Monthly Archives: July 2007

Battles / Ponytail @ Doug Fir, 3-July-2007


Wow. Last night’s show by Battles convinced me. The CDs are good, but the experience live is a bit different. Drums placed front and center, with guitar/keyboard guys on either side, bass player hanging out in back. Seems like each guy can do his own looping as needed, and the sometime vocals are generally heavily processed. But as with most great bands, it’s the drummer that’s holding the groove together.

It’s a loud, intense & tense sound, with some very tight, complex rhythms. They immerse you in a sound world, and it feels like you’re locked in it as long as they’ll keep it going; but often they change gears after a minute or so. The last time I can remember a band with such a fierce attack was Gang of Four way back in 1980 when they first came to the states, Hugo Burnham on drums. I’d say Battles has a similar barrage, augmented for 2007 with electronics.

Taleb on Predictions

Part two of Taleb’s ‘The Black Swan’ is focused on the difficulties of predictions (see earlier post for more on The Black Swan).

There are a few important ideas here.

1.  “The problem is that our ideas are sticky: once we produce a theory, we are not likely to change our minds – so those who delay developing their theories are better off.” p. 144

2.  Taleb distinguishes between ‘experts who tend to be experts’ such as astronomers, chess masters, soil judges, etc. vs ‘experts who tend to be … not experts’ such as stockbrokers, psychiatrists, college admissions officers, intelligence analysts.  Not surprisingly, he throws economists into the second group.  As he puts it, “Simply, things that move and therefore require knowledge, do not usually have experts”. p.147

3.  “I believe that you can be dead certain about some things, and ought to be so.  You can be more confident about disconfirmation than confirmation….  The Black Swan asymmetry allows you to be confident about what is wrong, not about what you believe is right.” p. 192.

Brave New War – John Robb (2007)

Brave New War - John Robb

John Robb’s short book “Brave New War” might be seen by some as an instructional guide for terrorists (but Robb argues that they already know this stuff!). His main premise is that the new ‘global guerrillas’ are small autonomous cells that are getting more and more savvy about attacking infrastructure to keep a state disrupted (electric grids, oil pipelines, etc.), without having the goal of taking over the state. This makes their efforts have huge payback on time and money invested, and he fears that these cells are the future we face; a future that our centralized and massive defense infrastructure cannot hope to counter. As he puts it in the book, “What if warfare was reinvented and nobody bothered to tell the Pentagon?”

Drawing upon ideas from open source software development, emergence, Taleb & black swans, and more, Robb spends a portion of the book looking at Iraq, both the Gulf War and the current engagement. His estimates of the number of potential ‘guerrillas’ in Iraq now far exceeds the official estimates of the U.S. military, and going through the numbers tends to support his case (while throwing severe doubt on what the ‘surge’ can potentially achieve).

It’s a stimulating read that will make you re-think the ‘war on terror’.

Wired Blogs has a short interview with Robb.

A short audio interview with Robb is available online at the Council on Foreign Relations site.

"A Challenge to Gene Theory"


An article in today’s NY Times (business section!) caught my eye – “A Challenge to Gene Theory” by Denise Caruso, reporting on a recent study by the United States National Human Genome Research Institute.  From the article:

To their surprise, researchers found that the human genome might not be a “tidy collection of independent genes” after all, with each sequence of DNA linked to a single function, such as a predisposition to diabetes or heart disease.

Instead, genes appear to operate in a complex network, and interact and overlap with one another and with other components in ways not yet fully understood. According to the institute, these findings will challenge scientists “to rethink some long-held views about what genes are and what they do.”

Biologists have recorded these network effects for many years in other organisms. But in the world of science, discoveries often do not become part of mainstream thought until they are linked to humans.

I have to say I don’t find this particularly surprising at all.  To think that we’ve already got all of human genetics figured out already is quite a reach.  I never liked the term ‘junk DNA’ that science folks used to describe the parts they couldn’t understand.  Maybe it doesn’t serve a purpose, but it seems arrogant to just assume that, instead of assuming that we just don’t know yet.

I’d say it’s the current intellectual infatuation of thinking of both genetics and the brain in terms of ‘computer science’ that leads to some of these simplifications.