Contemplations on Cascades

Connecting the snowball, domino, and butterfly effect together and leveraging these ideas in your life

Photo by Jonatan Pie on Unsplash

Chinese whispers

This is a game of passing on what you hear to your neighbour. In the end, you compare what you heard with what the first person said. It’s amusing because the end is usually very different from the beginning.

Space debris

This is the Kessler syndrome.

Mathematical induction

Let’s say you want to prove that the sum of first N natural numbers is S = N*(N+1)/2.

Trophic cascades

Wolves can change the course of rivers.

Back to back meetings

One meeting running late pushes back or cuts a few more meetings.

Cascading style sheets

Commonly known as CSS, this is a tech used to style things on the internet (HTML).

Nuclear energy

One neutron causes a Uranium nucleus to split, releasing 3 more neutrons. Each of these neutrons can then split another nucleus, leading to an exponential burst of energy until there are no more nucleus to split.

Slow internet

In interconnected systems, one part going down can bring down the entire system if safeguards are not in place. These types of cascades are called cascading failures.

Phantom Traffic

Speaking of traffic jams, there’s an interesting cascading problem here as well.

Malthusian Traps and Co-ordination problems

Imagine a population that has plenty of food. As a result, to compete with other tribes, they start reproducing more. Soon, there are a lot more mouths to feed. They run out of food, which leads to starvation and death. The cycle then continues.

Idea cascades

I started writing about the slow internet, which led me to the traffic jam analogy, which turned into writing about problems with traffic jams. The problem with traffic jams was co-ordination, which led me to talk about other co-ordination problems, which reminded me of Moloch.

Viral Ideas

Percolation Theory is the study of graphs and how connected they need to be to “percolate” an idea or liquid from one end to the other. It attacks the problem from an unconventional angle: how does the system need to change to make an idea percolate.

from Nickys game

Dominos falling

The domino effect gets its name from a bunch of dominos falling one after the another.

Error cascade

In Chinese whispers above, one mistake coupled with another mistake made the end result very different. It was an error cascading through the people. Same with the traffic jam. Braking too hard was an error cascading through the drivers.

More examples

A credibility cascade in a job. How one person who isn’t competent can rise to the top, by virtue of “previous experiences”.

Influencing cascades

With this segregation in place, we can figure out how to influence cascades.

Legible Dynamic systems

A power station can face a cascading failure just like the slow internet case. A substation going down means demand being routed to neighbouring substations. And if they can’t handle the load, they shut down as well. The neighbours of the neighbours then face a much higher load, themselves shutting down, putting the entire power grid out of business.

Illegible dynamic systems

You’re a big oil company at an auction. You’re targeting lot #78, one oil drilling site.

Increase private information

If the companies are confident in their own tests, they’d be more reluctant to augment private information using public information.

Change the rules of the game

The standard English auction makes bids public. There’s a good reason for this — people want to pay the minimum they can for things they want. When they know how much others are willing to pay, they can adjust their bid, or their desire, accordingly.

  1. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.
  2. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).
  3. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
  4. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
  5. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.
  6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).
  7. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
  8. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
  9. The goals of the system.
  10. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.
  11. The power to transcend paradigms.
    -Donella Meadows

Cascades in daily life

We’re a part of several systems, each of which have their own cascades.

Solving coordination problems

Two members of the mafia, Jim and Jane, are arrested. There’s not enough evidence for the main offence, drug dealing, but the police has enough on both of them for a small offence, resisting law enforcement. They’re both separately offered a deal: sell out your friend and you’ll go free. If both sell each other out, both are imprisoned for drug dealing. If one of them sells out, the other one goes free. If both stay silent, they’re both arrested for resisting law enforcement.

A clean cut intervention

In a static legible system, remove the domino. Don’t use the stylesheet.
In a dynamic legible system, safeguard connections. Cut nodes. Black out.

Manage information flow

When the problem is not enough connected nodes, we can connect more nodes (info cascades) to align actions and beliefs.

Design the system to enforce one of the above

Interventions and information flows are band-aids. Sometimes, we need a longer term solution.

Look at other leverage points in the system

Sometimes, the solution is as simple as having a buffer, like in the phantom traffic jam.

I write about Code and Life philosophies. Sometimes both. | | Engineer @Bloomberg | Write (Code). Create. Recurse.

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