Monday, April 6, 2009

Canary in the coal mine (the importance of diversity for the health of any system)

I will start with the danger of biases and assumptions and move on to the core topic. 

Allow me the liberty of starting with a bit of history – have you ever wondered about the origin of the word blacksmith? It is simple – black was the ethnic group of the individual and smith was the profession – thus the word blacksmith. Later the ethnic connotation was removed and it simply denoted a person who worked with metal. 

An example of systemic biases often overlooked. One of my favorite shows is NCIS. While I enjoy the show I had a problem.  If you noticed the boys were called by their last name or addressed more formally even in terms of their nick names. The girls were called often by their first names denoting a less formal stance and possibly implied bias regarding their skills. Here is the question – pay attention – have you ever had an instance were you addressed an associate of your ethnic group by mr, mrs or miss and their surname and then in the same breath introduced a member of another ethnic group by their first name only. Sure no disrespect may have been intended but do you see the implied disrespect? 

Remember when miners would take a canary into the mind shaft with the miners. When the canary died the miner could stay in the mine but he knew doing so would mean he would die in fact he is dieing but being a larger more complex organism he is doing so at a slower rate than the smaller less complex. 

So consider this a major corporation moves into a community. Soon the smaller businesses fail. The only jobs available are with the larger concerns or the few able to employ people that have survived. And yet here is the question – if the larger businesses are the miners and the smaller the canary – what is the lesson? Along those lines if you send a large person and a small animal into a confined area with a limited air supply – sufficient for the smaller but not enough to support both the large and small, what well happen to both over time? 

Lets move on to computers. In the early days of computer viruses were a rare thing. Did they exist – yes. Why were they not a big deal – diverse operating systems. Now that a majority of people have standardized on a singular platform of operating system what has happened is that a virus in the past that may have only affected a hand full of systems now is capable of doing damage to a vast majority of users especially with the advent of the internet. Here is another way to look at it – a cell phone today is common place. No one stops to think about what makes a cell phone work or even thinks about the fact that each cell phone is in and of itself a micro computer with an operating system (albeit some more versatile than others). Tat said each manufacture tends to have their own unique operating system (granted there is more standardization than in the past). Some of the more prominent well known mobile (phone) operating systems include

  • Java
  • Android
  • Symbian
  • Blackberry
  • Windows mobile
  • Linux
  • Palm
  • MXI 

Despite this and many other variant operating system when you make a cell phone call the phone on one end does not care what the platform used on the other is, nor do they care with you use them to browse the internet. An yet is is because of this operating system diversity that you do not hear stories of massive cell phone operating system viruses propagating through the network. 

What lessons can we learn from this regarding the importance of :

  • Ethnic diversity for the help of a species?
  • Business diversity for the health of a community or nation? 

Fact is no business based on size alone is no better than another nor any more entitle than its smaller peers. Each serve a unique purpose and each have their place. 

  • Would you place a blackberry operating system on a old analogue flip phone? 
  • Would you go into a grocery store and look for a business suit?
  • Would you put a cow in a field with a panther
  • Would you expect a company not based in your community to have the same attachment as one that is?

Consider this

  • Why would you want to live in a community that lacked business diversity
  • What sort of opportunities for growth development or advancement exist in a homogenous business environment
  • How is that community affected when that singular business or type of business goes out of business
  • Why do politicians cater to the larger complex mega industrial business concerns 

Still not seeing how all of this fits together – I could use banks but let me use an example most people can identify with – US auto manufactures 

2009 US Automobile Companies

  • Chrysler (Chrysler, Dodge, ENVI, Jeep, Mopar)
  • Ford (Lincoln, Mercury, Volvo, Premier Automotive Group, Mazda)
  • GM (Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GM Daewoo, GMC, Holden, Hummer, Opel, Pontiac, Saab, Saturn, Vauxhall, Wuling)

Guess how many existed prior to the big three:

  • 10
  • 20
  • 30 

List of defunct United States automobile manufacturers 

Here are the questions:

  • Were you shocked by the shear number (hundreds)?
  • Do you see how all of this fits together?
  • What do you think is the solution? 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

surely the 'black' part of blacksmith referred to the fact they were covered in soot or worked with iron which was predominantly black. Most blacksmiths in England and Australia were in fact white.

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