Most subjects found this very confusing

Wednesday, April 15th, 2020

We’ve been hearing about pandemic models and policy responses lately. With that in mind, James Thompson discusses the logic of failure;

At a Royal Society lecture in 1990 I was charmed by a diffident presentation given by Prof Dietrich Dorner who described not his success in modelling the future, but the difficulties subjects had when they tried to manage fairly simple models.

His first example was extremely simple. Subjects had to turn a control dial so as to get a small target to move from the top of the screen to a line drawn horizontally across the middle. Clearly, the solution was to turn the knob clockwise so that the target sank down to the mid-line. This proved difficult. Dorner had arranged the system so the target only moved after a delay. Most subjects found this very confusing. They kept turning the dial to get the target down, only to find that after a period of no response the target suddenly shot down past the desired mid-line to the bottom of the screen. Irritated and confused, subjects then twisted the dial anti-clockwise, thus making it shoot back to the top of the screen. It took many corrections and much time to get the target onto the desired mid-line. A minority of subjects made just one cautious movement and then waited to see what happened. Such subjects were able to place the target onto the mid-line quickly and with very few moves.

This was a beautiful illustration of the key feature of executive power, that even if what you command has a real effect on a complex system in the real world, it is usually a delayed effect. Oil tankers take time to turn around.

I’ve discussed The Logic of Failure twice before.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    Time is what keeps things from happening all at once.

    There’s no such thing as no delay. There’s only imperceptible delay. Keep it under 1/25 of a second and everyone will be happy. This is called responsiveness.

    At the other extreme, no one can learn from mistakes that take more than a lifetime to bear consequences. But that’s for future generations to worry about.

    We must forgive the statesmen who carved up the Ottoman Empire, for they had no way of knowing what they were doing.

  2. Kirk says:

    This was one of those books that I read that had me shaking my head at the “Shocked! Shocked, I say!” reaction from the author at the many things that he observed about failure as a phenomenon in human affairs.

    Any astute observer could have laid out most of what he had to do studies to quantify and “discover”. The problem is, most humans are not “astute observers”, and go about daily life in a haze of obliviousness and outright denial about what’s going on around them.

    Of course, if they were really paying attention, most of them would be in a state of dysfunctional depression at the essential intractable and irreducible idiocy of their fellow humans. As a species, we’re just barely competent enough to get out of the caves and shelters of hunter-gatherer existence, and not much more. Complex society and organization really is not our forte, and I suspect that most of what we’ve tried to accomplish along these lines fails because our vision in these regards far surpasses our actual capability in them.

    I think we really need to set our sights lower, and figure out how to operate at a human scale before we try coming together as larger units and functioning at the scale where we start building empires on the sand. Hell, most of us can’t even manage to effectively work together as an atomic family, so how the hell do we think we’re going to do when that scope is expanded out exponentially?

    One of the more disillusioning things I noted in my military career was just how many of my senior leaders had family units that were totally dysfunctional and incredibly ‘effed up. It was shocking to realize that one of the senior NCOs I’d looked up to during a critical phase of my career, who I’d tried my best to emulate and learn from…? This guy’s son went to prison on a lengthy sentence, and his daughter was sufficiently dysfunctional that she was hanging out with street gangs and throwing parties for them in her parent’s house when they went on vacation.

    Yeah, that discovery of his personal life was a bit more than merely “disorienting”. What was even funnier in a macabre way, was his post-military career: Counseling for troubled teens and families thereof. I mean, seriously? You can’t manage it for yourself, and you’re going to take up “fixing” other people’s f**kups in that area? I am still somewhat shocked and dismayed at the essential arrogance of that whole thing. If I had a son in prison and a daughter running with gang-bangers, the last damn thing I would be doing would be telling other people how to raise their kids…

  3. Grasspunk says:

    This reminds me of Donald Norman’s Design of Everyday Things, where he describes a slide projector with one button to control its actions. A quick push and it moves one slide ahead. A longer push and it goes one slide back. People couldn’t figure out why the projector went back instead of forward at seemingly random times.

  4. Dave says:

    Back when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage, someone said that the lack of fiery clouds raining hot sulfur on Boston’s skyline showed that God was OK with this. Which brings to mind the words of Valerius Maximus:

    “The divine wrath is slow indeed in vengeance, but it makes up for its tardiness by the severity of the punishment.”

  5. Harry Jones says:

    By the time you realize you have failed as a parent, you’ve lost 18 years.

    And you still don’t know how you screwed up.

  6. Kirk says:

    While I remain as ever ambivalent about the virtues or non-virtues of “social innovations” like gay marriage, I have yet to see “divine wrath” as an actual threat when it comes to either homosexuality or sexual deviancy. Were such a thing a real phenomenon, I suspect that the Vatican would be the center of a rather large caldera, based on the whole issue of homosexual priests, bishops, and other figures in the Church. And, that’s leaving aside the entire issue of Church-supported and condoned pedophilia. If God gave a f**k about any of that, the Catholic church would be run by the laity, because the priesthood and leadership would be dead.

    Now, what does give me pause? The observation that no long-term successful or competitive human society in history has had open and accepted homosexual behavior as a feature. From evidence, I rather suspect that there are reasons for that. Hell, the Carthaginians apparently practiced widespread child sacrifice, at least until the Romans decided to do away with their competition. As a social feature, I suspect that killing off everyone’s firstborn would have some inimical long-term effects, but apparently not.

    So, you look at it: No open homosexuality that I can find anywhere in history outside some fringe cultures that didn’t do so well once the outside world found them, and you have examples of rampant success with child sacrifice and large-scale human sacrifice like the Aztecs. What does this say about the likely success outlook for what we’re doing by mainstreaming the queers?

  7. Paul from Canada says:


    Not sure about this, but an observation.

    It occurs to me that homosexuals are only, at most a percent of the population or so, (ignore Kinsey, since any homosexuality even situational, i.e prison rape, made you a homosexual), I doubt that their impact as homosexuals-qua-homosexuals really matters at all.

    After all, they don’t reproduce in any case.

    Granted, Alan Turing is considered a “Gay Icon”, in the sense that he was gay, and died, in part from, “persecution”, but his real contribution to humanity and history had nothing to do with being gay at all.

    What I mean to say is that his sexual orientation is completely incidental. He is famous because he helped break the German enigma code because he was a great mathematician. His being gay was only incidental, and a footnote, in the grand scheme of things.

    He would still be historically significant if he had been straight, a furry, or into pony play.

    There was a great deal of decadence in Rome (including homosexuality, or at least pederasty), without it being a real factor in their decline.

  8. David Foster says:

    In one of Doerner’s experiments…the Forest Fire simulation…people playing the role of Fire Chief could control the degree to which their simulated units could take action on their own, versus wait for commands from the Chief. The question of which strategy is best is entirely a function of context, but most people tended to impose too much micromanagement in general. It was suggested that Stress leads to a strong desire to impose top-down control. (Interestingly, it was also observed that more-stressed people tended to use the world “I” more frequently than the less-stressed.)

  9. Kirk says:


    Like I said, I’m ambivalent on the “morality” of it all. Boink who you like, I say. So long as you leave the kids alone, and it doesn’t frighten the horses.

    Yet… Everywhere you look for historical precedent, there is none. Why?

    There are no known societies that I’m aware of, where there were no limits on homosexual relations, no social consequence for undertaking that lifestyle. You could be a male Roman with male lovers, but only if you were the dominant “top”, and behaved in a stereotypical male manner in public. Any hint that you were an effeminate “bottom”, and you were done.

    You look at the typical insanity of the SJW types, and then look at the rate of literal insanity on the left, and you cannot help but wonder if there aren’t good behavioral reasons we’ve sidelined behaviors such as these down the centuries. The nutters simply can’t be put in charge of much of anything, or they tear it down. You see the same nutty BS in every female-dominated workspace, where they play catty politics over actual function. Sane women have often commented to me that they loathe working for female bosses because of the way so many of them reduce the workplace to the same sort of political insanity we see with the majority of the left.

    Frankly, while I don’t have anything against the sexual choices that gays make, I do have a lot of trouble with how many of them chose to behave. Boink who you like, but goddammit, act professional and sane in the workplace and in your politics. The nutters have taken over the left wing, here in the West, and it’s not going well. It isn’t the sexual choices so much as it is the accompanying behavioral aberrations and deviancy.

  10. Harry Jones says:

    I say decadence is a symptom of decline more than a cause of it. There may be a feedback loop, but it starts with a crisis of purpose, a sense that there are no more frontiers – unless decadence is a frontier.

    Been watching old movies to get a feel for how far we’ve fallen. That Humphrey Bogart is dead is a minor tragedy. That the sort of hero he played is dead is a major tragedy. What makes it worse is that Queeg and Dobbs both live on and seem to rule the world.

  11. Paul from Canada says:


    My point was (I think), (my comment was an observation that occurred without a lot of consideration), that open homosexuality is only one of many “decadences”. One could equally argue (like Augustus did), that bachelors are as bad for society in the long term.

    On reflection, I think I misread your intention, thinking of it as a particular rather than representative example. Hence my comment on Turing being equally socially and historically valuable, had he indulged in a different “kink” than being homosexual.

  12. Kirk says:


    I’m not sure I’d class what’s been going on as “a decadence” so much as I’d say it has been an unnaturally forced “evolution” in social attitudes. And, one that I suspect is going to snap back with really nasty repercussions at some point in the near- to medium-term future.

    There was nothing “natural” about the whole movement for tolerance and acceptance of deviant sexual behavior. That was all on the deviant community seizing control over the organs of cultural transmission in the media and the academic world, and deliberately forcing a change, very similar to how they took over the seminaries in the 1950s and 1960s. You see the results in the drastically increased rate of deviant behavior by the priesthoods, and in how much more “boinking the student bodies” we’re seeing of late with the “education professionals”. There has been a definite sea change in the nature of all this, and the eventual effect of it all? Hooh-boy… There will be metaphoric bills to be paid, and I lay you long odds that the bill-payers are going to be mostly in the deviant community.

    Good, bad, or indifferent, I could care less how you get your rocks off. The problem is that a lot of the general public is going to see the source of the perversion infection as residing in the “out and proud” community, and they are going to take action against the most visible parts of it that they can get at. The real termites in the woodwork will still be there, but I suspect they’re going to be a little cowed seeing what happens to their fellow deviants when the denouement for all this comes down.

    I remain ambivalent on the issue of divine retribution, however. I don’t think that any God who set this situation up is really going to care about how you scratch your itches, because if He did? He’d have already gone all Sodom and Gomorrah on a lot of places, not least the various administrative centers of the Catholic Church.

  13. Alien says:

    It has always amazed me that there is such poor understanding of feedback loops, and especially the need for them, particularly short ones, and the complexities involved in constructing, maintaining and utilizing them.

  14. Paul from Canada says:


    Like I said, I was responding to the specific, when you were giving a general example. I still think that homosexuality is the least destructive, given the tiny actual number.

    Family breakdown, lack of at least replacement level breeding, general decline in effectiveness and integrity in our institutions, all far more important than one of many sexual deviations.

    I don’t disagree in kind, just slightly in degree.

  15. Kirk says:


    I’m not entirely certain about the role of open homosexuality in civilizational decay, just pointing out that the degree of it we have normalized is… Unusual. Symptom or cause? You tell me.

    Part of the problem is that we simply don’t know what the hell the prevalence of this sort of thing was, in the past. I am, myself, apparently blind as a bat to what has gone on in my vicinity–Recently, I was informed by a classmate of mine that the New Hot Art Teacher we got in during my third year of high school was getting the ever-loving loved out of her by several of my classmates and that she continued to boink her way through her entire career as a teacher. Last time I saw her, some five-ten years ago, I’d assumed she was still the celibate nun type I’d taken her for back when. Multiple people have since confirmed that no, she was not. Emphatically not. She likes teenage boys of a certain sort… Which was not mine, and I don’t know how I feel about that. Disappointed? Probably; she was an item, back then.

    Question is, how much of what we see with cases like Mary Kay Letourneau is “normal”? Is she (and, her obsession with her victim, Vili Fualaau…) an aberration or a sign of societal breakdown in norms and values? Just how much student-boinking was going on, back in the day, and is its prevalence today A Sign?

    Certainly, in my grandmother’s day of repressed sexual behavior, they were not openly allowing such things to go on. I rather suspect that she and her fellow teachers would have been leading a lynch mob to string Ms. Letourneau up, had something of that nature happened in one of her schools. Certainly, her response to that situation would not have been what I heard from an eyewitness to the Letourneau debacle who was in the school at the time, which was basically “…we all knew something was going on, but nobody wanted to say anything about it… It wasn’t our business…”.

    So, I suppose the question I still have is this: Are we living in an age of depravity, or are we just more open about letting the news get out, and then being willing to discuss the unmentionable? My mom describes “knowing” that one of the female teachers at her high school in the 1950s was “involved” with a couple of her female fellow students, but that it never rose to the point of “getting out”. She also can’t say for sure that “things were going on”, either… Just rumored to be, at class reunions and such, in latter days.

    It’s damn hard to tease out the reality of it all: What was the real prevalence of these things, in the past? Are we living in an age of sexual licence or an age of openness about the issue?

    And, then there’s the other question: Is sexual licence a good, bad, or indifferent thing? Is it something to worry about, or just something to note, with amusement, as the iceberg holes the ship?

    Me, personally? I’m not sure how I feel. Is it better to live in Weimar Berlin, or some 1890s Midwestern Babbittown, far from the licence and “lack of sexual repression” noted in Weimar? Other than the lack of worry about the teachers boinking your pre-teen, that is, in the latter.

    I do have a suspicion that licence goes along with social decay. No standards or loose standards, nobody seems to care about other things going on, when nobody cares about sexual licence and deviancy. You excuse nudity and public sex in the streets of San Francisco, how can you not excuse vagrants shitting in the streets…?

  16. Paul from Canada says:


    “….I suppose the question I still have is this: Are we living in an age of depravity, or are we just more open about letting the news get out, and then being willing to discuss the unmentionable?…”

    I think it is exactly this.

    Back in the day, there were euphemisms for such things, such as “One of natures bachelors”, so we always knew “it” (pick a deviancy), existed.

    What I, like you, am not sure about, is to what extent our willingness to recognize and accept (or confront), reality, rather than retreat into hypocrisy, is a good or bad thing.

    I have come across some rather interesting stuff about 19th century British criminal trials and executions of “mollies”. What is essentially a 20th century gay “bathhouse” culture existed underground in 19th century London.

    All the vices we think of as modern, particularly drug use, is actually far older, such as the Weimar Berlin you cite.

    Like you, I had a bit of a revelation, though mine came in high-school, not after. It turned out that one of my grade 8 teachers was a homosexual pedophile. A kid who was a bully and an irritant to me, till I fought and beat him, turned out to be one of his victims. Once I found out, it explained much of his behavior, and I was rather startled to learn this.

    We all “knew” there was something odd about Mr. Franklin, but if you weren’t his “type”, (which I wasn’t), (not troubled, from a broken home etc.), he wasn’t really a threat, and there were only vague rumours which nobody really took seriously…..

    I think there is a middle position, just not sure what it is. A bit like libertarian-ism, the question is where do you draw the line.

    Hypocrisy and repression are hypocritical and have negative consequences, however, as you point out, unlimited license and acceptance has its own set of negative consequences….

  17. Kirk says:


    It’s exactly this uncertainty about the prevalence in days of old that leaves me more than a little ambivalent. Were my grandparents guilty of painting a pretty picture, deluded about the reality of things, or what? Without having been there, how the hell are you to tell what is or is not actually sign of a degenerate age?

    You read the background on Kinsey’s bullshit studies, and you rather have to wonder at whether he helped make our modern morality, or if he just brought it out into the open? Which was it?

    I tend to think that there are only certain small percentages of the population that are sex-obsessed, but without being able to get ground truth out of people, who the hell knows? And, just what the hell triggers the behaviors that we all take as “deviant and degenerate”, if we bother to label such things?

    Hell, when you get down to it, someone please explain attraction to me. I don’t quite “get” how it is we have certain tastes, or how they develop. Where the hell do things like foot fetishes come from? At some point along the curve, where the dial is labeled “contrived beyond belief”, why do some people turn the dial to eleven? I get “feather”, but what I can’t bend my understanding around is “whole chicken”. How is it the people who get so deeply lost into that crap don’t look up into the mirrored ceiling over their rack and go “Man, I think I may have taken this a bit too far…”?

    I dunno. The extremes of observed sexual behavior in my fellow apes has always been something of a neck-bending thing of wonder to me. I guess I’m just mired in the plain vanilla of it all.

  18. Paul from Canada says:

    There is a theory out there that early sexual experience is particularly powerfull in shaping sexual attitudes and attractions.

    This goes some way to explain why a lot of pedophiles are former victims, and that their victims are of the same approximate age they were abused at.

    Also goes to possibly explain things like shoe fetishes. Imagine an 11 or 12 year old, alone in the house, parents out, bored and exploring, and comes across his parents’ copy of the Joy of Sex, or his dad’s porn stache in their closet. He reads it and is aroused by it, and now is in the midst of a “formative sexual experience”, sitting amoungst the sight and (particularly), smell of his mother’s shoes.

    Not sure if this theory holds any water or not (can’t even remember where I read it), but it makes some sense to me.

    I know someone who inadvertantly ended up in the porn industry. He and some friends (computer geeks all), started up a one-stop e-commerce shop. The idea being to provided ISP, website, billing, and a customer service phone line for hobby level entrepeneurs who lacked the skillset to do their own IT. The idea was someone who made repro car parts or cosplay costumes or something as a hobby, now discover there is a market, and turn it into a job.

    Turned out pretty much all their customers ended up being what we now call cam-girls, or straight up home-made porn. His describing the content some of his clients produced was quite eye opening. I had heard of Furries and rubber fetish people and cross dressing and so on, but never knew such things as pony play, and baloon animal sex (yes, there is such a thing), existed.

    I suspect that the internet, social media and technology might be increasing the visibility of these things, rather than the actual rate. Before, if you weren’t into it yourself, you wouldn’t know it existed, and now you do.

    Is the actual incidence of pony play people higher, or are they just more visible? Supplimentary question, if say, your boss is into said pony play, but you are not aware of it, does it really matter?

    I also think there may be a bit of Mazlow happening here too. Today we have the means and money to indulge some of this stuff. In the past you couldn’t because of lack of a means to find a willing partner, and/or the money to travel to a furry convention.

    Kind of like how the suicide rate went down during the London Blitz, when real existential danger replaces existential angst, perhaps we have the reverse. If you don’t have existential worries, perhaps indulging in some “sexual self-actualization” becomes a higher priority than in the paet. Much like “wokeness”, something you can indulge in since you haven’t got anything more important, like surviving, to fill your time….

  19. Kirk says:

    Paul… The old saw about “idle hands are the devil’s playthings…” comes to mind.

    I kind of suspect that any post-scarcity economy is going to be fleeting and fast-gone. We do not seem to be suited for such idyllic conditions, and absent the need to strive, I strongly suspect that the ennui we see taking over the various socialist economies of the world will no doubt come to the fore, and result in the Eloi dying out relatively quickly–Probably within generations.

    Humans don’t seem to do well under conditions of prosperity, which is why I think that the current age seems to be hell-bent at going off the rails as quickly as the inmates can manage.

  20. Paul from Canada says:


    Low arousal threshold types in the past didn’t need to invent skydiving, real life was tough enough. Today however….

    See also lottery winners, who are happier once they have blown it all…..

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