How Could We Have Missed These Uprisings?

This is a question that has been asked numerous times over the past three weeks as, first, Tunisia, and, then, Egypt exploded in the streets with thousands demanding freedom.  The US’s intelligence agencies were faulted for not anticipating these events.  I think that this judgement is a bit unfair.  To know something is going to eventually explode is not the same as knowing the precise time.  Think of our ability to predict volcanoes.  We know where they are, which ones are most likely to blow, but not when.  Similarly, we know that societies that have large, young, educated, and unemployed populations with minimal political and economic freedoms are powder kegs.  Depending upon the ruthlessness of the regime uprisings are more (Tunisia) or less (Iran) likely.

Professor Timor Kuran, currently at Duke University, wrote a book, “Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification (Harvard University Press: 1995)” that explains how this toppling of the regimes came so quickly and unexpectedly.

I want to quote from his book, p. 250-251.

Imagine a ten-person society featuring the threshold sequence

A: Individual a b c d e f g h i j
Threshold 0 20 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 100

Person a, whose threshold is 0, supports the opposition regardless of its size, just as person j always supports the government.  The remaining eight people’s preferences are sensitive to the expected size of the public opposition.  Depending on its level, they will opt for one camp or the other. Initially, as in the geometric illustration [p.249], the opposition consists of 10 percent of the population, so Y=10 [where Y is represents the size of the opposition to the government].  Specifically, person a supports the opposition, and persons b through j support the government.  Because individuals other than a have thresholds above 10, a public opposition of 10 is self-sustaining [implying the regime maintains power].

Suppose now that person b has an unpleasant encounter at some government ministry [such as, for instance, the street vendor in Tunisia, or the person beat up by the cops in Egypt].  Her alienation from the regime deepens, pushing her threshold down from 20 to 10. The threshold sequence becomes

A’: Individual a b c d e f g h i j
Threshold 0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 100

The new threshold of b happens to equal the existing Y of 10.  So she switches sides, revealing her decision by tossing an egg at the country’s leader during an official rally [or self-immolating oneself as the Tunisian did].  Y thus becomes 20.  The new Y is not self-sustaining but self-augmenting, as it drives into opposition.  The higher Y of 30 then triggers a fourth defection, raising Y to 40.  And the process continues until Y reaches 90 – a new equilibrium.  Now the first nine individuals are in opposition, with only j supporting the government.  A slight shift in one individual’s threshold has generated a revolutionary bandwagon.


I believe that this analysis succinctly captures exactly what has taken place in northern Africa.  Once one individual shook his fist at the government other realized that they weren’t alone in their discontent.    Gone are the days when opponents of a regime could be locked away and the only means of communication with the outside world was on purloined sheets of toilet paper.  In the US, in the 1950s and early 1960s, the civil rights movement got started because decent-minded citizens saw on TV scenes that they never thought could happen in the US.  In the 1980s, the VCR brought news of freedom to the communist bloc.  Today, cell phones and the internet have all but eliminated a regime’s ability to suppress the news of their treatment of their citizenry.

The various intelligence agencies can only guess at the thresholds of the citizens of other countries.  They could only engage in some scenario exercises of the “what-if” variety.  It is doubtful that any of them would have been able to predict these topplings much less the speed, any more than they could have predicted the collapsing of the Soviet puppet states, one by one, in the late 1980s.  We must learn that no one is omniscient and that not every event can be forecasted with precision.  We shouldn’t look for a scapegoat. Instead, the lesson here is that the desire for freedom is innate in all human beings.  America needs to give moral support to those who stand up and defy the regimes.

Posted by Jim

Guile on the Nile

Probably no nation is so constantly reminded that its best days are behind it than is Egypt. Tourists from around the world marvel at the extraordinary monuments, some over 4600 years old, erected by the people who lived and prospered on the shores of the Nile. The ancient Egyptians were not only accomplished builders and engineers but they developed an expressive form of writing, papyrus to write on, a reasonable calendar, and pioneered effective techniques in medicine and surgery. What have Egyptians accomplished since? Between Cleopatra and Omar Sharif the Egyptians haven’t played a leading role in much of anything.

We have been told for years that the Arab “street” was seething with hatred for western, especially American, thought and culture. In the past few weeks we have discovered that the people who actually go out in the street seem to share a lot of our values and wish we supported them instead of their government. We learned much the same thing last year when the Persian street tried to overthrow a stolen election but, shamefully, we watched as the mullahs crushed them. The government that condoned voter intimidation by the New Black Panthers extended the same courtesy to the Revolutionary Guards. We did a little better this time, although in truth, the Egyptian demonstrators neither looked to us nor relied on us. They seem to have been inspired by the earlier Tunisian uprising that booted out the long serving Ben Ali.

Most revolutions, including our own, are caused by economic forces, often related to foodstuffs. The Tunisian revolution was sparked by a frustrated and humiliated young vegetable vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, who operated an unlicensed cart in the town of Sidi Bouzid. After a policewoman confiscated his cart and produce, slapped him, and spit on him, he attempted to complain to the municipal authorities who denied him an audience. As anyone who has ever dealt with the Registry of Motor Vehicles can appreciate, a frustrated Bouazizi then set fire to himself and, subsequently, to the political power structure of his country. Bouazizi’s despair and choice of death is symbolic of the economic stasis that has frustrated the aspirations of Muslims, especially Arab Muslims, since the end of their golden age 700 years ago. A lot of reasons are given for the decline of the Muslim Arab world but one is surely excessive government regulation and limitations on people’s economic lives. Some reports indicated that Bouazizi had tried unsuccessfully for five years to get the permits required for his vegetable stand.

Most of the discussion following the revolts has understandably focused on the political outlooks for the two countries. But the success of both will depend on creating effective and growing economies. Unshackling the Egyptian economy will be extraordinarily difficult; some like the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Henninger think it nearly impossible. Tunisia looks to have the better chance. Tunisia is more economically liberal than is Egypt. Tunisia, one of the more liberal economic environments in the Arab world, ranks 55th on the World Bank’s index of ease of doing business. Egypt, the largest Arab country, ranks 94th. In perceived corruption, the Egyptians rank 98th while the Tunisians are only 59th. With respect to property rights, a decent proxy for economic freedom, Tunisia is tied for 40th, Egypt trails far behind tied for 73rd. Perhaps the most comprehensive rankings, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Rankings place Tunisia 32nd and Egypt 81st. Every one of the restrictions, regulations, and impediments to a competitive market economy has an entrenched beneficiary who will fight to preserve his favored position. The Egyptian army, seen by many as the guarantor of political liberalization, has extensive interests in the economy; some estimate its holdings at 20 to 30 percent of the nation’s productive assets. Good luck getting them to part with it. Half the population is under 24 and most are unemployed or under-employed.

What can the Egyptians do to get their people usefully employed? Apart from the Nile and a little bit of oil, Egypt doesn’t have many natural resources. They have a lot of tolerably literate people and not much else. One possibility, suggested by Egyptian Keynesians, is to build some more pyramids; there is a precedent and constructing each would employ tens of thousands of people for decades. But the country already has about 140 of the things and its not clear that anyone even knows how to build one anymore. The Mexican option, sneaking across the U.S. border, is not practical since few Egyptians speak Spanish, which has become a requirement for getting an entry-level job in many parts of the U.S. The Greeks, a once-great people who retired early, were able to lie their way into the subsidizing arms of the E.U. but it’s unlikely the Europeans would fall for that again; they won’t even admit Turkey, a Muslim country with a real economy. Most of the rich nearby Muslim countries are either furiously trying to develop indoor golf courses and ski runs or buying off their own restless populations.

There is one nearby country that has a vibrant economy, a flair for developing innovative products, but a relatively small and expensive labor force and so might be interested in investing in Egypt and outsourcing production. That country has even fewer natural resources than Egypt but has a per-capita income six times as great. Many of that country’s citizens can even trace their ancestry to Egypt. Of course, they parted ways on very bad terms about 3000 years ago.

Posted by Bob

The Evolution of the Fastball

It is a scientific fact: Man evolved to throw and to hit baseballs. Even before we were advanced toolmakers, we were proficient throwers and clubbers. These skills and the anatomical specialization to perform them well are uniquely human. Our nearest cousins, chimpanzees, will occasionally toss sticks and rocks around but they cannot direct them accurately. Many paleontologists believe that the development of the ability to throw and to swing sticks with accuracy and authority marked a major turning point in hominid evolution. These capabilities enabled early hominids to escape the tedium of playing soccer and had enormous social advantages as noted by Professor Richard Young:*

“The best throwers and clubbers in a community would rise in the male dominance hierarchy and thereby obtain more breeding opportunities.”

Any evolutionary advantage that confers a rise in the male dominance hierarchy and greater access to breeding females is sure to spread rapidly through the species and to be continually refined by competitive pressures. The relative advantages of exceptional throwing and batting skills persist to this day, as a quick glance at the seating section for ball players’ wives and girlfriends confirms. (More evidence could be cited easily but this is a family-friendly blog.)

The critical evolutionary developments for throwing and hitting came in the shoulder and hands. The shoulders of other apes are designed so that the socket accommodates vertical extension of the arm – handy for hanging from trees but not so good for pin-point control from the mound. The human shoulder has the greatest degree of rotational movement of all our joints and it is also the most vulnerable to injury. Baseball made famous the rotator cuff, the bundle of muscles and tendons that hold the upper arm and shoulder together. The fellow below is doomed to hang around in the bush leagues.

Our hands and fully opposable thumbs are far better suited for throwing and especially for gripping bats and racquets than those of chimpanzees whose hands likely resemble those of our common ancestor. Even the fatty tissues or pads on our hands are positioned and sized to absorb the impact shocks of clubs and bats colliding with skulls and baseballs.

Our throwing ability has come pretty far in the past 500,000 years or so. The Baseball Almanac lists 27 pitchers whom have reached or exceeded 100 miles per hour in a game since Nolan Ryan cranked it up to 100.9 in 1974. The fastest speeds on that list belong to Mark Wohlers a former Atlanta Braves’ closer, who recorded 103 mph in a 1995 spring training game and Joel Zumaya, a Detroit Tigers reliever who reached 103 mph in 2006. The current record is held by The Cuban Missile, the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman, who was recorded firing a baseball at 105 mph in 2010.

Evidence on a pitcher’s velocity was very spotty in my dad’s day and not much better in mine. For the most part, the relative speeds of pitchers were judged subjectively by other players. Technologies such as photovoltaics and slow motion cameras that used frame counts to estimate speeds had progressed somewhat when I started paying attention but they were primitive compared to the radar guns that became standard in the 1980s.

Before the radar gun became a fixture at ball games, pitchers had to travel to laboratories, often weapons facilities with the expertise to measure projectile speeds, and use various paraphernalia to measure the velocity of their throws. In 1917 a Bridgeport Connecticut weapons laboratory using a device called a gravity drop interval recorder** clocked Walter Johnson at 91.36 mph, Christy Mathewson at 86.59 mph and “Smoky Joe” Wood at 84.55 mph. I suspect that, like a stop-watch, these devices were triggered by human action and the tiny delay this entails accounts for the relatively low measured velocity.

The recently deceased Bob Feller, the great Cleveland Indians’ pitcher of the 1940s and 50s who was known as Rapid Robert was especially eager to measure his heater. A famous black-and-white film shows Feller throwing a baseball past a speeding police motorcycle at Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Although the test is inherently flawed, Feller claimed that he was measured at 104 mph. In 1939 Feller and teammate Johnny Humphreys threw baseballs into a 2-foot square hole cut in the side of a trailer in which photovoltaic tubes spaced 5 feet apart measured the balls’ velocity. Rapid Robert’s reading that day was a less-than-spectacular 81.14 mph, significantly slower than Humphrey’s 86.59 mph which equaled Mathewson’s earlier trial.

How fast can a ballplayer throw? We might already be at or near our natural physiological limit. At this point in our evolution, the human elbow is likely be the limiting factor in how hard a pitcher can throw. Glenn Fleisig, a scientist at the American Sports Medicine Institute, tested cadaver elbows (the first thing most kids ask when told this is “how do you get a bunch of cadaver elbows?”) and found that their ulnar collateral ligaments (UCLs) snapped at about 80 Newton meters (about 59 foot-pounds for those of us who have adopted non-metric standards – Myanmar, Liberia and the USA) which is approximately the same rotational torque as experienced by a professional pitcher’s elbow in throwing a fastball. UCL replacement is better known as “Tommy John surgery,” named after the first pitcher to undergo the procedure. Curiously, many pitchers return from UCL replacement surgery throwing faster than before. This raises the issue of whether discretionary surgical arm enhancement might be pursued in the future and how it ought to be treated relative to chemical enhancement.

There has been some recent discussion that human athletic performance is peaking. Records last longer and many believe that we’ll soon exhaust our native potential. I’m not so sure, the performance enhancing drug era proved that we could exceed normal constraints with a little help from chemistry. The next era of enhancement may be surgical improvements to what Nature has given us.


*Richard W Young, Professor emeritus, Department of Anatomy, University of California Medical School, Los Angeles, California, “Evolution of the human hand: the role of throwing and clubbing,” Journal of Anatomy, 2003 January; 202(1): 165–174. Professor Young’s article focuses on evolution of the hand for throwing.

**I have tried unsuccessfully to find out what a “gravity drop interval recorder” was.  Ballistics experts and physicists I have asked have not heard of the device.  I suspect it was a contraption that utilized the known and constant rate of acceleration due to gravity to time a ball over some course but have no idea how the beginning and termination of the ball’s flight was captured by the machine.  If a reader knows about this apparatus, I’d appreciate learning more about it.

Posted by Bob