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Brother Karsh's Column for LetsGoPens.com

Acceptable Failure

September 16, 2002

In 1996 Bruce Schneier thought he'd found the answer. At the time, Schneier was perhaps the best known cryptographer in the world and his book, 'Applied Cryptography,' was a seminal work in the field. Schneier proposed, in essence, that with the right encryption and the right technology, personal privacy could in many ways finally be secure. Unfortunately, in the years that would follow (even as he would help win the debate on Capitol Hill about whether or not there are some things the government ever needs to know) Schneier would come to an entirely different realization, one that would cut his original thesis off at the knees.

In his effort to make something not only safe and secure, but also accessible to the masses, Schneier admittedly forgot the simple fact that nothing's infallible. All technology—be it man-made or simply man himself—will fail at some point. Computers crash, batteries die, people make errors in judgment; it isn't a question of if, it's a question of when.

Thus, technophiles from here to Bora Bora can develop the smartest encryption known to man, but it will forever only be as smart as the people who use it. Moreover, it will only be as good as its ability to recover from failure.

It's called, 'failing badly.' It's what happens when technology fails without adequate backup. Think: the CIA on September 11, 2001.

Failing badly is the reason why ideas such as a National ID Card and further media deregulation are not only counterproductive, but dangerous. Because the more you consolidate information into a single location, the more a single failure can be cataclysmic.

For example, once Clear Channel Communications owns virtually every radio station in the country, the easier it is to turn the airwaves into the insipid wasteland you have on your dial, the easier it is to control what you do and, more importantly, do not hear. Or, in hockey parlance, the more the Pittsburgh Penguins pin all their hopes to the sleeve of Mario Lemieux (again), the more the team knocks on the door of catastrophe.

This is not a shot at Mario. When he's completely healthy and on his game there is no question that Mario is still the best player in the sport. However, it's this caveat, that preface of 'if and when he's healthy' which will again push the playoffs further from the Penguins' reach if Mario remains the sole conduit for the Penguins' success. It's also why this subject needs to be addressed right now.

For the last few seasons, as the Penguins opened training camp, the hope was palpable. Even as publication after publication failed to give Pittsburgh much of a shot, the fans knew different. If it wasn't a belief in Jaromir Jagr, it was a belief in Mario Lemieux. If it wasn't a belief in Mario Lemieux, it was a belief in Alexei Kovalev, or Martin Straka, or Robert Lang, or all of the above.

This was the Penguins' answer to failing badly. If one went down, there were three to replace him. No one loss could cripple the team and therefore, failing badly was not an option. Redundancy, not technology, is the key to security and the Penguins' depth up front proved just that.

Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Slowly but surely the Penguins have lost talent to both injury and free agency, and as a new training camp really kicks into gear this week, it is obvious that the team will be counting almost exclusively on Mario Lemieux. Again.

What is disappointing in this is not the team's continued resistance to originality and their aversion to change, Pittsburgh has sadly come to expect that. Rather what's distressing here is that this team has a good idea of its opening night roster, it has a good grasp on the status of Mario Lemieux's health and yet the organization seemingly has no plan in place should Mario's body fail him again.

There is a precedent here concerning Mario's chances of getting through the entire season completely healthy, one that doesn't promote optimism, however concerned is the last thing the team appears to be.

It is widely known that should Mario go down, this team will fall into the hands of Alexei Kovalev, someone who neither wants (nor has proven the ability) to lead a team to the playoffs on his own. Still, the Penguins appear more than content to roll the dice with the odds stacked firmly against them.

At some point, one would think there would be someone available to point out that this might qualify less as calculated risk and more as tempting fate.

Based upon the Penguins' budget, it is entirely understandable to see this team try their best to build from within. But the more the Penguins continue to lose talent without any sort of comparable replacement, the more they become solely reliant on Mario Lemieux. And the more an organization (or a nation) puts their collective fate into the hands of one person—no matter the intentions or talent involved—the harder the fall will end up being the day failure happens.

A team can say they didn't get the breaks, that the puck bounced the wrong way for them, or that the injuries were too much to take. All of this can be completely acceptable and entirely valid during the course of a season. However, it is unacceptable to know, going into camp, that your team is one step away from failing badly and do nothing about it. It is inexcusable to potentially put your team, a team that still has a tenuous hold on long-term viability in the city mind you, in a position from which it might be unable to recover before you've even played a game.

The only hope here is that the Penguins can realize this early enough—say immediately—and that they can then use this training camp to do something about the situation. Because once failing badly becomes more than conceptual, it is too late to do anything but sift through the rubble. And that would make for one long, cold winter for everybody involved. Not to mention what it would do to this ever-fading concept of 'rebuilding the Penguin dynasty.'

Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com during the season and believes in Mario without fail, he just believes that sometimes the team tries its best to cut off their own beak to spite their face.

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