Damn You Redundancy


I just watched Anatomy of a Blackout on Discovery. After watching it I put the blame on redundancy and capitalism.

I first observed the hazards of redundancy during the Chaos Communication Camp in 1999. An local network was set up in the middle of a farm for all the attendees. Being smart network engineers they made the network nice and redundant. Soon enough the entire network was being flooded with spoofed packets. In order to restore working order to the network, the problematic computers needed to be found and isolated. However finding it wasn’t easy since the packets were being spoofed. So they needed to divide the network in half to see which half contained the problematic computer. Unfortunately the system was built to be redundant so that if one line was cut the network still functioned. So to split the network in half, first all the hard-made redundancy needed to be removed. Eventually the script-kiddie was found. He had just downloaded some program and didn’t realize he was the cause of the network problem. (note: this story was reconstructed by listening to rumour. Take with salt.)

Redundancy seems to spread problems as well as they spread solutions. Now the power grid isn’t really analogous to a network, but the same idea seems to apply. When a power station goes down, Redundancy kicks in to make up for the reduced power. However this additional load can cause strain on parts of the system, causing them to go down. Now even more power is routed to make up for the loss putting an even bigger strain on the system. In this case eventually a large part of Ohio was down and starting drawing power from the east. This was the first time power was flowing into Ohio instead of out of Ohio. More lines when down until we are left with a blackout.

Originally local producers provided power locally. A power grid was made so that in emergency situations power can be routed from elsewhere to provide for local areas if their station when down. Then deregulation happened, and to be competitive companies started buying and selling massive amounts of power to each other, over lines that were designed to ship power in emergency situations.

In capitalism there is limited liability, so there is no incentive to prevent disasters from happening. In fact one is encourage to shuffle risk around so that there is a small chance of catastrophic failure. Since you will never be asked to pay in such a case, you have successfully lowered your cost of risk.

I suspect mutual fund and other investment companies work this way.


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Russell O’Connor: contact me