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Posts Tagged ‘catastrophe

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



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


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




Written by LW

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


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.



Written by LW

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


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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