Discover more from 🌀🗞 The FLUX Review
🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 106
June 29th, 2023
Episode 106 — June 29th, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/106
Contributors to this issue: Ben Mathes, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Neel Mehta, Dimitri Glazkov, Boris Smus, Ade Oshineye, Justin Quimby
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi,, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman, Julka Almquist, Scott Schaffter, Lisie Lillianfeld, Samuel Arbesman, Dart Lindsley, Jon Lebensold
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.
“Maya breaks rules, and I think people celebrate that and get really excited, until she breaks one of theirs.”
— Steve Loveridge
🔀💼 In defense of reorgs
Corporate reorganizations can be painful. Roles, responsibilities, and reporting lines churn. People experience confusion, uncertainty, and a sense of instability. When reorgs occur too frequently and without a clear purpose, the constant change can disrupt workflows, hinder productivity, and reduce morale.
Why have reorgs at all? Here’s the key: they’re all about creating polities that align positive and negative incentives with the right set of stakeholders.
Wait, what now? Let’s break that down a bit. A polity, in this context, refers to a group or body that shares common interests or goals. When a polity encompasses all the pluses and minuses of a situation, they can balance trade-offs more effectively. If not, trade-offs will be made on faulty grounds.
In an organizational setting, if your team reaps all of the positives of a new product, while another team bears all of the negatives, then your team is unlikely to make decisions that best reduce the negatives. It can lead to significant friction and a sense of unfairness.
Org charts are orderly trees, but in real life, polities are not a strict hierarchy. As Christopher Alexander explores in “A City Is Not a Tree,” we exist within overlapping polities: our neighborhood, our zip code, our water region, our public transit region, our city, our state, our country. Even within an organization, the hierarchical org structure only reflects some of the polities that exist. We belong to organizational polities based on role, geographic location, collaboration, social connection, and more. Whether in the workplace or normal life, polities work best when they encompass the lived, real, effective costs and benefits of a natural group or region, like the entire SF Bay Area, Greater Los Angeles, or Greater London.
Many problems of governance arise when official polities (like city and state governments) do not map to the effective polities that underlie them. For example, regionally effective polities generally constitute all the people living, working, commuting and communing together. Many super-regions, like the SF Bay Area and Greater London, are single effective polities. There may or may not be a corresponding official polity. There’s no unified SF Bay Area government, but there is a Greater London Authority.
The housing crisis in California illustrates what happens when official polities and effective polities are misaligned. Many individual cities make the region’s housing needs worse by focusing on policies that preserve the status quo in their slice of the world. They can push the problem elsewhere because there are no regional governments to adjudicate. The state of California is the next encompassing polity. Laws passed at the state level have started to have regional impact because a more appropriate polity is working on the problem. As in this example, aligning effective and official polities is a critical tool for ensuring fair and effective governance.
It’s not that bigger is always better, though. It may well be that there could be a more effective polity between the rather large state of California and individual cities. Too big and too small have different failure modes. A polity that is too large will lose sensitivity to the nuances of local needs. They internalize the costs, but the costs may be too small for them to care about. A polity that is too small will lose track of the bigger picture. They can make things worse overall because they externalize the cost.
Reorgs, at their heart, are about getting the right group of people together: the people who bear the benefits and costs of their collective decisions. They can align effective and official polities, thus lining up everyone’s incentives and promoting fairer governance. When reorgs are done for this purpose, they can be a positive change. When they are done for other reasons, they are at best an unnecessary churn.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🇨🇦 Canada is opening its doors to H-1B holders to snag American tech talent
The US’s H-1B visa program is a popular way for foreign technology professionals (especially those from India) to come stateside, but it has a strict rule that anyone who loses or quits their job needs to get a new one in 90 days or leave the country. This has proven problematic during the recent seasons of tech layoffs, so the Canadian government spotted an opening. Canadian immigration is letting 10,000 H-1B holders move up north, even if they don’t have a job waiting for them. The move is low-risk for Canada, since the US will have already vetted all these H-1B holders.
🚏⛽️ A new battery-swap technique for EVs is as fast as filling up a gas tank
The idea of swapping out a depleted EV battery for a fresh one has been around for a while, but over the past decade, most electric car companies have focused instead on speedy charging stations. However, even fast charging still takes a while. As an alternative, one startup has launched a battery swap station that can replace a car’s battery in just about five minutes. The company currently runs a dozen swapping stations in San Francisco and plans to expand to Spain and Japan this year.
🚏💵 Australia will phase out checks by 2030
Checks have been on the decline in Australia thanks to digital payments; they now account for just 0.2% of payments in that country. They’re also expensive: each check costs 4 Australian dollars to process, and many banks charge substantial fees for using checks. As a result, the Aussie government announced that it is moving to phase out checks by “no later than 2030.”
🚏🗿 An abandoned crypto project was hacked for $1.1 million
The team behind the decentralized finance (DeFi) platform Atlantis stopped working on the project in April, but because smart contracts run without human intervention, the decentralized app has kept on going. Its democratic governance structure is still in place, and one attacker exploited it by publishing (and passing) a proposal that’d let them hijack a hefty chunk of customer funds still sitting in the protocol. They made off with about $1.1 million in crypto.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Why Vladimir Putin’s Luck Ran Out (Journal of Democracy) — Michael McFaul argues that Putin’s rise to power was a lucky break, as he was “plucked from obscurity” in 1999 to become president. He also gained popularity quickly by riding the wave of increasing oil and gas prices (and thus economic growth) in the early 2000s. But his success led him to destroy counterbalancing political institutions and stop listening to his advisors, thus enabling his disastrous decision to invade Ukraine in 2022.
Here’s How We Could Begin Decoding an Alien Message Using Math (Science News) — Examines how we could make sense of alien transmissions similar to the famous Arecibo message that Earthlings beamed out in 1974. The technique tries many possible configurations of an incoming string and measures their entropy, as calculated by how much a compression algorithm can crunch them down. Configurations with less global and local entropy and more likely to be the “correct” interpretations.
The Terrapunk Manifesto (Nasjaq) — Takes a critical look at the solarpunk movement, which the author argues is fundamentally about stagnation promoted as harmony. Terrapunk (from “terraforming”) is a more progress-centric bouquet of beliefs, with an emphasis on human ingenuity, nuclear energy, and a multi-planetary future.
America’s Hidden Urban Laboratory: The South (Devon Zuegel) — Writes that, while the American South is often criticized for sprawling cities and poor land use, there’s been a surge of walkable “New Urbanist” towns and neighborhoods in places like South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. The town of Seaside, FL started the trend, and it seems to be slowly diffusing out to nearby areas as real estate developers realize that this model can work.
🔍🎮 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: NPCs and Live Players.
We’ve seen people online using the phrase “NPC” (non-player character) to describe people they see as not making their own decisions. To be called an NPC is to be seen as robotically parroting ideas and going through the motions. In contrast, a “live player” is seen as good. A live player goes through the world. They break rules. They make things happen. They demonstrate free will and agency.
But what if we move away from the good-versus-bad value judgment? Instead, we can see these two stances as different risk profiles we take on when deciding where to invest our efforts. An NPC is someone who has decided that, in this particular arena, the standard answer is good enough. A live player is someone who has decided that, in this arena, they are willing to try to change things up. It is not that someone is inherently an NPC or live player. Rather, it is a role they’ve decided to play based on their risk tolerance in a particular circumstance.
Suppose you’re conforming along some dimension — say, what you cook and eat at home. You aren’t going off and inventing a new way to live. Maybe that’s smart. Doing new things has risks! You might be wrong. And maybe you’ve got other things going on, like a very risky job. Spending time and effort and risk on what you cook at home isn’t worth it.
Another nuance is that being a live player isn’t always a good thing. Some people lauded as “live players” are chaotic evil. A leader of a country that invades a neighboring one is arguably a live player but not always worthy of admiration. And being a live player in every domain of your life takes a lot of energy; it’s probably not sustainable. For example, while you could pilot your own jet to your holiday destination, it’s probably better to sit back and let someone else fly the plane.
When we look at NPC vs. live player as a risk profile rather than as an inherent trait, we start to see how the tradeoff is situational. Some individuals may be able to afford more risk. An heir to a hefty fortune can fall back on family wealth and keep trying risky things. Someone living in poverty may not be able to risk starting a company when they have children to feed.
In this view, it’s not definitively “good” to be a live player or “bad” to be an NPC. The live player is willing and able to take risks. The NPC is forgoing risk and trusting the evolved answer from the thousands that came before them. We can choose where to invest our energy and where to rely on the status quo. And that’s a good thing!
🔮📬 Postcard from the future
A ‘what if’ piece of speculative fiction about a possible future that could result from the systemic forces changing our world.
// How might Long Covid and Sriracha shortages intersect?
// June 29th, 2030. The Bloomberg Channel.
A host in a suit flashes a well-rehearsed smile. “Welcome back to Bloomberg Quicktakes. I have the pleasure of introducing America’s newest billionaire under 30: Gabriela Moore, CEO and founder of Spice Unleashed. You just hit the three comma club due to the explosive growth of your company, which manufactures and sells supercharged hot sauces and spices, over the last five years. How did you do it?”
Moore beams. “Thanks for having me. It’s been a crazy ride. I had lost my job in 2023 and was casting about for what I wanted to do. Then three things happened in relatively rapid succession. First, the second year of the Sriracha shortage hit. It got so bad that my roommates and I were hoarding packets from delivery companies and experimenting with making our own hot sauces. Second, I went on a ‘Hot Ones’ binge, where I watched celebrities eating stupidly spicy hot sauce for promotion. Third, I read the 2023 CDC stat that 1 in 13 adults in the US had ‘Long Covid’ symptoms. One of those symptoms is a loss of taste or smell. It made the rounds in 2022 when people were leaving 1 star reviews to complain about their scented candles ‘not having any smell.’
“That’s when it hit me. A sizable percentage of Americans were going to have a permanently reduced ability to taste spicy food. But people were still going to long for the heat and the burn! So I started Spice Unleashed as a way to sell super-powered versions of common spices to Americans.
“Of course, there are some major players in the spice business, who were and are formidable competition. Rather than compete head-on, we went for a portfolio approach. We crafted new brands for specific target markets. ‘Make America Spicy Again’ for the MAGA crowd. ‘Blue Planet, Red Tongue’ for folks worried about water conservation and climate change. We threw together generative AI systems that created marketing copy, logos, labels, and websites for each niche market we went after. At the peak we had over 500 brands going, all selling the same 7 varieties under different names. And by selling online with no retail presence, we could move much more nimbly than ‘Big Spice.’
“While we had great packaging, we did need the product. Fortunately for us, the legalized cannabis industry in California had just crashed, leaving a lot of grow facilities empty and farmers out of work. We took the chilies and other plants we had been growing for ourselves and got them tuned up for rapid growth in former grow facilities. We were off to the races, which led to me sitting here with you today.”
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