What Your Rulers Should Not Do In A Crisis

Because I’ve had entirely too much experience with this in the last week – before that as well, but particularly this last week.

So, your fiction is going along nicely, and your plot requires that something terrible happens causing a great crisis in the land/empire/whatever. The person (or whatever) in charge has to make decisions about how to handle said crisis.

If said leader is supposed to be competent, there are some things that you should absolutely avoid.

Do not, under any circumstances, have the boss run around generating legislation that is only going to be effective for a year or so but will probably live forever on the law books. Not only is some poor sap going to have to implement the legislation, they’ll curse the boss’s name every time they have to reprogram their – immensely complex and probably built on endless shells of accreted legacy work – fancy software to make the various systems that allow a futuristic world to work.

Trust me on this one. Everyone in my team has spent entirely too much overtime in the last week or so because of the clusterflock of rules that have been spat out from D.C. in the last couple of months. All very well-intentioned and all, but some poor sod has to program it, and believe me, working with a mainframe that’s running 50-year old legacy code is not conducive to fast turnaround. The 15-year-old code that forms the guts of the website that talks to the mainframe is bad enough.

I don’t care how futuristic things get, when it comes to rewriting an antique system that’s known to work versus adding a layer of something more modern that can talk to the antique and will take maybe 10% of the time that a full rewrite will need, the layer is going to happen. Keep it going, and you’ll eventually have software stromatolites concealing the Code of Cthulhu. It’s going to take some heavy programming skill to work with that and keep it running, so if your futuristic thriller needs a smart leader, spawning legislation and rules because people want them to Do Something is NOT the way to go.

The same can be said for knee-jerk reactions. They tend to be wrong.

In the case of a major crisis, the smart thing to do is aim to contain the immediate damage (things like quarantine if the crisis is a disease – and quarantine means that if someone is sick that person and their family go into isolation and stay there until they’ve either passed the incubation period or recovered. If it’s highly infections, the sick person and anyone they’ve had contact with goes into isolation. And if you’re a country that’s got an epidemic, you close your borders and don’t let anyone out – while everyone else closes their borders and doesn’t let anyone in.).

For fictional purposes, ruthlessness in a leader can be a good trait – while I doubt many of today’s real national leaders would ever institute a true quarantine, they can make for gripping fiction, or even interesting background and obstacles to whatever the protagonist is trying to achieve. Especially since fictional plagues can be as virulent, infectious, and lethal as you like (although please try to keep it from being uber-deadly because to really upset the applecart even fictional plagues need time to get around). The fictional leader who barricades off the quarantined city and lights some strategic fires could well be seen as a hero for getting rid of the plague – something that’s not going to play well in real life.

The third big no-no is to do nothing – or rather, to appear to be doing nothing. It may well be that after researching the problem, the best solution is to leave things alone and let people handle things themselves. Unfortunately with the twin cries of “but we must do something!” and “for the children!” a well-researched “The best thing to do is nothing” is going to have the carrying power of a lead balloon. This is where a clever leader gives the appearance of working very hard to solve the problem while carefully ensuring that no new solutions creep in and make a mess. It’s a path I’ve yet to see applied in real life, but in fiction we can make it work.

Of course, in fiction things need to make some kind of sense. Real life does not have that limitation.

46 comments

  1. Especially since fictional plagues can be as virulent, infectious, and lethal as you like (although please try to keep it from being uber-deadly because to really upset the applecart even fictional plagues need time to get around).

    I rather liked the example of such a lethal plague that showed up in The Malloreon. It had a very high fatality rate – Polgara horrified Emperor Zakath with a ‘50% fatality rate… if you’re lucky.’ I don’t remember if the thing was contact-transmission; it’s implied to have been transmitted initially via sexual contact* with Patient Zero (a poor streetwalker), and was transmitted by the guy who’d slept with her to the biggest city on the planet. It was described to be one of the worst disasters in their history, necessitating very extreme quarantine measures. There were a few people who did survive it, and were pressed into cremating the dead in houses set afire.

    *I think it may have been more likely to have been transmitted via contact with fluids from the infected (so, coughing and sneezing spray, maybe sweat?) but it was one of the sub-arcs in the series that I had to put down for a bit until I got my imagination under control, which took a few days. The patient showed no symptoms for a few days, then grew ill and eventually died, the victims characterized by a horrific rictus grin.

    1. I remember that – particularly the initial reluctance to do what had to be done followed by the realization that there was no other choice.

      1. Yeah; I… honestly really LIKED Zakath, and really, really appreciated how the decision weighed on him hard. This wasn’t just reflected in the scene where he makes the decision, but also how he practically works himself nearly to death (and somehow catches the plague?) afterward.

        I also liked King Urgit. *grin*

    2. I’m pretty sure that disease was based on pneumonic plague. How the streetwalker caught it was never made clear, but IRL pneumonic plague can be caught from a flea bite or from being coughed or sneezed on by an infected person. So she may have caught it from a flea bite. It’s a highly virulent and fast-acting disease, although Eddings amped it up a bit for effect. Infected people, to borrow a phrase from Dr. “Ducky” Mallard, could have lunch with their families and dinner with their ancestors.

  2. “The fictional leader who barricades off the quarantined city and lights some strategic fires could well be seen as a hero for getting rid of the plague – something that’s not going to play well in real life.”

    Which depends on your background. If your readers understand that there just isn’t the means to combat it / cure it, they’ll understand the decision and reaction. Even in a modern setting, that scene can work… provided that you’ve set up the reason why more sophisticated means aren’t available.

    This song is an example:

    “Ah, you’re a Type O negative….. Wonderful!”

    1. Certainly there needs to be enough background to the piece to make the decision justifiable – and I love the song lyrics.

  3. Hober Mallow did nothing extremely successfully:

    Jael’s brow furrowed. He said, quietly, “What’s it going to be? Korell, after all?”

    Mallow nodded, “Of course. They’ll declare war, eventually, though I’m betting it’ll take another
    pair of years.”

    “With nuclear ships?”

    “What do you think? Those three merchant ships we lost in their space sector weren’t knocked
    over with compressed-air pistols. Jael, they’re getting ships from the Empire itself. Don’t open
    your mouth like a fool. I said the Empire! It’s still there, you know. It many be gone here in the
    Periphery but in the Galactic center it’s still very much alive. And one false move means that it,
    itself, may be on our neck. That’s why I must be mayor and high priest. I’m the only man who
    knows how to fight the crisis.”

    Jael swallowed dryly, “How? What are you going to do?”

    “Nothing.”

    Jael smiled uncertainly, “Really! All of that!”

    But Mallow’s answer was incisive, “When I’m boss of this Foundation, I’m going to do nothing.
    One hundred percent of nothing, and that is the secret of this crisis.”

    (Isaac Asimov, “Foundation”)

    “Nothing is often the right thing to do and always a smart thing to say.” — Originator unknown.

    1. Of course, the Mayor had the author on his side. 😉

        1. And the Second Foundation to enforce Seldon’s plan. 😀

  4. A friend runs a flight simulator shop for an airline. The FAA certified it as realistic enough for them to do pilot training in the sims instead of aircraft, which saves them thousands of dollars per hour for training; enough to more than pay for the simulators. (which are full-motion, with pressure changes, and barf bags)

    Some of the sims are very old, and have been upgraded like George Washington’s axe since the 1960s. But they manufacturers of the computer hardware weren’t around any more, and uptime was suffering due to failures. No amount of maintenance was enough, the hardware was simply old, components were aging out, and some bits no longer available anywhere.

    So they looked at upgrading to new machinery, and then at porting the enormous legacy software base from FORTRAN to the new computers. And the FAA stepped in, and said “No, we certified *this* code generated by *those* compilers and assemblers; we’d consider your porting job as all-new code, and it would have to be re-certified from zero.”

    The first cost estimates pay have caused some ER visits for the beancounters.

    So they fell back to Plan B, and hired a contractor to make new computers from scratch, duplicating the ancient hardwired 1960s processor boards in modern silicon, running a thousand times faster than the old computers. And all made with off-the-shelf chips and programmable arrays that could be easily replaced when needed.

    The FAA was fine with that, and the ancient code is happily running on its new custom hardware, and, believe it or not, it all worked: the contractor wheeled the new machine into the computer room on a two-wheel dolly, the engineers wired the gazintas and gazoutas, and they were in service the next morning.

    I suspect a lot of the people involved were casting uneasy glances at the skies for a while, though. Just in case of an stray meteorites or lightning bolts…

    1. I love it!!

      To be fair, the FAA suits had some justification for their position — “porting” code does involve substantial re-coding, and any time you’re editing code, there’s always room for bugs to creep in.

      Of course, they’ll probably face the same problem again in another thirty years, when the “new custom hardware” is wearing out and the “off-the-shelf chips and programmable arrays” can’t be replaced anymore because they’re so old…

    2. About 20 years ago I got a nice walk-through tour of the FlightSafety flight simulator shop in San Antonio with my EAA chapter. I was surprised to see that the state-of-the-art flight simulators were running on (then) 20-year old minicomputers – DEC PDP-11s and Data General Novas, among others. My first programming in college was on a PDP-11, and it was obsoleted by microcomputers not too long after that.

      1. Oh, I forgot to mention – at the time, both DEC and Data General were long out of business. I’m sure those computers were getting to be very hard to find parts for, but as this article said, the certification rules prevented any substitution.

      2. Legend has it that until around 1985, NORAD was still using 1950s-era vacuum-tube computers. It took them that long to find the money to rewrite and retest the entire code base in a more modern language for more modern hardware.

        And if you go to any of the major job boards right now, you’ll find a number of rather desperate ads for people with COBOL and JCL experience. It seems that a lot of states use unemployment benefits systems that were written in COBOL — you know, the systems that are currently breaking under the load of thirty million unemployment filings within the last month alone…

        1. Yeah, funny that.

          I actually looked at what it would take to learn COBOL, then work threw a bunch of new “emergencies” (I strongly suspect they aren’t quite as crucial as we’re being told, and wouldn’t be surprised if some of them fall under “lack of competence on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine”).

        2. My COBOL and JCL skills would need refreshing but I have no interest in looking into those jobs (for various reasons).

          For one thing, I’m not willing to move to “where those jobs are”.

          For another thing, I doubt that I’d have the patience to deal with government bureaucrats.

          1. The current government bureaucracy, like most businesses these days, has lost the slightly terrified adoring magic of programmers and IT professionals. I blame this on hiring Indian contractors that are more than willing to hire their fellows in India (regardless of competence) and the complete lack of spine when dealing with senior people that control their H1B status.

            I know at least one guy that could probably be making bank in this, but his tolerance level of idiots is non-existent. And, “it will be done when it is done” doesn’t make people happy (and, it’s not being lazy. It’s “I’m dealing with nearly half a million lines of intricate spaghetti code written by people that are dead and I can’t ask them questions and a lot of this spaghetti was designed as job security for them”).

            1. The lesson that “It will be done when it’s done” means “I’m trying to make sense of this godawful mess of code and you are interrupting me” is one that managerial types tend to be unable to learn unless they get handed the consequences of forcing a timeline.

              I’ve seen it happen. Sadly, the current generation of managerial types seem to have forgotten the lesson.

              1. The current generation of managerial types believe that IT support is just as interchangeable as anything else in their employment structure. They think (due to slick marketing) that you don’t need the wizards anymore. Having India be the one-stop shop for IT people hasn’t helped either.

                Understand this-I’ve met quite a few good Indian IT workers. The problem is that-
                1)A lot of them look GREAT on paper and can test well. Throw them outside of anything they tested on, and it gets weird and strange.
                2)They tend to hire and promote themselves on the basis of “fellow Indians,” to the exclusion of getting the job done and/or competence.
                3)From an old IT hand-most Indian programmers will try to do a “force fit” (i.e. put the code equivalent of a 2″x4″ board into place by hammering it in) versus the equivalent of doing some trimming and maybe remeasuring. Mostly because their bosses don’t want to see them cutting, they want to see them putting the boards in.
                4)If you’re below them on the social scale? Abusive and they won’t listen. Above them on the social scale? Ass-polishing and over-promising, especially to their employer. One of my guys at my (hope to return to) job is working at one of the main Apple campuses. I know he is over-promising and doing “special services” to people at senior exec level because he’s going to be trying to get a job with Apple as soon as he can make one.
                5)Willing to accept pay and work hours that would cause most American employees, especially at certain levels of competence, to riot over. Mostly because they’re here on H1Bs, they want to get their Green Cards, and they really don’t want to go back to India.

                Also, the managerial types have been trimming a lot of the middle management using tricks like open office plans and such. They can see and watch everyone, so you don’t need middle management to handle those parts of the workload, they can do it themselves! (Massive eye roll of sarcasm here.)

                I suspect that if work-at-home becomes more of an option quite a bit of work, we’re going to see some form of middle management returning, if only because it’s easier for one guy to keep track of eight coders working at home versus one guy trying to keep track of thirty+ guys.

                Up until there’s a new management shift/plan that says that you need everyone in one place so they can bounce ideas off each other and work together…

                1. That particular claim “You need everyone in one place so they can bounce ideas off each other and work together” is nothing more than a thinly disguised bums on seats = productivity argument.

                  And yeah, the idea that IT folks are interchangeable is poison – actually, the idea that any business role requiring skill is interchangeable is poison. Each person in an organization add their own take on the skills they need, and does extra bits that nobody else thought to do.

          2. Same same.

            Phone interview with a company some years ago, one that insisted I send them a complete resume. “JCL? You must mean JPL? I don’t see the years you worked there… And RPG II? We aren’t a games company, you know.”

            I suppose they recognized the FORTRAN, COBOL, Pascal, and Ada parts. Probably figured out that 6502, 808x, and 68xx assembly language didn’t have any relevance. About the only things that were once “hot” that I didn’t ever learn were APL and Lisp. Oh, I managed to skip the 1802 assembly language too.

            (For any who are as lost as them, JCL = “Job Control Language.” RPG = “Report Program Generator.”)

            1. I’d be surprised if any those HR types recognized NEAT/3. (NCR only language.) 😉

              1. Hey, when I was in high school in the early 1970’s our vo-tech program had an NCR computer that used NEAT/3. And I remember learning about the hardware instruction set, which was about 90% interpreted on the low-end machine that we had. Variable-length memory-to-memory operations with field bits. *Instructions* with field bits. Wow, what memories.

              2. Or DataBus – Datapoint’s Business language. Datapoint made small minicomputers whose architecture was actually the basis for the Intel 8008 microcomputer (and later variants, of course), and sold them to small businesses that couldn’t afford DEC, Data General, or IBM iron. DataBus was a simplified language that was easier to deal with than COBOL, and I’m pretty sure it died out when Datapoint did.

          3. Amen to that! I like being able to live in an itty bitty country town that’s still close enough to the bigger cities to have pretty much all the amenities I need. Ain’t moving if I can avoid it.

        3. That’s absurd. They could have thrown together a software emulator.

          I’m guessing somebody junior suggested just that and was ignored. I real life, nobody listens to Ensign Mary Sue.

    3. Oh, I totally believe it. Certification is always for specific code and often specific hardware (depends on the industry – PCI compliance used to allow specific code and let you add functions as long as the code they certified wasn’t changed. Not sure if they still do). And porting always needs code changes, because there’s always something that isn’t quite the same.

      Not to mention, “if it’s working don’t break it” is a very, very important part of the deal. Building replacements from tweaked modern hardware really is the simplest, cheapest way to replace something like that – and is exactly what the mainframe with my lot is. They get themselves a new mainframe when the old one starts getting flaky and port the bespoke operating system and code across. So even when running on much more modern hardware, the code is the original not-quite-50-year-old code.

  5. This reminds me so much of the California DMV and their computers. Way, way, back in the early ’00s, State of California hires someone (Oracle, if I remember right) to renovate and update the old COBOL and mainframe-based system to something new and modern. Faster, easier to maintain, easier to work with, all that fun stuff.

    Oracle took the contract…and realized that there was no way in hell they could build a database system to handle the sheer amount of material, across the entire state of California, in anything approaching a “reasonable” manner. The current system the DMV uses is a web-based interface…on the old COBOL system.

    I would not be surprised at all if those mainframes outlived me. Nobody has built anything that can handle the scale of what is needed.

    1. Oh, boy. I know a man who has to work with computers for the state of California. According to him it’s such a mess you have to wonder how anything gets done in a timely fashion

      1. …things get done in a timely fashion with the government of the State of California?

        Seriously, sister got a job with the CHP and their timekeeping system is…arcane.

      2. I’m going to hazard a guess that there are chaos-meisters hidden away that know how to get results from the crazy. I know from experience that someone who’s intimately familiar with a mess can find things in it much more quickly than they can find the same things once the mess is cleaned up.

    2. I strongly suspect it’s the same everywhere. Nothing beats a mainframe when it comes to processing massive amounts of data, and that ancient code has probably been retrofitted onto at least two generations of mainframe hardware.

      Modern databases don’t have that capability – there is a very large amusement park in California that has found that even after optimizing their database to within an inch of its life, they cannot use it as intended: they have to do a daily push of their attendance data to a separate reports database because someone running a large-ish report will bring down their turnstiles and points of sale.

      Not least because said amusement park has a policy of never expiring tickets, and the last time I saw a copy of their database (near on 10 years ago) it was well into the terabyte range. That company finds that the highest bandwidth method of sending their data for support is to Fedex an external hard drive.

      I could live without mainframe interfaces that amount to writing a virtual deck of virtual 80 character cards, but I’m not going to argue that the thing isn’t an incredibly efficient way to process a boatload of data.

      1. That may be wise even on mainframes. There is only so much computing power and making systems run many things means more of it goes to juggling the things.

        1. Well, yes. And when you’re talking a very large amusement park that’s usually open 20 hours out of 24, there’s a LOT of data being generated. Whenever that particular customer requested database changes, we made them without any other checking: by the time I was working there, they were a long-term customer and everyone knew they had very good DBAs.

          They had to – upgrading their database had to be done incrementally with manually scripted changes. They simply weren’t offline long enough to be able to run an upgrade in any other way.

      2. Which is why you have databases optimized for OLTP (POS, etc.) and databases optimized for Data Warehouse (analytics and reporting). The two require different data structures to operate efficiently.

      3. If you’re going to drive a lot of data, you need big trucks with big engines to get that data going anywhere. Doesn’t matter what the salesman says from HP or Oracle or even IBM says. If you’re handling the sort of transactions daily that you need to use exponent numbers, that’s big iron hardware and software.

        Once again, those kinds of systems are so arcane and art as much as science that you need wizards to make them work, keep them working, and improve them. And, wizards don’t work for cheap, especially the good ones.

        Sadly, explaining this to management is always difficult, because they hear money only. Which is their job, mind you, but explaining why you need to spend so much on voodoo magic and chicken bones is hard to explain.

        And explaining things like having to ship backup HD drives to and from offices is to have people drive it there or FedEx is always interesting. (My best analogy is a huge hopper holding $10,000 that can only allow a quarter to go down a tube every thirty seconds. No matter what you do to optimize it, you’re only going to get $0.25 down every thirty seconds, and that hopper has to be EMPTY by the end of the day. The only other option is to take $100 off the top of the hopper, so somebody takes it to the next location every day. Either way, the hopper has to be emptied every day, no exceptions.)

        I think a lot of people in government are learning exactly what voodoo it takes to keep their systems up and running in the last two months…

        1. Sadly, true. As the saying goes, nobody knows how to make a pencil. All anyone knows it the little bit they’re involved with – and the management types nowadays are largely MBA graduates who think that teaches them how to run a business even if they don’t know anything about the product.

  6. In the era of the crusades, a popular treatment for wounds was to find the weapon that inflicted the wound, pray over it, and destroy it.

    It had the best cure rate of any treatment.

    Because it kept the idiots from mucking about with the wound while it healed..

    1. When I think of some modern medicos I’ve seen or read of, that technique might be the best if used today, too.

    2. It’s not a bad idea… First you get the patient believing that the treatment will help. Then you have the patient resting. That combination tends to work fairly well a lot of the time.

  7. Prof De La Paz’s technique of putting the yammerheads in token committees to endlessly debate and discuss seems sensible. They’re doing something without being able to actually do something.

      1. To be fair, the Prof was on Earth, trying to get things moving on that end.

  8. “…if your futuristic thriller needs a smart leader, spawning legislation and rules because people want them to Do Something is NOT the way to go.”

    My futuristic leaders of large space empires spend most of their time finding ways to avoid doing things. Not from laziness, but from the certain knowledge that they can never do -one- thing. Those pesky follow-on effects will come back to bite later on, every single time.

    My space empire has an actual job to do as well, which helps keep the Imperials focused. If they don’t do the job properly they all die, and that helps.

    When they get to Earth they are singularly unimpressed with the raucous monkeys running around loose and getting up to no good all over the place. Until they consider the nicely groomed lawns they see all everywhere. They don’t understand the point of tending grass as a crop, because its useless. Humans can’t eat it, human food animals don’t eat the clippings either. It seems completely crazy.

    Plus its expensive, and time consuming. Doesn’t matter, everyone does it, all over the world. You can tell whose life is in a shambles just by driving down the street and looking at the grass. Any house you see with an unkempt lawn, there’s something going on in that house. So they look into it a little more, and find the lawn has all sorts of benefits to the humans from the microbiological level all the way up to the fate of nations, and billions of dollars worth of commerce turn on tending the grass. Still seems crazy, but they’re willing to roll with it.

    Then they model a system imposed from without (by them) that enforces lawn care. The more they interfere, the more screwed up the system becomes until it breaks down completely.

    Based on those models they decide that messing with the monkeys to defeat hunger or war will end extremely badly. This is because they are a fictional leadership made up of super intelligent AIs who have urgent business to attend to, and are smart enough to keep their hands off.

    A real human would enact a Five Year Plan. Because sticking your fingers in where they don’t belong, in things that are none of your business, seems to be a Human thing.

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