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Cameron and Tracey Hughes

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

What is the Tribble Effect?

July 26, 2010

The original Star Trek episode 'Trouble with Tribbles' was not exactly my favorite episode. Far from it as a matter of fact. But now it has revitalized itself for me because 'the trouble' in this episode describes a very fascinating situation.If you don't recall the episode or if you are not a fan of the original Star Trek, here is the summary:

The U.S.S. Enterprise receives an order to protect a shipment of quadrotriticale grain that is stored on a space station. Quadrotriticale grain is to be transported to Sherman's planet that is currently struck with a famine. At the same time the Klingons (enemies of the Federation) are taking shore leave on that same space station. The Federation Undersecretary for Agriculture believes the Klingons may try to steal the grain.

A space trader, Cyrano Jones, gives Uhura (Enterprise's communication officer) a purring ball of fluff known as a tribble. Tribbles are born pregnant and the more they eat the more they multiply. They inevitably get into the storage compartment and eat all of the grain. But what they soon discover is the bins that were once full of the quadrotriticale grain are now full of dead tribbles. McCoy (ship's doctor) determines that the grain was impregnated with a virus that builds up inert matter in the bloodstream. The more grain the tribble ate the more inert matter built up. Eventually the tribble while gorging on the grain fails to ingest enough nourishment. So the fascinating situation as described by Captain Kirk is:

In a storage compartment full of grain, they starved to death.

The tribbles were consuming what they needed to survive but instead of surviving, they died. You are expecting one result (the survival of the tribbles) and the conditions to produce that result is present (access to the grain) but the opposite is what is produced (death of the tribbles). This is what I call the Tribble Effect:

A state in which the conditions for a desired result is present but the opposite is produced.

In a previous blog 'How many threads are enough' we referred to the adage, 'you can never have enough processors' as not being true. The question being how many processes, tasks, or threads should a program be divided into? At what point does adding more threads, processors or computers to the computation pool slow things down instead of speeding them up? Is there an optimal number of processors for any given parallel program? Once you keep adding threads or utilizing more processors and performance starts to decline, at that point you have reached the Tribble Effect.

We see the Tribble Effect in other situations as well. Consider this, we have access to more information than at any point in our history. Yet, in seems to be the case as Cameron and I see it, some pockets of the public are less informed than ever. Is this the Tribble Effect in action? Do you see other cases of the Tribble Effect?

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