(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘catastrophe

“One ingredient of many fiascos is that great, massive, heart-wrenching chaos and failure are more likely to occur when great ambitions come into play”*…

 

J Park

 

There’s a term for when a single hiccup triggers a chain reaction that makes everything go absolutely, altogether, totally, and undeniably wrong, causing a large and intricate system to collapse on itself. On the street you might call it a fiasco—but in more formal parlance it’s called “cascading failure.”

Sound familiar? If you’ve been through an electrical grid outage, there’s a good chance you’ve heard it in that context. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it’s a relatively recent term, and the complexity of modern life has multiplied the real-life scenarios for its use in the fields of technology, biology, and finance. The easiest way to think about cascading failure is as a line of tumbling dominoes—or the plot of Jurassic Park, a blockbuster about how the smallest of errors can lead to total catastrophe…

Epic power blackouts, the “flash crash,” coronavirus response, and so much more: “Cascading Failure.”

* Ira Glass, in his introduction to “Opening Night,” Act One of the This American Life episode “Fiasco“… and the funniest 21 minutes of radio your correspondent has ever heard.

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As we consider causation, we might recall that it was on this date in 1986, at 11:10p, that operators at the the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine received the go-ahead to commence a safety test that was scheduled to coincide with a routine shutdown for maintenance.  Just over two hours later, an unexpected power surge triggered what we now know as “The Chernobyl disaster”– considered, even after Fukushima, the worst nuclear catastrophe in history.  It killed 31 people directly, including 28 workers and firefighters who died of acute radiation poisoning during the cleanup.  Experts believe it likewise caused thousands of premature cancer deaths, though the exact number is disputed.  To this day, the area around the plant remains so contaminated that it’s officially closed to human habitation.

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A view of the facility three days after the incident

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 25, 2020 at 1:01 am

“There’s no big apocalypse. Just an endless procession of little ones”*…

 

Empty_wave_at_Banzai_Pipeline

 

Humanity is facing multiple possible apocalypses, with narratives that often miss an important point: The apocalypse probably won’t be quick or final. It will be an environment, not an event or an end point for humanity. The apocalypse is more likely to bring misery than catharsis or salvation. Although worst-case scenarios theoretically make it easier to prevent dire outcomes, in the case of slow-moving apocalypses such as climate change, it’s difficult for humans to envision the scale of the problem and to imagine how we will actually experience it…

Via Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Jamias Cascio argues that we’d be well served to face up to the deeply dramatic– if not melodramatic– realities that we face: “The apocalypse: It’s not the end of the world.” [free access until January 1, 2020]

* Neil Gaiman, Signal to Noise

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As we take care, we might we might recall that it was on this date (coincidentally, now Chicken Soup of the Soul Day) in 1952 that 9.0 Mw earthquake centered at Severo-Kurilsk in the Kamchatka Peninsula triggered a major tsunami.  the majority of the Severo-Kurilsk citizens fled to the surrounding hills, where they escaped the first wave.  But most of them returned to the town and were killed by the second wave.  According to the authorities, out of a population of 6,000 people, 2,336 died; the survivors were evacuated to continental Russia.  The settlement was then rebuilt in another location.

The tsunami caused flooding as far away as Hawaii, almost 3400 miles way.  Midway Island (over 1800 miles away) was inundated with water, flooding streets and buildings.  On the Hawaiian Islands the waves destroyed boats, knocked down telephone lines, destroyed piers, scoured beaches, and flooded lawns.  In Honolulu Harbor a cement barge was thrown into a freighter. In Hilo Bay a small bridge connecting Coconut Island to the shore was destroyed by a wave when it lifted off its foundation and then smashed down.

Midway

Midway Island after the tsunami

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 12, 2019 at 1:01 am

“What is common to many is least taken care of”*…

 

comic2-1755

As an evolutionary biologist who received my PhD in 1975, I grew up with Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” published in Science magazine in 1968. His parable of villagers adding too many cows to their common pasture captured the essence of the problem that my thesis research was designed to solve. The farmer who added an extra cow gained an advantage over other farmers in his village but it also led to an overgrazed pasture. The biological world is full of similar examples in which individuals who behave for the good of their groups lose out in the struggle for existence with more self-serving individuals, resulting in overexploited resources and other tragedies of non-cooperation…

Unbeknownst to me, another heretic named Elinor Ostrom was also challenging the received wisdom in her field of political science. Starting with her thesis research on how a group of stakeholders in southern California cobbled together a system for managing their water table, and culminating in her worldwide study of common-pool resource (CPR) groups, the message of her work was that groups are capable of avoiding the tragedy of the commons without requiring top-down regulation, at least if certain conditions are met (Ostrom 1990, 2010). She summarized the conditions in the form of eight core design principles: 1) Clearly defined boundaries; 2) Proportional equivalence between benefits and costs; 3) Collective choice arrangements; 4) Monitoring; 5) Graduated sanctions; 6) Fast and fair conflict resolution; 7) Local autonomy; 8) Appropriate relations with other tiers of rule-making authority (polycentric governance). This work was so groundbreaking that Ostrom was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009…

David Sloan Wilson on the design principles that can solve the tragedy of the commons: “The Tragedy of the Commons: How Elinor Ostrom Solved One of Life’s Greatest Dilemmas.”

For more on the tragedy of the commons, see here— also the source of the cartoon above.

* Aristotle

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As we share and share alike, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that we– the entire population of the earth– narrowly avoided total obliteration, as the 500,000 ton asteroid/planetoid 69230 Hermes failed to collide with our planet.  It missed by twice the distance of the Moon… but that’s only three seconds.  (In 1989, the earth had an even closer approach, but by the smaller 4581 Asclepius.)

69230 Hermes

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

“It is not enough for code to work”*…

 

It’s been said that software is “eating the world.” More and more, critical systems that were once controlled mechanically, or by people, are coming to depend on code. This was perhaps never clearer than in the summer of 2015, when on a single day, United Airlines grounded its fleet because of a problem with its departure-management system; trading was suspended on the New York Stock Exchange after an upgrade; the front page of The Wall Street Journal’s website crashed; and Seattle’s 911 system went down again, this time because a different router failed. The simultaneous failure of so many software systems smelled at first of a coordinated cyberattack. Almost more frightening was the realization, late in the day, that it was just a coincidence…

Our standard framework for thinking about engineering failures—reflected, for instance, in regulations for medical devices—was developed shortly after World War II, before the advent of software, for electromechanical systems. The idea was that you make something reliable by making its parts reliable (say, you build your engine to withstand 40,000 takeoff-and-landing cycles) and by planning for the breakdown of those parts (you have two engines). But software doesn’t break… Software failures are failures of understanding, and of imagination…

Invisible– but all too real and painful– problems, and the attempts to make them visible: “The Coming Software Apocalypse.”

* Robert C. Martin, Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship

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As we Code for America, we might recall that it was on this date in 1983 that Microsoft released its first software application, Microsoft Word 1.0.  For use with MS-DOS compatible systems, Word was the first word processing software to make extensive use of a computer mouse. (Not coincidentally, Microsoft had released a computer mouse for IBM-compatible PCs earlier in the year.)  A free demo version of Word was included with the current edition of PC World—  the first time a floppy disk was included with a magazine.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 29, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you”*…

 

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Triumph of Death” c. 1562

 

Researchers at Oxford University have compiled a “scientific assessment about the possibility of oblivion”

The scientists from the Global Challenges Foundation and the Future of Humanity Institute used their research to draw up a list of the 12 most likely ways human civilization could end on planet earth.

“[This research] is about how a better understanding of the magnitude of the challenges can help the world to address the risks it faces, and can help to create a path towards more sustainable development,” the study’s authors said.

“It is a scientific assessment about the possibility of oblivion, certainly, but even more it is a call for action based on the assumption that humanity is able to rise to challenges and turn them into opportunities.”

* Joesph Heller, Catch-22

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As we count the ways, we might send heavenly birthday greetings to Nicolaus Copernicus. the Renaissance polyglot and polymath– he was a canon lawyer, a mathematician, a physician,  a classics scholar, a translator, a governor, a diplomat, and an economist– best remembered as an astronomer ; he was born on this date in 1473.  Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres; published just before his death in 1543), with its heliocentric account of the solar system, is often regarded as the beginning both of modern astronomy and of the scientific revolution.

Of all discoveries and opinions, none may have exerted a greater effect on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus. The world had scarcely become known as round and complete in itself when it was asked to waive the tremendous privilege of being the center of the universe. Never, perhaps, was a greater demand made on mankind – for by this admission so many things vanished in mist and smoke! What became of our Eden, our world of innocence, piety and poetry; the testimony of the senses; the conviction of a poetic – religious faith? No wonder his contemporaries did not wish to let all this go and offered every possible resistance to a doctrine which in its converts authorized and demanded a freedom of view and greatness of thought so far unknown, indeed not even dreamed of.

– Goethe

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 19, 2015 at 1:01 am

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