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The problem of optimization and scale

They are converting a modern office building into condos a few blocks down from my apartment, and by the looks of it they may as well have torn everything down and built it anew. I hope they will do that will all the brutalist federal garbage downtown, the FBI building first. Meanwhile, the late 19th-early 20th century townhouses scattered around DC have been switching seamlessly from commercial to residential and back for a hundred years now for little to no cost.

Optimization and scale: they work great, until they don’t. Just ask a salaried physician working for a conglomerate in the medical-industial complex, a large-scale operation which is being optimized to death (sadly not its own, but that of its component parts — patients and health care workers alike). All those large reptiles and mammals are extinct for a reason.

We discussed the problem of scale at the first RWRI I attended back in August 2020, the Beirut explosion still fresh in everyone’s mind. Less than a year later, a big ship blocked the Suez channel, as if to reinforce the message. I expect Nassim Taleb’s next book will have a chapter or three on the problem, even if “scale” doesn’t make it into the title.

What goes for biology, architecture, and logistics also goes for industry, and if there is one hyper-optimized massive-scale operation around, it’s Apple’s iPhone production. If and when its production chain comes toppling down, it will not be a black or a gray swan event, it will be snow-white, which is why I suspect (or, as an iPhone user, hope) they have contingencies.

And in practicing what I preach, I have slowly been transitioning away from GTD levels of hyper-productivity and into a 40,000 weeks mindset. Whether this is a sign of wisdom, experience, or just plain old age, well, who is to say? Why not all three?

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