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Fault Tolerance

You pay the insurance bills every month.  Car, home, life – they’re all about the same, a bet against yourself that you actually hope is money wasted.  But when things go wrong, like a drunk driver smacking into you one sunny day, it’ll be there when you need it.  If you listen to the commercials, what you get for your money is peace of mind.  It should help you sleep at night without anxiety.

Insurance is just the ultimate form of taking care of when things go bad.  Building fault tolerance into a system so that it never gets that far is a far more complicated and thoughtful process.  Anyone who designs a system of some kind – a physical thing or a process that involves checks and balances – is probably going to be proud enough of their achievement to not want to think about when things go horrible wrong and the whole thing breaks.  But that’s exactly what needs to happen for it to be truly robust.  It’s also something that a culture or society has to think about ultimately, painful as it may be.

A recent post in Barataria on Boundary Failures generated more side conversations via email than just about anything else I’ve written. It struck a nerve with many of you.  What surprised me more than anything was how these conversations came in private, as if failures in the systems of our government, society, and life in general are something to be ashamed of.  More likely it’s a topic that most of you didn’t think you had anything to add in public even though you’ve had it in the back of your mind for some time.

It’s OK, we’re family here.  We can talk.  I put out a lot of partially baked ideas, you know.

It’s easier to imagine this situation with physical things, such as cars.  It seems a bit counter-intuitive but the best way to design a safe car is to make it so that when you do get smacked the thing more or less flies apart.  It absorbs the hit so that the people inside are safe.  Engineers are often trained to think this way and some take on the task gleefully.  It’s fun to wreck stuff and see what happens.

Social systems are not as much fun to wreck.  To some extent, the ongoing assault on public employee unions in several states is a reflection of this same problem.  Systems were built up over the years through collective bargaining that were supposed to handle all the bad times in one holistic method.  Right now, they’re taking a huge hit – and some people want the unions to simply fly apart and take the blow.  Is that really the right way to handle it?  Probably not, but a system that is inflexible will tend to be more brittle than one that has fault tolerance built into it.  The opinion that these unions are inflexible has led to the opinion that they have to be destroyed for everything else to carry on, at least among some people.  How it plays out through these tough times is still an open question.

It’s far from the only example.  A global economy has very little tolerance for unrest in nations that have strategic resources like oil.  The system that was rather deliberately put in place encouraged dictatorships because they appeared to put a lid on social upheaval and manufactured a sense of stability.  In the short term it appeared to work, but it should have been obvious that this is not a fault tolerant system – when unrest does strike hard everything has to shut down for weeks or even months, making things worse.  Democracy is going to be inherently more fault tolerant than any strong arm.

The financial world also had remarkably little fault tolerance built into it as well.  The assumption that risk had been eliminated actually increased the risk because it encouraged bad behavior that tested the limits.

How do we as a society build fault tolerance into our world?  It has to start by accepting the fact that any system, physical or social, is only as good as when things go horribly wrong.  That means facing our own destruction, our own death, at a time when we’re full of life and energy.  It’s not something humans do naturally.

A strong half-step back is often the first place to start.  Our interdependent world requires us to be even more aware of what can possibly go wrong especially as the systems of our life become so complicated that few people understand them.  Participatory democracy requires that we all stay plugged in, especially when it looks like there’s no reason to worry about a thing.

But please, let me know what you think now that we’ve seen a lot of things start to break down in ways we never even tried to anticipate.  We can talk.

16 thoughts on “Fault Tolerance

  1. One thing you didn’t get into. It is possible to make a car that keeps everyone safe and does not fly apart in an accident but it would be built like a tank and have the same mileage. The real tradeoff is with cost like any engineered system.
    In public policy I think we could insure everything if we wanted to but the bureacracy would be outrageous. We probably can’t afford it. So there is always some risk that everyone has to take. Personal responsibility is never dead even in a socialist world.

  2. Dale, that’s a very good point. The more I think about this the more I realize that social and engineered systems are remarkably similar when it comes to fault tolerance – which isn’t obvious at first, IMHO.

    Another thing I didn’t write about is how technical indicators are useful in stock markets to detect when there is a “breakout” or unusual situation. That alerts the market to respond, and is a kind of fault tolerance for everyday small changes which prevents stress from building up over the long haul. It makes for a more liquid market and smoother trading overall.

    That principle probably can be applied pretty easily to things like public policy, at least when there is a budget involved. I’m thinking about that one.

  3. It has been interesting reading The Guardian this week, mostly so because of the large march against the cuts that happened last weekend. It generated a number of articles and even more comments. By the way most of the comments were pessimistic. But a number of things did come up including the DeGaul phrase the politics and the decision of disadvantages. Not all of the disabled were in agreement with the government workers as the saw themselves and the unemployed as those most likely to get nicked. There was another very personal letter where one writer wrote about his wife’s struggles in finding work and that brought forth a couple of sympathetic responses. Still all in all I see the British system having more social insurance afterall they have a NHS.

  4. I think that a strong social safety net and personal responsibility are not necessarily in opposition to each other – and the extent that they are is probably a kind of failure (or one waiting to happen). These can work very well in some nations for various reasons that are worth getting to know, IMHO.

  5. Ok I’ll name one. Actually a strong social safety net can promote entreupenicarl (sp) behavior. It is also interesting watching some of the statehouse deliberations on the budget. For instance the poorest now have the “choice” of high deductible plans thru vouchers.
    Another thing I have a young coworker with 2 degrees one being chemistry. He bemoans his part time job in a lab as being so easy a monkey could do it. I try to encourage him by telling him that his full time job as a dispatcher is actually quite complex juggling multiple demands etc. etc.

  6. I don’t think there’s any doubt that a strong safety net encourages entrepreneurial behavior. It’s like the example of insurance that you started with. If people know they can take more risk I think you’ll have a more flexible economy which is probably going to be more fault tolerant.

    I read fault tolerant as being able to fail and bounce back. Losing your health insurance is a risk that keeps many people from trying things that are new. I think we have an economy that makes failure of any kind a huge problem and that totally sucks.

  7. Interesting where you all have steered this. I was thinking more about fault tolerant public policies in terms of running government, but this has gone towards policies that promote a fault tolerant economy / society. This, to me, is what real politics is all about!

    Steering it to entrepreneurship is interesting – not exactly the same as fault tolerance, but they do seem to be related. An economy that encourages innovation will be more dynamic and likely much closer to some kind of equilibrium than a centrally planned one (speaking as an American, I am!). What hasn’t sunk in is how the old industrial model that so many things still operate under, with big companies and so on, is not all that much different from a centrally planned economy.

    There is a LOT here, and you are all on the right track. There is a role for government in creating the playing field that makes a stronger economy and society. It’s the difference between Capitalism and Marketism that I’ve written about long ago.

    We have to have a debate like this publicly and stop the crap that people usually drone on about. The nonsense I usually hear is just killing us.

    Why aren’t there more people like you all in legacy media, etc?

  8. Alan, I do not know what happened – must be technical. It wasn’t caught in my spam filter, which sometimes happens. Sorry about that – please try again, I do appreciate what you’ve added to Barataria!

    I do not have a comment policy posted, but I leave up absolutely everything that is not caught by the spam filter as long as I have no proof that someone is posting anonymously. The only comments I have ever deleted were either clear spam that got through (honestly, I am not interested in buying a shed!) or comments left by someone whose e-mail address could not be verified (and I rarely check).

  9. Well, I was curious because because this is the second time it happened.

    Often I keep copies of posts but did not in either of these cases and don’t remember what I said….so it probably wasn’t that profound (!)


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  12. This is really great stuff that I’ve never heard talked about before but it’s very true. If you think of our economy as a series of systems that we depend on the chance of a big collapse is all about the chance of a lot of smaller collapses happening. And that is more or less what happened in 2008.

    I don’t think that it can ever be 100% clear of any failure but we can do a better job of at least knowing what our risks are. Excellent post!

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