TED Talks and the Patterns of War

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I’m doing some research regarding Creative Commons licensing for the storygame project that will be available at this site later in 2009. This brought me across a recent post at the CC website regarding the TED talks. That’s the “Technology, Entertainment, Design” conferences, where speakers give a variety of 18 minute “talks” every year in Long Beach, California.

Oddly, mention of the TED talks has crossed my monitor twice this week, and as it happens, I grew up in Long Beach. Taking this all to be a subtle Hint from the universe, I slowed down my browsing and read the article.  Incidental to the grist of the post, they mention that since TED licensed their talks under Creative Commons (which alters copyright from “all rights reserved” to “some rights reserved”, and makes it easier for others to reuse content), their online views shot through the roof and drove a reengineering of their entire site to serve the new level of traffic. (This is just one more in a long line of indicators that open content licensing is good for your business if you are a content provider.)  Since their standard admission price is apparently $6000 to get in to the conference, this has previously been pretty rarified air with small exposure.  The rest of the post talks about their new Fellows program, which invites “anyone with a world-changing idea” to apply to speak.  Anyone, that is, who is from 21 to 40 years of age.

Age Limit on Ideas?

I like the TED talks. They contain a wealth of interesting concepts.  But the notion that only persons 40 and under have world changing ideas and should be hosted as a Fellow is incredibly flawed thinking. This seems to embody the assumption that the fresh ideas are coming from younger people, and those persons may not have the money or wherewithall because of their age/income bracket to get themselves there and back again.  That’s ridiculous. What about the brilliant 50 or 60 year old (or older) iconoclast who has little income because they do not fit into the mainstream system in certain manners, and who not until the advent of this rich information age ever had a platform for what they have to say? “Sorry, you’re over 40. Not interested.” That’s just short sighted, and I’d expect something more comprehensive from the TED program than an arbitrary age limit on ideas.  If they applied this age limit to their regular roster of speakers they’d cut it by half.  They need to rethink that policy.

[Update: I read about this age limit at the Creative Commons site. Looking at TED for more info, I find no specific mention of age limits anywhere, except that a person must be over 18 to apply, and a non-discrimination statement that includes mention of age.  If they have no other limit, then huzzah for them. But if they don’t have a limit, where did CC find such a specific parameter?  TED doesn’t have a concise summary of qualifications online, that’s for sure, and this year’s app forms aren’t online yet. The mystery continues, but perhaps this particular rant of mine is now a moot point. Hey. It could happen. That would be nice. ]

Except for this bit of codified ageism, I do support their program. Go listen to their talks, lots of great brainfood there, including this tidbit I found utterly fascinating:

The Mathematical Patterns of War

One of the TED Fellows for this year is New Zealander Sean Gourley: a decathelete, activist, surfer-dude and Oxford  scholar now living in San Francisco who is also a physicist. He and a team of international scientists have developed a way to “accurately predict the likelihood of different sized attacks occurring on any given day,” in conflicts of all sorts, from conventional warfare to insurgencies and terrorist attacks.

Read that again: they can accurately predict the likelihood of different sized attacks occurring on any given day. And yes, they are already advising the Pentagon, the Iraqi government, and the United Nations.

Filtering news and government reports and applying principles from the field of complexity science, “We use advanced computer simulations and mathematical models to create a plausible microscopic mechanism to explain the collective behaviour observed in a wide range of human conflict situations – from ongoing insurgent wars and terrorism, through to street-gangs and even online games,” said Dr Gourley.  They found that the distribution of violence follows a “power law”, which describes mathematical relationships between the frequency of large and small events.

This distribution can be used in military planning to anticipate the likelihood of different sized events on any given day. Gourley says of this, “[T]he strength of the approach goes beyond simple statistics…[W]e can understand how insurgent cells form and break apart and how the insurgency as a whole is structured. “Then by tracking the slope of the power-law, we can see in real-time how the structure of the insurgency changes in response to external actions such as the surge in Iraq.”

This suggests that the dynamics of group formation are the same, regardless of the arena of conflict. The more sobering realization is, as Science Editor Roger Highfield notes in his Telegraph article on Gourley et al’s work, “the way in which modern wars and terrorism are being waged has less to do with geography or ideology, and more to do with the day-to-day mechanics of human insurgency- it is simply the way in which insurgent groups of human beings fight when faced with a much stronger, but more rigid, opponent. As a consequence of this, it would seem that unless the stronger, but more rigid, opponent can change its tactics, the same statistical patterns of casualties will be repeated indefinitely into the future.”

Not a surprising thought to entertain, but having a tool to measure, track and predict change in this regard is a revolutionary thing in the annals of conflict.

And of course, gamer that I am, let me underscore this one quote from Gourley regarding more peaceful applications of this science:   “We…create a plausible microscopic mechanism to explain the collective behaviour observed in…online games.”

Wow. That could revolutionize the industry.

But that’s a post for later.


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Impressive. Very impressive.

And highly under-reported, I think. That’s an interesting social phenomenon right there.

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