Robustness
by Ken Arneson
2020-09-07 23:30

In its ordinary usage, the word “robustness” is an noun that describes the state of being strong and healthy. But in the tech world, the word “robustness” has a more precise and subtle meaning: robustness means having the ability to stay strong and healthy despite errors and failures of various kinds. In a robust system, a weakness in one or multiple parts of the system does not cause the system as a whole to fail.

A well engineered technical system tests for errors at every step, and has contingency plans to handle those errors. There are limits on this, of course. There are tradeoffs between robustness and cost. Sometimes it’s cheaper to build or buy a new system than to fix a broken one. Other times, it’s better to build in safeguards against errors, because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

The various crises of the year 2020 have exposed a number of major failures of robustness in the American system. In normal times, the system of free markets handles a lot of the robustness required in America. If there is some part of our system that is weak and/or lacking, then in a free market, the opportunity to profit from that weakness should create incentive enough for someone to come along and fix the problem.

What happens when there are problems that free market does not or cannot handle well? What provides robustness for America when the free market has errors and failures? That’s what government is for, or at least, that’s what you’d think.

The American government is designed to be robust. It divides power among three independent branches, so that if one of the branches fails, the other two branches can correct it.

But what happens if the three branches fail to operate independently? What happens if they instead become dependent, where an error in one branch, rather than being fixed by the other branches, gets spread and amplified into the branches instead?

In that case, America loses robustness. When the free market fails, and American government lacks independent branches, errors can happen that cause the whole system to fail. In that case, it requires someone brave to step up and be independent once again, to point out the errors, take steps to fix them, and right the course.

A baseball season is (usually) long. Slumps and injuries and errors will happen. Part of what it takes to win a baseball title is the robustness of the team roster to overcome those setbacks. If one player is in a slump, another player needs to get in a groove to compensate. If someone is hurt, the backup needs to come in and play well to hold the tide.

The A’s starting pitching has been a little shaky this year. So Chris Bassitt’s 6-0 shutout victory over Houston in the first game of their five-game series was just the kind of thing the A’s needed. Bassitt was not good in his previous start against Houston in the doubleheader last Saturday, feeling he had not prepared properly for that game, so he was determined to correct his mistake and correct the problem. He was excellent, pitching seven innings, yielding seven hits and no walks on his way to the victory. It was just the kind of performance an organization needs to avoid a collapse when all sorts of things seem to be going wrong.

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This is Ken Arneson's blog about baseball, brains, art, science, technology, philosophy, poetry, politics and whatever else Ken Arneson feels like writing about
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