our known universe — before reaching a 50% probability….

Read Shane’s post in full.

While as a society, we are generally aware of the handicaps created by illiteracy, the effects of innumeracy are not well recognized. However, the widespread inability amongst the public to comprehend the significance of large numbers and to weigh the relative importance of probability between variables, negatively effects the ability of the electorate to make informed choices regarding public policy. Or correctly identify economic trends, causation and effect. Or even have a rational discourse on many subjects, leaving the field wide open to demagoguery and magical thinking.

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007


When I was in my twenties, I studied a fair amount of economics and economic history. One concept that stuck with me was that of “Countervailing Power” which came from the book American Capitalism, by the famous liberal Keynesian economist John Kenneth Galbraith. While Galbraith was interested in how bargaining could be leveraged by non-economic factors, “countervailing power” has great utility as a concept in terms of disciplining the mind to explore contraindicative examples. This is one reason I tend to feature a range of views here that I sometimes agree with only in part, just a little bit or even not at all. Arguments are improved only by competition and criticism, not from being sheltered from them.

In that spirit, Shane Deichman of IATGR offered a robust critique of the article by LTC Paul Yingling and my question regarding military reform in my comment section; it was too good to leave there. Deichman himself has considerable military experience with the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Joint Forces Command and I reproduce his insightful remarks below:

“Before we consider “reforming” the system, I think it is useful to first note some facts about our system. For more than 30 years (nearly an entire career for some), we’ve had an all-volunteer military with high standards for admission. America has probably invested more proportionally in its military (Leviathan) than any other all-volunteer military force in history (this is conjecture on my part, based on what Tom Barnett’s mentor Art Cebrowski would call “Data Free Analysis” :-).

So, with an all-volunteer force in a $10T+/yr GDP nation with a low (<5%) unemployment rate, you get some interesting dynamics. "Careerism" is one of them. I am not a Personnelist, but I know of many who have written extensively on the concept (most notably my good friend Don Vandergriff, a fine Tanker who was outspoken and revered by his troops but whose career was deep-sixed by a vindictive CO). Don has written much on personnel reform, training and the “culture wars” in the DoD; a link to one of his monographs on D-N-I is here:

Culture Wars

Without getting too long-winded, I believe that there is a fundamental lack of accountability within the Pentagon. Not only in budgets (ask anyone in OSD if they REALLY know where all the money goes; they don’t), but also in performance.

Paul’s idea of implementing 360-degree profiles merits consideration (I did a couple myself as a middle manager at U.S. Joint Forces Command, and commented on several others). That might be a good place to start enhancing a culture of accountability within all ranks.

But there is no “silver bullet”, especially in a system as complex as the U.S. military. I think Paul would have been more effective had he focused on the civilian leaders’ roles in the “failures” he cites.

Fundamentally, I believe the system is sound. Every soldier/sailor/airman/Marine and guardsman — enlisted, NCO, and officer alike — as well as every civilian employee of the U.S. Government swore an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign AND DOMESTIC. And we all took that oath freely, without any mental reservation nor purpose of evasion.

Accountability begins inside. And sometimes we all need to be reminded of our promises.

It’s a good thing that we have an all-volunteer military. And it’s a good thing that we have civilian oversight of the warmaking capacity of our nation. And it’s a good thing that we have a Legislative Branch that holds the purse strings. Separation of powers works.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution deliberately split the powers across the branches of the government to protect our individual freedoms. We wanted weak government in the early days of the Republic, and I submit that we still want it today.

As a final bit of “Data Free Analysis”, consider the fate that befell the Roman empire after the creation of the Praetorian Guard. The “new elite” lost touch with their roots, with their sense of personal integrity and service to the republic. And that may be the direction that our own Republic goes if we continue to indulge a paucity of personal accountability within ALL ranks of leadership. “

Well said. I still believe Yingling has put his finger on a systemic problem but Shane’s caveats are the proper kind of countervailing considerations in seeking a solution.


Shane’s fellow director at Enterra, Tom Barnett, also posted on Col. Yingling and the Generals

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