My Intellectual Hero

I was recently asked who are my intellectual heroes.  I reeled over a list about all the people without whom I would be a very different person.  Somewhere, they were all heroines.  Just today, though, I remembered a very obscure male person whose works I had studied in great detail at one point in my life.  The person is Scott Boorman.  I can guarantee that at least 99.999999% of my readers have never heard of him, but they have no idea what they are missing.

Listed in his biography is the fact that he was born in Beijing (Peking), China in February 1949 as the son of an American Foreign Service officer.  I note that Beijing (Peking) fell to the People's Liberation Army on January 31, 1949, but regardless, it makes him a Chinese citizen by birth. 

Why did Scott Boorman mean so much to me?  If you want to know about bottom-up organizing to overturn the power structure, it is more than rhetoric, exhortation or The Sayings of Chairman Mao.  You need to consult “Island Models for Takeover by a Social Trait Facing a Frequency-Dependent Selection Barrier in a Mendelian Population" in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 1974, 71, 2103-107.  If you want to find out how big the underground economy is, you must look at Estimates of Income Unreported on Individual Income Tax Returns.  If you want to know why people are willing to give up their lives for others, you must look at The Genetics of Altruiism.

By this time, you must be thinking that I am joking.  What can “Island Models for Takeover by a Social Trait Facing a Frequency-Dependent Selection Barrier in a Mendelian Population" conceivably have anything to do with overturning the power structure?  Here is the synopsis of the article according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

A population genetic model is presented for selection of a Mendelian trait controlling for cooperative behavior between unrelated conspecifics. Under simple and robust assumptions, such a trait will be selected on a frequency-dependent basis, with a critical threshold frequency of the social trait which must be exceeded before favorable selection of this trait can occur. Existence of this threshold gives rise to a basic evolutionary problem as to how evolution from an asocial state (ß ~ 0) to a social state (ß ~ 1) can take place. A formal model of this evolution is proposed which rests on obstacles to random mixing (population viscosity). The key fact is the possibility that an initial local concentration of the social trait may be able to spread out under the joint effects of selection and migration and eventually take over a much larger species population. It is argued that this model is the first formal model to capture the ideas of Wright concerning group selection of an altruist trait in an island-structured population.

So, if you have a large, randomly connected population, then the probability is indeed near zero.  It will simply never happen.  If you begin with one island within a small population, you have a good chance of taking over that island.  Once that is accomplished, you can jump from one island to the next island and repeat the same thing.  Patience and persistence will do it.  You don't believe me?  How did you think F*L*G spread out so rapidly and widely?  It was an example of the island model.

Anyway, let us not get too misty-eyed and utopian.  I found this Newsday op-ed essay and the subject was China!  So I am going to list it here for you.  This draws upon an old Scott Boorman book, The Protracted Game: A Wei-ch’i Interpretation of Maoist Revolutionary Strategy which was his doctoral dissertation.  The article was alright, until you hit the last six paragraphs and then it gets silly.  You can't blame Scott Boorman for that, though.

Chinese play a different game.  By James P. Pinkerton.  March 17, 2005.

The cliché about the Chinese is that they are patient.

Conscious of avoiding shallow "Orientalist" stereotypes, I have traveled through China looking for evidence of the opposite. And while I have seen plenty of hustle and bustle in streets and factories, I see more evidence that the Chinese are, indeed, a subtle and patient people. And that's something for Americans to think about as the great empires stare at each other across the Pacific.

Everywhere I go here, I see Go. "Go" is the name by which most Americans identify the board game that the Chinese call wei-ch'i. It's played on a flat grid of 361 intersections. The two opponents play with pieces, called stones, white vs. black. Unlike chess, black moves first. Also unlike chess, the stones are all the same, and once they are put down, they can never be moved.

But they can be removed - if the opposing player succeeds in surrounding them. And that's the object of the game, to wipe out the foe by surrounding his forces, thus gaining control of the board. Since the Han Dynasty of more than 2,000 years ago - long before chess was invented - wei-ch'i has been the favorite game of Chinese intellectuals, including generals and politicians.

Moreover, the popularity of wei-ch'i, which has never caught on in the West, reveals much about the nation that created it. In terms of motion and excitement, wei-ch'i makes chess seem like pinball. After all, the pieces move in chess; even nonplayers can observe an armada of chessmen marching down the 64 squares and realize that something is happening.

By contrast, watching wei-ch'i is more akin to watching a jigsaw puzzle being assembled. In other ways, too, the games are different. In chess, the goal is to control the center. From a strong central position, the player can strike decisively in any direction. But in wei-ch'i the strategy is the opposite; the smart player aims for the corners, the better to surround and destroy the foe.

To be sure, like chess in the United States, wei-ch'i in China has been eclipsed by video games and the like. Yet, just as chess symbolizes brains in the West, so wei-ch'i is status-heavy in China. I have seen many wei-ch'i sets for sale in shops, as well as grid motifs worked into advertisements. In fact, at the CourtYard Art Gallery, across the street from the Forbidden City, the brochure features artfully photographed wei-ch'i stones on a fluorescent pink board.

So what does wei-ch'i have to do with contemporary Chinese politics? One answer came from a Beijing-born professor at Yale, Scott Boorman, who in 1969 published "The Protracted Game: A Wei-ch'i Interpretation of Maoist Revolutionary Strategy." As Boorman notes, Mao Zedong (1893-1976), an avid wei-ch'i player, used wei-ch'i analogies as he led the communists to victory in the Chinese civil war of 1927-49. In a 1938 pamphlet he wrote that the struggle was "rather like a game of wei-ch'i," insofar as the communists controlled the countryside (the corners, according to the wei-ch'i analogy) while the nationalists controlled the cities (the center).

Moreover, Boorman continued, "It is fruitful to apply the wei-ch'i analogue to post-1950 insurgent actions in Southeast Asia." Which is to say, to Vietnam, where once again, the insurgents proved to be more patient and strategic than two foreign armies, first the French and then the Americans.

And what about more contemporary issues, such as the fate of Taiwan? Gordon Chang, a Chinese-American attorney who spent two decades working in China, notes that Mao always predicted that China would solve the Taiwan issue in a hundred years. It's hard to imagine any American politician talking like that, urging patience over such a long time frame.

Interestingly, in 2001 Chang published a book with a provocative title: "The Coming Collapse of China." By that he prophesied the collapse, within a decade, of the current political system, in which he saw an unsustainable mix of dictatorship and free markets. There's still time, of course, for Chang to be proven right. But even if the People's Republic of China were to implode, China would surely survive. Why? Because the basic ethnic and cultural bonds, reaching back some 5,000 years, still hold tight. Any country that's lasted that long knows something about national survival.

For its part, the United States, which finds itself increasingly at odds with China over the Taiwan issue, might wish to give more thought to the principles of wei-ch'i, for the sake of its own national survival. Thinking about any coming conflict with America, the Chinese can clearly see that they are far behind the United States in military strength. The United States has spent a trillion dollars on nuclear strategic weapons, such as missiles, submarines and bombers. And no doubt, in the decades to come we are prepared to spend another trillion dollars on strategic defense against other countries' missiles, submarines and bombers.

Confronted by that huge gap, what might the Chinese be likely to do? In the spirit of wei-ch'i, the Chinese might decide to play a subtler game. That is, the Americans, being chess players at heart, are preparing for a showdown with China in which Uncle Sam sends a huge material storm down upon China, like a player launching a checkmating attack in chess.

Probably there's nothing the Chinese can do to thwart such an attack. Except for one thing. What if the Chinese played wei-ch'i at the same time we played chess? In other words, the Chinese might conclude that the Pentagon juggernaut is unstoppable, if an American president pushes The Button. But they might think of another approach to stopping the Americans. They might, for example, note that America has virtually open borders, and a free society within those borders. Which is to say, we don't have much in the way of homeland security.

So a wei-ch'i player might see the makings of an anti-American deterrence plan - or even a first-strike plan. In the spirit of putting down stones onto a grid, in hopes of forming a winning pattern, why couldn't the Chinese put down nuclear weapons inside the United States?

Al-Qaida hasn't been able to do that, of course, but the Chinese are a lot smarter than Osama's bunch. Given our porous frontier, would it really be that hard to sneak in nuclear weapons - or the components of nuclear weapons, for later assembly? Just like stones in wei-ch'i, these prepositioned nukes would just sit passively, tucked away under U.S. cities, never moving, always waiting. There'd be no need for guidance systems, just a way of detonating them, if the call from Beijing came.

Would this be terrorism? Unfair fighting? Maybe. But to a Chinese strategist, versed in patient positioning, it might mean victory.

The point here isn't to tell the Chinese how to defeat America. In the era of miniaturized atomic weapons, countries know all about sneak-nukes, even if the United States is bizarrely, and gravely, ill-prepared to guard its territory more than three years after 9/11.

Instead, the point is to remind Americans that when studying a potential enemy, one must learn the game being played by the possible foe, not just the game one wishes to play. So if the Chinese know wei-ch'i and its political-military applications, then we must study it, too.

In the grand scheme of things, I don't think that a few miniaturized atomic weapons will make any difference.  How might the United States wage a war against China?  Here, I don't mean a localized war, but a total war for total victory.  Here are the three options:

Take your pick ... I hope this is just as silly as anything else that you might have read about this sort of thing from a blog ...