9 thoughts on “The Societal Design Margin”

    1. Were you harassed by an irate editor about your writing having “Orphan Lines” (or Orphan Words…)? An artifact of how words were printed on paper by the technology of printing presses.

      1. The big publishing houses didn’t work that way. I was provided with a copy editor, who I could overrule. Once I turned in the final version and it wasapproved by the acquiring editor, it went to the typesetter, who had to worry about that stuff. Sometimes I would find mystery edits in the finished book. Other times I would find my own typos, just as I originally typed them, as the typesetter ignroed the copyedit marks and went with the underlying typing.

        I did work for a single-shop medical/pharmaceutical nonprofit publisher in the early 1980s where my job went all the way to “photo ready” text from which we’d run film for the offset presses. Then I had to worry about widows and orphans. When I started there, the editors were using typewriters and doing cut and paste with xacto knives and skotch tape. I convinced them to use WordStar and do markup for the typists to input changes to the files.

  1. A quibble here. “Design margin” implies design – some sort of plan. Sorry, I don’t think most of this is planned, but rather reactionary (like the regulatory thrashing that often follows creation of tragedy of commons situations) or even delusional (I want my pony and I’ve decided this is how you get ponies). I think a better term would be “operational margin”.

    I think the model of societal stability here is what I’ll call `”thumbs in dikes”. A perceived problem like say higher crime, a natural disaster, an economic collapse, or simply people you don’t like getting elected is a leak in a metaphorical dike. The problem doesn’t have to be real, though much of them are.

    We have multiple ways to deal with the problem. One is to turn it into a non-problem. Sometimes things are problems only because we see them as problems. Just ignoring them can solve the problem effectively. Another is to come up with a long term fix for the problem. A third is to come up with a short term fix that needs to be continually applied in order to work. That last is a thumb in the dike.

    If the problem is ephemeral, then thumb in a dike works fine. Natural disasters are a good example. Sooner or later the disaster ends and the short term disaster relief can stop as well. Others don’t work so well, like quantitative easing that’s still in place despite the emergency which created it ending more than a decade ago.

    There’s a certain mentality that overuses such short term fixes. But even so, a society is a big thing. As long as you have enough thumbs, you can keep the leaks plugged.

    Here’s where the unplanned destruction of the dike comes in. Groups pursuing their own interests harm their society and its resilience – like a home builder stealing dirt from a neighboring dike. They commonly don’t have any understanding of what they’re taking (hence, why I prefer “operational margin” to “design margin” – the people breaking stuff often aren’t designing anything). But this creates more leaks which are plugged with more thumbs that can’t be removed.

    And sooner or later, we run out of thumbs.

    1. Sooner or later the disaster ends and the short term disaster relief can stop as well.

      Except often it doesn’t. How long was federal “emergency” housing provided to people affected by Hurricane Katrina? I know it was more than a year; I don’t know that it’s stopped yet.

  2. I remember as young’un reading ‘Apocalyptic science fiction’ and snickering at the visions of America being converted to a wasteland filled with ‘cave men with clubs’ in a generation. (Pardon me, cannibal cave men)

    After all, every high school had an equipped shop class, every high school had archived ‘Popular Mechanics™’ and ‘Scientific Americans'(back when it was worth reading). There were small machine shops in the backs of car dealerships and smaller factory plants…”How could you kill all of that technology?” I wondered. Maybe we would be forced to down shift to ‘low pressure steam power’ and the 19th Century again.

    Fast forward to today and I see a much more ‘brittle’ system. How many of my reading books are on electronic material and are one Carrington Event away from oblivion? What can a ‘shade tree mechanic’ do without a chip shipped from half way around the globe. Brittle and run by a so-called elite that just doesn’t seem to understand how things work.

    1. Apocalyptic science fiction is simply one iteration of the “zombie apocalypse.” You can literally substitute one for another cause, because the effect is the story, and it’s always the same story. The cause can be completely goofy, because it always ends with Charleton Heston in from of the remains of the Statue of Liberty, cursing humanity and not wondering how a bronze statue would survive the millennia as anything more than a green stain on the sand.

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