Error, Calibration, and Defiant Posturing

I’m still slogging my way through Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, and I recently came across a passage that I found particularly insightful (or, at least, that overlaps some of my interests). I’m tempted to reproduce the entire chapter, but will limit it for the sake of brevity. The two characters involved in the scene are an ambitious former-slave woman named Eliza, and famed astronomer, mathematician and physicist Christiaan Huygens. Huygens is observing the sun so as to correct any error in his clocks (even a well made clock drifts and must be calibrated from time to time) and this act is used as a metaphor to describe people. The quote is from pages 715-716 of my edition:

   “…Imagine my parents’ consternation. They had taught me Latin, Greek, French and other languages. They had taught me the lute, the viol, and the harpsichord. Of literature and history I had learned everything that was in their power to tech me. Mathematics and philosophy I learned from Descartes himself. But I built myself a lathe. Later I taught myself how to grind lenses. My parents feared that they had spawned a tradesman.”

   “No one is more pleased than I that matters turned out so well for you,” Eliza said, “but I am too thick to understand how your story is applicable to my case.”

   “It is all right for a clock to run fast or slow at times, so long as it is calibrated against the sun, and set right. The sun may come out only once in a fortnight. It is enough. A few minutes’ light around noon is all that you need to discover the error, and re-set the clock–provided that you bother to go up and make the observation. My parents somehow knew this, and did not become overly concerned at my strange enthusiasms. For they had confidence that they had taught me how to know when I was running awry and to calibrate my behavior.”

   “Now I think I understand,” Eliza said. “It remains only to apply this principle to me, I suppose.”

   “If I come down in the morning to find you copulating on my table with a foreign deserter, as if you were some sort of Vagabond,” Huygens said, “I am annoyed. I admit it. But that is not as important as what you do next. If you posture defiantly, it tells me that you have not learned the skill of recognizing when you are running awry, and correcting yourself. And you must leave my house in that case, for such people only go further and further astray until they find destruction. But if you take this opportunity to consider where you have gone wrong, and to adjust your course, it tells me that you shall do well enough in the end.”

I’ve written about this sort of thing before, only applied to systems rather than clocks or people. One of the things I left out of this quote is actually quite important: “Of persons I will say this: it is difficult to tell when they are running aright but easy to see when something has gone awry.” And the same goes for systems, too. I’ve often commented on the intelligence community, and one of the truisms of intelligence is that when it is going well, it is transparent – you don’t know it is there. We don’t reveal intelligence successes, because to do so would prevent us from further exploiting an asset, and so on. But when there is an intelligence failure, it is quite obvious to all, even if it was debatably unavoidable.

One could go crazy applying this concept to the world of current events, but I suppose that it is such an interesting point precisely because it is so broadly applicable.

Update: Removed some of the specific current events originally referenced in this post, as they distracted from the general point and I wanted to be able to refer back to this without worrying about that.

3 thoughts on “Error, Calibration, and Defiant Posturing”

  1. I’m skip the Iraq reference because I am too new to catch your stance (though it sounds like it is quite different from mine). And I’m still supposed to be studying.

    Your long quoted passage is incompatible with what follows. Or, the long passage draws even better analogy to the intelligence community. To trust that it’s okay for the clock to be off because it can be re-calibrated, ignores the fact that the point of the clock is that it always has to be calibrated. From a lay perspective, even a few minutes off can mean serious trouble when it matters. For the intelligence community, any intelligence failure mean serious trouble when it is serious. Obviously when those situation arrives is often a guessing game. But the fact that it can be re-calibrated is small, small security.

    There is no transition here, but for common folks, an intelligence screw up could be transparent. It’s only when the lapse results in an act that it becomes known. Or simply, it’s neither easy nor hard to tell when intelligence work is effective (aside from the fact that its success isn’t totally based on the intelligence gathered – which I assume is what your debatably unavoidable refers to), it’s only easy to tell when the result blows up in the person’s front yard.

    I’m still working my way through Mason & Dixon. I hope you don’t mind if I too frequently seem to be criticizing. It’s a poor defense, but it’s a nature thing that hasn’t been nurtured out. But generally, it’s interesting ideas that prompt discussions. Which so far your site is, probably not my discussions though.

  2. Excellent comments. I think my point about this, and other things, isn’t so much a defense of failures as an explanation of the way things are.

    This post wasn’t meant to excuse anything, just to explain that failures are inevitable. Even a well made clock drifts and must be calibrated from time to time. Similarly, even an exceptional intelligence community will fail. I’m not saying that the failure should be excused any more than Eliza should be excused for screwwing Bob Shaftoe on Huygen’s dinner table, just that it is unavoidable. Huygen’s was naturally pissed, but he didn’t kick Eliza out because she recognized her mistake and took steps to correct it. You are right, this is of little comfort, but that is the way things are.

    Also, it is possible that mistakes are made which aren’t the result of a natural error but rather negligence or incompetence, etc… Obviously, this should not be excused either…

    You make a good point about intelligence failures and the difference between transparent ones and visable ones. I suppose I should have said “spectacular intelligence failure” or something to indicate a failure which leads to some bad act…

    Also, as Stephenson’s Huygens said “it is difficult to tell when they are running aright but easy to see when something has gone awry.” We won’t know how well the intelligence community is doing for several years, and even then it must be difficult to make that judgement.

    And don’t worry, I love comments, even ones that are critical. It’s nice to know people are reading, and it’s not like you’re calling me an idiot or anything:) Your comments are a welcome addition and have provoked thought and discussion of their own…

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