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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on tail risk

6a00c22527999b549d00c22527bc8d549d-500pi.jpgRichard Posner had a nice piece over the weekend on the conceptual mistakes that lead people to underprepare for events that they don't think are likely to happen anytime soon. The financial disaster, the BP oil spill, Hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti -- all could've been prepared for in advance, but all were worsened because people put off the planning. "It seems that no one has much incentive to adopt or even call for safeguards against low-probability, but potentially catastrophic, disasters," writes Posner.

His piece reminded me of a great passage from Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series explaining how things that we've decided won't go wrong not only do go wrong, but are invariably made worse by our overconfidence. When I went back and found the passage, though, it turned out to be an almost breathtakingly perfect summation of not just the financial crisis, but the innovations that preceded it.

The Great Ventilation and Telephone Riots srDt 3454 of had started out as just a lot of hot air. Hot air, of course, was the problem ventilation was supposed to solve and generally it had solved the problem reasonably well up until the point someone invented air-conditioning, which had solved the problem far more throbbingly.

And that was all well and good, provided you could stand the noise and the dribbling, until someone came up with something even sexier and smarter than air-conditioning, which was called in-building climate control.

Now this was quite something.

The major difference from ordinary air-conditioning was that it was thrillingly more expensive, and involved a huge amount of sophisticated measuring and regulating equipment which was far better at knowing, moment by moment, what sort of air people wanted to breathe than mere people did.

It also meant that, to be sure people didn't muck up the sophisticated calculations that the system was making on their behalf, all the windows in the building were built sealed shut. This is true.

While the systems were being installed, a number of people who were going to work in the buildings found themselves having conversations with Breathe-O-Smart system fitters that went something like this:

"But what if we want to have the windows open?"

"You won't want to have the windows open with the new Breathe-O-Smart."

"Yes, but supposing we wanted to have them open for just a little bit."

"You won't want to have them open even for a little bit. The new Breathe-O-Smart system will see to that."

"Hmmm."

"Enjoy Breathe-O-Smart!"

"Okay, so what if the Breathe-O-Smart breaks down or goes wrong or something?"

"Ah! But one of the smartest features of the Breathe-O-Smart is that it cannot possibly go wrong. So. No worries on that score. Enjoy your breathing and go about your day."

It was, of course, as a result of the Great Ventilation and Telephone Riots srDt 3454 that all mechanical or electrical or quantum-mechanical or hydraulic or even wind-, steam-, or piston-driven devices, are now required to have a certain legend emblazoned on them somewhere. It doesn't matter how small the object is, the designers of the object have to find a way of squeezing the legend in somewhere, because it is their attention that is being drawn to it rather than the user's.

The legend is this: "The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 7, 2010; 9:07 AM ET
Categories:  Financial Crisis  
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Comments

beautiful thoughts.

"prepare for the worst, hope for the best."

this requires some humility and depressingly reality based thinking.
on the hitch-hike through the galaxy, lots of stuff happens that one cannot plan for.
but so much happens,that can and should be planned for.

it is important to be mindful of things that can go wrong.

there is a balancing point between a person or society living in complete fear and paranoia, or in blithe and reckless insouciance or denial.
ignoring, denying or not wanting to deal with a problem, is quite a dangerous game.
but people seem to love to play it anyway.
when there is no humility in one's thinking, then one does not readily assume that things will go wrong,
be mindful.
act accordingly.

Posted by: jkaren | June 7, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

As John Lennon said, life is what happens when you're busy planning others things. See also Arthur C. Clarke's Three Laws on technology.

Posted by: tomcammarata | June 7, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the refresher course in Douglas Adams and never forget your towel.

Posted by: trep1 | June 7, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for this. Douglas Adams could and should be quoted more frequently. He made a multitude of profoundly true observations, especially in the "Hitchhiker" series. Of course, I had to endure a three week long bout of the doldrums after reading the complete series. Once I was able to push those thoughts to the back of my consciousness, I resumed my daily life with a minimum of crippling cynicism.

Posted by: JWTinTN | June 7, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Doldrums? Pertaining to Douglas Adams? The only time anything about Douglas Adams ever gave me the doldrums was when he passed away. And Arthur Dent having a "love making" scene in "So Long and Thanks for All The Fish", in addition to being able to fly by "falling and missing". But quickly gotten over. Still a brilliant book, for all that.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 7, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

I still say, "42" whenever anyone says to me, "I have a question." This has the phenomenal effect of making me giggle while completely confusing and alienating everyone else in the room.

Posted by: MosBen | June 7, 2010 1:03 PM | Report abuse

Don't Panic!

Posted by: iliwai34 | June 7, 2010 8:28 PM | Report abuse

Another literary devic that would work for this is from Terry Pratchett, a million to one chance happens nine times in ten

Posted by: williamcross1 | June 8, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

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