Archive for September, 2011

Nuclear Irrationality

I was recently thinking about my college studies of nuclear warfare. At the time it seemed like a relevant topic, and I took two courses on it. Like everything, the more you look into it the more complex it gets. The depth of the thinking in nuclear warfare planning was both impressive and appalling.

One of the more interesting cases was driven by the fear of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. In retrospect we know there was never a danger of that, but at the time it was a real concern. The western strategists feared that in a conventional war, the Soviet tanks would rapidly rout the smaller European armies. The use of nuclear weapons, or at least their potential use, was an obvious way to counter this threat.

However, most of the nuclear weapons were in the U.S. It was clear that no U.S. president would launch nuclear weapons at the Soviet Union in order to forestall an invasion of Europe. The U.S. promised to support Europe, but if the war actually started, a nuclear attack on the U.S.S.R. could only end in a nuclear counter-attack on the U.S. That would never happen. England and France had a few nuclear weapons, but would their leaders really launch them, knowing that they would face certain death in the overwhelming nuclear counter-attack? A bold and calculating leader of the Soviet Union might be willing to risk that nobody would take the nuclear option, and be willing to gamble that they would win a conventional war (again, this was the fear of the U.S. and Europe, the Soviet Union knew perfectly well that they could not win such a war). How could the U.S. and Europe use nuclear weapons as a credible deterrent to a conventional invasion?

The answer was, as I said, both impressive and appalling. NATO distributed low-yield nuclear weapons throughout Europe (they even had nuclear landmines). In the event of an invasion, complete control over the weapons was handed over to local commanders. The decision to use nuclear weapons would not be in the hands of an elected leader far from the war zone. It would be in the hands of a local colonel facing the immediate loss of his command. The Soviet Union might gamble (so the thinking went) on the reactions of a few political leaders they could study closely. They would never gamble on the reactions of several hundred local military commanders. Although the weapons were relatively low-yield, the expectation was that once a war went nuclear, the only thing that would stop it from escalating would be a quick complete cessation of hostilities.

This is a nice example of achieving your goal by explicitly giving up your ability to act rationally.

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I’ve been playing Sudoku on Google+. i’ve more or less mastered the easy and medium levels, but it takes me about 30 minutes to do a hard level, and I haven’t tried expert yet. Sudoku is a fairly dumb game in some ways; as a colleague of mine pointed out, it’s trivial to write a computer program which will win every time. But I find the game somewhat interesting because it mirrors, in reverse, the way I think about programming.

You can write a computer program more or less any way you like. So I tend to think of a program in terms of constraints. Typical constraints are: the desired behaviour; the available runtime; the algorithmic complexity; the available libraries; the language; maintainability; who is going to review the code and what they will accept. Write a program is a matter of finding the simplest solution which meets the constraints. Difficult programming problems are ones where the constraints come into conflict, and it’s hard to see your way through.

Sudoku works the same way, only in reverse. In programming you are allowed to write any code that meets the constraints. In Sudoku you know that there is only one solution, so you have to look for moves that are forced by the constraints. Solving a Sudoku puzzle is a matter of looking deeper and deeper into the problem until you have eliminated all moves but one.

My hope is that practice in this area will subconsciously encourage me to look deeper for constraints when writing code, which will save time in the long run because I will have to throw away less code. I doubt this will actually work, but it seems worth a try.

Also Sudoku is a good way to exercise short term memory, as I’m avoiding writing anything down while solving the puzzle. I used to play cards regularly (bridge, whist) and I was able to remember the location of many of the cards in other people’s hands. I noticed that I lost that facility as I’ve failed to practice it. As i write this I realize that short term memory is not too important in today’s world, but at least it makes me feel smarter.

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