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Monday, July 18, 2011

To flirt with a god

"Tom Schelling doesn't have to pay for his drinks!" said my eccentric friend, as the flustered Nobel laureate scribbled a signature. "He saved the world!"
Today's post is brought to you by Argumenthol, who in spite of having recently started his own blog, was kind enough to guest post here on Life with Subtitles again (you might recall his previous guest post) while I'm on leave. Enjoy !
It was my first time, and I could hardly sit still.

I could feel the excitement wash over the room in waves of excited whispers, mirroring my own. We were eagerly waiting for the plenary talk by Thomas Schelling, one of the highlights of the conference. The tension was electrifying. It is not every day that you hear a Nobel laureate speak. When you do, subtitles are in order. We were in for a treat. I knew that. What I did not know was that we were also in for a surprise that made this Kubrick fan very happy.

First things first. Schelling is a pretty big deal. The guy simulated racial segregation patterns in black/white neighborhoods using graph paper, pennies, and dimes! It was one of the earliest instances of agent-based modeling (Models of Segregation, 1969). Geek bias or not, that’s pretty awesome.

When he wasn’t laying the foundations for entire fields of scholarship, he was advising foreign policy and being very good at it. He is best known for his involvement in the Marshall Plan and in preventing the cold war from turning nuclear. He pioneered the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) to maintain the balance of power and prevent each side from using theirs for violence. I wonder how MAD would translate in terms of the Lebanese context. We Lebanese have seen 1 or 2 (or 3 or 4) instances of power imbalances that turned violent. Haven't we?

The talk was about nuclear terrorism. Schelling reminded us how perplexing it is that we still haven't seen nuclear terrorism events a la 9/11. Given nuclear proliferation and the availability of nuclear weapons in former Soviet facilities, it’s mindboggling it hasn’t happened yet. He gave us an hour-long detailed analysis of why he now thinks it will not happen. His analysis consisted essentially of mental simulations and thought experiments. No math, no theorems, no computers. Not even visual aids (and certainly no Powerpoint slides. Tufte would be pleased). Just a brilliant mind, crisp precise language, and a bedazzled audience. I have posted a synopsis of the talk here.

It was a pleasant surprise when he told us it was one of his articles on accidental nuclear apocalypse that inspired Stanley Kubrick to make the movie Dr. Strangelove. Schelling even advised Kubrick on many aspects of the movie, and was disappointed that the end result was a comedy! I just found out there was, actually a serious movie on the same topic, that came out the same year. I wish I could have asked Schelling if he was involved in it as well, and if he was pleased with the outcome. I am so glad Dr. Strangelove was not made into a serious movie though. Kubrick's dark comedy is priceless.

After a long standing ovation, the poor 90 year old had to sit through a barrage of loosely-related self-promoting questions. I did have a chance to chat with him about the assumptions he made in his analysis, about how rational terrorists are. He said that while he has no respect for average criminals and petty terrorists, he admires the sophistication of 9/11-caliber terrorists. He even seemed to imply that they make decisions more rationally than many of us. Wow.

After 30 minutes of people lining up for a private audience, he finally said in a politely exasperated voice. "I think I would like a stiff drink now."

Before we called it a night, a couple of my friends decided to join him at his table in the hotel bar. I am told I missed an engaging conversation about his lack of hope for the new generations (that would be us. Ouch). At the end, as they walked the slightly tipsy Nobel laureate to the elevator, a frazzled waitress came running after them. "Sir, you didn't pay for your drinks!"

"Tom Schelling doesn't have to pay for his drinks!" said my eccentric friend, as the flustered Nobel laureate scribbled a signature on a slip of paper. "He saved the world!"

Recommended Media:
Dr. Strangelove (Movie)
Reflectioneering (Argumenthol's blog)


July 18, 2011 at 5:13 PM Louis Karim

good read.
actually, Dr. Strangelove was supposed to be a serious movie, but eventually Kubrick found the setup to be too silly to be taken seriously.

July 19, 2011 at 3:50 AM Danielle

Great read! It's a controversial statement to say you admire the mind of a terrorist, but I suppose I can understand what he means by that. I want to know more about why he thinks that there won't be any more events a la 9/11..that's great news of course!

July 19, 2011 at 7:33 AM Argumenthol

@Louis, thanks man! Cool I didn't know that's why Kubrick turned it into a comedy. I thought it had been his plan all along. Oh how I wish I could go back in time and be a fly on that wall while Kubrick and Schelling were arguing about the silliness vs. realism of the setup.

@Danielle, thanks! Yes he is a very counter-intuitive thinker in many ways. I don't actually know what he thinks about the future likelihood *any* terrorist events a la 9/11. I just know he doesn't think *nuclear* terrorism events a la 9/11 is plausible. The gist is that (1) former nuclear weapons are hard to come by in reality, (2) making nuclear weapons from scratch is difficult, expensive, time-consuming, and hard to keep secret, and (3) terrorists who happen to have functioning nuclear weapons stand to gain more from using them to threaten and bargain than to harm and destroy.
More details here:

What do you think? Do you buy his arguments?

July 20, 2011 at 7:39 PM Matt

From this post and your other one, it is interesting to see Schelling's views on the plausibility of a nuclear terrorism event. It is nice to know the low probability of such an attack,but the threats are real and the risk remains high whether the attack is in the US or India. I would like to believe such an attack can be prevented, but unless we take the risks seriously we will not be able to have clear defense mechanisms in place for even the low probability of an actual attack. Didn't researchers at Rand estimate the cost of such an attack in LA to be like a trillion dollars? Even if the attack did not result in mass casualty, inciting panic and economic loss are very probable outcomes. I also tend to think that thinking we understand the minds and motivations of terrorists is naive. Sure, they can be very rational, but about what? Their beliefs need not fit into anything that we in the Western society might consider rational.

July 24, 2011 at 7:21 PM Matt

Thanks for the link to the conference. You are looking all adult like and very grown up in the pictures. As usual delightful smile :)

July 27, 2011 at 1:20 AM ARGUMENTHOL

Those are very tought-provoking and intriguing questions Matt. I wonder what Schelling would say.

Now say we concede that there is a non-trivial (albeit low) probability of attack. Knowing that the stakes are really high (> trillion dollars, not to mention all the wrecked lives), the rational thing to do would be to invest in defense mechanisms to an extent commensurate with the probability and the stakes. But the uncertainty is so high that it is not clear what "taking the risks seriously" would mean. How would you defend LA? And why LA in the first place. Which cities would you choose to defend and how? Thinking we can understand the minds and motivations of terrorists is no doubt naive, but not trying would be like sticking our heads in the sand. I've been exploring work on framing, perspectives, and narratives. I think there's something in that direction that would address your last point. I'm sure the stuff I'm reading will make it into an article in the foreseeable future.

Re: pictures, hehe what can I say, the only way is up..

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