zenpundit.com » risk

Archive for the ‘risk’ Category

Of butterflies, snowboarders, tornados and avalanches

Monday, April 7th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- deeply uncertain as to how often he should be grateful for narrow escapes from troubles he was utterly unaware of ]
.

See, the first thing I want to know it: is an oblivious butterfly’s wing-flap roughly equivalent to an oblivious snowboader’s short slide across snow? And the second: is a tornado roughly comparable to an avalanche? I mean, a second’s worth of a living creature’s movement in the one case, and a “natural disaster” of somewhat larger proportions in the other?

Of course, the avalanche was closer to the snowboarder, who wound up “riding” it to safety, than Brazil is to Texas. Is that a difference that makes a difference?

The first quote above is from Laura Zuckerman‘s Reuters report, No charges for snowboarder who triggered killer Montana avalanche, posted yesterday, and the second is the title of a celebrated talk given to the American Association for the Advancement of Science by Edward Lorenz on December 29, 1972.

Although if it had been given just 3 days later (a very mild change in initial conditions) it would have been given not merely on a different day and to a different audience, but in a different month and a different year… and maybe even mentioned first in different editions of Encyclopedia Britannica and the OED!

**

Well, see, I am also interested because in the paper with that intriguing title, Lorenz also said:

You can fill the lower panel with your own conclusion as to the question of the snowboarder: is there one of them helping us avoid an avalanche for very one that sets one going? Does it all cancel out in the long run?

From Zuckerman’s article again, broadening our scope from one incident in Montana to see the wider picture:

Almost all U.S. avalanches that affect people strike in the backcountry of the mountainous West and are caused by snowmobilers, skiers and snowboarders who inadvertently trigger them. Avalanches have killed 26 people so far this season, records show.

How many avalanches have we already missed this year thanks to other snowmobilers, skiers and snowboarders? And have we expressed our gratitude?

**

On a somewhat similar tack, I wrote back in 2009:

A deer crossed perhaps twelve feet ahead of my car on the road from Sedona, Arizona to Cottonwood a year or two back. 60 mph is 88 feet per second. A tenth of a second later and the deer and or I would likely have been dead — one full second later, he or she would have crossed sixty feet behind me and I would have seen nothing, known nothing.

There are deer constantly crossing our paths sixty feet behind us — and it’s a normal day at the office, it’s one more day like any other: sunny, then partly cloudy, with a ten percent chance of rain.

Another time, and this was in Southern California, my car skidded out of control on a slick road as I was driving home with son Emlyn (then age 10). We hit the 3′ concrete center divider, jumped it, and flipped over, landing upside down. Emlyn and I climbed out with minor scratches — making sure we could climb out through the squished windows was the main issue. We were unscathed, but the car itself was totalled.

Had I taken that turn three seconds earlier or later, hitting a slicker or drier patch of road, and angling more or less steeply at the center divider — would we have been, in words made famous by wanted posters long before Schrodinger’s cat pondered them: Dead or Alive

Who knows?

**

I suspect we have no idea how many close shaves and narrow escapes we have over the course of a lifetime — but the Recording Angel might know, and be in a state of perpetual hysterics over our ability to ignore a dozen near-disasters while getting totally discombobulated over a very minor incident that we happen to notice…

Unless the Recording Angel, too, is subject to Heisenberg‘s uncertainty and Schrodinger’s collapse…

Share

Regarding the Lesser and Greater Sludges

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- the warnings, the lack of response, the tragedy, and a diagnosis of the underlying, near-universal human condition ]
.

Devastation wrought by the Lesser Sludge, Snohomish County, WA, March 2014

**

Hear ye! Hear ye!

The most stunning account I’ve yet seen of the Oso mudslide isn’t really about the slide itself, it’s about how much we already knew and how little we listened. Here’s an interview with geomorph­ologist Daniel Miller, who wrote up the danger of a slide in a 1997 report for the Washington Department of Ecology and the Tulalip Tribes, and followed it up with a report for the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1999, in which he warned of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure”:

Compare and contrast that with the quote from a piece yesterday on Vice Motherboard titled Lidar Mapping Could Save Lives Before the Next Mudslide:

Nevertheless the county believed that it was safe to build homes down by the Stillaguamish River. “It was considered very safe,” John Pennington, head of Snohomish County’s Department of Emergency Management, said at a news conference Monday. “This was a completely unforeseen slide. This came out of nowhere.”

**

The Lesser Sludge:

According to Chapter 14, Landslides and other mass movements, in Snohomish County’s 2010 Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan Update:

Mudslides or mudflows (or debris flows) are rivers of rock, earth, organic matter and other soil materials saturated with water. They develop in the soil overlying bedrock on sloping surfaces when water rapidly accumulates in the ground, such as during river of rock, earth, organic matter and other heavy rainfall or rapid snowmelt. Water pressure in the pore spaces of the material increases to the point that the internal strength of the soil is drastically weakened. The soil’s reduced resistance can then easily be overcome by gravity, changing the earth into a flowing river of mud or “slurry.” A debris flow or mudflow can move rapidly down slopes or through channels, and can strike with little or no warning at avalanche speeds. The slurry can travel miles from its source, growing as it descends, picking up trees, boulders, cars and anything else in its path. Although these slides behave as fluids, they pack many times the hydraulic force of water due to the mass of material included in them. Locally, they can be some of the most destructive events in nature.

— and their Hazard Profile comments:

Landslides are caused by one or a combination of the following factors: change in slope of the terrain, increased load on the land, shocks and vibrations, change in water content, groundwater movement, frost action, weathering of rocks, and removing or changing the type of vegetation covering slopes.

Note that no human intervention is required — this is what an insurance writer might call an “act of God” while a scientist might prefer to call it the result of “natural causes”.

As for myself, I would like to refer to the actual mudflow consisting of “rock, earth, organic matter and other soil materials saturated with water” that recently buried much of the small, humanly-populated town of Osa in Snohomish County, WA, as the Lesser Sludge.

**

Hear ye!

Listen! Warnings have been issued for millennia — and still the kings, the potentates, the real estate moguls refuse to listen:

Hear ye the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah, and inhabitants of Jerusalem; Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, the which whosoever heareth, his ears shall tingle.

— Jeremiah 19:3

**

Managua:

I was in Managua, Nicaragua, shortly after the 1972 earthquake there. I had spent the day before with a 35mm Pentax, photographing square block after square block of demolished housing, with the occasional yellow flag indicating that a body — hence a possible source of infection — had been located there, too deep to be retrieved at that point. And I recall all too vividly what the physician sitting next to me on the plane home said to me:

They will rebuild on this same spot.

Managua had been the site of previous quakes, including one in 1885, and another in 1931 — it was at risk for serious quakes roughly twice a century. But real estate is real estate, Managua as Nicaragua’s capital city was valuable real estate, and the owners of valuable real estate would want to rebuild on their own real estate, no? It only makes logical sense…

And they did.

**

What, then, is the Greater Sludge?

What I am calling the Greater Sludge is the mental sludge that somehow lodges itself, not just in this instance but in ten thousand others, between appropriate warnings on the one hand, and acting on the need for change on the other.

The Greater Sludge, in other words, is between our ears and behind our eyes: we cannot see it, and we cannot hear it.

I spent the better part of a decade working and talking with the fine group of social entrepreneurs that Jeff Skoll‘s foundation gathered for discussions at the late, lamented SocialEdge site, and I noticed something that struck me forcibly at the time, and has only become more deeply rooted in my thinking since then: we have Foundations, think tanks, journals, RFPs, and funding reources for all manner of top-down approaches to single-issue problems — depleted or polluted water supplies, lack of housing, education, medicine, you name it. We even have a few people like Anthony Judge and his Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, trying to see the complex interweavings of multiple problems — and a few more like Victor d’Allant and his team at Urb.Im working on bottom-up solutions.

But there isn’t really even a category for approaches to the problem of the Greater Sludge: our need to make across-the-board improvements in mental clarity isn’t even on the map.

And yet mental sludge is the greatest obstacle facing all those who see problems and have the clarity to know how to go about fixing them: from distraction and disinterest to outright denial, the many shades of sludge constitute our one totally interdisciplinary, wholly integral and universal problem.

Conversely, clarity in that invisible space behind the eyes, the ability to hear the quiet voice of sanity above the babel-babble between the ears — that would be the universal solvent.

**

Further readings:

  • Critical thinking — cf. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking
  • Bias avoidance — cf. The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis and The Mind’s Lie
  • Systemic thinking — cf. Places to Intervene in a System and Dancing with Systems
  • Associzative leaps — cf. On the HipBone and Sembl games: update and Recap: on HipBone / Sembl Thinking
  • Then read the whole sad mudslide and warnings story at the Seattle Times again, and weep:

    I think we did the best that we could under the constraints that nobody wanted to sell their property and move…

    Share

    Rasputin’s Apocalypse

    Friday, August 23rd, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- most likely a "foolish virgin" (Matthew 25) -- I had no idea today was the day until today ]
    .

    .

    According to Pravda, which I believe means Truth:

    August 23, 2013 is the day, for which the infamous Grigory Rasputin predicted the end of the world in the beginning of the last century. Rasputin predicted a “terrible storm” in which fire would swallow all life on land, and then life would die on the whole planet. He also said that Jesus Christ would come down to Earth to comfort people in distress.

    I would be remiss if I did not attempt to warn you…

    Share

    The easy way or the hard way?

    Saturday, June 1st, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron -- thinking more in terms of challenge than of threat, and skipping via Chicago Law, Everest, and Handel's Messiah to a Venn diagram of the workings of conscience ]
    .

    Well, I don’t always read the Chicago Law Review cover to cover, or even at all to be honest — but I confess I did like this opening paragraph from George Loewenstein† & Ted O’Donoghue†† (love those daggers after your names, guys):

    If you ever have the misfortune to be interrogated, and the experience resembles its depiction in movies, it is likely that your interrogator will inform you that “we can do this the easy way or the hard way.” The interrogator is telling you, with an economy of words, that you are going to spill the beans; the only question is whether you will also get tortured — which is the hard way. In this Essay, we argue that much consumption follows a similar pattern, except that the torturer is oneself.

    **

    Here’s the easy vs hard contrast I was thinking about as I googled my way to the Law Review — as you’ll see, it has nothing to do with interrogation:

    **

    So, a little background. Jason Burke has been covering Everest for The Guardian lately, since it has been almost exactly sixty years since Hillary and Tenzing were the first to “conquer” the highest peak on earth — and one of his reports caught my eye — Everest may have ladder installed to ease congestion on Hillary Step:

    It was the final obstacle, the 40 feet of technical climbing up a near vertical rock face that pushed Sir Edmund Hillary to the limit. Once climbed, the way to the summit of Mount Everest lay open.

    Now, almost exactly 60 years after the New Zealander and his rope-mate, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, stood on the highest point in the planet, a new plan has been mooted to install a ladder on the famous Hillary Step, as the crucial pitch at nearly 29,000ft has been known since it was first ascended. The aim is to ease congestion.

    That’s what the upper panel, above, is all about — and I think it contrasts nicely with the bottom panel, which shows a rurp. Should you need one, you can obtain your own Black Diamond rurp here.

    **

    Rurps are awesome. Here are two descriptions of them, both taken from the mountaineering literature, and neither one of them focusing in too closely on the poetry of the name…

    Steve Rope, Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber, p. 107:

    Chouinard’s “rurp” was obviously something special. An acronym for “realized ultimate reality piton,” this ludicrously small fragment of heat-treated steel opened our eyes to untold possibilities.

    and Chris Jones, Climbing in North America, p. 273:

    It was about the size of a postage stamp. The business end was the thickness of a knife blade and penetrated only a quarter-inch into the rock. With several of these Realized Ultimate Reality Pitons, or rurps, Chouinard and Frost made the crux pitch on Kat Pinnacle (A4). It was the most difficult aid climb in North America.

    Chouinard named this postage-stamp-sized thing the realized ultimate reality piton (RURP) because if you willingly and literally hang your life on that quarter-inch of steel, you’re liable to realize, well, ultimate reality.

    Zen — yours for $15 and exemplary courage.

    **

    Here’s my question: should we make the hard way easier?

    When is that a kindness, and when is it foolish?

    **

    In its own way, of course, a rurp is an assist — it makes the hard way a tad easier for the serious climber.

    As indeed would the proposed “ladder” on Everest: here’s why it might be not-such-a-bad idea:

    This year, 520 climbers have reached the summit of Everest. On 19 May, around 150 climbed the last 3,000ft of the peak from Camp IV within hours of each other, causing lengthy delays as mountaineers queued to descend or ascend harder sections.

    “Most of the traffic jams are at the Hillary Step because only one person can go up or down. If you have people waiting two, three or even four hours that means lots of exposure [to risk]. To make the climbing easier, that would be wrong. But this is a safety feature,” said Sherpa…

    Besides, the idea is to set it up as a one-way street…

    Frits Vrijlandt, the president of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA), said the ladder could be a solution to the increasing numbers of climbers on the mountain.

    “It’s for the way down, so it won’t change the climb,” Vrijlandt told the Guardian.

    Ah, but then there’s human nature to consider:

    It is unlikely, however, that tired ascending climbers close to their ultimate goal will spurn such an obvious aid at such an altitude.

    Bah!

    **

    Shouldn’t we just level the top off, as Handel and Isaiah 4.4 suggest, and as we’re doing in the Appalachians?

    A little mountaintop removal mining, a helipad, and voilà — even I could make it to the summit!

    **

    But to return to Loewenstein† & O’Donoghue†† — their paper’s full title was “We Can Do This the Easy Way or the Hard Way”: Negative Emotions, Self-Regulation, and the Law — how can a theologian such as myself resist a diagram such as this?

    Share

    The Boston Bombers and Superempowerment

    Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

    My friend Dave Schuler who blogs at the excellent The Glittering Eye and on foreign policy at Dr. James Joyner’s Outside the Beltway , queried me as to what I thought of the Boston Bombers in light of the concept of the Superempowered Individual.

    For those not familiar with the concept, the term “superempowered individual” originated in phrase coined by Thomas Friedman and quickly gained traction and evolved in the .mil/strategy/defense blogosphere and communities of interest after 9/11 turned everyone’s attention to the potential reach of catastrophic terrorism. Many people, including myself have written on the topic and while no single, agreed upon, definition of SEI exists, there is a consensus around an individual having the capacity to multiply the scale of the harm they can cause by leveraging or disrupting complex systems, be they mechanical, social, cyber or some combination. I defined SEI’s this way:

    To qualify as a superempowered individual, the actor must be able to initiate a destructive event, fundamentally with their own resources, that cascades systemically on a national, regional or global scale. They must be able to credibly, “declare war on the world”.  

    Using that definition, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are far from superempowered individuals. They were not “super” anything and rather than being masters of complexity, they ginned up some primitive IEDs  and blundered miserably after their attack on the Boston Marathon. The younger of the two accidentally ran over his own brother with a car, killing him, which gives some idea of the operational amateurism of these culprits. If Islamist terrorism has a Darwin Award, the Brothers Tsarnaev are contenders

    Yet the cost of their attack, the Boston bombing, allegedly tops $330 million dollars? Why?

    I would argue that the US is systematically “superdisempowering” itself by VASTLY multiplying the costs of any given act of terrorism with absurd and outrageous levels of costly security theater and glitzy paramilitarization of law enforcement that continue to cascade and accumulate long after sorry nitwits like Richard Reid, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or the amazingly incompetent Underwear Bomber have become obscure historical footnotes. It is incredibly counterproductive in every sense and has overwhelmingly negative effects that only add significantly to the costs of terrorism

    Timothy McVeigh, in a much more heinous act of terrorism, blew up a Federal building and killed 168 people and injured 800 others with a massive truck bomb and America did not feel a need to dress our police officers like extras in Starship Troopers or it’s airport security like customs officials from a minor Fascist puppet regime. This is not a criticism of police officers who do a dangerous job with professionalism and bravery but of a national policy of paternalism and creeping authoritarianism that is slowly morphing them into asphalt soldiers.

    The attacks on September 11 were thirty times worse and far more spectacular than McVeigh’s bombing, transfixing the attention of the whole world, but somehow we got along without President Bush declaring martial law and closing New York city and sending troops door to door to roust citizens in their homes without warrants or probable cause.

    We need to take a healthy step back and put the brakes on our own policy and security responses to terrorism and dial them down to a rational minimum level required for investigative effectiveness. If not because these policies have become dangerously injurious to liberty and American democracy or because they are mostly wasteful government spending then we should do it because we have become so expert at making the costs of any act of terror extremely expensive by our own reaction that we are providing the enemy and itinerant crazies with a tremendous incentive to attack us more.

    Seriously.

    The only thing superempowered right now is own own lack of strategic sense.

    Share

    Switch to our mobile site