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Posts Tagged ‘failure

“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 LW

April 25, 2020 at 1:01 am

“If you want to know what an institution does, watch it when it’s doing nothing”*…

 

Depression

 

Realizing an institution is near failure is a difficult epistemic problem. There are many outwardly visible pieces of institutions that do not reflect their actual health.

Before the collapse of financial institutions starting in 1929, naive observers were optimistic on the basis of soaring stock prices. Even after the Black Tuesday stock market crash, most observers expected a normal depression and recovery. Instead, the system continued to deteriorate, bank failures wiped out savings, the gold standard was abandoned internationally, and the Great Depression ensued.

Particularly in mature organizations, many automated systems handle tasks. Such systems can persist and even fulfill their function, while the institution as a whole is failing.The default is decay, maintenance of old abilities is difficult, and growth of new abilities is rare. One must look at what features of an institution indicate the current health of the core organization itself, while carefully distinguishing these from features reflective of past health and support from outside institutions.

From these signs, it’s possible to discover whether an institution has the ability to face new threats or is merely trudging through a slow process of decay. If an institution is unable to adapt to meet new challenges, it will lose again and again. Enduring defeat can only last for so long, no matter how large or well established the retreating organization. Eventually the inability to win dooms all institutions…

Samo Burja (@SamoBurja), from whom we’ve learned before, on the future of the social, political, commercial, and cultural organizations on which we depend: “Institutional Failure as Surprise.”

See also: “How Do You Know If You’re Living Through the Death of an Empire?” (Spoiler alert: it’s the little things…)

* P.J. O’Rourke, Parliament of Whores

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As we think systemically, we might recall that it was on this date in 1912 that the RMS Titanic, a state-of-the-art steamship, set sail from Southampton on its maiden voyage, bound for New York City.  Four days later, after calls at Cherbourg in France and Queenstown (now Cobh) in Ireland, the “unsinkable” Titanic collided with the iceberg that sent it under in the North Atlantic, 375 miles south of Newfoundland.

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RMS Titanic leaving Southampton

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Written by LW

April 10, 2020 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 LW

September 29, 2017 at 1:01 am

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”*…

 

The Museum of Failure opens in Helsingborg, Sweden on June 7.

Museum of Failure is a collection of interesting innovation failures. The majority of all innovation projects fail and the museum showcases these failures to provide visitors a fascinating learning experience.

The collection consists of over sixty failed products and services from around the world. Every item provides unique insight into the risky business of innovation…

From the Apple Newton and “Bic for Her” to “Trump, the Game” and Harley Davidson perfume (above)– see them at the Museum of Failure.

* Thomas Edison

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As we try again, we might spare a though for John Deere; he died on this date in 1886.  A blacksmith and inventor in Grand Detour, Ill., he frequently repaired the wood and cast-iron plows of eastern U.S. design, which were troubled by the heavy, sticky local soils.  By 1838 he had produced three more suitable steel plows of his own new design, and more in following years, which expanded into the agricultural machine business he began upon moving to Moline, Ill. (in 1847).  In another ten years, his annual production had increased ten-fold.  Originally using imported English steel instead of cast iron, he converted to U.S.-made steel when Pittsburgh steel plants could supply a suitable product.  The company diversified with production of harrows, drills, cultivators and wagons… and grew to become the agricultural and construction equipment giant in business to this day.

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Written by LW

May 17, 2017 at 1:01 am

“It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure”*…

 

If you ever wanted a glimpse into what dooms startups, look no further than autopsy.io, a website that lists the reasons why many newborn tech firms imploded. The website offers entrepreneurs the ability to self-explain why their startup didn’t quite make it; in a bid to separate real-life stories from entertaining fictions, the application form asks for a link to a blog post or medium article “that tells the story of the failure,” along with the founder(s) Twitter handle and Crunchbase or Angel.co profile. Some of the reasons listed for failure are maddeningly opaque, such as UniSport’s “for a number of reasons” or PlayCafe’s “we didn’t reach enough users.” Others are bleakly hilarious; as the founders of Zillionears, self-billed as a “creative pre-sale platform for musicians,” confessed: “People really didn’t really LIKE anything about our product.” If you’re thinking of launching your own company, or you work for a wet-behind-the-ears startup, it’s worth scanning the list to see if any of these potential crises are brewing in your setup.

Via Nerval’s Lobster at Slashdot.

* Bill Gates

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As we dust ourselves off, we might spare a thought for Roger Bacon; he died on this date in 1292.  A philosopher and Franciscan friar, Bacon was one of the first to propose mathematics and experimentation as appropriate methods of science.  Working in mathematics, astronomy, physics, alchemy, and languages, he was particularly impactful in optics: he elucidated the principles of refraction, reflection, and spherical aberration, and described spectacles, which soon thereafter came into use. He developed many mathematical results concerning lenses, proposed mechanically propelled ships, carriages, and flying machines, and used a camera obscura to observe eclipses of the Sun.  And he was the first European give a detailed description of the process of making gunpowder.

He began his career at Oxford, then lectured for a time at Paris, where his skills as a pedagogue earned him the title Doctor Mirabilis, or “wonderful teacher.”  He stopped teaching when he became a Franciscan.  But his scientific work continued, despite his Order’s restrictions on activity and publication, as Bacon enjoyed the protection and patronage of Pope Clement…  until, on Clement’s death, he was placed under house arrest in Oxford, where he continued his studies, but was unable to publish and communicate with fellow investigators.

Statue of Roger Bacon in the Oxford University Museum

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Written by LW

June 11, 2015 at 1:01 am

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