🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 11

July 15th, 2021

Episode 11 — July 15th, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/11

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.

“The present changes the past. Looking back you do not find what you left behind.”

— Kiran Desai

🦸🐓 The disappointing super-chicken

Even as kids, we learn that people change when in groups. As adults, we see the extent to which that is true: a group of extremely-organized individuals can easily become disorganized when put together. A group made up of well-meaning individuals can do harm.

This disconnect can be particularly insidious in team-building. Teams often bring together top performers. We think that, if one top performer can achieve more than average, a whole team of them will perform even better! Turns out this is almost guaranteed not to be the case.

This phenomenon is called the “Super-chicken model”: bringing together alphas can be counterproductive because competitiveness negatively impacts the group’s dynamics. In a study with chickens, the most prolific egg-producers were deemed “super chickens.” When placed together, though, overall egg productivity dropped… because many chickens had pecked each other to death.

When hiring for a team, optimizing for maximum aggregate productivity or drive for achievement can lead to the super-chicken problem. Instead, team building should focus on figuring out who you’ll need to enhance the social dynamics of a group. Sometimes, what you need for a team to thrive is a process lubricant, sometimes a bridge builder, sometimes a translator, sometimes a peacemaker, sometimes a pacemaker. Rarely do you need another alpha: alone they are likely powerful and high-achieving, but put too many together and they might turn out to generate more heat than light.

🛣️🚩 Signposts 

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

🚏🛩 United Airlines may buy 100 electric planes for short-haul flights

United Airlines’ in-house venture fund is investing in a startup that creates 19-seat electric airplanes, and the airline giant has agreed to buy 100 such planes if they meet specifications. United says the new planes should start flying on short trips by 2026. (The airplane enthusiast behind Wendover Productions has predicted that electric planes will “inevitably” take over short-distance flying due to their superior economics for such use cases.)

🚏🇫🇷 France’s planned restrictions on the unvaxed drew vaccination signups but also protests

The French government announced that people would need to start showing proof of vaccination to enter public places like restaurants and theaters and to ride long-distance trains and planes. Almost a million people immediately signed up to get their jabs. And while the new measures are highly popular in France, thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest the new rules.

🚏📎 YouTubers are making a living by making Microsoft Office tutorial videos

Several ex-Microsofties have been making YouTube videos that teach Microsoft Office’s billion-plus users how to become experts at Teams, Excel, PowerPoint, and other Office software. Some of these YouTubers have more subscribers than Microsoft’s official channels, and they’re even making more money than they did while working at MSFT. (One popular video: how to use Teams’s new Presenter View.)

🚏🧯 COVID-induced budget shortfalls have left California under-prepared for fire season

California’s governor pledged to have the state’s fire department do fire prevention work on over 90,000 acres of land, adding fuel breaks and using prescribed burns to reduce the risk and danger of wildfires. But the pandemic’s budget crunch led the governor to slash the fire department’s budget by $150 million, and as a result, just over 11,000 acres, or about 13% of the stated target, have gotten fire prevention treatment. As we at FLUX say: failures in one part of a system often cascade to cause even worse failures in other areas.

🚏🏆 Exchange-traded funds are having their best year on record, with $500B flowing in

2020 was the best year for ETFs in history, with $497 billion flowing into the low-cost, tax-efficient investing vehicles. But this year, ETFs have almost matched that mark in less than 7 months, pulling in $489 billion from the start of 2021 through this week. In other words, at this rate, 2021 will almost double the previous record for ETF investment.

🚏🐦 Twitter is sunsetting its story-like “Fleets” after less than a year

Just eight months after Twitter’s version of Instagram Stories (itself a version of Snapchat’s Stories) launched, it’s getting axed. Fleets initially drew interest because they represented one of Twitter’s first major product changes in years — so the feature’s shutdown could be read as either a failed, uninspired copycat move or as a sign of Twitter experimenting rapidly, showing off its “meta-strength” of being able to shut down unsuccessful experiments quickly.

🚏💸 Google searches for “Bitcoin price” hit a 7-month low

After rocketing to an all-time-high of $60,000 per coin in April, the price of Bitcoin has been “stagnating” in the $30-$40K range for the last few months. Accordingly, Google search volume for “Bitcoin price” has slumped to its lowest point since 2020. (Generally, Bitcoin search interest appears to decrease as the cryptocurrency’s volatility decreases.)

📖⏳ Worth your time

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

  • Everyone is an Investor (Digital Native) — Argues that Americans have come to believe that investing, rather than working 9-5, is the best way to build wealth. The article shows how this thesis explains the rise of WallStreetBets, crypto, social investing, and a new crop of startups that let creators and influencers “tokenize” themselves.

  • Conscious Leadership (Nancy Hua) — A veteran entrepreneur praises the power of self-awareness: being able to dive below the frenetic, surface-level motion of our lives to discover our unconscious needs, biases, and motivations.

  • The Clubhouse Party is Over (Vanity Fair) — Argues that the audio-based social network is a prime example of a technology that was well-suited for the age of quarantines but a poor fit for the new world of in-person get-togethers.

  • Copy-And-Paste Towns (Andrew Alexander Price) — An urbanist argues that cities should “farm” for many small businesses instead of “hunting” for a few big employers, then shows how a “farming” approach creates a more diverse, resilient, and vibrant city.

  • How Trees Made Us Human (The New Republic) — Examines how, even during the “Stone,” “Iron,” and “Bronze” Ages, wood was the biggest part of the human environment, and shows how profound the modern age’s move away from wood as a fuel and as a building material really was.

  • A Privacy War is Raging Inside the W3C (Protocol) — Digs into the heated debates over the definition of “privacy” that are playing out in the arcane standards bodies that oversee the Internet, and covers the points of view and proposals of the tech startups and big companies that are involved.

  • The High Cost of Land Use Restrictions (NBER) — Economists develop the concept of a “zoning tax,” which measures how much housing prices increase as a result of regulation artificially restricting housing density, and find that this “tax” can be 1 to 4 times the median household income in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York City. Charts begin on page 38.

📚🌲 Book for your shelf

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

This week, we recommend The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik (2016, 320 pages).

In The Gardener and the Carpenter, Alison Gopnik explores what child development can tell us about the role of caretakers in the lives of children. 

Common wisdom often treats children as projects to complete. Caretakers are goal-oriented carpenters building a well-defined project. However, if we look at how children learn and develop, we see that their development happens almost completely outside of the explicit activities that are supposed to make children “better.” A more fruitful metaphor is caretakers as gardeners. A gardener provides the environment for a plant to grow in. However, the gardener has to accept that each plant will grow according to its own individual makeup as well as many environmental factors beyond the gardener’s control.

In this book, we see that children learn most effectively through observation and conversation, not direct instruction. They imitate, but they do so thoughtfully, inferring goals and intentions and then adjusting based on their own inferences. Children learn best through play — and they are extremely sensitive to when play starts to feel required or feel like work. We learn that interacting with children is less about the specific content being imparted to them and more about helping them explore on their own. To enable this, we need to approach interactions with children as gardeners rather than as carpenters. 

🕵️‍♀️📆 Lens of the week

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

This week’s lens: Situation-Behavior-Impact.

Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) is a tool for structuring feedback (positive or negative). To use this model, you start by describing the situation: the specific details about what happened. Next, describe the behavior: what the person did. It’s critical to focus on the observable behavior, not on your assumptions about why the behavior happened. Finally, discuss the impact of that behavior in that situation. What was the consequence of their behavior? What did you think or feel? 

We can use this model for more than just feedback. Whenever we’re in a challenging situation, we can use SBI to separate out multiple factors that can often get conflated: context, behavior, our feelings, and the other person’s motivation. Instead of jumping straight to “that person who cut me off on the freeway is a jerk” you can break it down: “when I was driving on the freeway [situation] that person cut me off [behavior], and that made me angry [impact].” Breaking the situation down this way creates space to ask questions rather than to jump to conclusions. “Why might they have cut me off? Maybe it was something about their situation?” or “Why did it make me so angry to be cut off? Was it fear for my safety? Might I be overreacting?”

By taking the time to clearly define the situation, the behavior, and the impact, we can see challenging situations with greater clarity. That’s valuable whether we’re giving feedback or reflecting by ourselves.

🔮📬 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.

// In a world where people are bringing old power plants back online to mine Bitcoin, what will exploiters do with the leftover infrastructure from defunct tech companies?

2026 SF Department of Public Works Private Discord Server

<UrbanExp> Hey Mrs. Johnson, we’ve got a hit.

<MrsJ> Seriously? After the 3 busts last quarter, you’ve got another already?

<UrbanExp> Yeah, we’ve been running some new imagery analysis models. What’s the current bounty?

<MrsJ> Standard terms: 2k SFCoin for the site if verified, 30% of seized material sales, and 50% off your water bill for the next six months. What've you got?

<UrbanExp> Great. It’s an old tech space in SoMa. Looks like it was a coworking space in the aughts, and then converted to a FinTech in the late teens. After the Harris 2023 Act nationalized DeFi, the company silently moved offshore. Looks like the building got caught up in the commercial property crash of 2025. 

That left their server rooms as juicy targets. Plenty of power, well-insulated, and no foot traffic. Problem, of course, was the lack of water. Looks like they ripped out the HALON system and sold it. They took the existing piping and then set up a moisture farming system on the roof. It captures the SF fog and routes it through the building to the server rooms.

<MrsJ> Wow, farming the fog. That’s better than the last batch of exploiters who were siphoning from the earthquake cisterns.

<UrbanExp> Yeah, that’s how we busted them. Despite their attempt to camouflage the roof unit, it was clearly new in the past six months. Power records show the building is drawing more power than expected. So we got inside, and we’ve got imagery of the server room. And you’ll be happy that the fiber hookups are still live.

<MrsJ> I do love existing fiber, but we’ve been over this before. You aren’t allowed to break into buildings.

<UrbanExp> I know, I know! But fortunately the company that has the building in receivership *does* have a cleaning crew which is legally allowed to enter the building…

<MrsJ> Fine. Send me the imagery and location. We’ll send in a cleanup team and then install the upgrade. I’ll attach a bonus depending on how much water we can get from that roof system. [SecureLink]

<UrbanExp> Pleasure doing business with you.

// One month later

2026 SFGate.com blipvert

The Mayor’s office announced another bust today in a former tech space. The server racks held grow systems with 1,500 lb of Grade B cannabis. As per standing city policy, the space has been seized by the city and new PeopleNet nodes have been installed to help power the civic compute cloud available to all residents. Criminal and civil investigations are ongoing.