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Friday, 14 July 2017

Chance is a feline animal

A couple of months ago, while driving, I was listening to the most serious of serious public service radio channels in Sweden (P1). A writer or poet made a reflection on today’s society, but I do not remember the exact topic. However, I remember that he ended his monologue by saying, “Chance is a feline animal” (in Swedish “slumpen är ett kattdjur”). I directly knew that he had in a few words captured an important aspect of my research, but also that he had summarized an important aspect of modern (Swedish) society.
Chance. A coin on its edge. It happens, but it is hard to control. (C) Liwång 2017.
To me “chance is a feline animal” means that chance cannot be tamed, i.e., that there are many things we will know can and will happen, but not when and exactly how. However, modern societies like Sweden do not like chance and we build systems, preferably elaborate ones, which try to eliminate chance. This ambition can, however, be misguided.
Hitting a still nail in a plank with my hammer is a simple system where I have control over all aspects (I am not even particularly weather sensitive). However, sometimes I will miss the nail anyway. I can increase the chance of hitting the nail by practicing, concentrating, sleeping well, being sober and so on, but I cannot be sure to hit the nail every time. However, most often I do not need to hit the nail every time so I am fine anyway.
If I cannot hit a nail every time, why should I expect other more complex systems to work every time? Especially systems that need many components to work simultaneously to work at all (serial systems). Take trains for example. As long as the trains from Stockholm to Gothenburg take the same route, it only takes one error along the way to seriously affect the capacity of the route and make all trains along the route late. There is an infinite number of errors and events that can single-handedly stop the trains (trees falling, railroad switch malfunction, engine failure, suicide jumpers, cable stealing, lightning, elk collision and so on).
We can (and should) together increase the chance of the trains running on time by practicing, concentrating, sleeping well, being sober and so on, but we cannot be sure to get it right every time. However, spending energy on getting angry will not help the trains. When my father was young, he and his friends after school got some extra pocket money from removing snow from railroad switches. Because 30 teenagers remove snow much faster from 30 switches compared to two railroad workers and the railroad workers can focus on more competence demanding repairs. That kind of robustness is hard to find today, today we expect all the errors to be taken care of by the persons dedicated to the system at hand. The society has decided that protecting our young is more important than getting all switches to work. I am fine with that prioritization, but we have to recognize that the cost is in a higher probability of disturbances to the railroad system. We have not removed chance, we have moved it.
The national alarm “Important message to the public” (in Swedish “Viktigt meddelande till allmänheten” or VMA in short) was this Sunday evening supposed to do a silent test, but as a result of some error the test was not silent over the Stockholm area. The sounding of the alarm over Stockholm leads to people not knowing what to do and the crisis information services not knowing what to do because they had no information about any crisis or reason for the alarm to sound. Now people are angry again and supposedly all silent tests are canceled. Yet again is not chance eliminated, only moved somewhere else.
I do not mined a silent test not being silent. I now know, thanks to the failed silent test, that there are two primary channels for crisis information in Sweden: the webpage and the public service radio channel P4. I did not know that before this incident. I try not to get upset by events, I try to learn what I can and hope that others will do the same.
Accept that chance cannot be tamed. Embrace change and the unexpected. Strive to reduce probability (or frequency) of bad things, but do not expect to make them go away.

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