Thursday, January 21, 2010

Some booknotes on Joshua Ramo Cooper's "The age of the unthinkable"

Joshua Ramo Cooper's The age of the unthinkable is a good read -- for the facts and the frameworks (which are basic management frameworks applied to politics and warfare); the policy recommendations don't follow from the facts or frameworks. (This doesn't mean they're wrong, just unsupported.) Happily there are few of them, while the entertaining and instructive examples are plentiful.

Part I, "the sandpile effect," builds on the example of sand piles to present the problems associated with managing complex systems with complex behaviors built out of with simple elements governed by simple laws. Interesting use of Per Bak's experiments as examples, instead of the usual decontextualized fractal pretty pictures. These experiments used a machine to drop filtered sand grain by grain into a pile, counting how many grains until the pile had a landslide; the number of grains varied wildly across different instances of the experiment, raising questions of predictability.

People who are good at adapting to the complex systems of the world are "virtuosos of the moment," originally a derisive term employed by August Fournier to describe Prince von Metternich. Much of the discussion that follows is essentially a political system version of The Innovator's Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen. Christensen's main point in one sentence: people invested in one technology fail to detect emerging technologies which will be their undoing, because at the outset the emergent technologies don't appear to be a threat when seen from the old technology's perspective.

One important (and general) remark regarding these complex systems: that attempts to build control systems that match the complexity of the complex system being controlled are typically futile. Simpler control systems that can be changed faster and whose effects are more clearly visible are better managers of complexity. Not really paradoxical, as the foundations of the controlled systems themselves are simple, and may be better controlled with local, targeted, simple interventions (my example: spray glue on each grain of sand coming out of Bak's machine; voilá, no more catastrophic landslide).

As with most popular books about complex systems, this one mentions: the importance of power laws as opposed to bell curves; internal politics of complex human systems; the lamppost effect (searching for your car keys near the lamppost because there's light there, although you dropped them in the dark alley); and catastrophic events that follow from all these commonalities. The examples are fun and because of the politics/warfare theme of the book, not the usual fare of complexification books.

We read Mikail Gorbachev's explanation for the collapse of the USSR. Gorby says that it was the Nomenklatura seeing an opportunity to steal the country, rather than the economic failure from attempting parity at military build-up with the USA, that precipitated the collapse. Alas, the book only presents his side of the argument. Maybe the potential kleptocracy was a contributing factor, but without more careful analysis, I'll take it with a grain of salt.

Among many other interesting stories, all somewhat trivial to a game theorist but fun to read nonetheless, we learn that pilots on anti-SAM missions (using HARM missiles that lock onto the guidance radar of the SAMs, destroying their launchers) would broadcast their mission calls over open radio, leading their iraqui targets to shut off their radars (and not defending their country) so as to avoid being blown up. The call signs were beer brands.

Part II, "deep security," takes the viewpoint that the world is a complex system where complex management doesn't work and suggests several solutions for global security, mostly as recommendations for politicians, military, and law enforcement entities. Many of these are standard "creativity management" fare applied to warfare and politics.

Mashups, the basic technique of putting together things hitherto kept separate (like this music video mashup of Guns 'n Roses and The Beatles), tells us of Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo's great creative mind, known internally for his children clothes hangers. By doing what we marketers call a full-experience study of the customer behavior surrounding the need for which the product is targeted (hanging clothes), Miyamoto identified the major problem for the buyers (parents): children don't hang up clothes. By changing the activity from "clean up room" to "let's dress up these hangers," which he operationalized with animal-headed hangers, Miyamoto created a much better version of what might seem to others an undifferentiable product. This impressed the Nintendo people so much that they hired him to revamp their gaming business.

(This is standard modern marketing fare. Cooper goes on to describe the disruptive thinking behind other products, including the Wii. These are good examples that I'm going to use in class for sure, making the book well worth its price to me.)

Going back to war and politics, the book introduces two adversaries as examples of the same mental adaptation: the head of Israeli military intelligence and the head of information technology for Hezbolah. The secret of their success comes from what business strategists call "understanding the purpose and the fundamentals," as opposed to focussing too much on the metrics and the tools.

The book then takes a detour to make a parallel with venture capital investment; since his example and explanation is rife with selection bias there's little one could learn from it, other than the repetition of the basic "understand the purpose and fundamentals" of any given business prior to investing in it. And venture capital investing is still a gamble.

Cooper also makes quite a big deal out of Richard Nisbett image processing experiments, where american subjects pay close attention to the figure in the foreground and are blinded to change in the background while chinese subjects exhibit the reverse pattern.  (American born people of chinese ancestry show the same patterns as other americans.) The book's conclusion that this cultural pattern explains chinese resiliency is a leap of Malcolm Gladwellian proportions, and as reliable as those usually are (not at all).

Phil Tetlock's research on political judgment, a long term study of the predictions of people who forecast politics for a living, saves most of the second part of the book. Tetlock shows that people are a mix of types, the hedgehogs (who have one big idea) and the foxes (whose ideas change as they adapt to new information), and that the forecasters who are closer to the hedgehog type do worse in predictions than those forecasters who are closer to a hedgehog.

Resilience, the characteristic most desired by organizations who live in turbulent environments, is discussed in detail, with Hezbolah as the main example. Though he never summarizes it, Cooper does identify the two main characteristics of resilient organizations: they are flexible and they pay attention. (Most books on managing change take 400 pages to say these two words, Cooper takes about 60 pages, I took 7 words.)

Signaling, screening, and pooling in warfare make an appearance in chapter nine. If Cooper wanted to give a little more historical context he could have gone back to the Roman Empire, and to the power of civis romanus sum ("I'm a citizen of Rome," which meant, essentially, "you mess with me, you mess with the whole empire") and the warfare of Genghis Khan, who after razing villages sent back some people a few days later to make sure that any hidden survivors were exterminated. These examples make the same point as, only better than, his more contemporary stories.

Lifestyle marketing (without its technical name) makes an appearance in chapter 10, as a solution to a TB outbreak within the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Because of the tragic nature of the example, I can't really use it in class (no one wants downer examples in marketing classes: that's why we talk about food and cars and entertainment and tourism), but the dynamics of the evolution of a TB super-bug are a really good example of dissemination and adaptation of technologies in a product ecosystem.

Throughout the book there are many policy recommendations; since I find that non-sequitur is the most generous way I can characterize their connection with the underlying facts, I won't comment on them.

General evaluation: well worth reading; ignore policy recommendations; good examples. I heard the Audible version and checked out the library paper copy to re-read some parts. When the updated paperback edition comes out, I might get it as a electronic version (no flat surfaces left for books at home), hopefully for the Apple Tablet. It's really hard to browse an Audible book; but they make all those wasted hours shopping, exercising, and commuting much easier to pass.