Yemen Methodology: The Shadow Knows

The lack of detail about the Yemen conflict, as portrayed by open source media, presents an initial choice for the open source analyst.  The IARPA crowdsourcing experiments, out of mathematical necessity, couched questions as “dial-a-pie-chart” probabilities of an outcome, as reported by recognized open-source media. Occasionally, a question was retracted, when it was decided that, based upon the actual outcome, the original terms of the question were undecidable. Ironically, one retracted question was  whether then-president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, would leave power by a certain date. Anticipating the difficulty of determining whether Saleh was in power or not, the question was elaborately worded to envision all possible scenarios. Saleh, who was famous for leaving-but-not-leaving, managed to evade all of them.

But unless you are a participant in a crowdsourcing program, you have the luxury of defining your goals in a more expansive, if less scoreable fashion. You might want to know more about Yemen for other reasons, such as the price of oil. Referring to the previous post, you might want to determine when Yemen has been “securely bought”, meaning that Iranian influence, through Houthi proxies, has been securely contained.

A number of analytic techniques have been mentioned in this blog:

and many others.  But in the confusion of Yemen, there is the absence of the focal point that gets one started with tool selection.

Deduction is absent, as is induction, and the rest of the vocabulary of formal logic. Jean Piaget identified an age, and a stage of mental development, called the “age of formal operations”. But formal reasoning is an accessory to a more ancient mechanism. Whether formal reasoning exists discretely, or as some kind of “condensate” hovering around the basic neural processes is not known, but it is of keen interest to IARPA.

That formal logic is not the key to intelligence has  been proven; it was sadly found out in the 80’s, in the last big surge of AI research. In those days, researchers thought of the AI problem as “how-to-stretch-the power of a supercomputer as much as possible.” Since simulating a neural network was inconceivably wasteful, the thrust was  to implement AI through fancy, structured logical systems. Very fancy Block Worlds were constructed, and a few autonomous vacuum cleaners, and that was the end of it.

Although formal reasoning is not the base layer of mentality, you may  gravitate towards it, and so be  frustrated by the vagueness of Yemen. One of the most ancient traditions is that of the wise judge, who carefully ascertains the facts of a case, and renders a decision based upon traditions of jurisprudence. Another tradition is that of the mediator, who attempts to understand the concerns of both parties, so as to serve as an instrument of compromise.

These traditions push the nagging sense  that to be responsible, one has to understand the details of the problem. When one serves as judge, it is appropriate. But generating intelligence always begins with vagueness. Sometimes it evolves to judgment, and sometimes it stays vague. That’s the nature of the game. But while errors of thought, and of mental habit, are of infinite variety, consider: formal education does not offer much for problems swirling in vagueness. The educators have left it to scratch and sniff.

Perhaps it would help with the confusion of how to approach a Yemen-type situation to name it. Perhaps the how-to of approaching a Yemen-type situation has already been covered somewhere in blizzard of academic publication, but we’ll start from scratch. But first, let’s consider the inner, primal You. At birth, your brain was not a tabula rasa, but pre-equipped with helpful gestalt images that jump-start the infant’s understanding of the environment.

A behavior-based theory about the brain has the defects of all theories about black boxes: the theory itself contains input from a gestalt, so it is self-referential. Nevertheless, the Gestalt Principles of Grouping are an important proto-theory. It helps us understand how animals like dog and cows, which cannot do the NY Times crossword, seem to enjoy solving puzzles.

The Gestalt organized abilities of the brain are layered on top of something even more primitive: the pattern matching machinery itself. One of the favorite words on the lips of IARPA scientists is “Lyapunov Function.” If you are mystified at how the brain can create patterns out of nothingness, the Lyapunov is the answer. While actual techniques of learning-network construction have advanced since discovery of the Lyapunov magic bullet, the existence of a Lyapunov is proof that a thinking machine can self-organize.

Since at least some parts of your brain (and notice that, in accordance with modern writing guidelines, it’s now “your brain” as opposed to “the brain”), run according to Lyapunov’s magic, here’s a sketchy explanation. Since things in general,  wristwatches,  storm-water runoff, people in Barca-loungers, and soufflés , tend to lose energy and go downhill, the Lyapunov mimics energy. If a bunch of neurons and a problem-to-be-solved, such as matching a pattern, collectively have a Lyapunov, they want to “cool off”. So if we put these neurons inside a bag with the problem, such as the organization of Yemen, and shake the bag in a special way, the stuff in the bag will “relax”, and the outcome will be a state. The state is a readout of one or more of the neurons, and it could be a pattern-match.

This is the most primitive form of reasoning, and this is how you should approach the Yemen problem. Simply activate your collection of gestalts, and your personal Lyapunov will hand you the answer. Go have a cup of coffee while you wait.

It could be that simple, or impossible. You won’t know until you reach down inside yourself. Who knows what lurks in the hearts of men? To find out, you must study your own shadow, unfettered by the formalisms of academe, the conventions of polite society, or best wishes for mankind.

Yemen’s Sadi resigns, Houthi strategy in disarray

The short-lived recent strategy of the Houthis seems to have been to legitimize certain gains, the specifics and realities of which are not visible in open sources. Houthi declarations were full of respect for political process, which, historically, is not what they are about.

The Houthis are a tribe, members of the Zaidiyyah sect, a Shi’a variant. Almost nothing in the fractious religious dogma of these sects is of interest in predicting behavior, except for one thing. Zaidism, like Twelver Shi’ism, codifies a hierarchical approach to religious knowledge, in which every believer is required to choose an Imam to follow. The choice is his, but he must make it. The rest of the myriad details, such as who can be an Imam, who is infallible and who is not, is not really germane to the present, although it could matter if Iran extends a pseudopod to the Arabian peninsula.

Put as simply as possible, the Shia are like Catholics, with a complex hierarchy of religious authorities. The Sunni are like Protestants. The lack of central authority is why there are so many Protestant sects, in comparison to the few, dealt-with schisms of the “Universal Church.”  Robert Baer notes that Sunni Islam is the more fertile ground for extremism. This is usually explained as the influence of Wahabism, but the absence of a hierarchical restraint is also important.

So,  unlike the “spontaneous generation” of ISIS, which was allowed, if not encouraged, by the lack of Sunni hierarchy, all forms of Shia Islam provide a logical  point of influence in the form of compression of the upper hierarchy. This is what makes it possible for Iran to cause the sophisticated political posturing of a tribe that just a few years ago, in the Sa’dah War,  attempted to carve an autonomous state out of a waste land surrounded by enemies.

But Iran’s finesse didn’t work. The Houthis are a large minority, but there are just too many tribes with guns in Yemen. Sobering up from the daily Khat binge, they are checking their magazines.

I feel sorry for Hadi. He seems a decent man, too good for his country.

Yemen Poker and Oil; Love for Sale

Reports from multiple sources, including Al Jazeera, are that the Houthis and  President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi have made a power sharing deal.

Here we resort to psychoanalysis.  In the West, the strong tinge of personality characteristic of politicians is sublimated by institutional practice.  While  France had the challenge of a “not French”  Sarkozy, and Italy the clownish Berlusconi, in both cases, the  systems reacted against their personal traits in favor of a “national character.”

In the Middle East, the opposite is true. In the long tenures of charismatic and/or reactionary regimes, government becomes imprinted with personal character. Metaphorically, King Abdullah of the House of Saud swings every executioner’s sword, Syria’s Assad tortures every  Mukhabarat prisoner,  and Turkey’s Erdoğan is the authoritarian father-figure. Egypt’s El-Sisi, with an unusually delicate touch for the region,  muffles the screams of the opposition to obtain the level of decorum he requires.

The above players seek stasis, which, in the region, is the opposite of chaos. Both they and their opponents have, for their respective goals, the equivalents of energy budgets. Each side has the goal of spending as little of their budget to achieve the immediate goal, but the conservative regimes spend less, because their time horizons stretch to infinity.

So in the Middle East casino, there are two types of players. The conservative regimes underplay their hands.  But the revolutionaries, whose only world is a rapid state of flux, chronically  overplay. They may not be consciously aware that, if they stand still, they die, but the distinction between the conscious mind, and the unconscious, is a purely Western one.

This offers a conclusion that cannot be obtained by reading the fine wording, if it even exists, of the agreement between Hadi and the Houthis: that it is merely tactical. It is trite but appropriate to call them pawns. Hadi was not originally a pawn, but has been devalued by events. Although some doubt the significance of the Houthis because they are not Twelvers, they are of great value to Iran as a wedge on the Arabian peninsula. The Iranians are superb at both strategy and tactics, with a time horizon entirely comparable to their conservative Sunni adversaries, and not terribly picky about the religious purity of their proxies. Their advice to their Houthi clients can be assumed to be excellent, and may moderate the tribal instinct to overplay.

This is a struggle the House of Saud must win at all costs. The oil-price-crash is partly attributable to the essential need to starve the Iranian economy of dollars, until the Saudis securely buy Yemen. Love  is for sale.



Buying Yemen

A specialist on Yemen, with human contacts, and access to intelligence products, could make a detailed map of politics and power. With a few flies on the wall, he might manage to be one step ahead of what is visible.

On the other hand, he might not. One of the discoveries of the IARPA projects in crowdsourcing intelligence is that specialists tend to overweight details, as in the colloquial expression ” He can’t see the forest for the trees.”

I had good success with a scenario of a certain similarity once posed as an FWE (Forecasting World Events) question. Having no knowledge of the particulars other than a map, I attempted to size the inertia, or lack, of an unstable internal political situation against external forces. It gradually emerged that the internal system, to the extent that it existed, was a pushover.  The country was extremely poor, which meant that influence could be bought on the cheap.

So it is with Yemen, the only country on earth that is literally running out of water, where men of all ages pass the days in a daze of khat. The psychology of such a place is different from here, where many of us worry and work ourselves to death. In Yemen, anybody with bags of money can have himself an army.

The current situation is the result of attempting a modest social improvement by the replacement of autocrat Ali Abdullah Saleh with a pluralist, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, who according to this AFP article, “failed to bring stability.” Why is the indictment so vague? Have we run out of prying journalists?

The details remain unstated because the alleged issues of dispute are probably not the real ones. This looks like a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with Al Qaeda occupying every vacancy. And what happened to Saleh? Without ascribing any particular veracity to Al-Monitor, “Deposed President Saleh Still Pulling Strings in Yemen” states that Saleh, who had been fervently anti-terror while recognized as a U.S. ally, has found himself new friends, in Al Qaeda.

The media has not covered this well. But the open source analyst has resort to a general rule that, if beneath the dignity of the specialist, is surprisingly predictive, Having failed to achieve political stability via social evolution, the Saudis will do some buying. They might even buy Saleh again.

In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king. In Yemen, the land of the poor, the dollar rules all.

Russia, Ukraine, Donetsk, & James Bond

The battle for the airport of Donetsk is a tragedy in which the actors know their parts too well. Perhaps the Ukrainians should adopt a variant of the Polish national anthem,  Poland is Not Yet Lost. Belying the title, the purpose is supposed to have been to buck up Polish soldiers, two years before the country was erased from the map.

According to CNN, Russian troops have entered Ukraine.  Quoting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk , “Tanks, GRAD multiple rocket systems, BUK and SMERCH systems…”

The BUK is an effective anti-aircraft missile system, which was last present in the Ukraine when Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down. The GRAD and SMERCH are descendants of the Katyusha rocket truck of World War II.

Since the Donetsk airport is important in the establishment of political boundaries, and untenable for the Ukrainians to hold, it is a reasonable calculation by the Russians to seize it by direct action. From their point of view, the sanctions cannot get much worse. The decay of Western cohesion on the isolation of Russia will be “date stamped” by the last significant Russian incursion. So their unspoken mantra is something like, “What more can they do to us? Let’s get it over with.”

Perhaps the Russians would have preferred to use tanks, which, though heavy weapons, don’t present quite the logistical challenge of a procession of rocket trucks. But there has been mention of transfer of U.S. TOW missiles to Ukraine. The TOW is a sophisticated weapon that can make assault of a strong point by tanks a bad proposition for the attacker.

But brief comments by soldiers stationed in the airport give the impression that the defenses have not been hardened. For a soft target, the GRAD is ideal. It is a simple, optically aimed but unguided system with an incredible rate of fire. It is driven to a suitable launching point, where the entire battery is emptied in about 30 seconds. It then leaves before counter-battery fire can commence. If it does, all that is lost is one empty truck.

The GRAD rockets themselves have small warheads with little penetrating power, but Russia has hundreds of trucks. The Ukrainians slaughtered, Russian tanks have temporary use  as ramparts while the rebels dig in. The SMERCH is a heavier rocket, but sheer economics suggests it will be used sparingly.

 While the Ukrainians know their part well, and play it with Shakespearean perfection, the Russians are improv players. They’ll be playing Goldfinger to the hilt.



Ideas as Life Forms

The earliest conception of life was of the divine spark, transmuting inanimate matter. Whether this was an ongoing process of spontaneous generation, or a “first cause”, was emphatically addressed, as all high school biology students know, by Louis Pasteur, and by others with successive refinement.

But very early on, the muscle contractions of frog legs caused by electricity generated by early batteries, coined “Galvanism” after the inventor of an early battery, popularized the notion that the electric spark could replace the Divine (Napoleon was an early adherent.) The temptation to play God attracted hoards of fiction writers, and finally, chemist Stanley Miller,  in collaboration with Nobel prize winner Harold Urey. With an electric spark through a cloud of ammonia, mimicking the conditions of primordial earth, the Miller-Urey Experiment synthesized organic compounds that are primary constituents of life. Sidney W. Fox and Kaoru Harada elaborated this with additional steps that produced proteinoid microspheres, primitive globules which are temptingly deemed protocells, that could reproduce a generation or two before dissolution, and which demonstrated some elements of metabolism. Quoting,

Microspheres have multiple properties that are similar to those of cells. The microspheres produced were mostly uniformly spherical and Fox believed that the shape and uniformity mimics that of coccoid bacteria. He also believed that the uniformity meant that there was a sophisticated system that kept the microspheres at equilibrium. The microspheres were able to asexually divide via binary fission, could form junctions with other microspheres, and developed a double membrane corresponding to that of a cell.[7]

But the experiment’s creation shared, poetically speaking, the fictional myth of the nonviability of the spawn of those who play around with forbidden things.

When artificial life was finally created by the lab, in the form of Mycoplasma laboratorium, it was noted with little more fanfare than a talking parrot, and was forgotten more quickly. It was the design of genetic engineers seeking a simplified organism, stripping out every nonessential enzymatic pathway inserted their genome into a bacterial husk. Although the genomes of many organisms have now been sequenced, it leaves a problem generally considered intractable in its totality: understanding all the enzymatic pathways of the cell. The genomic origins understood, the dynamics remain incredibly murky.

The creation of life was a breakthrough robbed completely of surprise by a biological science that had passed through the stages of morphology, physiology, and biochemistry to an elaborate informatic system stemming directly out of the double helix of Watson and Crick. Every high school biology student from the mid sixties on who was among the lucky ones exposed to a modern curricula was told, in no uncertain terms, that life would be understood, because:

  1. Life is a process, not a thing.
  2. The Rosetta stone of life, the DNA double helix, had been obtained.
  3. Years of hard work had already produced some results, such as viral structures.

Actually, there was some luck. Taq, the high-temperature-stable DNA polymerase, so crucial to  PCR cloning, so as to produce the quantities of DNA necessary for sequencing, was  discovered in hadobacteria  in Yellowstone National Park. Genetic engineering is crucially reliant on Taq. Isn’t it poetic?

A generation of biologists have spent their lives manipulating the informatics of living things, in such a way that accustoms the mind to a little mental separation between the idea of life, and the flesh and blood, xylem and phoem, nuclei and plasma. The wet stuff seems to  have a monopoly  on the execution of the idea, but perhaps this is illusory.

Next, while Ukraine bubbles and stews, we’ll consider how some stretch in the idea of life is useful, both as a tool in the categorization of processes, and in the identification of the real thing in unfamiliar places.

The Islamic State and Cabbages

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

–The Walrus and the Carpenter, by Lewis  Carroll

To the dedicated humanist, the discussion to follow may appear similarly disconnected. But we are neither the center of the universe,  nor on the periphery of our own. There is much to be gained by stepping outside the humanistic viewpoint, and viewing the show from the outside. Early attempts at broadening the humanistic perspective include Robert H. March’s Physics for Poets, and elective courses on Skinnerian “rat psychology.” This supposedly resulted in “well rounded” individuals, suitable for depiction in Greek statuary. But there is little evidence that all this rounding is organically useful to students of politics and international relations.

So liberal arts remains mired in the past, the refuge and favorite of people who feel weak at math and strong with words. This is why we have, in addition to policies, policy analysis. Perhaps it is also why  we think of the divisions of humanity as stemming from cultural differences, rather than the reverse implication: the need for division of humanity causing cultural differences.  An interesting example of this is  the ancient state of Khazaria, which in the 8th century singularly adopted Judaism as the state religion. It was a cultural distinction made in the service of political autonomy.

Most of the problems of history are confused in this way: the  arrow of causation, the direction from cause to effect, is framed by ancient viewpoints, implicitly constrained by revolving around consciousness, conscience, and spirituality. But it’s not necessary to discard those things. After plowing through Henry Stapp’s Mind, Matter, and Quantum Mechanics, you may conclude that the complexity of the brain offers a reservoir of quantum mechanical uncertainty in which free will may securely hide, safe from prying eyes of the deterministic mindset.

So the mechanistic universe may be one more myth, a relic of the debate about whether efficacious consciousness can exist in a deterministic world. You may now indulge without guilt in the advances in complex systems, self organizing automata, and alternative life forms, without putting your humanistic heart at risk. There is much to be gained.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms, it’s an idiomatic expression to say about ideas (and a lot of other things), Someone imagined it, and the idea took on a life of its own.” Perhaps we owe a debt to the author of this apocryphal expression, which accidentally discovers a reasonable approximation: Ideas can behave as  life forms. Of particular interest is the sudden growth of the Islamic State, blazing  like a fire tornado, its imminent demise, and the sinking feeling that analyzing the particulars of ISIS leaves something out. As a generality, it will happen again and again in future histories, differing in detail, but running the same general course.

Next: Ideas as life forms.