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.