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Posts Tagged ‘systems

“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.

chernobyl-gettyimages-110170725

A view of the facility three days after the incident

source

 

Written by LW

April 25, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to an untiring effort.”*…

 

770px-Diagram_of_the_Federal_Government_and_American_Union_edit

Diagram of U.S. governance, 1862 [source and larger version]

The Roman Empire, the Iroquois Confederacy, and the United States of America are human inventions as surely as airplanes, computers, and contraception are. Technology is how we do things, and political institutions are how we collaborate at scale. Government is an immensely powerful innovation through which we take collective action.

Just like any other technology, governments open up new realms of opportunity. These opportunities are morally neutral: humans have leveraged political institutions to provide public eduction and to murder ethnic minorities. Specific features like explicit protections for human rights and civil liberties are designed to help mitigate certain downside risks.

Like any tool, systems of governance require maintenance to keep working. We expect regular software updates, but forget that governance is also in constant flux, and begins to fail when it falls out of sync with the culture. Without preventative maintenance, pressure builds like tectonic forces along a fault line until a new order snaps into place, often violently…

Widespread adoption renders technology invisible, its ubiquity revealed only when it breaks. That’s why science fiction plots so often hinge on systems breaking, and explains Wired Senior Maverick Kevin Kelly’s approach to futurism: “I’m looking for the places where technology is abused, misused, or unsupervised in order to get a glimpse of its natural inherent leanings. Where the edges go, the center follows later.”

If you’re worried about the demise of democracy because you see how the system is being abused, congratulations! You have just discovered a way to make democracy stronger. Ask any programmer: Nothing clarifies software development like a major bug report. Follow that edge. Sharpen, blunt, or redirect it as necessary. The center will follow…

Critically-acclaimed novelist and essayist Eliot Peper (@eliotpeper) argues for regular maintenance and upgrades: “Government is a technology, so fix it like one.”

* John F. Kennedy

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As we undertake an upgrade, we might spare a thought for Marcus Tullius Cicero; he died on this date in 43 BCE.  A  Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist, Cicero was one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists.  His influence on the Latin language was immense: it has been said that subsequent prose was either a reaction against or a return to his style, not only in Latin but also (after Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s work) in European languages up to the 19th century.

A champion of Republican government in Rome, he spoke against the second Catilinarian conspiracy, against  Julius Caesar, then– even more eloquently– against Mark Antony.  He was executed in 43 BCE (his head and hands were amputated and displayed to the public) for his Philippics, a series of speeches attacking Antony and calling (again) for a restoration of the Republic.  Sic semper prōtestor?

https://i0.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8478/8243527748_ab6d5f6fa9_o.jpg source

 

Written by LW

December 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“How about a little magic?”*…

 

sorcerers apprentice

 

Once upon a time (bear with me if you’ve heard this one), there was a company which made a significant advance in artificial intelligence. Given their incredibly sophisticated new system, they started to put it to ever-wider uses, asking it to optimize their business for everything from the lofty to the mundane.

And one day, the CEO wanted to grab a paperclip to hold some papers together, and found there weren’t any in the tray by the printer. “Alice!” he cried (for Alice was the name of his machine learning lead) “Can you tell the damned AI to make sure we don’t run out of paperclips again?”…

What could possibly go wrong?

[As you’ll read in the full and fascinating article, a great deal…]

Computer scientists tell the story of the Paperclip Maximizer as a sort of cross between the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the Matrix; a reminder of why it’s crucially important to tell your system not just what its goals are, but how it should balance those goals against costs. It frequently comes with a warning that it’s easy to forget a cost somewhere, and so you should always check your models carefully to make sure they aren’t accidentally turning in to Paperclip Maximizers…

But this parable is not just about computer science. Replace the paper clips in the story above with money, and you will see the rise of finance…

Yonatan Zunger tells a powerful story that’s not (only) about AI: “The Parable of the Paperclip Maximizer.”

* Mickey Mouse, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

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As we’re careful what we wish for (and how we wish for it), we might recall that it was on this date in 1631 that the Puritans in the recently-chartered Massachusetts Bay Colony issued a General Court Ordinance that banned gambling: “whatsoever that have cards, dice or tables in their houses, shall make away with them before the next court under pain of punishment.”

Mass gambling source

 

Written by LW

March 22, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens”*…

 

The life expectancy for the average woman in the United States is 81 years and 2 months. For men, it’s 76 years and 5 months. These are the most recent estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just subtract your current age from those numbers for a rough estimate of how many years you have left.

It feels accurate. It feels precise.

But people die at various ages. Life is imprecise. Otherwise, you could just plan your days all the way up to your last.

Also, life expectancy is typically quoted “from birth.” It’s the number of years a baby is expected to live the moment he or she escapes from the womb into the wondrous realities of the outside world. This is a good measure for progress in countries and is a fine wideout view, but it’s just so-so for you and me, as individuals.

The range of your life expectancy is much more interesting…

See for yourself:  toggle to your gender and age on Flowing Data‘s interactive graphic (based on data from the Social Security Administration), and see the “Years You Have Left to Live, Probably.”

* Woody Allen

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As we memento mori, we might spare a thought for Giambattista Vico; he died on this date in 1744. A political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist, Vico was one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers. Best known for the Scienza Nuova (1725, often published in English as New Science), he famously criticized the expansion and development of modern rationalism and was an apologist for classical antiquity.

He was an important precursor of systemic and complexity thinking (as opposed to Cartesian analysis and other kinds of reductionism); and he can be credited with the first exposition of the fundamental aspects of social science, though his views did not necessarily influence the first social scientists.  Vico is often claimed to have fathered modern philosophy of history (although the term is not found in his text; Vico speaks of a “history of philosophy narrated philosophically”). While he was not strictly speaking a historicist, interest in him has been driven by historicists (like Isaiah Berlin).

 source

 

Written by LW

January 23, 2016 at 1:01 am

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