A theory of failure


As you may have noticed, The Hannibal Blog has been unusually quiet for a couple of days. That’s because I had to move the family to a new city, as part of my new beat at The Economist. Well, I’ve moved a good dozen times in my life, as has my wife, so we have more than a score of moves between us. We’re pros. Except not.

This was our first move with children. (If you don’t have any, you don’t know why I would bother to point this out.)

Now, as regular readers know, The Hannibal Blog can be relied upon to put forth profound analysis of important things; or, depending on availability, profound analysis of things; or, barring that, analysis of things.

So let me put forth a tentative theory of failure:

  1. The probability of failure increases with the number of permutations (see: complexity).
  2. Once the number of permutations rises above eight or nine, failure is assured.
  3. Thereafter, the devastation of the failure increases with the number of permutations.
  4. Eventually (this is the only good news) it doesn’t matter anymore, or seems not to.

PS: You obviously got me on that kind of day. For a more illuminating theory of failure (and success), wait for the book. 😉
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8 thoughts on “A theory of failure

  1. Having just survived a week long vacation with our kids I shudder to think about mounting a relocation. You both have my sympathies. I say, if all human members of the family made it intact count it as a success. I hope you are able to feel settled soon.

  2. First, my sympathies on your move, which, to an entirely new city, must have been stressful, particularly with children. It may have felt like a move to another country. I hope you’ll feel soon settled.

    Now, to failure. What you say about the probabilities of it rising with the number of permutations (unknown unknowns?) applies also to predictions by experts, almost all of which (the predictions) turn out quite differently.

    This, no doubt, is why Betrand Russell said that whenever experts are agreed on anything, the opposite cannot be held to be certain.

    The more the permutations, the more therefore the complexity, the more likely that events will go in unpredicted directions.

    I recommend wholeheartedly what Michael Crichton said about all this: http://www.michaelcrichton.net/speech-complexity.html

  3. Two things.

    1. Two of my favorite moving phrases, ‘Move is a four letter word.’ ‘Four moves is as good as a fire.’

    2. The first thing that comes to mind when I think of complexity and failure is predicting the weather (i.e., climate change). The models on which ‘global warming’ is based are very complex. There are at least six legitimate climate models. At least five of those are wrong, which (it seems to me) increases the likelihood that the sixth is wrong. It’s a shame that we have to hang our hat on this sort of science just to have an excuse to make better choices about trees and energy and bears. A Crotchety paradox.

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