Debugging Life: System Fitness
A paradox: spending the effort to keep any system in good working condition at all times takes less effort than allowing any part of the system to fall into disrepair. Like most paradoxes, a subtle twist explains why: false warnings are worse than no warnings.
As a kid, my parents had a ’78 Chevy Malibu that started having a dead battery once a week or so. My father couldn’t find the source of it. Then one night, he came home in our other car during a new moon, and in the pitch black New Hampshire country darkness, he saw a faint light coming from inside the Malibu.
Turns out a door switch had failed, and the interior lights were staying on even when the door was closed. But the dome light was burnt out, so only the so-called ‘courtesy lights’ — tiny bulbs built into the door panels — were staying on, draining the battery very slowly.
If he’d replaced the dome light when it burnt out, he would have noticed the door switch failure instantly. But allowing one seemingly unimportant part of the system to fall into disrepair caused another very important part — the charging system! — to fail in a weird and super hard to find way.
I’ve seen very similar things happen in software when developers tolerate faulty error messages. “Oh, ignore that warning, it’s not correct.” This seems harmless but can make other problems harder to find. If you don’t want to spend the time to fix a warning, then shut it off — a false warning is much worse than no warning at all.
Police say that messy cars get broken into more often. Thieves know that if there’s a mess in the backseat, the chances something valuable is mixed in there are much higher. In a messy house, you’ll spend much longer looking for misplaced items.
Your doctor will tell you that staying fit will keep you from getting sick or injured. Part of this involves the ability to ‘hear’ warnings from your body. If you constantly have some discomfort due to lack of fitness, it makes it harder to notice a new discomfort from some other cause.
There’s some cosmic truth of thermodynamics here. Systems in good order tend to stay in order. Systems in disrepair tend to fail.
Keep all your systems in good order. If you can’t keep up with good order, you probably have too many systems.