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A brief history of Fail

July 24, 2009

“Mistakes are as big as the results they cause.” - Dr. Gregory House, fictional TV doc

One of my lifelong passions is the study of failure.  If it broke, or flopped, or caught fire, or outright killed a bunch of people through the sheer ineptitude of its promoters, I like to read about it.  But this passion has an unfortunate side-effect: I am sometimes the skunk at the party. I really believe, on a deep, intuitive level, that as humans we are capable of screwing things up on a gigantic scale.  But I also believe the situation isn’t hopeless.  We can learn strategies for avoiding Fail.

The picture above (Click to embiggen.) is a selection of books from my “Fail shelf”, somewhat randomized by the large number of missing titles, which consequently do not appear in the picture.  Did I mention that I’ve failed to keep a neat house? But if you rummaged around in the stacks and piles, you’d find many more books about what went wrong, where, why, and how.

And sometimes, books on how people un-wronged it, as in the heroics of bringing the crew of Apollo 13 back alive. Fail is often alloyed with Awesome or Win.  For instance, if you took off for the Moon, but just wound up circling and coming back, you have a Fail story with quite a lot of Awesome in it.  If the dam at your country club breaks, releasing 18 million cubic meters of water and killing more than two thousand people, that’s some serious Fail.  But many lives were saved by heroic rescues, and the event gave a big boost to the new “Red Cross” that has saved many more people since then, which is Awesome.

The mixing of that alloy usually goes like this: an institution adds the Fail, and individuals like Clara Barton bring the Awesome (sometimes creating new institutions in the process).

But a lot of Fail is personal.  It can be as simple as forgetting how to use a hat, which tells us that mindfulness is not actually all that easy.  Most of the personal Fail we encounter in life is the result of sometimes more non-trivial disconnection from the moment, like driving while talking on a cell phone.  Let’s call it; “Un-mindfulness driven Fail”.

Other Fail is more deliberate, like leaving your wife and kids over father’s day, and running off to Argentina to see your mistress, not even telling your gubernatorial staff where you are, and giving new meaning to “hiking on the Appalachian trail”.  This is rationalization-driven Fail, and I have plenty of experience with it.  Like the way I used to rationalize not wearing a helmet on my bike, until I had a nasty concussion from an accident that should have been far less serious.  It could easily have resulted in my wife and kids not having me around for all subsequent father’s days.

It’s quite possible, even common to combine different kinds of Fail.  For instance, you might be engaging in un-mindfulness-driven Fail, and then someone challenges you on it, add rationalization-driven Fail.  As my Abnormal Psych professor used to say, most people go through their lives only minimally conscious.  If you draw their attention to it, they wake up long enough to deny it and go back to sleep.

To achieve the really spectacular, gigantic-scale Fail I mentioned earlier, however, requires an institution.  The well-known difference between private and corporate morality extends to a similar chasm between individual and collective Fail.  It’s really difficult to imbue an institution with awareness and powers of contextual analysis.  The corporation or institution has a purpose – usually money or a charter but always continued existence, whose gravitational field distorts the path of any higher purpose. Let’s call it; “Institutional Myopia Fail”.  Here’s a typical example:

Suppose it’s 1889 and you’re Elias Unger, the president of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club upstream on the Little Conemaugh river in Johnstown, Pa.  The club is full of wealthy industrialists – names that are still recognized more than a century later, like Andrew Carnegie and DC Phillips.  You don’t bother guys like that with piddling little details.  And they did have a problem.

Lake Conemaugh had been created by an old railrad dam, and it wasn’t big enough, and it didn’t have enough fish in it.  So the club hired workmen to raise the earthen dam, which raised the lake.  And they put screens across the spillway, so that fish couldn’t escape.  As historian David McCullough observed, “no engineer was consulted on the project.”  And in the last week of May in 1881, it began to rain, and rain, and rain.

The Little Conemaugh river was already at flood stage, as the rain continued.  And that’s the problem; the screen over the spillway was clogged with debris, so the lake kept rising to the top of the dam.  Earthen dams are perfectly safe, just as long as the water doesn’t run over the top. Unger sent (brave) workmen out to clear the screen, but they were unsuccessful.  And still the water rose.

The riverbanks themselves were confined in steep hills.  The mayor of Johnstown, 14 miles downstream, knew this and knew the lake was filling up.  He sent a message, inquiring about the dam.  And Unger’s reply, in its entirety, is worth memorizing:

“You and your people are in no danger from our enterprise.”

The staggering arrogance and dismissive quality in those eleven words is a template for nearly every institutional disaster before or since.  It’s the very soul of tobacco companies, oil companies, insurance companies, Enron, and the Bush administration, elegantly sculpted from a few bits of simple English.  It’s the Ford Pinto, designed as a rolling crematorium because it would cost less to pay off lawsuits from burn victims.

And in fact, good people in institutions make up the headless monster of the institution itself.  There’s no rule that says you can’t combine un-mindful Fail, Rationalization Fail, Institutional myopia Fail… and pure evil.

And that’s what happened on the night of 31 May, 1889, when the dam failed, and a wall of water rushed down the Little Conemaugh.  It utterly obliterated several smaller communities, grinding them down to bedrock.  When it hit Johnstown, a modern industrial city of the times, it smashed the city center flat and killed 2,200 people.

As I said earlier, it isn’t hopeless.  First, corporations and institutions including government, need watching and regulating.  Any time any of them holds the cards close to their chest, they should be viewed with suspicion.

Second, the real cost of doing business for any institution should include costs that are currently externalized.  In other words, assess the real cost of doing business much as business has gotten accustomed to assessing TCO, or Total Cost of Ownership.  Because we all have to own the results of large-scale activities.

Third, new concepts in radical transparency (and its software equivalent, Open-Source) offer a blast of disinfecting sunshine to the tendencies of almost every component of Institutional Fail.  While painful, transparency undermines rationalization, draws attention to un-mindfulness, and forces accounting of externalities.  It even rips the cover off of hiding places for plain old evil.

Will transparency being an end to Institutional Fail?  Not a chance.  But it’s an improvement. And with practice, we might even get to like it. Think of it as a spillway that lets the Fail run out before it builds up and overtops the dam.


  • Except remember it’s failblog.org, not .com, because they failed to register the .com extension for their super-popular site and some domain squatter nabbed it.  Fail!
  • As Calvin observed to Hobbes; “Verbing weirds language”.  It took the Interwebs to true the same of nouning, the practice of making a verb or adjective into a noun.  Thanks to blogs we can play with rigid categories of speech.  For example we are now free to say that something is “made of Awesome” or “full of Fail”.  There’s even a dedicated “Fail Blog” which is full of Win.
  • Both Les Jenkins and ***Dave had the hat picture in their Google shared items today.  This must be like showing up at a party and the other guys are wearing the same dress as me, or something.
  • I really feel for the guy in the hat picture, by the way.  He’s really gotten popular from that moment of Fail, where I was fortunate enough not to be on-camera in my less-aware moments.  Such as: sitting at the stop sign, waiting for it to turn green.
  • Transparency in software development, particularly as Open Source, benefits from what I call “the underwear effect”.  Which is: if everyone had to go around in their underwear all the time, almost none of us would be overweight.  Seems to work for software, anyway.
  • UCLA has a Mindfulness Research center.  Woot!
  • This month’s Carnival Of The Elitist Bastards is hosted by the ever-Awesome Coffee Stained Writer, under the flag of Storm The Beaches!
  • Next Month’s COTEB post is entitled; “A brief History of Awesome”.
Categories: Uncategorized
  1. July 25, 2009 at 20:25 | #1

    Mindfulness may not be easy, but it is simple.  There is a reason it is called Zen practice.

  2. July 26, 2009 at 06:17 | #2

    Re: the guy with the hat: I see young women with their sunglasses stylishly pushed up on top of their heads squinting in glaring sunshine at the beach.

  3. July 26, 2009 at 10:57 | #3

    And once again, this time in Asia, the automatic cameras of the crowd are so stupid they turn on their flashes to photograph the eclipse of the sun ;-)

  4. July 27, 2009 at 12:26 | #4

    looking all over again at the guy with the hat fail has probably skewed the view count of this post
    Such a doofus….

  5. July 27, 2009 at 21:50 | #5

    I think it’s a natural consequence of being an engineer or programmer that one becomes interested in how things fail. In the end, it’s usually human error, of course, but sometimes it’s really just something that no one foresaw. So, even if you’ve done everything right, be prepared for failure.

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