Friday, March 30, 2007

Brittle Strategies

"The wind does not break a tree that bends" - Sukuma proverb (Africa)

I remember one session near when I first began the practice of Aikido. The attack was shomen uchi, an overhand strike to the head. The response was ikkyo, which translates to “technique number one,” where you control the elbow of your attacker, deflecting his strike into a circular motion that either breaks his balance backwards (the omote form), or opens a hole into which he spirals for a fall (ura form).

My partner and I were both young and strong and cranked on adrenaline. There is a tendency in those circumstances to block the strike straight on, taking the force of it onto your forearm, even directly onto the boney part. The adrenaline shields you from the pain. It all feels so tough and manly.

The next day, of course, both my arms were black and blue, from the striking edge of my hand up nearly to the elbow. Even so, we were lucky. Either of us could have broken a bone in our hands or arms. It happens.

Needless to say, I don’t train like that these days.

I’m not sure when I first began using the phrase “brittle strategy,” or even the circumstances. It was probably about politics, but it might have been about a business practice, or a legal maneuver, or even about war or the martial arts. There are brittle strategies in almost every endeavor.

It’s an evocative phrase; others have also used it. Google tells me that there are 27 instances (then proceeds to show 42; is something up with Google?). One of those instances is me (will this essay make two, I wonder?)

It’s obvious what "brittle strategy" means: a strategy that breaks rather than compromising. In metallurgy, brittleness means stiffness without the ability to deform, to absorb shocks.

In a brittle strategy, there is no Plan B.

The things we think of as most brittle often present a hard face to the world, but they contain inner stresses. If you drip molten globs of glass into water, you may get “Prince Rupert’s Drops,” teardrop shaped bits of glass that will withstand a hammer blow on the head, but mere finger pressure on the tail will cause it to explode into powder.

Our culture is permeated with tough guy talk and words that attempt to convey strength and power. More powerful than a locomotive. It’s the strongest relief you can buy without a prescription. Ram tough. Super-strong. Empowered. Rugged, with the power you need to get the job done. Shock and awe.

Failure is not an option. It is an outcome.


JP Stormcrow said...

Do not know if this comes under the title of "brittle strategy", but an observation of mine is that most "digital" solutions are generally much more brittle than analog ones, even if they are ovewrall more reliable. Many computer systems get screwed up if only a few bits out of millions are wrong - I consider this the essence of brittleness. Although progress is being made (there are Error correcting codes in memory, Disk striping etc.) there is a long way to go.

I attribute this to the fact that analog systems are in fact generally quite redundant at the 'bit" level - there are a lot of atoms/molecules/other basic units operating in parallel - while the digital stuff tends to be more single-threaded.

James Killus said...

It may also simply be due to the added complexity of digital technology; it came later, so it's more complex.

The exampel that comes to mind is the difference between fuel injectors and carburetors in engines. There are "analog" methods of controling fuel injection, but they're still more complex than carburetors, more prone to breakdown, and a lot harder to fix. Computerized fuel injection is both more effective than carburetion, and more reliable than computerized methods.

So generally speaking, the more moving parts to a artifical device, the more unreliable, which is an interesting contrast to natural systems, where larger systems tend to be more stable; a large lake is less vulnerable to catastrophic events than a small pond.