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Sorting is hard

According to a front page story by Kirk Johnson in the NY Times, the Denver airport is giving up on its dream of automatically sorting and mangling, um, managing luggage.

Why the front page? Apparently because the story illuminates some important themes. Even before Johnson gets to the appealing Rube Goldberg elements of the system, he points to a more difficult and more significant problem: Complex, centrally managed systems don’t work so well:

Back then, the big-brained mainframe doing it all from command central was the model of high tech. Today the very idea of it sounds like a cold-war-era relic, engineers say. Decentralization and mobile computing technology have taken over just about everything, allowing airlines, warehouse operators and shippers like FedEx to learn with just a few clicks the whereabouts of an item in motion, a feature that was supposed to be a chief strength of the baggage system.

Workers with hand-held scanners, checking baggage bar codes at every juncture of transit, will give managers far better information and control than could have been imagined when the automated system was designed, officials at United said.

The article also emphasizes the economics: The airline industry is no longer interested in “frills” like returning your luggage to you quickly.

Then there’s the hubris angle:

Professor de Neufville said the builders had imagined that their creation would work well even at the busiest boundaries of its capacity. That left no room for the errors and inefficiencies that are inevitable in a complex enterprise.

Apparently, the programmed baggage carts couldn’t handle sharp corners.

That aside, the Denver system was a total success.

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