[LEAPSECS] The comedy of the commons

Rob Seaman seaman at noao.edu
Mon Feb 7 16:44:50 EST 2011

On Feb 7, 2011, at 12:37 PM, Finkleman, Dave wrote:

> Unfortunately, some operators don't know what is inside the black box. We accommodate this by requiring the fields but not the real content. If geopotential info fields are filled with default characters, we know that this idiot doesn't even know what he did and discount his input.

"Idiot" may or may not be accurate, but it doesn't seem the key engineering point. Plenty of people are ignorant of the appropriate values to place in a "geopotential info field", including probably 98% of the readers of this list and certainly including me. For an operator of any system to be ignorant of key control parameters, however, is simply unacceptable. The question is why they remain ignorant - and why they don't recognize it - and why others don't find out until problems result. Possibilities to look at are training, user interfaces, discordant standards, etc., and quite likely interactions between multiples of these.

> These lessons came hard. For example, lack of gravitational metadata led to low perigee events in Superbird 6, a Comsat. The launch provider included lunar gravitation and the on-orbit operator did not. The handover state provided by the launch agency did not lead to the desired final orbit for the operator.

Whatever the handover state, should it not have been vetted in advance? Surely launch sequence workflows are simulated in advance of lighting the big candle? It can't be a novel experience for launch providers and on-orbit operators to be working from different versions of the script. Aren't there tools for reconciling differences before tons of expensive equipment are burning up over Fiji?

> "We don't create standards for people who don't need them. We create standards for those who do need them." The "don't cares" usually don't get a vote.

There is a difference between needing and caring. Very few care about leap seconds. Very few know about leap seconds. The final statement of this syllogism might be modified to:

The "don't needs" don't get a vote.

...but even this isn't quite right. Technical issues, including most standards issues, don't really devolve to "voting" as an ideal decision-making process. We can likely all agree on wording like:

"Standards are for those who need them."

The question is what process - in the inevitable presence of ignorant stakeholders as well as the remarkable lack of foresight and planning shown repeatedly by humans - is what process should be followed to figure out who needs what. That party A may not need something party B does, does not mean that party A has no interest in seeing that party B gets what they need. (Yet another variation of the tragedy of the commons.)


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