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GP2Oct: Systems on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown

The Laws of Lawlessness. Back in the 20th century, when things still seemed to work, we conjured up a number of laws, sometimes humorous, always ironic, that said we were going to hell in a hand basket. Now in the 21st, we’re in purgatory, and the laws have all come true. The space program, apparently, gave birth to Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.” Augustine’s Laws, the title of a book by one-time under-defense secretary and later Martin Marietta head Norm Augustine, more or less said: “As we get more and more money to spend on trinkets, we put more and more electronics in our jet planes, which condemns them to ever-increasing breakdowns and downtime.” Best of all and all but forgotten now is Cybernetics (1948), a short, exceedingly provocative work by the brilliant Norbert Weiner, a scientist for all seasons. In it we learned that the second Law of Themodynamics guarantees entropy in all systems. That is, organized things will always fall apart. Or as our good friend Regis C. announced to all with a chortle several years ago after a disruptive incident in the subway: “Well, that equine elimination is just gonna happen.” We have abundant laws, written before their time, that underscore the ultimate lawlessness of the universe and the inevitable Decline and Fall of any system you can dream up.

The Myth of Robust Systems. Computer people have nattered on about robust systems for half a century. But now that you know that anything complex is subject to the slings and arrows of Weiner’s entropy, you can state positively that such assertions simply don’t hold water. There’s really no such thing as a robust system. And, circa 2002, as we make our systems more and more complex, we’re simply experiencing more and more breakdown. Moreover, since our systems are interconnected (your house alarm is linked to an outside monitoring service located 100 miles away, which may call the wrong fire department when something happens), the domino effect comes into play. One bolt of lightening in the wrong place can bring 40 interconnected systems to a standstill.

There are all sorts of reasons that systems fall apart. In fact, the chaps at the Sante Fe Institute in New Mexico not only study complexity but stay up nights drumming up ways to make the complex, which is inherently unstable, stay glued together. They, and most of the architects who devise systems, tend to worry about design issues, looking at how systems are wired together. Isn't it ironic that all the people who look at complex phenomena always abide in simple places where the biggest story of the day is that somebody forgot to plug in the coffeepot? 

Shoddy Merchandise. We mere mortals, well away from the ivory tower, in the more complex world outside Santa Fe, can usually look to something more down to earth if we are out to avoid breakdown. In fact, a software guru from Santa Fe taught us that you can have poorly designed systems that function well, if the systems have lots of redundancy. Are there spare parts in the system, so when one conks out another takes over? Are there enough spare parts on your shelf (don't believe in maintenance schedules or just-in-time delivery) so you can pull a burnt-out part out and plug in another? Systems are put together by people often called integrators who, either through calculation or ignorance, use lousy components in their systems. And they’re too vain to acknowledge that even the best of systems (i.e., the systems they have built) will fail often. Simple to say: if you can use great parts, you will have less outages.

So this is a warning to us all to watch out for any system that is called “integrated.” It rarely has rugged enough components to work, lacks redundancy, and its creators usually over claim what it can do, even in the best of circumstances. This yellow caution light applies to all sorts of systems, not just the wired kind such as computers, electric grids, or management-information systems. As oft as not, systems fail because there’s a weak link in the chain. By the way, that certainly accounts for our worst space disasters.

For instance, many of the schools your kids go to now have “integrated curriculums” (a.k.a. curricula). That really means that all the courses are loosely knitted together so that your tots can read some colonial literature in Language Arts (an unfortunate euphemism for what we use to call English) while George Washington is bravely losing a battle or two against the French and Indians in a Social Studies course. But you can be sure that many children are not getting the vital, rigorous training they need in grammar, multiplication charts, or periodic tables. In computer training, they’re fooling around with elaborate Powerpoints, but never really learning to keyboard (type). The politically correct textbooks they use often border on illiteracy, even if they bear the imprimatur of some university in the Midwest. In other words, the components of these integrated curricula are lousy. According to some federal statistics, 30% of college students will need to take remedial course in reading, writing, and mathematics in order to get the fundamentals they missed growing up.

Just as bad is the customer service system at your utility, which lacks real-time data on when the repairs will get done and also lacks the power to send any meaningful data to the repair department so that the right skills are dispatched to do the fix. Their systems lack the correct software, the right training protocols, etc.

It’s not that there aren't simple systems that work. For instance, back in 1996 or so there was a wonderful bank in Palo Alto called University National Bank. As Chief Executive Carl Schmitt then said, “We’re in the put and take business.” He took money in and gave money out. He did not offer an endless array of services or contorted product options. He was in the deposit business. The folks who worked there were exceedingly polite; I seem to remember an Oriental rug on the floor; and you did not have to wait in long lines. Carl gave all his customers some Walla Walla onions at Christmas, as a way of saying thanks. He also took great pictures himself for his annual report. Since then, Wells Fargo or one of the huge integrated financial service institutions took it over, and reliability is out the window. There’s no longer a great non-integrator at the helm who wants to deliver on a simple idea, using simple, no-nonsense components. Here and there, around the nation you can still find the occasional put-and-take, one horse bank--these kinds of banks tend to make money year after year.

Looking Under the Hood. This world of fragile interdependent systems ultimately means that we will have to know what goes into anything in order to make our lives work. Most systems and processes are invisible now, and even if we get a list of contents, we don’t know what to make of them. Eventually we might hope for quality branding, the equivalent of the old Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Just as Intel has gotten computer makers to use “Intel Inside” labels, we are going to need short-hand labels that tell us we are probably getting good goods. This matter of quality contents or components presents incredible opportunities for alert business people who will increasingly grasp that obsolescence is no longer a viable business strategy in a resource-short, environmentally afflicted, stalled market economic environment. We need things that last and work for a long time. But it’s hard to build for a 100 years when you’re used to trashing everything. Here is an almost shocking business observation: obsolescence is obsolescent.

The first hints of making-visible-better-insides are just appearing on the horizon. McDonald’s and Frito-Lay are moving to put better oils in their foods, and we expect they will be better able to dramatize the Health Inside than the American Health Association or other non-profits. The air conditioning man (if he is not part of the national chains) is able to describe and install filtration devices that vastly extend the life of the cooling system. UPS and FedEx have made package deliveries transparent to the consumer, so that one can track on the Internet an item’s progress to its final destination. A few companies are becoming more agile at making the invisible worlds of systems and services visible to their customers. Any product or service is just part of a system: in a world of breakdown, we need to see whether the system works or does not work.

Ask the Repairman. But the insides of systems, products, services, schools, governments, whatever, are generally not transparent. As users, we have two choices.

1. Ask a repairman. He will probably tell you he would prefer to work on a Toyota above all other cars. Or that four TV brands (Sony and a few others) stand out above the pack for reliability and repairability. Repairability often tells you whether you are dealing with a well-wrought system. What we are saying here is that an informed middleman is a way of improving your luck with systems. Japanese manufacturers, similarly, once used middlemen (distributors of products) to find out what Americans wanted in their cars, TVs, power tools, etc.

2. Find some repair data. In a few cases, raw maintenance data of various sorts is available. The government collects on-time and other data on the airlines, which is not always easy to uncover but can be unearthed. Consumer Reports assembles maintenance data on car models that is uncommonly revealing and tells you more than all the testing performed by CR’s engineers.

In other words, until labeling gets better, you had best find out about the reliability of systems from some sort of repair data. It’s the breakdowns that tell you what you are dealing with.

Call 911. Remember when the Monday morning quarterbacks told us that Y2K was really a false alarm, and that the world’s computer systems did not fall apart despite the fact that computer engineers had not anticipated, way back when, that the year 2000 would ever come to pass. But wait a minute: systems of all kinds post 2000 are breaking down everywhere. There are more power outages with many more to come because we are simply not building new generation capacity. We've been to the very edge of the Dark Ages in our financial markets--more than once. The Cold War is over, but Don Rumsfeld is still using the Spanish Armada to battle unconventional forces and terrorist viruses--the wrong system and wrong weapons to deal with an unseen enemy. Who says Y2K never happened?

Chances are you are going to run into total breakdown more and more. Recently a retired physician checked into a hospital north of Boston for surgery. Early one evening he rang for a bedpan, and, no matter how much he rang or shouted, nobody came.

The following night, exactly the same thing happened. But he had a Eureka and picked up his cell phone to call 911. The local police were able to rouse the hospital staff and to get him a bedpan in the nick of time.

Likewise, Don Imus, the radio talkslash host, was just as ingenious recently. No matter what, he could not get a Time Warner cable repairman to come to his New York apartment. Then he railed about it on his radio/cable show and the minions of TW came running. But, even after repairs, they knocked out the reception on one small TV in his kitchen. The system is so flawed that even the repairmen don't know what to do. And cable is one of the most hated services in the United States.

The world of broken systems is also a world of broken communication where citizens will have to be ingenious beyond belief to fight entropy. Broken systems turn ordinary citizens into guerilla fighters. As Norbert Weiner would have said, entropy “subverts the exchange of messages.” So you'll just have to learn to beat on your tom-tom.

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