Archive for September, 2011

A Modeler’s Review of ‘Contagion’

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Author: Mike Boechler, Director, Research & Development Programs, IEM

Would descent into anarchy and selfishness be our reaction to an event like the one portrayed in the movie Contagion? Or would we pull together and become more altruistic in the face of such a massive catastrophe?

And that, too, is natural enough. In fact, it comes to this: nobody is capable of really thinking about anyone, even in the worst calamity.

Until now I always felt a stranger in this town, and that I’d no concern with you people. But now that I’ve seen what I have seen, I know that I belong here whether I want it or not. This business is everybody’s business.

Albert Camus: The Plague

We’ve been modeling infectious disease outbreaks at IEM for more than a decade now, so when Contagion was released, I was most interested in seeing how this type of disaster scenario would be portrayed on the big screen. Fairly reasonably, as it turns out.

Spontaneous adaptation to the outbreak, such as social distancing and isolation is shown in the film, as is selfishness, murder, and the breakdown of law and order. The film is an ambitious attempt to portray a scenario that could indeed happen one day. But how people would react to an event like this is unknown, since such an outbreak is unprecedented in recent history, and humans are quite unpredictable, to say the least.

The aspects of the Contagion story that are perhaps the most unsettling are its high mortality rate, its rapid spread, and the mundane origin of the virus. The Contagion pathogen appears to be based on a mix of animal reservoirs of diseases such as influenza and Ebola, and spreads like SARS. The Contagion scenario is a perfect storm.

Deadly contagious pathogens are constantly evolving and moving among species as their host defenses allow, and as humans continue to colonize previously undisturbed ecosystems the opportunity for these novel diseases to invade our populations increases. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that in our globalized economy we now move so rapidly and frequently around the planet that any such invasion could spread quite rapidly among many regions and emerge almost simultaneously- like hundreds of separate fires that erupt across a city, more or less at once, overwhelming the fire departments.

I continued this conversation with the Durham Herald-Sun, and their reporter asked similar questions about how prepared are we to deal with a Contagion scenario. (Read interview).

A nation remembers lives lost on 9-11

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

In memory of the lives lost on September 11thThrough the lens of time we remember the America before 9/11 – the sense of invincibility, of America the Fortress. Looking back over the last century, we see a rising curve of successes – the decisive role in the last Great War, landing a man on the moon, historic win over Cold War at the Berlin Wall, the innovative spirit that launched the personal computer revolution, a government that birthed the Internet. Twentieth century America fulfilled the promise that Tocqueville (“Democracy in America”) saw in the nineteenth century. Other nations stood in shock and awe.

9/11 shook our sense of invincibility. 9/11’s asymmetric terror attack struck our Nation deeply – beyond our anticipation. It surprised us.

Since then, there have been other surprises, other events we did not anticipate – the failure of the levees after Hurricane Katrina, the 2008 global financial crisis, the 2011 Arab Spring. If we are surprised, we did not understand forces leading to these events. We must be able to fathom and forecast such shocking events – in order to intervene and prevent, to build defenses against them, to adequately respond to them. We should not be caught surprised. We owe it to those who lost their lives on 9/11, to those that are still fighting our battle, and to those that are still suffering from the financial crisis to be ready for the next challenge.

Let’s acknowledge the difficulties involved in predicting such sudden, pivotal events. Nassim Nicholas-Taleb (author of The Black Swan) and Mark Blyth state in Foreign Affairs discuss how humans inhabit two different systems: the linear and the complex. We are good at predicting linear events, we can model them, they are well-behaved.  Complex systems have sudden, dramatic events, sometimes triggered by seemingly innocuous proximal stimuli. This is the domain of terrorism, of the financial crisis, the Arab Spring. Because underlying these events are the most complex elements found on earth – the human element. Ironically, we call the study of social phenomenon the “soft science” – implying that understanding people is simpler than understanding the laws of physics. Human behavior is hard to predict but yet within our grasp to comprehend. Human needs evolve slowly, whereas knowledge evolves faster, and technology evolves blindingly fast. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was true of human needs in 1776 as it is in Spring of 2011.

Understanding and preventing terrorism demands that we understand terrorists and the forces that lead to terrorism. It is not as simple as “connecting the dots”. There are trillions of dots generated hourly – through intelligence, law enforcement, citizen actions. The dots can be connected only through the rear-facing mirror.  Before we as governments and people can actively intervene in these complex systems, we need to understand the powerful forces that seek their own equilibrium – unmindful of the aims and desires of Governments. Government interventions to prevent, protect, respond, and recover can only succeed if cognizant of these forces.

In 2000-summer 2001, we faced this problem in the Defense Science Board study on intelligence-gathering against terrorism. We saw the millions of possible terrorist scenarios against which a single, designed system needed to function. To me, it was clear that this single system needed to be built on an understanding of the powerful social, economic, and political forces leading to terrorism. We needed a system with a simple architecture that could respond to a million contingencies, but with the flexibility to perform many functions. An architecture of bones to give reliable results and with joints to be flexible – to be able to grasp, crawl, jog, sprint, squeeze. At the DSB, I called such an architecture an action-focused framework. Such a framework is built on the understanding of the raw human forces that are pushing toward their own outcomes, and is designed with a bias toward intervention, toward action. A powerful, strategic framework is beyond simple information-sharing, beyond all-source databases.

We need such frameworks now more than ever. We need it against a dangerous, adaptive enemy, whether the enemy is an organization or an idea. We need it to define a new leadership role for America in a new flat world. We need it to repair our economic strength. And, we especially need it to fulfill all our Nation’s objectives in a more resource-constrained environment.

We are up to this challenge. America has always been up to this challenge. Of all nations, America is uniquely capable of making this leap to a science-informed, framework-based governance in the 21st century.  America’s greatness was built on a profound understanding of human needs, and an actionable framework  – a careful balancing act between the Legislative, Executive and Judicial powers. No nation, no people are ordained for greatness – they build greatness piece by piece.  The writers of the Constitution embedded the seeds of greatness into this Nation’s DNA at its conception. A framework based on a pragmatic understanding of human nature, while articulating a profound idealism on the human purposes of the Union.

As we remember the lives lost on 9/11, let us hold high our idealism as a nation; and, employ our pragmatism to build a more secure nation.

Author: Madhu Beriwal, CEO & President of IEM

Memory of September 11, 2001 from the White House grounds

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at work as a Program Associate Director at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB—the President’s budget office. Specifically, I was in the Old Executive Office Building, which is within the White House complex. My colleagues and I were in the daily morning meeting with the Director, Mitch Daniels (now Governor of Indiana).

It was an uneventful meeting until one of our colleagues came in late and said that a plane just crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. I suspect that many in the room had the same thought that I had: “How terrible, a Piper Cub or Cessna propeller plane gone tragically off course.” After a modest delay, the meeting resumed for another half hour or so. After it adjourned, we all left the Director’s office and stood in front of the TV in the outer-office, and realized for the first time watching CNN that it was a jetliner, not a small plane. We were all aghast, and watched in horror for a while. We all thought it was a terrible, terrible accident.

I then left and went downstairs to the cafeteria to get a cup of coffee. By the time I got back to the second floor, my assistant was in the hallway waiting for me and told me that another plane hit and that the news reports are saying that it is a terrorist attack. I was stunned! Everyone was. We all had TVs tuned to CNN in our offices, and we were glued to them.

After a few conversations about how this was our generation’s Pearl Harbor and that war was sure to follow, security personnel were moving frantically through the building telling everyone to evacuate. We didn’t know why then, but quickly realized that this was either protocol for such emergencies or that we were directly under threat of a similar attack. There was much confusion and fear, and we all left the building. Other buildings around us had evacuated as well, and there were thousands of people milling about the streets trying to find out what was going on.

We soon learned from random sources in the street that a plane had hit the Pentagon, and that another was on its way to Washington. Speculation was that either the White House or the Capitol was the target. I thought, “Four planes were hijacked and used as missiles? What’s going on?” I was with my mentor, Sean O’Keefe, then the Deputy Director of OMB, and other OMB colleagues. We were desperate for news and to connect with the Director for coordination and direction, but cell phones were mostly inoperable. We found ourselves standing by a street vendor’s cart crowded together trying to listen to a transistor radio for news.

At that moment, I heard Sean O’Keefe mutter something like, “This smells like Al Qaeda.” This was the first time I had heard this name/term, and after asking him what it was, he told me that it was a terrorist group that the government had been tracking. The thought that a terrorist group could execute such a coordinated attack on the United States successfully was an extremely humbling and disorienting thought. I had been at OMB for about 4 months, and I was still adjusting to the awe of working in the White House complex. Now I was there during one of the most vicious acts of war against the nation I loved and served.

The streets were gridlocked with cars, and people filled the sidewalks. One surreal moment I remember was when I heard the distant sound of an airplane getting closer and louder. Everyone else…I mean every one of the thousands of people in the vicinity also heard it and we all looked up in horror, given what had been happening that morning. After one of our fighter jets zoomed by, we all simultaneously sighed in relief, and some of us began laughing nervously because we all had the exact same fear and relief in the exact same moment. It was like the surreal scene from the Alfred Hitchcock movie, The Birds, where everyone in the street was terrified of what was coming down from the sky above.

Our little group from OMB finally made our way 10-15 blocks away to a law office at which one of our colleagues used to work. The lawyers and staff there were great. They basically let us take over their main conference room, where we all gathered to watch the news and take turns calling home and other loved ones to let them know we were okay. We stayed there most of the day, and after gridlock had died down, I was able to get my car and drive home to my apartment on Capitol Hill. After a few drinks at my local watering hole, I went to my apartment, went to bed, and began to cry myself to sleep. The world had changed and I didn’t know what was next.

The next morning at the daily meeting in the Director’s office, the first order of business was to determine how long we would allow people to stay home before we would begin to compel staff to return to work. I don’t know the percentage, but a fair share of people did not come to work that day, and it was completely understandable. Schools were closed, people needed to be with their children, and people were just downright afraid of what might happen. It was that day that I learned that some of my staff, who worked on the 9th floor of the New Executive Office Building, across Pennsylvania Ave from the White House complex, had actually seen the plane hit the Pentagon. They described the horrifying experience.

About 3-4 weeks after the attack, I travelled to New York City with a small delegation of Administration officials to visit with business leaders to discuss ways to get business activity in the city back up and running. After the meeting, we were given a tour of Ground Zero. It was extraordinary to see a big hole in such a densely populated city, steel and ruble still smoldering, with a smell that was like none other I had experienced. We all wore masks, but while it protected us from the toxic soot still lingering in the air, the smell permeated everything. You could see giant bent and broken steel beams everywhere, including lodged in neighboring buildings.

Many people lost family and friends that fateful day. I knew one person who died in the Pentagon attack, a recent graduate from the graduate school I attended at Syracuse University—Brady K. Howell ( He was 26 years old. May his and others’ souls who perished that day rest in peace. May God continue to bless and heal the hearts of the many families who lost loved ones that day. May we all never forget.

Author: Dr. Lloyd Blanchard, Director of Public Performance Management, IEM

Flooding continues 5 days after Irene

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

Author: Dr. Lloyd Blanchard, Director of Public Performance Management, IEM

We are now five days past Hurricane Irene sweeping up the east coast, and a number of communities remain flooded. This extended flooding will certainly add to the economic damages projected earlier. Based on data from the National Weather Service, we show those communities that remain flooded below as of 11am today (September 2, 2011). The water level above flood stage represents the depth of the flooding.