Thursday, March 26, 2015

Black Swans on the Wing

So, once again I'm deviating from my planned postings and schedule to touch on something immediate. Now this gets into a bit of Secret Sun territory, starting as it does with a strange personal "sync," and for that I apologize. But it's also related to the Black Swan Theory as per Taleb.

They kind of always look pissed off to me

Last night before bed, I was rereading my digital copy of The Black Swan, reviewing bookmarks and highlights because I'm planning some posts here on the topic. Anyway, at the front of the book he presents a strange thought experiment. Suppose in the months leading up to September 11, 2001, a brave and driven senator battles to get legislation passed to require locks on all cockpit doors. The point of the thought experiment is that 9/11 would have never have happened and this guy would be a completely invisible hero (no one would know he'd averted disaster, airlines might be angry with the cost of the locks, maybe the guy doesn't get reelected, and he feels like a failure). This was literally the last thing I read before going to sleep last night.

This morning, the very first thing I saw when I picked up my phone was the disturbing news that the copilot of the Germanwings flight locked the pilot out and deliberately crashed the plane. My spouse's response was "this is the second time." Of course, he was thinking about MH370 (which just got mentioned in a XKCD comic like a week ago). No one knows what happened to that flight, but pilot suicide is one theory that also involves a locked cabin door. But he was also wrong, because there are other incidents where pilots have deliberately crashed aircraft. Mozambique Airlines flight 470 and EgyptAir flight 990 both have the same profile... one pilot leaves the cockpit and the other takes the plane down. Flight 470's voice recorded also includes the "pounding on the locked door" element that made the back of my hair stand up this morning.

OK, if you are unfamiliar with Taleb's Black Swan theory, it goes like this:

A black swan is an event that:
  1. Is a surprise (if it's not a surprise to you, it's not a black swan for you)
  2. Has a major effect (like completely disproportionate to what was considered possible)
  3. Is rationalized after the fact (we should have been able to predict this)

In fact, 9/11 is the textbook example of a black swan. It was a complete surprise to nearly everyone (maybe not John O'Neill, though his knowledge didn't keep him from dying during the attack). The effect was, well, you kind of can't overstate the impact. And we've spent the last 14 years trying to rationalize it.

I think you can see where this is going. The idea of a pilot taking a plane down is damn near unthinkable. Take another look at that list of other incidents I linked to above. And take a look at this list, which has a lot of overlap, but also additional examples. In nearly every case, there's some government, organization, or trade group making a case for a non-pilot cause. You can almost imagine them wringing their hands: "It couldn't be the pilot, it just couldn't be!" And from that same link:

"I should say that pilots are among the most scrutinized of all professionals, certainly more than medical professionals, and yet in very rare occasions something happens that's really out of the ordinary, out of character, and it's really difficult to predict in advance which person is going to act in an very bizarre and harmful way." -- CBS News aviation and safety expert Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger

So, we've got an unpredictable event with an outsized effect (one guy taking out 150 is a pretty over the top way to commit... well, whatever he was committing). And the rationalizing is on its way: this article notes that other countries enforce a "rule of two" for airlines.

We need to be more willing to admit that terrible things can happen. We need to try our best to think ahead to worst case scenarios and think past the current problem. The Germanwings airline doors have three settings: unlocked (when you're letting someone in), normal (when you need a keypad code to enter), and locked (which means even the emergency keypad code doesn't work). When the designers created this system and decided on the "locked" setting, I'm sure they were thinking about a pilot being taken hostage outside the cabin and forced to divulge the code or a leak of the code to a nefarious third party. But I'm sure they never considered (just as I never had) that the pilot him or herself might be the nefarious one.

I want to take this line of thinking back down to earth (sorry) because there's something else going on here. Our response to black swan events is, by necessity, reactive instead of proactive. If you can't predict them, you can't be proactive toward them. Terrorism is rife with examples: 9/11 = locking cockpits, underwear bomber = full body scan. I don't know who the hell Michael Husnik is, but I love his approach to security. If we want to mitigate risk (told you I'd be getting to that topic soon), you have to be proactive.

So, how do we predict the unpredictable in our own lives? And how do we mitigate risks proactively? Those are topics I will be diving into soon. 

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