🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 03

Episode 03 — May 20th, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/03

We’re a ragtag band of systems thinkers who have been dedicating our early mornings to finding new lenses to help you make sense of the complex world we live in. This newsletter is a collection of patterns we’ve noticed in recent weeks.

“Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in ‘leverage points.’ These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.”

— Donella Meadows

♾️🔭 How to learn infinity

Children become experts at a language, able to utter an infinite range of sentences, despite only hearing a finite number of sentences from their parents and community. It seems that children aren’t just memorizing the sentences they hear; they’re unconsciously learning the underlying first principles and then applying them to construct and understand any possible sentence.

The same dynamic shows up in complex adaptive systems where a finite set of rules governs an infinite set of possibilities. In such systems, we can’t try to memorize every single outcome — the only way to keep up is to try to discern the underlying rules. Discerning rules tends to feel both easy and impossible. We pick out the rough shape of the rules pretty quickly… yet frustrating outliers continue to inform us that we haven’t quite captured them yet. 

For instance, self-driving cars keep crashing despite getting billions of hours of training. In contrast, human drivers seem to not need this voluminous training time. Somehow, we humans know that we should steer clear of trucks, assume children might run into the road unpredictably, and slow down in rainy weather. One possible answer here is that the driving experience is more than just controlling the car and includes a lot more dimensions, like participating in societies, having a conscience, and worrying. If we limit our trainee’s capacity to learn those seemingly unrelated skills, no amount of hours will help them discern the rules.

As the complexity of the surrounding environment inevitably increases, we might find ourselves struggling to hold on to the underlying rules. When in this situation, remember the hapless self-driving car on its billionth hour of training and consider: are you at the point where memorizing the right response to each and every situation will no longer yield an effective result? What are the dimensions of the environment that you might not be seeing? What might help you get a glimpse of them?

🛣️🚩 Signposts 

Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.

🚏🎰 Ohio’s $1 million vaccine lottery has been a smashing success

Last week we explored how the Buckeye State was offering $1 million to five randomly-chosen Ohio adults who got a COVID-19 vaccine. So far it’s been a success: vaccination rates for Ohioans between ages 30 and 74 jumped 6% after weeks of decline, and last Friday marked the most vaccinations in a single day in Ohio in the last three weeks.

🚏🤑 Billionaires have more than doubled their wealth since the pandemic started

The ultra-wealthy have been major beneficiaries of the past year’s COVID-driven stock market boom: worldwide, billionaires grew their collective wealth from $5 trillion to $13 trillion. Russia, Sweden, India, the US, China, and Brazil saw especially sharp jumps in billionaire wealth.

🚏🚙 In the suburbs, afternoons are the new rush hour

The rise of work-from-home has meant that morning traffic is still below pre-pandemic levels. Instead, the increase in midday shopping trips, delivery vans, errands, and child pickup has pushed suburban traffic toward the afternoon. Roads are now more congested on weekday afternoons than they were pre-pandemic in 40 of the US’s 100 biggest metro areas.

🚏🛰 Deepfake satellite imagery is worrying geographers

Militaries, policy makers, and the media rely heavily on satellite imagery to inform their strategies and confirm news reports. But geographers are warning that generative adversarial networks (GANs) can create convincing yet fake satellite imagery — and it’s even easier than creating fake human faces.

🚏☕️ One restaurant is using Figma for its digital menus

Instead of the usual practice of using PDFs to post digital menus online, one cafe is putting its digital menu on the collaborative design app Figma. The advantage over PDFs is that the Figma file can be changed in real-time as items sell out. One commenter said it’s the first time he’s seen Figma being used as “an endpoint instead of a design and prototyping tool.”

🚏🏪 DoorDash is opening a giant brick-and-mortar convenience store

The food delivery firm is opening a “DashMart” — a hybrid convenience store, grocery store, and drugstore — in a huge building it purchased in downtown San Jose. Customers can walk in and buy items like frozen pizzas, fresh fruit, allergy medications, and dish soap, or get them delivered through the app.

🚏🔋 Batteries are powering a not-so-green “lithium rush” 

The rise of electric cars is causing the market for lithium, which powers rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, to skyrocket: analysts estimate that lithium demand will grow 10x this decade. Environmentalists are worried, because lithium mining is known to contaminate groundwater with arsenic and antimony, discharge sulfuric acid, and create mildly radioactive waste.

🚏🎴 Collectible trading cards are having a moment

Step aside, NFTs: a rare Pokemon trading card sold for $400,000 in auction, and a Michael Jordan rookie basketball card sold for over $700,000. The mania got so hot that shoppers started fighting over cards; Target had to temporarily stop selling Pokemon, football, baseball, and basketball cards in its stores as a result.

📖⏳ Worth your time

Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.

📚🌲 Book for your shelf

An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.

This week, we recommend The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander (1975, 552 pages).

In The Timeless Way of Building, Alexander’s poetic yet pragmatic writing contains many lessons for working within complex systems. On the surface, this book is about how to develop pattern languages for building physical places. However, what you take away from this book is the deeper sense of what it means for a system to be alive, whole, comfortable, free, exact, egoless, eternal — for it to have the quality without a name.

The quality without a name is that deeply felt — yet hard to describe — sense of rightness that things sometimes have. It’s a balance between repetition and variety: repetition because the forces acting on a system are themselves repeated, and variety because those forces are never quite the same. Pattern languages help us to achieve this balance and this wholeness. 

One of our favorite quotes from the book:

“The specific patterns out of which a building or a town is made may be alive or dead. To the extent they are alive, they let our inner forces loose, and set us free; but when they are dead, they keep us locked in inner conflict.”

🕵️‍♀️📆 Lens of the week

Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.

This week’s lens: The Hollow Face Effect.

Our brains process a lot of information. We need to quickly determine what’s important without losing the context provided by less important information. Our brains accomplish this by quickly matching incoming information to a pre-existing schema just well enough to categorize it.

Some schemas are so deeply hardwired into our brains that we can be easily fooled. Human faces are one example where our brains fall back to common schema overly readily. Even when shown a concave form, if something resembles a human face we will perceive it as convex — because human faces are convex. This is known as the hollow face effect.

Schemas are important. Without them, we would quickly be overwhelmed. Yet, sometimes what we see — a convex face — is actually the opposite of what is there: a concave one. How else might our brains deceive us in daily life? Where are we missing crucial information because our brains are filling in the gaps with defaults?

🔮📬 Postcard from the future

A short ‘what if’ piece of speculative fiction about a hypothetical future that could result from the forces changing our world.

// Ad in Wired Magazine’s May 20th, 2028 print edition

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