Classic recent posts from Belmont Club

The Usual Suspects [MUST READ]

An extraodinarily brilliant examination of Tom Schelling’s Game Theory concepts about the use of will, using the character Keyser Soze from the Usual Suspects.

The dramatic screen dialogue is matched by the mathematical precision of the game-theoretic concept of commitment for which Tom Schelling was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. The Nobel press release said in part:

“Schelling showed that a party can strengthen its position by overtly worsening its own options, that the capability to retaliate can be more useful than the ability to resist an attack, and that uncertain retaliation is more credible and more efficient than certain retaliation.”

What this means is explained by notes from the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which summarizes Schelling’s lectures. First described is the basic notion of commitment, which communicates to the enemy that you will do what you undertake. Commitment makes deterrence credible and credibility is the essential problem. “The most difficult part is communicating your intentions to your enemies. They must believe that you are committed to fighting them in order to defend” what you say you will defend for them to take you seriously. As Verbal Kint put it “to be in power, you didn’t need guns or money or even numbers. You just needed the will to do what the other guy wouldn’t.” To accomplish it no matter what. Schelling taught that threats are more credible if you “burn your bridges or ships” thereby making it clear that you have only one option: fight. When the Hungarian mob invaded Soze’s home to intimidate him into submitting, he simply killed his family first, illustrating Schelling’s point that to truly be believed ‚Äúyou must get yourself into a position where you cannot fail to react as you said you would‚Äù. Such is this power that when the fictional Kaiser Soze demonstrated absolute commitment he ceased to be simply a man and became a force of nature.

Tom Schelling’s key contribution was to establish on a sound mathematical basis the role of will — expressed as commitment — in war. Deterrence was not simply a matter of possessing advanced weapons. That was only half the equation. The other half was to establish that you were absolutely ready to use those weapons to your purpose. And given a choice between superiority in weapons and ascendance in will, weapons always came in second.


Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs [MUST READ]

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s superb speech at Harvard in 1978 was absolutely prophetic about the West’s battle with contemporary political Islam.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s speech at Harvard (hat tip: ‘Lord Acton‘) is one of those gems which could not have been understood at the time, not even at Harvard. Events showed some of his ideas were truly profound, though perhaps no one could really see it at the time because they were really radical — not the kind of “radicalism” fashionable in academia where they are merely a kind of fashionable conformity — but radical in that they challenged the standard political and ethical assumptions, principally the idea that freedom divorced from some deeper purpose was possible. Solzhenitsyn’s insight was to understand that totalitarianism, far from being being alien to Western thought, was in fact its highest development. He had seen it blossom to its full extent in the Gulag and could therefore see its nightmare shape even within its fashionable versions in the West. So here is the full text of his speech in 1978. The ideas it lays out are essential not only to understanding the events of September 11 but everything that happened afterward. He warned of great dangers still to come and predicted we would meet it, glasses full and smiles wide, surprised until the very end.


Niall Ferguson on the 21st Century

A review of Ferguson’s assessment of the 21st Century in light of what we have learned form the 20th.

The three factors which Ferguson believes produced the 20th century wars which killed 170 million people — 1 person in 22 — were “ethnic disintegration, economic volatility, and empires in decline”: the three E’s. Often these factors worked in concert. As 20th century ’empires’ collapsed they uncorked ethnic tensions which had heretofore lain dormant. These rapid changes were often accompanied by economic upheavals. The result, if not war, were its immediate precursors. The three E’s started the most destructive conflicts in the history of the world.

Wretchard explains how all these factors are present in the middle east and large parts of Asia Minor.


Who can you trust?

Wretchard examines the case of the fake Israeli “war crime” involving an attack on an ambulance.


And the green cape brings forth the spring

Wretchard examines the curious phenomenon of “altering the future by manipulating symbols in the present”. He looks at the strange industry devoted to providing “positive” pictures of minorities.

you can simply buy pictures from organizations which specialize in fulfilling the unfortunate textbook author’s need for quota pictures. Jacoby mentions Photoedit, a company which “specializes in supplying publishers and advertisers with positive images of ethnic and minority people in all walks of life.” It claims that “over 75% of our image library features African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Gay and Lesbian, handicapped, and senior citizens in their daily life.” Of course pictures of actual minorities might not be suitable for the textbook because the real thing sometimes doesn’t match the image the textbook author must project…If you can’t find your minority, Photoshop one in.

The Beethoven Fallacv

From The Two Apes within Us: Hippy Sex Fiends and Brutal Machiavellians – SPIEGEL ONLINE

De Waal: The evolutionary struggle for survival is really a self-serving series of blows and stabs, and yet it can lead to extremely social animals like dolphins, wolves or, for that matter, primates. I call the notion that we are nothing but killer apes the Beethoven fallacy. Beethoven was disorganized and messy, and yet his music is the epitome of order.

SPIEGEL: Is it possible that even the dream of a selfless society is the result of each individual’s self-serving endeavors?

De Waal: No. Socialism cannot function, because its economic reward structure is contrary to human nature. Despite massive indoctrination, people are not willing to give up their own needs and those of their immediate families for the general good. And for good reason. Morality, after all, has nothing to do with selflessness. On the contrary, self-interest is precisely the basis of the categorical imperative.

SPIEGEL: Wouldn’t that mean that capitalism is the more suitable model for human coexistence?

De Waal: A system based purely on competition also comes with significant problems. You can see this here in the United States, where there are too few constraints on market forces. It’s a balancing act. Competitiveness is just as much a part of our nature as empathy. The ideal, in my view, is a democratic system with a social market economy, because it takes both tendencies into account.

Applied Sloth

From Moving Heavy Things: Books: Jan Adkins

Precept Five: Applied Sloth

As stated in the stagehand’s axiom: “Never lift what you can drag, never drag what you can roll, never roll what you can leave.” Creativity germinates in indolence, and the cleverest people are often the laziest: they are always looking for an easier way. The easiest way is often the simplest, most direct, and the best way.

Via Kevin Kelly’s Cool Tools

Secrets of the Operations Master

My friend Steve O’Donnell was interviewed in December 2005 by engineering magazine IET.

It is a rare insight into the principles guiding one of the City of London’s most renowned and highly respected Technical Operations and Project Managers.

Steve has enjoyed a 25 year career at the cutting edge of IT. For the past decade he has worked on IT infrastructure directly for, or as a consultant to, companies like Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Merrill Lynch, CSFB and Standard Chartered.

Most recently, Steve has been at Cable & Wireless, where he managed the transformation of its IT infrastructure and implemented a painless cost cutting project which is the stuff of legend (a repeat of his rescue of the then Coopers & Lybrand Network Renewal Project in the late 90’s).

Steve is now Global Head of Data Centers and Bridge Operations at British Telecom.

Interview with Marc Hauser on the existence of a "Moral Grammar"

From American Scientist Online

Oscar Wilde said, “Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.” But how do we learn where to draw these lines? It’s commonly understood that moral rules are instilled in church, school and home, but Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser believes that they have a deeper source‚Äîan unconscious, built-in “moral grammar” that drives our judgments of right and wrong.

Widely known for his studies of animal cognition, Hauser has long been intrigued by the nature of human moral judgment (interested readers can take his Web-based Moral Sense Test). He says the human sense of right and wrong, which evolved over millions of years, precedes our conscious judgments and emotions, providing a hidden engine of moral intuition that’s shared by people around the world. “Our moral instincts are immune to the explicitly articulated commandments handed down by religions and governments,” he writes. “Sometimes our moral intuitions will converge with those that culture spells out, and sometimes they will diverge.” In Moral Minds (Ecco, available August 22) Hauser draws ideas from the social and natural sciences, philosophy and the law to support his own findings for an unconscious moral instinct. MORE

When Not to Trust Your Gut

From HBS Working Knowledge

In past issues of this newsletter, we have highlighted a variety of psychological biases that affect negotiators, many of which spring from a reliance on intuition. Of course, negotiators are not always affected by bias; we often think systematically and clearly at the bargaining table. Most negotiators believe they are capable of distinguishing between situations in which they can safely rely on intuition from those that require more careful thought—but often they are wrong. In fact, most of us trust our intuition more than evidence suggests that we should. MORE

Recent Israeli military slackness explained

From frieze magazine:

The Israeli Defence Forces have been heavily influenced by contemporary philosophy, highlighting the fact that there is considerable overlap among theoretical texts deemed essential by military academies and architectural schools by Eyal Weizman

The attack conducted by units of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on the city of Nablus in April 2002 was described by its commander, Brigadier-General Aviv Kokhavi, as ‘inverse geometry’, which he explained as ‘the reorganization of the urban syntax by means of a series of micro-tactical actions’. MORE

The IDF has adopted post-modernist theory.

This truly is bleak news.

As one wit on the JG Ballard list put it “Well, it seems Hezbollah were better deconstructionists… probably the problem is that the Israelis skipped Derrida.”

Willpower is best used with care

From Willpower is best used with care | Higher Education | The Australian:

Some people are simply more susceptible to temptations and distractions, and we all sometimes reach the limits of our willpower sooner than we would like. “Programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement,” psychologists Duckworth and Seligman conclude from their findings.

So what can we do to strengthen self-discipline, to transform ourselves from impulsive dollar-snatchers to lofty long-term investors in future success?

Help lies in seeing willpower as a muscle, recent research suggests. The “moral muscle”, as it has been called, powers all of the difficult and taxing mental tasks that you set yourself. It is the moral muscle that is flexing and straining as you keep attention focused on a dry academic article, bite back an angry retort to your boss, or decline a helping of your favourite dessert. And herein lies the problem: these acts of restraint all drain the same pool of mental reserves.

…if you draw on your reserves to achieve one unappealing goal – going for a jog, say – your moral muscle will be ineffective when you then call on it to help you switch off the television and start essay-writing.

What, then, can we do about this unfortunate tendency of the moral muscle to become fatigued with use? One option is to build it up and make it strong. Evidence is starting to accumulate that the moral muscle, like its physical counterpart, can become taut and bulging from regular exercise. People asked by experimenters to be self-disciplined about their posture for two weeks were afterwards stronger willed when it came to a test of physical endurance, compared with other people allowed to slouch about in their usual comfortable way during the fortnight.

By regularly exercising self-restraint and virtue in all areas of life (moral muscle cross-training, we may call it), we will come to resist temptations with the same casual ease with which a world-class athlete sprints to catch a train. That, at least, is the idea.

Unfortunately, like any sensible, long-term strategy for self-improvement, this approach has limited appeal. For just as we want to fit into those trousers next Monday – not after eight tedious weeks of healthy eating and regular exercise – it is often the same for our more cerebral ambitions. Exam dates are set in stone, deadlines loom on the horizon, or may even mock us from the past. In other words, there simply may not be enough time to become a master of temperance and virtue before tackling our goal.

Fortunately, there is also an attractive quick-fix approach to the problem of limited willpower. This is to use your moral muscle only very sparingly.