Monday’s Review of Broken Things

Our mechanical past is breaking

Photo by Isis França on Unsplash

Several unlikely gears managed to grind to a new position this past week increasing the stress on all of us. What were once smoothly running machines are struggling to break free from obstruction in many. Obstruction is a major thing now. The resulting pressures are stressing the entire planet but particularly the old government machinery that is more and more out of alignment.

The gear analogy seems increasingly appropriate as we are being brought down by problems, not in the new fully electronic systems, but the old mechanical ones. That has been a nasty surprise as we now know the difference between mechanical systems and fully electronic systems that, whatever their problems to be discovered, are incredibly more efficient and easier to maintain. Unless they are filled with very old code but that is another story and a different analogy.

Naturally now these problems are appearing in old mechanical systems that should have long since been replaced but have not. Like everything else from now on everything is interrelated and integrated and that includes failure at multiple levels.

For 18th century representative governments, the foundational gears for the modern nation state, the whole thing is really beginning to look like it needs to be pushed behind the barn and left to rust.

The American Trump disaster has reached the point that some whole mechanisms have ground to a halt while others are spinning out of control and may explode into flying gears and sharp pieces. Needless to say a recently installed and important piece has proven to be really shoddy, poorly designed and just defective. That piece, called Trump, didn’t fit at all and is obviously jamming itself in a way that may not be repairable. And our warranty lapsed a couple centuries ago.

The systems that installed that piece are also defective or this wouldn’t have happened. Now this is going to require a full overhaul and no one knows how to do that anymore. Many people are trying to pretend they don’t hear the knocks, bangs and frightening racket but everyone else is trying to figure out if the whole thing is going to end up catching fire and exploding. Trump is wearing out very fast and has been stripping teeth and may end up being only a spinning disk that doesn’t engage with anyone but himself. We’re almost there.

Things are bad enough that Americans are seriously trying to do the right thing at the death of Senator John McCain. But what is that? He was a heroic prisoner of war who spent his life working fairly independently and, often, saying what needed to be said. But he was firmly committed to a party that has disintegrated into a criminal gang and brought Sarah Palin into national politics. We are all prone to hubris and mistakes and he, unlike almost everyone else in modern politics, admitted error and took responsibility. But, in the end, I think he will pay the historical price for going along when he should have called bullshit and gotten out.

Our only surviving political hero made terrible choices that contributed to the disintegration of the system and now, even he, is gone. And he took the last vestiges of national political honor with him. Who wants to die and be remembered for Sarah Palin?

Just to cover the other aging mechanical things throwing gears and parts as they disintegrate, Britain is facing BREXIT without an exit agreement that makes the disaster exactly what it was always going to be. All because the oldest parts of the population, in attitudes not necessarily age, are too crude for 21st century diversity. They only want to sync with old, rough 19th century gear trains, and want to grind up all other kinds. Not a way to survive but they will learn that eventually, I hope.

Australia, that seemed to be trundling along at least, started grinding badly with gears at the top of the government grinding badly. No one seems even sure exactly how many things have broken. That’s a really bad sign. Clunk, screech, clunk.


We are at the magic place where things either change or die. Electric cars are an excellent example. They have the future benefit of being totally sustainable with solar power and other renewable options providing their fuel. They are also easily upgradable with self driving improvements. We are so used to the old wonder of mechanical cars with thousands of components whirring together and making wonderful roaring noises but those things are planet destroyers and incredibly expensive to maintain.

Most people don’t even realize how many thousands per year they spend on maintenance of their $40,000 investment that sets idle over 90% of the time. But, damned, if they are going to trust some electric car and particularly some car that drives itself. They would rather risk death and dismemberment trying to control their own massive devices.

An interesting article on early astronaut selection and the problems of using test pilots instead of chimpanzees illustrates the heart of this problem. The test pilots thought they should fly space capsules, they were pilots after all, although these were early fully automated systems. Algorithms beat hell out of people. Sorry, we are just not made for what we need to manage now.

The end conclusion is that people insisting on controlling things that they are not really able to handle leads to problems more often that solutions. Almost every case where Mercury astronauts took over the manual controls they had demanded led to near disaster. Where that didn’t happen they tended to forget to turn the automation back on with the same near disasters. The first chimpanzees, on the other hand, were excellent astronauts. They felt no need to override the automation and rethink the computed angle of reentry.

There were situations that did warrant highly skilled human override of automation. That was in the early development stage where the performance of the automation was not yet fully proofed and things would go wacko sometimes. Needless to say that is a very specialized and identifiable situation. There are jobs for people but it requires high skill and risk with superb control. Otherwise people just fuck things up.

We are facing this problem across are entire existence. We have the automation to make things work consistently and with high safety and minimum environmental impact. Without this we won’t survive on this planet in any form that we would enjoy. But we can’t make ourselves do the thing that will save us.

There is a lot of history that says this just takes some time. I was heavily involved in the very early days of ecommerce when the struggle was getting people to actually use their credit card online. Yes, there are very large security issues but they are technical and manageable but people initially just refused. I helped design a branded bank vault purchase page to help with that but it still took time. That was in 1995 and the first full on ecommerce Christmas wasn’t until 2000. And look where we are now with Amazon forcing brick and mortar stores to move the purchasing to online automation to avoid death.

People don’t remember how they were before they changed. That’s one of those characteristics of paradigm shifts. But we need to go faster now and it is getting increasingly scary watching people refuse to see what needs to happen. And automation needs to happen because the old mechanical systems are breaking fast and we are running out of time.

Something like half the population in North America say they won’t ride in a self driving car. Once they do they wonder why they didn’t do it before. We really need to figure out that we need to go for automation and make an educated judgement.

Wow. That’s a long shot.