Milsats: Bombshell(s)

Today’s MilSat is a little different – I highly recommend the Bombshell podcast at War on the Rocks by three very intelligent, articulate women: Radha Iyengar Plumb, Loren DeJonge Schulman, and Erin Simpson.

I am actually on the opposite side of some of their beliefs, but it’s very informative and great fun to listen to! Just click on the image below:

bombshell-long-1024x497

 

Advertisements

Books I read in 2016

Last year was my lowest year in ten years for amount of books read.  To be honest, I was working through textbooks and FreeCodeCamp learning to code, which took away from my reading time.  Still, there were a lot of interesting books on this year’s list!
January
1.) 4th Generation Warfare Handbook – William S. Lind and Gregory A. Thiele

 

February
4.) Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft – by Elizabeth Bear and Greg Bear et al.

 

March
11.) Gorilla Mindset – Mike Cernovich

 

April

 

May
15.) The Circle – Dave Eggers
16.) Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War – P. W. Singer and August Cole

 

June
17.) The Cartel Hit (Mack Bolan the Executioner #438) – Mike Linaker, Don Pendleton (Series Creator)
19.) The Tournament – Matthew Reilly
21.) Scarecrow Returns – Matthew Reilly
22.) Progression – Sebastian Marshall

 

July
23.) Abyss Deep (Star Corpsman #2) – by Ian Douglas
26.) Bitcoin for the Befuddled – Conrad Barski and Chris Wilmer

 

August
28.) Star Wars: The Rise of the Empire – John Jackson Miller et al.
29.) Re-read GIS for Dummies – Michael N. DeMers
30.) The Blood of Gods (Emperor #5) –  Conn Iggulden

 

September

 

October
32.) Head First Mobile Web – Lyza Danger Gardner and Jason Grigsby
33.) The Water Knife – Paolo Bacigalupi

 

November
34.) Public Health 101: Healthy People – Healthy Populations – Richard Riegelman, Brenda Kirkwood
37.) Planet of Slums – Mike Davis
38.) Proxima – Stephen Baxter

 

December
39.) There Will Be War Volume X – Jerry Pournelle, Editor
40.) JavaScript: The Good Parts – Douglas Crockford

Books I Read in 2015

I’m a little late on this one – Usually I put it up in January, but never late than never!

It seems like I read less this year than in previous years, but a lot of what I was doing was working through coding exercises.  Also, we moved in the middle of the year, and a whole lot of bad stuff happened too.  At one point I was working two jobs.  So, life happening plus less time to read combined with working through coding textbooks meant this year was anemic when it came to books.  Still, I hope you find some value in the list below. There are books on history, international affairs, religion, mathematics, epidemiology, and of course, many fiction books.

January

3.) Vengeance (Rogue Warrior #12) – Richard Marcinko
February
9.)  GIS for Dummies – Michael N. DeMers
11.) There Will Be War Volume 1 (Castalia House ebook version) – Jerry Pournelle, Editor
14.) Blowback (Vanessa Pierson #1) – Valerie Plame and Sarah Lovett
15.) Men of War: There Will Be War Volume II (Castalia House ebook version) – Jerry Pournelle, Editor
16.) The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate – Scott D. Sagan & Kenneth N. Waltz
17.) The Art of War: A History of Military Strategy (Castalia House ebook version) – Martin van Creveld
March
19.)  El Borak and Other Desert Adventures – Robert E. Howard
21.) There Will Be War: Volume III Blood and Iron (Castalia House ebook version) – Jerry Pournelle, Editor
23.) GIS: A Visual Approach – Bruce E. Davis
April
25.) Rough Justice (Sean Dillon #15) – Jack Higgins
27.) A Darker Place (Sean Dillon #16) – Jack Higgins
May
28.) Wesley for Armchair Theologians – William J. Abraham
June
32.) Full Force and Effect (Jack Ryan #10) – Mark Greaney (Tom Clancy)
July
34.) There Will Be War Volume IV: Day of the Tyrant  (Castalia House ebook version) – Jerry Pournelle, Editor
35.) Why Homer Matters – Adam Nicolson
39.) Founders (The Coming Collapse) – James Wesley, Rawles
August
September
October
44. The Martian – Andy Weir
November
45.) Treasure of Khan (Dirk Pitt #19) – Clive Cussler and Dirk Cussler
December
46.) Finding Zero – Amir D. Aczel
48.) End of the Earth: Voyaging to Antarctica – Peter Matthiessen

U.S. Strategy and the New Medievalism

I’ve noted before that I’ve done some work with the Matthew Ridgway Center for International Security Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.  Dr. Phil Williams, a noted scholar on transnational security threats, was the director, and was also a visiting scholar at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, and for them he wrote several monographs.  One in particular that caught my eye was “From the New Middle Ages to a New Dark Age: The Decline of the State and U.S. Strategy“.  At the time (two years ago) I toyed around with the possibility of a book-length expansion on this, going as far as working up a table of contents and listing some extra things that the book could cover that the monograph did not.
Real life intervened, as it often does, and I found myself back at work as an engineer, so I never got much further with the book.  Still, I think Dr. Williams’ paper deserves more consideration, and I’d still like to explore some of the ideas in the monograph in further detail.  Given the Arab Spring, Ukraine, and Syria, as well as the situation in the South China Sea, I think Dr. Williams foresaw a lot of things in this publication.  At the end of it, he gives some recommendations which are interesting in light of the cutbacks to the U.S. military that we are seeing.
I’ll explore different areas over the next few weeks – I’m aiming for one blog post per week.  For today, here is a synopsis of the monograph taken from the SSI website.  I encourage you to download and read it.
From the New Middle Ages to a ... Cover Image
“Security and stability in the 21st century have little to do with traditional power politics, military conflict between states, and issues of grand strategy. Instead they revolve around the disruptive consequences of globalization, declining governance, inequality, urbanization, and nonstate violent actors. The author explores the implications of these issues for the United States. He proposes a rejection of “stateocentric” assumptions and an embrace of the notion of the New Middle Ages characterized, among other things, by competing structures, fragmented authority, and the rise of “no-go” zones. He also suggests that the world could tip into a New Dark Age. He identifies three major options for the United States in responding to such a development. The author argues that for interventions to have any chance of success the United States will have to move to a trans-agency approach. But even this might not be sufficient to stanch the chaos and prevent the continuing decline of the Westphalian state.”

My Books Read in the Last Year

Another year, another book list.  I read less book this year than last, but over two thousand more pages!  Here’s the list:

January
2.) Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
4.) Debt: The First 5000 Years – Peter Graeber
5.) Warmth Disperses and Time Passes: The History of Heat – Hans Christian von Baeyer
7.) Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography – Hew Strachan
8.) Tanks in the Cities: Breaking the Mold – Kendall D. Gott
February
March
13.) Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality – Eliezer Yudkowsky
15.) A Magic Broken – Vox Day (Novella)
17.) Shadow of the Hegemon (Ender Wiggin Saga) – Orson Scott Card
18.) Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology – Rosemary Radford Ruether
19.) Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale – Ian Morgan Cron
April
24.) The Last Stand of Fox Company – Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
27.) Liberation Theologies: The Global Pursuit of Justice – Alfred T. Hennelly, S.J.
28.) Human Security in a Borderless World – Derek S. Reveron and Kathleen A. Mahoney-Norris
31.) The Mathematics of Life – Ian Stewart
May
40.) Worm: The First Digital World War – Mark Bowden
June
44.) Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
45.) Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War – Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss
46.) How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth – Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart
July
51.) Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty – Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
August
54.) Beginning Programming – Adrian and Kathie Kingsley-Hughes
55.) Sure Fire (Rich & Jade #1) – Jack Higgins with Justin Richards
56.) Just My Type: A Book About Fonts – Simon Garfield
60.) Head First HTML and CSS – Elisabeth Robson and Eric Freeman
September
63.) Star Wars: Scoundrels – Timothy Zahn
66.) Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Think – Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier
October
67.) The Tao of Programming – Geoffrey James
November
68.) The Myriad: Tour of the Merrimack #1 – R. M. Meluch
69.) Caliphate – Tom Kratman
70.) Kris Longknife: Mutineer (Kris Longknife #1) – Mike Shepherd
71.) Shadow Puppets (Ender’s Shadow series) – Orson Scott Card
72.) Starting Out With Visual Basic 2012 – Tony Gaddis and Kip Irvine
December
73.) Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live & Die for Bigger Things – Ken Wytsma with D. R. Jacobsen
74.) The City: A Global History – Joel Kotkin
79.) Theology: A Very Short Introduction – David F. Ford

My Books Read in the Last Year

I read quite a bit last year, with an emphasis on linguistics, Counterinsurgency, complexity, and mathematics.  Fiction, as always was scattered throughout the year.  Lots of good links below; I encourage you to check them out, along with the reviews I did of several of them…

January
1) Your Child’s Growing Mind: A Guide to Learning and Brain Development from Birth to Adolescence – Jane M. Healey, Ph.D
2) Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple) – Jeffrey Kluger
3) The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
4) A New Kind of Science – Stephen Wolfram
5) Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power – Robert D. Kaplan
6) The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity – Richard Florida (My review here)
7) Language: The Big Picture – Peter Sharpe (my review here)
8) Understanding Physics: Volume 1: Motion, Sound, and Heat (Understanding Physics) – Isaac Asimov
9) Seven Firefights in Vietnam – John A. Cash, et al.  (My review here)

February
10) Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages – Guy Deutscher (My review here)
11) Chaos Theory Tamed – Garnett P. Williams
12) Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity – John Gribbin (My review here)
13) The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa: With E. D. Swinton’s “The Defence of Duffer’s Drift” – Michael Burgoyne and Albert Marckwardt (My review here)
14) The Age of the Unthinkable , Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It – Joshua Cooper Ramo
15) The Quiet American (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) – Graham Greene
16) Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq – Patrick Cockburn
17) Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life – Len Fisher
18) Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language – Seth Lerer (My review here)
19) Migration: Species Imperative #2 – Julie Czerneda
20) Euler’s Gem: The Polyhedron Formula and the Birth of Topology – David S. Richeson
21) Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means – Albert-Laszlo Barabasi (My review here)
22) Chicago Blues – Edited by Libby Fischer Hellmann

March
23) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us – Dan Pink
24) The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why – Richard E. Nisbett
25) Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey From NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer – Mireya Mayor (My review here)
26) A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines – Anthony Bourdain
27) Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World – Liaquat Ahamed (My review here)
28) Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions – Lisa Randall
29) The Mother Tongue – English And How It Got That Way – Bill Bryson
30) Raising Musical Kids: A Guide for Parents – Robert A. Cutietta

April
31) Thought Contagion – Aaron Lynch (My review here)
32) Prince Caspian (Chronicles of Narnia 2) – C.S. Lewis
33) Memories of My Melancholy Whores – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
34) Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age (Open Market Edition) – Duncan J. Watts
35) The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention – Guy Deutscher
36) Hardwired – Walter Jon Williams
37) The Next Decade: Where We’ve Been . . . and Where We’re Going – George Friedman

May
38) Almost Human: Making Robots Think – Lee Gutkind
39) Understanding Physics: Volume 2: Light, Magnetism and Electricity – Isaac Asimov
40) Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials) – Robert B. Cialdini
41) Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do – Albert-Laszlo Barabasi
42) The Secret Servant (Gabriel Allon) – Daniel Silva
43) Pittsburgh Noir (Akashic Noir) – Edited by Kathleen George
44) Freedom (TM) – Daniel Suarez
45) Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots – Gareth Branwyn
46) The Traveler (Fourth Realm Trilogy, Book 1) – John Twelve Hawks
47) Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back – Douglas Rushkoff
48) Running Out of Water: The Looming Crisis and Solutions to Conserve Our Most Precious Resource – Peter Rogers and Susan Leal
49) Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants – Dennis Okholm

June
50) Counterinsurgency – David Kilcullen
51) Hunter’s Run – George R. R. Martin, Gardner Dozois, Daniel Abraham
52) The Killing Ground (Sean Dillon) – Jack Higgins
53) One Shot (Jack Reacher, No. 9) – Lee Child
54) The Hard Way (Jack Reacher, No. 10) – Lee Child
55) Why Things Break: Understanding the World By the Way It Comes Apart – Mark E. Eberhart

July
56) Earth Strike: Star Carrier: Book One – Ian Douglas
57) Mediterranean Winter: The Pleasures of History and Landscape in Tunisia, Sicily, Dalmatia, and the Peloponnese – Robert D. Kaplan
58) The Post-American World: Release 2.0 – Fareed Zakaria
59) Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer – Novella Carpenter
60) The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization – Bryan Ward-Perkins
61) The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century – Thomas X. Hammes
62) Four Colors Suffice: How the Map Problem Was Solved – Robin Wilson
63) How to Build Your Own Spaceship: The Science of Personal Space Travel – Piers Bizony
64) The X in Sex: How the X Chromosome Controls Our Lives – David Bainbridge
65) The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World – Peter Schwartz

August
66) The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine – Francis S. Collins
67) The Scar – China Mieville
68) The Profession: A Thriller – Steven Pressfield (My review here)
69) Symmetry: A Journey into the Patterns of Nature – Marcus du Sautoy
70) The Five Chinese Brothers (Paperstar) – Claire Hutchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese
71) Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America – Matt Taibbi
72) How to Talk to Your Child About Sex: It’s Best to Start Early, but It’s Never Too Late — A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents – Linda and Richard Eyre
73) The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris – David McCullough
74) Havoc – Jack DuBrul
75) Sundiver (The Uplift Saga, Book 1) – David Brin
76) Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy – Steven Metz

September
77) The Rest of the Robots – Isaac Asimov
78) Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things – William McDonough and Michael Braungart
79) 7th Sigma – Steven Gould
80) 50 Mathematical Ideas You Really Need to Know – Tony Crilly
81) The Future of Work: How the New Order of Business Will Shape Your Organization, Your Management Style and Your Life – Thomas W. Malone
82) Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier – Edward Glaeser
83) Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself – Dan Pink

October
84) The Future of Management – Gary Hamel with Bill Breen
85) 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith – Sonia Arrison
86) The Riemann Hypothesis: The Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics – Karl Sabbagh
87) Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (Great Discoveries) – David Foster Wallace
88) The Final Warning (Maximum Ride, Book 4) – James Patterson
89) Re-read Where Eagles Dare – Alistair MacLean
90) The Caryatids – Bruce Sterling

November
91) Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality – Jonathan Weiner
92) Mathematical Mysteries: The Beauty and Magic of Numbers (Helix Books) – Calvin C. Clawson
93) The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity – Amir D. Aczel
94) Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes – Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson
95) Reamde: A Novel – Neal Stephenson
96) The Poincare Conjecture: In Search of the Shape of the Universe – Donal O’Shea

December
97) Euclid’s Window : The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace – Leonard Mlodinow
98) Millennium Problems – Keith Devlin
99) The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
100) Godel’s Proof (Revised Edition) – Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman
101) Moscow Rules (Gabriel Allon #8) – Daniel Silva
102) The Bourne Legacy – Eric van Lustbader
103) Beautiful Outlaw: Experiencing the Playful, Disruptive, Extravagant Personality of Jesus – John Eldredge
104) Count Down: The Race for Beautiful Solutions at the International Mathematical Olympiad – Steve Olson
105) The Crowded Universe: The Search for Living Planets – Alan Boss

Review of Linked: The New Science of Networks

As I’ve noted previously, I’ve been exploring the science of complexity these last few months, trying to get a feel for the different subfields and how it can be applied to various real world issues. One of the areas in the field of Complexity is that of Network Science.

Linked:  The New Science of Networks by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi is a useful overview of the field.  It’s an easy read that covers a broad amount of the field and is a good layman’s introduction to network theory.  He shows that the world around us can be described in terms of Networks, and comments on how they are formed, what forms they take, and how they grow.  Note:  This is one of my longer reviews, and I left a lot out!

Barabasi starts off with one of the most famous network problems of history: the bridges of Konigsberg.  He shows how the problem can be solved using nodes and links, which was discovered by Leonhard Euler.  This segues into a discussion of graph theory and its history. Graph theory describes a network as a collection of links and nodes.  How to connect these nodes and the relations between them, as well as how the network grows in the first place, is the focus of the book.  Hr runs through a history, starting with random networks which although helpful in formulating basic laws, do not really describe real world networks.  He describes Stanley Milgram’s famous six degrees experiment and how Barabasi and his team researched it and found similarities in other networks of small worlds, where any node can reach any other node in a small number of jumps no matter how large the network.  He also talks about the strength of weak ties.

Clustering – each of us has a small number of close friends – is a key structure in networks and Barabasi talks about these and how a few links between them reduces the length between distant nodes.  Still, the nodes are all egalitarian and this is not how it works in real life.  Barabasi refers back to Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point, talking about connectors and hubs – which means they have more than the average number of links which the egalitarian model doesn’t allow.  Hubs are apparent in the Kevin Bacon Game and in airline networks, among others.  The distribution follows a Power Law rather than a bell curve.  These networks are “scale-free” since there is no average node.

A discussion Of Pareto’s 80 / 20 law and a discussion of “phase transitions” follows, and how understanding them helps us to see how hubs appear in networks.  He notes that networks grow and are not static, and that counterintuitively just because a hub is old doesn’t mean it will get the most links – although that does play a role.  There is “preferential attachment” – nodes prefer to link to nodes that already have a lot of links.  Google today is a perfect example.  In other words, the rich get richer…

A basic prediction of scale-free networks is that the first mover will have an advantage in forming the most links.  In real life networks, however, this isn’t the case.  This is because contrary to the assumption that all links are the same, they instead are all different with different intrinsic properties.  This is defined as fitness.  More fit nodes will end up with more links.  This is complementary to preferential attachment which only examines the number of links.  It also shows that the number of links is therefore independent of when the node joins the network.

In an intriguing chapter,  Barabasi then turns to the weaknesses of a highly-interconnected network.  Most networks in nature are highly interconnected and are also highly robust in that the failure of one component won’t take down the whole network.  Barabasi and his team investigated this phenomenon.  They found that for these networks, removing a large number of nodes typically had little or no effect on the functioning of the network.  This is due to the hubs model – removing nodes randomly eliminates a large number of tiny nodes and not very many hubs, which preserves the integrity of the network since the tiny nodes aren’t very interconnected.  However, if the Hubs are specifically AND simultaneously targeted, the network will quickly break apart.  This, then is the primary weakness of these networks.  they are not vulnerable to accident, but are highly vulnerable to attack.  This applies to both man-made and natural networks from the internet to food webs.  Cascading failures can happen when the load from a failed node is shifted to other nodes that are unable to handle the load, whereupon they fail and pass it on to yet more nodes that cannot handle the load, and so on.  This is what happens during blackouts and rolling power failures and in denial of service attacks on routers.  These happen in dynamic networks and still need researched.


Using these findings of network theory, Barabasi discusses the spread of ideas, fads, and viruses, using as examples AIDS, computer viruses, jokes, and hybrid corn.   Malcolm Gladwell covers some of this in The Tipping Point.  One of the more surprising findings was that the rate of spread does not depend on virulence.  The solution is to target the cures to the hubs.  In AIDS, this would involve targeting the people who are most likely spreading the virus (those with many partners) as opposed to those who don’t (people with only one or two partners).  There are, obviously, ethical questions associated with this course of action.  Barabasi also examines the resilience of today’s internet (the physical infrastructure as opposed to the World Wide Web).  Instead of being a mesh as it was originally designed inj the 1950s, the Internet is more of a hub and spoke model that has grown organically.   This is why the Internet, too, is vulnerable to an attack on Hubs, rather than being perfectly resilient.  It also enables “parasitic computing,” where your computer can be “hijacked” and used to perform functions for a computer thousands of miles away – this is done with spam, for example.  It can also be used voluntarily, as in SET@Home or research into protein-folding.  Another question asked is that as the Internet continues to grow across the planet as it is connected to computers and sensors and cell-phones, will it eventually become self-aware?

One surprising thing about the World Wide Web is how difficult it can be to find information, even though theoretically the amount of information is limitless.  Google, surprisingly, indexes less than 25% of all the pages out there!  Worse yet, despite the fact that most webpages are separated by an average of nineteen links, due to the architecture of the Web, only 24% of pages can be reached by surfing from one to the other.  This is due to the structure of the Web: it is a Directed Network.  Barabasi describes this in detail.  Also, due to these properties, sections of the web can be partitioned off – providing a tool for control of access.  However, the topology of the Web as described here is much more effective than a government at keeping a website hidden!  Barabasi notes that the Web is little understood and a great deal more time and attention should be paid to understanding it.


Networks are common, and especially so in biology.  Barabasi also discusses how network theory can be applied to business and the economy.  He posits that to compete organizations need to go from a tree hierarchy to a web or network instead.  They will also participate in ever interconnected webs with suppliers and customers.  He shows how members of boards of corporations are ever more interconnected with hubs – 20% of them serve on more than one board.  The degree of separation of boards of directors is only three!


In conclusion, Barabasi summarizes:  “…though real networks are not as random…as envisioned, chance and randomness do play an important role in their construction.  Real networks are not static, as all graph theoretical models were until recently.  Instead, growth plays a role in shaping their topology.  They are not as centralized as a star network is.  Rather, there is a hierarchy of hubs that keep these networks together, a heavily connected node followed by several less connected ones, trailed by dozens of even smaller nodes. ”  There is no center, or controller, in the middle of the network that could be removed to destroy the web.  They are instead self-organized with emergent behavior.  Al-Qaeda is an example of a web organization, which is why the United States military – a hierarchical tree organization – has had trouble battling it.  Barabasi suggests that “We must eliminate the need and desire of the nodes to form links to terrorist organizations by offering them a chance to belong to more constructive and meaningful webs.”  We can do this by attacking “…the underlying social, economic, and political roots that fuel the network’s growth.”  Barabasi sees the future of network theory as understanding complexity and “move beyond structure and topology and start focusing on the dynamics that take place along the links.”


What is Complexity: Part 1

A while ago, I noted that one of the subjects I’ve been exploring this year is that of Complexity.  I’ve read a number of books on the subject, and the first thing I’ve learned is that there is no commonly agreed definition of Complexity itself!  It’s a very wide ranging, interdisciplinary field.  Wikipedia has an excellent article on it, and I encourage you to check out the accompanying chart because it will give you a good overview of all the different areas included under the heading of Complexity!

So, as I’ve said, I’ve read several books now, and Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity by John Gribbin is one of the better overviews of the field.  I first encountered Gribbin’s books twenty years ago with his “In Search Of” titles, and I knew he was a skilled writer that can take a complex subject and make it so non-experts can understand without “dumbing down” the material, and he again accomplishes this in Deep Simplicity.

Gribbin begins with a short history that takes the reader from the early days of science and the Greeks to the beginning of the Twentieth Century, covering the development of Physics, Calculus, and Chemistry and how these lead to laws that could describe the world, as well as the phenomenon of Entropy – some processes don’t run in reverse spontaneously, unless you add energy to the system.  Unfortunately, adding energy to a closed system increases the entropy outside the closed system (i.e., the Universe!) and so entropy always increases.

He then moves on to a discussion of Chaos Theory.  Basically, the idea of chaos is this:  Given a system, very small changes in the starting conditions can lead to very large changes in the outcome.  For example, if you take two planets and calculate their orbits around each other, you will end up with a reasonably accurate systems if you run it forward a few hundred years.  If you add a third planet, however, there is no way to tell where the system will end up.  A more well known version is the so-called “Butterfly Effect” of the weather.  Forecasters can be reasonably accurate a few days ahead, but anything past a week is simply too complex to forecast accurately.  (Note that Anthropogenic Global Warming advocates insist that climate can be predicted 50 years in advance…)

Gribbin then talks about one of the most well-known equations in chaos theory:  the Logistic Equation, which discusses how population changes over time.  Gribbin uses this to demonstrate some common properties of Chaos.  In addition to the “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” noted above, Chaos curves split – a process called bifurcation – and then countinue to double until they hit a point where their behavior becomes (what else) “chaotic.”  I am very much oversimplifying here, but this is a deep subject and it’s hard to cover in a blog post what Gribbins uses an entire book to try to do!  Gribbin also covers cellular automata and fractals as examples of complex behavior arising from simple conditions.

One key item to note is that a completely chaotic system is not complex, and neither is a simple system.  Complexity lies somewhere in the middle.

Having laid this foundation, Gribbins now describes Complexity Theory.  He shows how complex behavior can arise in a system with two plates with a thin layer of liquid between them – add heat, and convection cells arise (rotating strips of water).  Add more heat, and eventually you get chaotic behavior, but in between equilibrium and chaos is the complex region with the convection cells.  You can also see this with your faucet – when it’s off, you have equilibrium.  Turn it on a little, you get a smooth stream of water.  A little more, and the water starts getting complex with twists.  On all the way, and it’s chaotic.

Gribbins also covers the concept of self-similarity – take a coastline, for example.  When you see it from space, it has a jagged appearance.  From the air, a mile up, still jagged, but on a smaller scale.  Walking along it, still jagged.  And so on.  Whatever scale you view it at, it’s still jagged and looks the same.  You can never really find the exact length of coastline because you can always reduce the scale and make it longer.  (Those of you with a Calculus background: It does approach a limit, of course, but I’ll save that for another day!)  In addition Gribbin talks about power laws – where the distribution on a graph follows a curve.  An example is the population of U.S. cities – New York City is obviously the largest, but the next largest comes in at about one-half of New York’s size.  And the third largest is about one-half of the second…and so on.  Power laws, surprisingly, can be found in many places in nature – complexity theory is exploring why.  Gribbins than describes network theory and how the dynamics of a system can be described by it.

Now, Gribbins gets to his objective, which is to show how complexity can be used to discover the properties of living systems.  It shows how a species can change through time based on outside influences, as well as how the operations inside a cell can be described by complexity and network theory.  In his final chapter, Gribbins talks about how this all relates to Gaia theory (Note:  Gribbins sees this as describing a COMPLEX SYSTEM, not as the earth being a living goddess or even one living creature).

Overall, the book was decent introduction to complexity, chaos, and networks and how they can apply to many areas.  This book was a little too focused on the biological end, though, and I think that Melanie Mitchell’s book Complexity: A Guided Tour is a better overview for that reason.  But Gribbins is very good at taking a “complex” subject and making it easy for the layperson to understand.

Note:  If you’re a Christian like me, the book is still worth a read.  Even if you don’t subscribe to macroevolutionary theory or the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, you can still get quite a bit out of this book, and I think it has a lot to say about microevolution!

Continue reading “What is Complexity: Part 1”

Does Language Affect Culture? Part 2

In a previous post, I noted that I was exploring the notion of whether or not the language you speak can influence the way you think.  For example, our concept of justice may be completely different from what someone who speaks a different language uses their equivalent of the word to refer to.  Currently, most linguists will tell you that there is no difference, and that all languages are the same.

Guy Deutscher disagrees.  In some ways, he sets out to prove, culture CAN make a difference in the way we see the world.

In Part I of Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, Deutscher notes that in both Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as well as Old testament Hebrew, there is no use of the color blue to describe things.  For example the sea (blue) is referred to as wine colored (red!).  In the Bible, heifers (brown) are referred to as red.  Theory once held that their eyes hadn’t evolved the ability to see those colors, but this was proven false when the same type of thing turned up in modern tribal langauges.  These languages – speakers of which are still alive – often refer to things as black, white, and maybe red, but not green or blue.  Brightness of the color seems to indicate which bucket it goes in.  Yet their eyes are identical to ours!  Further tests showed that they easily distinguish that blue and green are different – they can see the colors.  So the reason is cultural, not physical; i.e., it’s nurture, not nature.

In Part II, the author notes that although not all languages express all ideas, they are capable of expressing any idea and the speakers are able to comprehend them.  He then states his main point:

“The real effects of the mother tongue are rather the habits that develop through the frequent use of certain ways of expression.”

He gives three examples (I’m seriously oversimplifying these; read the book for more):

 

1) Spatial coordinates and orientation and memory:  Certain groups, rather than saying turn left or right, use north, east, etc all the time.  They are much better at knowing which way is north than someone who doesn’t.  It also affects the way they remember an event since they can’t say they jumped back, they jumped south.

2) Gender – In English, gender is gone from most of our words.  But in German and other world languages, each noun is either masculine, feminine and neuter.  And lest you think that’s simple, remember that most words for females in German are neuter, but many inanimate objects are feminine!

3) Color – as above, but also note that even the definition of each color can vary – for example, in Japan, green goes further into the blue area than in the United States.

There is much more in the book including how these examples can affect thought patterns.  Deutscher also notes that research is really just beginning on this area and that one of the major roadblocks right now is our lack of understanding of the brain works.  How language processing and thought take place is pretty much a black box.

This will be an interesting area to keep an eye on in the future! In related news, I have The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett in my antilibrary, so keep an eye out for that review coming up…

Learning from history

A piece in Foreign Policy Magazine this month made me think. Quote first:

THE UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA
Last but not least, discredited ideas sometimes come back to life because societies simply forget important lessons about the past. Political psychologists generally agree that personal experiences have a disproportionate impact on our political beliefs, and lessons learned by older generations rarely resonate as strongly with their successors. And besides, as the years go by it becomes easier to argue that circumstances have changed and that “things are different now,” encouraging the wrong-headed view that previous wisdoms about how to deal with particular problems might no longer hold. Of course, sometimes those arguments will be correct — there are few timeless verities in political life — and even seemingly unassailable truths might someday be seriously challenged if not discredited. All this just further complicates the problem of learning and retaining the right lessons from the past.
(Me again) It’s all fine and dandy to talk about learning from the past, and we all know the Santayana quote about being condemned to repeat it if we don’t. Still, I wonder if we truly try.

I read a lot of books. What I’ve noticed is that many people…don’t read at all. On the internet is an exception, and I think a lot of bloggers forget that since many of them read. Most of the bosses I’ve had didn’t, even if they were CEOs. They say that you can’t learn anything out of a book. I disagree with this, and my example is simply that I wouldn’t trust a doctor who had never cracked open an introductory anatomy text. There’s no substitute for experience, yes…but background knowledge can indeed be gained from books.

Over the last few months, as I’ve been working in the field of international security, I’ve had occasion to think about this as applied to the United States armed forces. I’ve read David Kilcullen’s Accidental Guerillas. And lately, I’ve read these two books (both good descriptions of small unit tactics in counterinsurgency):

 

Seven Firefights in Vietnam, by John Cash, John Albright, and Allan W. Sandstrum

The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreaa by Michael Burgoyne and Albert J. Marckwardt with E.D. Swinton’s Defense of Duffer’s Drift

The question is, how many of our United States soldiers have? How many have been exposed to these ideas? Yes, we have a whole Field Manual dedicated to counterinsurgency, but have you ever actually tried to read an army field manual? We have a well trained, professional force. So we say. But I think the army would do well to either encourage it’s troopers to read these books, or else present the main ideas in classes – before they ship out to fight a counterinsurgency.

The average guy doesn’t read history. He reads sports. Right now, the big news in Pittsburgh is the fact that we’re in the Super Bowl (Go Steelers!). Most guys I know (Yes, I know that the plural of anecdote is NOT statistics) can quote Polamalu’s stats from memory, but would be hard pressed to tell you who Hosni Mubarak is. Or what happened at My Lai. Or who Thucydides is.

So how are we supposed to learn from history? Maybe it can’t tell us what the right thing to do is or help to predict the future (See Nassim Taleb’s books) but I think it can help us to keep from repeating the same mistakes. What are your thoughts? Do we need a stronger curriculum for schools? If not, or if that’s not possible, what do you suggest?

Thanks!

Scott