The Bilge of Bigger Being Better

One of my favorite questions is what is the largest machine on earth, and one of the best answers is the North American power grid. Spanning thousands of miles and connected to millions of people, the North American power grid is not only a gigantic machine,  it has enormous influence on all of our lives, save for those of you who are receiving your internet over an independent satellite and using wind power to generate the electricity needed to power your computer, so that means less than 1% of you aren’t dependent in some way.  If you think that isn’t important, Google “Russians hacking the U.S. power grid” and read the articles just this year (2018) on how many times and how many ways the Russians are seeking to destroy our infrastructure.  Of course, to the Democrats and mainstream media, trying to remove the current president from office supersedes any efforts to protect our critical infrastructure such as our power supply or information systems; after all, one has to have their priorities.

 

Mankind’s march to bigger and bigger continues on unabated. The well-documented failures mean nothing. I understand all too well that failures are how we learn. Take Three Mile Island, for example, and this is just a brief review, as the whole thing was complicated; you know, complicated, like some big machine that, when it fails, causes big problems. At TMI (Three Mile Island) there was a stuck valve and, as I understand it, a manually-opened valve that had been closed. There were computer-human interface problems, where workers believed one thing, while something else was  actually happening. Long story short, TMI was a billion dollar error. Big nuclear reactor, big problem. The accident caused big doubt concerning the viability of nuclear reactors, and killed the nuclear industry for a long time.

 

To err is human, to really screw up requires a computer. Take Knight Capital, whose computer on August 1, 2012 bought the firm into a $6.5 billion position, for which  the losses were never recovered. By the way, Knight Capital had the stones to ask the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) for the money back. I’d bet if the mistake had gained Knight Capital, they would have generously given the $6.5 billion back as well, acknowledging that it was a mistake; and if you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I can get you a great deal on, but you have to act fast.

 

Bigger isn’t always better. It is as if some of the emerging market countries are trying to outdo each other on how tall they can make a building. In the United Arab Emirates, there is a building called the Torch Tower that has caught fire in both 2015 and 2017. All things considered, I would prefer not to stay there. Most fire departments have equipment that can handle fires up to about four floors, after which they must enter the building, go up to the fire and put it out. I’m not knocking firefighters, they are a brave bunch, but when was the last time you strapped on thirty pounds of protective gear and then raced up seventy flights of stairs? Never take elevators in fires, by the way.

 

The Titanic was the biggest ship on the sea in 1912. It became the biggest ship to sink to the bottom of the ocean that year as well; and it took a few thousand lives with it. I recall an architect once say that if they build the tallest building in the world and it falls over, then it will be the longest building in the world. While it might have been a joke, the lack of concern about the people inside the building was, to me, very disturbing. From personal experience, most architects have not made very many deliveries, because if they had, they would map out buildings better. If you never had to do it, you don’t think about it. This is why certain machines are so uncomfortable. I hear the Apple monitors are “brilliant” and “intuitive” because they don’t have anything but the screen with which to view. I guess “intuitive” means forgetting to take your flash drive from the computer in the library because it remains hidden in the back of the monitor. There is nothing more “intuitive” than losing hours of work because some designer decided the USB port was better in back. Better if you are a designer, I guess. In terms of practicality, sheer stupidity.

 

The bigger they make things, the bigger mess they make when it goes wrong. I’m not for everything being smaller, I’m just in favor of creating things that we can control, as opposed to monstrous things that the proud designers insist are perfect and when something goes wrong, it goes wrong on the scale of  huge expense, in both money and human lives. I love that we have electronics getting smaller and smaller, but that is a miniature essay.

 

Recent research reveals that “diversity” makes for better decisions. How many times has a group of managers assembled and put together and almost unworkable plan, something that would only work if everything, and I mean everything worked exactly as they were supposed to work? I really loved the Japanese manufacturer who lost several million dollars in production time because of an eighty-nine cent gasket. Had I been the in charge of those managers, I would have suggested that the next time we lose several million because of a gasket worth less than a dollar, some people will not be joining our conversations again.

 

Big planes, big ships, big buildings, all come with big price tags, and some with big lawsuits and losses when things go wrong. I remember when in meetings at a company where I was the only one who disagreed with the other managers when the supervisor suggested a policy change. But then, I wasn’t a “team player.” As long as other people are “taking one for the team” everything is alright. On your next big project, consider some diversity, and take into consideration the person who speaks up. You might have better luck with the big dream.

 

Comments

Ray Joseph Cormier Added Apr 22, 2018 - 8:52pm
On a relevant plane, the following link leads to an interview with Neil Barofsky, Inspector General for Policing TARP.
 
Trump and the Republicans rescinded to regulations Obama put in place to prevent a repeat of the 2008 Global Financial Meltdown-Economic Pearl Harbour. It's not a question of IF but WHEN?
 
TOO BIG TO FAIL
Jeff Jackson Added Apr 22, 2018 - 9:04pm
Big failure might have big consequences. The Republicans will face a public shaming if the markets collapse that will cost them many positions, or even death in American politics. Brace for another big failure. Thanks for comments Ray.
Leroy Added Apr 22, 2018 - 9:18pm
I've never viewed the power grid as a machine, but I suppose it fits a loose definition.  One of the concerns about North Korea was that they had a satellite operating above the US that many believed contained an EMP that could wipe out much of the grid.  It is likely fantasy, but the threat of wiping out the grid is very real, nothing that a few billion won't fix.
 
I lived on the 28th of an apartment building in Shanghai.  I never saw a firetruck.  I saw a couple of ambulances stuck in traffic like everyone else, sirens blaring.  My guess is that if there were a fire, it would take a couple of hours for help to arrive.  There's no way a fire on an upper floor could be stopped.  In fact, it happened to another building.  The entire apartment building burned down.  They didn't have the equipment to reach the top.
 
One factory where I worked had several machines which were the heart of production.  The bugs were never fully worked out before someone came up with the idea of making the machines cheaper to build then sending them to the other side of the world to China.  I was required to train in each department before I was allowed to work there.  I never saw a single machine produce a widget from beginning to end without breaking down.  In fact, each machine required a dedicated technician 24/7 to keep it running.  But, the machine was cheap.  It was a colossal screwup.  I heard that the factory shutdown.  I wouldn't doubt it. The company seemed to have wised up and used commercial equipment for the next factory.
Dave Volek Added Apr 22, 2018 - 9:20pm
Jeff
I believe there is no such thing as the North American power grid. The grid is divided into three sections: Texas, West (California to Manitoba), East (Florida to Ontario). Even so, two of these three are pretty big machines. 
 
I thought your essay wondered a bit, delving into several humanistic topics, each worthy of its own article. 
 
But I too have experienced bringing up certain points--only to be given the silent treatment. Months later, unfortunately, my prediction comes true. Am I given recognition? Nah! 
Jeff Jackson Added Apr 22, 2018 - 9:24pm
Thanks Leroy, you have a lot more courage than I do. It seems that these countries build skyscrapers and then, when they catch fire, begin to think about how they would deal with one catching fire. I always thought they said "safety first" for a reason. Of course, back when we were young, we were invulnerable. Some of those invulnerable parts are still hurting. Thanks for the comments Leroy.
EXPAT Added Apr 22, 2018 - 9:27pm
Jeff. There are advantages to being big, such as the power grid you mention. When a power failure occurs in one sector, power from another sector can be diverted to the area.
But even more disadvantages come from being big, such as the elimination of competition, and making a failed product the only choice.
The Sherman Anti trust act, recognized that, but today it is all but ignored.
George N Romey Added Apr 22, 2018 - 9:29pm
I remember in the 80s big business, big banks and big pharmaceutical being sold as the path to riches for the masses. Enough said.
Jeff Jackson Added Apr 22, 2018 - 9:30pm
Thanks Dave. The inspiration was that recent research says diversity will bring out needed criticism, and diversity brings out the problems to be considered before going on. The bigger the project the bigger the potential problems. I too, Dave, had people telling me to shut up and just vote with the rest of the people, but I could not ethically comply. When the problems that I predicted came true, all I got was resentment. Thanks for your comments, Dave and yeah, it kinda wandered just a bit, but I thought the meanderings were still in the ballpark of the essay. I'd love to do an essay trashing Apple and architects. Perhaps another time.
Jeff Jackson Added Apr 22, 2018 - 9:33pm
Yes, Expat, you are correct. Congress passed laws so that the power grid could be interconnected, to ensure power backups when and if one system failed. The connection makes them considered as one unit. Nice comments on Sherman, and yes, I think it is largely ignored of late. Thanks for your comments.
Jeff Jackson Added Apr 22, 2018 - 9:34pm
Yes, George, "too big to fail" became "too big to let go bankrupt" because the swamp was in bed with the people they regulated. Thanks for you comments George, always a pleasure.
Flying Junior Added Apr 23, 2018 - 2:56am
The biggest machine on earth?  Why, the right-wing propaganda machine, without a doubt.  It's tentacles are in almost every home.  No family is without taint.
 
As a democrat I have two issues.  How could you even suggest that democrats are not concerned about foreign agents hacking into our power grids?  We’re not stupid.  Attempts are one thing.  So far the Russians have not brought us to our knees.
 
Maybe we can all agree that Russia really doesn't have our best interests at heart.  I'm sure that the Russian leadership hates just about everything to do with our unmatched wealth, superior technology, military might, agricultural productivity, culture and just about anything else you can think of, including climate.  Eat your heart out you old Russian bear.
 
My other thing is, why will no one believe me when I scream to the mountainsides, "We are not trying to impeach Trump?"
 
We're not.
 
Housekeeping aside.  Computer systems can be hacked.  But take comfort.  The Russians do not hold the high cards when it comes to the international brain trust.
 
The brightest minds in IT are all right here.  From the University of California San Diego to MIT.  We don't have much to fear from Russian bumblers.  We could have taken them down at any time for the last twenty years.  We're nice.  We don't do that sort of thing.
 
Here is an interesting question.  Once my liberal friends tried to tell me something about a smart grid, like that was something new.  I thought, well...  "If a grid wasn't smart, how could it even stay up and running without almost constant brownouts and wasted power production?"
 
My point was that the grids were being operated in a wonderful fashion that was nothing short of genius, hard work and diligence.
 
Was I wrong?  Is there really something known as, "The Smart Grid," which can deliver power more efficiently with less waste?
Jeff Jackson Added Apr 23, 2018 - 6:07am
I must be listening to the wrong Democrat leaders, Junior. Thanks for setting me straight on this.
Ray Joseph Cormier Added Apr 23, 2018 - 7:53am
Maybe we can all agree that Russia really doesn't have our best interests at heart.
 
Typical American arrogance! Why should Russia have America's best interests at heart? Does the US have Russia's best interests at heart?
If both countries did have the other's best interests at heart, this world would be on the path to beating their swords into ploughshares and their spears into prunninghooks, and all the US initiated Wars in violation of International Law would stop..
 
Unmatched wealth. That's a temporary illusion when the US is deeper in debt than any other Nation. Wealth is not just material possessions.
 
The brightest minds in IT are all right here. And Russia spending $100,000 on Social Media put Trump in power, even though the Republicans/Democrats spent $7 BILLION between them. That must be some smart IT!

 
The US buys Russian rockets. As for Culture,  homelessness, mass shootings and brainwashed lemmings are on the increase.
Dave Volek Added Apr 23, 2018 - 8:52am
Jeff
I used to be surprised when a decision-making group would ignore data or possible consequences brought to the attention of the group. 
 
Then I read something about "cognitive dissonance" in psychology books. People havze a natural tendency to rationalize away things they really don't want to hear.
 
THen I took a personality test called True Colors. I am a very "green" (analytical) person. I like numbers, layers of ramifications, and probabilities. Most people are not like that. So when I introduce my ideas, they just cannot think along these lines. 
 
You mentioned "diversity". We need a diversity of personalities on decision-making bodies. The non-greens need to respect the talents given to the greens. 
 
And we all need to realize that all of us can fall into the trap of cognitive dissonance.
 
 
Dino Manalis Added Apr 23, 2018 - 1:54pm
Not necessarily, bigger means more complex and often bigger problems!
Flying Junior Added Apr 23, 2018 - 3:38pm
I can't respond Ray.  I would be straying too far O/T.  Jeff is a polite host.
Jeff Jackson Added Apr 23, 2018 - 3:43pm
Yes Dave, you're right on target with cognitive dissonance and the need for diversity, where those with the ability to "project" (which, by the way, is an aspect of measured intelligence) are listened to and their conclusions are taken into account, and not brushed off as rampant speculation. Thanks Dave.
Jeff Jackson Added Apr 23, 2018 - 3:46pm
Thanks Junior. I'll address Ray here.
Jeff Jackson Added Apr 23, 2018 - 4:04pm
Thanks for your comments, Ray. If you read “The Real War” by Richard Nixon, considered to be the bible of the Cold Warriors, Nixon explains many of the antics that the Soviet Union performed on the world stage. I won’t list them, but he has a point. Stalin grabbed the border states and the Soviets controlled their economies and politics for several decades. Whatever threat the U.S. posed was mostly in Stalin’s paranoid mind. It was the Soviets who spied on the U.S., its ally, and stole, yes stole nuclear secrets. They would have come up with a bomb eventually, no doubt, but Gouzenko (you can look him up) was the tip of the spear.
We have Russians and Chinese hacking away at the systems of the U.S. The next war will be fought in the computer systems that control almost every aspect of our lives. The satellites are one of the key components, and I am should inform you that the Chinese have been developing a satellite destroying system, and tested it on some of the older satellites still circling but out of commission. We are doing the same, except we seem to be attempting to protect ourselves from hackers who want to steal classified information and figure out how to disable our computer-generated defense systems. 
opher goodwin Added Apr 23, 2018 - 6:29pm
Interesting ideas Jeff. The internet is probably the biggest machine though. If that fails then all the lights go out, all the transport shuts down and everything else stops too. We have become so dependant. 
Leroy Added Apr 23, 2018 - 8:17pm
I don't know what I would do if I asked Alexa to turn on the lights and she didn't respond.
Jeff Jackson Added Apr 23, 2018 - 9:16pm
You have made a great point Opher. The internet wins because it is all over the world; it has to be the biggest interconnected machine, dwarfing almost everything. Yes, lots of things are dependent on the internet. We have a winner! Thanks Opher!
Jeff Jackson Added Apr 23, 2018 - 9:17pm
Leroy, lets hope Alexa doesn't turn on you. I'm sure you know ladies can sometimes be fickle.
Ray Joseph Cormier Added Apr 24, 2018 - 8:36am
Jeff, thank you for the history that really has nothing to do with the issues FJ raised and I replied to. He said he couldn't reply to my reply because he would be straying too far O/T and you went O/T on steroids.
Leroy Added Apr 24, 2018 - 10:03am
"Leroy, lets hope Alexa doesn't turn on you. I'm sure you know ladies can sometimes be fickle."
 
I just love it when she sings Happy Birthday to me.
Katharine Otto Added Apr 24, 2018 - 10:18pm
Jeff,
Interesting concept that the power grid is the biggest machine.  I could claim I would miss electric power more than I would miss an internet shutdown, but the grid is probably dependent on computers functioning correctly, too.  Can't get away from those computers.
 
I fear the Russians less than I fear good old American incompetence, what with the only new US nuclear power plant in 30 years being built upriver from me.  Our eternally helpful federal government okayed Plant Vogtle shortly after the Fukushima accident, using Westinghouse--which is now bankrupt--and I suspect nuclear equipment from Japan.
 
A friend told me they've found radioactive alligators around the Plant Vogtle site.  Yes, it's off topic, but it seems important to mention at least one unintended consequence of "too big to succeed."
Jeff Jackson Added Apr 25, 2018 - 6:11am
Thanks for the comments Katherine, and I think they're in sync with the theme of the essay. Several years ago, one of the nuclear plants on the Eastern Seaboard had a small accident that could have mushroomed (like that word choice?) into a huge problem. The NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) told them it better not happen again, and the folks from the plant said the probability of it happening again was like like one in a million. You guess it, didn't you? The same thing happened again within weeks. The NRC was not amused. There are several nuclear processing plants in Ohio, and some reactors in the northern part of the state. Thanks for your comments.
Jeff Jackson Added Apr 26, 2018 - 12:11pm
Neelon-Knight Capital made a $6.5 billion dollar mistake. That was a big stock trader (actually a piece of software) making big trades, and the $6.5 billion loss bankrupted the company. I'm taking it Neelon, that $6.5 billion by one trader is not very big. I guess my perspective is flawed. After all, $6.5 billion is only 650,000,000, so yes, not much. If you took the average income in the U.S., rounded off to $52,000 the stock purchase of Knight's $6.5 billion was only 12,500 times what the average worker makes, or, in other words, the average worker, in order to pay off that mistake, would only have to work 12,500 years. 
Not big at all. 
The same reasoning goes for Three Mile Island (TMI) which is a billion dollar piece of junk that will remain radioactive for a few thousand more years. I'm unable to understand as to how the benefit of size of those two examples outweighs the peril  and damage of loss. a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon we're talking real money.