Hurd Pt. 2


Chevrolet (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the morning Tim Hurd picks me up in front of my house.  I told my wife I would be gone for about three days but not what I’d be doing.  She didn’t ask.  She’s not a dumb broad like most of my friends married.  She doesn’t want to know, which is an intelligent attitude.  There’s no way she can stop me and she doesn’t want to sleep on the street either.

Hurd’s car is a jet black Chevy sedan, an old fart car that has been…enhanced.  I can tell from sound of the engine that it is made to haul ass.  It seems like I haven’t even put my gym bag in the back before we’re out of town.  He goes faster and the engine opens up, snarling and liberated to be what it was meant to be.

I keep remembering one summer night when we were in high school.  Hurd and Dupree and I broke into the cellar of a leather goods store, really expensive stuff, Vuitton and Prada and what have you.  We didn’t get caught but my father found out and raised bloody hell with me.


He looks sharply at me and almost rearends a car before he slams on the brakes and cusses.

Who told you that?  He demands.

Winston tried to get a friend of my old man to peddle the leather.  I guess he talked.

Yeah but how’d he know?

You mustve told somebody who told somebody else.  Or you were dumb enough to be seen with it.

Never mind, he says, brooding.  Ancient history.

Why didn’t you tell me it was like that, Tim?

I was protecting you, Harry, he says.  You didn’t need to know.  You would’ve been too nervous.

If I’d know I never would’ve shown up.

He sighs.  Mistakes were made, he says.  We’re both older now.

Alright, I say irritably.  I hope your judgment’s better now.   Let’s just forget it.

How’s your old lady, Harry?

Same as always.  Why?

That brainy little girl in Physics class?

Yeah, her.

I heard she was sick.

Not in the usual way.  Migraines.

Arent those imaginary?

I say, Anyone who thinks that should have one for five minutes.  Ever eat ice cream too fast?  It’s agony for thirty seconds but a headache goes on for two or three days like that.  Like an icepick sticking your eye.  She has to be able to take care of the kids and she cant if she’s sick.  She has to have these expensive pills.

Heavy dope?

No, Tim.  Pain medicine doesn’t help.  It’s thirty dollars a pill and she needs two to stop a headache.  It’s some kinda medicine that shrinks blood vessels in the brain.  Only thing that works.  Before she got ’em she’d be in bed for three days and I’d have to do everything.

Maybe she needs one of them head doctors, Hurd suggests.

Don’t say anything else about it, Mr. Hurd, I say icily and he shuts up.

Brawny, thick and thuggish and aquiline, Hurd’s relationship with this car is like a scify man-machine interface.  Outside Toledo I take the wheel and he looks reproachfully at me.

Step on it, he says.

I comply and tell him I’m not used to a car like this.  He thinks I drive like an old lady because I wont pass trucks on the hills or on a double yellow line.   I don’t last long before he takes the wheel from me.  We’re not even close to Cleveland.  It’s early April and getting dark as we approach Lackawanna.  After we are out of that town we have to stop for gas and Hurd gives me a big bill to buy some hamburgers next door.  I go in the bathroom and when I look outside the window and I see a State Trooper by the gas pump looking at the car.  Hurd is nowhere to be seen.

I go thru a door marked employees only and look into the kitchen where a boy is washing dishes.  I slip behind him without being seen and quietly open the door and step outside into the lot.  I see Hurd running, really hauling ass toward the trees and bracken where the fields begin…


Hurd, Part One

The front counter at the Wendy's Restaurant on...

The front counter at the Wendy’s Restaurant on Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not looking for Hurd at all when I find him at Wendy’s after I cash my unemployment check.  My benefits are running out and I am dangerously close to having no income at all.  After a week of eating pork and beans and unleavened biscuits I am ready to get a triple cheese burger with 1250 calories and 52 grams of fat before I buy groceries for my wife and kids.  And there he is behind me circling like an unwanted rescuer or prescient vulture.

In line behind me, Hurd’s face is flushed in perfect health, nothing at all like the limey sallow color I see when I look in the mirror.  No doubt he is the beneficiary of a good breakfast and a chilly morning.  He sizes me up after we say hello and I’m sure it isn’t hard to tell I’m not doing well.  He asks me what I’m having and when I say a cheeseburger he says he’ll buy me two if I’ll sit and listen to him.

What RU doing for money?  He says.

I say, I wait every morning on the corner off the square where they line up.  A truck comes by and picks up anyone who wants to get paid in cash for a day’s work.  That and unemployment.

He whistles.  Sucker, he says with satisfaction.

It might turn into something permanent, I say, fully aware of how lame I sound.

Sure, he says smugly.  And by that time you’ll be in a bigger hole.  You think anybody’s gonna cut you a break?  People look after their own these days.

I don’t have any family, I say.  Neither does she.

He shakes his head.

What about you, I say, eager to change the subject.  You ever see Dupree anymore?

He snorts.  That dickhead, Hurd says.  He’s hired muscle now for some mob guy.  All he’s good for.  I’ve got no use for anybody like that.  But I could help you out if you want some quick money.

Is it dangerous?

Shouldn’t be.  Not like what had you worried last time.  It’s not strictly legit but it’s better than working.  Faster.

Doing what?

Let’s just say it involves crossing the border.

The Mexican border?

No, the Canadian border.

That’s federal time if we get caught.

We wont.  There’s nothing to it.  You can do this every two weeks and be out of the hole in no time.

This is Federal, Tim, I say.

Look, I only asked you ’cause you look like you needed a break.  I’m getting tired of doing all the driving.  You can be my relief on the road.  We’ll be back in three days.

I cant.

Cant or wont?  Harry…

Okay, I’ll do it, I say, thinking about starving and living on the street.

Perfect Day

Three Mile Island power station Polski: Elektr...

Three Mile Island power station Polski: Elektrownia jądrowa Three Mile Island (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The following is ripped off wholesale from Charles Perrow’s  Normal Accidents:  Living with High Risk Technologies.  It’s very rare that I resort to being a mere copyist but for one, I haven’t felt like writing anything lately and wanted to write something.  And two, the concepts in Perrow’s book are important enough to write about.  If you have a Kindle you can download a sample of his book and get a better idea of what I’m talking about here.

Today’s an important day.  You stay home from work because you have a job interview that is important enough that it could put you years ahead in your career.  And you’re pretty sure you could get it, but you do have to go to the interview.

When you stumble into the kitchen you see that your spouse left the burner on the stove under the coffee pot on.  The coffee has boiled away and the glass pot has cracked.  You’re a coffee addict so you clean up the mess and root around for an old drip coffeemaker.  You find it and make coffee and drink it down.

Now you’re in a hurry and pissed off and distracted enough that you lock yourself out of the apartment and have left the car keys inside.  No problem because you have hidden a spare key in the hallway for just such an emergency.  This is a safety device called a redundancy.  Then you remember you loaned a key to a friend so he could return some books of yours he borrowed.

Now it’s getting late.  But there’a nice old man next door who drives his car once a month.  He’s let you borrow his before.  When you ask him he says he’d like to help you but his car broke down and wont be fixed for a few days.  And BTW, he adds, the bus strike you’ve been hearing about has happened.

No matter.  You call a cab but find out that since the bus strike started there are no cabs to be had because everybody’s taking a cab.  You call to reschedule the interview and they do not hire you because they think you’re a flake that can’t even keep an appointment.

Now.  What was the primary cause of this “accident?”

1.  Human error, such as leaving the coffeepot on or forgetting the keys.

2.  Mechanical failure, such as the old man’s car breaking down.

3.  The environment, such as the bus strike and cab overload.

4.  Design of the system, in which you can lock yourself out rather than having to use a door key to lock the door.

5.  Procedures, such as warming coffee in a glass pot or not getting up extra early.

6.  None of the above.

If you answered 6, you’re probably right.

If you answered 1, human error, you’re taking a stand on multiple failure accidents that resembles that of the President’s commission to Investigate the Accident at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.  The Commission blamed everybody but primarily the operators.  The builders of the equipment, Babcock and Wilcox, blamed only the operators.

If you answered 2, mechanical error, you can join Metropolitan Edison who ran the plant.  They held that the accident was caused by a faulty valve and sued Babcock and Wilcox.

If you answered 4, design of the system, you are in the company of Essex Corporation, who did a study for the NRC of the control room.

The cause of your inability to get to the most important interview of your life is found in the complexity of the system.  Each of the failures-design, equipment, operators, procedures, or environment were in themselves trivial.  Such things happen and since we know that the world is not perfect, we rarely even notice them.  The bus strike wouldn’t be important if you had your car key or your neighbor’s car.  The lack of the neighbor’s car wouldn’t matter if you could get a taxi.  And if all this had happened any other day but today none of it would matter; you’d just go to work late, or call in sick.

On any other morning the broken coffeepot would have been merely annoying but it probably wouldn’t have made you forget your keys.  So, the failures in themselves were trivial and each had a redundant back up.  When the back ups were blocked the failures became serious when they interacted.  It’s the interaction of multiple failures that was to blame.  What you don’t expect is for all these things to happen at once.

That particular failure was not in the discrete failures but in what’s called tight coupling.  The bus strike and lack of cabs are obviously tightly coupled (interdepent) where your keys and the neighbor’s car are not, but they all happened at the same time.

This is a good example for instructional purposes because everybody’s had days like these and it’s easy to see what happened because the events were so linear.  It’s a bad example because disastrous failures are so complex that an operator cannot know what is happening when things go wrong because of the complexity of the system.  Any part of, say , a nuclear plant can interact with any other part, not necessarily in an operational sequence.

And I’ll leave it at that because accidents such as these are too complex to go into here.  The key point is that they are “normal” accidents in the sense that if the system is operated for long enough, any possible accident that can happen, will.