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Monday, August 25, 2008

Soldiers of Reason

Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire., by Alex Abella. His blog.

First book I have read on the history of the RAND Corporation. RAND was one of the first think tanks to use what was called 'operational analysis', combining it with another development called 'systems analysis' which was developed in WWII to optimize everything from arms delivery to management decisions. Eisenhower was reportedly referring to RAND when he warned of the military-industrial complex. The techniques are now called Operations Research and Management Systems. George Dantzig used RAND's Johnniac computer to develop operations research's primal tool: linear programming.

These techniques are what I worked with for many years after leaving grad school. I arrived at my desk being given a number of systems to adapt that had been written back in the 60s, developed under the RAND analysis influence. Previously about my experiences here.

Although RAND tried early on to include the irrational and the psychological in its methods it is not clear that it ever completely succeeded. Its early methods, and the those that evolved from them, worked best in narrowly defined areas that were not greatly influenced by imperfect human decisions. It would have been useful to see more about how these techniques were woven into RAND's consulting work. E.J. Barlow is quoted:

" ... The great dangers inherent in the systems analysis approach, however, are the factors which we aren't yet in a position to treat quantitatively tend to be omitted from serious consideration. Even some factors that we can be quantitative about are omitted because of limits on the complexity of structure we have learned to handle. Finally a systems analysis is fairly rigid ... frequently the question has changed or disappeared by the time the analysis is finished... (p. 62)".
The first part of this statement is still very true. The problem mentioned in the last sentence has been helped much by computing power, software and user interfaces.

Most of the book covers how RAND influenced US nuclear strategy. Some of this reminds you directly of the movie Dr. Strangelove, not surprising since characters in the movie were modeled after people at RAND.

Also, the book follows the career of Albert Wohlstetter, RAND consultant who worked with US administrations from the early 50s to the current one. Wohlstetter had a very radical past, yet held top security clearances during that whole time and became a principal architect of US nuclear policy. I recall my own security clearance being delayed merely by my foreign birth, so this is unusual indeed. More here.

Very good book if you are interested in the history of problem solving and RAND itself.

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