Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Black Swan and the bomb blasts in Bangalore & Ahmedabad

The Indian Context
Serial bomb blasts rock Bangalore, says NDTV quoting PTI. A woman was killed and at least six people were injured in a series of five low-intensity blasts carried out in eastern parts of the information technology capital this afternoon. The woman, who was waiting at a bus shelter in Madivala on the Bangalore-Hosur road, was killed in the blast and her husband and another person were seriously injured, police said. There were also blasts in other areas like Panthrapalya, Audugodi and Vittal Mallya Road within minutes of each other from the first blast at around 1330 hours. These blasts led to panic in Bangalore says Economic Times. Even as I came to grips with this deadly news, comes the serial blasts in Ahmedabad. NDTV's website says 16 co-ordinated serial blasts killed 30 people and injured over 100.

The serial blasts in Bangalore may bring back to focus the probe into three bomb explosions that rocked the Andhra Pradesh capital last year killing over 50 people. The investigators into the terror acts are yet to make any breakthrough, says sify. Investigating agencies could not go beyond blaming some terror groups based in Pakistan and Bangladesh for the Hyderabad terror acts and picking up a few suspects. They admitted that not a single terrorist directly involved in the blasts was arrested and they also could not file a charge sheet in the cases.

Thus, as usual, no progress has been made in either arresting the terrorists or their supporters, so far. And in the process, some more blasts occur. As usual, after every blast and loss of life and property, we hear news that the centre had forewarned that concerned State Government about possible terror attacks. We also hear brave statements from the Prime Minister, the Home Minister and the usual crowd of politicians about the fight against terror to be continued etc. The Home Ministry also sends some additional police / para military forces after every incident. (Watch)
The fact is that terrorists are acting with impunity and are able to attack wherever they want - and no one is safe.

My heart goes out to those who are injured / died. This is not the first blast, nor will it be the last, knowing the way the politicians / government / police / media, works in this country. This is not the first blast in Bangalore. Earlier a Delhi IIT Professor lost his life in a terrorist attack on the Indian Institute of Science complex. Similarly, this is not the first attack in Ahmedabad. Times of India lists a chronology of 12 major attacks in India since 2003, with hundreds of casualties. Rediff raises the pertinent point that the ease with which these attacks are being conducted only gives rise to one question -- Is terrorism becoming as common as a case of theft?

Looking at the numerous incidents of terror across the country, one could come to the conclusion that it's slowly becoming a part of our life. Political parties have been using terrorism as a weapon to get back at opponents. While the mudslinging continues, fact remains that almost all incidents of terror, which have taken place across the country in the last year, remain unsolved. Terrorists are never caught and if caught they are let off because of weak laws, human rights activists and media whose hearts beats more for terrorists than for the innocent common man and women (irrespective of community, caste, region) of this country and corrupt police force.

The Black Swan

It is in this context that I remembered "The Black Swan" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Black Swan signifies - rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. Taleb says Black Swan logic makes what you don't know far more relevant than what you do know. To quote from Black Swan -

"Think of the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001: had the risk been reasonably conceivable on September 10, it would not have happened. If such a possibility were deemed worthy of attention, fighter planes would have circled the sky above the twin towers, airplanes would have had locked bulletproof doors, and the attack would not have taken place, period. Something else might have taken place. What? I don't know. Isn't it strange to see an event happening precisely because it was not supposed to happen? What kind of defense do we have against that? Whatever you come to know (that New York is an easy terrorist target, for instance) may become inconsequential if your enemy knows that you know it. It may be odd to realize that, in such a strategic game, what you know can be truly inconsequential...Consider the Pacific tsunami of December 2004. Had it been expected, it would not have caused the damage it did-the areas affected would have been less populated, an early warning system would have been put in place. What you know cannot really hurt you....

The inability to predict outliers implies the inability to predict the course of history, given the share of these events in the dynamics of events. But we act as though we are able to predict historical events, or, even wore, as if we are able to change the course of history.....What did people learn from the 9/11 episode? Did they learn that some events, owing to their dynamics, stand largely outside the realm of the predictable? No. Did they learn the built-in defect of conventional wisdom? No. What did they figure out? They learned precise rules for avoiding Islamic prototerrorists and tall buildings. Many keep reminding me that it is important for us to be practical and take tangible steps rather than to "theorize" about knowledge. The story of the Maginot Line shows how we are conditioned to be specific. The French, after the Great War, built a wall along the previous German invasion route to prevent reinvasion-Hitler just (almost) effortlessly went around it..."

Taleb asks us (in the context of 9/11 commission in USA) to learn to expect the unexpected, in an informative and thought provoking article on April 8, 2004 in NY Times. Some highlights from this article -

"A black swan is an outlier, an event that lies beyond the realm of normal expectations. Most people expect all swans to be white because that's what their experience tells them; a black swan is by definition a surprise. Nevertheless, people tend to concoct explanations for them after the fact, which makes them appear more predictable, and less random, than they are. Our minds are designed to retain, for efficient storage, past information that fits into a compressed narrative. This distortion, called the hindsight bias, prevents us from adequately learning from the past.

Black swans can have extreme effects: just a few explain almost everything, from the success of some ideas and religions to events in our personal lives. Moreover, their influence seems to have grown in the 20th century, while ordinary events — the ones we study and discuss and learn about in history or from the news — are becoming increasingly inconsequential.

Consider: How would an understanding of the world on June 27, 1914, have helped anyone guess what was to happen next? The rise of Hitler, the demise of the Soviet bloc, the spread of Islamic fundamentalism, the Internet bubble: not only were these events unpredictable, but anyone who correctly forecast any of them would have been deemed a lunatic (indeed, some were). This accusation of lunacy would have also applied to a correct prediction of the events of 9/11 — a black swan of the vicious variety.

A vicious black swan has an additional elusive property: its very unexpectedness helps create the conditions for it to occur. Had a terrorist attack been a conceivable risk on Sept. 10, 2001, it would likely not have happened. Jet fighters would have been on alert to intercept hijacked planes, airplanes would have had locks on their cockpit doors, airports would have carefully checked all passenger luggage. None of that happened, of course, until after 9/11.

Much of the research into humans' risk-avoidance machinery shows that it is antiquated and unfit for the modern world; it is made to counter repeatable attacks and learn from specifics. If someone narrowly escapes being eaten by a tiger in a certain cave, then he learns to avoid that cave. Yet vicious black swans by definition do not repeat themselves. We cannot learn from them easily.

All of which brings us to the 9/11 commission. America will not have another chance to hold a first inquiry into 9/11. With its flawed mandate, however, the commission is in jeopardy of squandering this opportunity.

The first flaw is the error of excessive and naïve specificity. By focusing on the details of the past event, we may be diverting attention from the question of how to prevent future tragedies, which are still abstract in our mind. To defend ourselves against black swans, general knowledge is a crucial first step.

The mandate is also a prime example of the phenomenon known as hindsight distortion. To paraphrase Kirkegaard, history runs forward but is seen backward. An investigation should avoid the mistake of overestimating cases of possible negligence, a chronic flaw of hindsight analyses. Unfortunately, the hearings show that the commission appears to be looking for precise and narrowly defined accountability.

Yet infinite vigilance is not possible. Negligence in any specific case needs to be compared with the normal rate of negligence for all possible events at the time of the tragedy — including those events that did not take place but could have. Before 9/11, the risk of terrorism was not as obvious as it seems today to a reasonable person in government (which is part of the reason 9/11 occurred). Therefore the government might have used its resources to protect against other risks — with invisible but perhaps effective results.

The third flaw is related. Our system of rewards is not adapted to black swans. We can set up rewards for activity that reduces the risk of certain measurable events, like cancer rates. But it is more difficult to reward the prevention (or even reduction) of a chain of bad events (war, for instance). Job-performance assessments in these matters are not just tricky, they may be biased in favor of measurable events. Sometimes, as any good manager knows, avoiding a certain outcome is an achievement.

The greatest flaw in the commission's mandate, regrettably, mirrors one of the greatest flaws in modern society: it does not understand risk. The focus of the investigation should not be on how to avoid any specific black swan, for we don't know where the next one is coming from. The focus should be on what general lessons can be learned from them. And the most important lesson may be that we should reward people, not ridicule them, for thinking the impossible. After a black swan like 9/11, we must look ahead, not in the rear-view mirror.

The Indian Context (conclusions)
In a situation where there is big demographic change happening in the Eastern parts of the country, where Pakistan has been continuously supporting terrorists, when large parts of the country are already in the midst of Naxalite menace, one important conclusion is that the laws need to be tightened. The second, would be to reward people who take extreme risk to eliminate terrorism. More importantly, there is an important need to protect police / para military / anti terrorist squad officials from witch hunting / summary trial & judgement by the print/visual media and from human rights activists (whose hearts normally beat for terrorists). Third, terrorists are to be treated as terrorists and exemplary and expeditious punishment through special courts would send the right signal. Fourth, and most important is not to confuse terrorism with secularism, as the Indian media and politicians have time and again done. Terror acts cannot be prevented, but can be made more difficult by being eternally alert and by not relaxing our guard. Prevention, even if costly and time consuming is worth the effort. Anti terror measures would definitely cause inconvenience to the common man - but that's any day worth than losing several thousand countrymen, year after year. Black Swan signifies rarity - yet, unfortunately, in the Indian context of terrorism, that rarity is gone and no one is safe anywhere in India.

Suggested reading
  1. Numerous articles by Sri Arun Shourie in Indian Express.
  2. Third-class governance can’t give first-class response to terrorism by Sri Arun Shourie in Indian Express (August 2, 2006).
  3. National security through redefinition by Sri Arun Shourie in Indian Express (August 1, 2006).
  4. Articles by Sri B. Raman in Rediff.