Make the decision problem less agonizing

Friday, October 20th, 2017

Chart 53 of Techniques of Systems Analysis shows how not to do contingency planning:

It does, we admit look at three different contingencies, a small, medium, and large attack. It shows how best to allocate the defense budget if any of these attacks occurs and what the performance will be with any allocation and its corresponding attack. The first time we saw a chart like this, it was called contingency planning, but this is definitely a misnomer.

Non-Contingency Planning

The reason is shown on Chart 54, which give the contingency analysis of the planning of Chart 53. It shows, for example, that, if one plans for a heavy attack and a small one actually materializes, he could have done 35% better if he had planned correctly. Similarly, if one plans for the small attack and the large one materializes, he could have done 67% better.

Contingency Analysis

While looking at a chart like this is a step in the right direction, it is not enough. It is very common in discussion of Systems Analysis to have people come up with such a chart and then ask, “What do you do? How do you choose between these systems?” This attitude is more than a little wrong.

It implies that one has a rather small range of choices and that the big job is somehow to decide among these choices. This is essentially impossible to do satisfactorily in this extreme case because people have different estimates of what the circumstances are likely to be. The main job of a good Systems Analyst is to design a system that will be satisfactory in all reasonable contingencies. He should spend most of his time trying to make the decision problem less agonizing rather than on the decision problem itself. In fact, it is fair to say that a good way to measure success in designing a system is on how unagonizing one has made this choice problem.

Online dating is changing society

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

Online dating appears to be increasing interracial dating and marriage and leading to stronger marriages in general:

Next, the researchers compare the results of their models to the observed rates of interracial marriage in the U.S. This has been on the increase for some time, but the rates are still low, not least because interracial marriage was banned in some parts of the country until 1967.

But the rate of increase changed at about the time that online dating become popular. “It is intriguing that shortly after the introduction of the first dating websites in 1995, like, the percentage of new marriages created by interracial couples increased rapidly,” say the researchers.

The increase became steeper in the 2000s, when online dating became even more popular.  Then, in 2014, the proportion of interracial marriages jumped again. “It is interesting that this increase occurs shortly after the creation of Tinder, considered the most popular online dating app,” they say.

Tinder has some 50 million users and produces more than 12 million matches a day.

Of course, this data doesn’t prove that online dating caused the rise in interracial marriages. But it is consistent with the hypothesis that it does.

Meanwhile, research into the strength of marriage has found some evidence that married couples who meet online have lower rates of marital breakup than those who meet traditionally. That has the potential to significantly benefit society. And it’s exactly what Ortega and Hergovich’s model predicts.

Of course, there are other factors that could contribute to the increase in interracial marriage. One is that the trend is the result of a reduction in the percentage of Americans who are white. If marriages were random, this should increase the number of interracial marriages, but not by the observed amount. “The change in the population composition in the U.S. cannot explain the huge increase in intermarriage that we observe,” say Ortega and Hergovich.

The single most effective gimmick in doing Contingency Planning

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

The single most effective gimmick in doing Contingency Planning, according to Techniques of Systems Analysis, is to consider a range of enemy attacks:

For example, the degradation of our performance looks analytically like a larger enemy attack. Similarly, the variation of the enemy’s performance looks like a variable enemy attack and, lastly, enemy good luck can be simulated by giving him extra forces, bad luck by making his forces weaker.

Hosting experiments in governance styles

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

The Seasteading Institute and its for-profit spin-off, Blue Frontiers, have racked up some real-world achievements in the past year, Nature (!) reports:

They signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of French Polynesia in January that lays the groundwork for the construction of their prototype. And they gained momentum from a conference of interested parties in Tahiti in May, which hundreds of people attended. The project’s focus has shifted from building a libertarian oasis to hosting experiments in governance styles and showcasing a smorgasbord of sustainable technologies for, among other things, desalination, renewable energy and floating food-production. The shift has brought some gravitas to the undertaking, and some ecologists have taken interest in the possibilities of full-time floating laboratories.

But the project still faces some formidable challenges. The team must convince the people of French Polynesia that the synthetic islands will benefit them; it must raise enough money to actually build the prototype, which it estimates will cost up to US$60 million; and once it is built, the group must convince the world that artificial floating islands are more than just a gimmick. Producing solid science and broadly useful technology would go a long way towards making that case.

Give support and encouragement to competent people who have ideas they want to try out

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

Techniques of Systems Analysis reminds the Systems Analyst to take technical estimates for complicated systems with some skepticism if not cynicism:

The best that can be done is to push the state of the art in a whole series of component fields, give support and encouragement to competent people who have ideas they want to try out, be on the alert to extract by-product and bonus values and, most important of all, examine the programs as a whole to see if they are complete. The Systems Analyst should especially concentrate on the last two things. After all, almost everyone else is tied up with either specific projects, administration, budget crises, or congressional investigations. In some cases, he is just about the only Indian who can spend full time looking at the broader aspects of a program. What is also important, he often has a full-time and technically competent group of associates to help him look.

Secularization is a thin culturally conditioned dusting atop a religious cognitive substrate

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

Razib Khan recommends Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict as a cross between In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion and Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth — but with the novel addition of these four modes of atheism:

  1. Personality (low social intelligence)
  2. Hyper-analytic cognitive style
  3. Societal apathy toward religion
  4. Lack of strong modeling of religiosity

The first two are straightforward. There has long been a hypothesis that those with lower social intelligence or weaker in ‘theory of mind’ have a more difficult time to find personal gods plausible. In short, theism depends on a relatively normal theory of mind. Looking at people on the autism spectrum who recounted their ideas of religion and god the author confirmed the intuition. Autistic individuals tended to be less religious, and, if religious, presented a model of God that was often highly impersonal and abstract.

One issue that is important to highlight here: I suspect that many great theological “truths” actually derive from individuals who engage in excessive intellectualism around the idea of god. For the average human applying formal logic to theism is probably beside the point, though these sorts of religious intellectuals loom large in the books because…they are the ones writing the books.


Societies with strong states, robust institutions, and impartial rule of law, along with some modicum of prosperity, tend to have lower levels of religiosity, and weaker passions about the topic from respondents. Once religiosity becomes less salient in a broad sense, then it becomes less of a concern in general for individuals.

A separate dynamic is that once people stop acting in a way that indicates that religion is important and true, others who take social cues begin to internalize this as evidence that religion isn’t that important. The authors give the example that there is social science that people who are raised Christian by parents who don’t go to church are far more likely to leave Christianity as adults because their parents did not credibly signal that religion was actually important enough to sacrifice any time and effort for. Perhaps another example which works as an analogy is that the vast majority of the children of interfaith Jewish-Christian marriages who were raised as Jews end up marrying non-Jews.

I think the first two factors in the list above explain the low but consistent basal rate of atheists and heterodox thinkers across history.


Basically, as social norms shift to relax incentives toward being religious, more marginal believers will start expressing irreligiosity. At some point, some will start to conform to irreligiosity.

Of course, this sort of secularization is fragile. Aside from the sorts of demographic arguments made in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth, examples such as post-Soviet Russia (and the post-Soviet nation-states more generally), as well as the progressively more religious nature of the Baathist resistance to American occupation in Iraq, illustrate that religion can bounce back rather fast, even within a generation or several years. The social contexts for this resurgence are outlined in the book, but they illustrate that in some ways secularization is a thin culturally conditioned dusting atop a religious cognitive substrate.

Even quite competent engineers can be very unreliable

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

While discussing how development programs can go awry, Techniques of Systems Analysis paraphrases the cover story from Time magazine’s January 30, 1956 issue:

The ICBM program suffered from a lack of support because the guidance problems were so severe that the rest of the program was not pushed. The unexpected development of the H-bomb suddenly made even very inaccurate ICBM’s useful. We were unfortunately at that time in no position to benefit immediately from this development. We would have been in an even worse position but, luckily, an entirely different program — the rocket booster for the Navaho cruise type missile — had been pushed so far that we could use it as a basis for the ICBM engine.

Time Magazine 1956-01-30 The Missile

Techniques of Systems Analysis continues:

It is also important to realize that even quite competent engineers and technical people can be very unreliable when it comes to estimating either the short or long range performance of systems undergoing Research and Development. This seems to be particularly true in the fields of electronics, aeronautics, and nuclear engineering. In the past 20 years there has been an exponential increase in the state of the art of all of those fields. Both as a cause and an effect of this exponential increase, these same fields play a central role in current military technology. For this reason military technology is much more unstable than most civilian technology and as a result the two very common mistakes mentioned occur. (Even first rate engineers will overestimate their ability to apply the new ideas in the immediate future and at the same time underestimate the rate at which long term development is proceeding.) To give a recent unclassified example form the electronics industry, let us consider the high-speed computer.

In 1945, 1946, and 1947, a large number of very competent engineers were going around promising to have wonderful electronic computers available in a year or two. In spite of these promises, by 1949, only computers of very modest attainments (as compared to the promises) had been built an the slippage of the more ambitious machines had become a joke. For example some of the engineers were saying “We are really very reliable. No matter when you ask us we will always reply that the computer will be ready in 18 months.” However, by 1950, a number of these better machines had achieved semi-reliable operation and, by 1951, they were almost all working well. Today, only 5 years later, there are machines on the shelf whose performance exceeds even the wilder and most futuristic extrapolations made in 1946. Furthermore, computers which will soon be available are an order of magnitude better than the current ones.

Successful games yield “a-ha moments”

Monday, October 16th, 2017

A national security game designer at RAND describes how games can help America take advantage of different potential futures:

[A] recent RAND project designed a game-theoretic model of conflict in space to identify conditions that support deterrence. The research team developed an initial model of possible decisions an actor could make to escalate or de-escalate a budding conflict in space, but given the costs of building and running a program that could examine thousands of cases, they wanted to make sure that the model accurately reflected human behavior before they began programing. The team designed a short manual game where subject-matter experts were asked to manage a conflict that could easily escalate into war in space. We watched the players to see if they would behave the same way as the model predicted. For example, we hypothesized that players would be more aggressive when they felt themselves at a disadvantage. Over and over players acted out of a concern that they needed to “appear strong” — escalating the conflict exactly as the model predicted.


Game designers and participants in successful games often describe an “a-ha moment” — an unexpected game event or a statement made in the game that offered new insight on a familiar problem. For example, in the space game, participants took actions not for their operational effect, but rather to signal intentions. While the game designers had not previously included signaling actions in the design of the model, as soon as we heard it we knew it must be included. Similarly, in the RAND Baltic Games, players realized again and again that the short distance between the Russian border and Baltic capitals required forces to be prepositioned in order the have a fighting chance.

Nobody should object to buying insurance even if he doesn’t have a fire

Monday, October 16th, 2017

Development projects provide options, Techniques of Systems Analysis emphasizes:

We often hear statements that the major reason for doing a Systems Analysis is that development programs are so expensive and it is crucial that none of them be wasted; therefore, all development programs should be tied into a system, designed as a whole. Nothing could be more wrong. Development people have a saying, “It may or may not be a mistake to develop something which is not procured, but it is always a mistake to procure something which is not developed.”

The most important thing the Department of Defense can do is see to it that we maintain a great deal of flexibility in our capability and have available a great variety of on-the-shelf items to meet a variety of contingencies. This ordinarily means that many of our development projects will never reach the stage of large-scale procurement. This may create very difficult relations with both Congress and the public. The problem has to be faced directly and preferably adroitly, but it is a mistake to cut back on potentially valuable development programs just to prevent possible criticism in the event they do nut turn out to be needed. Nobody should object to buying insurance even if he doesn’t have a fire.

Six turning and four burning

Sunday, October 15th, 2017

The Convair B-36 Peacemaker was the largest mass-produced piston-engined aircraft ever built, with the longest wingspan of any combat aircraft ever built:

The genesis of the B-36 can be traced to early 1941, prior to the entry of the United States into World War II. At the time it appeared there was a very real chance that Britain might fall to the German “Blitz”, making a strategic bombing effort by the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) against Germany impossible with the aircraft of the time.


After the establishment of an independent United States Air Force in 1947, the beginning in earnest of the Cold War with the 1948 Berlin Airlift, and the 1949 atmospheric test of the first Soviet atomic bomb, American military planners sought bombers capable of delivering the very large and heavy first-generation atomic bombs.

The B-36 was the only American aircraft with the range and payload to carry such bombs from airfields on American soil to targets in the USSR. The modification to allow the use of larger atomic weapons on the B-36 was called the “Grand Slam Installation”.


Beginning with the B-36D, Convair added a pair of General Electric J47-19 jet engines suspended near the end of each wing; these were also retrofitted to all extant B-36Bs. Consequently, the B-36 was configured to have ten engines, six radial propeller engines and four jet engines, leading to the B-36 slogan of “six turning and four burning”. The B-36 had more engines than any other mass-produced aircraft. The jet pods greatly improved takeoff performance and dash speed over the target. In normal cruising flight, the jet engines were shut down to conserve fuel. When the jet engines were shut down, louvers closed off the front of the pods to reduce drag and to prevent ingestion of sand and dirt.

The B-36 features prominently in the 1955 film Strategic Air Command, along with Jimmy Stewart, who was a real-life military pilot:

It would be sensible to spend even a few billion dollars

Sunday, October 15th, 2017

The history of the B-36 is a “slightly atypical but not extreme” example of how difficult it is to prepare for an uncertain future, Techniques of Systems Analysis explains:

It was designed during World War II when people were thinking first of Germany and then of Japan as the enemy. It was designed to carry high explosives. It was designed when its chief enemy was thought to be the propeller-driven interceptor.

None of the analyses which went into it and determined how we should trade range, weight, altitude and speed considered the possibility that:

  • it might carry atomic bombs
  • the enemy might be Russia
  • it would have to fight its way through jet fighters and guided ground-to-air missiles
  • we would have overseas bases
  • refueling techniques would be available

Any one of these changes might have been sufficient either to eliminate its value completely or to increase it enormously. Somehow, it is up to the man who is designing such vehicles to produce equipment which will be able to fight effectively in almost unpredictable situations.

In addition to proper design, there is one very important thing which can be done to alleviate this particular problem — to defer decisions. One shouldn’t decide today whether he wants to have a long-range slow airplane or a short-range high speed one in 1965. He should carry both projects through the paper design stages. If he still doesn’t know in a couple of years which he needs, then he might carry both projects through the mock-up and possibly even the tooling stages. While the cost of doing this may be high, it is measured in millions and not in billions. It is therefore small compared to the total cost of the strategic air force.

One should always remember that the total investment in an organization like SAC runs between fifty and one hundred billion dollars. Therefore, in principle it would be sensible to spend even a few billion dollars to increase the effectiveness of this force by only 10%. Under these circumstances, one can clearly afford some very expensive development and preliminary tooling programs if they enable you to defer making crucial decisions until you can make them wisely.

Labour repression & the Indo-Japanese divergence

Saturday, October 14th, 2017

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Indian and the Japanese textile industries had similar levels of wages and productivity, and both were exporting to global markets:

But by the 1930s, Japan had surpassed the UK to become the world’s dominant exporter of textiles; while the Indian industry withdrew behind the tariff protection of the British Raj. Technology, human capital, and industrial policy were minor determinants of this divergence, or at least they mattered conditional on labour relations.

Indian textile mills were obstructed by militant workers who defended employment levels, resisted productivity-enhancing measures, and demanded high wages relative to effort. But Japanese mills suppressed strikes and busted unions; extracted from workers much greater effort for a given increase in wages; and imposed technical & organisational changes at will. The bargaining position of workers was much weaker in Japan than in India, because Japan had a true “surplus labour” economy with high rates of workers ‘released’ from agriculture into industry. But late colonial India was rather ‘Gerschenkronian’, where employers’ options were more limited by a relatively inelastic supply of labour.

The state also mattered. The British Raj did little to restrain on behalf of Indian capitalists the exercise of monopoly power by Indian workers. Britain had neither the incentive, nor the stomach, nor the legitimacy to do much about it. But a key element of the industrial policy of the pre-war Japanese state was repression of the labour movement, which kept the labour market more competitive than it otherwise would have been.

Professors tend to be poor businessmen

Saturday, October 14th, 2017

Some of the most crucial uncertainties that bedevil a Systems Analysis come in the realm of technological progress, Techniques of Systems Analysis explains:

It is at least partly because these are so hard to predict that the scholarly type has become useful on the policy level.

We think that, if experienced men are available whose experience has been obtained in competitive situations such that the incompetent are almost automatically eliminated, it is best to rely on their experience rather than on analytical techniques and analytical people. It is generally believed and probably correct that professors tend to be rather poor business men, even when their field is business administration.

However, it is characteristic of the current world that the effective rate of technological progress has been enormously increased. In a real sense, on many of the problems faced by the Department of Defense nobody has relevant practical experience. Furthermore, the need for good advance planning is also more important. Even in small wars, the pace of events may be so fast and the lead-time for development and procurement of forces or even for making operating changes so long, that it is practically impossible to correct mistakes in planning after the war has broken out. This is, of course, even more likely to be true in large wars. In this situation, one must somehow wed whatever experience is available to analysis. This means making scholars out of some of the military and military out of some of the scholars.

Near-net forging for larger, less expensive aircraft structures

Friday, October 13th, 2017

Arconic in Pittsburgh manufactures parts for the F-35, including some really big parts:

What sets Arconic apart from its competitors is the strength of the alloys it produces — often using patented formulas — and its ability to take many components and manufacture them as a single piece, reducing weight and bulk, said Eric Roegner, president of Arconic Defense.

The company manufactures the F-35’s bulkheads in entirely one piece, using techniques Arconic developed for the inner rear spars on Airbus’ A380 airliner, which first flew in 2005.

“[At] that point, we had been talking to Lockheed, and they were a little skeptical, but when they saw the part flying on the A380, they came to the table,” Roegner said in a Sept. 21 interview.

Arconic forges the bulkheads in one piece out of aluminum or titanium using a 50,000-ton machine at its facility in Cleveland, Ohio. Only one such machine exists anywhere in the world, he said.

To make the 21 foot long, 7 foot tall bulkheads through a more traditional manufacturing process would require machining multiple large pieces of titanium or aluminum, fastening them together, and then putting additional forgings on it, he said. But by using a process called near-net forging — along with some technologies developed and patented by Arconic — the company can make the bulkheads in one piece and dramatically reduce the cost and weight of the component.

F-35 Bulkhead

“Some of the bulkheads [initially] were composed of upwards of 100 different parts. We could make them in one piece. Just wham, you get your titanium forging or your aluminum forging,” he said. “This one application across six bulkheads took 400 pounds out, and it got the installed cost of the final part down 25 percent.”

Preserving a capability for fighting a whole spectrum of limited wars can be difficult

Friday, October 13th, 2017

Techniques of Systems Analysis notes some strategic changes that may be important — looking into the future from the 1950s:

For example, it is very possible that future wars, like Korea, will include all kinds of target or other limitations, particularly as to the number or yield of atomic weapons that can be used.

Three important problems arise in considering such limitations. First, one must have a capability for enforcing the limitation on the enemy. In particular we must preserve our massive retaliatory capabilities from being destroyed by a sudden blow. Secondly, we must have a satisfactory capability for fighting all of the kinds of wars that may be necessary with whatever limitations or lack of limitations are involved. A third (and often overlooked point) is that we should operate as much as possible in such a way that the enemy is not tempted to violate limitations. It is sometimes possible to design a system to use effectively political, military, and psychological barriers.

In addition to designing systems that operate effectively within limitations, in principle we can consider refusing to accept limitations which would seriously hamper us. However, the question of what limitations we are willing to accept is presumably not within the Systems Analyst’s or even the Department of Defense’s authority to decide. It is decided by either the President or Congress and the enemy. In some circumstances our allies will also have more than a slight say in the matter. It is clear that preserving a capability for fighting a whole spectrum of limited wars can be difficult — sometimes intolerably so. (It is important, however, that the Department of Defense planners realize that it is their job, as much as possible, not to hamper the civilians in their conduct of political and foreign affairs; military solutions which constrain the civilian arm of government in unaccustomed and serious ways should be looked upon as desperate expedients.)