Monday, March 02, 2009

The Feast Day of Subsidiarity

As I wrote on this day in 2006, no, you did not miss a special announcement. I am well aware that it is Lent. (It's not really that kind of feast day.) But for me and my friends, and perhaps for a growing number of people such as a certain junior theology class at Gross Catholic High in Omaha, Nebraska, March 2 shall ever be known as the "feast day" of Subsidiarity.

For it was on Thursday March 2, in 2000, perhaps about 11:30 AM, that our system for local ad insertion and spot delivery for cable television went live and began its work which it did 24/7 for over five years, supplying the needed spots to dozens of remote locations over a satellite communications link. That system did its work according to the precise description given by John Paul II in his Centesimus Annus.

You don't believe me? Here's just a bit of the actual source code from the program that did the work:
The principle of subsidiarity:
A situation is always dealt with at the lowest possible level.
"Here again the principle of subsidiarity must be respected: a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good."
John Paul II: Centesimus Annus, 48

We apply this principle in the FIELD by satisfying needed spot requests from within the "local" subtree - IF we can.

Otherwise we must make a request to HOME.

The HOME side proceeds in this manner:

When we get that request (via a PSR) we see if it exists in the Master Library.
If it's there, we send it to all machines requesting it.

Otherwise, it needs to be encoded, and so we must appeal to a Higher Authority...


excerpted from a version of PUMP dated January 14, 2000

If you'd like to know more, please see the e-version of my book called Subsidiarity. Or perhaps you'd prefer a less academic version, in which case you'll get a very good idea from my novel. (You can ignore all the exciting mystery parts, or the descriptions of food and music.)

The students who examined the academic form brought up a very good point: what happens when the method fails? Or, perhaps more precisely, how does one deal with failure within a system of Subsidiarity? Here, my own discipline of computer science can assist, as well as the Chestertonian tools of Scholastic Philosophy: the power of distinguo = "I distinguish" must be brought to bear, since this issue has a variety of cases. The failure might be a violation of a rule of Subsidiarity, or of the rules of the system (whatever the particulars are of the industry or club or country or society) or of the more fundamental rules, be they natural, moral, civil, social, or even physical. It is an important point, and I am preparing an additional chapter for my book. (My special thanks to Jim and his students!)

But in the meantime, I was poking through things, and found that my novel contains a miniature of how subsidiarity deals with failure, at least in one case. It may be interesting for you to read about it.

The scene occurs when one of the infomercials (those half-hour long advertising shows) on a remote site is found to be corrupt. The transport machinery (PUMP) was not permitted to send infomercials, because it would take a very long time to send them, and so it would get in the way of more important things that needed to be sent. (That's vaguely comparable to the "triage" performed in emergency rooms, which puts some problems ahead of others.) So we had to deliver those large items by what is called "sneaker net" - that is, someone had to drive there with a disk or tape.

There's also an example (easy to miss) of human subsidiarity in the second scene, where Joe (our hero) tries to deal with the problem, asks Andy (a more experienced co-worker) and Jeff (his boss) for help, but these cannot solve it and must call in "Doc" and Paul (the specialists), who in turn need to consult Ian (their boss) to decide what is to be done.

“Uh,” Joe struggled to think of a delaying move as Ian got up. “Doc, will that – uh – ‘sub’ thing handle these new inserters?”
“Ah!” the Doctor smiled, and sat back down. “Very good. You mean Subsidiarity? You’ve been thinking, I see. Well, it would, for the normal sizes of spots. Except that we daren’t send the infomercials over the satellite at present – a half-hour show is about a gig, so it would take too long to transport. Might interfere with the rest of the Field. We have PUMP rigged so it won’t even try. But they’ll show up on your ‘needed spots’ list, like any other spot. That means one of our loyal Field Techs have to do transport the old-fashioned way – right, Ian?”
“Don’t remind me, Doc,” he moaned. “They call it ‘sneaker-net’... That means they have to drive there with the tape, and load it manually.”
“Still,” Jeff jumped in, “It’s a backup tape with the MPEGs, not an analog tape of the actual spots – like in the good old days.”
Ian shook his head. “Please, Jeff. Nobody will believe that’s how it used to work.”


In the middle of things Friday afternoon, the new WLUK sites went red. Joe connected to the machines by telephone, just as he had for DIXO, but could not understand what was going wrong. The handbook was no help, either, and not even Jeff and Andy together could interpret the situation. So they called in the “big guns” and soon Doc and Paul were peering at the monitor, exploring the problem. Eventually, they decided that one of the infomercials was corrupt. At that point, they called Ian in to consider the options. They couldn’t merely remove it, since it was needed – people were paying money to have it played! Neither could they let it remain in its corrupt state, playing just a few minutes and then failing again – which was worse than not playing at all. The people at WLUK were extra-sensitive about the new arrangement, and so something had to be done. It was an extreme situation – could they use PUMP to send out a replacement?
“But it’s Friday afternoon! Look at that To-Be-Sent list! We can’t take PUMP down with all these spots to go out,” Jeff insisted.
So Larry was sent on the road with a fresh copy.

Excerpted from Joe the Control Room Guy, chapter 21 and
chapter 23.

The important point I would like you to grasp is not how to deliver cable TV spots, but that Subsidarity has been shown to be practical, useful, and efficient. It is no longer a mere abstraction, existing merely in some theoretical dream, but a tested tool. Alas that it is being ignored, to the peril of modern industries, governments, and societies (to say nothing of cable TV companies).

And if you are wondering why I bring it up on the ACS blogg, you can find out by reading what I've written. It's very Chestertonian, because I also used his design methodology, the highest-tech method I've seen. Here it is:
I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done.
[GKC Heretics CW1:46]
Chestertonian computing? Scholasticism in software? Papal-based programming? Are you insane, Doc? (I sure am - ask the Field Techs.)

But in the 2000 days our system ran, it delivered about 200,000 spots to some 80 sites, which played them around 250,000,000 times. It's not exaggerating to say that this method gets things done.

And since all Chestertonians know how important gratitude is, I take this opportunity to thank my good friends: in particular the two Joes and Diane, Traffic, the Field Techs, and the Control Room guys, for their hard work.

We used Subsidiarity. It works. Learn about it, then put it to work for you.

P.S. I am putting in this postscript for Kevin, a great Chestertonian actor, who will appreciate it. Our system was also Shakespearean:
LADY MACBETH: Out, damned spot!
Macbeth, Act V Scene I
(Hee hee!)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Join our FaceBook fan page today!