Monday, May 3, 2010

Things fall apart

Within the last week I heard, from people I know, about three unrelated computer glitches:

  • a blogger's ISP hiccuped, bringing down her website on its busiest day of the week
  • a bookkeeper's business client found his bank balance off by $50,000 (leaving him $30K underwater) when a subcontractor to the company hired to handle credit card processing neglected to lift a software-triggered hold on his account
  • a different blogger's platform kept flagging legitimate comments to his posts as spam, and afforded no discoverable means to control the dysfunctional filtering

A more consequential glitch by far is the oil spill off the Gulf Coast, brought to you by petrobehemoth BP. Let's take a moment to quote from an Associated Press report on that one, datelined ten days after the explosion that set this disaster in motion:
(30 Apr 2010) British Petroleum downplayed the possibility of a catastrophic accident at an offshore rig that exploded, causing the worst U.S. spill in decades along the Gulf coast and endangering shoreline habitat. In the 52-page exploration plan and environmental impact analysis, BP repeatedly suggested it was unlikely, or virtually impossible, for an accident to occur that would lead to a giant crude oil spill and serious damage to beaches, fish, mammals and fisheries. BP's plan filed with the federal Minerals Management Service for the Deepwater Horizon well, dated February 2009, says repeatedly that it was "unlikely that an accidental surface or subsurface oil spill would occur from the proposed activities." And while the company conceded that a spill would "cause impacts" to beaches, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas, it argued that "due to the distance to shore (48 miles) and the response capabilities that would be implemented, no significant adverse impacts are expected."
Again, with conviction: "unlikely, or virtually impossible." Have you been following news out of Louisiana?

"Unlikely or virtually impossible" is just about exactly what energy companies said about nuclear power plant disasters before Three Mile Island (not to mention Chernobyl seven years later).

The common denominator throughout, covering the spectrum from superficial to outrageous, was stated eloquently enough for the ages by Irish poet W. B. Yeats: "Things fall apart."

Little things that fall apart aren't a big deal. The damage is contained, in space and time and reach. That wonky ISP came back to life after a bit; I suggested the blogger in question take the blip in stride ... it's not as if she's hosting NORAD or the NYSE. That credit card processing negligence is going to get cleaned up eventually, and the victim of a contractor's contractor's carelessness will be made whole. And that errant comment filter might be misbehaving due to an unresolved collision of two spam-protection features of a blogging platform; experiments are ongoing to see whether the annoyance can be fixed.

The oil spill in the Gulf? Another story altogether. The damage will be awful. The only issue left to debate is whether the leak will hemorrhage oil as fast as petroexecs and politicians sling blame. (I'm tempted to pile on with everybody else attacking the G.O.P. for their blithe "drill baby drill" fests during the 2008 campaign and since, but that territory has been claimed. Just one word, maybe? How about "idiots"?)

As for nuclear power, those intrepid fission fans are again promising everything will be just fine if they're allowed to build baby build. In February the prez pledged $8,000,000,000 (count the zeros...) to guarantee financing for a new round of nuclear-powered fallacy.

"Unlikely, or virtually impossible"? Feh.

To put it simply, things break.

Complicated things are more likely to break than simple things. Big complicated things are likely to have big complicated effects when they break. We are living in big, complicated times. Do the math.

When I was a freshman in college the guys on my dorm floor were hanging out one evening, arguing about nuclear power. Is it safe? Or is it disaster waiting to happen? Most of my floormates were majoring in one engineering discipline or another. I was pursuing a degree in physics at the time. Well, conversation got heated, and I -- arguing the danger of nuclear power -- blurted out the poorly-articulated argument that "nuclear things blow up." My engineering-major adversaries fell over themselves laughing at my vague, feebleminded foolishness. I sounded like a humanities major, they told me, hurling the vilest insult these nerds could imagine. (I say "nerds" lovingly, as a member of the tribe.) This all took place a few months before Three Mile Island melted down.

I ditched physics to study English literature the next year, and have no regrets. I'd say that I had the last laugh in the matter of nuclear things blowing up, but Three Mile Island wasn't funny. And Chernobyl was a horror show with a long shadow.

This spill in the Gulf? I'm staking my reputation as a pessimist on the certainty that its effects are going to get worse. A lot worse.

Nuclear power? We can only hope that Obama's plan to revive that lunacy gets torpedoed. Before the plants get built, I mean. Because ... well ... things fall apart.

Humans + hubris = tragedy. The Greeks got that one right.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Nuclear meltdown abroad and at home
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind
Digging deeper holes

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