Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Expecting perfection

We’re perfect, at least I am, and expect everyone else to be perfect too. Whenever there’s an incident like the recent Christmas attempt to bomb a plane, we immediately begin looking for who’s at fault. And being at fault usually means not being perfect.

A person can be imperfect in hindsight – he should have thought of that possibility before the incident. Or a person can be imperfect in performance – he didn’t interpret the rules properly. And it’s true that if everyone had been perfect the incident could have been avoided. Perhaps if the evil doer had been perfect the incident would never have been considered in the first place..

But, we’re not all or even near all perfect. As a matter of fact, we’re mostly average with all the imperfection that entails.

There’s a measurement device called the bell curve. It distributes various arrays of data (competence, cost, energy, profits, etc.). The low end of the curve shows the probability of the least desirable results. The high end shows the probability of the most desirable results, perfection. The high point near the middle shows what most probably will happen. The high and low probabilities are much less frequent than the probability of getting average results as the central portion of the curve would show.

This average result is somewhere in the middle and is where most people would fit. Plotted out, this data curve approximates the shape a bell.

Given the ways of human nature and probability, rules, procedures and regulations are not created by the incompetents at one end of the curve, nor by the super competent at the other end. If that were so, the super competent would be doing all the work and the rest of us taking it easy.

So what we end up in the airline safety realm are sets of procedures developed by average people that will work most of the time under the “most of the time” conditions if carried out by people of average skill. That’s reality.

Given the forecasting and organizational ability of the average person, the 9/11 attack would not have been prevented. But also, given the learning process of the average person, steps have been taken to insure there will never be an aircraft attack like 9/11. This is reinforced by every pilot knowing that letting his plane be taken over would be fatal to himself.

The same could be said about the USS Cole bombing. I’m sure the navy has done just what the average person insuring against another 9/11 has done. It will never happen that way again.

Between the cable networks interest in keeping any crisis type situations going and the encouragement that gives the average person to keep complaining, crisis and incidents will always be blown out of proportion to their real importance.

I try to keep in mind the saying, “You can make things fool proof but not damn fool proof”, whenever this craziness erupts. Let’s keep in mind that no system is damn fool proof.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Energy policy and solutions

I was just watching a panel presentation on the energy problem and how it might be resolved. This panel had big people on it, (including an Assist Secretery of Energy), and was discussing big solutions that would cost big money and require big legislative approvals.

Let me diverge here for an anecdote.

If you were to have a traffic congestion problem, (people moving), the solution would be determined by what kind of expert you hired to suggest a solution. A Highway Engineer would recommend additional lanes. A Transportation Planner would suggest mass transit. A Sociologist would point to developing car pools. And a Land Use Planner would recommend locating housing close to the jobs.

In the instance of the energy panel above, all the participants represented important players in energy industries, (including alternative and renewable sources) and government. It might be expected that they would all suggest large scale solutions.

But imagine what a different panel might recommend. Residential rooftop units tied into individual property generation alternatives. Might not millions of private rooftop units work better than hundreds of megawatt power plants?

Sounds good but it would be more difficult to implement than one mega generator. Or would it?

My case is that it might be better to have an energy policy focusing on individual power generation than centralized power generation. Power from one thousand one kilowatt generators might cost more for the same power than from a one megawatt plant, BUT, it might be a quicker solution to the overall problem in the long run.

We’ve all heard of the efficiency of mass transit and how it should replace autos for a cost effective solution for the daily commute. We also understand how it is totally dependent on taxpayer subsidies to keep fairs acceptable.

On the other hand, we’ve all heard about the inefficiency of using a personal auto for the commute trip. But it’s totally funded by user fees, vehicle taxes and fuel taxes. Not only that but all labor and maintenance costs are taken care of by each individual vehicle owner at no cost to the public.

And the auto is the choice of three quarters of all commuters, urban and rural.

Imagine an electrical generation system provided by the multitude of users (like the commute auto). I’m convinced that in only a few years, individual solar energy units will replace all use of central energy generation during the hours of sunlight. And the development of means of storing electrical energy for autos might lead to a way to provide power to residences during the non sunlight hours.

It would take a book to discuss all the pro and cons. Let me leave you with just the thought – small might do the job better than big.