Tag Archives: failure

Fail-Safe


Fail-safe does not mean what you think it means.

I mean, okay, sure, language is fluid, meanings are not fixed, words mean what we agree they mean. But origins of words can be instructive. So: fail-safe.

thought it meant some kind of device (or in a more informal, metaphorical sense, a procedure) that would keep another device from failing. Kinda like anti-lock brakes. It’s raining out, you slam on the brakes, which makes you skid, which makes you crash — the anti-lock brakes kick in, keep you from skidding, help you avoid the crash. Fail-safe.

Wrong!

Fail-safe was a term they invented for nuclear weapons. (I learned this reading Command and Control by Eric Schlosser, which is fantastic for exploring the limits of just how wide you can open your eyes in disbelief.) In their early days, especially, there was a great deal of unease that the warheads could be detonated by accident. (Spoiler alert: this fear has not been alleviated.) This was owing to the tremendous number of moving parts and interconnected systems (electrical impulses created by piezoelectric crystals crushed on impact powering explosive lenses which cause an implosion forcing the nuclei of radioactive atoms to fuse). Bombs have been accidentally dropped from airplanes more than once. Missiles have exploded on the launchpad or underground in their silos. Airplanes have crashed while carrying nukes. The fact that we haven’t had a self-inflicted nuclear explosion looks more and more miraculous after reading this book.

But it’s owing to these fail-safes. To really understand the concept, you have to think about what “failure” means. With a nuclear bomb, that’s easy. The bomb is designed to explode, and in the process of its explosion, to set off a nuclear reaction, leading to an even bigger explosion. How could that go wrong? Well, there’s the time factor: go off too early and you set the bomb off in your own backyard or in somebody else’s  backyard (which is not the kind of thing you can apologize for with a casserole and a check), go off too late and you have the same set of problems. Or, maybe it doesn’t go off at all, and you’ve deposited a radioactive paperweight in the countryside or the bottom of the ocean. Then there’s targeting: say the missile gets carried off course or the thrusters don’t fire or maybe you’re just dropping the bomb from a plane but it’s cloudy and you drop it on the wrong thing. Then there’s human error. Maybe some general gets crazy and hits the big red button out of turn. Or maybe some pilot performing maintenance on the plane mid-flight accidentally grabs the manual release lever and drops the bomb over North Carolina. (NOT THAT THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED OR ANYTHING seriously this book is horrifying.)

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That’s a lot of ways to fail. And you simply can’t prevent all of those things — especially the human error component. So what you can do is design your bombs

The fail-safes don’t stop the bombs from failing. Failure of a nuclear bomb would mean a crater miles across centered on some poor pig farmer’s backyard. The fail-safes ensure that, in the event of a failure, the bomb doesn’t do what it’s designed to do — in other words, in failing, the device remains safe.

Drop or launch the bomb by mistake, and it doesn’t arm, so maybe you put a hole in the aforementioned pig farmer’s backyard, but you don’t put a hole in Kansas. It fails, safely. In some cases, the bomb (which is to say the business end, the warhead) can even be repackaged, tuned up, and used once more.

Which is sort of a fascinating metaphor for the writer’s life, as it turns out. Because failure is EVERYWHERE, and it’s nothing short of miraculous that writers aren’t leaving radioactive craters in their wake everyday.

How, then, does the writer fail safe?

By having other things to focus on. Something — ANYthing — to take your mind off the fact that you just received ANOTHER rejection letter (or, worse, no letter at all!). The next project. The next query letter. Your next run or workout. Some dedicated family time. That book you’ve been meaning to read. Heck, just a walk around the block. SOMETHING. (May I recommend, if you’re the high-strung type, NOT reading Command and Control.)

How do you fail safe when it feels like you’re not getting anywhere?

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Resolutions Suck. (Make them anyway.)


It’s sort of my style to gripe and complain about things around here. Every year I take more than a couple of posts out to pooh-pooh the things that tend to wind most people up: New Year’s Resolutions. National Novel Writing Month. Birthdays. Puppies. Maybe it’s my skeptical nature, maybe it’s some deep-seated, culturally-cultivated urge to strive against, or I dunno, maybe at my core I really am just a grinch.

But here at the end of 2017 I find myself looking around and I see I haven’t done quite so much of that. Hard to say why off the cuff, except to point out that 2017 seems to have been a generally crappy year for lots of creatives, particularly those of us who lean liberal. No politics today, except to point out that it’s been hard to exist in the world without taking a higher-than-usual interest in politics, which comes at the expense of the fargos you have to give every day.

Still, it wouldn’t feel right to finish up the year without taking a big, hearty piss on a beloved American tradition, so here it is:

That New Year’s Resolution you’re contemplating?

You’re going to eff it up, and probably eff it up badly.

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It’s just not going to work.

Or, at least, it’s not going to work right now, if you’re making the resolution because it’s the end of the year and you figure it’s time to get off your ass. We know this. Most NYRs fail, sure as the Browns taking the field on Sunday. We fail to plan, or we don’t have the resolve, or we don’t actually care that much. We’ll make it for a few weeks, maybe a month or two, but we’ll run out of steam, lose momentum for a day, then two, then we fall off the train completely and we’re right back where we were on December 31.

That’s because we make resolutions at the new year because we feel like we’re supposed to. Which is bullsharknado. The time to make a resolution is when it’s time to do the thing, when that little voice inside you — your conscience, the twin you absorbed in the womb, or god if that’s your thing — tells you this thing has to happen NOW. When, if you don’t do the thing now, you will suffer.

If that voice happens to speak up around the new year, great. Probably it won’t.

Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t make the resolution anyway.

Just because you’re going to fail at a thing, and probably fail badly, is no reason not to try it. Failure is the best teacher, after all, and once you fail at the thing, well, you know the mistakes not to make when you try the second time. And when you fail that time, you know even more mistakes to avoid. And if you’re lucky, eventually you learn to avoid enough mistakes that you just might finally make it through the mine field.

All of which is to say that 2018 feels like a great year for making mistakes.

Or, put another way, a great year to go out there and fargo some sharknado up.

Dang, I was supposed to be dumping on resolutions.

Okay.

Resolutions suck.

(Make them anyway. Whether it’s a new year or not.)

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


Almost Didn’t Make It


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Is there a sadder word in the language than “almost?”

I read this week’s stream of consciousness prompt — the word, almost — and my head began to fill with almosts. He almost won the gold medal, but his ankle snapped in the last hundred meters. She almost got the job, but they found out about her side business selling pygmies as house pets. We almost got married, but my ex showed up at the last minute, burned the church down, and impaled my bride-to-be with my collectible Wayne Gretzky hockey stick, broken off at the handle.

Almost is the language of failure, it’s a word of defeat. But it’s not simply a coming-up-short, it’s worlds worse than a didn’t-quite-make-it, it’s an age away from never-really-had-a-chance. Why? Because with the almost, you can taste the victory.

There’s something comforting in not reaching for the dream, in admitting to yourself that you don’t really have what it takes to even start down the path. The blankets on the bed are warm, after all, and these reruns of Law and Order, Criminal Justice Unit for White-Collar Executives who Only Get Slaps On The Wrist aren’t going to watch themselves. You never start down the path, you never really think of how victory might feel, so you never miss out.

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Or, okay, say you start; you make the resolutions, you block out the time, you hold fast for a few weeks, but then you bow out because it’s just too hard. That happens. Nothing to be ashamed of. This failure stings a little, because you “wasted” that time trying the thing, but it’s better to see you’re not cut out for it early than to change who you are, because change is fargoing scary. Nope, this one is a lesson learned, and that lesson is: stay home.

Right, so maybe quitting after just a few weeks isn’t your bag. You’re really determined to make this thing work this time, and you plug away at it for a few months or even maybe a year or so. Maybe even start to think it could happen. But you know what happens to everybody, eventually? LIFE HAPPENS. And work gets hectic, or you get that long bout of mono, or your deadbeat brother moves in, and god almighty, how are you supposed to deal with this thing that MUST be dealt with and that other thing you wanted to do? Something has to give, and we know what it’s going to be. At least you have something to blame this failure on, and blame is good, because you don’t have to own up to the fact that maybe it wasn’t that important to you anyway.

Which brings us to the almost. The saddest of the sad. Because with the almost, you do the work. You feel the change in yourself. You create or you achieve or you conquer or you otherwise get done the things you’re trying to get done, and little by little you gain on that big goal, that overarching thing that looked so monstrous when you first started, until it’s just a leap away… and then the catastrophe strikes. Broken ankle. Rejected manuscript. New guy gets the promotion over you. And you’re so focused on winning that you maybe don’t even realize that you’ve lost until the parade has started, and then it slowly dawns that the parade is not for you. How do you cope? How do you throw yourself at the wall again? How do you find the strength to go back to the beginning and start over?

But see… that’s one way to look at it.

The other way to look at it is that the almost is just a whisker away from the Mission Accomplished. The almost is one favorable gust of wind away from the parade being in your honor instead of the other guy’s. The almost is the difference between your boss or your book reviewer or your opponent skipping breakfast on the day that matters because he didn’t get a good night’s sleep instead of coming in with guns a’blazing. If you can get to the almost… well… how can you stop there?

I changed my mind from the beginning of the post. Almost isn’t the saddest word in the language. It’s maybe the most motivating ever.

What’s almost within your grasp? What have you almost achieved? And what’s to stop you from going back and trying it again?


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