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January 31, 2005

On being interdisciplinary

I've been on the East Coast for two weeks for reasons of both work and play. I started at the MIT Media Lab working with Nathan Eagle on some really amazing network analysis stuff. It was cold, there was some peripheral unpleasantness not connected with him (he was actually good about it as it was happening), but it was great to be in a totally new environment thinking about totally new things. Plus, I got to hang out with friends from the Santa Fe Institute summer school I went to a couple of years ago. Then I went to Holyoke where I got to visit an old old friend that I haven't seen in ages. Jessica drove me down to Yale, where I visisted my friend Robin Herlands which was wonderful and stimulating and fun, despite having 18 inches of snow dumped on us that weekend. I met her friends, played "Cups" for the first time (I'm a natural - who knew?), and bonded with her hyperactive kitten Charlie. Then, I went to New York City to see one of my closest guy friends Trevor Barran. Despite his being completely overworked, that week was fabulous at least for my being able to cavort in a city that I have fallen completely in love with over the the culture, the closeness, the speed and the density. Nights of drinking and philosophizing and meeting people, followed by days of work and wandering and wondering.

One of the things I love most about my line of work is that it's largely quite accessible to smart people who aren't in my field. It's even accessible to people who aren't in academia at all. Sharing these things and getting people excited about the work is what makes me believe that what I'm doing is perhaps meaningful or worthwhile. And given the unrelenting pressure to produce new results at a constant (or accelerating) rate, this kind of support is like oxygen. In meeting so many new people during the past few weeks, I often got asked to describe my research. This is hard: I don't have a niche; I don't have a well-defined field. There is no obscure property of a complicated system that will bear my name, and there is no unifying framework that my work nicely fits inside of.

So, I've used the term "research cowboy" to describe what I do, since my work bears rough similarities to riding into a town, solving some problems that no one else has solved yet, and then riding out of town before I get too comfortable. I should make the French surrealist painter Francis Picabia my patron, for having once uttered the words "One must be a nomad, traveling through ideas as one travels through countries and cities." This is exactly what I find so stimulating about academia, but if it can't support my habit for the long term, then ultimately, I'm going to want out. The only distinctions I see between fields like physics, chemistry, biology and geopolitics are those arising from our inability to sufficiently understand their similarities and their structure. The universe makes no distinction between these things, so why do we?

My advisor once said to me that being interdisciplinary is both easy and hard. On the one hand, there is often a lot more "low hanging fruit" (oh, how academics overuse that phrase) in interdisciplinary fields, but on the other, endemic ideological gravitation requires that is one is twice as smart, twice as rigorous and twice as good at explaining the relevance of one's results in order to be taken seriously by the fields one is jostling. There is no Nature or Physical Review Letters for interdisciplinary work, and there are no Departments of Interdisciplinary Research.

And so, I am worried about several things. I am worried that I don't have the endurance to keep up with the grueling work schedule that academic research entails. I am worried that I won't continue to have interesting things to say about the world in my ill-defined fields. And I am worried that because I am neither a physicist nor a computer scientist that I won't be able to find a job in either, or that whatever job I do end up finding won't provide me the flexibility that I need. If I can't be interdisciplinary, I can't keep working. Does anyone know of any openings for a Research Cowboy?

posted January 31, 2005 10:32 AM in Self Referential | permalink | Comments (2)

January 28, 2005

On Missile Defense (part II)

During the summer of 2001, I became extremely interested in the debate over National Missile Defense, formerly known as Star Wars, that was being mentioned with some frequency ("non-debate" is a better description - the US media continues to believe that Americans cannot digest sophisticated arguments and instead relies on posturing, implication and punditry in lieu of more inspirational reporting). In response to these, and my complete ignorance on the topic, I set out to understand the issue.

The extension of this entry contains the second of those articles, a discussion of the merits of the US's current attempt to create a working national (as opposed to theatre) missile defense. Note that this article was written before September 11th, 2001.

Flirting with disaster

The American plan for buildinga national missile defense (NMD) system to protect the American people and our allies from nuclear and biochemically equipped ballistic missiles is a frightening flirtation with disaster, and the plan will surely shift the paradigm of nuclear safety world-wide. Standing in the way of any new system is the 1972 Russian-American Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty [1] which has played a central role in defining the current era of nuclear arms control by cementing deterrence, the policy ofmutually assured destruction, as the primary defense against nuclear and biochemical conflict.

The mainstream media has covered the Bush administration's speedy steps toward missile defense quite faithfully. However, they completely fail to describe the government policy of recent years which set the stage for the today's controversy. They have also largely ignored the nagging, and important question about what is truly at stake with the NMD plan, and whether it is the best way of achieving the goal of American security. How will having a missile defense system upset the tenuous international balance of power? Why is the Bush administration putting the NMD on a fast-track? And will the NMD truly protect the United States against the much touted 'rogue nations'? What alternatives are available to the NMD?

The importance of history

Before we can understand what the consequences of the new nuclear-arms paradigm, it is critical to understand the current one, and why nations are reluctant to leave it. See my historical perspective.

Treading on dangerous ground

In a world with multiple nuclear powers and an entrenched policy of deterrence, there are two principle dangers associated with a nation building a national missile defense, functional or not. (For this argument, we'll largely focus only on the nuclear threat, world-wide still the primary weapon of mass destruction, but bio-chemical agents may replace the warhead's payload. In terms of analysis, there is only a small difference between the two in the overall impact to international stability.)

First, having a NMD reduces the danger of engaging in a small-scale nuclear conflict as perceived by the nation bearing the shield. With the ability to neutralize a small volley of warheads, such a nation would have the prerogative to involve itself in conflicts which it previously avoided due to nuclear deterrence. It also reduces the importance of international diplomacy as the primary mechanism for maintaining a balanced and stable nuclear playing field. As has been shown in automobile driving, when a driver has more safety features protecting him, he tends to take more risks - that human risk-taking occurs within a well-defined 'comfort zone' [12] and installing safety measures widens the range of danger with which the driver is comfortable. Nuclear arms, in some sense, are nothing more than driving at the international level: by intentionally keeping everyone's comfort zones at a minimum, everyone drives a little more safely.

Second, with one nation possessing a national missile defense, all other nations with nuclear capability, and especially those who desire that ability, are encouraged to escalate their nuclear arms programs to surpass/overwhelm said missile shield. Technologically, it is significantly easier to make a missile harder to hit, than it is to get better at hitting them (e.g. hitting an ICBM is harder than trying to shoot a bullet out of the air with another gun). As early as 1983, when SDI was announced, the American military recognized that implementing any anti-ballistic missile system would likely provoke a technological competition of counter- vs. counter-counter-measures [11], so why is it suddenly acceptable to enter into a new world-wide arms-race?

Arms-races themselves are circular in nature. Because all nations resist an un-level playing field, any new weapon which gives a single player or group of players a distinct advantage obligates others to re-level the playing field by developing counter-measures which eliminate the advantage. Nuclear arms have been the single exception to this rule of war, most significantly because of the gentlemen's agreements embodied in the ABM [1] and NPT [7] Treaties. Why? Because a nation who does not recognize the danger of nuclear conflict will not be around very long to learn from the experience. Particularly with regard to the US's arms stockpile, any nation engaging in a nuclear exchange would be completely wiped from the face of the planet.

Thus, in a world balanced by the threat of nuclear retaliation (M.A.D.), peace is maintained by appealing to the human instinct of self-preservation. This reliance worked throughout the bi-polar Cold War, but in the new multi-polar world, doubt has been raised as to whether all nuclear, and more particularly, ballistic missile-enabled states will continue to work within this uncomfortable, but life-preserving peace.

Rogue states

The Clinton administration BMDO's 1993 charter actually called for it to develop and acquire missile defense systems for theater and national defense. It was thought that the delicate balance of nuclear deterrence would be easily toppled by an accidental launch or by an irrational nuclear-capable 'rogue' state [13]. This uncomfortable potential for the current Mexican standoff to be broken unexpectedly has been the keystone argument in justifying renewed attempts at developing a missile defense.

Imagine, for instance, if the Afganistan Taliban and/or Osama bin-Ladin became nuclear- and ICBM-capable (both required to nuke US soil). The United States government has been terrified for the past decade that the threat of all-out nuclear retaliation would not prevent such extremist groups from using their new-found nuclear power.

Before accepting this conjecture, we must ask what exactly constitutes a 'rogue' state? So far, the US government has only supplied examples: North Korea, Iran and Iraq. Other lesser threats include Libya, Syria, Cuba and Sudan [14]. A cynical appraisal measure's a nation's 'rogueness' by how little influence the U.S. holds in said nation. Said another way, rogue nations simply don't respect the US dominance in the world theater. Let us simply call them 'unfriendly' states, whose national interests conflict with the United States' national interests.

In 1993, however, there were no unfriendly states capable of launching a nuke-enabled ICBM that would reach US soil, nor did any appear to be able to develop such technology in the near future. In the CIA's 1995 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report estimated that within a 10 - 15 year period, there might develop one such agent [13]. Did that agent materialize? The Clinton administration was in charge for 8 years - why did it not pursue the NMD vigorously within the established time table and negotiate the appropriate changes to the ABM Treaty in preparation for its deployment in anticipation of a rogue state becoming nuclear? Clinton, it seemed, was uncomfortable with acquiescing to the Congressional hawks who had been calling for a NMD since the 1970s. Rather, he preferred diplomacy and continued arms-reduction as an arms policy.

Enter Donald Rumsfeld

In response to the NIE report, US Congressional Republicans, convinced that the danger was much closer than 2005 - 2010, created a 1998 bi-partisan commission, chaired by then former Secretary of Defense (under Gerald Ford) Donald Rumsfeld to file a more thorough report on the danger to US soil by ballistic missiles. The Rumsfeld Commission's report has become the guiding document for US NMD policy, and it doesn't seem to be a coincidence that Rumsfeld has returned as Bush Jr.'s Secretary of Defense.

The report's critical finding was that an unfriendly nation could, via in-house development and, more importantly, international assistance, become nuclear- and ICBM-capable in just 5 years. Additionally, such a nation could do this largely undetected by conventional US intelligence [14]. The report did not, however, advocate a NMD as a solution as it did not analyze any options of addressing the shortened time-table for nuclear proliferation.

Because of the Rumsfeld report and the uncertainty it indicated about the future nuclear landscape, Clinton reluctantly began to put more money behind the BMDO but refrained from making a decision about actual deployment. However, Clinton's preferred method of national security was diplomacy, not military power. In a world more economically interdependent, and more (internationally) democratic than that of the Cold War, military power is perhaps not as reliable a strategy was formerly true. Diplomacy, certainly, is a more reliable method of maintaining a status quo.

The Status Quo?

The NPT Treaty was intended to keep the division between nuclear and non-nuclear nations fixed. The US, Russia, China, Britain and France are the de facto nuclear powers (as in 1968 with the treaty's creation), and all but four other world nations have agreed to preserve that order. Lately, however, the Rumsfeld report claims that the NPT is failing. Isreal, Pakistan and India, three of the four nations who hadn't signed the treaty by 2000, are now all nuclear-able, in part because of systems and knowledge acquired from China and Russia in violation of the NPT [14].

However, Isreal, Pakistan and India are not classified as unfriendly nations. North Korea, Iraq and Iran, are implicated as principles in unbalancing the nuclear peace. What are their capabilities with and intentions for ballistic technology?

Iraq has apparently acquired some forbidden weapons materials, and is certainly a potential future aggressor, but for now is a minor threat with international weapons inspections and economic sanctions. North Korea, with its Taepo Dong-2 ballistic missile however, is capable of hitting US soil in Haiwaii and Alaska. North Korea has the greatest potential of acquiring the ability to target a larger portion of US soil in the future, too. You can imagine that the term 'rogue states' now primarily refers to North Korea.

But North Korea and Iran have both recently both become more amenable to the West, which in turn may reduce their potential for future ballistic aggression. Despite the Rumsfeld report's worst-case scenario time-table of 5 years between a foreign country's desire for and deployment of ICBM technology, the 1998 CIA response to the Rumsfeld report, and events to date, indicate that North Korea's BM program has followed a longer, by 5-10 years, schedule than the worst-case [15].

So why the continued parade about the danger of rogue states? The Rumsfeld report's description of the danger relies heavily upon playing up the 'uncertain transitions' within Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran. By their measure, that uncertainty is uncomfortable because ballistic/nuclear systems, materials and/or knowledge is less well-controlled. To put it perhaps bluntly, the West is sane and stable, but everyone else might possibly become irrational and suicidal in the future. Additionally, China and Russia are implicated as major instigators of nuclear proliferation by allowing their systems and knowledge to be purchased on the international market [14]. The politicians, mostly Republican, concluded this situation necessitates a NMD for continued US security.

Full-speed ahead

In 2000, Clinton said he would make an executive decision regarding the deployment of an American NMD based on four criteria: the threat, the cost, the impact on U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reductions, and whether the system works [16]. Clinton decided against deployment under those criteria; however, Bush has stated (guided by Mr. Rumsfeld himself, now the Secretary of Defense again) that he plans to move ahead with NMD based merely upon the first criteria: the threat [3]. Politically, this kind of unilateral action will do nothing more than cement the growing international opinion of the US as an arrogant bully who believes that normal modes of diplomacy are subordinate to US security. Part of this disregard for the international court is linked to the Republican's desire to retain for the US options and flexibility for an uncertain future.

Dr. Richard Garwin, a member of the Rumsfeld Commission and an advisor to the US government for over 50 years on nuclear-arms matters, notes that the current US NMD is not scaled with respect to a threat from North Korea, but rather a threat from China [17]. Why is that? In his analysis, the NMD will prompt China to more quickly modernize its nuclear weapons, deploying them on mobile, sea-based launch vehicles so as to circumvent the US NMD. This fact complicates the apparent motivation for the NMD significantly. It would seem that China is worrying the US a little more than the US would like to admit. Additionally, it hits right upon the fundamental flaw of any NMD - the arms escalation and relative easy with which a nation so intent can circumvent the shield.

The path not taken

The Rumsfeld Commission report has become the justification for deploying a NMD, breaking with the ABM Treaty and forging ahead into unknown nuclear-arms territory. Bush and the Pentagon seem confident that the military's NMD will be able to protect the nation from any unknown surprises in the future, be they from North Korea, Iraq or even China. The few hundred interceptors planned would still be a small threat to Russia's immense arsenal.

The NMD initiative however, is likely destined to fail for several reasons. French President Jacques Chirac puts it rather succinctly in an interview with the New York Times, saying: "If you look at world history, ever since men began waging war, you will see that there's a permanent race between sword and shield. The sword always wins. The more improvements that are made to the shield, the more improvements are made to the sword." [16a,b]

Garwin states that the Rumsfeld report absolutely does not call for or justify the deployment of a NMD [18]. In the Bulletin for the Atomic Scientists, he asserts that any nation capable of ICBM technology, and not just the current nuclear powers, would necessarily also have the sophistication to employ the simple counter-measures necessary to completely defeat the American NMD. Biological weapons, employing 'bomblets' would be virtually impossible to destroy once the warhead separates from the ICBM carriage [19].

In place of the NMD, Garwin suggests a 'boost-phase interceptor' (BPI) which destroys a ballistic missile before the warhead (and counter-measures) can be deployed. BPIs must be stationed close to the launch site (a few hundred miles), and would be useless against missiles launched from inside Russia or China [19]. Russia has previously expressed support for a BPI program, and such a cooperation (as BPI stations on Russian soil would necessarily be jointly operated) may even improve shaky Russian-US relations. Lacking such international cooperation, BPI could still be installed on naval vessels close to potential unfriendly states.

Why is the Bush administration continuing to pursue an initiative that seemsso unlikely to achieve the publicly stated goal of ensuring US security? I can't offer an clear statement on that matter, but will instead offer the hypothesis that the Republican administration fears diplomacy and would prefer the self-reliance of a military solution.

To NMD or not to NMD

At its heart, national missile defense is a fatally flawed initiative. Its capacity for defending the United States against any nuclear attack is small considering the likely failure due to simple counter-measures. Additionally, its potential for igniting a new arms race among the nuclear powers, both old and new, is frightening. The threat to US security from such an arms race seems greater than that of cooperating internationally to contain nuclear proliferation in multi-polar world.

There still remains the potential that the US could be attacked by another nation at some point in the future. One worrying factor, and one which should be addressed immediately and diplomatically, is Russia and China's role in nuclear-proliferation. The Rumsfeld Commission's worst-case scenario estimation of a 5-year delay in a country wanting and getting working ICBM technology is a piece of knowledge worth chewing on, but it's not a sufficient justification for hastily deploying an expensive, easily circumvented and politically dangerous NMD.

A vigorous program to reduce the world's nuclear (world-wide, roughly 30,000 war-heads) and biochemical arsenals would do much to allay the US desire for ballistic protection. Also, by cooperatively working (with Russia, Britain, France and China) to develop and operate BPI programs, the US could breathe new life into the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the status quo it represents. Diplomacy, not the military, would seem to be the only national missile defense that has no counter-measure and which technology or political development will not render obsolete.

© July 2001, Aaron Clauset


[1] Anti-Ballistic Missle Treaty (1972) http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/abmt/

[3] "Dropping the Bomb", Newsweek © 2001 http://www.msnbc.com/news/588538.asp?cp1=1

[7] Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968) http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/npt/index.html

[11] Carnagie Non-Proliferation Project http://www.ceip.org/files/projects/npp/resources/ballisticmissilechart.htm

[12] Driver 'Comfort Zones'http://www.smartmotorist.com/tes/tes.htm

[13] The End of the Star Wars Era (DoD News Briefing, 1993) http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/offdocs/d930513.htm

[14] Rumsfeld Commission report (1998) http://www.house.gov/hasc/testimony/105thcongress/BMThreat.htm

[15] Robert Wadpole (CIA) on North Korea's Taepo Dong missile http://www.cia.gov/cia/public_affairs/speeches/archives/1998/walpole_speech_120898.html

[16a] New York Times with French President Jacques Chirac (1999) http://www.clw.org/pub/clw/ef/nmdleaders.html

[16b] John Isaacs on Missile Defense (2000) http://www.bullatomsci.org/issues/2000/ma00/ma00isaacs.html

[17] Interview with Dr. Richard Garwin (2000) http://www.fas.org/rlg/000508-cen.htm

[18] Op-Ed by Dr. Richard Garwin, member of the Rumsfeld Commission (1998) http://www.fas.org/rlg/28garw.html

[19] Dr. Richard Garwin, "The Wrong Plan" http://www.bullatomsci.org/issues/2000/ma00/ma00garwin.html

[b] Possible Soviet Responses to the US Strategic Defense Initiative (declassified) http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/offdocs/m8310017.htm

[c] National Missle Defense http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/program/nmd/index.html

posted January 28, 2005 02:56 PM in Political Wonk | permalink | Comments (0)

January 24, 2005

The Dark Underbelly

Fear and Loathing are not words that you typically associate with people engaged in research. Things like Serious and Measured, or even, for some people, Creative and Dramatic. I recently had a pair of extremely unpleasant experiences, in which the guilty, who shall remain nameless, exhibited all the open-mindedness and aplomb of a jealous and insecure thirteen year old. What on earth causes grown men, established academics no less, to behave like this?

Academic research, although it pretends to be a meritocracy, uses social constructs like reputation, affiliation and social-circles as a short-hand for quality. This is the heart of how we can avoid reading every paper or listening to every presentation with a totally open mind - after all, if someone has produced a lot of good work before, that's probably a pretty good indicator that they'll do it again. "The best predictor of the future is past behavior." Unfortunately, these social constructs eventually become themselves elements of optimization in a competitive system, and some people focus on them in lieu of doing good work. This, I believe, was the root cause of the overt and insulting hostility I experienced.

Ultimately, because everyone has a finite amount of time and energy, you do have to become more choosy about whom you collaborate with and what ideas you push on. But if everyone only ever did things that moved them "up" in these constructs, no one would ever work with anyone else. What's the point of being an intellectual if it's all turf wars and hostility? Shouldn't one work on things that bring pleasure instead of a constant stream of frustration over poor prestige or paranoia over being scooped? Shouldn't the whole point of being supported by the largess of society be to give as much back as possible, even if this means occasionally not being the most famous or not the guy who breaks the big news?

Maybe these guys don't, but I sure do.

posted January 24, 2005 10:58 AM in Rant | permalink | Comments (0)

January 21, 2005

Reality Distortion Fields

Charisma, they may call it. Jealously being their reaction, while their disdain becomes a weapon of their retribution. Such are the slings and arrows of being both successful and unconventional within academia.

Some people (and institutions) are naturally media hounds. They thrive on the attention and, in turn, the attention drives them toward generating more of the same. For people, we call this "drama" and them "drama queens", but for institutions, we don't for some reason. But you have to admire places like the MIT Media Lab, which consistently pursues a radical vision of the future, despite disdain from the more traditional (provincial?) halls of the academy. Unfortunately, this is no surprise considering America's long tradition of love-hate for the people that the famous Chiat/Day advertising campaign for Apple Computer hailed when it said "the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who usually do." The tech boom of the 1990s seemed to suggest a cultural détente between the forces of tradition and the forces of freakdom, but in the increasingly conservative environment of today, we seem less accommodating.

I have been here for a week now, soaking up the cultural vibe that splilleth over so copiously. Surrounded by passionate people, clashing colored facades, ubiquitously snaking computer cables and omnipresent flashing monitors, the Media Lab feels like a perpetual start-up company that never has to go public or grow into a curmudgeonly hierarchy. As I sit now in a third floor office attached to the Borg Lab (a.k.a. the wearable computing lab) , I think I have a sense of what makes this place special, what makes this place tick and why it both deserves and preserves the professional envy it receives. I remember that when I asked one of my professors at my alma mater about the Media Lab, which I was considering for graduate school, he demurred by saying that they were very creative people who often do pretty outlandish research.

Perhaps he didn't realize how accurate he was being - creative and outlandish are exactly what make the Media Lab unique, and exactly what attracts smart students and faculty bent on changing the world. Although they certainly do research, the pretty strange topics they explore could be more accurately described as "creative engineering".

With an emphasis on demo-able projects that can be shown-off to the corporate sponsors who keep the Lab flush with money, it's natural that there is both a degree of competition as to who can have the most flashy demo, and a natural drive toward creating the applications of technology that will define the future. Truly, the Media Lab is an outsourced research and development center, primed with the passions and ambitions of smart people in love with the possibility of changing the world through technology.

posted January 21, 2005 02:00 AM in Simply Academic | permalink | Comments (0)

January 19, 2005

On Missile Defense (part I)

During the summer of 2001, I became extremely interested in the debate over National Missile Defense, formerly known as Star Wars, that was being mentioned with some frequency ("non-debate" is a better description - the US media continues to believe that Americans cannot digest sophisticated arguments and instead relies on posturing, implication and punditry in lieu of more inspirational reporting). In response to these, and my complete ignorance on the topic, I set out to understand the issue.

This entry contains the first of those articles, a historical perspective on the US's interest in national (as opposed to theatre) missile defense. Note that this article was written before September 11th, 2001. Given the Bush administrations recent backing-off of their promise to have a fully functional NMD in place by the beginning of 2005, but the military's continued love affair with the delusion of safety from ICBMs and insistent on Bush-style insanity, this article remains both relevant and important today.

Holding a loaded gun : Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.)

With the development of the nuclear bomb during WWII, the international stage took its first step into a new paradigm of unparalleled potential for destruction. Douglas Hofstadter, writing in 1985 [2], provides an illustrative example by Jim Geier and Sharyl Green, comparing the total destructive force of WWII with the force in 1981:

In a grid 11 x 11 squares, each square, save for the center one, has 50 dots in it; the center square has one dot. That center square represents the entire destructive power of World War II: 3 megatons (if translated into terms of nuclear warheads). The rest of the grid (120 squares, each with 50 dots) represents the destructive power of the world nuclear power in 1981: 18,000 megatons.

In Hofstadter's example, we note that in 1981 the world destructive power was 6,000 times (almost 4 orders of magnitude) that of WWII. The arsenal today is even larger. A recent Newsweek article [3] reports that the US alone has more than 18,820 nuclear warheads (each capped with perhaps tens of megatons), while the rest of the world clocks in perhaps half of that, including Russia's deteriorating complement. All in all, today's total destructive power, and the M.A.D. strategy [4], ensures that were nuclear war to happen, humans have the capability to destroy the world population an estimated 94 times over.

Putting the US destructive capability into perspective, although they have eighteen of them currently in service, a single American Ohio class submarine [5], with its complement of 192 warheads, could destroy most of Russia's population centers.

Building a bigger gun

As is universally known, much of the world's nuclear armament was developed during the Cold War, when the Soviet and American militaries perceived that an opponent with a greater arsenal would be a threat to the national defensibility. Thus, the historic arms race.

Yet even while the tit-for-tat arms race was continuing, the world's powers recognized the destructive potential being developed. Beginning in 1963, with the Limited Test Ban Treaty [6], 108 (about half) of the world's nations began negotiating several key treaties to limit the proliferation of nuclear arms, and established the M.A.D. paradigm as the chief deterrent for use of nuclear weapons. Although the treaties were essentially an honor code agreement that nations would not pursue the development of nuclear arsenals (if they did not already have them, which limited the nuclear powers to mostly western nations), the code has become the accepted paradigm for balancing nuclear power. In recent years, that code has been hedged (most notably by Pakistan and India), primarily by eastern nations wanting the status and respect accorded a nuclear power.

The nuclear arms situation in the Cold War can be thought of as a Mexican Standoff, in which two men, both armed with loaded guns or un-pinned hand-grenades, are forced to share a confined space (Earth). Regardless of niceties, spats or any desire to break out the can of whoop-ass, both recognize their own mortality, and thus they do nothing with their lethal weapons. Self-preservation rules this day.

Other people occupy the room as well (the rest of the world), and most of them tend to divide themselves into two groups: the East-side, and the West-side gangs. Conflict naturally arises between the two gangs, but self-preservation still keeps the lethal weapons out of play. Much posturing and many displays of strength, but generally, no one gets terribly hurt.

The gentleman's agreement

The 1972 ABM Treaty [1], an agreement between the USA and the USSR, restricts both nations' development of defenses against nuclear missiles (ballistic missiles). The treaty insured that M.A.D. would continue to deter the use of nuclear weapons. Specifically, the USA and the USSR agreed that neither would build a missile defense system which would protect the entire nation against the other's attacks. It did allow for the construction of small-scale missile defense in two agreed-upon locations (restricted to one in 1976) in each nation where a local missile defense could be constructed.

In our model of the nuclear balance, the ABM Treaty is an agreement between our two lethally-armed men to not develop Kevlar, bullet-proof vests or whatever which would fully protect against the other's weapons. The minor allowances for 'partial' defense amounted to allowing each man to wear a bullet-proof helmet; this maintains the standoff, while affording a small degree of protection for a vital organ.

While the Soviets elected to build a missile defense system around Moscow, the Americans deactivated their system at Great Forks, North Dakota in 1976 [1].

A second gentleman's agreement, in the form of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), divided the world into nuclear and non-nuclear countries, and required countries in different categories to not share nuclear arms-related information or resources with each other; thus, the NPT is the honor code that maintains the steady-state of the nuclear landscape. As of early 2000, it had been signed by all but four of the worlds nations (Cuba, Israel, India and Pakistan). Additionally, the Middle East was agreed to be a nuclear-free zone under a recent Treaty resolution [7].

The 'missile defense' trump

The balance of nuclear power in the world today was almost entirely determined by the development of nuclear power in the United States and the Soviet Union, who hold perhaps 90% of world's nuclear power, with the remaining 10% largely held by Europe. The Cold War, with its West (Us) vs. East (Them) mentality, is responsible for the current distribution of nuclear power. Both the US and the USSR nuclear strategies were designed with this simple bi-polar nuclear threat in mind.

As evidenced by national security documents in the Eisenhower administration, the United States has always been uneasy with the nuclear standoff [8]. There began the discussion about a national missile defense, although the primary goal was still to amass the larger arsenal. Still, there appeared never to be a commitment to the ABM Treaty for an indefinite period of time - rather, both the US and the USSR felt it a necessity of diplomacy until a time came when a full missile defense system could be put in place. That time never came for the Soviet Union as its economic and political turmoil was, in the end, the greater enemy.

In 1982, Reagan, still deep within the Cold War mentality, announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which included the much-lambasted Star Wars space-based interceptors [9]. This initiative was partially in response to the Soviet's cutting corners with the ABM Treaty, deploying a forbidden radar system. Reagan wanted to make nuclear missiles "obsolete" by creating a global missile defense system and breaking with the ABM Treaty.

The end of the old paradigm

SDI never came to fruition, and in 1993, the unnecessary program was abandoned as a result of the demise of the Soviet Union and the apparent ending of the bi-polar paradigm. However, the Clinton administration continued funding anti-ballistic missile research, transmogrifying SDI into a less research-based program called the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) [10].

There are three types of missile defense: global missile defense (Star Wars/SDI), theater missile defense (Patriot missiles) and national missile defense (protecting a nation's people alone). The latter two were to be the primary goals of the Clinton Administration's BMDO. SDI was designed to resist a full surprise attack from the Soviet Union, now a quite unlikely event. Theater and national missile defense are envisioned to protect against smaller nuclear/missile forces, such as those in nations unfriendly to the West (Pakistan, India, Iraq, etc.). Most notably, the Patriot missile defense system was used to protect UN troops during the Gulf War of 1990. The Bush administration has not raised the NMD program from the corpse of SDI, but has actually just 'fast-tracked' a Clinton-era program.

With the deterioration of the Soviet Union as a world super-power, the United States (along with its allies) has been placed unopposed at the top of the heap. It's scary at the top, too - everyone else (who is not at the top) is probably not being entirely honest with you, and possibly plotting to take your place. One might develop a healthy sense of paranoia, as a result. In the world stage, this is perhaps more true, as international politics can be even messier than the mud-fights in American politics.

The new paradigm

In the Newsweek article, the Bush Administration claimed that "Missile defense is intended not to de-fang Russia but to deter rogue states (Ed. North Korea, Iran, Iraq, etc.) from trying to blackmail the United States with a nuclear-tipped rocket or two." But how much of a threat are such rogue states? And is upsetting the current balance of nuclear power an acceptable consequence for the development of such a system, trashing the ABM Treaty in the process?

The Carnagie Non-Proliferation Project [11] projects that 34 world countries either have or are developing ballistic missile capability. While not all of them are nuclear-capable, they still complicate the Mexican stand-off situation.

In our simple model, instead of simply a pair of men, we have close to two dozen, each carrying a weapon (gun, grenade, french-tickler). We still have our West-side and East-side gangs as well, although they're slightly less well-defined now. For the West-side gang-leader (that would be the US), the possibility of one of the other people in the room breaking the nuclear honor code and launching a snipe attack is maddening. The comfort of the bi-polar, black and white, world of the Cold War has been replaced with the complicated reality of a more democratic world stage. Additionally, with the East-side gang disassociating, it is possible that a single agent in the room might decide to be stupid, procure or develop a lethal weapon and attempt to use it.

How much threat?

Perhaps a NMD is warranted, if only to sooth the paranoia of the United States, and to protect itself in the uncertain post-Cold War nuclear landscape. However, before accepting the argument that rogue states warrant a NMD, some significant questions must be answered:

1. How will a US NMD change the international nuclear playing-field?

2. What constitutes a rogue state?3. Do any states of concern currently have both nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology (both required to nuke the US)?

4. Do any states of concern have the potential of developing/acquiring both technologies?

5. How do current NMD technologies perform against ICBMs with standard standard counter-measures.

6. Would deploying a NMD deter rogue states from nuking the US?

7. What alternatives to a NMD are there for preventing a rogue nation from nuking the US?

© July 2001, Aaron Clauset


[1] Anti-Ballistic Missle Treaty (1972) http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/abmt/

[2] Metamagical Themas, by Douglas Hofstadter. ©1981

[3] "Dropping the Bomb", Newsweek © 2001 http://www.msnbc.com/news/588538.asp?cp1=1

[4] Mutually Assured Destruction http://www.uwec.edu/petersgd/research/MPSA00.html

In the 1983 movie entitled "War Games" [a] explained the danger of the M.A.D. strategy by showing that an artificial intelligence could understand the futility of the zero-sum game of nuclear war - i.e. that for me to win, you must lose. With nuclear war, however, the sum becomes negative as both sides actually lose, hence the mutual assurance of destruction.

[5] Ohio class ballistic submarine, United States Navy http://www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/factfile/ships/ship-ssbn.html

[6] Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963) http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/ltbt/

[7] Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968) http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/npt/index.html

[8] National Security Policy: Eisenhower Administration http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/offdocs/ike/index.html

[9] Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), early version http://www.fas.org/nuke/space/c06sdi_1.htm

[10] The Rise and Fall of SDI, by Alex Tonello (1997) http://members.tripod.com/~atonello/sdi.htm

[11] Carnagie Non-Proliferation Project http://www.ceip.org/files/projects/npp/resources/ballisticmissilechart.htm

[a] "War Games", directed by John Badham (1983) http://us.imdb.com/Title?0086567

posted January 19, 2005 09:00 AM in Political Wonk | permalink | Comments (0)

January 16, 2005

The Democratization of the Academy

While news surfing the Web today, I came across an article on Slate about the decline of the real prestige that an Ivy League education garners within the business world. The article builds off of a recent paper by two Wharton School economists who chart the decline in the number of Ivy League degrees among the business executives in the Fortune 100 over the last 20 years. Although the Slate article is interesting, the paper itself yields some great insights:

"In 2001, ... executives were younger, more likely to be women, and less likely to have been Ivy League educated. Most important, they got to the executive suite about four years faster than in 1980 and did so by holding fewer jobs on the way to the top. (In particular, women in 2001 got to their executive jobs faster than their male counterparts -- there were no women executives in the Fortune 100 list in 1980)."

Although I'm less concerned in general with the business world side of this discussion, it closely mirrors an issue which sometimes seems painfully important to me as a graduate student at a public university that is not considered to be an elite institution. If the business world data supports an ending of the Ivy League hegemony, then one may wonder if the same is also happening within academia itself. Is the meritocratic, yet oddly idealistic dream coming true that one's worth in the academy will be based wholly on the work one has produced and not based on either the institution's name attached to one's resume?

Somehow, I don't think news of this revolution has reached the ears of the hiring committees at the elite institutions, but I'll leave that discussion for another entry. In a narcissistic article published in Physical Review, covered for popular consumption by the New York Times, documents the rise of scientific publications and Nobel prize winners coming from outside the U.S. The self-absorbed U.S. media reported this observation negatively, as being representative of the diminishing pre-eminence of U.S. science. I viewed it more optimistically: it would seem that the world community is becoming more active in science and that we may, in fact, be witnessing the forces of democracy assaulting the ivory towers themselves.

But what are the prospects of a talented, but non-prestigous degree-bearing post-graduate? My advisor frequently tries to deflect my concern about such prospects, saying that in the past 20 to 30 years, a significant trend in academia has been gaining momentum.

During this time, he sagely counsels me, a lot of great people have ended up at places that used to be not so great. And now, it's not so important where you went as much as who you worked for and what you produced.

In support of this egalitarian sentiment, when I served on the faculty search committee in my department in Spring 2004, I observed something surprisingly hopeful. Something which I can only hope is an ascendent practice among hiring committees, although given my own previous experience at a prestigous institution, I'm not sure the forces of democracy have done much to assail bastions of the elite. When we on the search committee looked at a candidate's resume, if they graduated from an elite institution, we applied more strict standards, and generally, considered the list of publications to be paramount to their value.

"Given that they had all these resources available to them, what did they do with their time?", we asked.

"This person was in a really good lab at a really good school, but look at this small/weak publication list".

"This person has great publications," someone would say, without ever mentioning the school they went to.

So, despite occasional bouts of prestige-envy of my fellows at MIT, Yale, Columbia, Berkeley and Stanford, I now nurture the slight optimism that the academy may be maturing into the meritocratic utopia that it pretends to be. Of course, the competing trends of the corporatization of universities and the down-conversion of tenure track positions to part-time adjunct positions may mean this positive note is ultimately squelched before it can become widespread.

posted January 16, 2005 12:35 AM in Simply Academic | permalink | Comments (0)

January 13, 2005

Terrorism: looking forward, looking back

This month's edition of The Atlantic has a pair of excellent articles which focus on terrorism and recent US policy about it. The first article, by former anti-terrorism chief Richard Clarke, is an imagined retrospective from the year 2011 on the decade that followed the declaration of the (ill-named) War on Terrorism. In it, he describes a nation which is only capable of reacting (poorly) to previously identified but largely ignored dangers of international terrorist strikes on US soil. Erring on the side of doom-sayer, Clarke paints a sobering yet compelling picture of how US domestic policy will slowly but surely reduce civil liberties and economic viability in favor of fortress-style security. The second, by long-time Atlantic correspondent James Fallows, describes in honest and uncomfortable detail the current head-in-the-sand security strategies being pursued by those in power. Drawing a strong analogy to the cautious and even-handed approach that Truman, Kennan and Marshall took toward preparing the nation for the long struggle with communism, Fallows points out that current policy is short-sighted and lopsided toward showy "feel good" measures that likely make civilian less secure than more. He closes with a discussion of the problem of "loose nukes" (primarily from Russia's poorly guarded and decaying stockpile, but also potentially from countries like Pakistan who have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), and the lack of seriousness coming from Washington with regard to addressing this imminently approachable goal. Indeed, in 2002 bin Laden issued a fatwa authorizing the killing of four million Americans with half of them being children in retribution for US Middle East policy - achieving this number can only be done with something like a nuclear bomb.

My reaction to these thoughtful and well-measured articles is that they basically nail the problem with US policy on terrorism exactly. The US has not been serious about facing the changes that need to be made (the "Department of Homeland Security" is basically misnomer), and anti-terrorism funding has become a massive source of pork for congressmen. Matched with the hypocritical rhetoric of the government, and the continued US insistence on an oil-economy, we're basically significantly worse off now than we were pre-September 11th. Stealing from the popular college student adage, our current domestic security policy is like masturbation: it feels good right now, but ultimately, we're only fucking ourselves.

Ten Years Later, by Richard Clarke

Victory Without Success, James Fallows

If these weren't scathing enough, the award winning William Langewiesche writes a Letter from Baghdad concerning the depth and pervasiveness of the insurgency there. Langewiesche describes the deteriorating (that word doesn't do his account justice - "anarchic" is more apt) security situation there as having reached the point that a continued US presence will indeed only intensify the now endemic guerrilla warfare. An interesting contrast is between the Iraqi resistance and, for instance, the French Resistance of World War II. I strongly suspect, that ultimately, the US does not have the stomach to truly break the resistance, as that would essentially require using the same draconian measures that Saddam used to install the Baathist regime. Depressing, indeed.

posted January 13, 2005 03:24 PM in Political Wonk | permalink | Comments (0)

January 12, 2005

Design (mostly) finished

After spending many (many!) hours tinkering with the design, learning cascading style sheets and stealing code from other sites, I think I've gotten most of the design done that I wanted. There are still a few minor things that I want to change (or need to learn), but I'll leave those for another night.

This post is doubling as another test post, as well, as I'm still learning how MovableType runs things.

posted January 12, 2005 08:47 AM in Blog Maintenance | permalink | Comments (3)

January 11, 2005

First post

Obligatory test post to see if the system is working, and check some other things.

posted January 11, 2005 05:45 PM in Blog Maintenance | permalink | Comments (0)

January 01, 2005

Publications and Publicity

  1. On the Frequency of Severe Terrorist Attacks.
    A. Clauset, M. Young and K. S. Gleditsch.
    Journal of Conflict Resolution 51(1): 58 - 88 (2007).

  2. Structural Inference of Hierarchies in Networks.
    A. Clauset, C. Moore and M. E. J. Newman.
    in Proceedings of 23rd International Conference on Machine Learning (ICML), Workshop on Social Network Analysis.
    To appear in Lecture Notes in Computer Science, Springer (2006).

  3. Scale Invariance in Road Networks.
    V. Kalapala, V. Swanwalani, A. Clauset and C. Moore.
    Physical Review E 73, 026130 (2006).

  4. Molecular modeling of mono- and bis-quaternary ammonium salts as ligands at the a4b2 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor subtype using nonlinear techniques.
    J. T. Ayers, A. Clauset, J.D. Schmitt, L. P. Dwoskin and P. A. Crooks.
    American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists Journal 7(3): E678-85 (2005).

  5. Supervised Self-Organizing Maps in QSAR I: Robust behavior with underdetermined datasets.
    Y.D. Xiao, A. Clauset, R. Harris, E. Bayram, P. Santago II, and J.D. Schmitt.
    J. Chemical Information and Modeling 46(6): 1749-1759 (2005).

  6. Finding local community structure in networks.
    A. Clauset.
    Physical Review E 72, 026132 (2005).

  7. On the Bias of Traceroute Sampling (or: Why almost every network looks like it has a power law).
    D. Achlioptas, A. Clauset, D. Kempe and C. Moore.
    in Proceedings of 37th ACM Symposium on Theory of Computing (STOC) 2005 (Baltimore, May 21-24).

  8. Accuracy and Scaling Phenomena in Internet Mapping.
    A. Clauset and C. Moore.
    Physical Review Letters 94, 018701 (2005).

  9. Finding community structure in very large networks.
    A. Clauset, M.E.J. Newman and C. Moore.
    Physical Review E 70, 066111 (2004).
    Download the code

  10. Genetic Algorithms and Self-Organizing Maps: A Powerful Combination for Modeling Complex QSAR and QSPR Problems.
    E. Bayram, P. Santago II, R. Harris, Y. Xiao, A. Clauset and J.D. Schmitt.
    J. Computer-Aided Molecular Design 18 (7-9): 483-493 (2004).

  11. How Do Networks Become Navigable?
    A. Clauset and C. Moore.
    prepint (2003).

  12. Chaos You Can Play In.
    A. Clauset, N. Grigg, M.T. Lim, and E. Miller.
    Proceedings of the SFI CSSS (Santa Fe, August 2003)


Mapping the Internet

SIAM News (June 2005)

Scale Invariance in Global Terrorism

PhysicsWeb (February 2005)
Nature News (February 2005)
Die Welt (March 2005, in German)
Nature News (July 2005)
The Economist (July 2005)
The Guardian (August 2005)

How Do Networks Become Navigable?

This paper appeared as part of the course packet for Jon Kleinberg's "Algorithms for Information Networks" course during Spring 2005 at Carnagie Mellon University.

posted January 1, 2005 02:50 AM in Self Referential | permalink | Comments (0)

About me

This blog is a dumping-zone for rambling thoughts, half-baked ideas, musings and other expositions on topics that I find interesting. So far, it's been primarily a semi-professional effort, as I've focused on things related to research, academia, society, the world, etc. etc. etc. But, I've also thrown in some travel information and other personal information that seems like it might be interesting to readers.

As for me, I am currently in the final stretch of my PhD in Computer Science at the University of New Mexico. I've been here since the Fall of 2002, but in January 2007, I'll be joining the Santa Fe Institute as a post-doctoral researcher. My research focuses primarily on the structure and function of complex networks, through statistical modeling and data analysis. Examples here include road networks, the World Wide Web and the Internet, cellular networks of various kinds, power-transmission networks, recommender and citation networks, and social networks of various other kinds.

My work on mapping the structure of the Internet has received some attention in the press, as has my work on the statistics of terrorism. Lately, I've been focusing on characterizing and modeling the global topological properties of networks, and in particular their heterogeneous organization (e.g., communities and hierarchy). I'm also interested in macro-evolution, ecology and scaling laws, but this is a fairly recent fascination of mine.

Finally, my Erdös Number is 3 by the following chain: Paul Erdös, Mike Molloy, Cristopher Moore, me.

-- Aaron Clauset --

posted January 1, 2005 02:30 AM in Self Referential | permalink | Comments (0)