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Albert Bierstadt: The Oregon Trail (1869)
"Whatever else we're intending when Distributing anything, we're Distributing our own naive experience first."

My forebears crossed the much-vaunted Oregon Trail, and try as I might, I cannot quite imagine it as being anything other than a primitive sort of Interstate Freeway. Eye-witness accounts reported a ragged line of discarded furniture, broken wagons, and garbage, alongside an open sewer ditch, with grave markers a frequent sight. Nothing about the trip proved to be nearly as romantic as the paintings of it suggested. Migrants were said to have felt deep disappointment when they saw that their trail would not route them through the Eden the brochures had promised. Even today, we tend to glaze over logistical complications. That pre-pandemic trip to France included an ordeal of airplane connections and discomfiting boredom no entertainment system built into the seat back in front of you could possibly blunt. One arrives half dead in Paris, and spends the first day or two recovering. It's no different for anything we blithely ship. The couple of dozen Christmas packages we mailed took surprising trips, with one pair, addressed to locations less that two miles from each other, arriving four days different. I've had, like you've had, packages routed across the country multiple times and take two weeks to accomplish a standard two-day delivery, with me amusedly tracking 'progress' all the way. Them's the breaks, even with a mature, well-broken-in distribution system. Inefficiency's built right into every one of them.

Wartime's much worse.
Though our military probably maintains the most sophisticated logistical support system of any organization in the history of the world so far, so-called SNAFUs seem unavoidable, along with excessive expense. What do you suppose it costs to ship an armored Humvee to Afghanistan by air? We sent thousands of them there that way due to urgency. I can only imagine what percentage of them arrived in useable condition, but I'm certain it wasn't quite a hundred percent, and more likely, far from it. Now, we're manufacturing and distributing vaccine to neutralize the virus causing This Damned Pandemic, and calling on The National Guard to help. We're on a wartime footing again, Heaven help us. We're attempting to accomplish this at an advertised Warp Speed, a label that hardly instills much confidence that it might succeed on anything like anticipated terms. The Romans insisted that undertakings should Hasten Slowly for good reasons, based upon centuries of sorry hastening experience. Urgency complicates everything, and everything, thank you very much, was already complicated enough at tortoise speeds. By the time we finally succeed—and we will most certainly, eventually succeed—we will have expended far more than any sane administrator would have initially willingly budgeted for the effort. Those who know how these things work will have been humiliatingly shouted down in meetings by politicals who insisted that they just know better than experts with decades of experience in the field, and better, even, than those whose boots were actually hip-deep in the sewer ditch alongside the so-called trail at the time.

Gears finally mesh after excruciatingly long design, build, and testing periods, rarely at first. After a few million iterations, they might become reliable or they might remain as reliable as they began, more often in the shop than putting around, and those are mechanical systems, the most determined ones around. Add a few (or a few hundred thousand) humans into the mix and you tap explosions of variances. The National Guard medics accidentally injected the wrong vaccine into a couple of dozen subjects. The Brits shifted policy to allow different types of vaccine to be mixed, with those receiving the first one uncertain what type they'll receive for their second, all this done without testing whether these vaccines can be mixed, let alone determining whether that mix might actually induce immunity. The Brits did this to speed distribution, so they would not have to stockpile second doses, so that they could maximize the numbers of initial doses administered. There remain ten thousand and more ways to royally screw up this distribution, and an old adage insists that one simply must somehow manage to experience every damned one of those shortcomings in order to succeed. Avoiding most of them's out of the question, simply not possible.

Us, too, seem prey to the same guiding principles. It does not serve us well to over-focus upon the inevitable downsides. If my forebears could have accurately forecast their experiences crossing The Oregon Trail, few would have agreed to go there and the family would be short all those stories of forbearance and adventure. Such excursions utterly depend upon a requisite level of naivety. Self-delusion seems somehow key to every success, just as much as it contributes to every failure, too. There's simply nothing anyone can do to counter either the risks it injects or its eventual benefits. It's just the way it is. Naivety eventually turns into experience, but only ever by the oldest of old fashioned ways. The future seems to call us. We imagine our prior experience pursuing futures to be somehow relevant to this new context and only later learn how right and wrong we were. We will most certainly prove ourselves to have been both. The Muse takes down a light fixture our realtor insisted we replace to improve the appearance of the place, and she discovers a couple of gaping holes in the ceiling that old fixture tidily covered up. The replacement she'd already bought would cover neither of them, and, by the way, whomever installed that old fixture had not felt the need to install a junction box up there, either, so bare wires snake down with no grounding. Fixing those holes will require enlargening one of them and completing some wiring neither of us are qualified to do. Whatever else we're intending when Distributing anything, we're Distributing our own naive experience first.

©2021 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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