Thursday, June 12, 2014

Shifting advantages

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, conflict analysis

There's an old children's gospel song about David killing Goliath. Its chorus begins, "And one little stone went in the sling, and the sling went round and round, and round and round and round and round…" I forget how many rounds. Out of curiosity I learned slinging about 45 years ago, and I learned that the sling goes around once or twice, and that's it.

The sling is used two ways. For distance, you swing it vertically, usually twice, and release it at an angle about 30°. Because of wind resistance, you don't go as high as the theoretical 45°. Instead, a slung or thrown ball goes farthest when its angle upon landing is 45°, and wind resistance makes the descending angle steeper than the ascending angle. It didn't take long before I could sling a stone more than 200 meters. In ancient armies, slingers were placed behind the archers because they had greater range! But stones slung for distance are not very accurate. Slingers in the early part of a battle are used to make the opposing forces wary and keep their distance, while the archers pick them off. When they get closer, the sling is used differently.

To sling for accuracy, at a distance of 50m or less (usually 20-30m), the action is more over the head, or around the head. I am right handed. I load the stone into the pocket with my left hand and toss it left and upward. I swing with my right around in the same direction until my hand is behind and above my right shoulder, then use a throwing motion almost the same as throwing the stone without a sling, and release just after a snap of the wrist forward. At 30m I was never accurate enough to reliably hit a basketball-sized object (better than 50%, though), but friends of mine could hit it on center, within an inch or two. A slung stone of about an inch (2.5cm), weighing 20g, could be slung through the siding on a barn.

With that in mind, Goliath had no chance. David was alive because he could either kill or harass away a lion or a wolf, and had apparently done so. Goliath may have been larger than a lion, but he was not stronger than one. His height is given as 6 cubits and a span. Now, I am big, and my cubit (elbow to finger tip) is 22", or 56cm. The Phoenician cubit was probably 17"-18", or 43cm-46cm. A span is 1/5 of a cubit, so if the account is true, Goliath stood at least 8.8 feet, or 2.7m. Impressive, particularly when the ordinary Hebrew or Philistine stood about 5.5 feet or 1.7m. And! David is frequently noted as "small and ruddy". A short kid with an Irish flush.

Now, it has been asked why David picked up five stones. Was he afraid of missing, and hoping he would be quick to reload? I think rather, we read later in the books of the Kings that Goliath had four brothers: David was preparing, if needed, to take on the whole family. Goliath was a big target. He was weighed down with a lot of armor and a huge javelin, so that he needed someone to carry his shield. He was slow. David won because he chose not to fight on Goliath's terms.

And that is the theme of David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell. If you have to fight a giant, make sure to pick your own battleground and fight by your own rules. If the giant picks the rules, you'll lose.

On a side note, Amarillo Slim, king of the proposition wager, wrote in his memoirs of making all kinds of wagers, but only, only after he already knew how he would win. On an even more distant note, a short TV series with Shaq O'Neal titled Superman featured a series of proposition wagers. Poor Shaq wasn't as canny a negotiator as Slim was, and lost most of the bets. It was great entertainment, though. I really enjoyed the shows.

Back to Gladwell's book. He used nine main stories and several lesser ones to illustrate the various ways "underdogs and misfits" have won the day in various arenas. But that is not all there is to tell. If you want to win against seemingly impossible odds, repeat this mantra frequently:
There is no such thing as a fair fight
Think about it. How likely is it that someone will offer to fight you if he isn't pretty sure of winning? As the saying goes, don't bring a knife to a gunfight. Unless, of course, you plan to use it to cut a rope and drop a ton of bricks on the other fellow before he sees you. This brings up an equally crucial principle: Plan Ahead, or as my favorite supervisor would put it,
Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part
The book has three chapters of examples on turning your disadvantages into advantages (and the opposite for your opponent), three on the things one can learn from a difficult early life, and three on "The Limits of Power". The last section opens up a bigger sociological issue: why so many laws aren't enforced. The short answer is, you can't afford it. I heard a police captain say in a speech about traffic laws that no law can be enforced unless "natural compliance" exceeds 85%.

Something like 100,000 cars travel a certain Interstate Highway near me every day. I don't know how many highway patrol cars are on the road, but it probably doesn't exceed 100, maybe not even 25. Are there enough officers to write 15,000 tickets every day, if somehow they could catch every speeder, and "only" 15% were speeding? In my experience it takes half an hour to flag a car down and issue a speeding ticket along with whatever exhortation the officer makes. Works out to 7,500 man-hours (don't fault me for sexist language. I've only seen one female patrol officer in 20 years out here). 8 hour shifts with a half hour lunch breaks means you need 1,000 officers on duty, or 333 per shift. Not even close. The local states can't afford to hire enough officers to cope with a 15% rate of speeders, and the actual rate is 80% or higher.

Heck, on Hwy 95 approaching Baltimore from the north, where the speed limit is 55mph nearly all the traffic exceeds 70, and if I have the temerity to drive at "only" 65, I soon pick up a tailgater who honks at me. In a stretch where the limit is 65mph they really cut loose! Even when the traffic is flowing smoothly at 70-75 mph, about one car in 20 will be weaving through the pack, attempting to average over 80.

The core story of the third section is the Irish rebellions by the IRA and other groups in the 1960s and later. They finally broke the power of the British forces because there is a second meaning to "can't afford it". If strong enforcement causes authority to lose legitimacy in the eyes of the public, they can't even get away with trying to enforce anti-jaywalking laws. They lack the social currency.

In an endnote on page 292 there is a very revealing table, of the % of the economy of various countries that is concealed by citizens from their government. This is everything from garage sales to under-the-table cash payments to many service workers such as home handymen, to drug dealing and organized crime. The USA has the smallest "black market", at 7.8%. The other four countries with less than 10% are Switzerland, Austria, Japan and New Zealand. At the bottom of the scale we find Greece, at 25.2%. Only one other country exceeds 20%, Italy. Greece, in particular, has a notoriously corrupt government. In the USA, the principle of "a nation of laws and not of men" is still honored to the extent that most citizens are law-abiding. Americans expect equitable treatment to a greater extent than any other people. (The report cited studied only OECD nations.) You might ask, "So why do they speed?" Traffic laws lack legitimacy to most folks.

Thus another big lesson of the book is that if the giant in question is greatly resented, it is much weaker than it appears. You can beat city hall if it is well and roundly hated. You can "speak to power" more safely if the power in question is barely hanging on to authority.

A further lesson of the third section is that winning is sometimes losing. A detailed study is presented of the California law, copied in many other states, of "three strikes and you're in for life". At first it seemed to work well, but was later seen to be worse than allowing more judicial discretion. Nearly all such laws have been repealed. It is because of the inverted-U shape of "effectiveness" for many measures. It is like the Laffer Curve used by Reagan when he argued for lower income taxes. When taxes are low, increasing them a little will increase revenues. This can continue up to a point. But when taxes get too high, those with the most to lose will find ways to circumvent the law, and revenues will decrease.

In the same way, if there is little penalty for crime, there will be a lot of crime. Increase prison sentences, and crime will decrease, if only because criminals have fewer years in their lives in which they are free to do more crimes. But at some point there is no benefit, and perhaps a detriment. Criminals don't think about penalties when they are committing a crime. The worse the penalties are, the more planning most of them do to avoid getting caught. It gets harder and harder to bring them to justice.

The book covered a lot more ground than I was expecting. This made it a fascinating read. I've also read Outliers by Gladwell, and this is perhaps even more useful. Much worth reading.

1 comment:

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