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Friday, November 8

The View From the Roof: Distributed Loads

I'm working on a post that calls for deep thought and now my brain is demanding a timeout. Let me see how I can give it some play time. Well I got through another Halloween, this year without problem. Last year it took hours before the rescue squad showed up. I insisted they call the rescue squad because we could have all fallen off the roof if a couple retired Pentagon brass and a State official who were already three sheets to the wind before they fortified themselves for the mission set out to rescue me.

No no they didn't call 911; it's a volunteer squad. The first thing the dispatcher asked was, 'Is it Pundita up there?' I'm always the lowest priority on Halloween, which is not a good thing for someone of my age and bladder control. For this reason people in certain neighborhoods in Northern Virginia who throw Halloween parties leave a ladder propped against the house so I can get up on the roof, drape the house with a roll of toilet paper, and climb down without incident.

Last Halloween, however, I went disguised as Otto von Bismarck; I figured they'd never see through that one. At one house I got tangled up on the ladder in the ceremonial sword and sash but the tipping point was the backpack. You wouldn't think that 10 rolls of toilet paper were that heavy but it was more the bulk and trying to manage the sword at the same time, and three cups of bourbon eggnog hadn't helped my balance.

I got onto the roof before the ladder fell but during this process I lost control of the backpack, which I'd forgotten was unzipped. The toilet paper rolls spilled out, bounced on car roofs in the driveway and unrolled down the street. When the rescue squad arrived they took one look at the situation and said, "Let her stay up there another 20 minutes."

No respect for the elderly anymore.

This year I went disguised as a quark. This allowed me to redistribute the load of toilet paper rolls, so while it was the same number of rolls it didn't unbalance my climbs.

I've had problems with rescue squads before, by the way, and even with an animal rescue squad. A few years ago the squirrel member of my foreign policy team blew up the garage. It's okay, I'd always wanted a swimming pool on that side of the house. I used to store my homemade demon repellent in glass gallon jugs in the garage, but who knew about the glitch in the formula until 4 containers of the stuff were knocked off a high shelf, which granted was overloaded. Even so I'd told the squirrel many times not to fool around on those shelves, and always kept the garage door shut when I wasn't around except for the time I forgot.

No there was no trouble with the authorities. This could be the one house in Washington where if you tell the fire and police departments that a crater in the yard was a household accident they just write it up. They don't want to hear the story.

Of course he survived, those types always do. But he was blown into a neighbor's tree, then he wouldn't come down because he was hysterical. When I called for a rescue squad they told me, "Ma'am, if a squirrel is up a tree it has a reason for being there."

It took the neighbor and a tree landscaper working two sides of the tree on ladders to grab him. Then I had to wrestle an eyedropper's worth of brandy down his throat to calm him, so I get his singed ass to a veterinarian. The vet saw his condition, sniffed his breath, then told me accusingly, "This squirrel has been abused."

About five minutes later I heard a crashing sound from the examination room. The veterinarian was all right. No broken bones, a little shaken up of course, but I couldn't resist. I said, "Let me guess. You told him not to fool around on top of the medicine chest."

Yet I noticed while the assistant and I were pulling the chest off the vet that it was very top heavy.

Distributed loads. Probably not the secret to the universe but they are the key to humanity surviving the era of megapopulations with some grace. It's not so much the numbers but their distribution. There are countless incidents to illustrate this.

A few weeks ago a boatload of refugees from north Africa got stranded off the Italian coast. Everyone on the boat ran to one side in a panicked attempt to signal a plane for help. The very uneven load capsized the boat. Hundreds of the refugees were drowned.

From what I've been told about the story, the people who designed the process for Americans to register for Affordable Care health insurance didn't take load distribution into account.

Another distributed load problem became starkly evident only in April, in the gold market, after millions of people had piled into the 'paper' end of the gold market through ETFs. This unbalanced the load on the physical gold market. So it took just small downward pressure on the gold price to touch off a selling stampede in the ETFs, crashing the price of gold for the entire market.

A less obvious example is that by the mid-1950s management of U.S. monetary policy, the internal part, had fallen almost exclusively to the Federal Reserve. To assess the state of the U.S. economy the Fed relies on statistics and mathematical modeling. Both can exclude galactic-sized chunks of reality and also be in error and reflect obsolete data. By 2008 it was evident that this unbalanced intellectual load had capsized the system of U.S. money management.

So now economists at the Fed have taken a back seat to the very unscientific Daniel Tarullo, or "Dan" as his colleagues call him, which is like referring to Robespierre as Max.

The intellectual load had been unbalanced for a long time yet in the age of megapopulations the margin for error hovers near zero but there I go, thinking again, which undercuts the purpose of my writing this post.

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