Serious Coping: With Life in the Simulation

Just as Rod Serling’s famous Twilight Zone featured an odd intersection of “mind and reality” so too this week, we’re developing a keen appreciation for the intersection between “real” life and video game and computational simulations.

The situation in Ukraine is just too damn reminiscent of a 1980’s Mac video game Balance of Power

If you haven’t played it, the Wikipedia summary lays it out this way:

The goal of the game is simple: the player may choose to be either the President of the United States or the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and must lead the chosen superpower for eight years, seeking to maximize “prestige” and avoiding a nuclear war. Each turn is one year long; at the beginning of each year, the player is presented with a set of incidents and crises in various countries around the globe, and must choose a response to each one. Responses may range from no action, to diplomatic notes to the other superpower, to military maneuvers. Each response is then met with a counter-response, which may vary from backing down to escalation. The player then gets a chance to initiate actions, and deal with the opponent’s responses.

This core mechanic is similar to that of Bruce Ketchledge’s 1983 game Geopolitique 1990, published by SSI. One difference from the earlier game is how negotiations are resolved. In both games, backing down in a negotiation results in a loss of prestige, which will reverberate politically. Likewise, in both games brinkmanship may result in a global war. In Geopolitique, such wars were actually fought in-game, after which the game continued. In Balance of Power, such a war ends the game instantly, with the following message: “You have ignited a nuclear war. And no, there is no animated display of a mushroom cloud with parts of bodies flying through the air. We do not reward failure.”

I f you’re a serious reader – and student of applying different paradigms as thinking tools to appreciate the wide range of alternative futures, you’ll want to grab a copy of BoP developer Chris Crawford’s book Balance of Power: International Politics As the Ultimate Global Game.

To be sure. the specifics of present-day conflict have changed from the assumption table underlying the mid 80’s, but once you pass the critical levels in various regions, the outcome can still lead to the dreaded outcome: Global Thermonuclear War.

And that’s our thinking point for this morning, although a familiar one to our readers:  To what extent are ‘human’s in the loop” these days?

We know that many government agencies use various forms of branching IF—> THEN models to look some number of steps into the future.

And as a mental exercise tool, we often refer to a hypothetical Directorate 153 in our discussions about the immediate future.

The premise here is simple:  During the darkest days of the Cold War, the US Congress (and likely the Soviet Duma [congressional equivalent]  would likely have set up dispersed leadership planning centers in order to hold some continuity of government (CoG) in the event of nuclear war getting out of hand.

One reason to anticipate this is to review various Cold War technologies.  And one such technology is FS-1045-FS-1051 Automatic Link Establishment (A.L.E.) designed as a nuclear-survivable, high frequency-based radio message store and forward protocol.

A beginner’s thumbnail of the technology (especially interesting to ham radio types like Ure’s  truly who keeps trying to find time to dink around with PC ALE as AC7X) may be found on Wikipedia.where the 2G description covers what I was working on circa 1999 using a Frederick Electronics ALE controller and an SG-2000/PRC-2250 back in my serious paramilitary radio days.

Whew!  Lots of technicalische, jah wohl?

Yes, but with a point. 

The core idea behind ALE was that a national (and scaled globally to places like US Embassies) radio network that could handle minimally 60 baud [the highly robust, low-speed order wire] message traffic to store and forward command information.

So how does that hint at multiple layers of  “back-up government” being “out there?”

If you think about it, it’s simple:  you don’t design a multi-point to multi-point data system unless there’s a need to have multi-point origination and control after the Ooops!  ( global thermonuclear war starts).

Having spent some time this past week with one of those fellows who has been up the food chain [confidential, secret, top secret, crypto, White House, COSMIC] I’ve been  thinking that since there were/are multiple bunkers around Washington, and further away like the famous Greenbrier Hotel,bunker, there would almost certainly be a dispersed network of decision-support units (like our hypothetical Directorate 153) scattered around the country, too.

And if there is…well, then obviously a latter-day scaled IF—>THEN computational futuring toolset would undoubtedly have arisen concurrently.

Even back in the late 1990’s people I knew in the communications end of things were still fascinated with Balance of Power and these were not just folks from the local Starbucks, if you follow.

This is a horrifically long set-up to this morning’s ponder, but I think you can see it with this background in mind.  The question might be stated:

To what degree are decisions being made by both the USA and Russia surrounding Ukraine based on computational exercises which may be flawed by a huge number of variables?

Non-trivial sort of question, isn’t it?  The answer (if there is one) is non-public.  But we can guess…

Because if even one step in a “computer-to-computer” simulation that carries over into real life is wrong, it may give an imperfect inference to the opposing side’s models, and without human intervention of the highest caliber, it might spiral in almost automatic (high-speed) fashion to the “Ooops!” outcome.

Ah Ure, I’m sure the State Department and policy wanks would have all that figured out, would they not?

Yah think?  Let me see:  Giving arms to Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria which then get flipped into ISIS and in stirring up the mess in Ukraine back in December of last year?  Just who exactly in the State Department do you think is smart enough (or quick enough) to keep the world from going over the brink in the Thanksgiving-Christmas window which becomes critical based on current news trajectory analysis?

There’s a natural human tendency to yield to so-called expert systems even when such systems may be fundamentally flawed.  Humans like to be ruled – ask Hitler or Genghis. Put a name like Cray on a box and no telling who will bow to the printouts.

As luck would have it, my I-Ching Inbox (which is not software, but rather the odd propensity of Outlook to give me just the right nudge at just the right moment) suggested I read a marvelous email from Kit Webster who has been involved ion Long Wave economic analysis since at least the mid 1990’s when I ran into him

In an email discussing discussing the Limits of Dynamic Multivariate Economic Models, he made a marvelous observation:

The real world is not so simple. It is the “surprises” in the system, the exogenous forces that impinge on your model, that always wreak havoc with your forecasts. And economics (econometricians’ protests notwithstanding), is still as much art as it is science. It is more philosophy than it is biology (or even psychology). We use models to try to show us where to put the pieces of the puzzle. Where we err is when we confuse the model for the puzzle.

Using my “Substitution Method of Learning” – where we simply plug-in different terms to see if they pass the ‘sniff test’  and dig out addition truths – we might arrive as this:

The real world is not so simple. It is the “surprises” in the system, the exogenous forces that impinge on your model, that always wreak havoc with your forecasts. And computational foreign policy, is still as much art as it is science. It is more philosophy than it is biology (or even psychology). We use models to try to show us where to put the pieces of the puzzle. Where we err is when we confuse the model for the puzzle.

Thus we get to the nightmare rolling around in the back of my head:

When the Obama administration says it doesn’t yet have a policy for some of the events unfolding, it seems likely that one of two things is true:

a) Either they need additional time to populate their models properly, run them, and determine the best forward options X-number of steps out… OR

b) They’ve already run the Models and they are stalling for time because the computational outcomes from here are all resulting in the “Ooops!” outcome that no one wants.  Remember we’re in Peak Everything including perhaps human population and the US model would shy from anything that diminishes resource or geopolitical dominance/American exceptionalism.

But since April 17th, or so, when Vlad Putin was put on notice that the EU “wanted to be on top” of sovereign Russia’s future, there has been plenty of time to load models and describe the future topology of geopolitique. Russia’s homophobia should be a key indicator, too:  They are not about to be anyone’s bitch…but that message is far from clear to most consumers of Western media.

So the longer this drags out in the stable to growing phase, the more likely it becomes that both Russia and the US are signaling each other through news events that we have reached the point where the preponderance of outcomes result in the  “Ooops! of global thermonuclear sort.

As in Balance of Power, both sides are likely computing how to deal with falling prestige depending on who blinks first. 

Thus, one possible way to read the escalation path in futuring models might be:

1.  USA admits we don’t have a policy developed yet.  This translates into “We need a time out to get humans on this because the “auto-response” doesn’t have a happen ending.

2.  The USA then ups the security levels across the southern US because we suspect (on branch of model) on the opposing side computationally might give Middle East terrorists (perhaps ex-Chechens) a ticket into the US in order to gain access to (and use) some of those leftover suitcase nukes we’ve all read about… a blind-side option.

3.  And Russia (shortly thereafter) reaches a similar outcome in its Models and calls for a cease-fire in Ukraine while it puts humans on the strategy gaps and checks its assumption tables, as well.

Meantime, folks like us look at the news as simple tit-for-tat, missing what may be messaging, and thus stand ready to be “surprised” by whatever comes next in the mid October to January 1 period.

That’s when the six-months window from mid April will be passed and military options on both sides will peak.  Peak readily is a perishable military condition.

And it’s here we borrow from Webster and summarize things as follows:

If you don’t think politicians can be trusted with taxes and border enforcement, what makes you think they will be any more trustworthy when it comes to making decisions on foreign policy where there’s likely a high risk of confusing computer simulations with reality?

Politicians are not generally logicians; they’ll say damn near anything for a vote or a buck.  And confusing theory with reality?  Need you ask?

This morning, we see how NATO is mistrustful of Putin’s peace talk, and perhaps with good reason.  But is it also possible that the military build-up is now passing a threshold where events take seize decision-making power.  As hardware in theater increases, latitude of action decreases.  It’s way easier to fire a loaded gun than one you have to send out for ammo to load.

As always, I hope to be wrong.  But as a student of Balance of Power, one of the marvels of the game is how decision-latitude shrinks as events roll forward. Eventually you’re in the box.   That’s the genius of Chris Crawford’s game,  and quite possibility the damning feature of expansionist geopolitics.

The only question remaining is whether current events spiral into a global Chihuly moment.  There’s plenty of time for prepping, right now.  But how long that window remains open may lead to contentious discussions.

As the BoP war message says:  We don’t reward failure.

Write when you break-even