Facebook was a powerful, non-neutral force in electoral politics

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

We’ve known since at least 2012 that Facebook was a powerful, non-neutral force in electoral politics:

In that year, a combined University of California, San Diego and Facebook research team led by James Fowler published a study in Nature, which argued that Facebook’s “I Voted” button had driven a small but measurable increase in turnout, primarily among young people.

Rebecca Rosen’s 2012 story, “Did Facebook Give Democrats the Upper Hand?” relied on new research from Fowler, et al., about the presidential election that year. Again, the conclusion of their work was that Facebook’s get-out-the-vote message could have driven a substantial chunk of the increase in youth voter participation in the 2012 general election. Fowler told Rosen that it was “even possible that Facebook is completely responsible” for the youth voter increase. And because a higher proportion of young people vote Democratic than the general population, the net effect of Facebook’s GOTV effort would have been to help the Dems.

The research showed that a small design change by Facebook could have electoral repercussions, especially with America’s electoral-college format in which a few hotly contested states have a disproportionate impact on the national outcome. And the pro-liberal effect it implied became enshrined as an axiom of how campaign staffers, reporters, and academics viewed social media.

In June 2014, Harvard Law scholar Jonathan Zittrain wrote an essay in New Republic called, “Facebook Could Decide an Election Without Anyone Ever Finding Out,” in which he called attention to the possibility of Facebook selectively depressing voter turnout. (He also suggested that Facebook be seen as an “information fiduciary,” charged with certain special roles and responsibilities because it controls so much personal data.)

In late 2014, The Daily Dot called attention to an obscure Facebook-produced case study on how strategists defeated a statewide measure in Florida by relentlessly focusing Facebook ads on Broward and Dade counties, Democratic strongholds. Working with a tiny budget that would have allowed them to send a single mailer to just 150,000 households, the digital-advertising firm Chong and Koster was able to obtain remarkable results. “Where the Facebook ads appeared, we did almost 20 percentage points better than where they didn’t,” testified a leader of the firm. “Within that area, the people who saw the ads were 17 percent more likely to vote our way than the people who didn’t. Within that group, the people who voted the way we wanted them to, when asked why, often cited the messages they learned from the Facebook ads.”

In April 2016, Rob Meyer published “How Facebook Could Tilt the 2016 Election” after a company meeting in which some employees apparently put the stopping-Trump question to Mark Zuckerberg. Based on Fowler’s research, Meyer reimagined Zittrain’s hypothetical as a direct Facebook intervention to depress turnout among non-college graduates, who leaned Trump as a whole.

Facebook, of course, said it would never do such a thing. “Voting is a core value of democracy and we believe that supporting civic participation is an important contribution we can make to the community,” a spokesperson said. “We as a company are neutral — we have not and will not use our products in a way that attempts to influence how people vote.”

They wouldn’t do it intentionally, at least.

There’s much more.

We can both afford to sit and think about it

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

Real deterrence comes from your ability to survive the enemy’s first strike and then strike back, Techniques of Systems Analysis reminds us:

Assume, for example, that you are trying to choose between two forces, one which we will call Force A, and the other Force B. A is such that if you strike first, you will be able to get 90% of the enemy, but if he strikes first, you will be able to get only 20% when you strike back. B is a different kind of force. It gets 40% of the enemy whether you or he strikes first. It is indifferent to how the war starts.

It is clear that if there is a tense situation and he is trying to decide whether or not to launch a surprise attack on you, then Force A will not deter him from launching such an attack. Quite the contrary, it will induce him to do it. He will argue that not only is there a tremendous payoff to him if he gets the first strike but that in fact he had better hurry up and get it. He feels that you must also realize the importance of going first, and if he does not move right away it may be too late. In fact, if the situation is as pictured, you could conceivably feel force to take action yourself.

In other words, the A type of force might be called an “invitational force.” The invitation is so strong that it practically commands you and the enemy to get in your blows early. Force A is a very unstable influence.

Force B, on the contrary, is a stabilizing force. The enemy looks at it and says, “I had better not start a war because if I do he will destroy 40% of me and that will hurt. Also, I get no advantage by moving first, because this thing will perform just as well regardless of who makes the first move. For the same reasons, he is in no hurry either, and we can both afford to sit and think about it.”

Let us now look at a third force, Force C, also on the chart. At first sight it seems to combine the best virtues of Forces A and B. It gets 90% if you go first, and 40% if he goes first. It is clear, however, that Force C is not as good a deterrent, at least in the sense in which we have been using the word, as Force B. Even though it does the same damage as Force B when the enemy strikes first, the enemy is still (relatively speaking) anxious to start the war. If he waits, you may start it and then he will really be badly off.

Therefore, if you are thinking only of deterring the enemy from a direct attack, you would probably prefer Force B to Force C. Furthermore, if you want to improve your offensive capability, it probably behooves you at the same time to improve your defensive ability, as illustrated by Force D. The extra strain on your deterrence is then matched by your extra strength.

Tulipmania: More Boring Than You Thought

Sunday, October 22nd, 2017

Anne Goldgar’s Tulipmania: Money, Honor, and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age should be called Tulipmania: More Boring Than You Thought:

The Dutch learned that tulips could be grown from seeds or buds that grew on the mother bulb; a bulb that grows from seed would take 7 to 12 years before flowering, but a bulb itself could flower the very next year. Of particular interest to Clusius and other tulip traders were “broken bulbs” — tulips whose petals showed a striped, multicolor pattern rather than a single solid color. The effect was unpredictable, but the growing demand for these rare, “broken bulb” tulips led naturalists to study ways to reproduce them. (The pattern was later discovered to be the result of a mosaic virus that actually makes the bulbs sickly and less likely to reproduce.) “The high market price for tulips to which the current version of tulipmania refers were prices for particularly beautiful broken bulbs,” writes economist Peter Garber. “Since breaking was unpredictable, some have characterized tulipmania among growers as a gamble, with growers vying to produce better and more bizarre variegations and feathering.”

After all the money Dutch speculators spent on the bulbs, they only produced flowers for about a week — but for tulip lovers, that week was a glorious one. “As luxury objects, tulips fit well into a culture of both abundant capital and new cosmopolitanism,” Goldgar writes. Tulips required expertise, an appreciation of beauty and the exotic, and, of course, an abundance of money.

Here’s where the myth comes into play. According to popular legend, the tulip craze took hold of all levels of Dutch society in the 1630s. “The rage among the Dutch to possess them was so great that the ordinary industry of the country was neglected, and the population, even to its lowest dregs, embarked in the tulip trade,” wrote Scottish journalist Charles Mackay in his popular 1841 work Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. According to this narrative, everyone from the wealthiest merchants to the poorest chimney sweeps jumped into the tulip fray, buying bulbs at high prices and selling them for even more. Companies formed just to deal with the tulip trade, which reached a fever pitch in late 1636. But by February 1637, the bottom fell out of the market. More and more people defaulted on their agreement to buy the tulips at the prices they’d promised, and the traders who had already made their payments were left in debt or bankrupted. At least that’s what has always been claimed.

In fact, “There weren’t that many people involved and the economic repercussions were pretty minor,” Goldgar says. “I couldn’t find anybody that went bankrupt. If there had been really a wholesale destruction of the economy as the myth suggests, that would’ve been a much harder thing to face.”

That’s not to say that everything about the story is wrong; merchants really did engage in a frantic tulip trade, and they paid incredibly high prices for some bulbs. And when a number of buyers announced they couldn’t pay the high price previously agreed upon, the market did fall apart and cause a small crisis — but only because it undermined social expectations.

“In this case it was very difficult to deal with the fact that almost all of your relationships are based on trust, and people said, ‘I don’t care that I said I’m going to buy this thing, I don’t want it anymore and I’m not going to pay for it.’ There was really no mechanism to make people pay because the courts were unwilling to get involved,” Goldgar says.

But the trade didn’t affect all levels of society, and it didn’t cause the collapse of industry in Amsterdam and elsewhere. As Garber, the economist, writes, “While the lack of data precludes a solid conclusion, the results of the study indicate that the bulb speculation was not obvious madness.”

So if tulipmania wasn’t actually a calamity, why was it made out to be one? We have tetchy Christian moralists to blame for that. With great wealth comes great social anxiety, or as historian Simon Schama writes in The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, “The prodigious quality of their success went to their heads, but it also made them a bit queasy.” All the outlandish stories of economic ruin, of an innocent sailor thrown in prison for eating a tulip bulb, of chimney sweeps wading into the market in hopes of striking it rich — those come from propaganda pamphlets published by Dutch Calvinists worried that the tulip-propelled consumerism boom would lead to societal decay. Their insistence that such great wealth was ungodly has even stayed with us to this day.

Just better in the imponderables

Sunday, October 22nd, 2017

Techniques of Systems Analysis considers some of the potential asymmetries between the US and USSR:

Technological Skill
We can try to have better equipment than he has. On the whole, we think we are from one to five years ahead of the Russians. It is clear, however, that we cannot rely on this kind of superiority in all fields. Furthermore, we must really hop to keep ahead, if we are ahead. It cannot be done passively. However, where there is good evidence of a lead, it is probably a mistake not to exploit it. The thing works in reverse, too. We have to allow for it when there is a chance that he is ahead.

Military Skill
This is one of the things which, on the whole, Systems Analysts are forced to ignore, but on which police makers often (and sometimes correctly) place much reliance. For an example of how important it can be, consider the Germans and the French in World War II. It seems to be true that the French had more and better tanks than the Germans, about as many planes, and, given their fortification systems, seemingly at least as good an army. The Germans were just better in the imponderables. Probably nobody could have predicted the German break-through and the completeness of their victory, unless he had given the Germans a great deal of credit for being better militarily. Of necessity, the analyst who is working for a High Confidence system should refuse to rely on the enemy’s being incompetent militarily, unless there is very strong evidence to support such an assumption. Not only is it just too easy to indulge in wishful thinking but the Systems Analyst is looking to the future.

There is an important difference here between the current-policy maker and the planner. Conceivably the former, looking at the current situation, may wish to base his defense on the belief that the enemy is unskilled. The latter, making plans for systems with long lead times, simply cannot rely on the enemy remaining unskilled or stupid.

One of the important assets which we have is that, on the whole, the technically competent part of the non-Russian world is very closely associated with us. The Russian, of course, have the satellite nations on their side. Exactly what degree of dependence should be placed on allies is always a very touchy question. Presumably one tends not to rely on them for the High Confidence measures except in certain special cases; e.g., Canadian defense lines. One should, however, design his system to get advantages from their existence and conversely to contribute to their objectives.

One of the major asymmetries between us and the Russians is geography. The Russians have many millions of square miles more land than we have. This gives them certain advantages of depth. Against this must be balanced the fact that we have reasonable control of the sea, militarily valuable allies, overseas bases, distant early warning lines, etc.

We have a very much larger gross national product than the Russians, but they have a greater willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to keep a modern military mechanism in existence. They have not hesitated at any time to make huge expenditures when they felt it desirable. While we also have made large expenditures we seem to be much less willing to allocate money or manpower to military purposes. We are also much more swayed by the pressure of outside events. For example, in the postwar period our military budgets have been as low as 13 billion a year and as high as 50 billion. Most of the fluctuation came as a reaction to Russian moves.

It is plainly easier for the Russians to get good intelligence about us than for us about them. This is probably true in all phases of intelligence activity. However, from the view point of the High Confidence systems, it might easily be true that even the Russians could not rely on keeping things secure from us.

They might not, for example, go to large expenses to move their air bases around continually because the money would be wasted if they had only one properly placed defector.

The DNA from both wolves and dogs brings big advantages

Saturday, October 21st, 2017

The coywolf — a combination of wolf, coyote and dog — is greater than the sum of its parts:

Some call this creature the eastern coyote. Others, though, have dubbed it the “coywolf”. Whatever name it goes by, Roland Kays of North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, reckons it now numbers in the millions.

The mixing of genes that has created the coywolf has been more rapid, pervasive and transformational than many once thought. Javier Monzon, who worked until recently at Stony Brook University in New York state (he is now at Pepperdine University, in California) studied the genetic make-up of 437 of the animals, in ten north-eastern states plus Ontario. He worked out that, though coyote DNA dominates, a tenth of the average coywolf’s genetic material is dog and a quarter is wolf.

The DNA from both wolves and dogs (the latter mostly large breeds, like Doberman Pinschers and German Shepherds), brings big advantages, says Dr Kays. At 25kg or more, many coywolves have twice the heft of purebred coyotes. With larger jaws, more muscle and faster legs, individual coywolves can take down small deer. A pack of them can even kill a moose.


Coyotes dislike hunting in forests. Wolves prefer it. Interbreeding has produced an animal skilled at catching prey in both open terrain and densely wooded areas, says Dr Kays. And even their cries blend those of their ancestors. The first part of a howl resembles a wolf’s (with a deep pitch), but this then turns into a higher-pitched, coyote-like yipping.

The animal’s range has encompassed America’s entire north-east, urban areas included, for at least a decade, and is continuing to expand in the south-east following coywolves’ arrival there half a century ago. This is astonishing. Purebred coyotes never managed to establish themselves east of the prairies. Wolves were killed off in eastern forests long ago. But by combining their DNA, the two have given rise to an animal that is able to spread into a vast and otherwise uninhabitable territory. Indeed, coywolves are now living even in large cities, like Boston, Washington and New York. According to Chris Nagy of the Gotham Coyote Project, which studies them in New York, the Big Apple already has about 20, and numbers are rising.

Some speculate that this adaptability to city life is because coywolves’ dog DNA has made them more tolerant of people and noise, perhaps counteracting the genetic material from wolves — an animal that dislikes humans. And interbreeding may have helped coywolves urbanise in another way, too, by broadening [their] diet. Having versatile tastes is handy for city living. Coywolves eat pumpkins, watermelons and other garden produce, as well as discarded food. They also eat rodents and other smallish mammals. Many lawns and parks are kept clear of thick underbrush, so catching squirrels and pets is easy. Cats are typically eaten skull and all, with clues left only in the droppings.

Thanks to this bounty, an urban coywolf need occupy only half the territory it would require in the countryside. And getting into town is easy. Railways provide corridors that make the trip simple for animals as well as people.

Surviving once there, though, requires a low profile. As well as having small territories, coywolves have adjusted to city life by becoming nocturnal. They have also learned the Highway Code, looking both ways before they cross a road. Dr Kays marvels at this “amazing contemporary evolution story that’s happening right underneath our nose”.

We promised to stick to a definite model

Saturday, October 21st, 2017

Techniques of Systems Analysis looks at how its toy-model defense system will perform if the enemy happens to develop tactics outside its 1950s-era model — for example, an air-ground missile:

At this point the reader may cry foul. He probably feels that we have no right to introduce an extraneous tactic. After all, we promised to stick to a definite model. We did, but we want to show that it may be disastrous when the enemy doesn’t.

The air-ground missile is such that it can be launched from a point beyond our local defenses. The effect of this is that our local defenses no longer play a role. This can be serious. It means, in fact, that the money spent for local defenses has been thrown away. However, this new tactic is not entirely free to the enemy because his CEP (aiming error) goes up when he uses it.

Protecting the Soft Spot

The last question is what should we do? Well, a lot depends on the pattern of information that we think exists. Let us assume that the enemy knows everything that we are doing. In this case, he is practically certain to choose what is best for him. Our alternative must be to design a defense system which is indifferent between the two attacks so that we don’t care which he uses. This is the old problem of dividing a cake.

Supercavitating ammunition won’t skip

Friday, October 20th, 2017

DSG Technology has a new line of supercavitating ammunition, Cav-X, which won’t skip off the surface when shot into water — and which will penetrate another 60 meters, in the case of its .50-caliber round:

Make the decision problem less agonizing

Friday, October 20th, 2017

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

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

Non-Contingency Planning

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

Contingency Analysis

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

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

Online dating is changing society

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The single most effective gimmick in doing Contingency Planning

Thursday, October 19th, 2017

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

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

Hosting experiments in governance styles

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 18th, 2017

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Even quite competent engineers can be very unreliable

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017

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

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

Time Magazine 1956-01-30 The Missile

Techniques of Systems Analysis continues:

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

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

Successful games yield “a-ha moments”

Monday, October 16th, 2017

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

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


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