Sunday, June 27, 2004

And another resource on complexity theory and more:

Complexity Digest

This is a great maintained digest of articles plus searchable archive that gathers together multi-disciplinary articles that touch on complexity. There is a lot here. It's the kind of site that gives one hope for the Internet.

I guess I can go home now.

Here is an Internet resource I came across recently:

Barkley Rosser's Home Page

Barkey Rosser, Jr. is an professor of economics at James Madison University. The home page lists a number of writings on non-linear dynamics, complex systems and economics.

The paper that initially drew my attention: "Aspects of Dialectics and Nonlinear Dynamics". "Among the deepest problems in political economy is that of the qualitative transformation of economic systems from one mode to another... this paper will argue that nonlinear dynamics offers a way in which a mathematical analogue to certain aspects of the dialectical approach can be modelled, in particular, that of the difficult problem of qualitative transformation..."

"In most linear models, continuous changes in inputs do not lead to discontinuous changes in outputs, which will be our mathematical interpretation of the famous 'quantitative change leading to qualitative change' formulation."

The paper reviews basic dialectical concepts; discusses how catastrophe theory can imply dialectical results; considers chaos theory from a dialectical perspective; and examines some emergent complexity concepts along similar lines, "culminating in a broader synthesis."

Saturday, June 26, 2004

I recently spent a week in Colorado's canyonlands. I found a space on the slickrock above where I was camping, a desert garden of sorts. An indentation where sand and dirt and loose rock had accumulated, with a crust of crypto-biotic. Sitting on a large rock, a bench of sorts, from which I can observe the garden.

On the left focus, a juniper; a pinyon pine at the other focus. Some scrubby bush and tufts of grass here and there, some bearing small flowers. The pinyon pine has some hard, dead? roots wandering off. Two largish boulders flank the pine.

I think, this has the discplined feel of a Japanese garden. Well not knowing two turds about Japanese gardens, still, that's what came to mind, so there. But no hand of woman or man directed this space. Instead, a random arrangement achieved by gravity and solar rays and chemical reactions and biological interactions. Processes layered upon processes, a density and complexity that seems without boundaries. And out of it all, a lovely rock garden.

On the surface a simple bounded space of definitely arranged biotics on a rock in a canyon in western North America, planet Earth. But start tugging at the knit of connections, and the whole amazing web of it is revealed.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

The World Series of Poker

Consider the number of entrants in the WSOP for the past three years:

2000 - 512 entrants
2003 - 839 entrants
2004 - 2576 entrants

For the past two years, the winners have been Internet poker players with little or no prior "live" game experience. This year an estimated 40% of the players in the tournament won their seats from online tournaments and promotions -- that is, more than participated in the previous year's tournament. It's hard to say how many other players were energized about poker via the Travel Channel's World Poker Tour (cable TV and the "hole card cam" being another dimension of electronics), or the by the more general cultural buzz about poker (and here the rise in gambling has an electronics dimension (for more see "Speculative Capital").

The presence of so many players, and so many Internet players has changed the character of the WSOP. For one thing, Internet play is different -- Internet players bring a different playing style to the tournament. Since play is so much faster online, "the experience of playing thousands of games in roadhouses and casinos is being eclipsed by a cyborg-like intelligence produced by humans weaned on machine play," per Peter Wayner in a fascinating New York Times article "The New Card Shark" (7/10/03, only the abstract is available for free now). Some other changes in playing style that Wayner notes:

"The changes in the nature of the game are both subtle and striking. The advantages of some well-understood strategies are being tuned, and others are being abandoned. Some online enthusiasts, for instance, are even suggesting that the value of any information gleaned from watching the opponent's body for telltale tics or gestures is overrated. These so-called tells are too easily manipulated. More information comes in the pattern of bets, raises and calls. The money, they say, talks.

"The biggest factor propelling change may be the speed of technology. Players do not wait while someone shuffles and deals. Chips do not need to be counted or watched. Computers handle the accounting, often finishing hands in as little as 30 seconds."

The growth in the number of online players has been dramatic -- some 2.8 million as of last October, and that was triple the number of the previous April. Many online sites offer cheap tournaments that allow players to try for a big prize of an entry to events like the WSOP; according to one guess (I think this is from John Vorhaus's blog on the tourney, but I can't find the actual post now) said that some 12,000 Internet players had participated in tourneys leading up to the final event. These tiny rivulets and streams are gathered together in the giant watershed of the Internet into a torrent of new players.

These numbers mean more money going into the event, which expands the prize pool, which attracts more people, and expands the attendance which ... -- in the end first prize at the WSOP this year was over $5 million.

All of these players though, well, like Nobel laureate Phillip Anderson said in a famous 1971 paper, "more is different."

"Veteran poker pros -- who originally pegged all these newcomers as easy marks -- now are shuddering at the notion of a field so huge that it will take an eerie run of luck for anyone to prevail. 'It's going to be pretty random,' says 70-year-old Doyle Brunson, a two-time winner of the World Series championship in the 1970s. 'To win it now would be like winning the lottery.'" ("Up Against a Full House Amateurs Pack Poker Tourney, Changing Odds for the Pros; Just $10,000 and a Dream", Wall Street Journal, May 21, 2004.

While poker is more or less a game of skill, the random dimension -- luck -- looms large. That is, as the numbers increase, the statistical "shit happens" has more opportunity to happen.

Another snippet from Duncan Watts' excellent Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age book (now in paperback, Amazon / Barnes and Noble / Powell's):

"[I]n the past, networks have been viewed as objects of pure structure whose properties are fixed in time. Neither of these assumptions could be further from the truth. First, real networks represent populations of individual components that are actually doing something -- generating power, sending data, or even making decisions. Although the structure of the relationships between a network's components is interesting, it is important principally because it affects either their individual behavior or the behavior of the system as a whole. Second, networks are dynamic objects not just because things happen in networked systems, but because the networks themselves are evolving and changing in time, driven by the activities or decisions of those very components. In the connected age, therefore, what happens and how it happens depend on the network. And the network in turn depends on what has happened previously. It is this view of the network -- as an integral part of a contiuously evolving and self-constituting system -- that is truly new about the science of networks." (28-29) (emph. in original)

Friday, June 11, 2004

Here's another LA Times commentary reference/link. This one is a column by Marc Sageman, author of Understanding Terror Networks, called Killing the Hydra: Only attacks on its ideas can defeat a network like Al Qaeda (you need to register to use the LA Times site).

Sageman situates the Al Qaeda network within a broad "loose-knit, violent, Islamic revivalist social movement held together by a common idea: the global Islamist jihad". With the Taliban-provided base in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda on the one hand had the infrastructure to carry large-scale and relatively complex operations.

"But the Afghan sites, which gave Al Qaeda its control over the movement, were also its Achilles' heel because they became specific military targets. After 9/11, U.S. and allied forces destroyed all identifiable terrorist targets: training camps, residential compounds and support facilities. Communications were disrupted. The network lost much of its internal glue and reverted to being small clumps of terrorists loosely connected to each other."

Now, Al Qaeda is more "network form" than ever. "Far from having a formal command structure, wherein followers strictly obey orders from above, these [new] networks are self-organized from the bottom up and demonstrate a great deal of local initiative and flexibility. Like the Internet, they function very well with little coordination from the top."

The network has survived because the circumstances that created the environment for it to flourish has not changed, or if anything, has only intensified. That environment being capitalism in the age of electronics, i.e., globalization and all of the havoc it wreaks. Under new conditions, it has adapted accordingly, in true network form.

Sageman considers Al Qaeda and similar networks as "idea-based" networks, that is linked by a common outlook or ideology. Following his logic, idea-based networks can only be combatted with ideas. That is, if the nature of the connections between the participants in the network, or the broader population that sustains and nourishes the militants are ideas, then counter-ideas, or anti-ideas (e.g., [a negative one,] "de-legitimizing terrorist ideas, and a positive one, aimed at promoting an alternative vision of a just and fair Islamic society living in harmony with the West") can destroy the network.

One must consider if such ideas can exist independent of the world from which they arise: poverty, expropriation, exploitation, destruction, eviction, dislocation, torture, etc. etc. That is, a hatred of "the West" -- really, globalization -- cannot be replaced by a love of globalization because that too would be an obvious lie (as in not reflecting reality, covering over, inaccurate). Only an idea that corresponds to reality can dislodge an idea based on fictions. Islamic fundamentalism itself is as much a lie as "globalization means democracy means freedom" is.

The war of ideas is critical, but what ideas? Ideas that ultimately correspond the kind of world that new technologies make possible -- free of the poverty and exploitation that give rise to the mis-directed insurgencies like Al Qaeda.


Sunday, June 06, 2004

Emergence, idea revolutions and networks

I highly recommend Steven Johnson's 2001 book Emergence (Touchstone). It's an easy read, and very informative in bringing the reader up-to-date (as of 2001 anyway) on thinking about emergent behaviors in complex systems.

Anyway, he describes one experiment, a simulation of the behavior of slime mold. Slime mold is a primitive amoebalike organism, related to fungi that acts one way by itself, but takes on entirely different behaviors when it gets together with other slime molds -- even to the point where scientists can "train" the mold to navigate a maze.

Johnson describes how Mitch Resnick, a researcher at MIT, developed a computer program [instance of eletronic instruments of science] to simulate the behavior of slime mold. Slime molds leave a chemical trail that other slime molds can detect, and then alter their behavior accordingly. The length of time that the trail persists will therefore affect the impact of other molds, so these two dimensions -- the number of molds, and the life of the pheromone trail -- will affect the behavior of the slime mold "system."

"Keep the trails short, and the cells few, and the slime molds will steadfastly refuse to come together. The screen looks like a busy galaxy of shooting starts. But turn up the duration of the trails, and the number of agents [i.e. # of slime mold cells - jd], and at a certain clearly defined point, a cluster of cells will suddenly form. The system has entered a phase transition, moving from one discrete state to another, based on the the 'organized complexity' of the slime mold cells." (p63)

Johnson then uses this pattern of behavior -- processes that under certain conditions undergo a phase transition -- a "quantity becomes quality" shift -- to talk about "idea revolutions", when new patterns or ways of thinking -- paradigm shifts -- take place.

"I suspect Mitch Resnick's slime mold simulation may be a better metaphor for the way idea revolutions come about: think of these slime mold cells as investigators in the field, think of those trails as a kind of institutional memory. With only a few minds exploring a given problem, the cells remain disconnected, meandering across the screen as isolated trails that evaporate quickly, the cells leave no trace of their progress -- like an essay published in a journal that sits unread on a library shelf for years. But plug more minds into the system and give their work a longer, more durable trail --by publishing those ideas in best-selling books, or founding research centers to explore those ideas -- and before long the system arrives at a phase transition: isolated hunches and private obsessions coalesce into a new way of looking at the world, shared by thousands of individuals." (p64)

In this second example, the network dimensions are clearer:

-- an existing communication network affects the dispersion of novel ideas. In the case of ideas, access to the network on the production side can be closed, or filtered through editors. On the consumption side, access can be blocked by lack of access to the necessary technology (e.g., illiteracy or no computer) or lack of money and absence of public libraries. Filtering can take place along the network connections, in the form of censorship, or lack of money to put the ideas out. So of course the nature of the communication channels has a tremendous effect in how ideas spread -- the amount of friction in the network that determines how long ideas "persist" if they even see the light of day.

-- new networks may develop to communicate the new ideas, if the existing network is too closed or has too much friction. For example, alternative media networks like IndyMedia.

-- the network of ideas exists within a broader environment. Even in a "frictionless" network, irrelevant, nutty, goofy ideas generally will not gain traction; or be sidelined amongst a cultish few. So the paradigm shifts that do occur -- setting aside periods of mass delusion, manias, etc. -- are enabled by some broader consciousness (enabled by new tools of science) that has some relevancy or correspondence to new discoveries.

-- networks undergo phase transitions in their process of growth (quantity becomes quality, as in the case of the ideas gaining popular currency), but this should be distinguished from the overthrow of one law system by another (quality replaces quality, regime change in the world of ideas or world outlook).


Friday, June 04, 2004

Here's a link to an interesting article that someone forwarded along to me:

Need to Make a Good Decision? Join the Crowd

The article is a commentary piece from the LA Times, you need to register on their site to read articles.

The author, James Surowiecki, is a columnist for the New Yorker, and also the author of the just-published The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. The book title just about sums up the content of the commentary piece.

"To be intelligent, crowds have to be made up of people relying on diverse sources of information who make their choices relatively independently of each other. Diversity is so important, in fact, that without it, we have a hard time being intelligent."

It sounds like an example of emergence. But the author also somewhat suspect when he talks about the market as an efficient vox populi feedback system. Like much pop-science in the same vein, e.g., Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, or even Barabasi and Buchanan's network books, he looks to be glossing over the social and political context of the process or the law system at work:

"For all of the dismissal of crowds, we do rely on collective decision-making to guide our economy (the market, not a politburo, dictates how much orange juice will be produced in the next month), and we entrust our government to voters."

To suggest that markets and elections in the U.S. are free and democratic processes is absurd.


Thursday, June 03, 2004

This is related to the previous post, regarding the question of philosophical foundations of political organizations.

In the past, the most thoughtful revolutionaries might say -- "dialectical materialism is the philosophical foundation." Which is fine as far as it goes. Dialectical materialism provides a rich outlook from which to understand the process of change.

But to leave it there suggests that history, and least in the realm of science and technology has ended. But science and technology (or, the instruments of science) have not stopped developing. With new developments, the universe is understood better. And so the general framework of dialectical materialism must be reviewed, extended, enhanced. And I would go so far as to suggest today, with the breakthroughs in complexity theory, chaos, emergence, network science and the like (all made possible with electronic-based tools of science) that the principles of "dialectical materialism" have been absorbed and extended, for the most part, by contemporary science.

For example, a key tenet of dialectics is that "Nature is connected and determined". Network science starts from there and goes ten steps farther, revealing? describing? the laws that govern the nature of the connections and determinations. To ignore network science is like leaving the TOW missiles and kevlar body armor at home and going into battle with muskets and ... well no armor at all.

Certainly there are still important contributions from the philosophical realm of dialectics that can push the science of complexity farther. And the body of literature around historical materialism will enhance "the future of history as a science". But the tools of science have advanced dramatically in the past 30 years -- that's a ridiculous understatement -- and classical dialectical materialism has a lot of catch-up to do.

So now, much can be gained by comprehending what contemporary science is discovering, and feeding that back into thinking about social change, because contemporary science is where the cutting edge reality-based thinking about how the world works is happening.

A friend of mine told me that he "didn't get networks". He being brilliant, I had to think about that a little bit. The concepts of "network science" are not that complicated; and rather intuitive. So I took his question to really be "why the fuss?"

So. Why the fuss? Why bother?

One answer is that "network science" provides some useful, even important and powerful analytical tools for understanding how the world works. Pulling the thread, some more, well -- so what?

One of the things that attracted me to networks and especially network science, since network science brings some structured thinking and insight into the "network form", was that it explained a lot about what makes for a successful organization in the age of electronics. The insights are generally applicable to any organization, but my interest mainly being in how society changes, in social and political revolution, and the role of organizations in that process, especially how those insights apply to political or revolutionary organizations.

So the bother now assumes not just a general interest in the world, nature, history, society, the Internet, Qabalah, baseball or any other arbitrary starting point of investigation, where network science (or dialectics for that matter) might be helpful; but now a couple more steps -- that profound social change is necessary and inevitable, and that organizations will play some role in that process. In which case, network science suggests to contemporary organizations how to maximize the distributed intelligence of the organization; how to be robust; how to comprehend weaknesses and address them; how to grow -- i.e., how to be organized to succeed -- how to master the network form.

And then beyond that, organizations operate on the basis of some fundamental philosophical outlook -- the world can change or it can't; change is gradual and evolutionary or change is a mixture of the slow and tedious and the abrupt and dramatic; great people make history or history makes great people; etc. etc. Oftentimes, of course, such things are not discussed or even articulated by organizations. But the outlook is there, and here also network science has important contributions to make.

So now the chain of interest is extended further, and if one is thinking about the philosophical foundation of revolutionary political organizations. So here, again, network science has important, even critical contributions to make.