Catastrophe Theory for Dummies Part 2

Perhaps you were wondering, “Does the robot manage to keep the broomstick balanced forever?”

This is actually a complicated problem, but there are some simple facts. I forgot to stipulate that the robot’s hand can move only horizontally. But, since there is a floor under the robot, this detail does not change the eventual conclusion.

  • If the broomstick falls 90 degrees from vertical,  all the way over to a horizontal position, no horizontal movement of the robot’s hand can rebalance the stick to vertical. Donald Trump would say to our hapless robot, “You’re fired.”
  • If the stick is very close to horizontal, the force-through-a-distance required of the robot’s hand to rebalance the stick is very large. Force-through-a-distance is another word for “energy.”
  • The energy required to knock the stick  further over does not increase with angle. In fact, once started, the stick proceeds to fall by itself. A shove just speeds it up. But for the robot, the energy required to raise the stick from very-near-to-horizontal, in the words of math, “tends towards infinity.” So a vandal seeking to wreak havoc on the robot has a terrific advantage.
  • If the stick is very close to horizontal, and the robot happens to have a direct connection to a Japanese nuke plant that actually works, so that it could exert huge force to right the stick, the stick would disintegrate, busting up the whole scenario.
  • If the stick is almost vertical, what math calls “infinitesimally close” the problem becomes part of what is called “linear control theory”, making it “easy.” But this is a deception, because if the stick is not perfectly vertical, faulty intuition might maintain this assumption,  now false.
  • This is a “nonlinear problem.” All such problems are complicated.

But this problem is just simple enough that there may be a paper that addresses whether the stick can be stabilized at any angle above the horizontal. The answer depends upon how the movements of the crowd, who are constantly jostling the robot, are modeled.  For this we owe much to the German mathematician, Carl Friedrich Gauss. If the crowd is modeled with Gauss’s distribution, the stick will always fall, eventually.

So the little Japanese robot, wandering the crowded streets of Ginza, is a disaster waiting to happen.

This is a nice addition to the three examples of the Ted G. Lewis paper, “Cause-and-Effect or Fooled by Randomness?” , to be discussed next.


Ebola, African Doctor, and HIV, Part 3

CNN: An African doctor is treating Ebola with an off-the-shelf HIV drug. See the Wiki: lamivudine.

Dr. Gorbee Logan’s claimed success rate would make any biotech startup  blush with pride. Quoting,

Kundu and the other 12 patients who took the lamivudine and survived, received the drug in the first five days or so of their illness. The two patients who died received it between days five and eight.
"I'm sure that when [patients] present early, this medicine can help," Logan said. "I've proven it right in my center."

In our world, two steps would have to occur before it was generally used:

1. Confirm the results reported by Dr. Logan, which is a euphemism for deciding he is not a liar.

2. Convene an ethics panel to decide that the confirmed results conform with the official ethical view of things.

With only a single diagnosis of Ebola in the U.S., we can afford the brand of detachment that offers the possibility of a million (+ or -) deaths elsewhere. But in Africa, where victims are dropping like flies, one has to wonder. And in wondering, we inform ourselves about ourselves. Because we are not so different.

This is a magnificent test case for anyone who has found the approach of this blog interesting. It’s worth keeping a diary about the journey this drug, lamivudine, takes to eventual acceptance or rejection.

If it works, how many lives were lost due to no more than a defective process of critical thought?

We live in a world rife with false hopes of medical miracles, outright frauds, misrepresentation, and fatal errors, twisted by economic imperatives and personal reputations. But could the defense against the malign currents itself exact a toll of hundreds of thousands, or millions of lives?

What does it say about the way we think?


Catastrophe Theory for Dummies Part 1

An article in the Journal of the Naval Post Graduate School,  by Ted G. Lewis, “Cause-and-Effect or Fooled by Randomness?”, is a terrific short-form introduction to the problem, with no sacrifice in precision for the sake of brevity. If you can absorb the essence of it, you’ll have taken a leap way past faulty viewpoints based on “common sense” or claimed expertise, some of which appear as newly published books. I’ll supply some interpretation of the article in the next post.

In the Harpers article interview, “Six Questions for Ian Bremmer, Author of Fat Tail”, Ian Bremmer compares his book with the Black Swan Theory of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Bremmer says, “Preston Keat and I believe that a good number of these risks can be measured and managed.”

Bremmer’s education is in geopolitics and political science. These days, such an education can involve a significant amount of applied statistics, but not at the level of mathematical theory. Taleb is a mathematician, with a focus on theory that impact’s Bremmer’s field. Bremmer relies on his “expertise” to posit a truth in contradiction to Taleb’s math.

So this is a situation of two fields of knowledge, each intruding on the domain of the other, resulting in conflicts of viewpoints and conclusions. Taleb’s Black Swan is a direct challenge to Bremmer’s expertise, because Bremmer has made his reputation in risk management for corporations and states, while Taleb asserts that, for very large events, it can’t be done. Taleb’s theory undermines Bremmer’s position.

Both Bremmer and Taleb have weapons at their disposal to convince you that their positions are the correct ones. For instance, to understand energy, Bremmer would lead you through an argument that you might feel gives you a new understanding of where the price of oil is going. To wit, Bremmer says,

“Fewer market players are keeping an eye on Iran, but the Iran risk hasn’t gone away. If anything, the risk of confrontation will be greater over the next 12 to 18 months as Iran moves closer to a technological point-of-no-return and increasingly anxious Israeli leaders weigh their options.”

The above might be a delectable read, but that doesn’t mean it’s nutritious. Taleb would claim that the understanding is  illusory, and inspires false confidence that the risk can be managed. The quote also has a Delphic openness, meaning that whatever the oracle says, always comes true, if only you can understand the wording. On the general subject of whether political expertise actually exists, Philip Tetlock’s book, “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?” is a general challenge to the predictive specialty of which Bremmer is a member.

With Bremmer’s specialty now sufficiently undermined, you have good reason to consider what Taleb has to say. The title of Taleb’s article, “UNDERSTANDING IS A POOR SUBSTITUTE FOR CONVEXITY” is by comparison a dose of cod liver oil. The challenge for you, the reader, is not to go to what might be your comfort zone, which could be reading about geopolitics, which always has the elements of an entertaining story, with good guys and bad guys. The challenge is to try to fit Taleb’s insights into the scheme of things, even if you are not a math thinker.

But I haven’t finished softening you up. I want to run by you an example of an experiment that is part of “undergraduate control lab” in electrical engineering curricula. If they don’t have the actual setup, they certainly discuss it at length. It’s a juggling stunt. A broomstick is balanced vertically at one end by some kind of mechanical hand. You could imagine one of those Japanese robots that looks so human. Instead of wheels, let’s give this robot a cushion of air. Here’s the scenario:

  • While balancing the broomstick, the robot navigates through a crowd, which subjects it to random jostles of varying strength.
  • Some are mere nudges; some push our little robot many feet.
  • The robot is never actually damaged or interrupted in its task.
  • At all times it is able to follow the computer program that moves the hand that balances the broomstick, trying to keep it vertical.
  • The robot has been programmed by the best programmers in the world. It has the best motors, huge batteries, and its hand is very powerful and fast. Everything “works right.”

The question for you is: Does the robot manage to keep the broomstick balanced forever? Or is this a catastrophe in the making? Is there some mathematical doom built into the situation?

The answer is coming. Check back for the next post.

Ebola, Rats, Lice, and History, and Hans Zinsser Part 2

And so, the caution inspired by Swine Flu Fiasco of 1976, with 25 deaths and 500 illnesses, and some delayed mortality, is a significant impediment in the response to Ebola. Although other reasons can be cited, such as safety profile concerns that affect all vaccine development, the Swine Flu Fiasco is special. It had a uniquely visceral effect on the public at large, who don’t read or know about vaccine trials.

The CDC numbers, with the current 71% mortality rate, directly refer to two outcomes, and are permissive of a third:

  • Infection of 550,000, resulting in 390,500 deaths.
  • Infection of 1.4 million, resulting in 994,000 deaths.
  • Depopulation of the African continent, in a manner and experience similar to that of the Black Death.

When two American healthcare workers contracted Ebola, and their survival was probably influenced by the experimental drug, ZMapp, a U.N. medical ethics panel was convened and concluded, “WHO-convened ethics panel endorses use of experimental drugs”. Now we have an opportunity to convene a little gedanken experiment:

  • You have been tasked to decide whether an experimental drug should be used against Ebola. You are not permitted to decline.
  • The recipients would be aid workers, who, being at higher risk than the public, can tolerate a higher risk with the drug.
  • The safety profile of the drug, and effectiveness, has been ascertained for an animal model. It has been informally trialed by a few members of the research staff, using themselves as guinea pigs. The side effects are only modestly discommoding.
  • The drug appeared to benefit two patients who were seriously ill. One made a remarkable recovery, while the other died. A third patient with lesser illness also survived; side effects were minor.
  • This presents a picture of mild or negligible toxicity, good anecdotal evidence of an effective treatment, and potentially  great prophylactic value.
  • The proposed subjects, working in primitive conditions, where it’s very hot, spend their days sweating buckets in rubber suits. The environments are highly contaminated. Slip-ups are almost inevitable, with lethal consequences. They are eager to try the drug.
  • Your role as the decision-maker is secret, and cannot be attributed to you. Regardless of whether your decision is the right one, your conscience  grants you a special exemption. In other words, there is absolutely no cost to you, social, mental, or physical. But, being a good person, you would like to make the right decision. Which is?

I think most of you would decide in favor of administering the drug. You might remark that it was not a very difficult decision to make, and the reasons would come from the facts of the epidemic. So why do we need an “ethics panel?”

The purpose of the thought experiment is to demonstrate, by exclusion, that the reason for convening the ethics panel is divorced from the logic of the decision itself. Among the reasons not excluded, I have a favorite: The panel diffuses individual responsibility. The more elaborate the process of approval, which in this case, involves a panel, the more the moral responsibility devolves to the process, as opposed to the people using the process. In the end, it becomes very similar to the firing squad executioner who takes solace that his gun held the blank.

The potential depopulation of Africa is not a small news event. It may result in something called, by the popular press, “soul searching”, with calls for a new this or a new that. But it will not get to the bottom it, because this is a meta-problem, and politics doesn’t even know such a thing exists.

The meta aspect of it is this. The phlegmatic policy of the CDC, and the rest of the First World, is itself the result of a policy, a general management method. The method is itself the product of a general problem-solving approach, which is the product of a certain kind of education…and so on, progressing to the psychology of the individual, and ultimately, brain chemistry.

Policies have recursive origins. A fix must dig into that recursion, or the new policy will be a simple reaction to the failure of the old. Things being what they are, good luck can fall off the table in any direction.

This being a catastrophe, next: Catastrophe Theory for Dummies.

Ebola, Rats, Lice, and History, and Hans Zinsser Part 1

With the new CDC prediction on Ebola spread, with a “worst case” of 1.4 million by January, it seems appropriate to revisit the role of disease in shaping history, medical ethics, the limitations of institutional judgment, and the limitations of models in general.

Hans Zinsser’s classic, Rats, Lice, and History was published in 1935. By itself, it is adequate proof of a dimension of history that has never been incorporated into the body of historical theory. Historians seem to keep within the perspectives of personal comfort; no successors have taken Zinsser’s mantle. Disease is merely noted as coincident with events political and economic, when more than occasionally, it has been the prime driver. Disease has driven civilizations into decline, and exterminated primitive populations.

The current Ebola epidemic is of that magnitude. Every model has failed to predict the growth. In a political context, this would result in a “search for the guilty”, as the joke goes. But as politicians feel helpless in the face of disease, it is likely that the failure will not receive the examination it requires. This is a failure, not of individuals, but of systems. ISIS, a disease of the body politic, progressed in the face of an inadequate response. Ebola is a disease of the body corporeal, yet the  response, long on study and consideration, is also inadequate. Historians, studying the decision making processes of our time, may find the superficial analogy supported in depth.

Drawing the analogy might seem as frivolous as a literary trope. But in  both cases, the “process”, carried out by credentialed “experts”, intended to protect us from error, did nothing of the kind. In both cases, singly reached inspired judgments could have saved us from the errors of thousands.

Now the CDC is offering an upper limit, by January, of 1.4 million cases.  As an error bar supplied by a faulty process, the number does not have a lot going for it, but should it come to bite us, the appropriate response is not to juggle appointments and departments at CDC. If, in the future, some medical catastrophe were to befall the U.S., this kind of destructive response could result, and  it would be a supreme sacrifice of talent.

The problem is more fundamental than that. It is the considered process of Western thought that has acquired a mandarin-like character, substituting elaborate procedure for genuine cogitation. The best eye-opener is an arcane novel by the German author Herman Hesse, called The Glass Bead Game.

The growth of these processes seems similar to growth of special interest groups, which begins in any pluralistic system the day after the revolution. But these barnacles of thought grow  outside the realm of politics, so the political reader should avoid the temptation to blame “the other party.” One of the cutest examples I can think of is the admissions process for dental schools. Formerly emphasizing manual dexterity, it now relies on abstract academic achievement. Think about that the next time you have a 360 thousand revs per minute air drill a fraction of a millimeter from the pulp of your tooth.

A conventional historian, searching for deep truths of causation, and  neglecting all the trash of the “process”, would find that the Patient Zero of the Great Africa Depopulation Event died in 1976, in Fort Dix, New Jersey, during the Swine Flu Fiasco. His name was David Lewis, a 19 year old private, and he died in 24 hours, reprising the astonishing speed with which the 1918 epidemic reaped victims. The response of the Gerald R. Ford Administration was a crash program to produce and distribute a vaccine to the entire American public. Many of us remember getting the jab, and thinking nothing of it. But 500 of the inoculated contracted Guillain–Barré syndrome, and 25 died. This might have been tolerable, but the anticipated epidemic did not occur. It never spread beyond Fort Dix.

There followed protracted efforts to analyze why a vaccine for a particular strain of flu should provoke this autoimmune syndrome, while others did not. Since the vaccine was grown in eggs, and egg-based vaccine production is notoriously subject to contamination, theories eventually favored contamination with Campylobacter which:

  • Is known to contaminate eggs
  • Is known to cause immune cross-reactivity with nervous system proteins, causing Guillain–Barré syndrome.

But the original suspicion did not die; it lingers to this day like a bad smell. The reason it lingers is that no vaccine is entirely safe; there is a unique risk/reward profile associated with each one. Average human minds, and many of considerably greater competence, have trouble with this. They don’t like risk/reward. They want to know. Is it completely safe, or isn’t it? In the absence of something like Ebola, this caution, even in the absence of quantitative evidence, cannot be dismissed. One  advanced  flu vaccine, possibly Baxter’s VEPACEL, has EU approval, but the safety profile does not satisfy the FDA.

Now you have the background. Part 2 is already written, but take some time with this, and I’ll post the rest in a little bit.  Over 1000 words in one gulp might be too much for portable devices.

David Gergen’s ISIS impatience

Writing for CNN, David Gergen’s article is titled, “ISIS war rollout resembles launch of Obamacare site.”

I don’t think this is the case. However, as Hisham Alhashimi feels that Obama’s September 10 speech tipped ISIS to U.S. strategy, let’s not give ISIS any more to read.

But in brief, some segment of the Sunnis are, to us, surprisingly tolerant of ISIS depredations. They could live without them — or with them. Digging ISIS out of a resident population that ranges  from tolerant to friendly, without converting all of them to enemies, is a complex problem, but one with which the U.S. military have unique experience.

This does not excuse the Administration of errors in foreign policy that have brought us to this point, but the Obama Administration has repudiated that passivity.

Syria: The purpose of Nekrassov’s Piece

Nekrassov’s CNN piece, dissected as propaganda, was a considerable expenditure of human capital, since western media would detect a pattern of repetition. By this reasoning, a more specific purpose is required than chatting up cooperation by asserting existence of a nascent U.S./Russia partnership that doesn’t exist. The “written by Nekrassov” writers should listen to Kerry.

Informed speculation gets a boost from the recent disclosure by Assad’s government to monitoring groups of additional chemical weapons sites (Reuters). Past cooperation of the Syrians on this issue has bought them little, and it has been widely suspected that they held some in reserve. The timing of these new disclosures is interesting.

The image of the Syria  in the West in 2011 was of a police state ruled by a very small Alawite minority, in which unspeakable tortures were widely and frequently used as an instrument of political control over the Sunni majority. Western sympathy could have been aroused by the seemingly modest idea that with rule by the majority, the use of coercive methods would at least subside in frequency. But in a partial recapitulation of the neoconservative strategy of the Bush Administration, an attempt was made to find Syria’s heroes of democracy and crown them. Perhaps, if they had been found, the passive policy then in vogue would have been supplanted by something capable of keeping ISIS a mere figment of the imagination.

Today, the Syrian regime of Bashar Hafez al-Assad doesn’t look so bad. But Kerry says, “There Is Evidence That Assad Has Played ‘Footsie’ With ISIL.” My personal sentiment is that in a world of bad, bad, bad, bad people, this is worth only two bads.

It is possible that the Russians, sensing the inertia of U.S. policy, would like the U.S.  to decide that Assad is not so bad, and they would like us to think it is our idea. Encapsulating the idea in a propaganda piece would certainly be novel. But this notion is helped along a little by the chemicals disclosure, for which there is a heavy real-world price. Those chemicals could have had a use against ISIS. Assad’s regime, now a homeless waif in the international community, is up for adoption.

Exercise: reading Russian propaganda courtesy of CNN

In contrast to the recent, crude Russian nationalist drumbeat, CNN has a “View from Russia”, “written by” former Putin advisor Alexander Nekrassov,  in the creative style very much in vogue with the western “opinion piece.” Quoting the nut of it,

"Although it may be tempting for Washington to overthrow Assad, such a move could backfire on the White House, giving ISIS a boost instead of a kick and turning those pesky U.S. midterm elections into a total nightmare for the Democrats."

This is pure RT, who are also trying to cultivate a fear of an imminent eruption of Yosemite. Continuing,

"(Incidentally, Russian experts believe that Obama will lose the Senate...So it made sense for Washington to wave the white flag -- albeit a very small one -- at the expense of the Ukrainian regime in Kiev, in order to signal to the Kremlin that it is time to do some business together."

The implication of a sellout would be just the thing to write to demoralize Kiev.

Having lost credibility as a direct communicator, it not impossible that Putin is using Nekrassov’s voice for a fresh start. But the article is either a sophisticated piece of propaganda, or a well-warped world-view that has not been vetted by Occam’s Razor. It may be an attempt at an audience with those who tune out RT and, these days, Putin himself, but in elaboration of the visible realm, it tends toward conspiracy theory. Most propaganda does.

Nekrassov refers to

"...the civil war in Ukraine, which most sensible people tend to classify these days as a direct stand-off between Russia and the U.S."

Is the reader that “sensible person”? Three tactics of manipulation are used by the author(s) of this article. The first two are:

  • Conflate something the reader believes about himself with something you want him to believe.
  • Gaining the reader’s trust, stretch the boundaries.

In this article, the stretch is a defective syllogism based on an additional dose of conflation:

"... it follows that Ukraine is very close to Syria when it comes to international power-play.

It follows? How?

According to Nekrassov, Obama cannot simply pick up the phone, and so,

"The view in Moscow is that the Obama Administration is telling the Kremlin that it needs help in dealing with ISIS. But as it can't just say it publicly, it is using Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to do the honors."

To complete the picture, Nekrassov describes the Russian reaction to the American initiative that never occurred:

"...Initially this was received with caution in Moscow -- especially given what has been going on for the past nine months in Ukraine -- but if that is not a signal from Barack Obama that he is ready to play ball with Russia, then I don't know what is."

The last paragraph embodies the third tactic:

  • Allege that proponent and  adversary agree on the interpretation.

Russian miscalculation of the Western reaction to the Ukraine incursion implies a surprising misunderstanding of the more hidden aspects of the Western psyche, a kind of ignorance more typical of those Third World countries afflicted by national psychosis, and historically by the Axis powers of World War II. A competing analysis of the CNN piece could attribute the tenor to that misunderstanding.  That it influences the content cannot be excluded. But the careful structuring of the techniques used suggests the intent of manipulation beyond the simple conveyance of opinion.

Elisions are used so as not to stretch the bounds of “fair usage” of the CNN article. Read it. All propaganda, except the crudest, is educational.





Gaming Iraq’s future; methodologies

How should we approach this? By sketching personalities, and mapping hierarchies of dominance, or by moving tokens on a board? In “Al Qaeda Hostage Release, & Lantana Weed Control”, it’s asserted that Qatar cannot be tokenized. In other words, Qatar has a complex internal structure that spits out behaviors considerably more complicated than a shocked lab rat.

Some problems become simplified en masse, while others become more complicated. The physics of bodies with gravitational fields provides an example of magnificent clarity:

  • The mechanics of a single body is trivial.

  • The mechanics of two bodies has a simple formula solution.

  • The mechanics of three bodies has no formula solution. All you can do is calculate the evolution of their motions in tiny increments of time, and keep doing it till you get to the time you want. This is called “iteration.”

  • The mechanics of more than three bodies becomes increasingly miserable, until, when you have about 13 or more, provided the bodies are identical, and you don’t care about their individual identities, statistics emerge, and can be solved for. Statistics are numbers that characterize the particles as a bunch.

Inexact analogies to human behavior are obvious: individual, cabal, crowd, tribe, society… The imprecision, and perhaps, lack of practical exploitability of these relationships is as frustrating for intelligence as it is for physics. Could one, for example, predict a revolution by monitoring the behavior of a crowd, as, for instance, with tweets before the 2011 Egyptian revolution?

The U.S. intelligence community observed a large scale social instability prior to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, but was unable to  predict the revolution itself. To predict the fall of Mubarak would have required analytic tools that work from the large to the small.  One group (citation missing)  published claims of a model-with-software that predicted the fall of Mohamed Morsi, supposedly by analyzing the claims, grievances, and resources of the “actors” of Egypt’s political scene.  But as the claim was made after the fact, it and a couple of bucks will buy you a latte.

While informatics is still largely preoccupied with models and statistical quantities thereof, it has also moved past that, with the new understanding that some important information may be uncovered, if we are only willing to cede the need to know the reasoning. The neural network is one such device.  The details of how a complex neural network actually functions cannot be known, because the states are too complex to interpret individually. But if it says yes, or it says no, and it has a track record, what the hey?

This was one of the inspirations behind crowdsourcing intelligence; put lots of warm & wet neural networks on the case, and feed their outputs into some kind of algorithm that would cleanse the data of their bizarre individual opinions, exposing hidden gems. Suppose, for example, you had assembled a  collection of opinionated heads who always, without exception, gave the wrong answer. You pose the question: Will Bashar Hafez al-Assad be among the living after June 16, 2015, the end of the month of Ramadan? The group reply is “without a doubt, absolutely, bet your life on it”…and the group is always wrong. Would you ignore the prediction?

If this seems farfetched, the financial markets use methods like this, called contrarian sentiment indicators, and they are valued by many for market timing.  The simulated market is  a crowdsourcing methodology for intelligence work, perhaps the most widely used. There was an operating “terror market”, devoted to predicting terror events, which was terminated by ethical considerations, such as the possibility of encouraging the act.

You should not underestimate the possibility that your own warm & wet and conveniently available neural network can tackle prediction problems with results better, at least, than the “opinion pieces”. It does require a high level of self-awareness to create the required  virtual “detached little man.” Do some meta-analysis about your own thinking. When you think about Iraq, ISIS, Iran, and Syria, do you gravitate to:

  • Individual players?
  • Cabals?
  • Tribes?
  • “Peace of Westphalia constructs”, with political maps populated by men wearing western business suits?

Without tipping my hand before the next post, this is a big problem. Each presents a different way of abstracting and simplifying the situation. Each is very incomplete, yet there is no combinatorial principle that provides completeness.