The Burdens of Shaohao

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

Although I enjoyed the early real-time strategy games, I haven’t had much interest in the massively multiplayer World of Warcraft roleplaying game. I must admit though that Blizzard has put together some gorgeous animated videos to promote their latest creation:

It combines the work of concept artist Laurel Austin and voice-actor Jim Cummings.

Map of America’s Racial Segregation

Friday, August 30th, 2013

This map draws on data from the 2010 U.S. Census to show one dot per person, color-coded by race — using this perfectly natural schema:

White people are shown with blue dots; African-Americans with green; Asians with red; and Latinos with orange, with all other race categories from the Census represented by brown.

Because it’s morally wrong to use white for white, etc.

New York City Racial Map

What Wingate Wrought

Friday, August 30th, 2013

Everyone remembers T.E. Lawrence, but no one remembers Orde Wingate, his distant cousin and World War II counterpart:

Wingate’s first rebellion was against the stifling religious atmosphere in which he was raised. He was born in 1903 to a father who was a retired Indian Army colonel with a devotion to a fundamentalist Protestant sect called the Plymouth Brethren. He and his wife brought up their seven children, including “Ordey” (his family nickname), in what one of his brothers called a “temple of gloom,” with prayer mandatory, frivolity forbidden, and “fears of eternal damnation” ever present. By the time Orde arrived at Woolwich, to train as an artillery officer, he had left the Plymouth Brethren, but he never lost his religious outlook. For the rest of his life he would be deeply influenced by the Bible, on which he had been “suckled” and which a friend said “was his guide in all his ways.” Another legacy of his childhood was that he developed a violent aversion to being regimented. At Woolwich he was in constant trouble, and he formed a low opinion of the “military apes” who tried to discipline him.

After graduation he learned Arabic, and in 1928 he joined the British-run Sudan Defense Force as an officer overseeing local enlisted men. He battled elusive gangs of slave traders and poachers within Sudan, learning the hit-and-run tactics he would employ throughout his career. He also developed many of his unconventional habits, such as wearing scruffy clothing (“his socks were very smelly and all in holes,” a subordinate later noticed), subjecting himself to great danger and discomfort, and receiving visitors in the nude. (He would become notorious for briefing reporters in his hotel room while “brushing his lower anatomy with his hairbrush.”) Other Wingate trademarks: a pith helmet, which he wore in the manner of a nineteenth-century explorer; an alarm clock, which he carried (he claimed “wrist watches are no damned good”); raw onions, which he munched like apples because of their supposedly salubrious properties; and a beard, which he grew from time to time in contravention of the King’s Regulations, which permitted only a mustache.


In 1936 Captain Wingate was dispatched to Palestine, then under British rule, to serve as an intelligence officer in the British force striving to put down an Arab rebellion. Notwithstanding his Arabist background, he became enamored of Zionism?—?so much so that even dedicated Zionists described him as a “fanatic.” Wingate admired the Jews for making the desert “blossom like the rose,” and he felt that they would be more valuable allies for Britain than the Arabs. This was not a view shared by the rest of the colonial administration, which, Wingate found, was “to a man, anti-Jew and pro-Arab.” “Everyone’s against the Jews,” he said, characteristically, “so I’m for them.”

At that moment the Jews were facing what would be the biggest Palestinian uprising until the 1980s. Like the Second Intifada, this revolt was marked by urban terrorism, with bombings and shootings targeting both British authorities and Jewish civilians. By rushing in 20,000 troops and taking punitive measures such as blowing up suspects’ houses, the British managed to regain control of the cities. This forced the rebels to focus on attacks in the countryside against isolated Jewish settlements and police posts as well as against moderate Arabs.

At first the Jews responded with havlagah (restraint), but as the violence continued they began fighting back. Wingate was at the forefront of the counterattack. He found that “on the approach of darkness, the virtual control of the country passes to the gangsters.” In 1938 he persuaded British and Zionist leaders to let him organize Special Night Squads to take back the night. They would be made up of British soldiers and Jewish “supernumeraries” who would venture stealthily out of fortified kibbutzim to “bodily assault” Palestinian gangs “with bayonet and bomb” and “thereby put an end to the terrorism.”

Eventually the Night Squads numbered 40 Britons and a 100 Jews who usually operated in squads of 10 men. Their practice was to march at night and attack at dawn. Wearing khaki shorts and rubber-soled boots, veterans recalled, they would spend long hours walking single file over “dry, very stony ground, which was generally hilly, often steeply so,” deliberately avoiding “the beaten path” and taking “a zig-zag or snakelike course.” “Complete silence is the rule in all cases,” Wingate instructed. “Members of Squads should try to cut down their smoking with subsequent coughing.” Their goal was to obtain “complete surprise,” and they often succeeded. Their unexpected appearance induced “panic” among the Palestinian rebels, whom Wingate dismissed as “feeble,” “ignorant, and primitive.”

In these raids Wingate displayed a flair for navigation in the dark, an “iron constitution,” and an utter disregard for danger. During one battle he was shot five times in a “friendly fire” accident but, although “white as a sheet” and “covered in blood,” he continued “giving orders in English and Hebrew quite calmly.”

He instructed the Night Squads to treat Arab civilians, “as opposed to the terrorist, with courtesy and respect,” but on one occasion he himself led a rampage through an Arab village to avenge the murder of a Jewish friend. Wingate later claimed that his squads killed at least 140 rebels and wounded 300 more, compiling a record unmatched by any British unit of similar size.

By the time Wingate left Palestine in 1939, he had earned the first of his three Distinguished Service Orders, Britain’s second-highest decoration, and the lasting gratitude of Palestinian Jews. Veterans of his Night Squads, including Moshe Dayan and Yigael Yadin, would become leading generals in Israel’s army, which they infused with his disregard of protocol, his insistence on fast-moving offensive operations led by officers from the front, and his emphasis on preempting terrorist attacks. “A dominating personality, he infected us all with his fanaticism and faith,” Dayan later wrote.

There’s much more.

(Hat tip to Weapons Man.)

Devalued in the Military

Friday, August 30th, 2013

Walter E. Williams shares some statistics on women in the military:

The “USMA report on the Integration and Performance of Women at West Point”, cited by Mackubin Thomas Owens, in Proceedings (July 1998) reveals sex-norming schemes whereby women receive A grades for the same performance that earns a man a D. Navy women pass physical readiness tests by performing 11% fewer sit-ups, 53% fewer push-ups, and running 1.5 miles 27% slower than men. The Marine Corps discovered that only 45% of female Marines could toss a hand grenade beyond its burst radius; one Army study reported only 12% could. Navy studies show that only 12% of women can accomplish the two-person stretcher carry, a requirement critical to ship security. Women may be able to drive a five-ton truck, but need a man’s help if they must change a tire. Women can fire field artillery pieces but often can’t handle the ammunition.

Senator Olympia Snowe (R.ME) says, “Every time a woman is excluded from a position [in the military], she is devalued.” That’s the kind of stupid thinking that ignores important physical and psychological sex differences and has compromised our military readiness. A partial listing of those differences include: the average female soldier is five inches shorter than her male counter-part, has half the upper body strength, has significantly lower aerobic capacity (at her physical peak, ages 20 to 30, the average woman has the aerobic capacity of a 50-year-old male), and 37% less muscle mass. Women have a much lighter skeleton that means, among other things, she can’t pull G forces as well as men and is at greater risk of skeletal injuries.

Women soldiers are four times more likely to report ill. The percentage of women being medically non-available at any time is twice that of male soldiers. Then there’s pregnancy. Each year, between 10 and 17 percent of servicewomen become pregnant. In certain posts the rate is higher. In 1988, James Webb, Secretary of the Navy, said 51% of single Air Force and 48% of single Navy women stationed in Iceland were pregnant. During troop deployment in Bosnia, between December 1995 and July 1996, a woman had to be evacuated due to pregnancy every three days. These and other factors mean that women suffer a higher rate of attrition than men and because of the turnover they are not as profitable training investments.

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of military social engineering is official coverup of failure. Officers who criticize double standards or expose official lies and deception, risk their careers.

Weapons Man points out that Williams’ piece is from 1998.

Single gene change increases mouse lifespan by 20 percent

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Researchers at NIH have extended the lifespan of mice by 20 percent by lowering the expression of a single gene, the mTOR gene:

The researchers engineered mice that produce about 25 percent of the normal amount of the mTOR protein, or about the minimum needed for survival. The engineered mTOR mice were a bit smaller than average, but they otherwise appeared normal.

The median lifespan for the mTOR mice was 28.0 months for males and 31.5 months for females, compared to 22.9 months and 26.5 months for normal males and females, respectively. The mTOR mice also had a longer maximal lifespan; seven of the eight longest-lived mice in this study were mTOR mice. This lifespan increase is one of the largest observed in mice so far.

While the genetically modified mTOR mice aged better overall, they showed only selective improvement in specific organs. They generally outperformed normal mice of equivalent age in maze and balance tests, indicating better retention of memory and coordination. Older mTOR mice also retained more muscle strength and posture. However, mTOR mice had a greater loss in bone volume as they aged, and they were more susceptible to infections at old age, suggesting a loss of immune function.

Going In and Out of Air Conditioning Can Cause Colds

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Going in and out of air conditioning can cause colds:

A thermal regulator in the brain, after receiving messages from temperature sensors in the skin, automatically alerts blood vessels there to constrict. “You can see this when someone suddenly goes into a very cold building, they go pale or their skin mottles,” says Prof. Eccles. The next stage is shivering, which will raise body temperature by generating heat.

At the same time, blood vessels constrict in the nose and throat, where bacteria and viruses often lurk. “If you were to look into a throat, you could see it go from a nice pink-red to a very pale color,” says Prof. Eccles. “This happens within a few seconds to conserve the heat that we lose to the air we breathe out.”

When blood flow diminishes, the white blood cells that typically fight bacteria and viruses do too, allowing these latent risk factors to easily bloom into a full-blown cold. “If there isn’t as much blood flow to the throat, there aren’t enough white blood cells to ward off infection,” Prof. Eccles says.

Building the New Super Athlete

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Building the new super athlete means more than building the athlete’s body:

Nick Podesta was the nation’s top-ranked 16-and-under tennis player when injuries forced him to take time off from the tournament circuit. Like just about any tennis phenom capable of overwhelming with big ground strokes, he was occasionally tripped up by lapses in concentration and focus. Gordon Uehling, his coach and mentor, decided to plug Podesta into a neuro-feedback machine to see if he could train Nick’s brain to be better at tennis.

Podesta now makes an extra weekly trip to CourtSense, Uehling’s Tenafly, New Jersey headquarters, to plug into the Neurotopia machine, the first such system on the East Coast. This morning, he checks into a quiet, windowless room, settles into a cushy Barcalounger-type recliner, gets a number of electrical leads attached to his scalp, and plays a video game with his brain.

As Nick stares at the monitor screen on the wall directly in front of him, the computer registers the brain waves emanating from certain key neural regions. If there is a subtle increase in the higher-frequency beta waves, indicating a lively mental focus, the computer rewards him. The pink rocket ship on the screen billows smoke from its exhaust pipe, the music volume increases, and the screen brightens, creating a pleasing illusion of forward motion and good times in outer space. If he’s in the lower theta frequencies, suggesting Nick has tuned out, the screen grows dim and quiet, no rocket smoke. “It’s like a stethoscope to the brain,” Uehling says from an adjoining room. Uehling’s own brain is in full multitasking mode. He’s observing Podesta’s session on two monitors, one with the unfolding video game on it, one with real-time brain-wave analysis, and at the same time he’s watching, via a laptop connection, the progress of another protégé, Christina McHale, No. 63 in the world, who is playing a tournament match in Rome, tuning up for the French Open.

The goal behind all the fancy Neurotopia electronics is something the neuroscientists like to call “self-regulation.” This is the idea that using basic behavioral conditioning techniques — a positive stimulus for the “right” response, a negative stimulus for the “wrong one” — you can train your brain to influence physiological processes that we normally think are beyond, or below, conscious control: body temperature, heart rate, or, in this case, brain waves, the patterns neurons make when they fire as a group.

The Neurotopia system draws on what the San Luis Obispo, California, start-up company’s chief science officer Leslie Sherlin calls a “brain bank.” Sherlin is a neuroscientist, who has studied the brain waves of pro-sports teams — the Seattle Seahawks and Mariners, as well as elite, Red Bull-sponsored athletes in individual sports. He’s got in his bank about 1,200 brains, that is, their EEG readouts when performing sports-related tasks. This information is fed into the computer to become the gold-standard algorithms that Neurotopia trains clients to approximate when they play the video games. Sherlin and his tech staff hooked up top golfer Rickie Fowler on the putting green as one of their reference brains. As Fowler sank putts, the electric leads attached to his head sent his brain-wave data to the Neurotopia team’s three laptops arrayed around the green.

Sherlin found distinct patterns in the way the top pros were able to toggle back and forth between focusing on the task and then, at the moment of truth — in this case Fowler swinging the putter — relaxing into an open mental state. That’s a skill that doesn’t show up in the brain scans of even a scratch club player. “I don’t want to stand on a pedestal and say we’ve figured it all out,” Sherlin says, “because this data is still anecdotal. But definitely, the elite perform differently, even if the nonelite is really good.”

If Neurotopia has not yet arrived at the final portrait of the perfect brain orchestrating the perfect putt or home-run swing, the system is good enough to have been embraced by the likes of Nascar racer and all-around motor-sports stud Travis Pastrana, Olympic beach volleyball heroines Kerri Walsh and Misty Mae Trainer, and Mike Bryan, of the Bryan brothers men’s doubles tennis juggernaut. And, for his part, Nick Podesta is keen.

During a match, he says, he now finds it easier to maintain his concentration — in Neurotopia-speak, his “focus endurance.” If the match isn’t going well, if the weather conditions are bad or the line calls are going against him, he taps into another Neurotopia training, “stress recovery,” a kind of Zen letting-go empowered by a decrease in “mind chatter.” “I’m physically pumped up, running down balls,” he says. “But my mind is able to stay relaxed, in the moment. I’m not overthinking.”

The future of brain training in sport may take us to stranger places than Sherlin might care to imagine. Over the past few years, Johns Hopkins’ Dr. Pablo Celnik has done a handful of landmark studies demonstrating that techniques like transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), emerging depression therapies, can also improve the way healthy people learn and retain “motor behaviors.” He’s currently working with the Air Force to see if brain stimulation can enhance pilots’ ability to perform physically in challenging, fast-moving environments. “Someone may be able to practice with a stimulator on their head, and they will perform better,” Celnik says. “Then, when the Olympics comes around, he doesn’t need to have it on his head anymore. You cannot trace it. So yes, in a way, this would be 21st-century doping.”

The School That LEGO Built

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

LEGO  has opened a school in its hometown of Billund, Denmark to polish the town’s image in the eyes of international families considering moving to the small city to work for the toymaking powerhouse.

Why does a rabbit flash its white tail when its being chased?

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Some prey animals, like rabbits and deer, feature flashy white tails, because they confuse predators:

Because these white tails are very noticeable, predators focus on these bright spots — but at the expense of focusing on the larger animal. When a rabbit or deer executes an evasive maneuver, like a sharp turn, the spot suddenly disappears, causing the predator to readjust its focus on the camouflaged coat. This will cost it some vital time, giving the prey animal those precious added seconds to escape.

Rabbit with White Tail

And fascinatingly, Semmann tested his theory by having 24 humans play a video game in which they attempted to follow a virtual rabbit both with and without a flashing tail. As suspected, the presence of a tail significantly reduced their number of correct moves.

Funny Little Wars

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Noted science-fiction author — and pacifist — H.G. Wells created the modern hobby of miniature wargaming 100 years ago, with Little Wars — “a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books.”

H.G. Wells playing Little Wars, illustration from London News 1913

Wells’ game didn’t rely on dice to resolve combat but on an elegant weapon for a more civilized age:

The beginning of the game of Little War, as we know it, became possible with the invention of the spring breechloader gun. This priceless gift to boyhood appeared somewhen towards the end of the last century, a gun capable of hitting a toy soldier nine times out of ten at a distance of nine yards. It has completely superseded all the spiral-spring and other makes of gun hitherto used in playroom warfare. These spring breechloaders are made in various sizes and patterns, but the one used in our game is that known in England as the four-point-seven gun. It fires a wooden cylinder about an inch long, and has a screw adjustment for elevation and depression. It is an altogether elegant weapon.

Wells’ early work presaged the complaints of both modern gamers and Great War generals:

To Mr W. was broached the idea: “I believe that if one set up a few obstacles on the floor, volumes of the British Encyclopedia and so forth, to make a Country, and moved these soldiers and guns about, one could have rather a good game, a kind of kriegspiel.”


We got two forces of toy soldiers, set out a lumpish Encyclopaedic land upon the carpet, and began to play. We arranged to move in alternate moves: first one moved all his force and then the other; an infantry-man could move one foot at each move, a cavalry-man two, a gun two, and it might fire six shots; and if a man was moved up to touch another man, then we tossed up and decided which man was dead. So we made a game, which was not a good game, but which was very amusing once or twice. The men were packed under the lee of fat volumes, while the guns, animated by a spirit of their own, banged away at any exposed head, or prowled about in search of a shot. Occasionally men came into contact, with remarkable results. Rash is the man who trusts his life to the spin of a coin. One impossible paladin slew in succession nine men and turned defeat to victory, to the extreme exasperation of the strategist who had led those victims to their doom. This inordinate factor of chance eliminated play; the individual freedom of guns turned battles into scandals of crouching concealment; there was too much cover afforded by the books and vast intervals of waiting while the players took aim. And yet there was something about it…. It was a game crying aloud for improvement.


The battles lingered on a long time, because we shot with extreme care and deliberation, and they were hard to bring to a decisive finish. The guns were altogether too predominant. They prevented attacks getting home, and they made it possible for a timid player to put all his soldiers out of sight behind hills and houses, and bang away if his opponent showed as much as the tip of a bayonet. Monsieur Bloch seemed vindicated, and Little War had become impossible.

Wells also mentions Bloch in The Land Ironclads. He was one of the Prophets of the Great War, who famously asked, Is war now impossible?, because modern artillery had become 116 times more deadly, and any war would become a war of entrenchments.

The centennial of Wells’ creation earned a mention in the New York Times:

Wells entertained a number of notable literary and political figures with his diversion. According to Padre Paul Wright of the British Royal Army Chaplains’ Department, who is perhaps the world’s leading authority on “Little Wars,” G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc were among Wells’s guests while he was developing the game. “I think it is reasonable to suggest that Chesterton had some war gaming inspiration from Wells when writing ‘The Napoleon of Notting Hill,’ ” Wright told me in an e-mail, referring to a novel in which toy soldiers play a decisive part. Winston Churchill and Wells maintained a correspondence too, though many of their letters have been lost. Wright wonders whether the two men ever faced off: “We are left with the fascinating prospect of an historical, toy soldier what-if between the two great toy soldier enthusiasts of the period.”

While miniature war-gaming has never been able to claim a place in the mainstream, it has influenced almost everything we think of as gaming today. By the middle of the 20th century, war-gaming had not only added new sets of rules for armies of many periods, but it had inspired a new kind of richly complex board game, like Axis & Allies and Blitzkrieg.Entirely novel face-to-face entertainments emerged from the same lineage. The game designer Gary Gygax, in a foreword to a 2004 edition of the book, credits “Little Wars” with influencing his own set of rules for medieval-period miniature wars, Chainmail — which in turn became the basis of a slightly less obscure role-­playing game: Dungeons & Dragons.

The Beeb led me to Paul Wright’s Funny Little Wars, which updates Wells’ classic.

Funny Little Wars Drawing

I’ve mentioned Little Wars before, of course. Robert Louis Stevenson designed a similar game and penned an amusing ode to his fallen soldiers.

Testosterone spikes in non-competitive activities

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Researchers studying an isolated group of forager-farmers in central Bolivia, the Tsimane, found that their men had relatively low baseline testosterone levels — one-third lower than American men — but that their testosterone spiked during physical competition, like a soccer game.

Actually, their testosterone levels spike with any physically demanding activity:

According to Trumble, whose research lies at the intersection of hormones, behavior, and the environment, testosterone levels are closely related to the availability of food energy. When young men skip even a single meal, their testosterone levels can drop as much as 10 percent. Fast for a couple of days, and they decrease to castrate levels.

“The same is true for infection,” he added. “An infection from a pathogen or parasite — even injuries, burns, or surgery — all cause an immediate decrease in testosterone.”

The body uses food energy for a number of critical processes. Among them are building muscle mass and maintaining proper immune function. When food energy is limited, the body has to choose between one and the other. For populations in industrialized countries like the United States, there isn’t much of a tradeoff,” Trumble said. “I can go to the grocery store and gather 20,000 calories in 10 minutes without breaking a sweat. I don’t have to worry about a deficit.”

However, for a group such as the Tsimane, who are more physically active than most Americans — and use a lot more food energy — but also have to grow, hunt, or fish for the vast majority of the calories they consume, the tradeoff is much greater. In addition, the Tsimane’s regular exposure to pathogens and parasites requires additional calories for maintaining necessary immune function.

Previous studies by Trumble, Gurven, and others have demonstrated that competitive activity — such as soccer — causes a short-term spike in testosterone. “Past research has mostly focused on the role of testosterone in aggressive competition,” Trumble said. “Given the important of testosterone in supplying energy to muscles, we wanted to look at how testosterone changes during another vital part of Tsimane life — food production.” He and the research team collected saliva specimens from Tsimane men before and after an hour of tree chopping, just as previous studies had examined saliva specimens taken from Tsimane men immediately before and after an hour of soccer. “With soccer, we saw a 30.1 percent increase in testosterone,” Trumble said. “With chopping, we saw a 46.8 percent increase. It was significantly greater.”

The acute spike in testosterone increases the muscle’s ability to take in blood sugar, which, in turn, enhances soccer performance and reaction times. It turns out the same is true for tree chopping. “If you’re better able to pull blood sugar into your muscle tissue, and better able to use that energy, you’ll be able to chop more trees,” Trumble explained.

While Tsimane men have a relatively low baseline testosterone level — 33 percent lower than that of men living in the United States, where life is less physically demanding — they appear to maintain their testosterone levels over the course of their lives. This is contrary to the United States and other industrialized populations, where men generally experience decreases in testosterone as they age.

Ibn Khaldun on the Rise and Decline of Corporate Empires

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

It should come as no surprise that Paul Krugman, fan of Asimov’s Foundation novels, has become a fan of Peter Turchin and Ibn Kaldun and has applied their ideas to Microsoft’s recent fall:

Yep: the uncouth nerds who created Microsoft became incredibly rich, acquired couth, and lost their edge; Apple stayed edgy in part because of Steve Jobs, but also because it was a disappointment for so long. And if its plans to build a high-tech Versailles are any indication, the now super-successful Apple may be heading down the same road as its one-time nemesis.

Both states and corporations are, at some fundamental level, cooperative enterprises, Turchin explains:

In the beginning we start with small groups of entrepreneurs randomly thrown together by chance. The vast majority of these incipient firms fail. Most of these groups will contain uncooperative selfish knaves. All such groups will fail with 100% probability; only groups consisting entirely of cooperators have a chance. However, the majority of such potentially cooperative groups will still fail because they will be unable to hit upon the right combination of social norms and institutions to enable them to cooperate effectively. As an example, people coming from different ethnic backgrounds often find it difficult to concert a cooperative action, simply because different cultures evolved different ways of cooperating, and these may not work well when thrown together.

In the next step, the majority of even those groups that consist of cooperators and have acquired effective cooperative institutions will fail — because they don’t have the right product, or perhaps because they are simply unlucky. But at least they have a chance, whereas groups with knaves and lacking the right institutions have no chance at all.

This is a typical cultural evolution scenario. At this stage we have a lot of variation, with all kinds of incipient firms churned out, and a selection mechanism that weeds the ones that don’t cut the mustard. This is completely analogous to the Ibn Khaldun situation of the stateless ‘desert’ where groups that can’t cooperate together in defense (and predation on other groups!) are rapidly eliminated.

Only those Bedouin groups that wield a lot of asabiya survive and thrive in the competitive desert. Analogously, only those start-ups that have a lot of — well, asabiya — survive and thrive in the competitive markets.

So that’s how high asabiya firms are generated. What happens next? Next they need to expand without losing asabiya. That means that they need to be very picky about accepting new members (keep those knaves out) and have another set of institutions that would allow them to assimilate newbies to the firm’s social norms of cooperation. If they surmount this challenge, they will expand and become a huge corporation.

But eventually the rot sets in. More and more knaves weasel their way in. The institutions that sustained cooperation begin to be undermined by the selfish behavior of freeriders. Moralistic cooperators, in response, withdraw their cooperation, because they don’t want to be taken advantage of. Prosocial founders and early joiners leave the company and join more cooperative ones, or start new businesses.

Eventually knaves reign and the company is really moribund. However, it’s big and has a lot of inertia and so it survives — for a while. Then, however, a particularly greedy set of executives, or a market downturn, exposes its inherent weakness and the corporation goes under. You can substitute ‘executives’ with the ‘elites’ and ‘corporation’ with ‘empire’ and you have the gist of my theory of why empires collapse (however, the time scale on which firms rise and fall is much faster than that for empires).

And that’s how I see the fall and decline of imperial corporations, when looked though the lens of Ibn Khaldun’s theory. I won’t name names, but I am sure we all can think of a number of examples of such moribund corporations.

This matches Carol Quigly’s notion of institutional imperative, which T. Greer summarizes:

According to this imperative, organizations are formed as a means to accomplishing a stated goal. These organizations are thus instruments whose role is limited to the function they were designed to perform. Over time these instruments tend to denigrate into institutions — organizations who exist for their own sake, devoting resources to protecting their position instead of directing resources towards the fulfillment of their designed role.”

He continues:

What I find most interesting about tying the institutional imperative directly to asabiyah is cycles – or rather, the cycles within cycles. In the case of American business, you have the larger asabiyah cycle of American society as a whole (visible among our top executives today – they are far less ‘pro-social’ than their counterparts in the 60s), but then smaller cycles of specific organizations within American society itself (in this case individual firms).

The neat thing about free markets is that is allows “moribund corporations” to break apart without the dreadful consequences we usually associate with the collapse of nations and states. Indeed, because these corporations are usually replaced by their more instrumental peers, the business asabiyah cycle is a great boon to larger society.
I imagine similar cycles are present in all human organizations, including most bureaucracies. The lean, can-do OSS of the Second World War slowly morphs into the moribund CIA of today, and so forth. Only difference is that there are no Bendouin rival bureaucracies to push them out.

Gene Anderson adds a few more points:

One might add that asabiya doesn’t just happen; in Ibn Khaldun’s theory, it requires a leader with charisma, concerted ability to manage force, and generosity, who emerges in a competitive situation where the best leader unites the biggest force and therefore wins. Then when an established, mature government appears, charisma, generosity and whatever aren’t so much use — establishment sets in, dull gray figures take over, and things unwind. Ibn Khaldun figured about 100 years per cycle.

The best possible combination for collective action might be a Machiavellian leader and completely prosocial followers, Turchin notes.

How Unscientific Innovation Saved Marlin Steel

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

Marlin Steel was a small, low-tech company making wire baskets for bagel shops, when the Chinese started undercutting them, and they needed to innovate:

The job that rescued Marlin Steel was small — 20 baskets, a $500 order. Greenblatt was handling sales in 2003, so he took the call himself. “It was an engineer from Boeing,” he says. “He didn’t think I was in the bagel-basket business. He just needed custom wire baskets.” The Boeing engineer, who had seen a Marlin ad in the Thomas Register, a pre-Internet manufacturing directory, wanted baskets to hold airplane parts and move them around the factory. He wanted them fast. And he wanted them made in a way Marlin wasn’t used to — with astonishing precision. For bagel stores, says Greenblatt, “if the bagel didn’t fall out between the wires, the quality was perfect.” The Boeing engineer needed the basket’s size to be within a sixty-fourth of an inch of his specifications. “I told him, ‘I’ll have to charge you $24 a basket,’” says Greenblatt. “He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever. No problem. When are you going to ship them?’”

What got Greenblatt’s attention in that phone call wasn’t the need for speed or even the quality standards. It was that Boeing was completely unconcerned about price. “I’m trying to sell a basket for $12, the bagel shops are saying, ‘I’m not paying more than $6.’ I’m ready to jump off a bridge, and here’s a guy who just shrugs at the outrageous sum of $24. I was like, Wow. He’s price insensitive.”

That epiphany marked Marlin’s rebirth. The company would keep bending heavy-gauge wire to make baskets, but instead of going to Bruegger’s to hold bagels, the baskets would go to the factories of Toyota and Caterpillar, Merck and GE to hold everything from microchips to turbine blades.

Greenblatt almost didn’t make the leap. “Actually,” says Andy Ratner, one of Greenblatt’s office staff, “Drew’s first reaction was: This is totally not what we do.” Greenblatt adds: “The Boeing guy needed a plus-or-minus tolerance on the wires. We weren’t used to that at all. We just used a tape measure.”

There is no hope of democracy in the Middle East

Monday, August 26th, 2013

There is no hope of democracy in the Middle East, Ed West contends:

Libya is still unstable, while even Tunisia, the country where the revolutions began, faces an uncertain future. When the first protests in the region began, following the self-immolation of market trader Mohamed Bouazizi in January 2011, who could have predicted that it would end like this? Well, pretty much everyone did, with the exception of most western governments, the BBC and the rest of the liberal media.

From the start of the uprisings the narrative has been that the Arab world is moving towards democracy and freedom.

Even the name, reminiscent of the Prague Spring of 1968, suggested things would get better; more likely precedents would be 1789, 1917 or the 1979 Iranian revolution, all of which led to far worse horrors.

And yet Barack Obama, David Cameron and much of the media greeted events with almost child-like innocence.

Back in February 2011 David Cameron told the Kuwaiti parliament it was “prejudice” to say that democracy would not work in the Arab world. His statement was an example of the enfeebled western mindset, where even considering a possible thesis that could smack of “prejudice” must be discounted before the evidence is assessed, so that we approach a problem blinkered from any unpleasant reality.

This does not imply our superiority; much of the region’s problems stem from western policy, from handing Arabia to the Wahhabist House of Saud, to the 1953 coup in Iran and support for kleptocratic dictators, which have left a legacy of bitterness.

BUT that is not the only obstacle that democracy faces in the Middle East. Everyone born in countries like ours is, historically speaking, a lottery winner. Most people, in other times and other places, have lived in societies more like Game of Thrones than Borgen, clannish rather than democratic, where people feel their loyalty and duty is towards other members of their extended family or religious community. To get people to work in the best interests of strangers so that you accept their authority when they get more people into the polling booth than you, is an achievement, not a natural state.

Liberal democracy needs certain conditions to flourish, most of which are absent across the Arab world.

In our country it took a long, long time. Around the date of the next general election we will celebrate 800 years since Magna Carta, the beginning of the painful process whereby British democracy evolved.

Libya, by contrast, was artifi-cially constructed in the 20th century, and is home to Berber tribes who still have a thin sense of nationhood. Egypt is an ancient civilisation but it is a clannish society and, like most countries in the region, has a youth bulge and high unemployment. These are all factors that make democracy improbable, if not impossible.

Egypt is also missing two vital conditions without which democracy will not flourish, the rule of law and economic freedom.

Liberal democracy needs certain conditions to flourish, most of which are absent across the Arab world
It is no coincidence that democracy emerged in those societies where capitalism had developed, where contracts could be legally enforced and people could own their own property, which the authorities could not snatch without due process. These are to democracy as foundations are to a house.

Add to this, in the case of Syria, the demographic balance.

It is very difficult for ethnically diverse countries to make democracy work, for the simple reason that voting becomes a tribal headcount. So whatever the atrocities of the Assad family, it is perfectly rational for his fellow Alawites to fight to the death to prevent a Sunni tyranny.

Likewise Iraq; home to a civilisation even older than Egypt’s, their ancestors invented everything from written laws to beer, but the modern state was arti-ficially carved out of three Turkish provinces, and contains various religious communities and tribes and clans within. The spread of democracy was a utopian idea, based not on reason or evidence, but on a worldview of humanity that emerged after the Second World War in which not only would liberal democracy and liberal ideas spread around the world, but that they were the norm, because we are all essentially interchangeable.

Kill the Department of Defense

Monday, August 26th, 2013

Kill the Department of Defense, Lynn C. Rees suggests:

Where FDR understood that politics is the division of power and shaped government in ways that allowed the internecine feuding of the inevitable private fiefdoms and tribes arising in any human institution be channeled into salutary channels, his successors committed four major fallacies of politics:

  • the appeal to virtue: if we only get the right people people in there, politics will be banished through virtue
  • the appeal to Führerprinzip: if we only get the right leader in there, politics will be banished through leadership
  • the appeal to de-duplication: if we only eliminate duplicate efforts, politics will be banished by reducing multiple competing centers to one harmonious center
  • the appeal to boxes and straight lines: if we only have the right boxes connected by the right lines, politics will be banished by rational compartmentalization and proper channels

So they folded the old Navy and War Departments coupled with an independent Air Force liberated from the Army into one organization under a single Secretary of Defense. This allowed the services to continue their age old war of land vs. sea vs. air as before but now they had enough consolidated interest to band together as needed to shield their parochial turf battles from from outside meddlers.