(No, this post is not about sex…sorry. Nor is it about electrical engineering, though it might at first give that impression.)

The often-interesting General Electric blog has an article about drones, linked to a cloud-based AI platform, which are used to inspect power lines and detect incipient problems–for example, vegetation which is threatening to encroach on the lines and short them out, or a transformer with a tendency to overheat.  The article mentions a 2003 event in which an encounter between an overgrown tree branch and a sagging power line resulted in a wide-area blackout that affected 50 million people.

The inspection drone sounds like a very useful and productivity-improving tool: obviously, inspecting thousands of miles of power lines is nontrivial job. But the deeper issue, IMO, is the fact that one problem in one place can propagate over such a wide area and affect such a vast number of people.  Power system designers and the people who operate these systems are certainly aware of the need to minimize fault propagation:  circuit breakers and fuses, network analysis tools,  and the technologies of protective relaying were developed, by GE among others, precisely for reasons of fault localization.  But experience shows that large-scale fault propagation still sometimes does take place.

This problem is not limited to electrical systems.  The mention of the tree-branch-caused 2003 blackout reminded me of a passage from the historian Hendrik Willem Van Loon:

Unfortunately in the year 1914 the whole world was one large international workshop. A strike in the Argentine was apt to cause suffering in Berlin. A raise in the price of certain raw materials in London might spell disaster to tens of thousands of long-suffering Chinese coolies who had never even heard of the existence of the big city on the Thames. The invention of some obscure Privat-Dozent in a third-rate German university would often force dozens of Chilean banks to close their doors, while bad management on the part of an old commercial house in Gothenburg might deprive hundreds of little boys and girls in Australia of a chance to go to college.

This probably overstates the interconnectedness of the global economy as it existed in 1914, but would fit our present-day global economy very well.  (The author was talking about the origins of WWI, which he blamed largely on economic interconnectedness…not correct, IMO, but the war was largely caused, or at least reached the scale that it did, because of another type of interconnectedness…in the shape of alliances.)


I think much of the reaction against globalization is due to a realization, often-subconscious, that coupling can have bad effects as well as good ones…especially, a feeling that events are beyond the control of those who are most affected by them and have instead passed under the control of those with no “skin in the game”, to use Nassim Taleb’s terminology.

The advantages of interconnectedness are real: in the case of power grids, heavy loads in one location can be picked up by generators located in areas where loads are light–and local generator failures can be backed up by the entire grid.  In the case of food supply, crop failures in one country are far less-devastating than they once were.  A recent article on coffee described the complicated worldwide supply chain that is involved in bringing you your morning cup, ending with these words:

Globalization has downsides, and these Indiana steelworkers might be a casualty. But free trade has been a great boon to humanity. The global poverty rate has fallen, lifespans have jumped. Consumers have been given access to a dizzying variety of goods. As the Stanford economics professor Russ Roberts says, “We already tried ‘Buy local.’ It’s called the Middle Ages.”

That closing quote, though, ignores lots of other distinctions between medieval food supply and that of the present day…better fertilizers, irrigation, crossbreeding of plants, the use of power equipment, and lots else.  Looking beyond agriculture at the statements about the declines in poverty rates, the longer lifespans, the availability of more consumer goods, it would be ridiculous to credit all of this to trade while ignoring mass production, steam and electric power, railroads, antibiotics, etc.

And while the advantages of interconnectedness are real, so are the disadvantages. Easy travel between countries facilitates the spread of epidemics…easy immigration can facilitate the spread of toxic cultural values as well as beneficent ones.  Globalization of the food supply means that an American political decision to turn corn into ethanol causes food prices to go up for low-income people in countries far away. Globalization of manufacturing means that Chinese wage rates have a big impact on wage rates in Michigan and Indiana.  And, in general, interconnectedness tends to take control out of the hands of those most affected and place control in the hands of those to whom the matter in question is more abstract.

The key to establishing and running resilient systems is the ability to benefit from interconnectedness while limiting the propagation of failures throughout the system. This issue does not appear to be well-understood by our political class.

I’ve read several stories about police being called to deal with extremely bad…even dangerous…behavior of schoolkids.  The pattern seems to be that teachers and administrators are prohibited or at least strongly discouraged from doing anything about disruptive and hostile behavior…suspensions, expulsions, and the like…until it becomes so bad as to be a matter for the cops.  Reminds me of those idiots who used to respond to a blown fuse by putting a penny in the fusebox, thereby keeping their toaster toasting, but possibly burning their houses down.

In our society today, we have by analogy too often not only put pennies in the fuseboxes, but have also bypassed the high-voltage circuit breakers that protect the transmission and distribution lines.

Finishing up this post, I see that GE has another piece on power grid protection, this one dealing with the problems of stability and the minimization of failure propagation. It gives some idea of the complexity of the issue…and this system, unlike economic and social systems, is largely deterministic.



18 thoughts on “Coupling”

  1. in the case of power grids, heavy loads in one location can be picked up by generators located in areas where loads are light–and local generator failures can be backed up by the entire grid.

    I was in Boston in November 1965 when the entire northeast power grid went out.

    My wife had just replaced a lightbulb in a friend’s light fixture and thought she had caused it until she began to drive back to our apartment.

    The Mass General had been convinced to disconnect its auxiliary generator so all the lights went out in the middle of Visiting Surgeon Rounds about 4 PM.

    When we listened to the radio and saw the TV, which was on the auxiliary battery circuit in the ER, we heard that people were stuck in elevators in New York City.

    After the Boeing 737 Max in Indonesia, I’ll take the low tech solution.

    After all, I found Hawaii in 1981 with only a sextant and a Nautical Almanac.

  2. Every time you put one brick on top of another you create an additional vulnerability of how bad it will be if it crashes. Yes, an EMP will have little effect on tribesmen in Papua New Guinea, but none of us are opting for that level of safety. Because it is unsafe for different reasons. It would be a wonderful thing if we never added a new feature to our technology until we have covered all our bases and made sure that we were protected if it failed. Or would it? Would we have made any progress at all if we did not keep hazarding the risk of reaching a little higher to save a few seconds or make a few buck? The next level is always more like a house of cards.

  3. AVI…”Every time you put one brick on top of another you create an additional vulnerability of how bad it will be if it crashes.”

    But the shape of the structure influences the degree of that vulnerability….a pyramid is safer than a this straight column.

  4. Arthur Koestler related an interesting analogy, which came originally from Herbert Simon:

    “There once were two watchmakers, named Bios and Mekhos, who made very fine watches. The phones in their workshops rang frequently; new customers were constantly calling them. However, Bios prospered while Mekhos became poorer and poorer. In the end, Mekhos lost his shop and worked as a mechanic for Bios. What was the reason behind this?

    The watches consisted of about 1000 parts each. The watches that Mekhos made were designed such that, when he had to put down a partly assembled watch (for instance, to answer the phone), it immediately fell into pieces and had to be completely reassembled from the basic elements. On the other hand Bios designed his watches so that he could put together subassemblies of about ten components each. Ten of these subassemblies could be put together to make a larger sub-assembly. Finally, ten of the larger subassemblies constituted the whole watch. When Bios had to put his watches down to attend to some interruption they did not break up into their elemental parts but only into their sub-assemblies.”

    Now, the watchmakers were each disturbed at the same rate of once per hundred assembly operations. However, due to their different assembly methods, it took Mekhos four thousand times longer than Bios to complete a single watch.

  5. The global poverty rate has fallen

    NO, not fallen. Plummeted. The number of people in abject poverty in the world dropped from around 35% in 1990 to LESS THAN 10% by 2015, less than 25 years.

    This is by far the lowest poverty rate EVER.

    Or would it? Would we have made any progress at all if we did not keep hazarding the risk of reaching a little higher to save a few seconds or make a few buck? The next level is always more like a house of cards.

    Not really. There is far far more resiliency in our systems than most people grasp. I fear the acts of deliberate sabotage more than I do any accident or unexpected change, short of a superflu variant. People deliberately ATTEMPTING to screw up the system are far more likely to achieve it than the universe randomly throwing up a Murphy Flag Event.

    The real fact is, we’re doomed if we stay on this planet. “Earth is far too small and fragile a basket for mankind to keep all her eggs in…”

    Time to explore the planets, because we’re getting close to being able to do so.

  6. Complexity may be the result of a search for efficiency or, as has happened with automobiles, it is a result of political requirements for inefficiency.
    An example is the CAFE standards for automobiles. I bought a 1996 Nissan pickup truck new and eventually gave it to my daughter. I asked her recently if she still had it and she told me she had sold it. That was too bad as I was thinking it would be a useful backup in the event of something like an EMP attack or a severe solar flare. Cars today are basically computers that drive around. They are very susceptible to such events unless the car is in a Faraday cage at the time of the event.

    A few years ago, when I had a second home in Tucson, the motherboard in the refrigerator failed and all the food spoiled. Since we were not there at the time, the smell was strong when we finally came over. I didn’t even know refrigerators had motherboards ! A few months later, it failed again with the same result.

  7. There is an essay today at the Hoover web site. that addresses some of this.

    It takes liberal states to craft and safeguard a liberal international order—Britain, then the United States. Conversely, the hegemonists of yesteryear went for conquest and top-down empire—Spain in the 16th century, France in the 17th, and again in the 19th under Napoleon, Germany’s under Wilhelm and Adolf in the 20th and Stalinist Russia after World War II. If the U.S. stops safeguarding the liberal order, illiberal regimes will step in, damaging U.S. long-term interests. Housekeepers do a lot better than housebreakers.

    I don’t agree with all of it as it seems to me that the interests of other countries had gone too far.

    Our relationship with China was appropriate as we helped them to join the world economy but it does not require us to subsidize them forever. This statement is also significant.

    What about China’s fabulous growth? The latest figure (2018) is 6.6 percent, a far cry from the double-digit rates in the past that spawned all these wide-eyed predictions of China as the new No 1. Set aside the debate on the veracity of such national statistics. Consider instead China’s growth model launched under Deng Xiaoping: over-investment, under-consumption, undervalued currency, and “exports first.” This model catapulted Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea into double-digit growth in the Sixties and Seventies. They are now down to low single-digits for reasons inherent in the model (add post-war West Germany to the roster). Add also that China is a disaster waiting to happen. Its national debt is estimated at three times GDP. Its banking system is drowning in non-performing loans. Empty new cities are testimony to over-investment in fixed assets. The working-age population began to shrink around 2015.

    David Goldman is very pessimistic about our future with China but I think he may be too sanguine about their ability to overcome structural weakness associated with the corruption at the top. I see a lot of Chinese getting out and coming here to live. I think they feel it is fragile.

  8. One way of looking at this is as the downsides of specialization. As Adam Smith pointed out long ago in the “Wealth of Nations”, specialization has a big upside by greatly increasing human productivity, even in something as apparently mundane as making pins. Today, the specialist who can program a computer could not make a computer chip, and the chip maker has no idea about how to find the exotic minerals on which his chip depends, and neither of them understand what is involved in keeping operational the electric grid on which they depend.

    Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace used to have an interesting demonstration about all the items frontiersmen would make for themselves, right down to soap. Pre-Civil War plantations were surprisingly self-sufficient, making their own clothes and even shoes. Today, we are more specialized and consequently richer — but also much more dependent upon the kindness of strangers.

    Today, we take hard-won near-miracles for granted. Throw the switch and the light comes on; turn on the faucet and the water flows — while residents of a resource-rich country like Nigeria never know what will happen when the switch is thrown or the faucet turned. Yet our political processes have degenerated, perhaps because the very reliability of today’s systems has allowed the political specialists to lose touch with reality. Contrast the fore-sightedness of last century’s California elite, who built world-leading water & highway systems with the arrant stupidity of today’s California party hacks who waste huge amounts of scarce resources messing with half-built 19th Century railroads to nowhere.

  9. That quote about 1914 was correct. Global trade was huge and peaked just before World War I. It didn’t return back to those levels until 80 years later.

    One of the things that fueled global trade in the early 20th century was use of Real Bills. These were self-liquidating promissory notes that had a duration of 90 days. They were backed by gold held at the Bank of England. They could be borrowed against or traded multiple times by other merchants making different transactions until they expired, at which time payment was due. Because they were really clearing instruments with fixed duration not credit, it was thought they didn’t contribute to inflation. The system fell out of favor after the Great Depression and were entirely eliminated after World War II.

  10. while residents of a resource-rich country like Nigeria never know what will happen when the switch is thrown or the faucet turned.

    I interviewed a guy from Nigeria who was joining the US Army Reserve. He had two Engineering degrees, a BS in Mechanical and an MS in Industrial.

    I asked him about it and he said he had two choices, Engineering or Optometry. Those were the choices of college. The government decided what it needed.

    He was pleased when I asked him if he was an Ibo. They now call themselves “Igbo” but it used to be Ibo. There were were the Biafran rebels.

    The Ibos are noted for their math ability. Many are “Quants” in New York City.

    We talked a little about the life in Lagos where traffic is even worse than Los Angeles. He was in Phoenix.

  11. Grurray…”That quote about 1914 was correct. Global trade was huge and peaked just before World War I.”

    But to what degree was that a factor in the outbreak of WWI? Russia seemed motivated largely by a desire to protect fellow Orthodox Serbs. Germany wanted to do *something* before Russia RR development made that country’s mobilization potential much faster, and also had fellow-feeling for Austria. Britain wanted to keep Belgium out of any potentially-hostile hands. France had a desire to recover the territory lost in the Franco-Prussian war.

  12. The trade levels was said to be what would prevent another ar. France and Germany were major trading partners.

    “The Great Illusion” was a book that asserted that war was impossible because of trade.

    In The Great Illusion, Angell’s primary thesis was, in the words of historian James Joll, that “the economic cost of war was so great that no one could possibly hope to gain by starting a war the consequences of which would be so disastrous.”[3] For that reason, a general European war was very unlikely to start, and if it did, it would not last long.[4] He argued that war was economically and socially irrational[5] and that war between industrial countries was futile because conquest did not pay. J. D. B. Miller writes: “The ‘Great Illusion’ was that nations gained by armed confrontation, militarism, war, or conquest.”[6]

    According to Angell, the economic interdependence between industrial countries would be “the real guarantor of the good behavior of one state to another”,[5] as it meant that war would be economically harmful to all the countries involved.

    Published in 1910 at the peak of prosperity.

  13. But to what degree was that a factor in the outbreak of WWI?

    I think another issue was also that Germany believed Britain and France were blocking expansion of its overseas colonies. Remember that Germany was a relatively new united nation, and they didn’t really see the same growth from the industrial revolution as Britain until the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Once they could expand they ran up against a world already controlled by others.

    As all these rivals were asserting themselves in the rapidly meshing international order it must’ve caused friction as well as cooperation. Instead of cementing peace, as Mike’s reference had hoped – as some still hope today, increased cooperation exposes fundamental differences that can’t be bridged.

  14. Mike K: Kipling put forward a similar thesis in his poem “The Peace of Dives” (1903).

    However, Germans seem to have preferred the doctrines expounded by General Friedrich von Bernhardi in Germany and the Next War: that “[war] is a biological necessity”, and the outcome is always “biologically correct” because the stronger party prevails.

  15. In the post, I mentioned that “easy immigration can facilitate the spread of toxic cultural values as well as beneficent ones.”

    Example from the UK, where the government is not offering asylum to Asia Bibi…whose life is very much under threat in Pakistan because of accusations of Blasphemy…because of “domestic security concerns.”

  16. Re my “penny in the fusebox” analogy about school behavior problems…

    A 14-year-old girl was brutally assaulted just after then end of school and

    “…the “Student Code of Conduct and School Board Policy,” you see, doesn’t allow the school to permanently ban these juvenile thugs. The little monsters have a “right” to attend school and so, after serving a mere three-day suspension, the attackers are back on campus, and this girl “is still being bullied and taunted at school every day.”

  17. A school district near me finally expelled a persistent problem kid. Next week, the kid was back in the classroom because the school district is legally required to accept every student, including those whom they have expelled. Effectively, the school had no way to impose discipline on a thug who disrupted classrooms and threatened other students.

    Son of a family I know was being bullied at school. School authorities knew about the bullying, and did nothing. So the kid took a knife to school, and pulled it out the next time he was attacked. Kid was suspended, the bullies were not.

    If someone sat down deliberately to write rules which would make getting an education as difficult as possible, she could hardly do better that what we have already imposed upon ourselves. Why?

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