Peephole Optimization — Making Things Worse One Improvement at a Time

Been a while since I had much to say on this forum. My indignant sputters over the decline and fall of practically everyone has found ample outlet in the various news sources I read. And besides, why kick? No one is listening…

But today, Cold Air Online Facebook – Cold Air Onlineposted a link to Facebook for an article in another blog Blowing It On The Wind that brought a whole bunch of things together. My response was:

It actually does make perfect sense. What we have is an example of what in software development is called peephole optimization. One looks at a very small part of the overall program and makes changes to optimize it against some criteria — calculated speed of execution, storage use, etc. But because of the narrowness of the view, the overall destructiveness of the changes are not seen — in that the overall program runs much slower or perhaps doesn’t produce the intended results. Human systems are rife with these kinds of errors — in healthcare, to reduce costs, services are consolidated into larger and larger catchment areas – regional and then no doubt provincial hospitals. So costs go down, but overall results are worse because sick people must be transported further and by more expensive means. And more die in transit. So costs for running the hospital are lower but overall costs and public results are much worse. Horrah! This green energy stuff is very much the same — wonderful solutions to very narrowly defined criteria but overall almost everyone is net much worse off. Now what problem were we trying to solve? If it was poverty among the well connected, likely addresses. For everyone else maybe not so much.

This is the problem — we are surrounded by governments and businesses trying to optimize their processes to (hopefully) improve services and (even more hopefully) reduce costs. So they enlist the help of specialists to target items for improvement — but, as far as I have seen, show little interest in looking at the broader picture or for that matter even checking up afterwards to see if the results were achieved, and if so, at what cost?

Getting a liberal arts education, in the traditional sense, has very much fallen out of fashion. Instead, people are urged to study what at one time would have been considered very industry-specific skill sets (programs that were once funded by companies) instead of broader based programs. One no longer studies the philosophy of science but how xyz enterprises maximizes shareholder value by ignoring customer complaints. And so on. Looking at the big picture is very much a subversive view that must be stamped out.

So we have a case in Ontario where a previous conservative government, in the interest of achieving cost savings through economies of scale, embarked on a wholesale program of forced municipal consolidations. Where I live was one so affected — our little municipality was amalgamated with a shore-based area that has little time or money for our concerns. But because we are so different from them we have fewer services and higher costs. And our transportation issues all wind up in the lap of the Province, who are obsessed with the not inconsiderable issues of Toronto and have no attention for us — so the ferry service that we all depend on has been crippled this year because a needed upgrade for one of the other services was allowed to fall through the cracks. And the upgrade to end loading docks that would alleviate the slow strangulation of island farms has languished for over two decades and has no believable target for implementation. But we can no longer do it ourselves…

The example referenced at the start is good in that to optimize the favored power sources the suppliers of baseline power are being hurt. The net result is its all more expensive than it should be. But even this is an example — power generation is only a small fraction of overall greenhouse gas production. I tend to think of the long lines of cars and trucks slowly crawling across Toronto because road construction to address growing business volumes has been a political football. And the ‘affordable’ suburbs have no practical public transit that would allow people to reach their jobs. So TTC continues to mean ‘Take The Car’ as opposed to anything that addresses the problem. Oh, did I mention that they shut the system down on weekends to do maintenance, because the hours of system shutdown (it only runs 18 hours a day) are too inconvenient for the service organizations? But that is another rant…

I guess that at the core is a very human tendency to focus on what they want to see and ignore the messy details around it. This is magnified by an even more human trait to look at the short term and leave the long term to someone else. A recent news item — ‘petrolium company researchers in the 1970s noticed that their businesses were accelerating greenhouse gas accumulation that would lead to global warming — but their work was suppressed’. Why should anyone be surprised? While a philosopher might have suggested that the vast resources of the company could have gone to helping development of non-combustion driven transportation so the vast chemical productions from petroleum could continue, burning it all makes more sense in a short term, take the money and run environment.

Part of the scientific method is to formulate a hypothesis based on observation, then test that hypothesis to see if the predicted results are achieved. The political and business processes appear to be different in that there is no testing. Or if there is, the scope is very tightly defined so no inconvenient facts get swept into the results.

Here in rural Ontario, we are the dubious recipients of more and more wind plants, producing power that we cannot use, being harmed by soaring power prices we cannot afford. And when this stress makes us keel over, we have a long trip to the hospital, because service to the people who need it was not one of the optimization criteria used by the Province. I hope we live through it…