Sunday, January 04, 2015

For want of a nail ... a plane-load of people were stranded!

Remember that old elementary school rhyme on the want of a horseshoe nail?
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
You forgot, eh!  What a shame!!! ;)

It is not to be taken literally that a kingdom was lost only because of one small little horseshoe nail. It is a metaphor at various levels, primarily on the cause and effect--which this blogger loves exploring--and is a rhyme variation of that other old idea that the strength of a chain depends on its weakest link.

I had plenty of time to think about that after I was stranded, again, in Denver.

Here's how the story developed: the aircraft arrived earlier than scheduled--we could see it through the glass.  I was looking forward to reaching home by midnight.  After a long, long flight and after a lengthy absence from my sweet home by the river--the Riverhouse, as the friend calls it.

It got to boarding time.  The person at the counter was working the phone and not announcing the boarding.

And then came the announcement at 9:40: flight canceled.

It was not a technical malfunction.  The aircraft was fine.

It was not a pilot issue--they were right there.

The flight was canceled because the cabin attendant did not show up for work.

Yep, no cabin attendant, no go.

Almost right away I then got the automated email from the airlines:

I think the capacity of that plane is sixty or seventy.  It was a full flight, post-holiday, and all of us were now stranded in Denver for the night, and perhaps more.

All was lost for the want of a horseshoe nail :(

We can expect a lot more such events because we now deal with immensely complex systems that can fail any minute depending on the weakest link.  In the digital world, it is possible to build in redundancy and decrease the failure rate to near zero.  But, that is with the data bits of ones and zeros. Building human redundancy, however, is expensive--to hire and have available "spare" replacement personnel.  When running an "efficient" organization, the tendency is not to have too many people as "spare" personnel.  Which means ... incidents similar to what happened in Denver.  

When life goes on really well, we even resort to describing it as "everything worked out like a well-oiled machine."  We have developed such an understanding so much so that we never refer to life going well as "everything worked out like a human."  The temptation is to then replace more and more humans from the commercial and other enterprises and replace them with ones and zeros.

But, here is what we need to remember: an error-proof technological world can be sterile. It can be, well, like a well-oiled machine. A life that is devoid of humanity itself.

I don't want to be in that world.   It is the humanness that makes life all the more exciting and worthwhile.  And painful, like when the attendant did not show up.

I worry that our rush to embrace technology removes, little by little, all those qualities that make the human existence, well, human.

Of course, I cursed the night away that I was stranded in Denver--when pricked, do I not bleed?  But, am glad that we are humans and not automatons. At least, not yet!


Ramesh said...

Three separate topics you have dealt with in your post.

Yes,all this streamlining and efficiency has taken all cushions away to absorb shocks. So if the slightest thing goes wrong, the effects are big. See my latest post on the disaster befalling Japan - no french fries at McD !!!

On automation, I won't agree with you. The front customer face will always have a human element. Mundane repetitive jobs and those unsafe and requiring high degree of stress, should, and ought to be automated. That doesn't equate to life devoid of humanity.

Finally, US airlines are the pits. Note that you rarely have problems with Lufthansa - its the Denver leg which is a mess everytime. Airlines and airports in the US, with some rare honourable exceptions, are really the pits. Come and travel in Asia for an airline experience.

Sriram Khé said...

Of course the airports are new and awesome in Asia. But, hello, it is because they are late entrants and also because in most cases they are heavily, heavily subsidized by their non-democratic governments who couldn't care less about how money is allocated.

When younger, I used to complain that Singapore and Malaysia Airlines, which were the ones I flew then to India, even had younger and attractive cabin crew compared to the older and old women in the US airlines. The older and wiser me appreciates the laws and a better understanding against age discrimination. This is merely an example of how costs go up--the aircraft prices are the same, the oil prices are the same, and it is personnel costs that make huge differences in the businesses, especially when no emir is underwriting the expenses.

Yes, mundane and repetitive jobs will be automated. But, that is also why the science fiction of the near future seems so devoid of humanness ... Which is why I love Camus' take on the story of Sisyphus:

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