Too much planning is never enough

Lately I’ve been fiddling with a game called Dwarf Fortress.  It’s a sprawling project, but its main attraction is the eponymous “fortress mode”, which the wiki describes thus:

In fortress mode, you pick a location, then assign your seven initial dwarves some starting skills, equipment, provisions, and animals to bring along. After preparations are complete and your hardy explorers depart, they’ll be faced with the fortress site you picked down to every detail, from geologically appropriate stone types to roaring waterfalls to ornery hippopotamuses.


Your view of the in game world is that of a multi-layered environment which you can move north, south, east, and west, as well as up and down. Dwarves are represented by little faces, rocks by blackness and open space by blueness. There is a command menu that lets you set commands that your dutiful dwarves will attempt to follow.

Briefly, fortress mode is an idealized sandbox for petty Stalinists.  You plan damn near everything about the fortress, from the skills and equipment of your starting party to the locations of mine shafts to the crop rotations in your underground farms.  If you want to smelt steel (and you do — steel arms and armour are vital for repelling goblin sieges), you first order the production of charcoal (from wood) or coke (from bituminous coal), then the smelting of iron from ferrous ore, then the production if pig iron from some of the iron bars you’ve smelted (being careful to maintain proper stocks of iron, coal, and flux), and finally the production of steel.  Now you have a steel bar, and can order your weaponsmith to turn it into a warhammer.

So how is this idealized?  To start with, the problems of scale are vastly reduced: you begin with seven dwarfs, and max out at two hundred (some of which will be useless apparitchiki).  Dwarfs eat about four times a year, drink twice as much as they eat, and work nearly tirelessly on whatever mad scheme you’ve set forth.  Most importantly, you can pause the game whenever you like to review the state of your fortress, order new construction, and reassign dwarfs as you see fit.

The Dwarf Fortress community has a motto:

Losing is fun.

There’s always something going wrong.  Maybe one of your miners dug himself into a cave-in because you neglected to consider the layer above when you told him where to dig.  Maybe you ran out of coal, and can’t forge any more steel until you burn some wood to charcoal.  Maybe you ran out of seeds and can’t plant the next harvest.  Maybe you delved too greedily, and too deep, and woke the ancient evil.  There’s always something going on that you failed to foresee, failed to plan for.  Some of this stuff — goblin sieges, volcanic eruptions, or hordes of murderous elephants — are impossible to predict.

Once you get past a certain level of central planning in any system, you always need more planning.  The planned system is too rigid to allow individuals to react on their own, so everything devolves to a central authority.  But for real countries, losing isn’t fun:

Consider, for example, Venezuela’s incipient electricity shortage:

(Hat tip: Tyler Cowen)

Chavez on Friday said his government is determined to keep Guri Dam from falling to a critical level where the turbines start to fail in the next several months. He has also imposed rationing measures that include penalty fees for energy overuse, shorter workdays for many public employees and reduced hours for shopping malls.

The entire South American country of 28 million people depends to a large degree on the massive Guri Dam, which holds back the Caroni River in southeastern Bolivar state. It supplies 73 percent of the country’s electricity by feeding the massive Guri hydroelectric plant — the world’s third-largest in power output — along with two other smaller plants.

In Venezuela, rivers and water levels are things to be commanded by the state:

”We can’t allow the water to reach this level,” Chavez said. He said officials are aiming to prevent it by diminishing power generation at Guri and decreasing the flow of water that moves through the turbines.

Government officials say their rationing plan should help the country reach May, when seasonal rains are predicted to return. But even Chavez concedes the situation is serious. His past efforts to solve the problem have included sending cloud-seeding planes to produce rain with the help of Cuba.


The rationing has some concerned. Andres Perez, president of the industrial chamber in central Carabobo state, said he doubts Guri Dam will be permitted to fail[…].

“Butbutbut,” you say, “isn’t it true that centrally-planned electrical infrastructure can take into account projected usage from the whole country and deliver power more efficiently?”  Perhaps, if you can solve an impossibly large global optimization problem in real time with incomplete information (hint: you can’t).  But in Venezuela, at least part of the excess power consumption was planned into the system:

The government has also partially shut down state-run steel and aluminum plants.

The alternative — letting an independent group worry about the Guri powerplants and raise electricity rates as scarcity increases — is of course unthinkable.  Such a group would be expropriated within seconds of raising its rates.  So instead, after having planned out its power infrastructure, Venezuela’s government needs to plan its citizens’ power consumption with rationing and scheduled shutdowns.  And then it needs to plan around the consequences of said rationing and shutdowns, and so on ad infinitum.

Air travel security is beset by similar — but not identical — failures of planning.

Since 2001, airline passengers — regular people without weapons or training — have helped thwart terrorist attacks aboard at least five different commercial airplanes. It happened again on Christmas Day. […]

And yet our collective response to this legacy of ass-kicking is puzzling. Each time, we build a slapdash pedestal for the heroes. Then we go back to blaming the government for failing to keep us safe, and the government goes back to treating us like children. […] Since regular people will always be first on the scene of terrorist attacks, we should perhaps prioritize the public’s antiterrorism capability. […]

Despite the fantastically large air travel security establishment — and its clumsy post hoc regulatory patches — successfully thwarting terrorist attacks on airplanes remains a decentralized thing.  All the security planning — the new agencies, the onerous legislation, the widely-cast no-fly lists — put into place after September 11th, 2001 failed in damn near precisely the same way in December 2009.  Even NYT op-ed thickie Maureen Dowd can’t fail to recognize the problem:

“Rather than a failure to collect or share intelligence,” President Obama said, “this was a failure to connect and understand the intelligence that we already had.”

Wow. That makes me feel that all those billions spent on upgrading the intelligence system were well spent.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s father personally delivered a neon warning to our embassy in Nigeria, and a State Department employee quickly dropped the ball by misspelling the aspiring terrorist’s name, leading to the false assumption that he did not have a valid U.S. visa.

Border security officials figured out while he was in the air that the young man had extremist links, but inexplicably decided to wait until he landed to question him, failing to notify the pilot of his plane. After all, what harm could a foreign extremist bring to a plane over American soil.

So it wasn’t bureaucratic turf wars that caused the intelligence to fall through the cracks this time. The C.I.A. and counterterrorism agencies weren’t hoarding information and refusing to pool tips. They were just out to lunch.

And this is supposed to be progress?

I’d rather they were hoarding. It would be more reassuring to think our intelligence analysts actually knew what was going on but were hampered by power grabs than to think they were cooperative but clueless.

“Cooperative but clueless” sums it up rather nicely.


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