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Thoughts from the Frontline

On the Verge of Chaos

November 23, 2014

“Great powers and empires are, I would suggest, complex systems, made up of a very large number of interacting components that are asymmetrically organized, which means their construction more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid. They operate somewhere between order and disorder – on “the edge of chaos,” in the phrase of the computer scientist Christopher Langton. Such systems can appear to operate quite stably for some time; they seem to be in equilibrium but are, in fact, constantly adapting. But there comes a moment when complex systems “go critical.” A very small trigger can set off a “phase transition” from a benign equilibrium to a crisis – a single grain of sand causes a whole pile to collapse, or a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and brings about a hurricane in southeastern England.

“Not long after such crises happen, historians arrive on the scene. They are the scholars who specialize in the study of “fat tail” events – the low-frequency, high-impact moments that inhabit the tails of probability distributions, such as wars, revolutions, financial crashes, and imperial collapses. But historians often misunderstand complexity in decoding these events. They are trained to explain calamity in terms of long-term causes, often dating back decades. This is what Nassim Taleb rightly condemned in The Black Swan as “the narrative fallacy”: the construction of psychologically satisfying stories on the principle of post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

– Niall Ferguson, “Complexity and Collapse

I see a bad moon arisin’, I see trouble on the way.
I see earthquakes and lightnin’, I see bad times today.

I hear hurricanes ablowin’, I know the end is comin’ soon.
I fear rivers overflowin’, I hear the voice of rage and ruin.

Don’t go ’round tonight, well, it’s bound to take your life.
There’s a bad moon on the rise.

– “Bad Moon Rising,” John Fogerty, Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969

As a college student, I reveled in the sounds of the Creedence Clearwater Revival and its lead singer and songwriter, John Fogerty. Fogerty supposedly wrote “Bad Moon Rising” after watching the 1941 movie classic The Devil and Daniel Webster. The movie is a paean to freedom, the American dream, and the ability of a man, even one who has sold his soul, to find redemption. There is a scene involving a hurricane that supposedly…

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