Black Saturday fires (Image source: ABC)

With the NSW Rural Fire Service fighting more than 50 fires across the state and the unprecedented hellish conditions set to deteriorate even further with the arrival of strong winds the question of the day is, exactly how bad could this get? The answer is unfortunately, a whole lot worse. That’s because we have difficulty as human beings in thinking about and dealing with extreme events… To quote from a post I wrote in the aftermath of the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday fires.

So how unthinkable could it get? The likelihood of a fire versus it’s severity can be credibly modelled as a power law a particular type of heavy tailed distribution (Clauset et al. 2007). This means that extreme events in the tail of the distribution are far more likely than predicted by a gaussian (the classic bell curve) distribution. So while a mega fire ten times the size of the Black Saturday fires is far less likely it is not completely improbable as our intuitive availability heuristic would indicate. In fact it’s much worse than we might think, in heavy tail distributions you need to apply what’s called the mean excess heuristic which really translates to the next worst event is almost always going to be much worse…

So how did we get to this?  Well simply put the extreme weather we’ve been experiencing is a tangible, current day effect of climate change. Climate change is not something we can leave to our children to really worry about, it’s happening now. That half a degree rise in global temperature? Well it turns out it supercharges the heavy tail of bushfire severity. Putting it even more simply it look’s like we’ve been twisting the dragon’s tail and now it’s woken up…

Matrix (Image source: The Matrix film)

How algorithm can kill…

So apparently the Australian Government has been buying it’s software from Cyberdyne Systems, or at least you’d be forgiven for thinking so given the brutal (dare I say inhumane) treatment Centerlink’s autonomous debt recovery software has been handing out to welfare recipients who ‘it’ believes have been rorting the system. Yep, you heard right it’s a completely automated compliance operation (well at least the issuing part).  Continue Reading…

A recent case in Australia has again emphasised that an employer does not have to provide training for tasks that are considered to be ‘relatively’ straight forward. The presiding judge also found that while changes to the workplace  could in theory be made, in practice it would be unreasonable to demand that the employer make such changes. The judge’s decision was subsequently upheld on appeal.

What’s interesting is the close reasoning of the court (and the appellate court) to establish what is reasonable and practicable in the circumstances. While the legal system is not perfect it does have a long standing set of practices and procedures for getting at the truth. Perhaps we may be able to learn something from the legal profession when thinking about the safety of critical systems. More on this later.

Cowie v Gungahlin Veterinary Services Pty Ltd [2016] ACTSC 311 (25 October 2016)

Second part of the SBS documentary on line now. Looking at the IoT this episode. 

Cyberwar documentary now running on SBS with a good breakdown of the Stuxnet malware courtesy of the boys at Symantec. Thank you NSA, once again, for the bounty of Stuxnet… Yes, indeed thank you. 

Donald Trump

Image source: AP/LM Otero

A Trump presidency in the wings who’d have thought! And what a total shock it was to all those pollsters, commentators and apparatchiks who are now trying to explain why they got it so wrong. All of which is a textbook example of what students of risk theory call a Black Swan event. Continue Reading…

An Outside Context Problem was the sort of thing most civilisations encountered just once, and which they tended to encounter rather in the same way a sentence encountered a full stop. 

Iain Banks