Adina Levin's weblog. Mostly for conversation about books I've been reading. Other stuff too.
Tuesday, August 27, 2002
Why Do Arabs Lose Wars These Days?
A retired senior US military trainer writes a scathing critique of Arab military culture in American Diplomacy. Based on personal experience training Arab officers and soldiers, and research into Arab military history, Norvelle de Atkine observes that:
"* Arab officers are not concerned about the welfare and safety of their men.
* The Arab military mind does not encourage initiative on the part of junior officers, or any officers for that matter.
* Responsibility is avoided and deflected, not sought and assumed.
* Political paranoia and operational hermeticism, rather than openness and team effort, are the rules of advancement (and survival) in the Arab military establishments."
If De Atkine is right, then why are Arabs so much worse at war these days?
In the initial ages of Muslim expansion and world leadership (7th-11th centuries), Arabs had formidable military might. In later centuries (13th-17th), Muslim powers built empires through military prowess, often with armies of Turkish or Central Asian origin.
What's happened since? Have there been changes in Arab culture in general, or Arab military culture in particular that render their armies less effective? Has the culture remained the same, while war has changed in modern times? Is there any cultural connection between the old Arab military powers and today's squabbling, hierarchy-bound, poorly-trained troops. Is there a persuasive argument that European colonialism caused the decline?
I'm fairly new to the study of Muslim history; would love plausible explanations and good references from folks who are knowledgable about the subject.
De Atkine, by the way, seems to be an equal opportunity critic -- here's his analysis of the US military's persistent inability to train people and develop skills to fight "small wars."
And next week, we invade South Carolina
Bush administration lawyers claim that there's no need to consult Congress about attacking Iraq, since the 1991 Gulf War resolution is still in effect. Never mind that the resolution was passed in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, or that the Gulf War seemed at the time to have ended with the April 91 cease fire.
It's true that the lines of responsibility for starting wars are mightily tangled; administrations and Congress have been fighting over the power to start wars for the whole of US history.
But this argument is completely absurd. It makes one suspect that the proponents consider democracy a bureaucratic inconvenience.
The villain's in the mirror
The music industry's problems are caused by the changing needs and
tastes of customers, as reported by this informative story in Slate.
Industry mistakes include:
* Believing in teen idols. Buyers over the age of 40 account for
44 percent of the CD sales, up from 19.6 percent in 1992,
according to a recent RIAA survey. Older listeners have diverse
tastes, and it's harder to reach a fragmented market. So the music
industry keeps trying to manufacture teen stars with mass
popularity, even though Britney's audience is shrinking.
* Offering one color, as long as it's black. Successful industries
differentiate products. Yet the music industry focuses on mass
distribution of a single product, at single level of quality.
* Blaming technological threat while ignoring customer boredom.
The last big lull in music sales occured in the 70s, when cassette
tapes were taking off. The industry blamed plastic. Then punk and
new wave killed disco, and sales rose again.
Airport security, protecting us all
At Denver International Airport last week, an enthusiastic security
guard trainee decided that she needed to manually verify my assertion
that the metal-detector wand is triggered by brassiere underwires.
After confirming this fact, I was allowed to pass through security and
board the airplane, still wearing the suspicious bra. Airline security
staff are clearly not being sufficiently vigilant against the threat of
rows of zaftig passengers rising up to garrote the crew with their
On the other hand, the airline had no trouble sending my suitcase to
Austin one flight ahead of me.
Thursday, August 15, 2002
NYT: Language Gene Traced to Emergence of Humans
Scientist dates a speech-enabling gene to about 100,000 years ago; evidence of culture starts about 50,000 years ago.
And here's a link to a Nature story last fall about the discovery of the the FOXP2 gene, which enables fine control over the muscles of the mouth and throat.
As always, the science is more subtle than the reports in the popular press. There's a lot of ongoing research and debate about how and how much the gene influences the ability to speak and understand language.
Wednesday, August 14, 2002
Two reviews of Computational Beauty of Nature
By Danny Yee, an Australian semipro polymath, and Cosma Shalizi, a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute. From two fantastic-looking troves of book reviews.
A good sign
On Monday, Declan McCullough wrote a defeatist essay in CNET encouraging technologists not to bother opposing bad laws, and to stay home and write clever code.
In the ensuing Slashdot discussion, the audience roundly disagreed with Declan and argued that geeks need to be political to keep and take back freedoms lost to bad laws like the DMCA.
The tone of of the SlashDot discussion was very different from the libertarian dogma several years ago and the level of knowledge about the political process seemed a lot higher.
It took 10 years after Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962 for Congress to ban DDT. Time will tell if enough people will speak up in our time.
Saturday, August 10, 2002
Can't wait to get interrupted at dinner by someone selling Prozac
The NYT story requires registration.
The AP story doesn't.
Friday, August 09, 2002
Warning! Personal Injury Hazard
Use care if vacuum cleaner is placed on stairs. If it falls, personal
injury or property damage could result.
Owner's Manual, Kenmore Vacuum Cleaner Model 116.304.12
Thursday, August 08, 2002
Jerry Springer for Attorney General
Apparently, the Department of Justice was forwarding calls to the TIPS
hotline over to the America's Most Wanted TV show. The link is here.
Link courtesy of my friend Ruth.
Can the US Win Small Wars? Do We Want To?
Recently read "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power", by Max Boot, whose editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal.
In a nutshell -- the history is lively and informative; the ideology is insane.
The book makes a persuasive case against the Powell Doctrine, and a scary, unpersuasive argument in favor of imposing a Pax Americana around the world.
Boot tells the stories of many small wars fought by the US throughout its history: suppression of North African pirates; invasions and occupations in the Carribean and Central America, counterinsurgency in the Phillipines, protection of Americans in crumbling Imperial China. These wars were fought to protect American trade, to avenge attacks on American soil, defend the lives of Americans abroad, and to ensure friendly governments in areas the US wanted to control. Some small wars were quite short, others involved military occupations that lasted years or decades. These "small wars" are much less well known than the major conflicts, and, Boot argues, the historical lessons of these wars have been forgotten.
These stories show how the US developed highly effective tactics for fighting guerillas and irregular armies:
* use small, flexible forces
* use bluff, daring, and fighting skill to intimidate and kill opponents
* reduce the guerilla's support among the local population by befriending and defending local people, improving sanitation and healthcare, building roads and bridges, and helping to establish local self-government
* use local knowledge to identify the enemy and avoid indiscriminate killing
Boot uses his historical analysis to soundly discredit the Powell Doctrine, which has shaped US military policy in recent decades. In reaction to the US failure in Vietnam, the Powell doctrine states that wars should be fought only when the US can stage an overwhelming attack and achieve rapid victory, incurring few casualties; and leave quickly, following a defined "exit strategy", without becoming embroiled in "nation-building."
Boot draws very different conclusions from Vietnam. The US military failed in Vietnam, not because they didn't fight a conventional war aggressively enough, but because they used conventional tactics against a guerrilla army. The book includes a compelling step-by-step analysis of the flaws in the execution of the Vietnam war, based on the historical lessons of past wars against guerrilla forces. The book considers recent U.S. military engagements, in Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia, Haiti, and Kosovo, and explains how the Powell doctrine gets in the way of effective use of US military policy.
The book's history is well-researched, its argument is well-constructed, the writing is vivid and clear. Its philosophy is also highly troubling. Boot is an aggressive apologist for US imperial policies. He argues rather unpersuasively that trade was a minor factor in U.S. "small wars." He is correct that trade with the countries in question accounted for a small proportion of US business; but that is irrelevant, a small number of influential businesspeople with a grievance can have a disproportionate impact on policy, as can be seen in recent resurgence of steel tariffs and mohair subsidies. Instead, Boot makes the case that the US went to war largely for moral reasons. He argues repeatedly that US military interventions and occupations were humane on the whole, and whenever US rule was less than perfect, it was less cruel than European colonial masters, and more fair and competent than rule by brutal and greedy locals.
At times, the apologies for imperialism verge on the laughable. Boot describes US missionaries in China as "predecessors to today's human rights workers", with no awareness that locals might resent foreigners' attempts to change their beliefs and culture. Boot states with no irony that "the 19th century free trade system was protected and expanded by the British Royal Navy." No qualifications about the relative levels of "freedom" in, say, British-Indian commerce.
In fact, Boot is an unabashed imperialist. He argues that the US has a responsibility to use military might to impose a Pax Americana, establishing order and imposing government in chaotic regions all over the world. He has no qualms about playing the role of "world police". The goal of a civic police force is not to end crime but to identify and catch criminals; likewise, the goal of "world police force" is not to win wars but to stop malefactors and keep order. Boot sees that US vacillation encourages our enemies, and believes that a more aggressive US policy would help to deter violence.
Boot likes war altogether too much. He enthusiastically recounts tales of heroism: valiant hill charges, crafty ambushes, and noble endurance against pain, weather, and odds. The book is spiced with tales of gruesome violence -- beheadings, impalings, disembowlings, and numerous other forms of injury and torture. The vivid style reads like it was written by someone who grew up reading too many Western novels.
Boot was born in 1971; his family immigrated from Russia in 76. He was raised in Los Angeles, went to Berkeley for an undergrad degree, got a masters degree in European history from the sages of realpolitik at Yale. Boot has followed a typical pundit's career track, with a stint at the Christian Science Monitor, followed by a post as the editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal, where he supervises the production of bellicose propaganda from the (relative) safety of his office in downtown Manhattan. He lives with his family in Westchester County.
Boot's academic and journalistic credentials are good, and his research and writing live up to the resume. But he has no apparent military experience. Unlike fellow journalists at top-tier papers, like columnist Tom Friedman or, say, correspondent Daniel Pearl, Boot doesn't even seem to have notable international experience as journalist. This makes his avid enthusiasm for overseas wars rather suspect.
To be fair, I don't have a strong counter argument to explain when the US should go to war. I'm not a pacifist -- I think war is sometimes necessary, and justification for war is sometimes obvious. But I don't have a coherent opinion about when and how often to fight. Boot has made a very persuasive case that "small wars" can be effective. But he hasn't argued convincingly that the US should aggressively police the world. And despite the exciting narrative, there is plenty of other evidence that war isn't quite as much fun as good war stories.
Tuesday, August 06, 2002
Who ever thought of cultivating artichokes?
A fun world food timeline, with (rather Eurocentric) recipes.
The timeline is targeted at kids in the US and needs to get past the censors, which may explain why they left out the famous recipe for Mesopotamian beer.
Link courtesy of USA Today.
Unfortunately, they're not kidding
Sunday, August 04, 2002
I always wondered about Marco Polo...
Remember the story of Marco Polo from elementary school? Marco was a part of a family of Venetian traders who travelled to China in the 2nd half of the 13th century. He wrote a book about his experiences, became a major celebrity in his lifetime, and is probably the most famous westerner to travel the Silk Road.
I read the glowing biogragraphic stories of the intrepid adventurer as a kid, and they always puzzled me. Found answers to some of the questions in a book by Janet Abu-Lughod on world trade in the 13th c. CE.
Q. Why was Marco Polo's visit to China such a big deal? Why did Europeans know so little about Chinese civilization, which, after all, had been there for quite a long time.
A. Europeans had been conducting trade with China mostly through intermediaries. Europeans traded with Muslims -- or traded with Jews, who traded with Muslims. The Muslims took goods to India and China; or took goods to India, where other traders came from China.
Q. What was new that enabled the Polo family to travel to China?
A. The recent Mongol conquests put the Silk Road (briefly) under one rule, opening access from Europe through Central Asia to China. The other main routes to the Far East went through Muslim territory, and European Christians weren't allowed through.
Q. Marco Polo wrote the book from jail in Genoa. He was imprisoned after participating in a sea attack on Genoese shipping. Why was Venice fighting Genoa, other than the fact that Italian cities were typically feuding with other Italian cities?
A. Venice and Genoa were the two major European trading cities. Genoa, on the west side of Italy, did a lot of business with northern europe (overland routes, and then through the North Sea), and with North Africa. Venice, on the east side of Italy, did more business to south and east, with Constantinople and Egypt. Venice and Genoa were arch-rivals in the trading business and attacked each other's shipping on a regular basis.
And a bonus question which I had always wondered about, unrelated to Marco Polo:
Q. Why were the Portuguese so eager to find a new route to Asia in the 15th Century? And why go all the way around Africa?
A. Because in the century after the black plague, the number of open routes from Europe to Asia had dwindled to one route, which wasn't open to Portuguese. The Silk Road was in disarray after the fragmentation of the Mongol empire. The Eastern Muslim route through Baghdad and Basra had collapsed after the Mongols destroyed Baghdad. The Western Muslim route through Egypt was monopolized by the Venetians and the Mameluk rulers of Egypt.
Saturday, August 03, 2002
SpamKiller must die
Avoid SpamKiller, the anti-spam shareware utility published by McAfee. Whenever it captures a piece of spam, it utters a hideous, barking, crunching sound, as if Cerberus, the three headed demon guard dog of Hell, had just clamped its infernal jaws around the thighbone of an intruder. Even if you turn off the sound effects, it crashes frequently and hard.
Anyone have better suggestions?
Friday, August 02, 2002
Just read two really cool books about recent scientific discoveries about the behavior of networks:
* Nexus, by Mark Buchanan, former editor of Nature magazine
* Linked, by Albert-Laslo Barabasi, one of the scientists whose team made some of the key discoveries
It's a small world after all
There are many versions of the party game. The website, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, looks up the number of links connecting an arbitrary celebrity with Kevin Bacon. Will Smith was in Independence Day (1996) with Harry Connick, Jr., who was in My Dog Skip (2000) with Kevin Bacon. In another version of the party game, mathematicians boast of their "Erdos number" -- how many close are they to a person who's published a paper with Paul Erdos, the prolific and eccentric Hungarian mathematician. A variant called "Jewish geography" connects people via links through summer camps, social clubs and synagogues.
The intuitive insight that communities are "small worlds" has been quantified. Just in the last four years, scientists have developed models to describe the properties and behavior of "small-worlds" networks.
Networks can be characterized by several parameters:
* the level of clustering -- how connected a given node is to nearby nodes. For example, social networks are highly clustered -- one's friends are likely to know each other
* the degree of separation, also called the diameter -- how many links it takes on average to get from one node to another
* the level of hierarchy -- how similar is the level of connectivity among different nodes. Do most nodes have about the same level of connection, or are some nodes much more connected than others?
A network can become "a small world" in one of two ways:
* a small number of long-distance connections. If you take a network where most connections are local, and add just a few long-distance connections, the network quickly "links up", making it possible to traverse vast distances in just a few hops. For example, a coffee trader in Guatemala provides a link connecting a rural coffee growing family to an urban latte-sipper in just a few steps. Research by Duncan Watts and Steven Strogatz, published in 1998, modeled the role of long-distance connections in creating the "small world" effect.
* a small number of big hubs. On the worldwide web, the Yahoo news portal has lots of links to local news sites, making it easy to find local news in many of the world's languages in just a few clicks. This type of network, in which a few members of a set have most links, and many members have few links, are called "scale free networks", and can be described by a power law plotting the distribution of links among nodes. Research by Barabasi and his team, published in 1999 and more recently, modeled this pattern and found evidence of it in a variety of domains.
The "small worlds" patterns create networks that are highly resilient, yet vulnerable to certain kinds of failure.
* small worlds networks are invulnerable to random damage -- if you randomly remove nodes from the internet, or species from an ecosystem, the system will continue to operate with little disturbance
* small worlds networks are vulnerable to attacks on connectors or hubs -- if you take down a number of key internet hubs, or remove just a few linchpin species in ecosystem, the connections in the system will break down.
With the "small worlds" model in hand, scientists foraged for data sets and mapped the workings of small-worlds networks in a wide variety of domains:
* the web, which can be traversed with a few hyperlinks
* the internet -- which can be crossed in a few hops
* electric power networks
* social networks
* ecosystems, in which a few "hub" species are predators or prey for many others.
* biochemistry -- in which a few key chemicals catalyze many reactions.
* group behavior -- in which fireflies start blinking in unison, and theater-goers unconsiously synchronize their applause
Relationship to other aspects of complexity theory
One of the fun things about reading the books is drawing relationships between "small worlds networks" and other aspects of complex, emergent systems, although these links are not well-developed in the books themselves.
Stuart Kauffman, a theoretical biologist, has developed a set of models to explain the natural emergence of order in open thermodyamic systems. According to Kauffman's models, explained in his book, "At Home in the Universe",
* self-replication is likely to emerge from a set of sufficiently diverse chemicals in high concentration
* genes code for a relatively small number of types of cells because of the network parameters of gene expression (Kauffman theorizes that it is the low coupling parameter that makes the state space of gene expression much lower than one might expect).
* the evolution of species can be modeled by adaptive walks across "fitness landscapes", in which organisms with better-adapted traits outcompete others, and produce descendants with the opportunity to become even more fit. Key parameters of the model include the level of randomness within the fitness landscape (in a random landscape, a small change in an organism would cause a big change in fitness; in a non-random landscape, a small change in an organism would probably cause a small change in fitness); the level of coupling among genes in an organism (this models conflicting constraints -- e.g. a gene that protects against malaria also increases vulnerability to blood disease); and the level of coupling among species in the landscape. In these models, extinctions follow a "power law" distribution, with frequent extinctions of small numbers of species, and infrequent catastrophes wiping out many species at once.
Kaufman's theories about the emergence of organization and the mechanisms of evolution are fascinating and appealing. But in the absence of any but the sketchiest of empirical evidence, his work is vulnerable to criticism that it's computer art -- the properties of his models could just be artifacts of the parameters plugged into the models.
The empirical data analyzed by Barabasi's team about chemical reaction networks and connection patterns in ecosystems seem like early evidence that nature works in the ways that Kauffman describes. Networks such as ecosystems and the world wide web have a small number of key nodes with many connections, and a great many nodes with fewer connections. According to the network model, this will lead to an evolutionary pattern with many small extinctions of non-hub species, and some mass disasters when key species are taken eliminated.
The Watts and Barabasi research suggests some alternate ways to configure Kaufman's model, creating similar results with data that fit more closely with empirical evidence.
* Kauffman's model accounts for long evolutionary jumps -- the probability that a small change in an organism results in a large change in fitness -- by tuning the "randomness" of the fitness landscape. Watts' use a seemingly simpler to achieve similar results, by adding just a few nodes with long-distance coupbling behavior.
* Kaufman's model tunes the average level of coupling up and down, reaching realistic behavior at a particular range of parameters. Barabasi's model observes that level of coupling in a network varies by power law, and this distribution predicts the observed behavior.
Much more evidence is needed to confirm or disprove Kaufman's theories, and to refine the models, in networks of gene expression; ecological networks, and evolution. The ongoing research and analysis models seems like it is on the right track to find these things out.
One of the key insights of Barabasi's team is that a "scale-free network" can be created by a simple growth pattern -- if new nodes add links with slight preference for popular nodes, the hierarchical pattern will emerge. It would be interesting to see future research that looked in more detail at models of evolution and growth.
In particular, the Watts and Barabasi models focus on patterns of network wiring -- the number and distance of linkes. There are additional interesting questions about what this network architecture means with respect to the level of influence between nodes. What is the relationship between the architecture of the network and the way the network is used to transmit information?
That's one of the most exciting things about studying this topic -- the work is not near done.
The unfinished nature of the field shows up in some logical gaps in the books.
Both books explain how network growth patterns enable the rich to get richer, but that does not seem to me to be the most interesting part of the story. It is true that wealthy investors make more money, and really big sites like Yahoo and Amazon acquire the most links.
But the Pareto principle doesn't explain whether and how the poor get rich. Google comes from nowhere, provides a better search engine, and rapidly emerges as the leading search site. And the Pareto principle doesn't talk about impact of providing "small-worlds" connectivity to the remote and obscure. The interesting thing about the web is not that Yahoo is popular - it's that a quick keyword search will find sites on medieval theologians and African cooking, and a couple of clicks on Yahoo News links will get you local media in Farsi.
Also, neither book has a strong discussion about limits to network growth, or differentiates between hub systems with obvious physical limits, like airports, and with few physical limits, like the information space of the web.
Comparison and contrast
The books are eerily similar, as if one of of the writers was looking over the other one's shoulder as he wrote. The similarity in substance is not that surpising -- after all, the books explain the same papers by the same set of scientists over a few year period of time. What is odder is that the books contain many of the same anecdotes -- tales of Erdos, the eccentric Hungarian mathematician; the inspiration of Duncan Watts by synchronized fireflies, the creation of the Oracle of Kevin Bacon. Both books very similar sections on the internet and network economy, with a similar sweeping generalizations about impending change, and similar lack of substance.
Buchanan is a professional writer, and the book is a little better written. His magazine instincts show -- each chapter is nicely structured, starting with anecdotes about people, and uncovering some new theme. The book does a decent job with transitions -- it reads like a book rather than a collection of articles. Buchanan has a PhD in physics -- he's read the primary sources, he understands the math, he enjoys the subject and he doesn't pander to the audience.
Barabasi is a participant, not a bystander -- the unique strength of the book lies in the first-hand stories of his team and their discoveries. Barabasi is proud of his achievements; he makes it very clear that the topic was not properly understood until his team started their work. A typical sentence along these lines: "Uncovering and explaining these laws has been a fascinating roller coaster ride during which we have learned more about our complex, interconnected world than was known in the last hundred years." This is not the place to look for humility.
Both books were definitely worth reading, with clear explanations, great references to the sources, and a lot of food for thought. It is quite a thrill to read about these developments as they are happening.
Computational Beauty of Nature, by Gary Flake, is a very nicely written walk through topics related to chaos and complexity, including fractals, chaos, artificial life, adaptive systems, and neural networks. This is THE one book for folks who want to dive into these topics one level deeper than the popular science books. Each chapter has references to the primary source books and articles, if you want to pursue the topics in greater depth.
The book's website has a set of Java applets and C programs to run the simulations -- for example, you can play with the parameters of L-System fractals to simulate different kinds of plant shapes. The source code is available to download and play with.
Flake does a lovely job of explaining the math and modeling concepts, in a manner that is comprehensible to those of us without extensive math backgrounds. Sometimes his one-page intros go a bit fast for me, but it's easy enough to hit Google, find a relevant tutorial, then go back and finish the chapter. I needed to do this for the sections on matrix math and circuit design -- this is a very pleasurable way to learn.