Parasympathetic Backlash

Saturday, December 20th, 2014

Under the stress of combat, the body shifts resources to the sympathetic nervous system and away from the parasympathetic — for a while, as David Grossman (On Killing) explains:

The sympathetic nervous system mobilizes and directs the body’s energy resources for action. It is the physiological equivalent of the frontline soldiers who actually do the fighting in a military unit.

The parasympathetic system is responsible for the body’s digestive and recuperative processes. It is the physiological equivalent of the cooks, mechanics, and clerks that sustain a military unit over an extended period of time.

Usually these two systems sustain a general balance between their demands upon the body’s resources, but during extremely stressful circumstances the “fight or flight” response kicks in and the sympathetic nervous system mobilizes all available energy for survival. This is the physiological equivalent of throwing the cooks, bakers, mechanics, and clerks into the battle. In combat this very often results in nonessential activities such as digestion, bladder control, and sphincter control being completely shut down. This process is so intense that soldiers very often suffer stress diarrhea, and it is not at all uncommon for them to urinate and defecate in their pants as the body literally “blows its ballast” in an attempt to provide all the energy resources required to ensure its survival.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess that a soldier must pay a heavy physiological price for an enervating process this intense. The price that the body pays is an equally powerful backlash when the neglected demands of the parasympathetic system become ascendant. This parasympathetic backlash occurs as soon as the danger and the excitement are over, and it takes the form of an incredibly powerful weariness and sleepiness on the part of the soldier.

This brings us to the criticality of the reserve:

Napoleon stated that the moment of greatest danger was the instant immediately after victory, and in saying so he demonstrated a remarkable understanding of the way in which soldiers become physiologically and psychologically incapacitated by the parasympathetic backlash that occurs as soon as the momentum of the attack has halted and the soldier briefly believes himself to be safe. During this period of vulnerability, a counterattack by fresh troops can have an effect completely out of proportion to the number of troops attacking.

It is basically for this reason that the maintenance of an “unblown” reserve has historically been essential in combat, with battles often revolving around which side can hold out and deploy their reserves last. The reserve has always played a vital role in combat, but du Picq was one of the earliest advocates not only of “holding out a reserve as long as possible for independent action when the enemy has used his own,” but he also insisted on the revolutionary concept that this process “ought to be applied downward” to the lowest levels. He also perceived the technological process of increasing lethality on the battlefield which continues today. “There is more need than ever to-day, for protecting… the reserves. The power of destruction increases, the morale [of human beings] stays the same.” Clausewitz further understood and put great emphasis on the danger of reserve forces becoming prematurely enervated and exhausted when he cautioned that the reserves should always be maintained out of sight of the battle.

These same basic psycho-physiological principles explain why successful military leaders have historically maintained the momentum of a successful attack. Pursuing and maintaining contact with a defeated enemy is vital in order to completely destroy the enemy (the vast majority of the killing in historical battles occurred during the pursuit, when the enemy turned his back), but it is also valuable to maintain contact with the enemy as long as possible in order to delay that inevitable pause in the battle which will result in the “culmination point.” The culmination point is usually caused as much by logistical processes as anything else, but once the momentum of the pursuit stops (for whatever reasons) there are severe physiological and psychological costs to be paid, and the commander must realize that his forces will begin to immediately slip into a powerful parasympathetic backlash and become vulnerable to any enemy counterattack. An unblown reserve force ready to complete the pursuit is a vital aspect of maneuver warfare and can be of great value in ensuring that this most destructive phase of the battle is effectively executed.

Welcome to the War

Friday, December 19th, 2014

David Grossman (On Killing) introduces the role of physiological arousal and fear with this anecdote from Six War Years 1939–1945:

And then a shell lands behind us, and another over to the side, and by this time we’re scurrying and the Sarge and I and another guy wind up behind a wall. The sergeant said it was an 88 and then he said, “Shit and shit some more.”

I asked him if he was hit and he sort of smiled and said no, he had just pissed his pants. He always pissed them, he said, just when things started and then he was okay. He wasn’t making any apologies either, and then I realized something wasn’t quite right with me, either. There was something warm down there and it seemed to be running down my leg. I felt, and it wasn’t blood. It was piss.

I told the Sarge, I said, “Sarge, I’ve pissed too,” or something like that and he grinned and said, “Welcome to the war.”

Why Do Human Children Stay Small For So Long?

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Why does it take so long for human children to grow up?

A male chimp and male human, for example, both end up with the same body weight but they grow very differently: at year one the human weighs twice that of the chimp but at eight the chimp is twice that of the human. The chimp then gains its adult weight by 12 — six years before the human. A male gorilla is also a faster growing primate — a 330-pound male gorilla weighs 110 pounds by its fifth birthday and 265 pounds by its tenth.

Clues to the answer can be found in the young human brain’s need for energy. Radioactive tracers allow scientists to measure the glucose used in different areas of the brain but this procedure is only used rarely when it is justified by investigating neurological problems. However, the few cases we do have reveal how radically different the childhood brain is from that in adults or infants.

From about the age of four to puberty, the young brain guzzles glucose — the cerebral cortex, its largest part, uses nearly (or more than) double that used earlier or later in life. This creates a problem. A child’s body is a third of the size of an adult but its brain is nearly adult-sized. Calculated as a share, a child’s takes up half of all the energy used by a child.

Map child growth against what is known about brain energy consumption and they shadow in a negative way: one goes up, the other down. The period in which the brain’s need for glucose peaks happens just when body growth most slows. Why? In a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, I proposed that this prevents a potential conflict over blood glucose that might otherwise arise between brawn and brain.

A young child has at any moment a limited amount of glucose in its blood circulation (3.4g — the equivalent in weight to about three Smartie candies). Fortunately a child’s liver can quickly generate glucose, providing other organs do not compete against the brain for the glucose. But as French child exercise physiologist Paul Delamarche noted:

Even at rest, it would appear to be difficult for children to maintain blood glucose concentration at a steady level; an immaturity of their gluco-regulatory system would seem to be likely, therefore causing a delay in an adequate response to any stimulus to hypoglycemia like prolonged exercise.

Organs elsewhere in the body fuel themselves with energy sources that do not compete with the brain such as fatty acids. But skeletal muscle can compete when exertion is intense and sustained.

In adults, the liver quickly ramps up its generation of glucose so even active brawn does not usually compete against the brain. But conflict can arise even in adults, and it could pose a real threat to children. Luckily they do not let it happen: they stop exertion if it gets intense and sustained. Not that this makes children inactive — they do even more low and moderate exercise than adolescents and adults.

So putting a break on growth in childhood aids limiting skeletal muscle as a potential glucose competitor to the brain. And not only are their bodies smaller but they contain (as a percentage of their bodies) less skeletal muscle than in adults. And even that skeletal muscle, some research suggests, is of a type that uses less glucose than in active adults.

So human growth rate negatively shadows increased energy use in the child’s brain.

Defeating the Enemy’s Will

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014

David Grossman (On Killing) discusses defeating the enemy’s will:

Defeating the enemy’s will is not too far removed from the process of inflicting psychiatric casualties on the enemy’s soldiers. In fact it would come very close to the mark to say that maneuver warfare (as opposed to attrition warfare) seeks to inflict psychic as well as physical damage upon the enemy, and a brief examination of the psychological price of modern war would be an appropriate place to begin our study of the psychological underpinnings of maneuver warfare.

In his book, No More Heroes, Richard Gabriel outlines the staggering “psychic” costs of war. “In every war in which American soldiers have fought in this century, the chances of becoming a psychiatric casualty… were greater than the chances of being killed by enemy fire.” In World War II, America’s armed forces lost 504,000 men from the fighting effort because of psychiatric collapse — enough to man fifty divisions! We suffered this loss despite efforts to weed out those mentally and emotionally unfit for combat by classifying 970,000 men as unfit for military service due to psychiatric reasons. At one point in World War II, psychiatric casualties were being discharged from the U.S. Army faster than new recruits were being drafted in. Swank and Marchand’s World War II study determined that after 60 days of continuous combat, 98 percent of all surviving soldiers will have become psychiatric casualties of one kind or another. (Swank and Marchand also found that the 2 percent who are able to endure sustained combat had as their most common trait a predisposition toward “aggressive psychopathic personalities.” The importance of this statistic will be addressed later.)

These factors contribute to the psychic costs of war:

The impact of physiological arousal and fear. Appel and Beebe are but a few of many, many observers in the field of the behavioral sciences who hold that fear of death and injury is the primary cause of psychiatric casualties. Richard Gabriel is among many who make a powerful argument for the impact of physical exhaustion caused by extended periods during which the sympathetic nervous system is activated in a continuous “fight or flight” response.

The weight of exhaustion. Among actual veterans, many accounts seem to focus on the fatigue and exhaustion they experienced in combat. The psychologist Bartlett states definitively that “there is perhaps no general condition which is more likely to produce a large crop of nervous and mental disorders than a state of prolonged and great fatigue.” The British General Bernard Fergusson stated that “lack of food constitutes the single biggest assault upon morale.” And Guy Sajer (The Forgotten Soldier), a German veteran of the eastern front in World War II, is one of the many veterans who learned that cold was the soldier’s first enemy. “We urinated into our hands to warm them, and, hopefully, to cauterize the gaping cuts in our fingers… each movement of my fingers opened and closed deep crevices, which oozed blood.”

The stress of uncertainty. The initial results of extensive research on the 1991 Gulf War indicates that one of the major stressors on individual combatants was the tremendous uncertainty of war. This constant state of uncertainty, which is a major part of what Clausewitz referred to as the “friction of war,” destroys the soldier’s sense of control over his life and environment, and eats away at his limited stock of fortitude.

The burden of guilt and horror. Richard Holmes, on the other hand, spends a chapter of his superb book, Acts of War, convincing us of the horror of battle, and the impact of the guilt associated with it: “Seeing friends killed, or, almost worse, being unable to help them.” And Peter Marin accuses the field of psychology of being ill prepared to address the guilt caused by war and the attendant moral issues. He flatly states that, “Nowhere in the [psychiatric and psychological] literature is one allowed to glimpse what is actually occurring: the real horror of the war and its effect on those who fought it.”

An aversion to hate and killing. In addition to these more obvious factors of fear, exhaustion, uncertainty, guilt, and horror, the less obvious but absolutely vital factors represented by the average human being’s aversion to hate and killing have been added here. These two factors are the most difficult to observe, but the very fact that they are not intuitively obvious makes them in many ways more important. These interpersonal aggression processes are the riddle that lies deep in the heart of darkness that is war.

Norwegian Lemmings

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

Norwegian LemmingNorwegian lemmings go through dramatic population cycles, with their density increasing and then decreasing by a factor of 3,000:

Accounts of lemming migrations go back hundreds of years. In 1823, for instance, one explorer wrote of seeing “such inconceivable numbers” in his Scandinavian travels “that the country is literally covered with them”.

An army of lemmings advanced with extraordinary purpose, “never suffering itself to be diverted from its course by any opposing obstacles,” not even when confronted by rivers, or even the branches of narrow fjords. “They are good at swimming,” says Stenseth. “They can easily go across small bodies of water, across small lakes,” he says.

Given such sudden and apparently reckless behaviour, it is perhaps inevitable that local people in bygone centuries came to see the lemming as a crazed creature, and a swarm as “the forerunner of war and disaster”. But we have Walt Disney to thank for really embedding this stereotype in the public consciousness.

On the back of the animated classic Bambi, Disney undertook a series of ground-breaking, feature-length nature documentaries known as The True-Life Adventures. In one of these, White Wilderness, he dramatised the lemming mass suicide.

Stenseth is generous about the movie. “It is a nice film actually,” he says. “But there are some bits and pieces that are wrong with it. That [the lemming segment] is one of them.”

For a start, White Wilderness – filmed in Canada rather than Scandinavia – depicts the wrong species. Although all lemmings experience population highs and lows, the accounts of mass movements were all based on observations of Norwegian lemmings, not the brown lemmings that Disney used. He paid Eskimos “$1 a live lemming,” says Stenseth.

But that’s just the start. In an infamous sequence, the lemmings reach the edge of a precipitous cliff, and the voiceover tells us that “this is the last chance to turn back, yet over they go, casting themselves bodily out into space.”

It certainly looks like suicide. “Only they didn’t march to the sea,” says Stenseth. “They were tipped into it from the truck.”

Once you know the sequence has been faked, it makes for rather awkward viewing.

That movie-fueled myth did lead to a delightful computer game though.

Parenting and Verbal Intelligence

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

Family and parenting characteristics are not significant contributors to variation in IQ scores, Beaver et al. find, suggesting that IQ is in the genes:

To find out, the team pored over information from a study of more than 15,000 U.S. middle- and high-school students. It’s called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

Starting in the 1994-to-1995 school year, researchers had asked students a series of questions. For instance: How warm and loving are your parents? How much do you talk with them? How close do you feel to your parents? How much do you think they care about you?

Students also were given a list of 10 activities. Then the questionnaire asked how many of those activities students had done with their parents in the previous week. Did they play sports together? Go shopping? Talk with each other over dinner? Watch a movie together?

Students also answered questions about how permissive their parents were. For example, did their parents let them choose their own friends, choose what to watch on TV or choose for themselves when to go to bed?

The researchers then gave the students a test to gauge their IQ. Called a Picture Vocabulary Test, it asked the students to link words and images. Scores on this test have been linked repeatedly to IQ. Later in life, between the ages of 18 and 26, these people were tested again.

Beaver’s group was especially interested in results from a group of about 220 students who had been adopted. The parents who raised them had not passed on any genes to them. So if there was a link between the students’ IQs and the way their parents raised them, the researchers should see it most clearly in the adopted students’ scores.

But no such link emerged. Whether students reported their parents cared about them and did things with them — or reported that they did not — it had no impact on the their IQ.

Seeing Green

Monday, December 8th, 2014

Scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis were testing their new infrared laser, when people around the lab started seeing green flashes:

The only photons with the right amount of energy to change a human chromophore are in the 390-720 nanometer wavelength range. Infrared, in the 1000 nanometer wavelength range, is too big and too low-energy to knock a chromophore into changing its shape.

But if huge amounts of infrared photons flooded the eye over a short period of time, two infrared photons could hit the chromophore at once. Their combined energy is enough to cause it to change its structure and allow people to see what they otherwise wouldn’t. Two 1000 nanometer photons add up, energetically speaking, to one photon of around 500 nanometers – which is in the green range of the visual spectrum. So infrared light, if concentrated enough, would leave us seeing green.

The Cost of Adaptation

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

Pavel Tsatsouline revisits the cost of adaptation:

According to Prof. Bayevsky, at any given moment, between 50 to 80% of all people are in the so-called donozoological state, or between health and illness. According to Academician Nikolay Amosov, these people are only “statically healthy” — until the environment disrupts their fragile status quo. Although they may be feeling fine, even a mild infection is potentially dangerous to them. Not the infection itself, but the complications from the strain it puts on the supply systems. You might know someone who died of a cardiac arrest while struggling with some other malady.

Say, Bob’s tissues need a gallon of blood a minute at rest and his heart can pump out 1,3 gallons per minute max, which is average — this is called the maximal cardiac output. Everything is fine and dandy — until the man goes to South America and catches typhoid fever. His energy requirements skyrocket, fighting a disease is not unlike performing hard labor. Typhoid fever doubles one’s oxygen consumption. The heart now has to pump two gallons of blood per minute. Except… its limit is only a gallon and a half. Bingo. The traveler returns home in the jet’s cargo bay in a body bag. The man died from failure of systems that were not even stricken by the disease. Had Bob cared to work on increasing their functional reserves, he would have survived.

Academician Amosov coined the term “the quantity of health”, or the sum of the reserve powers of the main functional systems. These reserve powers are measured with the health reserve coefficient, the ratio of the system’s maximal ability to the everyday demands on it.


Obviously, to improve your quantity of health, you need to increase the reserves of your functional systems, cardiovascular, pulmonary, muscular, etc. There are over a hundred measurable health parameters. Individual adaptation has been defined as gradual development of resistance to a particular environmental stimulus that enables the organism to function in conditions earlier incompatible with life and meet challenges that previously could not be met (1). In other words, adaptation is about survival.

The path to health seems simple: train hard, increase your “quantity of health”, and live happily ever after. If Bob built up to the point of being able to swim non-stop for an hour a day, surely he would have built enough heart capacity to survive typhoid fever! Certainly — while making himself more vulnerable to other stressors…

A number of Soviet and Russian textbooks, from the 1970s until today, cite a study of young rodents undergoing an intense swimming regimen — one hour a day for ten weeks (2). Their heart mass increased — while the mass of their kidneys and adrenal glands went noticeably down, and so did the number of the liver cells. In other words, while the training increased the functional capacity of the heart, it simultaneously reduced the capacity of several inner organs! If later the “athletes” from the study encountered significant physical loads, they would be better prepared to handle them and survive compared to their untrained peers. If, on the other hand, the challenge were directed at the liver or kidneys (through a change of food, an increase of sodium intake, etc.), the hard training rats would be at a disadvantage compared to their lazy brothers and sisters…

This phenomenon is called “the cost of adaptation” (3). The cost can be exacted from the systems of the body directly loaded by the stressor — or from other system(s) not directly involved in dealing with the stressor (4).


If you choose health, do not reach for Olympic medals, avoid narrow specialization, and train in moderation. Because high adaptation cost is experienced especially by specialist athletes and people who perform hard physical labor (6).

Soviet research teaches us that sport training and physical culture lead to a significant decrease in diseases overall and injuries (7). Renown Soviet scientist Prof. Zimkin concluded, “It has been determined from animal experiments and observation of human subjects that muscular activity increases the organism’s non-specific resistance to many unfavorable stressors people are subjected to in modern conditions, e.g. hypoxia, some poisons, radioactive materials, infections, overheating, overcooling, etc. A significant decrease in illnesses has been observed in people training for sport or practicing physical culture.” He went on to add that “rational” training is what is needed to deliver such resilience (8). Moderate physical loads stimulate the immune system (9).

(Hat tip to Mangan.)

How to Train Your Voice to Be More Charismatic

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

Researchers are studying how to train your voice to be more charismatic:

In his experiments, Dr. Signorello analyzed recordings of speeches by leaders speaking French, Italian and Portuguese, including François Hollande, the current president of France, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a former president of Brazil. He also studied speeches given by two Italian politicians, Umberto Bossi and Luigi de Magistris, and by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

To isolate acoustic properties, Dr. Signorello used a speech synthesizer to eliminate the actual meaning of the words being spoken. The frequency, intensity, cadence, duration and other vocal qualities remained intact.

Then, to understand how acoustic traits affected perceptions, Dr. Signorello and his colleagues asked 107 female and 26 male volunteers to rate a speaker’s charisma on a scale using 67 positive or negative adjectives, ranging from eloquent and bewitching to egocentric and menacing. To ensure that only perceptions of vocal qualities were measured, they also had the Italian speeches rated by 48 people who didn’t speak Italian, and the French speeches rated by 48 people who didn’t speak French.

Generally, someone speaking in a low-pitched voice is always perceived as big and dominant, while someone speaking in a high voice is perceived as small and submissive. When speaking to crowds, the political leaders typically stretched their voices to extremes, with a wide range of frequency variation, Dr. Signorello said.

“In the three languages, I see a similar pattern,” he said. “My research shows that charismatic leaders of any type in any culture tend to stretch their voice to the lower and higher limits during a public speech, which is the most important and risky context of communication for leadership,” he said.

These leaders adopted an entirely different tone when speaking to other high-ranking politicos or when the subject strayed from political topics. “They stretch their voice less when they speak to other leaders, keeping the vocal pitch very low. They stretch the voice limits even less when they speak about nonpolitical topics,” Dr. Signorello said.

In one experiment, he found he could change the way people perceived President Hollande of France by artificially dialing the pitch of his voice up or down.

Aspiring executives should take note, Dr. Signorello said. “The voice is a tool that can be trained,” he said. “Singers and actors train their voices to reach higher or lower frequencies. A leader-speaker should do the same.”

In another 10,000 years the Bene Gesserit will have mastered this.

When Confidence Trumps Competence

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

Another study shows that people prefer confidence to accuracy when choosing an expert to trust:

Researchers at Washington State University did an exhaustive analysis of non-celebrity “pundits” who made predictions about the outcomes of sporting events. They rated each social media post that involved a prediction for its confidence level. For example, a prediction that one team would “crush” another is more confident than merely projecting a “win.” They checked predictions against actual game results to gauge accuracy, and also analyzed the number of followers each built over time.

The results were surprising. While accuracy of predictions did lead to a small but statistically significant increase in the number of followers, confidence was nearly three times as powerful.

The potent effects of confidence on trust aren’t new. As I described in Convince With Confidence, Carnegie Mellon researchers had subjects participate in a weight-guessing game in which they could purchase the assistance of “advisers.” They tended to choose those advisers who were more confident, even when after multiple rounds those advisers were less accurate than others.

Why Asians wear surgical masks in public

Tuesday, November 25th, 2014

Surgeons wear masks to protect patients from their mouth-borne germs, not the other way around, but Asians wear surgical masks in public for a number of reasons, and they’ve been doing it for a century:

The custom of facemask-wearing began in Japan during the early years of the 20th century, when a massive pandemic of influenza killed between 20 and 40 million people around the world — more than died in World War I. There were outbreaks of the disease on every inhabited continent, including Asia (where it devastated India, leading to the deaths of a full 0.5% of the population). Covering the face with scarves, veils and masks became a prevalent (if ineffective) means of warding off the disease in many parts of the world, until the epidemic finally faded at the end of 1919.

In Japan, a few years later, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, triggered a massive inferno that consumed nearly 600,000 homes in the most populous part of the nation. After the quake, the sky was filled with smoke and ash for weeks, and air quality suffered for months afterward. Facemasks came out of storage and became a typical accessory on the streets of Tokyo and Yokohama. A second global flu epidemic in 1934 cemented Japan’s love affair with the facemask, which began to be worn with regularity during the winter months — primarily, given Japan’s obsession with social courtesy, by cough-and-cold victims seeking to avoid transmitting their germs to others, rather than healthy people looking to prevent the onset of illness.

Then, in the 1950s, Japan’s rapid post-World War II industrialization led to rampant air pollution and booming growth of the pollen-rich Japanese cedar, which flourished due to rising ambient levels of carbon dioxide. Mask-wearing went from seasonal affectation to year-round habit. Today, Japanese consumers buy $230 million in surgical masks a year, and neighboring countries facing chronic pollution issues — most notably China and Korea — have also adopted the practice.

Traditional Chinese Medicine puts a premium on proper breathing and clean air, which may explain some of the masks’ popularity..

This is my boomstick!

Monday, November 24th, 2014

Early gunpowder wasn’t really gunpowder so much as thunderpowder:

Strange as it may seem, the Battle of Crecy, which showed the longbow at its best, was also the scene of an incident that sounded the death knell, not only of the bow, but of all merely mechanical means of missile propulsion. This battle saw the first recorded use of artillery in an engagement between major armies and heralded explosives as a means of missile propulsion. However, the justified praise of the longbow was so great at this time that were it not for the meticulous writings of a few historians of the day, it would have gone unnoticed that Edward III employed stampede cannon on his flanks. These devices represented artillery in its crudest form, and were mainly used, as the name implies, to scare the enemy’s horses and strike terror into the untrained foot soldier. Missile throwing ability was secondary. Earliest cannon design appears to have been that of an iron tube encased in wood to give it further support, and still keep it light. The explosive was a crude black powder to which generally was added various kinds of wax. the mixture being made into balls. The balls, when discharged, produced an effect somewhat like an oversized Roman candle. The cannon’s front end was supported by a metal fork and, to take care of recoil, the butt simply was placed against a convenient knoll. Firearm development stems from this modest beginning.


Bacon spoke of the simple deceits which are practiced by jugglers and ventriloquists, and commented that “popular opinion does anything that men wish it to do, so long as men are agreed about it.

“In addition to these marvels, there are certain others which do not involve particular constructions. We can prepare from saltpeter and other materials an artificial fire which will burn at whatever distance we please… Beyond these are still other stupendous things in Nature. For the sound of thunder may be artificially produced in the air with greater resulting horror than if it had been produced by natural causes. A moderate amount of the proper material, of the size of a thumb, will make a horrible sound and violent coruscation.”


Although Bacon suggests several military uses for his explosive (for instance, “an enemy might be either blown up bodily or put to flight by the terror caused by the explosion”), there was nothing to be found in any of his writings to show he ever once contemplated its use as a missile-throwing agent. The identity of the individual who first thought of propelling a projectile through a tube from the force generated by gunpowder still remains a mystery.

Loud weapons work.

Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War

Saturday, November 22nd, 2014

Classical mathematics concentrated on linear equations for a sound pragmatic reason, Ian Stewart noted: it couldn’t solve anything else. Modern chaos theorists like to emphasize this point.

James Clerk Maxwell noted another chaotic concept over a century ago:

When the state of things is such that an infinitely small variation of the present state will alter only by an infinitely small quantity the state at some future time, the condition of the system, whether at rest or in motion, is said to be stable; but when an infinitely small variation in the present state may bring about a finite difference in the state of the system in a finite time, the condition of the system is said to be unstable. It is manifest that the existence of unstable conditions renders impossible the prediction of future events, if our knowledge of the present state is only approximate, and not accurate…. it is a metaphysical doctrine that from the same antecedents follow the same consequents. No one can gainsay this. But it is not of much use in a world like this, in which the same antecedents never again concur, and nothing ever happens twice… The physical axiom which has a somewhat similar aspect is “That from like antecedents follow like consequents.” But here we have passed from sameness to likeness, from absolute accuracy to a more or less rough approximation.

In describing war, Clausewitz resorts to a striking metaphor of nonlinearity:

In the last section of Chapter 1, Book One, he claims that war is “a remarkable trinity” (eine wunderliche Dreifaltigkeit) composed of (a) the blind, natural force of violence, hatred, and enmity among the masses of people; (b) chance and probability, faced or generated by the commander and his army; and (c) war’s rational subordination to the policy of the government.(28) Clausewitz compares these three tendencies to three varying legal codes interacting with each other (the complexity of which would have been obvious to anyone who lived under the tangled web of superimposed legal systems in the German area before, during, and after the upheavals of the Napoleonic years). Then he concludes with a visual metaphor: “Our task therefore is to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets.” (29) What better image could he have conjured to convey his insight into the profoundly interactive nature of war than this emblem of contemporary nonlinear science? (30)

Although the passage is usually taken to mean only that we should not overemphasize any one element in the trinity, Clausewitz’s metaphor also implicitly confronts us with the chaos inherent in a nonlinear system sensitive to initial conditions. The demonstration usually starts with a magnet pendulum hanging over one magnet; when the pendulum is pulled aside and let go, it comes to rest quickly. Positioned over two equally powerful magnets, the pendulum swings toward first one, then the other, and still settles into a rest position as it is captured by one of the points of attraction. But when a pendulum is released over three equidistant and equally powerful magnets, it moves irresolutely to and fro as it darts among the competing points of attraction, sometimes kicking out high to acquire added momentum that allows it to keep gyrating in a startlingly long and intricate pattern. Eventually, the energy dissipates under the influence of friction in the suspension mountings and the air, bringing the pendulum’s movement asymptotically to rest. The probability is vanishingly small that an attempt to repeat the process would produce exactly the same pattern. Even such a simple system is complex enough for the details of the trajectory of any actual “run” to be, effectively, irreproducible.

My claim here is not that Clausewitz somehow anticipated today’s “chaos theory,” but that he perceived and articulated the nature of war as an energy-consuming phenomenon involving competing and interactive factors, attention to which reveals a messy mix of order and unpredictability. His final metaphor of Chapter 1, Book One captures this understanding perfectly. The pendulum and magnets system is orderly, because it is a deterministic system that obeys Newton’s laws of motion; in the “pure theory” (with an idealized frictionless pendulum), we only need to know the relevant quantities accurately enough to know its future. But in the real world, “a world like this” in Maxwell’s phrase, it is not possible to measure the relevant initial conditions (such as position) accurately enough to replicate them in order to get the same pattern a second time, because all physical measurements are approximations limited by the instrument and standard of measurement. And what is needed is infinitely fine precision, for an immeasurably small change in the initial conditions can produce a significantly different pattern. Nor is it possible to isolate the system from all possible influences around it, and that environment will have changed since the measurements were taken. Anticipation of the overall kind of pattern is possible, but quantitative predictability of the actual trajectory is lost.

There are a number of interconnected reasons for the pendulum and magnets picture to be emblematic for Clausewitz, and all of them go to the heart of the problem of understanding what he meant by a “theory” of war. First of all, the image is not that of any kind of Euclidean triangle or triad, despite its understanding as such by many readers. Given his attacks on the formulation of rigidly “geometric” principles of war by some of his contemporaries, such an image would have been highly inapt. (31) Clausewitz’s message is not that there are three passive points, but three interactive points of attraction that are simultaneously pulling the object in different directions and forming complex interactions with each other. In fact, even the standard translation given above is too static, for the German original conveys a sense of on-going motion: “Die Aufgabe ist also, dass sich die Theorie zwischen diesen drei Tendenzen wie zwischen drei Anziehungspunkten schwebend erhalte.” (32) Literally: “The task is therefore that the theory would maintain itself floating among these three tendencies as among three points of attraction.” The connotations of schweben involve lighter-than-air, sensitive motion; a balloon or a ballerina “schwebt.” The image is no more static than that of wrestlers. The nature of war should not be conceived as a stationary point among the members of the trinity, but as a complex trajectory traced among them.

Secondly, Clausewitz’s employment of magnetism is a typical resort to “high-tech” imagery. The relationship of magnetism to electricity was just beginning to be clarified in a way that made it a cutting-edge concept for its time. It is quite possible that he actually observed a demonstration of a pendulum and three magnets as envisioned in the metaphor, for he was a man of considerable scientific literacy. (33) His famous incorporation of the notion of “friction,” also a high-technology concept for his day, is another example of this characteristic of his thought.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the metaphor offers us insight into a mind realistically willing to abandon the search for simplicity and analytical certainty where they are not obtainable. The use of this image displays an intuitive grasp of dynamic processes that can be isolated neither from their context nor from chance, and are thus characterized by inherent complexities and probabilities. It encodes Clausewitz’s sense of war in a realistic dynamical system, not an idealized analytical abstraction.

Accidental Rewilding

Thursday, November 20th, 2014

Many primeval forests aren’t in fact primeval but the result of recent accidental rewilding:

In the Americas — North, Meso and South — the first Europeans to arrive in the 15th and 16th centuries reported dense settlement and large-scale farming. Some of them were simply not believed. Spaniards such as the explorer Francisco de Orellana and the missionary Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, who travelled the length of the Amazon river in 1542, claimed that they had seen walled cities in which many thousands of people lived, raised highways and extensive farming along its banks. When later expeditions visited the river, they found no trace of them, just dense forest to the water’s edge and small scattered bands of hunter-gatherers. Orellana and Carvajal’s reports were dismissed as the ravings of fantasists, seeking to boost commercial interest in the lands they had explored.

It was not until the late 20th century that investigations by archaeologists such as Anna Roosevelt at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Michael Heckenberger at the University of Florida suggested that Orellana and Carvajal’s accounts were probably accurate. In parts of the Americas previously believed to have been scarcely inhabited, Heckenberger and his colleagues found evidence of garden cities surrounded by major earthworks and wooden palisades, built on grids and transected by broad avenues. In some places they unearthed causeways, bridges and canals. The towns were connected to their satellite villages by road networks that were planned and extensive. These were advanced agricultural civilisations, maintaining fish farms as well as arable fields and orchards. As in Slovenia, what appeared to be primordial forest had grown over the traces of a vanished population.

It appears that European diseases such as smallpox, measles, diphtheria, the common cold were brought to the Caribbean coast of South America by explorers and early colonists and then passed down indigenous trade routes into the heart of the continent, where they raged through densely peopled settlements before any Europeans reached them. So feracious is the vegetation of the Amazon that it would have obliterated all visible traces of the civilisations built by its people within a few years of their dissolution. The great várzea (floodplain) forests, whose monstrous trees inspired such wonder among 18th and 19th century expeditions, were probably not the primordial ecosystems the explorers imagined them to be.

Gruesome events — some accidental, others deliberately genocidal — wiped out the great majority of the hemisphere’s people and the rich and remarkable societies that they’d created. In many parts of the Americas, the only humans who remained were — like the survivors in a post-holocaust novel — hunter-gatherers. Some belonged to tribes that had long practised that art, others were forced to re-acquire lost skills as a result of civilisational collapse. Imported disease made cities lethal: only dispersed populations had a chance of avoiding epidemics. Dispersal into small bands of hunter-gatherers made economic complexity impossible. The forests blotted out memories of what had gone before. Humanity’s loss was nature’s gain.

The impacts of the American genocides might have been felt throughout the northern hemisphere. Dennis Bird and Richard Nevle, earth scientists at Stanford University, have speculated that the recovering forests drew so much carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere — about 10 parts per million — that they could have helped to trigger the cooling between the 16th and 19th centuries known as the Little Ice Age. The short summers and long cold winters, the ice fairs on the Thames and the deep cold depicted by Pieter Breugel might have been caused partly as a result of the extermination of the Native Americans.

(I don’t recall ever seeing the word feracious before. As you might infer, it means fruitful or fertile.)

Farmed Bluefin

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

The Japanese treasure the rich red meat of hon-maguro or true tuna:

At an auction in Tokyo, a single bluefin once sold for $1.5 million, or $3,000 a pound.

All this has put the wild Pacific bluefin tuna in a perilous state. Stocks today are less than one-fifth of their peak in the early 1960s, around the time Japanese industrial freezer ships began prowling the oceans, according to an estimate by an international governmental committee monitoring tuna fishing in the Pacific. The wild population is now estimated by that committee at 44,848 tons, or roughly nine million fish, down nearly 50% in the past decade.


Not long ago, full farming of tuna was considered impossible. Now the business is beginning to take off, as part of a broader revolution in aquaculture that is radically changing the world’s food supply.


With a decadeslong global consumption boom depleting natural fish populations of all kinds, demand is increasingly being met by farm-grown seafood. In 2012, farmed fish accounted for a record 42.2% of global output, compared with 13.4% in 1990 and 25.7% in 2000. A full 56% of global shrimp consumption now comes from farms, mostly in Southeast Asia and China. Oysters are started in hatcheries and then seeded in ocean beds. Atlantic salmon farming, which only started in earnest in the mid-1980s, now accounts for 99% of world-wide production — so much so that it has drawn criticism for polluting local water systems and spreading diseases to wild fish.

Until recently, the Pacific bluefin tuna defied this sort of domestication. The bluefin can weigh as much as 900 pounds and barrels through the seas at up to 30 miles an hour. Over a month, it may roam thousands of miles of the Pacific. The massive creature is also moody, easily disturbed by light, noise or subtle changes in the water temperature. It hurtles through the water in a straight line, making it prone to fatal collisions in captivity.