Blast from the past: Safety and the Inversion of Folk Logic

Another yoink from Blue Collar Space circa 2011.

Hurray, Brad is going to talk about his field of expertise instead of game design! Well, this is supposed to be a blog about technical things that interest me and games are just a branch of that (yes, games are technical — a technology — and I can blather about that another time if you like) so I’m not averse to going fairly far afield. And who knows, it might be the case that if I ramble long enough I somehow come back around to games anyway.

I was walking from the train station to work this morning and encountered four interesting cases of really crappy risk analysis — three real and one hypothetical. One was accompanied by an epithet that told me exactly why humans are so bad at risk analysis and, at the same time, why safety design is such a counter-intuitive process. It has to do with the fact that humans think in terms of acceptable risk. In a way, safety design looks from the other side of the glass.

Consider standing at the train platform. There’s a 50cm-wide yellow stripe right at the lip of the platform before it falls vertically to the guideway proper, which is where the train is going to be. I have seen children (and older) stand in the yellow zone and, as the train zooms in, tell their parents it’s perfectly safe, presumably using their survival as evidence. This is logic we expect of children, of course, which is to say, flawed. Deeply flawed.

An evidential argument for safety (I didn’t die that time, or even, no one has died yet) is inadequate. I mean, it’s adequate for you but it’s not adequate for design. You see, that yellow bar does not (again, by design) say, “If you stand here you risk injury or death.” I know, you think it does, and the sign says that, but that’s not how it’s designed and so you are misled into thinking it’s too conservative somehow. You’ve stood in the yellow a hundred or a thousand times and never once been killed.

Rather what it says is, “If you stand on your side of the yellow zone and not in it or, obviously, in the guideway on the other side, then you are as safe as we can make you, which is pretty bloody safe.” That is, technologically, we don’t really know the risk of standing in the yellow zone because it depends a lot on freak configurations of the train, your own stability, and in most cases of actual fatality, whether or not you are wearing a backpack(1) So we don’t try to calculate that. Instead we find a  space where, barring some bizarre circumstance, you are certainly safe. Then we mislabel it so you can deride it in front of your parents or friends.

Here are some other examples drawn from my morning walk. You will notice a recurring theme that is both hilarious and insane and perfectly common. I’ll try to remember to point it out at the end.

The traffic signal that indicates it is okay to walk sometimes displays an orange hand instead of a white or green walking guy. This hand does not mean, “you will be killed if you cross now”, or even “you can reasonably expect cars to be passing through your path now”. It means, “You no longer have been granted safe passage.” That is, it’s the default case and not a special case. The special case is the green guy, which reads, “Okay, it’s your turn now, and crossing at this time and place is as safe as we can make it.” Any time the green guy is not present, it’s a bad idea to cross. I watched a woman in a dreadful hurry cross on the orange hand this morning (and ours has a countdown on it which, even if you read safety warning backwards, can reasonably be read as how many seconds until you are totally dead) with the counter to fatality at 4 seconds. She was dressed darkly and small. She fell (also running heels, but also not running very well) in the middle of the road with two seconds to spare, basically disappearing from sight for many drivers. She was not killed. It was still stupid on several levels.

A crowded sidewalk is a crappy place to ride you bike at high speed. You aren’t especially in danger, but the sort of sociopathy that lets bike riders think this is okay is completely beyond me. You are violating a core premise of the safety design (there won’t be any high speed vehicles on this space ever) and making what should be a certainly safe space no better than the road. Yes, you did not injure or kill anyone. Well done. Fuck you.

I’ve never seen anyone blow through a train crossing with the bar down, but I think people don’t do it mostly out of an aversion to destroying things like the bar or scratching their vehicle. Or maybe they just avoid violating custom or even law. But I did hear a driver loudly proclaim that there was tons of time between the bar coming down and the train going by. He could totally have made it! The bar does not say, “It is certainly unsafe to proceed”. Rather when the bar is up, the message is, “Don’t worry, it’s safe now.” The bar down says, “We can’t guarantee anything.”  There’s a reason why level crossings in Texas often have webcams that the public can view and it’s not a pleasant one. Texas is one of the best places to get killed by a train you think you’re probably safe from. Yay freedom!

People are not stupid. They are badly equipped to manage risk, though, and certainly others have spoken more authoritatively than I can about that. What you can do is recognize that you are bad at managing risk and work within that envelope. Then the risk you manage is, judging by the hurry out there, being late for an appointment. Here’s how I manage that risk: I set the alarm 15 minutes early, and then I don’t run for anything but sport.

–BMurray
(1)Backpacks are an awesome way to piss people off and also get yourself killed. I’m pleased to see a decline in their popularity after so many years of seeing them everywhere. Here’s the problem: a stuffed backpack is an extra 20-50cm of space protruding from your body that is completely outside the limits of your proprioception. You have no instinctive knowledge of where that thing is. That’s why you’re always banging it into people (and you are, even if you don’t think you are, and you don’t think you are for the same reason) and occasionally hanging it over the yellow zone and into the guideway. 

Blast from the past: The Hovercraft Parable

This has been recovered from the Blue Collar Space archives, circa Christmas 2010.

Recently a new chapter has been added to the story about the role-playing game publishing industry dying. The “death” is mostly a way to interpret the steady failing of big reliable game lines and the steady success of small endeavours with small goals by peers using technology from front to back. I think a modern parable is in order.

One day I was heading home from work, got off the train, and went to the bus stop for the last leg of my journey. Standing at the stop and looking north, I see a huge construction project in progress. This looks like it is going to be some kind of very sturdy multi-storey concrete building, like a parking tower or an industrial warehouse. They are working on finishing the second floor.

What they are doing, specifically, is laying down concrete and smoothing it flat. I don’t get that this is what’s happening right away, because what I see is three guys laughing their heads off. They are laughing because they are each sitting on a chair that looks like it is mounted on a pair of downward-pointing fans, and skidding around all over the structure at high speed.

They are surfacing the concrete by riding around on one-person hovercraft.

My first thought is that I would pay to do this. In fact, I am pretty sure that if they sold tickets for twenty bucks to give you half an hour on the hovercraft-chair, there would be a line-up around the block. The surface would get done and someone would make a packet and a half doing it. There’s even a built-in audience — about half the people waiting for the bus are watching the well-paid union labourers ride and thinking pretty much the same thing as I am. “Goddamn, what I really want to be doing right now is giving one of those guys twenty bucks and then barrel around on a hovercraft.”

There are probably many obstacles (insurance, quality of work, marketing, licensing, simple convention) but only one is really insurmountable. The union would never go for it.