Friday, September 16, 2016

Reflections on a bus fire and the fragility of modern complex systems

"There's been a fire on a bus." I jumped.

Thursday evening I had got away from work reasonably early with the aim of doing some writing. I had been standing at the bus stop at Central, Sydney's main railway station, for over twenty minutes and had not seen a single 343 bus. It's not unusual to see the buses overcrowded to the point they cannot stop, but not to see one at all is unusual.

Under the newish bus timetable, the 343 begins its journey at Chatswood in Sydney's North Shore. From there it travels down the main drag and across Sydney Harbour Bridge before wending its way through the city to Central. At peak hour, the 343 is always over crowded by Central because it is the main bus for Apartment Central, the Green Square/Victoria Park development. The buses are generally older because the more modern people movers can't get past the narrow streets and round-abouts along the 343 route. Even the 343 buses have to stop sometimes, to move slowly, even to back up, to get past some of the corners.

I turned to the person who had spoken : "What's happened? A bus caught fire on the Bridge", she responded. "The buses aren't running."  I knew at once what was happening, even assumed that it was a 343 that had caught fire. I caught a bus that was running and then tracked back to home. It was well after seven before I got there, twelve hours since leaving for work, over fourteen hours since rising. I cleaned and cooked a meal. After a few glasses of wine while cooking I no longer felt like doing anything, I knew Friday was a heavy day, I had to be up early, so really all I wanted to do was to go to bed.

That started me reflecting. Working in Canberra or then in Armidale, the shorter travel times made so much more time available. Life was more flexible, too. If you had to go back to the office to spend a few hours catching up, you did so. That's not practical if three hours at the office requires 3+ hours travel time. There is also an age factor. To meet demands, the young Jim could simply deduct time from sleep and then catch up. This is not quite as easy for the older Jim. I am trying to squeeze a lot of things into reduced time after travel and I just get tired.

But the thing that really stood out in my mind was the reminder of just how fragile and interdependent life had become. We have become system dependent. That bus fire disrupted the lives of more than a million commuters. It was a major event. The just in time world we live in means that our lives are dependent on complex systems to allow us to function. Because those systems are generally efficient and make it easy for us to do things we use them heavily, letting alternatives atrophy and finally die. The problem is that if one thing goes wrong anywhere in one of the complex interacting systems, the costs can vary from annoying to catastrophic.

I don't have an answer, but I think that we need to pause a little and think.

During the week, I was working on a funding proposal. As systems become more centralised and internet dependent, an increasing number of people no longer have real access. It may be that they are functionally illiterate. It maybe that they are not computer literate. It maybe that they do not have on-line access either because they do not have a computer or access to a computer or access to the necessary bandwidth.

It's not just a question of basic access, but also navigating the way through the increasing volume of evidential material now demanded for so many things. I am reasonably bright, I am certainly computer literate, but I struggle sometimes. Often, there is no one to help. The call centre has become a source of frustrated modern jokes.

The question I was addressing in the funding proposal was how to help.a particular group cope in this world. As I worked my way through the issues, I was conscious of a sense of frustration. You can't say to government or indeed to firms, mate, you have got it wrong, you have to change. More precisely, you can say it, but it will get you nowhere. So you have to work out what might help, recognising that it is at best a band-aid, unlikely to be sustainable in the longer term because, in the end, it depends on funding from government or donors. The gains that come from our new systems are measurable, can be internalised, while the costs are often not.

At a purely personal level, I reminded myself last night of the need to make myself less system dependent no matter how convenient the system maybe. The rub is that this takes focus and time, both things difficult in an increasingly time poor world.

Consider the question of cash. Like many, I now carry very little in my wallet. It's just so easy to wave and go. Now they are talking about abolishing physical cash entirely, making us all dependent on electronic money.

A week back, I went into a store. I wanted to buy something quickly, but their EFTPOS was down. I haven't tracked our many many major electronic outages there have been in the payments system over the last six months, certainly more than a half a dozen. A few years ago, the cable to a Victorian country town was cut and could not be repaired quickly. The whole town and surrounding countryside ground to a halt because nobody could buy petrol or food, farm supplies or building materials.

There are major pluses in carrying cash. You can buy things when the system is down. Big brother cannot track your purchases via data mining. It's easier to control your spend. And yet, the cashless equivalent is so seductive and convenient, at least until something goes wrong. It takes an additional effort to drop out.  

So perhaps my first step is to go back to cash, at least in part. It won't make the 343 come more quickly or be less crowded. It won't stop problems from a bus fire. But it will make me a little less dependent on complex systems that can and will go wrong.


Anonymous said...


Or explain why not; specifically why would anyone not capital invested in their present home not think about relocation?

Fourteen hours? "Luxury"! In ar day ar da used to thrash us wit blunt razorblades...

ps: move.

Anonymous said...

KVD, move? This piece didn't strike me as a whinge, but rather an observation. As to why one might not move, any number of reasons. Some very obvious ones: access to jobs, proximity to family, friends and wider support networks. Like the Looxury quip.

Jim Belshaw said...

I think GL caught that point, the move, kvd. If you do have capital invested in your home, a move is actually easier.

Blunt razor blades indeed! Luxury!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps I misunderstood Jim? I thought you presently rented. Seems to me, if work is hours away, and it isn't going to move closer to you, then there must be other reasons why you live where you live - and if so why complain?

"Looxury" - thanks GL! Knew my spelling would catch me out :)

And I'm intrigued as to why you would think a move "is easier" if you own rather than rent? Seriously, I'm paying $220 pm (started as $175) for a storeage unit which I haven't visited for over 8 years, which contains the remnants of various family crap I couldn't fit in my present mousehole. Easier? Thinks not; pull the other one.


Anonymous said...

Sort of phonetic you know KVD. The sort of stuff they don't teach in schools anymore. My own background gives me a north of England kind of ear when contemplating the "When I were a lass/lad" patois.

Anonymous said...

GL, please take nothing from my poor pronunciation other than honest admiration of a people I respect and, err, married into :)

And I just checked; it's now $275 p.m.

But the wider point is: if one rents, why would one choose to rent 3 hours a day away from one's present employment? This does not compute.


Jim Belshaw said...

I do rent, kvd. Storage sheds! When we came down to Sydney and moved into a smaller place, I rented one too. Finally, at the end of last year I closed it down and moved all the boxes home. The intent was to clear them all out, but they still pack the spare bedroom and my little storage shed at the back! I know I have to do something abou them, but it hadn't been a strong enough priority given the time I have. A case of how the urgent crowds out the important.

Our life choices are set by circumstances at the time. At the time I moved into the house I had just started a contract in Parra. I did consider renting closer to Parra, but I didn't expect that Parra would become a longer term work location and I wanted to be near the girls. I also managed to find an older place that suited me that was cheaper because it was hard to rent. Now, a few years later, the rent has gone up, Helen is in CH although Clare is still close, my average daily commute time has gone up and I'm working longer hours, but there is still a comfort in being in a familiar place while I'm reluctant to face the disruption of a move. I'm also very conscious of conflict in choices.

The time/location question was only part of that post, a post more concerned with systemic complexity as well as choices. We go with the flow because its easiest then, like the mythical story of the frog in heating water, something happens to remind us that the water may be getting a bit hot. Its interesting, but my observation of others as well as myself, suggests that we are all our own worst enemies!

Winton Bates said...

Jim, you do get to do train reading, which has positive externalities. Every cloud has a silver lining, so they say.

You make a good point about the fragility of many complex systems. My initial thought is that if the penalties were higher the mishaps would happen less frequently. That would be a logical solution to reduce the frequency of trucks getting stuck in tunnels, but it might not provide the right incentives for public transport.

Regarding cash, if it didn't exist, someone could make a lot of money by inventing it :)

Anonymous said...

"positive externalities"? How does that work - is Jim reading aloud to the entire carriage?

Jim, I did take your major point that complex systems are fraught; agreed, so thought I'd follow up tanners' comment a few posts back about making the effort to socialise with your band of worker-brothers, which you suggested was nigh impossible due to... travel times.

Winton's comment re cash, and your own: Agree as to convenience and untraceability, but recognising it does seem to play a large part in the black economy - which we all pay for - why not at very least print notes with a 'use by' date? Legal tender for anything until close of business on the day before expiration, allowing for final recipient to bank the next day.

Complex systems: took my new (2nd hand) car back to dealer the other day. Windows except driver's wouldn't open; every stop sign/light the engine stalled. Turns out there's a button controlling the other power windows (child safety), and the 'stalling' is designed to save fuel in city stop-go traffic. Exit embarrassed, pursued by a stare :)


Winton Bates said...

kvd: Jim writes on this blog about the books he reads on the train, so we get a benefit that we do not have to pay for, which we would not obtain if Jim lived closer to his work and spent his leisure time on some other activity e.g. gardening.

Re cash, the fact that it funds black market activities is not entirely a negative point in my view. I guess that a substantial proportion of the black market consists of legal activities that would otherwise not be undertaken because of tax and social welfare provisions that discourage work.

A use-by date for cash? One way to stop people from using cas as a store of value in a world of negative interest rates!

Anonymous said...

Winton: I like gardening. Especially chooks. Hope you got a positive externality from that little titbit? If so, cash payment accepted :)


Anonymous said...

Another way was suggested by Silvio Gesell in 1906: to give people an incentive to spend money and not hoard it, unspent currency notes would need to be stamped each month by the post office, with a charge to the holder for the stamp. Might work nicely for helicopter money.


2 tanners said...

Don't know about you, Jim, but in my home town you can pay cash or using the bus-owned card, which you have to tag on and off (thus providing valuable information to the bus service). If you pay cash, the fare is doubled. If you don't tag off, the fare charged to your card is doubled. I believe in Melbourne you have the choice of using a card or walking.

Jim Belshaw said...

I hadn't heard of Gessell, DG. Had to look him up. Quite an interesting chap. Clearly an idealist.

That's a rough description of Sydney too 2t except, like Melbourne, you can't use cash. If you don't register your card, you must if you are a concession holder, but top it up you can avoid the tracking.