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Sunday, October 4, 2009

How David Beats Goliath

A long article from the New Yorker, subtitled "When underdogs break the rules", and well worth the read.


...A non-stop full-court press gives weak basketball teams a chance against far stronger teams. Why have so few adopted it?


The political scientist Ivan Arregun-Toft [How the weak win wars. A theory of asymmetric conflict] recently looked at every war fought in the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. The Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 per cent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. Arregun-Toft was analyzing conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful - in terms of armed might and population - as its opponent, and even in those lopsided contests the underdog won almost a third of the time.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. "I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it." he said (in Robert Alter's translation), and picked up those five smooth stones. What happened, Arregun-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David's winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath's rules, they win, Arregun-Toft concluded, even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn't.

Consider the way T. E. Lawrence (or, as he is better known, Lawrence of Arabia) led the revolt against the Ottoman Army occupying Arabia near the end of the First World War. ... when Lawrence looked at his ragtag band of Bedouin fighters he realized that a direct attack on Medina would never succeed. .... The Bedouins under Lawrence's command were not, in conventional terms, skilled troops. They were nomads. Sir Reginald Wingate, one of the British commanders in the region, called them "an untrained rabble, most of whom have never fired a rifle." But they were tough and they were mobile. ... tribesmen, men quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets were movement, endurance, individual intelligence, knowledge of the country, courage.

David can beat Goliath by substituting effort for ability; and substituting effort for ability turns out to be a winning formula for underdogs in all walks of life.

What Ranadiv's company, TIBCO, did was to consolidate those [formerly disparate] databases into one stream, so that the [securities] trader could collect all the data he wanted instantaneously. Batch processing was replaced by real-time processing. Today, TIBCO's software powers most of the trading floors on Wall Street. .... Ranadiv views this move from batch to real time as a sort of holy mission. The shift, to his mind, is one of kind, not just of degree.

Insurgents, though, operate in real time. Lawrence hit the Turks, in that stretch in the spring of 1917, nearly every day, because he knew that the more he accelerated the pace of combat the more the war became a battle of endurance, and endurance battles favor the insurgent.

So why are there no more than a handful of college teams who use the full-court press the way Pitino does? .... Arregun-Toft found the same puzzling pattern. When an underdog fought like David, he usually won. But most of the time underdogs didn't fight like David. Of the two hundred and two lopsided conflicts in Arregun-Toft's database, the underdog chose to go toe to toe with Goliath the conventional way a hundred and fifty-two times, and lost a hundred and nineteen times.

It makes no sense, unless you think back to that Kentucky-L.S.U. game and to Lawrence's long march across the desert to Aqaba. .... We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity. It's the other way around. Effort can trump ability; legs, in Saxe's formulation, can overpower arms, because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor co-ordination.

... the second half of the insurgent's creed [:] Insurgents work harder than Goliath. But their other advantage is that they will do what is 'socially horrifying' - they will challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought. All the things that distinguish the ideal basketball player are acts of skill and co-ordination. When the game becomes about effort over ability, it becomes unrecognizable - a shocking mixture of broken plays and flailing limbs and usually competent players panicking and throwing the ball out of bounds. You have to be outside the establishment - a foreigner new to the game ... George Washington couldn't do it. His dream, before the war, was to be a British Army officer, finely turned out in a red coat and brass buttons. He found the guerrillas who had served the American Revolution so well to be "an exceeding dirty and nasty people." He couldn't fight the establishment, because he 'was' the establishment.

The price that the outsider pays for being so heedless of custom is, of course, the disapproval of the insider. ... Goliath does not simply dwarf David. He brings the full force of social convention against him; he has contempt for David. .... "In the beginning, everyone laughed at our fleet," Lenat said. "It was really embarrassing. People felt sorry for us. But somewhere around the third round they stopped laughing, When we won again, some people got very angry, and the tournament directors basically said that it was not really in the spirit of the tournament to have these weird computer-designed fleets winning." It isn't surprising that the tournament directors found Eurisko's strategies beyond the pale. Its 'wrong' to sink your own ships, they believed. And they were right. But let's remember who made that rule: Goliath. And let's remember why Goliath made that rule: when the world has to play on Goliath's terms, Goliath wins.

And David, let's not forget, was a shepherd. He came at Goliath with a slingshot and staff because those were the tools of his trade. He didn't know that duels with Philistines were supposed to proceed formally, with the crossing of swords. "When the lion or the bear would come and carry off a sheep from the herd, I would go out after him and strike him down and rescue it from his clutches," David explained to Saul. He brought a shepherd's rules to the battlefield...


Audentes fortuna iuvat.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is pure refined bullshit.

Taking the conclusions described at their face value, the value of power becomes almost nonexistent when compared to its cost.

The very plain evidence of the real world is that power IS valuable. It is WORTH gathering stronger forces, because that translates directly into more and easier victories. If it didn't, people and nations wouldn't put the effort into increasing power that they do.

The David/Goliath story is remembered because everyone can recognize, on a nearly instinctive level, that the outcome is completely unexpected, almost to the point of wrongness. It's an outcome that nobody had any business expecting. It nearly always doesn't happen. If someone presents statistics claiming otherwise, re-examine the methodology behind statistics, because they don't pass the horselaugh test.

October 4, 2009 at 5:54 AM  
Anonymous Jeremy said...

"This is pure refined bullshit."
(You seem to be quite the connoisseur of fecal matter.)
"Taking the conclusions described at their face value, the value of power becomes almost nonexistent when compared to its cost."
(You came to this conclusion how?)
"The very plain evidence of the real world is that power IS valuable."(I don't recall anyone saying otherwise.) "It is WORTH gathering stronger forces, because that translates directly into more and easier victories."(No shit.) "If it didn't, people and nations wouldn't put the effort into increasing power that they do."(Once again your tactical acumen astounds me.)

"The David/Goliath story is remembered because everyone can recognize, on a nearly instinctive level, that the outcome is completely unexpected, almost to the point of wrongness."(Because David didn't play by the rules which would have seen Him killed.) "It's an outcome that nobody had any business expecting."(And thus the point of the article.) "It nearly always doesn't happen."(If you play by the rules of your enemy.) "If someone presents statistics claiming otherwise,(No One did.) re-examine the methodology behind statistics,(Which you should,along with actually reading the article to understand the point the author was trying to get across.) because they don't pass the horselaugh test."(Much like your comment.)

October 4, 2009 at 3:59 PM  
Blogger Brock Townsend said...


October 4, 2009 at 5:02 PM  
Anonymous Pierce said...

When contemplating conflict decide first one's own strengths and utilize it accordingly. The first comment is wrong in ignoring history. The author correctly points out examples and America's includes the Continental Army and milita's battles with the British Army. Then and now it is readily accepted the more powerful forces by conventional standards were brought to a standstill or outmaneuvered into defeat. Sadly, America is similarly being frustrated into possible defeat in Afghanistan by an inferior force (a book could be written about those tactics). A smart man will take note.

October 4, 2009 at 7:25 PM  
Blogger pdxr13 said...

Asymmetrical Warfare: one side is bigger/more powerful than the other. Soviets vs. Afghan/Taliban c. 1981.

A direct fight will nearly always result in the crushing of the smaller/weaker at little cost to the larger/stronger side. The big army will declare the little army to be "common criminals" and jail survivors.

Conventional Warfare: Both sides are essentially at the same level of technology, with little overall advantage. NATO vs. Soviets in Eastern Europe about 1970.

Both sides were lined up to rapidly destroy the other side, with nukes as needed, while wrecking Europe again. No one could win, but neither side could allow a loss.

The matrix of strong:weak, conventional:irregular warfare shows that the US Army tactic of assault with 10x the defending force strength is almost the minimum that reasonably assures success. But, this tactic is expensive!

I look at the strong vs. strong military as an opportunity to negotiate, as is weak vs. weak. Under and over-estimation of both allied and enemy strength and actual capability is what leads to mass-slaughters like WWI and II.

I agree with 5:54 Anon in that great power is worth having because it gives the options of fighting/not-fighting on any level of warfare as is appropriate. The powerful can also make mistakes in picking the wrong fights and fighting them to slog on rather than to win decisively/swiftly.

Weak groups don't have that option. They are usually without supplies, in a crappy geographical position, without enough money. What they have are people, and determination.

The big army has to WIN, the little army merely has to survive until the big army gives up.

We have to look back farther than WWI to see how the big army WON. The strategy that the British Empire used in S.Africa by capturing all of the families of insurgents (origin of "Concentration Camp") and putting them together in camps where they could be closely controlled (concentrated), reduced the morale and support available to the Boers.

The British could/should have provided better food & medical aid to the Camps, but that wasn't the point. Suffering in the camps contributed to demoralizing the Boer fighting men.

US Soldiers have a hard time winning in activities other than combat (where coalition troops win well) because they are restricted in bringing "total war" (horrifying stuff) to the enemy and his family to force their immediate surrender.
Taliban know the rules that foreign troops fight by and take full advantage.


October 4, 2009 at 9:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is old news, but it's also worth relating in case anyone is unfamiliar. In a wargame designed to show off new US computerized battlespace capabilities, a maverick Marine general named van Riper managed to sink two thirds of a US carrier fleet using nothing more than motorcycle messengers and expendable fishing boats, by following exactly the techniques in this article.


I'm of the opinion that the future of naval warfare is small expendable semi-autonomous speedboats armed with Silkworms and loaded with explosives for ramming attacks.

October 4, 2009 at 10:28 PM  
Anonymous hillbilly said...

This one reveals a total lack of knowledge about college basketball.

I know full-court press.

I was an acolyte of Nolan Richardson's "40 minutes of Hell" pressure defense in the late 1980s, early 1990s. Won a national championship by beating Duke in 1994?

More teams don't go to full court pressure these days because the athletes in college basketball have gotten so much better.

That's one of the reason Nolan's career ended at Arkansas. Other coaches had recruited athletes who could keep up with his pressure, and had learned to adapt to it and defeat it.

Better athletes don't succumb physically and emotionally to full-court pressure.

Tons of NCAA D-1 teams react to constant full-court pressure these days by dunking on the pressing team's head, repeatedly.

Also, the NCAA instituted a point of emphasis on "hand checking' which also greatly reduced the effectiveness of full-court pressure D.

Hard to press and press and press when all your starters foul out in the first half.

October 5, 2009 at 4:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Also, the NCAA instituted a point of emphasis on "hand checking' which also greatly reduced the effectiveness of full-court pressure D.

Hard to press and press and press when all your starters foul out in the first half."

Goliath changes the rules to better suit him! Thats kind of the point of the story. Its easy for Goliath to do this on a basketball court in the confines fo the NCAA university system where big money schools have all the clout. Not so easy for Goliath to change the rules out in te bush at the end of a long supply chain. Take the message of the article and dont get caught up in the details.

October 5, 2009 at 3:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rule #! - don't ever argue with success. Fighting the fight that the enemy expects and TRAINS FOR is a sure way to become extinct...fight in an UNEXPECTED and contrary fashion only if you hope to have any chance of winning.

The Continental Army LOST almost every engagement where they fought with the British on British terms - but they were able to survive to fight again thanks to foolish British notions of chivalry. GW's great victory at Trenton was UNCONVENTIONAL - he attacked the drunk Hessians on a HOLIDAY - not on the "honorable field of battle" as was expected of "honorable men" of the time.

The Revolutionary War was really won by "the rabble" wearing down the invaders, cutting supply lines, and spreading out the enemy forces - that and the fact that the French Navy cut off Cornwallis' forces from the British Fleet, allowing GW's army to force their surrender.

October 5, 2009 at 4:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting read, and points to ponder.

October 6, 2009 at 7:39 PM  

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