Clausewitz, Nonlinearity and the Unpredictability of War

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.

FPS Action Movies

November 21st, 2014

First-person-shooter games came out before the modern action-camera craze, but it turns out the GoPro footage of a practical-shooting stage looks just like a video game.

Now we’re getting first-person-shooter action movies:

The Giver Giveth and the Giver Taketh Away

November 21st, 2014

Doug Lemov discusses film adaptations:

A few weeks ago a transatlantic flight finally caused me to watch Saving Mr. Banks the story of how Walt Disney won P.L. Travers’ trust and warmed her cold, cold heart just enough to get her to gift the ages with a Disney version of her book Mary Poppins.

Decent movie, that Saving Mr. Banks.  If nothing else it offers compelling proof that history is a tale told by the winners.  The winners being movie makers in this case.  It turns out that when you leave it to a movie studio to tell the story of what movies do to books — really nice books — you get a very nice tale indeed, in which the books get really-nicer.  Don’t you see? A movie is just an act of love for a book.  A movie only wants honor a book and bring it to life — make it live forever, and maybe add a little music.  Is that so wrong?

No, the movie tells us. No, it is not wrong at all. It is right! In the end even the curmudgeon-ish author is shown to see it.

But If P.L. Travers told the story of the movie-fication of Poppins it might sound different.  After all, she did cry at the official release of Mary Poppins, but it wasn’t tears of appreciative joy.  In real life, she cried to see what they had done to her baby.

And in a lot of ways she was right to cry.  The movie is fine.  Not much wrong with it except Dick Van Dyke’s unconscionable effort at an accent. And the fact that it ain’t the book. That’s the big one.  I read the book with my kids a few years back and was stunned, so incredibly stunned, to find it nuanced and complex and rich and fascinating. It was beautiful: anything but schlocky, light years better than the movie, even if I read it in a horrible garble of Van-Dyke Cockney. But I only found out by accident that the book is a jewel. Having a song-and-Dick-Van-Dyke version of the movie out there made me assume for years that I should not read the book. I mean, with a hokie movie like that, who would?

He’s not going to see The Giver.

He fired all six!

November 21st, 2014

For a long time, almost all cops carried revolvers. This is what happened when Illinois State Trooper Ken Kaas got into a shootout with a gunman armed with a semi-automatic shotgun:

Each was using his vehicle, successfully, for cover. Midway through the firefight, the gunman suddenly stood up and left his cover, rushing toward trooper Kaas with his shotgun up and a wolfish grin on his face. Ken shot him in the midriff and the criminal fell. It was over.

The suspect survived. In the “prison ward” of the hospital, guards overheard him talking with his appointed attorney. The exasperated lawyer asked him why he had left a position of safety to practically walk into the muzzle of the trooper’s waiting gun. “He fired six shots!” the recovering would-be cop-killer exclaimed. “I swear to God! He fired all six!”

As carefully as he kept count, the criminal didn’t know that Illinois troopers carried Smith & Wesson 9mm semi-automatics. Ken had shot him down with the seventh round in his Model 39, most certainly averting his own death, since the trooper could never have reloaded an empty six-shot revolver fast enough to stop the deadly charge.

In the late 1970s, Mas Ayoob did a study of shootings during the first decade in which Illinois troopers had semi-autos instead of revolvers:

I was able to identify 13 who had survived with those guns,when they probably would have died if they’d had the old six-guns. Most involved gun grabs where the troopers were saved because the bad guy couldn’t find the safety catch when he got control of the gun, or the trooper had pressed the magazine release during the struggle and deactivated the round in the chamber via the S&W Model 39’s magazine disconnector safety. But four of those saves were absolutely firepower based.

Uber Gets the Buzzfeed Treatment

November 20th, 2014

Uber gets the Buzzfeed treatment, and Scott Adams (Dilbert) is not pleased:

Let’s start with Buzzfeed’s totally manipulative and misleading headline:

Uber Executive Suggests Digging Up Dirt On Journalists

Holy shit! Uber must be evil! They are trying to suppress freedom of the media!

Except… that isn’t what happened, according to Buzzfeed’s own reporting in the article with the misleading headline.

Michael didn’t “suggest” doing anything. Nor did he — then or now — even want to dig up dirt on journalists. Assuming Buzzfeed’s reporting of the details is accurate, all he did was make a dinner party intellectual comparison between the evil of the media that was unfairly attacking them (which I assume is true) and their own civilized response to the attacks.

Michael’s point, as Buzzfeed reports it, was that horrible people in the media mislead readers and there is nothing a victim can do about it within the realm of reasonable business practices. The Buzzfeed business model is totally legal. But, as Michael explained, probably over a cocktail, the only legal solution to this problem would be to use freedom of the press to push back on the bad actors by giving them a taste of their own medicine.

But it was just private cocktail talk. It wasn’t a plan. It definitely wasn’t a “suggestion.” It was just an interesting way to make a point. The point, as I understand it from Buzzfeed’s own reporting, is that Uber does play fair in a fight in which the opponents (bad actors in the press) do not. I find that interesting. It is also literally the opposite of what the headline of the story “suggests” happened.

And Michael made his point in a room full of writers and media people. Obviously it wasn’t a plan.

It’s not as if Michael was talking about manipulating the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. Those publications might get some facts wrong now and then, but they don’t have a business model that involves intentionally taking things out of context to manufacture news. No one suggested trying to strong-arm the legitimate media. Michael was talking about the bottom-feeder types that literally manufacture news, hurt innocent people, damage the reputation of companies, and hide behind the Constitution and freedom of speech. You can’t compare the bad actors in the press with the legitimate press. And in my opinion it makes interesting dinner conversation to speculate how one can stop the bad actors without breaking any laws.

And then Buzzfeed proved Michael’s point by taking his words out of context and showing that Michael could do nothing about it but apologize for… Buzzfeed’s misleading description of what he said.

That’s called “news.”

Denigration of the Great Revolution

November 20th, 2014

The latest Assassin’s Creed video game takes place in Paris during the French Revolution, and French leftists are appalled that the heroes of the People are depicted as bloodthirsty savages:

The former leftist French presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, called it “propaganda against the people, the people who are [portrayed as] barbarians, bloodthirsty savages,” while the “cretin” that is Marie-Antoinette and the “treacherous” Louis XVI are portrayed as noble victims. “The denigration of the great Revolution is a dirty job to instill more self-loathing and déclinisme in the French,” he told Le Figaro (link in French). The secretary general of the Left Front, Alexis Corbière, said on his blog (link in French):

To all those who will buy Assassin’s Creed: Unity, I wish them a good time, but I also tell them that the pleasure of playing does not stop you from thinking. Play, yes, but do not let yourself be manipulated by those who make propaganda.

Ubisoft, the maker of the Assassin’s Creed series of video games, which has been going since 2007 and has sold more than 70 million copies, is in fact French. One of the makers of the game replied (link in French) that Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a “consumer video game, not a history lesson” but did say that his team hired a historian and specialists on the Terror and other aspects of the Revolution. Le Monde lays out seven errors in the game here (in French).

Accidental Rewilding

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.)

Greek Hold ‘Em

November 19th, 2014

Existential Comics turns its philosophical eye toward poker — Greek Hold ‘Em:

Existential Comics Greek Hold Em 2

Shirtgate and Common Decency

November 19th, 2014

What should have been the best week of Dr. Matt Taylor’s professional life ended with him weeping on TV as he apologized for his alleged crime — wearing a racy shirt:

Many of my friends and colleagues on the anti-PC right have responded with understandable outrage. And it’s true: Taylor’s confession of wrongdoing did feel forced — awfully North Korean.

Still, the feminists have a point. Although I like the shirt (which is now selling like hotcakes), I would never wear it to a nice restaurant, never mind on a globally broadcast TV interview. The reason I wouldn’t wear it has very little to do with my fear of offending feminists. It’s simply unsuitable professional attire. I’d ask critics of the feminist backlash, would you wear it on a job interview? How about to church or synagogue?

Where feminists seem remarkably self-absorbed is in their assumption that only their sensibilities matter. It is hardly as if feminist-friendly career women in STEM professions (science, technology, engineering, and math) are the only people who might reasonably dislike the shirt. But here’s astrophysicist Katie Mack tweeting: “I don’t care what scientists wear. But a shirt featuring women in lingerie isn’t appropriate for a broadcast if you care about women in STEM.”

Okay, maybe. But why are feminist motives so special? What if you’re a devout Christian, Muslim, or Jew working in the humanities? What if you like cartoonishly sexy ladies, but you hate guns? What if you’re simply the kind of person who thinks male professionals should wear a jacket and tie on TV?

In short, feminists want a monopoly on when everyone must be outraged or offended. A few weeks ago, feminist idiots rolled out a video of little girls dressed as princesses, cursing like foul-mouthed comedian Andrew Dice Clay. Unlike Taylor, they set out to offend. But that was in support of feminism, so it was okay. (I’d like to see the parents of those kids tearfully apologizing for exploiting their kids as cheap propaganda props.)

[...]

For millennia, good manners were understood as the means by which strangers showed each other respect. Now, too many people demand respect but have lost the ability, or desire, to show it in return.

(Hat tip to Charles Murray.)

Republicans Are Douchebags

November 19th, 2014

Scott Alexander found a couple online lists of “biggest douchebag names” and ran them against Clarity Campaigns‘ database of names and political affiliations — and found that Republicans are douchebags:

I can think of two three hypotheses.

First, douchebags are disproportionately Republican.

Second, the parents who name kids douchebag names are disproportionately Republican, and Republicanism is partly hereditary (I almost missed this one, but JayMan reads this blog and I know he would call me on it if I forgot).

Third, “douchebag” is a tribally-coded slur. If someone asks “Have you ever noticed that all assholes are named things like ‘Moishe’ or ‘Avram’ or ‘Menachem’?” – then they’re telling you a lot more about the way they use the word ‘asshole’ than about the Moishes and Menachems of the world.

Farmed Bluefin

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.

Super Revenue

November 18th, 2014

The real superhero money comes not from movies but from licensed products, where the real hero isn’t Batman, Superman, or one of the Avengers:

It’s actually Spider-Man who is the superheroic earner, with licensing profits that in 2013 outpaced those of the Avengers ($325 million), Batman ($494 million), and Superman ($277 million). The Hollywood Reporter lists the data reported by the Licensing Letter.

According to the data, Marvel also sees far more licensed products shipped than DC does.

Tetrachromats

November 18th, 2014

Ordinary people have three kinds of cones in their eyes, attuned to red, green, and blue, but a few people, mostly women, are tetrachromats, with four kinds of cones:

For years, researchers weren’t sure tetrachromacy existed. If it did, they stipulated, it could only be found in people with two X chromosomes. This is because of the genes behind color vision. People who have regular color vision have three cones, tuned to the wavelengths of red, green, and blue. These are connected to the X chromosome — most men have only one, but most women have two. Mutations in the X chromosome cause a person to perceive more or less color, which is why men more commonly have congenital colorblindness than women (if their one X chromosome has a mutation). But the theory stood that if a person received two mutated X chromosomes, she could have four cones instead of the usual three.

Note the use of most in that paragraph:

The original story stated that all men have one X and one Y chromosome and that all women have two X chromosomes. This statement neglected to include those with Klinefelter Syndrome and transgender individuals. We regret the error.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)

Arthur Rankin Jr. Dies

November 18th, 2014

Animation legend Arthur Rankin Jr. has died. He and his partner, Jules Bass, produced many classics — especially holiday classics:

  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • Frosty the Snowman
  • Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town
  • The Little Drummer Boy
  • The Hobbit
  • The Last Unicorn
  • Thundercats

Creator of “Choose Your Own Adventure” Dies

November 18th, 2014

R.A. Montgomery, co-author and publisher of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, has passed away.

Choose Your Own Adventure 001f Cave of Time

His partner, Edward Packard, was considered the better writer, but Montgomery had his strengths:

Montgomery, on the other hand, often eschewed internal consistency in favor of big ideas, and his books have their own bizarre charm. While Packard was writing the standard sword-and-sorcery story The Forbidden Castle about dragons, knights, and princesses, Montgomery unleashed the berserk House of Danger which involved super-intelligent monkeys plotting to destabilize the world economy via counterfeiting, psychic detectives, Civil War ghosts, alien abduction, holograms, age regression, cannibalism, secret environmental conspiracies, and one ending that has the reader turned into Genghis Khan.