A Well Oiled Machine Breaks Spectacularly

three little-big lessons from COVID-19
Saturday, April 4, 2020

I present three short essays that provide what I think of as little-big lessons pertinent to the current COVID-19 crisit. First, this insightful article by Will Oremus on a great 1st world calamity — the toilet-paper shortage.

What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About the Toilet Paper Shortage


There’s another, entirely logical explanation for why stores have run out of toilet paper — one that has gone oddly overlooked in the vast majority of media coverage. It has nothing to do with psychology and everything to do with supply chains. It helps to explain why stores are still having trouble keeping it in stock, weeks after they started limiting how many a customer could purchase.

In short, the toilet paper industry is split into two, largely separate markets: commercial and consumer. The pandemic has shifted the lion’s share of demand to the latter. People actually do need to buy significantly more toilet paper during the pandemic — not because they’re making more trips to the bathroom, but because they’re making more of them at home. With some 75% of the U.S. population under stay-at-home orders, Americans are no longer using the restrooms at their workplace, in schools, at restaurants, at hotels, or in airports.

The chief takeaway, for me, is how incredibly tight-fitting and well-oiled machinery, the current world order is — it is a supply-chain tuned to perfection. It works brilliantly, squeezing out every iota of efficiency. Except, when, ahem, shit hits the fan. Then, just like toilet paper in rain, it promptly falls apart.

Those with a keen memory may remember the days after 9/11/2001. For a few days, all commercial flying had stopped. Just for a few days. And, that was enough to cause these big corporations to go belly-up. Oh, how the mighty fall. They just didn’t have the margin to ever stop. I remember, a long time ago when I was a kid, while learning Tai chi, we had to do some pretty rigorous exercises. Some of us would inevitably slow down even a quarter of the way in. Our teacher, the sensei, would goad us with, “Don’t stop otherwise you will fall and die.” I always remember that nowadays whenever I read about the imminent collapse of a multinational. Remember the Queen’s keen words in Alice in Wonderland:

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

That brings me to the second article…

Fail-Safe vs. Safe-Fail Catastrophes


When I was in my very early 20s I read a paper by Jones, Holling, and Peterman. I was introduced to Buzz Holling’s work because he was a great Canadian ecologist and cybernetics thinker, and it was fashionable for us to talk of systems science and cybernetics. It has a wonderful title, "Fail-Safe vs. Safe-Fail Catastrophes,” that continues to be an always topical subject, for (we never learn, do we. From the paper:

Two poles on the spectrum of strategies are fail-safe and safe-fail. The goal of a fail-safe policy strives to assure that nothing will go wrong. Systems are designed to be foolproof and strong enough to withstand any eventuality. Efforts are made to radically reduce the probability of failure. Often the managers of such systems OPerate as if that probability were zero. … The urrloubted success of this approach has led inexorably to the design of larger and larger systems providing enonrous benefits with extremely low probabilities of failure. But in Partner with this scale of design and benefits is an equally high cost if failures do occur.

By contrast, we have the safe-fail strategy. Jones, et. al., explain

A safe-fail policy acknowledges that failure is inevitable and seeks systems that can easily survive failure when it canes. Rather than rely on reducing the occurrence of failure, this policy aims at reducing the cost of that failure. … It hypothesizes that catastrophes are not necessarily lead but can, in fact, be the source of system flexibility and the cause of its maintenance. By experiencing Period- ic step changes, natural or cultural selection forces can act to maintain flexibility. Eliminate those pericxiic "disasters" and the same forces could cause an evolution towards reduced flexibility.

So, what now that the fail-safe has failed? Here is the final article on that…

Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure


Will things change when the Covid19 phase is over? Many, including me, hope so. But we also know there is a ’19’ in that name of the disease for a reason. There will undoubtedly be a COVID-20, a COVID-21, and so on. It is here to stay, and we, like the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, have to adapt. To cogitate on that, here is a thoughtful perspective by an educator. The whole article is sobering, but the following paragraph that stands out with hope. The author, Aisha Ahmed, writes

Now more than ever, we must abandon the performative and embrace the authentic. Our essential mental shifts require humility and patience. Focus on real internal change. These human transformations will be honest, raw, ugly, hopeful, frustrated, beautiful, and divine. And they will be slower than keener academics are used to. Be slow. Let this distract you. Let it change how you think and how you see the world. Because the world is our work. And so, may this tragedy tear down all our faulty assumptions and give us the courage of bold new ideas.

Good times will be back. I remain optimistic for life has a way of not just survivivng but flourishing. After all, that is exactly what the virus is doing. We just have to out-virus the virus.

Work hard, have fun, and quedate en casa.