Maybe Risk is just Combinatorics

I don’t read Nigel Scott’s blog, Excapite enough. There’s a simple reason for that – It’s very difficult to read.

Not in the abstract sense. It’s just difficult to see the text.

When I click on a link to one of his blog posts, this is what I get:


That’s it. I can’t scroll down. I get the title and first 25 words of each post and nothing more. To read a post I need a laptop.

Months ago I intended to write a post about how broken most technology is, but I ran across a ‘rant’ someone else had written about broken tech, so I decided not to write one of my own. (My idea is that technology isn’t broken, per se, there’s just been a combinatorial explosion. 15 years ago there was Netscape on a desktop running Windows. Now there’s Windows, Mac and Linux (multiple versions of each); Safari, Internet Explorer, Chrome, Opera and Firefox (multiple versions of each); desktops, laptops, mobile phones and tablets (multiple versions of each). The number of possible combinations is enormous. So, it simply isn’t possible to write a piece of software that runs everywhere at once.)

I can scroll Nigel’s website on an iPhone (or, at least, the 4S, as I haven’t tried on the 1, 2, 3, etc). But not on the HTC…Whatever-the-heck-it-is-I-have.

I haven’t even figured out how to take a screenshot with my phone, so I just had to take a photo of the phone itself. (In fact, this isn’t even the first time I photographed my phone at the Excapite site – I first did it months ago when I intended to first write my ‘technology is broken’ rant, but I’ve gotten a new laptop I can’t find the photo on the files I have transferred to the new hard drive, on the old hard drive, on the phone’s memory card that I used to do the transfer, or in one of several e-mail accounts I might have also used to send the photo from myself to myself.)

My point is: There are now so many different platforms, so many different parts moving in so many directions, that some percentage of things must always go wrong. You can see Excapite on the iPhone but not the HTC. Visiting a site that has Adobe Flash applet? Well then you’ll need HTC, not Apple. I wonder how much of what we now call ‘systems failure’ and ‘systemic risk’ is actually just combinatorics run amok.

I like Nigel’s inclusion of a complexity axis in describing black swan events – and the distinction between black swan events and cascading failures. My post on Black Swans was simply to point out the curious positive correlation between probability and impact of a failure as assessed by the Davos attendees.

Personally, I guess my preference is for the simplest picture possible for the given problem. If you want to point out the positive correlation between likelihood and consequences, a 2D graph of probability vs. impact suits the task. To distinguish between Black Swans and Cascading System Failures, you need 3 axes.

And if you want to read our blog posts on the same device? Well, let me know if you figure that one out…


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