Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Claptrap Society

On the dock I've got everything running, the fishing rod, the boat, and the dock itself. I was born (in engineering!) to believe that all systems should have a high engineering margin, which is the distance from failure, under normal conditions. When I was running computer systems, that meant a light normal load, about 10% of capacity.

Earthquakes and fault systems aren't like that. They are always close to failure, although they are quite a mixed up lot. That means something is always failing on the San Andreas. It follows a Power Law. For earthquakes, almost all the seismic energy, general destruction, and displacement is expended during the largest earthquakes that can happen on that system. For most plate margins, these are the monster quakes, with a magnitude over 9! Popular conception is that the little quakes somehow 'relieve' the stress for the monsters, but the truth is that these guys are just setting up for the big one.

When I was with the old Ontario Hydro, we were a monopoly, unanswerable to anyone. We put a high weight on reliability, lots of redundancy, and emergency capacity. We overbuilt everything! Finally, people bitched about the enormous cost of reliability (25% wasted, blah blah!!), and that was the end of that.

The giant techno-bureaucracies that control our lives have drained all their intellectual capital over the years (all the bright guys have left!). The natural state is to let everything drift to the claptrap level, which follows: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!". You see this in the news with Quebec bridges and NASA. They have drifted to Power Law! What you never hear about are the smaller earthquakes, because they clean up immediately and shut up about them. Apparently, the claptrap Russian computers failed all the time, and they usually did a system-wide boot which cleared it up. On the shuttle, there are tons of little failures. For our electricity grid, local blackouts happen all the time, and you don't even want to know what I know! The Quebec guys didn't even respond to the news of falling concrete, because it happened all the time!

All the damage comes with the big earthquakes. A nation-wide blackout. Blowing up the space shuttle. Losing the Space Station. A collapsed bridge. Blackberry communications lost. With the San Andreas, we can study it all the time and we know it's Power Law. With the claptrap organizations, they always just say: it can never happen again!

3 comments:

monado said...

Fascinating! I was happier with the beefed-up power system.

But what's the logic behind building a nuclear plant that has to be abandoned after 35 years because it's too "hot"?

Harold Asmis said...

Actually, we don't abandon nuclear plants because they are too hot. We can gut them, and run them for another 50 years! Some of the units at Pickering were abandoned because they are too dinkily small to gut. However, all the hot tubes and junk get stored out in the backyard!

Clement Kent said...

Just found your site. Really like the power law-fractals argument. I posted on Facebook that it was time to consider decomissioning Pickering, and somebody immediately said "well, you know they built it on a fault". Trying to track this down I discovered your work to help get the southern Ontario seismic network built - Bravo! If risk of a Pickering disastrous breakdown is proportional to the magnitude of a rare earthquake on a little understood deep fault, only continuous monitoring of small earthquakes will help us calibrate the logarithmic curve. Glad to see that UWO seems to still be running the network.