Reflections on “Blowing Up the World”

August 18, 2012

I have been personally (and later professionally) interested in the extent to which mathematics could help forecast historical trends ever since I read the fiction of Isaac Asimov way back in the 1960’s. When I shared my first office at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory with a staff meteorologist working on air quality dispersion models, I had many discussions with him about the limits to forecasting. I think it was he who first called my attention to a quote by Edward Lorenz:

“Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”

Three months ago I ran across that same quote in a lengthy article by Michael J. Totten in his World Affairs Journal blog that I shared with the other regular Wheat and Tares bloggers on Facebook. The article discusses how it could happen that a simple woman performing the job equivalent to a “meter maid” for food carts could go to work one morning like every other morning, get an order to enforce a city ordinance by clearing a cart away from a prohibited area, and become the flapping butterfly that set off a geopolitical tornado that has blown away stability across much of the Mediterranean Basin and on into the Mideast with no signs of loss of intensity.

I heartily recommend the entire article (and Totten’s work in general) for people who want to understand in depth how the Arab “Spring” is morphing into something much larger in scope, and yet impacting normal people in ways our self-obsessed news cycle allows no time to contemplate. However, I want to excerpt some of the article here to emphasize a particular point — the inability of policy makers to control events by selecting “correct” policies once the butterfly flaps.

Totten interviewed the woman, Faida Hamdi, in a street-side cafe more than a year after her confrontation with a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, led the latter to burn himself to death in protest:

“I had been tolerating his illegal work for a long time,” she said, “but that week I had an order from the ministry to confiscate any merchandise sold from any illegal vendor from that particular place. So I was doing my job. When I confronted him he said, ‘why are you targeting me? If I paid you bribes, you wouldn’t target me.’”

She says she doesn’t take bribes, but the city is known to be crooked. Maybe she’s clean. I don’t know. But her bosses are not…

“He pushed me,” she said, “and actually wounded me. So I screamed.”

Some local men told me he may have grabbed or hit her breasts. No one seems to be sure. I didn’t ask her about it. Why embarrass a modestly dressed Muslim woman with such a question?…

According to the international news media, Bouazizi was a university graduate struggling to eke out a meager existence, the Tunisian equivalent of an American with a master’s degree in literature or philosophy working the barista counter at Starbucks. It made for a great story, but it wasn’t true. His family says he did not even graduate high school. Lots of kids in towns like Sidi Bouzid don’t finish high school. Their families sometimes struggle so mightily that it makes at least short-term sense for the kids to drop out and work…

The city government, in his view, was a corrupt and obnoxious regulatory state that made it hard—well nigh impossible, actually—for him to work and support his family. Thirty percent of the town’s population was and remains unemployed. Enterprising people like Bouazizi who took the initiative to work for themselves were held down by the state. And for what? For not having a license to sell a banana?

Totten noted that Islam had nothing to do with Bouazizi’s attitude. He made it sound almost libertarian, and then went on:

Hamdi understands. She was and remains a part of the state, but she understands.

“I believe in the law,” she said, “but it’s unfortunate that my job is the suppression of somebody else’s job. I believe the law should rule, though, so I have to do it. It’s like when a police officer pulls you over for running a red light. You might think, ‘ack, why is he doing this to me,’ but it has to be done because it’s the law. You obey the laws in your country, right? Why shouldn’t it be the same here?”…

Her self-image was and is an honorable one. She wanted to be a part of order, law, and good government. And she was willing to accept an exploitatively low salary in return. How long can a decent and idealistic person serve an arbitrarily repressive regime? She managed for ten years, but the roof still caved in…

“I was sentenced to five years in prison for extreme violence against citizens,” she said, choking up. “Before Ben Ali left the country, no lawyer would represent me. But after the revolution a lawyer helped free me. So the revolution was a good thing”…

The Butcher of Damascus is currently in the fight of his life as an indirect result of something routine she did a year and a half ago. Violent clashes between Sunnis and Alawites are breaking out in Lebanon now as a (very) indirect result of something routine she did a year and a half ago. The suppurating catastrophe in the Levant could suck in the United States just as the war in Libya did. Who knows? It could even widen to Israel and draw in Iran. History is exploding in dangerous and unpredictable ways. All these events can be traced back in a straight line to her encounter with Bouazizi on December 17th, a date she’s sure not to forget.

We all change the course of events by existing in this world, but most presidents can hardly leave marks that are this big. [emphasis added]  Her own act was a small one, but it lit the fuse.

Since Totten wrote, Egypt has passed from an uneasy balance between the old military regime and the Muslim Brotherhood to the rapid emergence of a new Presidential power center that, in less than two weeks, has taken control of the Army, the press, and is moving to remilitarize the Sinai Peninsula in ways forbidden by the Egyptian-Isreali peace treaty. We hear the same “don’t-worry-he’s-a-reformer” refrain we heard three years ago about Assad. We’ll see sooner than we wish whether that refrain represents any more than a wish. We also see Turkey, unmentioned in Totten’s article, being drawn toward the conflict as fighting centers on Aleppo, near its borders, and the Kurds take advantage of chaos in Eastern Syria to ally with Assad and Iran and carve out a Kurdish homeland in parts of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.

History, like life, sometimes exists on the edges of chaos.

And then we have Iran and Israel, and yet another butterfly.

I watched again the 1977 movie “Raid on Entebbe” a couple of weeks ago. The movie chronicles events from 1976 in which a group of Palestinian terrorists hijacked a French airliner on the second leg of a flight originating in Tel Aviv and forced it to fly to the country of Uganda. There, the terrorists separated about 100 Jews from other passengers and held the former as hostages in the Entebbe airport terminal. Ugandan soldiers, under the direct orders of dictator Idi Amin, acted as protectors of the terrorists and guards preventing any escape by the hostages. The terminal was wired with explosives and a deadline was given for the release of jailed terrorists from throughout Europe.

Separated from Israel by more than 2000 miles and seemingly out-of-range of Israeli air assets, everyone presumed Israel would be forced to capitulate. Instead, they launched a long-range commando strike on the airport, killing the terrorists and several squads of Ugandan troops who tried to stop them from freeing the Jews, and blowing up a squadron of Mig fighters that could have pursued the cargo planes evacuating the hostages. Several hostages died in the attempt, but most were saved, and there was only one Israeli soldier who died in the mission.

Now, this was a very pro-Israeli film. There was only one terrorist portrayed as having any humanity — and that was shown by his willingness to die in a blaze of machine gun fire against Israeli troops, forgoing the opportunity to detonate the explosives in the terminal and kill all of the hostages. But that’s not my point. This film, as I noted, was made in 1977, with no way of foreseeing the political situation in 2012. And there’s the butterfly.

The Israeli soldier is shot by a Ugandan enlisted man, an ordinary “grunt” in US military slang, who survives the explosion of an artillery blast on his position in the aircraft control tower, and takes a parting shot at the Israeli troops. The target he picks, and kills, is the officer who leads the part of the raid on the terminal itself.

The officer killed was Jonathan Netanyahu, and if you recognize that name, it is because his brother, 36 years later, has become the Prime Minister of Israel. It is he who has to decide whether to entrust the safety of his nation to an international community that has shown no ability to put a stop to an Iranian nuclear program most Israelis regard as strategic over watch for ever more terror directed at them.

If you think that family history isn’t weighing in his thinking, consider how such a family trauma and legacy would affect your thinking.

A Ugandan soldier doing his duty and striking back for his squad mates. A grocery inspector enforcing a licencing law. A depressed vendor who can’t feed his family, let alone find a health care clinic to treat his depression. An officer being faithful to a family tradition. No obvious evil there, yet in combination with all the independent actions of all the other butterflies, we arrive where we are.

The idea of being in control of our own fate is something to which we cling. “If only I had done this; if only they would do that.” But I would suggest that is a stage of grieving, and it is illusionary. The world is changing faster than a new “conventional wisdom” can become conventional.

We do not know which, if any, of our personal choices of conscience will die away in only-local impacts, which will grow and then plateau, and which may become part of something much larger even if they seem to have no impact at all. Our “good” may serve “evil”; our “cruelty” may be turned into “good”. We choose and pray that our choices will be blessed, because we have to accept that neither we, nor our political and societal leaders, are in control of what is happening right now.

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17 Responses to Reflections on “Blowing Up the World”

  1. Stephen R. Marsh on August 18, 2012 at 2:22 AM

    ” but it lit the fuse.”

    Some things are like the motion that sets off an explosion when the partial pressures hit just the right mix.

    Others are cascade points that lead to different outcomes.

    I think you have provided two markedly different examples, one of each.

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  2. BrotherQ on August 18, 2012 at 10:15 AM

    What a profound post!

    It really helps to frame our feelings about the things that go on in our lives, events that seem traumatic or profound, but may not be, or seemingly meaningless events that may turn out to be turning points. You just never know.

    I guess it ends up with just trying to live in the moment (as they say!), seek to do good as best as we can know what that is, and love our brothers and sisters on earth.

    Thank you!

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  3. FireTag on August 18, 2012 at 10:48 AM

    Stephen:

    I just wish I knew just how far this particular cascade was going to travel before it loses momentum. There is a report in the Israeli press this morning that the price for Israel to withhold a strike on Iran until after the election is for Obama to formally request a Congressionally-approved war ultimatum against Iran that would require Iran to give up its nuclear program or face a US strike by the Spring of 2013. Since Obama’s “flexibility” after the election is not trusted by the Israeli government, he’d also have to prove his intent by announcing it before the Knesset and other public forums, and by upgrading Israeli offensive capabilities beginning immediately so that Israel could keep the option of a unilateral strike open for themselves until spring.

    I don’t know if Obama can pay that price, I don’t know that Iran can cave with Syria in flames, and I don’t know that Russia can stand still and watch this happen. So, all in all, I think the chances of further expansion and the timetable for it to occur are being accelerated by the mix of incompatible objectives — the meter maid and the vendor on a MUCH larger scale.

    Brother Q:

    Thank you.

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  4. Stephen M (Ethesis) on August 18, 2012 at 1:36 PM

    Wow. I do not know anyone with the right knowledge set to be able to predict.

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  5. Bonnie on August 18, 2012 at 10:12 PM

    Oh, that’s the lovely thing! We can’t predict! I have been fascinated by chaos theory and fascinated by the butterfly effect for some time. Like Joseph Smith’s discussion of spirit as matter but of a finer, less discernible sort, I think we would see the patterns if we had a view that was not time-confined.

    The mere fact that we can’t predict isolates our action personally and ensures that our agency is our own. We are unfettered by the cascade of effects we have on others by not being able to determine with any accuracy what our effect truly would be. Of course, in close proximity we can guess, but really, do we know even then? Delicious ambiguity.

    I wonder at the simplicity of a plan that allows a divine being to place in motion events that we can scarcely imagine, simply by placing us in precise circumstances and whispering in our ears. Equally, a malevolent being, also unhindered by time’s constraint, can place damning progressions of events in motion. We exist in a cosmic interplay of powers far beyond our imaginings, and yet we are the principal players. How crucial to know where we stand and to whom we will listen.

    Fascinating thoughts tonight. Thanks!

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  6. FireTag on August 18, 2012 at 10:49 PM

    Bonnie:

    I tend toward a view that our spiritual selves are a composite of the choices of astronomical numbers of physical copies and variants of our bodies, the way our minds in the physical world are a composite of the behavior of vast numbers of neurons which end up directing our bodies.

    But I agree with you that we don’t know which of those parallel universes the copies of us writing here will end up being in, so surprise is built into the system, and direct sensitivity to the direction of Spirit is the critical skill.

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  7. prometheus on August 19, 2012 at 11:26 AM

    “We do not know which, if any, of our personal choices of conscience will die away in only-local impacts, which will grow and then plateau, and which may become part of something much larger even if they seem to have no impact at all. Our “good” may serve “evil”; our “cruelty” may be turned into “good”. We choose and pray that our choices will be blessed, because we have to accept that neither we, nor our political and societal leaders, are in control of what is happening right now.”

    This really is an empowering thought because it means we can simply act as the Spirit dictates without taking too much accountability for the larger implications of our actions. It also removes from us the need to “be effective and see results”. We can’t because it is out of our hands.

    It can also be frustrating at times because sometimes it appears that everything we do is pointless and accomplishes nothing….

    On a tangent, I have long maintained that data collection is the only real bottleneck in the advancement of science. Imagine astronomy without radio telescopes or medicine without microscopes. In the case of our attempts at psycho-history, we simply don’t have access to the observational data of people’s actions and even less to their inner motivations to be able to make meaningful predictions.

    Perhaps it is time to make Big Brother a reality, so we can progress to a fully self-aware social entity….. :D

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  8. prometheus on August 19, 2012 at 11:34 AM

    “I tend toward a view that our spiritual selves are a composite of the choices of astronomical numbers of physical copies and variants of our bodies,”

    That is an interesting thought, FireTag. On a somewhat related line of thinking, I recently pictured the earth and the billions(?) of organisms (people included) flickering in and out of life every second, and it seemed to me kind of like a kind of quantum foam of intelligence, collapsing in and out of materiality. This caused me to wonder if we are not simply a final(?) iteration of this process, becoming more complex with every pass.

    There is so much we just don’t know about the essence of intelligence and spirit. It is fun to speculate, and will be much more strange than anything we are capable of imagining, I am sure.

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  9. FireTag on August 19, 2012 at 3:49 PM

    Prometheus:

    There are data rich and data poor disciplines. In cosmology and astronomy, we are actually running into the problem that we are accumulating data faster than we ever have hope of analyzing, given budget constraints. In the social sciences, our theories are so poor that we don’t even know what data to gather to form meaningful guidance to future data gathering. Mass education does not lead to scientific progress proportional to investment (i.e., you can mass-produce physicists, but still only get one Einstein).

    However, New Scientist this past week did have an interesting article on how people are trying to do a form of data mining to look for patterns of outbreaks of civil unrest. If they are correct, signs of an upswing in unrest within the US over the next few years are emerging. I don’t vouch for the work, but here’s the story:

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21528781.800-calculated-violence-numbers-that-predict-revolutions.html?full=true

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  10. prometheus on August 19, 2012 at 7:35 PM

    Subscription paywall on the new scientist link, sadly, but there was a link to the fellows website. I’ll go there and have a look later on this week. Thanks for the link, FireTag!

    Perhaps in the midst of all the civil unrest we can sneak some extra money in for more data analysis….. :)

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  11. FireTag on August 20, 2012 at 2:31 PM

    Prometheus:

    My bad. I forgot the page was only accessible to subscribers. For those not Nerdists like me, let me give the open link to cliodynamics:

    http://www.eeb.uconn.edu/people/turchin/

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  12. Hedgehog on August 21, 2012 at 2:10 AM

    I found it an interesting article Firetag (#9), but only got to sit down and read it late yesterday, though I noted that historians didn’t seem to like him, and that data is often sparse. The glut of graduates hypothesis seemed counter-intuitive on the face of it, unless it’s that the elite are pushing the graduates out *because* there are so many…, ie having a degree no longer enables progress up… Certainly something to think about anyway.

    As to our individual actions, we can only do our best with the knowledge we have at the time, and hopefully be in tune with the spirit.

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  13. Hedgehog on August 21, 2012 at 2:50 AM

    FireTag (#6), Prometheus (#8)
    I tend to see it as some kind of complex virtual reality we’re involved in, in preparation for the ‘real’ thing. It’d be one complicated ‘program’, to allow for all possibilities and interactions for sure. If quantum computing, maybe your ‘foam’ would fit in there Prometheus…

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  14. FireTag on August 21, 2012 at 10:16 AM

    Hedgehog:

    Elites must be much rarer than commoners — that’s why they call the latter “common”. When the common man/woman can obtain what was formerly the symbol of “elite” status, the true “elites” must develop some new symbol to distinguish themselves, which tends to devalue the old symbol on a relative basis.

    Of course, there is a universal sign of elite-hood: the ability to decide who else qualifies for elite-hood. But the main point I was trying to make in the thread is that the ability to determine who is elite, and define what constitutes elite opinion doesn’t really control the butterflies who build history from the single choice up.

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  15. Hedgehog on August 24, 2012 at 2:36 AM

    Fire Tag (#14)
    The problem I find with the butterfly analogy here (after thinking further for some time), is how to identify who or what is the butterfly. It seems rather arbitrary to me. Yes we can say, maybe in Tunisia the woman doing her job was the butterfly, but we can step back further to her employer in the ministry who issued the confiscate order, or forward to the guy who objected to her doing her job and set himself alight in response – an extreme response (and how was that going to help his family?). Everyone in the chain is responsible for their own individual actions or reactions, all the way from the elite at the top down to the common guy at the bottom.
    I don’t think life is so much like a game of chess. On a macroscopic scale humanity may be predictable, and it is at that point mathematics may be useful. On an individual level, no.

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  16. FireTag on August 24, 2012 at 4:47 PM

    Hedgehog:

    Yes. That’s why Asimov had to build the “Second Foundation” into his story line and combine it with the “I Robot” series to invent galactic “enforcers” who kept rivals from humanity emerging. The Seldon Equations couldn’t cope with drastic actions by individuals.

    Everyone’s actions influence the system, but I think you are agreeing with my main point, aren’t you? No individual, be they president, prime minister, or dictator, can be confident that they are in control of events. People aren’t God, and what the universe proposes, they can not successfully oppose.

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  17. Hedgehog on August 26, 2012 at 10:36 PM

    Well, ‘elites’ are mostly not going to have control over individual actions of those they rule. They are, however, in part responsible for the environment in which those individuals find themselves. For instance, whether or not bribery is tolerated, laws are enforced, what those laws are etc. To that extent they do have an effect on the likelihood that something will kick off somewhere at some point IMO (there’ll likely always be someone who’ll to do something drastic etc.). Equations are not going to be able to predict the individual or the timing, for sure.
    I think I probably tried to read the Foundation books too young (12), and couldn’t get into them (and didn’t go back later – maybe I should), although I like science fiction generally, so I had to look up Seldon.
    I do think here:
    “People aren’t God, and what the universe proposes, they can not successfully oppose.”
    you are sounding a little bit fatalistic. Are you talking about the Asimov universe or more generally? What is the universe proposing in your view?

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