Saturday, December 31, 2005

Good science, bad science

In his wonderful essay "The Experiment as Mediator between Subject and Object," Goethe described science as springing from "a desire to view Nature's objects in their own right and in relation to one another." Botanists, for example, "must find the measure for what they learn, the data for judgment, not in themselves, but in the sphere of what they observe."

He describes his method:

We may look at an object in its own context and the context of other objects, while refraining from any immediate response of desire or dislike. The calm exercise of our powers of attention will quickly lead us to a rather clear concept of the object, its parts, and its relationships, the more we pursue this study, discovering further relations among things, the more we will exercise our innate gift of observation.

Applying this method to understanding the "hidden relationships in nature" can be especially difficult, requiring an open mind and a devotion to the phenomena under observation. For Goethe, the experiment -- "intentionally reproducing empirical evidence" or "recreating phenomena" -- was the most effective means of systematically discovering the hidden relationships. The single experiment is of limited value; only a carefully studied sequence of experiments can reveal a true nature.

As pattern-recognizing and pattern-organizing beings ("a tendency altogether understandable since it springs by necessity from the organization of our being") we especially run the risk of the false conclusion:

Thus we can never be too careful in our efforts to avoid drawing hasty conclusions from experiments or using them directly as proof to bear out some theory. For here at this pass, this transition from empirical evidence to judgment, cognition to application, all the inner enemies of humanity lie in wait: imagination, which sweeps us away on its wings before we know our feet have left the ground; impatience; haste' self-satisfaction; rigidity; formalistic thought; prejudice; ease; frivolity; fickleness -- this whole throng and its retinue. Here they lie in ambush and surprise not only the active observer but also the contemplative one who appears safe from all passion.

The interconnection of the universe, that "each phenomenon is connected with countless others", requires investigating each piece of empirical evidence. "We can never be careful enough in studying what lies next to it or derives directly from it. To follow every single experiment through its variations is the real task of scientific researchers." Goethe counterposed this kind of thoroughness, akin to constructing an unassailable mathematical proof, to the suspect method of attempting to prove an assertion by "using isolated experiments like arguments", which often "reaches its conclusions furtively or leaves them completely in doubt."

The elevating honesty of Goethe's approach to science contrasts starkly with recent stories of fabricated data (in the case of the Dr. Hwang Woo-suk's stem cell and cloning work). But even more distressing is questionable research paid for by corporations via consulting firms, to affect public policy around toxic chemicals they dump in the environment.

The Wall Street Journal has been running a series called "New Questions about Old Chemicals". In the 12/28/05 issue, Peter Waldman writes about a conference to evaluate current research on perchlorate, a chemical used in munitions production that can block the thyroid's ability to absorb iodine.

The host was the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. The aim was "a critical and objective evaluation" of research on the chemical, a university official later said. But while the university lent its imprimatur and thus credibility to the event, the symposium was paid for by defense contractors and the Pentagon and orchestrated by industry consultants, who kept evidence of their own role to a minimum.

Afterward, the Pentagon dispatched six conference participants to present the event's conclusions to a National Research Council panel that was evaluating perchlorate for the U.S. government.

Intertox Inc., a consulting firm that advises defense contractors, billed them about $75,000 for organizing the September 2003 event, an invoice shows. University documents show that Intertox chose the format and agenda and selected the experts who would appear.

Another article ("Study Tied Pollutant to Cancer; Then Consultants Got Hold of It", 12/23/05) describes how a consulting firm hired by PG&E re-wrote a key Chinese study on the effects of chromium in ground water, suggesting that it may not have been the cause of higher cancer rates. The revised study then took on a life of its own and has been used to support maintaining high acceptable levels of the pollutant.

Science, as any social practice, exists within a matrix of social relations, and in that sense can be considered a class-partisan activity. As with ideology, a ruling class produces science that supports its class position. It does this through the levers of ideology, property and money. Ideology shapes world view, morals, assumptions, etc., much like what Goethe warned against above. Property sets boundaries and obstacles. Money directs research opportunities. "Working class science" or "new class science" would start from a different ideology, have different notions of property, and a different sense of priorities. One could argue that "working class science" can be as dishonest as "capitalist science", and hence impede the overall expansion of knowledge, but the dishonesty works along different vectors.

Goethe elsewhere categorized scientists into four types, based on the kinds of questions they ask. "Utilizers" seek practical results; "fact-finders" seek knowledge for its own sake; "contemplators" apply imagination to interpret the fact-finder knowledge. "Comprehenders" for Goethe can also be considered "creators"; they are "original in the highest sense of the term. By proceeding from ideas, they simultaneously express the unity of the whole."

In Goethe's writings, the practice of science can be seen as a kind of spiritual pursuit, also reflected in his essay on the experiment. Capitalism, though, keeps science constrained at the level of the "utilizer", with the practical results dictated by Capital. The elevation of humanity, the full-flowering of potential, cannot be realized under such constraints.


[All Goethe quotes are from Jeremy Naydler's little anthology Goethe on Science, Floris Books; the essay can also be found in Goethe: Scientific Studies, Suhrkamp Publishers (1988) or Princeton University Press (1995), edited and translated by Douglas Miller.]

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Blue Team followup

As a follow-up to yesterday's post on the Millennium Challenge 2002 war games: Gen. William F. Kernan and Maj. Gen. Dean W. Cash discuss Millennium Challenge's Lessons Learned - "A discussion on lessons learned from the joint integrating experiment Millennium Challenge 2002" held a several weeks after the games concluded (9/17/02). Some of Van Riper's criticisms had been made public at that point, and the war game organizers comment on them. The games were both "exercise" and "experiment", and held under unnatural constraints. In an experiment, rolling back the clock and re-running portions is legitimate.


Monday, December 26, 2005

Red Team Blue Team

The 2002 "Millennium Challenge" war games highlight two very different approaches to the network form and its application to warfare. The 2002 games were the ones that were halted after Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper's "Red Team" (the "enemy") surprised and overwhelmed the high tech, information-intensive "Blue Team". Van Riper was assigned to head the armed forces of Red Team, in the game a rogue, anti-American Persian Gulf leader. The Defense Department intended to test how new technologies could lift the "fog of war" and overwhelm a lower-tech enemy.

Van Riper, however, understood the technology of Blue Team, and its weaknesses. Blue Team expected to eavesdrop on Red Team's communications, so Van Riper used motorcycle couriers. Blue Team expected to pick up Red Team air traffic communication, so Van Riper used World War II-era light signals to communicate. Van Riper knew that Blue Team had a preemptive-strike doctrine, so he launched a surprise swarming attack on Blue Team's fleet, sinking half of their ships. The Blue Team disaster prompted the Department of Defense game planners to re-start the games with new rules, and Blue Team subsequently won. (For an interview with Van Riper and more on the "force transformation" debate in the military, see the links in an earlier blog post.

The Millennium Challenge fiasco is one of many anecdotes in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005, Little Brown) that explores "intuitive" thinking. The brain carries out various decision-making processes that lie outside of conscious, analytical thought processes. Gladwell reviews how intuitive thinking takes place, its strengths and weaknesses, and how to cultivate it.

The Blue Team planned for total information awareness of the battlefield, which could be analyzed to determine the best course of action. Van Riper holds that battlefield chaos is an inevitable part of warfare, and on the ground, the fog of war cannot be lifted. For him, it was more important to have commanders who could function within the chaos of the battle, without being tethered to, and slowed down by, the decision-making cycle (information collection, analysis, decision) at headquarters.

Gladwell quotes Van Riper: "The first thing I told our staff is that we would be in command and out of control. By that I mean that the overall guidance and the intent were provided by me and the senior leadership, but the forces in the field wouldn't depend on intricate orders coming from the top. They were to use their own initiative and be innovative as they went forward." (118)

This of course is a classic description of the "network form", after Arquilla and Ronfeldt. The network is bound together by a common vision and doctrine, and the nodes are free to implement the vision as appropriate. But such a form cannot just happen. As Gladwell writes, "How good people's decisions are under the fast moving, high-stress conditions of rapid cognition is a function of training and rules and rehearsal." (114)

But Blue Team's approach is also described as network-centric warfare. The high-bandwidth communication network allows for more effective collection and dispersal of information, better coordination of units, and in theory, a shorter decision-making cycle. Through better information technology, the deployment of resources can be more effective. Can both network forms be right?

Van Riper says that both analytical thinking and the intuitive thinking (or "rapid-fire cognition") have their place. The analysis phase though takes place before the battle. Once the trouble starts, too much information becomes a burden, and slows down decision-making. "I can understand how all the concepts that Blue was using translate into planning for an engagement. But does it make a difference in the moment? I don't believe it does. When we talk about analytic versus intuitive decision making, neither is good or bad. What is bad is if you use either of them in an inappropriate circumstance." (141)

Van Riper's decentralized approach still requires the aggregation of information being collected by the nodes. But the aggregation process can be overwhelmed easily by too much information. "Once hostilities began, Van Riper was careful not to overload his team with irrelevant information. Meetings were brief. Communication between headquarters and the commanders on the field was limited. He wanted to create an environment where rapid cognition was possible. Blue Team, meanwhile, was gorging on information." (143)

An analytical approach to aggregation slows down as more information is available to be analyzed. As the tempo of the moment picks up, the intuitive approach -- guided by intent and sharpened by practice, practice, practice -- becomes the more effective approach.


Thursday, December 22, 2005

Interpenetrating nets

One of the simplest constructions in projective geometery is to start with a line (the "horizon line"), and mark three arbitrary points on it. Draw a line through each of the points, such that the three lines now mark a triangle (i.e. for this exercise they can't be parallel). All further lines are then drawn from any of the three points through a point intersected by the other two lines. By continuing to draw lines, a network of hexagons emerges on the plane.

The three initial points constrain, or determine, all of the nodes and connections for the network. "Move any or all of the three original points into any of the infinite number of positions on the horizon line," Olive Whicher writes in her introductory text Projective Geometry: Creative Polarities in Space and Time, "and the network will always arise, each time with a different form and measure." One can see other forms in the resulting pattern. As Whicher describes, "The network is like a matrix in which other interpenetrating nets are to be seen."

In this deceptively simple model, nodes (intersection points) and connections (lines) are shared by different networks. Each network grows out of the same initial determinants (the points on the horizon line). Each network though has its own set of rules for adding lines -- its own law system as it were. The steps above create hexagons, but within the pattern quadrangles can be seen; the quadrangles are completed by adding the missing diagonal. Curiously, the missing diagonal for all of the quadrangles drawn from the same three starting points will pass through the horizon line at the same fourth point.

There is some insight in there -- that phenomena as processes of interconnected, interacting nodes ordered by some lawfulness, have multiple dimensions, and these dimensions interpenetrate. Something like that?


Sunday, December 18, 2005

More lost and found history

I have transcribed two articles I did for the Lansing Star in 1976. The Star was a community newspaper in the Lansing/East Lansing, Michigan area published in the 1970s. The first issue of the Star came out I believe in the spring of 1974, and ran through the rest of the decade and into the 1980s. I worked with it from 1974 to 1978; I'm not sure when it stopped publication. The Star succeeded a paper called Joint Issue from earlier in the 70s, the name Joint Issue played on the fact that it was, well, an early 70s community/underground newspaper, and a merger of two other newspapers (Red Apple News? and something else -- before my time).

Both articles look at Michigan State University's international projects. The first article, "MSU Overseas: The Ugly Academic" uses MSU's Vietnam project from the 1950s and early 1960s as backdrop, and mostly rants about then-current projects in Brazil and Iran. The second article, "The Ugly Academic: MSU in South Korea" gives the same treatment to a then-current project with the South Korean goverment. As the articles make obvious, those countries were run by very different governments then: Brazil by a military junta; Iran by a Shah installed by the CIA and a close U.S. ally; South Korea by a dictatorship.

The articles are what they are. I like the outrage expressed in them, but they are a peculiar form of journalism. Looking back on them today, I wish they had more about the actual projects.

The South Korea project is especially interesting. MSU was using computer models to help South Korea re-organize its agricultural sector to free up workers for its growing industrial economy. England did it by enclosures; the Soviet Union did it via collectivization; South Korea managed it with computer models from MSU, though I don't know what form it took on the farm.


Friday, December 16, 2005

Adventures in value

The New York Times ran a story on December 9, "Ogre to Slay? Outsource It to Chinese" about the latest development in the strange interpenetration of virtual worlds and this world. Designers of "massive multi-player online role-playing games" like EverQuest, Ultima Online and Lineage, aka MMORPGs, built into the games little economies. Players are willing to pay "real" money to buy things that they use in the online games. In the latest twist described by David Barboza in the NYT article, game-playing factories have popped up in China. Young Chinese play the online games to accumulate game points, scrip and tools that can be sold to other players willing to pay for to get to higher game levels more quickly.

The first reference I saw to this odd twist on the Internet economy was an April, 2000 Los Angeles Times article "Virtual Loot for Real Cash". In Ashley Dunn's LA Times article, southern Californians were doing the collecting. Clive Thompson's clever and fascinating article "Game Theories" (date unclear, May, 2004 I think) mentions a factory in Mexico; now this odd form of production has moved to China.

Economists have fastened on these game worlds as economic petri dishes. Game player behaviors, markets, production, currency, interventions (by game designers and the companies that host the games) have counterparts in these worlds. Edward Castronova, wrote a paper that gained some notoriety, "Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account Of Market And Society On The Cyberian Frontier", he expanded on this in his book Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games published last month by the University of Chicago Press. Robert Shapiro, an undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration and now with the Brookings Institution, commented on these virtual economies in his 2003 Slate article "Fantasy Economics: Why economists are obsessed with online role-playing games", but Clive Thompson's "Game Theories" article is the best overview of the evolution of these economies.

These economies are fascinating for all of the reasons that have drawn the above writers to them, and rich pickings for anyone who wants to analyze how and why they work the way they do. One dimension I thought of was value in the age of electronics, in relation to the virtual commodities and virtual money used in these games. One paradox of electronics-based production under capitalism is that a labor-replacing technology can result in the expansion of the production of value. I tried to look at this in a paper I did for the Marxism 2000 conference, "The End of Value". Basically, counter-tendencies arise under capitalism that blunt or counteract the value-destroying property of new technologies.

A commodity that exists only in a fantasy space does not in any way make it less of a commodity. There is no such thing as an "immaterial commodity", in this case these commodities exist as aligned molecules in the RAM or on the hard disk of the game servers. These virtual objects are like other goods that take on an existence within the brain (again, material) like ideas and emotions. The virtual goods satisfy the two basic requirements of a commodity: they are produced for exchange (the exchange value dimension), and they satisfy a want (the use value dimension). In this case, the primitive accumulation of game gold or rarities or the production of things in the game world consume human labor, and they satisfy a want of other game players willing to pay money for them. (The New York Times article reports that the player-workers are putting in 12-hour shifts seven days a week to meet quotas for slaying monsters.)

The universe of desire is infinite; "abundance" is only a relative concept, a philosophic outlook, and so there is no limit to what regions -- physical or virtual -- capitalism will spread to, what markets it will organize when it gets there, and what new expressions of exploitation it will devise to wring surplus value out of it. But the polarization of wealth is an emergent property of capitalism.

While desire may be infinite, the ability of the planet to sustain the free range of capital's desire is not. And one hopes that the willingness of human beings to suffer the immiseration that inevitably accompanies the satisfaction of capital's desire is not infinite either.


Sunday, December 11, 2005

Lost and found history

Recently I was googling for online references to projects I had been involved with a couple of decades ago. I had this eery feeling about the past, my past, because it wasn't there. Around 1993 or 94, material started appearing on the world wide web, but prior to that date, the continental shelf of online history abruptly stops.

Of course this is not completely true. There have been a number of noble efforts -- often times volunteer -- to put primary source material like geneologies, church records, census scans, etc. online. But today, documents as a matter of course are put online; pre-web they maybe ended up in a depository library or a special collection somewhere, and generally buried in dunes of printed ephemera.

Better to light a candle...

I started to transcribe some of the things I worked on back then, because I think they are of some historic significance. The first bit is the Preface and Introduction to a pamphlet call "Stop the MSU-Iran Film Project", from October, 1977.

The document is an interesting example of mid-1970s campus activism -- that post-Vietnam period where focus shifted to other instances of U.S. foreign policy like Chile and Iran. It is also interesting as an expose of university involvement in that policy. Michigan State University had a particularly nasty record, which the introduction touches on.

The document is also interesting in how similar things are, and also how different things are -- Brazil now has a populist president and is part of the Latin America pink tide; South Korea is an Asian Tiger; the Shah was deposed shortly after the film project and the ayatollahs of the bazaar took over. Who knows what happened to the marxist comrades in the 1970s Iranian student movement.

Looking back now, I would say the mid-1970s was a period of transition from imperialism to globalization, one process was being overlaid and replaced by another. Brazil and South Korea became active participants in the new global economic order -- not just economic reserves or dumping grounds or plantations; Iran represented the first expression of religious fundamentalism as a response to globalization.


Tuesday, December 06, 2005

More on policed state

See pages 9 - 12 of this Italian judicial warrant regarding the kidnapping of an Islamic cleric in Milan in 2003. It describes how Italian police were able to track -- in incredible detail -- the movements of CIA operatives as they stalked Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, dragged him into a van, and drive him to the U.S. airbase in Aviano. Based on an eyewitness report that said one of the perps was talking on a phone, Italian officials identified the cellphones making calls in the vicinity, and with the phone SIM IDs, could track the movement of the phones as they went into and out of various cells, including moving down the highway to the airbase.

(a) Didn't we see this in some movie already?
(b) Duh! Doesn't the CIA go to the movies?
(c) Hey, this stuff cuts both ways!

(For background see the Washington Post story CIA Ruse Is Said to Have Damaged Probe in Milan).

Networks and visibility: unconnected = invisible; connected = visible. And connected in more ways than most of us care to think.


Sunday, December 04, 2005

Ecological revolution, take one

The human-Nature relationship is both direct (we are Nature, we sense Nature both inside and outside of our bodies), and also mediated by our tools. As in all interconnections in Nature, the relationship is two-way. We affect Nature, Nature affects us. Humans develop in particular ways through the tools they use. The mediated relationship affects Nature in different ways, new tools change what is possible. And to the extent the tools are taken up and used, they change the human-Nature relationship.

Historian James C. Malin, described an approach to the history of the human-Nature relationship in terms of cultures (or perhaps more accurately, different modes of production, expressed as "cultures") competing for the same environmental space. The degree and scope of exploitation is determined in part by the tools. In his description of this difference, he makes an interesting observation which echoes today in the discussion over "peak oil":

[T]he more complex invading culture possessed technological tools and skills which made available different or wider ranges of options applied to the exploitation of the area, bringing into the flow of utilization existent resources that were latent under the displaced culture. That point deserves special emphasis. The earth possessed all known, and yet to be known, resources, but they were available as natural resources only to a culture that was technologically capable of utilizing them. There can be no such thing as the exhaustion of the natural resources of any area of the earth unless positive proof can be adduced that no possible technological 'discovery' can ever bring to the horizon of utilization any remaining property of the area. An attempt to prove such an exhaustion is meaningless, because there is no possibility of implementing such a test. Historical experience points to an indeterminate release to man of such 'new resources' as he becomes technologically capable of their utilization. ("Ecology and History", 1948, in (History and Ecology: Studies of the Grassland, edited by Robert P. Swierenga, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE, 1984.)

(For more on how new technology changes the available oil equation, see "Why $5 Gas Is Good for America" in the December, 2005 Wired)

Carolyn Merchant has written about "ecological revolutions", where there are dramatic changes in the environment due to either dramatic natural (or non-human) events, or the kind of rapid change brought on by Malin's "invading culture". Merchant's Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England (University of North Carolina Press, 1989), describes two revolutions: the "colonial ecological revolution" brought on by European settlers in the period roughly from 1620 - 1675, and the "capitalist ecological revolution" in the period roughly from 1800 - 1860, both of which dramatically changed the New England environment. From the introduction, it seems clear that she is referring to different modes of production, each of which left it's heavy stamp on the ecology of the area.

John Bellamy Foster's The Vulnerable Planet: A short economic history of the planet (Monthly Review Press, 1999), also breaks down the history into stages: pre-industrial, industrial, and imperialist. While a very concise and readable survey, I couldn't help but notice the startling absence of reference to new technologies that make possible new modes of production. For example,

The Industrial Revolution can be defined as a sudden take-off in growth as the result of a series of economic, social and ecological transformations. Its principal elements were the growth of the factory system the expansion of wage labor, the increased reliance on machine production, and the rise of the modern industrial city. (p. 33)

No mention is made of the revolution in motive power that enabled the transformation of the manufacture system to the industrial system. I wonder if this is a Monthly Review thing -- Ellen Mieksin Wood's book The Origins of Capitalism (Verso, 2002, but originally published by Monthly Review Press; she served as editor of the Review from 1997 - 2000) is a fascinating analysis of capitalism emerging out of English agriculture, but she deprecates the role of the development of the productive forces in the overall process. Productive forces include not just "tools", but technique and organization (skills, craftsmanship, even processes like crop rotation) as well, and not just the tools of production per se, but also the tools of communication and transportation. And it would seem that this changing technical environment makes possible new social forms. But I suspect by narrowing the conception of productive forces, she can separate "agricultural capitalism" from productive forces, and in fact up-end the relationship of productive forces and property relations:

The conditions of possibility created by agrarian capitalism -- the transformations of property relations ... were more substantial and far-reaching than any purely technological advances required by industrialization. This is true in two senses: first purely technological advances ... were not responsible for the so-called 'agricultural revolution' that laid the foundation of industrialization; and second, the technological changes that constitute the first 'Industrial Revolution' were in any case modest. (p 143)

In other words, property relations precede and determine productive forces. I realize it is a weak argument to say, "but that's not what Marx said" to another Marxist. Still, it seems nearsighted to not see the constantly developing advances in science, in agricultural technique, in timekeeping, in shipping, in financial markets, etc. that altered the economic environment -- exposed new dimensions and faces of Nature, changed its shape, and made new forms of social organization and property viable. The absence of a 17th-century "killer app" does not indicate the lack of technological progress, nor does it negate the importance of technological change to forms of property relations that emerged in English agriculture. (And of course the productive forces and the property relations exist in a dialectical relationship, each sphere affecting and interpenetrating the other.)

Anyway, the point I am considering is that to the bundle of interconnected processes -- technology revolution, economic revolution, social revolution -- we must ecological revolution. The project I see emerging is a piece that would compare the human-Nature relationship with production regimes, with stages of capitalism (roughly, mercantile, agricultural, industrial, imperialism, globalization), with forms of Capital (mercantile, land, industrial, finance, speculative). With each stage, the relationship changes in some way. Changes in consciousness are bundled up in that (dialectical). And especially to explore what, if any, new relationships either come to the fore, emerge, or are made possible at the stage of speculative capital (or globalization).