Timeliness, skill and contingency

It is said that on the third day of the third month of the year 353CE, Wang Xizhi invited 40 or so fellow scholars to a ceremony, after which they had a drinking contest.

Sitting on opposite banks of a stream, they were to compose poems while drinking. Cups of sake were floated down the stream, and in one version, wherever a cup stopped, the scholar closest to it had to extemporaneously compose a poem. If he could not come up with an impromptu poem quickly, he drank sake as the penalty. Merry they might be, but drunken scholars risked their reputations. At the end of the contest, 26 participants had composed 37 poems.

It is this timeliness, skill, and contingency—under mandates governing their interaction, and most of it done just in time—that describe a category of professionals, the challenge they undertake in conjunction with others, and the notion that being unprofessional has its own penalties.

Updated announcements and table of contents

I. If you are revisiting or new to this blog, “Four Big Reads” are the best place to (re)start:

1/4: When Complex Is As Simple As It Gets: Draft Guide to New Policy Analysis and Management in the Anthropocene (updated September 2022)

2/4: Policy optics as prompts and probes to recasting: 15 brief examples (updated September 2022)

3/4: Novel policy palimpsests for recasting control, AI ethics and national politics (new September 2022)

4/4: Some policy optics best serve to soften up intractable issues for a second look (seven examples from the humanities)

These consolidate and update entries on the multiple uses of policy optics–fresh concepts, methods, counternarratives, analogies and thought experiments–for identifying better policy and management. The three best illustrate the title and theme of this blog and I will add new material to each from time to time.

II. One topic that has long interested me is that of herders, livestock and rangelands in Africa. For those interested as well, please see the following three updated entries with new material:

Pastoralism as a global infrastructure” (updated September 2022)

Additional points for ‘A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism‘”

An altogether different view of pastoralists and pastoralisms

Additional blog entries include: “Interconnected granularity as a key methodological challenge in representing pastoralists and pastoralism,”“Environmental livestock-tarring,” “Authoritative website for real-time decisionmaking on pastoralists and pastoralisms,” and “Recasting poverty.”

III. New blog entries for this week: “Novel policy palimpsests for recasting control, AI ethics and national politics,” “Politics and emergency response,” and “Cuckoo catallactics

–You can use the blog’s keyword search function to find the above, along with related entries and others on altogether different topics grouped under the subject headings below:

  • More recastings in policy and management
  • Not-knowing and its proxies
  • Ignorance and uncertainty
  • Distraction and sensibility
  • Risk, resilience and root causes
  • Emergency management and improvisation
  • Regulation
  • Infrastructures
  • Environment
  • Rural development
  • Pastoralist development
  • Catastrophe and crisis
  • Policy and management mess, good and bad
  • Betterment and good-enough
  • Policy palimpsests and composite arguments
  • Economism
  • More on methods
  • Longer Reads, including some of my favorites: “Ammons and regulation,” “Recalibrating Politics: the Kennedy White House dinner for André Malraux,” “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “Market contagion, financial crises and a Girardian economics,” “Pastoralists and Pastoralisms,” and “Proposed National Academy of Reliable Infrastructure Management”

Thinking infrastructurally about cybersecurity

How could you not “think infrastructurally” about cybersecurity, you ask, since it is first and foremost an infrastructure, and a very critical one at that?

Here, though, I focus on five inter-related points about cybersecurity-as-infrastructure that don’t get as much attention as I think they deserve in the energy/water/telecoms literature with which I’m familiar.

–In no order of priority:

1. An assumption is that cybersecurity connects critical infrastructures, i.e., failure of security in one (e.g., a ransomware attack) can well have knock-on effects for other infrastructures dependent on it. Examples are frequently cited. Yet the empirical literature on infrastructure cascades suggests that disruptions in one infrastructure are often managed by real-time control operations so as not to disrupt interconnected infrastructures. These saves need to be recorded and learned from as much as cybersecurity failures and their lessons.

2. Many configurations of interconnectivity exist between and among infrastructures. A number of these are not tightly coupled and complexly interactive and do not cascade “on their own”. Once you understand this, you understand why some cascades look considerably less instantaneous and unmanaged than assumed. For example, one interviewee underscored how a ransomware attack on an important city infrastructure was contained so as not to affect other units and their real-time operations within that department.

No guarantees, of course, but a clear question has to be to what extent is this real-time management response capacity undermined by (premature?) cybersecurity software equivalents to guns, guards and gates.

3. Another assumption is that the cyber-attackers know what they are doing–as if they were as reliable as the infrastructures they attack. We hear and read far less about those cases where the hackers can’t control or otherwise manage their attacks. They too must cope with unintended consequences, and not just because they may be failing more than succeeding:

A study of 192 cyberattacks by national governments found that Russia ‘fails much more often than it succeeds’ at hacking, and that even its victories have provoked self-defeating countermeasures. After enduring a denial-of-service attack from Russia in 2007, Estonia significantly boosted its defences, which now serve as the basis for NATO’s cybersecurity strategy.


4. Much more attention needs to be given to what the different professional orientations within an infrastructure, which can be quite significant for cybersecurity. The “cultural divide” is well known and documented between seasoned control room operators, system engineers, and IT staff with respect to infrastructure security. Those who design or run operational systems have had quite different views about new software introductions and patches introduced by the respective IT units.

5. If, as some argue, cyber-attacks on critical infrastructures are special not only because they portend catastrophic physical destruction but also because they undermine confidence and trust in the public and private sectors to protect what society considers vital services, then societal dread of these attacks becomes a central focus. Dread might well reduce confidence and trust, but we would expect a society-wide dread also to increase pressures on those public and private infrastructures to be more reliable.

How this works out is an empirical question, e.g., dread of medical error hasn’t been sufficient to make hospitals high reliability organizations. Clearly context matters, however: “I’m more concerned about that [cybersecurity related to facilities control] right now than I am about a big earthquake,” a district infrastructure director told us. “It’s a daily threat,” said a state roads emergency manager of cybersecurity.

–To sum up, it’s been my reading and experience that prevention of cyber-attacks is almost always seen as a technology and design challenge, rather than very much a management challenge as well. Critical infrastructures are socio-technical systems—and without infrastructure control rooms or their equivalent, society wouldn’t have any kind of platform with which to cybersecurity seriously in real time.

If this is correct, then it’s at the intersection of the technology and the management that we should be focusing on when considering infrastructure cybersecurity in real time. For example, while rarely discussed as such, “thinking infrastructurally about cybersecurity” means taking obsolescence–both in equipment and in management skills and not just with respect to cybersecurity software–much, much more seriously.

The reason for does not alter the fact of

–There is feeling’s immediacy, a short-circuiting of having to describe and explain. It’s like a shattering or ushering in: Judith’s high C in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, the Baroness’s “Lulu” at the end of Berg’s opera, the vibraphone’s signaling of Tadzio’s entrance in Britten’s Death in Venice, the after-sounds of the guillotine slice at the end of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites.

Sublime or uncanny is too big a word to pin down these moments. It matters in ways I can’t explain–explanation as when one reason leads to another in an infinite regress–that the music of Orff’s Antigonae captures more in and of the moment than Honegger’s Antigone. These can’t be proof-read.

–So what? Maybe I’m being too hard on “description” and not hard enough on “explanation.” Virgil Thomson, the composer, put it that “a good critic does not voice opinions, he describes; if his description is succinct, accurate and imaginative, the opinion will automatically shine through.” I like that adverbial property of “automatically.”

fatis contraria fata rependens (~“balancing opposing fates with each other”)


The scope of the challenges we face—from racial inequality to the climate crisis to
the care crisis—cannot be addressed by the market. Only direct government intervention can affirmatively build the economy we need at the scale and speed we need. To explain and win this broad agenda, we need to change our approach and move beyond consumer-first governance.

Suzanne Kahn (2022). More than Consumers: Post-Neoliberal Identities and Economic Governance. The Roosevelt Institute (accessed online at http://rooseveltinstitute.org)

Yes, markets may manage some risks better, though not the risks of managing that way. The latter belongs to government regulators. “Government,” however, intervenes directly in many other different things at many other different levels. Isn’t it better to say government should first do more of this and less of that? Plus I’d like to know more about how these revamped activities could fail.



One space spreads through all creatures equally –
inner-world-space. Birds quietly flying go
flying through us.

Rainer Maria Rilke


They spoke to me of people, and of humanity.
But I’ve never seen people, or humanity.
I’ve seen various people, astonishingly dissimilar,
Each separated from the next by an unpeopled space.

Fernando Pessoa


If the article is any guide, surely the response to its headline, “Uncertainty is not our friend,” is: It’s more complicated than that.


That modern scholars have managed to propose more than two hundred different reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire strongly suggests that conventional academic focus on just a single case is simply a dead end, and that comparative analysis of a process occurred so many times in history promises far more compelling results.

Ian Morris and Water Scheidel (2016). “What is Ancient History?” Daedalus 145 (2), Spring: 119.

And yet there’s that other dead end,

If only the elites could get their shit together, if only they would truly decide to act in the public interest, if only our political dysfunctions could be suspended in the name of a common cause, if only we could elect smart officials with the right ideas, a new era of prosperity and power awaits the United States. But the political dysfunction is only a symptom of the underlying economic disease. So there will be no policy solution to the problems America—and the world— faces, because no such solution, at least on the national level, exists. But of course, that’s what war is for.

James Merchant (2022). “Endgame: Finance and the Close of the Market System.” The Brooklyn Rail (https://brooklynrail.org/2022/03/field-notes/Endgame-Finance-and-the-Close-of-the-Market-System)


Novelist E.M. Forster’s exhortation: “Only connect!” Literary critic Frederic Jameson’s exhortation: “Always historicize!”

OK, if you put it that way, but still. . .Virgil is a better bet (see the Latin above).

Thinking infrastructurally about risk and uncertainty

–The terms, risk and uncertainty, are used all the time by real-time infrastructure operators without meaning or referring to “expert probability estimates,” be they Bayesian, or based in frequencies, or otherwise. But the operational usages of risk and uncertainty differ depending on where the operators are in the cycle of infrastructure operations and the standards of effective management at those stages.

For example, control room operators we interviewed (during their normal operations) spoke of the probability of failure being even higher in recovery than during usual times. Had we interviewed them in an actual system failure, their having to energize or re-pressurize line by line would have been described in far more demanding terms of operating in the blind, working on the fly and riding uncertainty.

–Note the phrase, “more demanding;” it is not “the estimated risk of failure in recovery is now numerically higher.”

It is more demanding because the cause-and-effect of normal operations is moot when “operating blind” (their term) in failure. What had been cause-and-effect is now replaced by nonmeasurable uncertainties accompanied by disproportionate impacts, with no presumption that causation (let alone correlation) is any clearer in that conjuncture.

What may have been the high reliability standard of preventing certain disasters from every happening has now been replaced by a requisite variety standard of effective emergency response, that is, then-and-there task demands are matched by then-and-there resource capabilities, even if only temporarily. It is true that there are urgency, clarity and logic in immediate response after failure, but they in no way obviate the need for impromptu improvisations and unpredicted, let alone hitherto unimagined, shifts in human and technical interconnectivities as system failure unfolds.


Once we understand that the conventional notion that infrastructures have only two states–normal and failed–is grotesquely underspecified for empirical work, the whole-cycle comparisons of different understandings of infrastructure risk and uncertainty become far more central and rewarding.

Assume a major infrastructure has witnessed systemwide operations that were normal, disrupted, restored back to normal or tripped into outright failure, immediately responded to when failed (e.g., saving lives), followed by restoration of backbone services (electricity, water, telecoms), then into longer term recovery of destroyed assets (involving more and different stakeholders and trade-offs), and afterwards the establishment of a new normal, if there is to be one.

It is my belief that what truly separates the risks and uncertainties of longer-term recovery from risks and uncertainties found in a new normal isn’t that, e.g., the politics and conflicts have altered, but rather when or if infrastructures adopt new standards for their reliability management.

This may (or not) be in the form of different standards seeking to prevent specific types of events from ever happening. We already know that major distributed internet systems, now considered critical, are reliable because they expect components to fail and are better prepared for that and other contingencies. Here each component should be able to fail in order for the system to be reliable, unlike systems where management is geared to ensuring some components never fail.


More has to be said, but let me leave you with a worry: namely, those commentators who assume “the new normal” is at best endless attempts at repair, where coping is the order of the day and managing for recovery no longer possible (if only because of management’s unintended consequences and the economics of coping).

From a whole-cycle approach, this reductionism is premature and thus exaggerated. In the first place, how can you have “proper pricing of risk,” if you don’t know the socio-technical system to be managed across its states of operation, the reliability standard to which it is to be managed then and there, and the risks and uncertainties entailed by subscribing to that standard for those systems? In the second place, there are of course no guarantees that the whole cycle will be spanned, but at least its format doesn’t, e.g., miss Dresden-now by stopping time at its 1945 devastation.

Attending to reliability and distraction

–It is said attention implies an economy of attention: As you can’t attend to everything, you must focus. It’s better, I think, to say attention implies a reliability in attending: Attention is more a sweeping searchlight that is continuous and secure even when distracted. Having to focus misses the importance of distraction’s role in refocusing to elsewhere.

Jean Dubuffet, the painter, talked about distraction as an occasion for “attentive inattentiveness:” “[I]n this distracted state. . . it is a matter of paying great attention to inattention, of being very attentive to transcribing as skillfully and faithfully as possible what happens when an object is viewed without great attentiveness”. To put the point my way, a reliable searchlight is one that is alert to sweeping more than fixed circuits.

–There are of course the negative distractions of others that are good for you: Never interrupt your enemies when distracted by the mistakes they’ve made, to adapt Napoleon. But what if it is about distracting you from your own dead-end focus? That would be a positive distraction, an alertness to other things that end up mattering more.

Boris Pasternak, the poet, is reported to have said that life creates events to distract our current attention away from it, so that we can get on with work that cannot be accomplished any other way.

–A classic example of positive distractions are those unplanned but productive blots and blurs of composition. Max Ernst, the painter, put it: “Leonardo observed that all such mysterious effects that we find in nature—such as the stains of humidity on an old wall—can suggest to us a landscape, a face or any other such subject…To two different artists, the same chance stain can suggest two entirely different works. . .”

So too for Rossini, the composer: “When I was writing the chorus in G Minor, I suddenly dipped my pen into the medicine bottle instead of the ink; I made a blot, and when I dried it…it took the form of a natural, which instantly gave me the idea of the effect which the change from G minor to G major would make, and to this blot all the effect—if any—is due”. Here too a kind of alertness is working here.

–So what?

Much has been made of the distinction between Type I or System 1 thinking—it is nonconscious and all but automatic, rooted in fear and emotion—in comparison to Type II or System 2 thinking that is conscious, deliberative, and not rooted in emotion or instinct.

I’m asking you to recast conscious deliberation and analysis as positive distractions, that is, diversions from acting otherwise stereotypically or worse, where we are more likely to revert to the latter when responding to unknown unknowns, inexperience and great difficulties. In this way, thinking is being more alert.


It’s difficult to believe anything important has been missed about race and racism in the United States. What hasn’t been said? Yet we’re missing a great deal that is important when it comes to recasting them.

To see how, I focus on a past period about which we now know more than we did by way of what we missed then.

–Go back to the late 1990s to the mid-2000’s. As an optic, it’s not so far past that some readers won’t remember it, but far enough away for added perspective. Start with some statistics reported then about African-Americans:

Black Americans, a mere 13 percent of the population, constitute half of this country’s prisoners. A tenth of all black men between ages 20 and 35 are in jail or prison… (cited 2007)

Something like one third of our young African American men between 18 and 25 are now connected to the juvenile justice system or the federal justice system. They’re on probation, they’re in jail, they’re under indictment or they’re incarcerated. (cited 2002)

…the most striking thing is the high portion of black men with zero reported income: about 18 percent of black men, compared to about 7 percent for whites and Hispanics. (cited 2007)

After declining throughout the 1980s, employment rates of young, less-educated white and Latino men remained flat during the 1990s. Among black men aged 16 through 24, employment rates actually dropped. In fact, this group’s employment declined more during the 1990s (which fell from 59 percent to 52 percent) than during the preceding decade [of lower economic growth]… (cited 2004)

The most dramatic, the most unfortunate of the several disastrous outcomes is the high rate of paternal abandonment of children: 60% of Afro-American children are being brought up without the emotional, economic or social support of their fathers. (cited 2002)

Yet even then, you’d have had to ask: Why ever were we not interviewing those nine-tenths of young black men who were not in prison, those two-thirds who were not enmeshed in the criminal justice system, those four-fifths who did not have zero income, that half who were employed, and those four out of ten who had not “abandoned” their children—all in order to find out what they are doing right?

–Did this happened? To my knowledge, it did not.

Instead, as race and class continue to claim their own unique frameworks, it’s long looked like a methodological debate as in: Which is better? To address racism in these ways or in those ways?

Guess who the losers have been either way? One well-meaning observer said that, if he had a magic wand, he’d wave it so that every black would have a master’s degree, as degree holders were more likely to have higher incomes, better health and more positive outcomes. Before I waved any such wand, I’d want to know what kinds of very different educations were to be made missing.

Related sources.

On the problematics of an undifferientated understanding of racism in the US, see Adolf Reed, Jr. (2022). “Afropessimism, or Black Studies as a Class Project,” Issue #39: Art/Race/Theory/Practice of nonsite.org (accessed online on September 8 2022 at https://nonsite.org/afropessimism-or-black-studies-as-a-class-project/)

When the social construction of scale matters differently for policy

It’s no news that our categories for thinking are both strengths (e.g., a career) and weaknesses (e.g., its blind-spots to interdisciplinarity). Nor is it news that professions and interdisciplinarities are historical constructions that morph over time. What may be news is where that social construction takes place and when it matters.

–In much of the public policy and management with which I’m familiar, it’s assumed that major meaning- and sense-making take place at the micro, meso and macro levels–even as we admit that the scales are socially constructed (think: what we use to call international and then global and now planetary). That micro-meso-macro are easily historicized doesn’t stop me, however, from thinking through linkages and connections between these individual, emerging and system levels.

–There are cases where this methodological issue poses no real problem to recasting complex policy issues more tractably. However, there is at least one group of cases where it is problematic, and importantly so. It’s where dynamic interconnections between and among phenomena determine the scale and shifts in scale immediately thereafter.

A city water manager told us that recent improvements in the potable water system meant that, in case of emergencies, they could close down portions of physical system, segment by segment, and thereby isolate “what the scale of their problem” was. At these times and for these purposes, scale effects follow from interconnectivities, and not the other way around.

–So what?

If you’re looking for meaning- and sense-making in emergencies and emergency response, look for them first in interconnectivities made and used by those involved. (And in case there is any doubt, those interconnectivities are also socially constructed, as in the Aristotelian notion of “need unites everything.”)

–Example? A follow-on from a massive magnitude 9.0 or greater earthquake in the Pacific Northwest will be shifts in inter-infrastructure connectivity never seen before, requiring all manner of improvisations never before seen by the improvising emergency management and infrastructural staff: “Basically, we’re going to go from a bureau that treats wastewater to figuring out just how to get it away from people. . . .and we’re not going to know how to do that until we know what’s working and what’s not working,” said an environmental services official.

This means that improvisations–particularly those involving the backbone water, electricity, roads and telecoms together–may well be the best indicator that interconnectivities are possible and so too adjustments thereafter in the scale of the tasks and resources being meshed by one or more of the backbone infrastructures.

Note that, while both are socially constructed, the just-in-time nature of improvisations stand in marked contrast to the historically evolving meanings for micro, meso and macro.

–Again: So, what?

A centerpiece of immediate assessments just after an earthquake or other such disaster should include determining what still remains interconnected even in the midst of the visible devastation. Operators in the backbone infrastructures, both in control centers and as field staff, are especially key to that determination.

If they are not there, the assessments default to an emergency management infrastructure, if present. They in turn are arguably more familiar with devastation (another social construction), as in search and rescue operations, than with backbone interconnectivity (a very different social construction), as in moving mobile generators and cell towers nearby to affected infrastructures for their initial service restoration.

A little more social imaginary, a little less ideology of control

–Engineers profess the need for large hazardous systems to “fail gracefully.” But that assumes a degree of control over technological failure as it is happening and, as far as I can tell, there is nothing “graceful” about a large technical system failing or failing to recover.

It’s also that “control” which is problematic when it comes to the operations of large critical infrastructures. These infrastructures have to be managed beyond their technologies and stated regulations in order to be reliable, that is, to ensure the continuous and safe provision of services considered vital to society.

Another way to put the point is that these systems can’t be controlled for efficiency’s purposes as they cannot be managed reliably that way. That’s why infrastructures are socio-technical systems, never technical systems on their own or even in large part. Control of technologies for efficiency or regulatory purposes only is out of the question.

–Matters get worse when the claim is “taking back control” over these complex systems. Not only is this delusional; the control-language feeds into ideologies of today’s alt-right and alt-left:

Again, the nation has become the ideological center of gravity, which the new populists purport to rescue from the vices of socialism and liberalism, both of which are described as alien. “Taking back control” is a slogan that easily resonates in a region [like Eastern Europe among others] that for too long suffered from too much external domination.

Ulf Brunnbauer at https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/handle/document/80697

The reality is that large systems, be they nations or their lifeline infrastructures, are complex and that what complexity does, with yes-but’s and and-yet’s, is insist that context not only matters, it must as well defamiliarize and decenter any true-believing allegiance, populist or otherwise.

The follow-on insight—one’s statement of his or her true allegiance entails our having to evaluate any such allegiance-within-context(s)—is an old one but an under-acknowledged in my view.

For, as I understand it, power is power precisely when it insists the human brain, hardwired as it is to evaluate, must now be over-ridden in the name of a true allegiance. And, as many have said before, getting people to ignore what can’t be controlled actually takes a lot of effort, time and money.

–So what?

It means that even anti-utopians have been too ideological at times. Karl Popper, philosopher, was known for contrasting Utopian engineering with what he called the more realistic approach of piecemeal engineering:

It is infinitely more difficult to reason about an ideal society. Social life is so complicated that few men, or none at all, could judge a blueprint for social engineering on the grand scale; whether it is practicable; whether it would result in a real improvement; what kind of suffering it may involve; and what may be the means for its realization. As opposed to this, blueprints for piecemeal engineering are comparatively simple. They are blueprints for single institutions, for health and unemployed insurance, for instance. . . If they go wrong, the damage is not very great, and a re-adjustment not very difficult. They are less risky, and for this very reason less controversial.

If they go wrong, the damage is not very great”!? It is precisely the case that blueprints for piecemeal health insurance–and educational reform, government budgeting and financial deregulation, for that matter–have been damaging. Here, utopian engineering is the least of our problems.

–Where so, one of several different question pushes itself forward: Would it better to say–more realistic to say–that the health care mess, along with other ones, manage us as we try to manage them?

How can messes manage us? One answer: when we believe realism is walking a fine line between, on one side, a kind of idealistic rationalism (e.g., “the steps for effective risk management and environmental analysis”), and, on the other side, the semiotically entailed fatalism of one obstacle after another to any such management and analysis.

A better answer would be to defamiliarize and decenter that kind of realism by insisting on social imaginaries predicated in different contexts and different cases that demand differentiation, comparison and evaluation. That too takes a lot of work.