Suddenly, Mysteriously, Again - The Toilet Stopped Working

I finished my article, and sought refreshment, my assignment finished, saved, backed up in case lightning should strike. Life was wonderful. I wandered back to my desk and started a game of solitaire - my tiny little diversionary reward.

In the course of play, I slowly became aware of a continuous, undiminished, rushing whooshing sound of the toilet, filling and filling and filling. Suddenly, once again, the stupid thing is broken.

It started about a week ago, maybe two. I ignored it, just jiggled the chrome thing, hoping the problem might go away. I got that idea from Lewis Thomas, who probably - if he were alive today - would not appreciate my application. He wasn't keen about magical thinking, but he acknowledged its existence.

In an article called Medical Lessons from History, Lewis said, "The long habit of medicine, extending back into the distant past, had been to treat everything with something, and it was taken for granted that every disease demanded treatment…."

Who among us hasn't tried to fix something, and made things worse?

Lewis went on to describe the discovery that diseased people got better faster and more reliably when they were not subjected to the treatments of the time. That many treatments of the time - giving patients heavy metals, or taking blood - are now known to kill or severely damage almost anyone - diseased or not.

Somehow in my sometimes magical mind, I connected ideas. What did not work in medicine might also not work in other technical fields. In the real world, computer and other types of technical problems sometimes - quite often actually - just go away. In a busy world, doing nothing is sometimes the simplest thing to try. "First, do no harm" gets translated into "First, do nothing."

One side of my brain rejects this thread of thought. I am an engineer, the son of an engineer. I believe every system failure must have a real, physical, scientific cause. Get to the bottom, find the rotten core, and the problem will be solved.

But I discover I have a problem with such a purely rational view of problem solving; for when I consider many past experiences, it just isn't true. For example, when I was in the U.S. Air Force, surrounded by dedicated, competent, quality minded people, sometimes problems with aircraft simply went away. They drifted in, caused distress, and disappeared forever, like ghosts in the machine.

One could argue, "It had to be something. There was a wire that was crimped improperly, and the right amount of G-forces occurred to cause a failure. Or there was moisture in a plug that evaporated. Something had to go wrong." It's impossible to argue. The potential for failure in complex systems is endless, possibly infinite. When things are at a certain complexity level, it's amazing they work at all. Maybe we have become so good at making complex things work so well, most of the time, that we have ceased to be properly amazed.

What I'm suggesting is that there is a practical viewpoint, grounded in reality, but difficult to propose. Based on this idea, it can be rationally argued: "So what? Who cares? The problem went away, the system now works, and it is not and never will be worth the trouble to find out WHY it happened in any model of efficient productive behavior. Go fly the now functioning machine and blow up something menacing to children or downright Un-American."

This is NOT something you'll find in any U.S. Air Force manuals, I can assure you. Unless things have changed drastically in the past few decades, nothing would ever fly unless some brave soul wrote, "Problem solved. Connected wire A to Point B. OK to fly the machine." And signed their name.

There is something within our so-called modern, scientific culture innately unable to deal with totally in-your-face reality-based ambiguity when discussing technical matters. We are open to almost any theory except one: that there is no answer within our present grasp. In my experience, however, this is sometimes the only honest answer.

I can imagine the totally left-side-brain dominated part of my audience going absolutely ballistic right about now. With good reason, I am sure. Still, I feel sure of my turf.

I would love to see the US Air Force establish a research project that attempts to find the root cause of every single system failure - without fail. Even if this means taking the whole contraption apart and scrutinizing every molecule on every IC chip with an electron microscope, in real time.

I can't prove the outcome, but I submit the project will fail. There are too many parameters. They won't have enough time and money to get to the bottom of all things. Not in complex systems like we have today. It might be possible to do a project like this on a computer mouse and a pad, if children are not allowed in the laboratory. I'd post guards, just to make sure.

My interest is not noisy, cranky toilets, or the aircraft that fly to protect those who use them, but in computers. And in all the situations I have been in, the most difficult to explain is when the system crashed, we simply don't know why, we have checked everything we know how to do, and it is very unlikely to ever happen again. It went away, mysteriously. And chances are - it won't happen again.

We hate that. But it happens.

By David Pickens 1/27/00
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