🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 12

July 22nd, 2021

Episode 12 — July 22nd, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/12

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.

“Don't bend; don't water it down; don't try to make it logical; don't edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.”

— Franz Kafka

⛈️⛵ Teaming through the storm

You’re part of a new team. Everyone seems to be getting along well — when, all of a sudden, it seems like there is conflict everywhere. What happened to your nice, happy team? 

Bruce Tuckman proposed that all teams go through a sequence of phases: forming, storming, norming, and performing. Even with the same set of people, the team dynamics change at each stage.

In the forming phase, people get to know each other and their goals. Team members tend to be polite yet independent. Forming occurs even when people already know each other: in a new context with new goals, they have to get to know each other from a new angle.

Eventually, the inevitable storming phase arrives. The conflicts that were latent in the ‘forming’ stage start to surface. Many teams fail here. The obvious failure mode is when a team fails to resolve their conflicts and falls apart before they even get started. The more subtle failures come when conflicts are buried, only to resurface at critical points and sabotage the work. At this stage, leaders may be tempted to force conflicts to apparent resolution — without really solving the underlying problems.

Should the team emerge from the ‘storming’ phase, it enters the norming phase. The team members start to accept each other, establish shared language, and converge on shared practices and  and processes. Teams at this stage get along well. Leaders should be on the lookout for teams that are getting along too well — sometimes at this stage, teams can be reluctant to bring up problems for fear of revisiting the ‘storming’ stage. 

Finally, at the performing phase, the team is focused on excelling at the work to be done rather than at the establishment of the team. Team members are able to raise issues, often resolving them internally. 

Should their context or composition change, teams tend to traverse the phases over again. In an especially fluid environment, the storming phase might occur several times, creating an added sense of turbulence. This leads to the key insight behind the Tuckman’s model: to reach a state of high effectiveness, the team has to go through an uncomfortable state that will temporarily make them feel worse off than where they started. The model bets that an uncomfortable, explicit conflict that gets resolved is better than a comfortable, implicit conflict that never gets resolved.

When you look at teams you work with, try to understand what phase they are at. For teams that are not yet performing, how can you help them move forward? Maybe this involves helping them learn how to resolve conflicts… or maybe it involves helping them stir up some conflict.

🛣️🚩 Signposts 

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

🚏🇨🇳 Seeking job security, Chinese grads are flocking to state-owned businesses

Thanks to the pandemic, many college graduates in China are worried about job security. As a result, many are seeking jobs in the presumably more stable public sector: 43% of grads want to work for state-owned businesses (up from 36% last year), versus just 19% who want to join the private sector (down from 25% last year). One and a half million people also took the civil service entry exam, competing for just over 25,000 jobs.

🚏🏍 The Sturgis motorcycle rally is returning to South Dakota in August

The small town’s annual celebration regularly brings half a million bikers to South Dakota from all corners of the US. Last year’s maskless rally was a COVID-19 superspreader event, and, amid the shadow of the Delta variant, Sturgis organizers are predicting that this year’s rally, which begins on August 6th, will be even bigger than 2019’s.

🚏🕹 Tencent is using facial recognition to stop kids from gaming past bedtime

The Chinese government has been enacting regulations to curb video-game addiction, but kids have found ways around most restrictions, like sidestepping parental controls by using their parents’ accounts. So the Chinese firm Tencent, which makes mobile games in addition to WeChat, has introduced a clever new mechanic: using facial recognition to figure out who’s playing, looking up their age, and banning them from playing between 10pm and 8am if they’re under 18.

🚏🏟️ Medical experts are butting heads over the Olympics during a COVID-19 surge

COVID-19 is rapidly spreading through the Olympic Village in Tokyo, and as a result many experts in the Japanese medical community are calling for the games to be cancelled. But the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has said that he still supports the Tokyo Games, saying that it’s impossible to expect zero cases of the virus. (The WHO has, in the past, drawn accusations of conflicts of interest due to its close relationship with the International Olympics Committee, which stands to profit from the Games.)

🚏🇮🇸 Iceland’s successful four-day-workweek experiment is expanding

From 2015 to 2019, several thousand Icelanders working across a range of industries took part in an experiment to work four days a week (totaling 35 or 36 hours of work) while keeping the same pay. Researchers have now found that the experiment was a huge success, with worker well-being and productivity both improving. Over 80% of Iceland’s workforce will be able to move to a four-day workweek, the researchers say.

🚏🍓 Crypto miners are using their rigs to heat homes and greenhouses

Mining for cryptocurrencies, besides guzzling a lot of electricity, generates a lot of waste heat. So, many miners in colder climates are using their heat-spewing mining computers to warm their homes and businesses. One farm in Quebec put mining rigs in its greenhouses, using the mined coins to offset electricity costs and the excess heat to keep the buildings warm enough to grow strawberries in the middle of winter.

🚏📦 Amazon is adding two new leadership principles as its reputation keeps suffering

Amidst increasing regulatory scrutiny and mounting anger from the public, Amazon is adding two new “leadership principles,” its famed slogans that Amazon says guide company culture and hiring processes. While the 14 existing principles show a hard-charging, growth-at-all-costs mindset, the new ones strike a very different tone: “Strive to be Earth’s Best Employer” and “Success and Scale Bring Broad Responsibility.”

📖⏳ Worth your time

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

  • On the Same Wavelength (Aeon) — Investigates infant development to argue that what makes humans unique isn’t some innate faculty for reason but rather a desire to share our feelings and synchronize our emotional states with each other.

  • What Do Animals Think? (The Week) — A moving tale of how the “alpha male” of a Yellowstone wolf pack was not a brutal warrior but rather a nurturing father, a merciful fighter, and a kind and effective leader.

  • Is it ‘Deduction’ or ‘Induction’, My Dear Watson? (Iowa State University) — Describes the differences between deductive and inductive reasoning, uses Sherlock Holmes’ methods as a case study, and puzzles out why the two approaches’ popularities have waxed and waned over time.

  • How Parking Destroys Cities (The Atlantic) — An urban planning professor argues that American cities, by bending over backward to be more car-friendly, became more hostile to everyone else and undermined the things that made cities desirable in the first place.

  • If You’re So Smart, Then Why Do You Feel So Behind At Life? (Pamela Hobart) — Examines why so many motivated people have a vague yet unshakeable feeling of being “behind,” then offers some advice for making this feeling actionable and non-judgmental. 

  • How WhatsApp Ate Facebook (Startups and Econ) — Shows how Facebook’s popularity is waning because it forces people to collapse their many identities into one, why people are instead migrating to small chat groups, and what dangers this trend may pose to the future of democracy.

  • Stumble-Proof Robot Adapts to Challenging Terrain in Real Time (TechCrunch) — Details how a team working on robotic locomotion taught a walking robot how to improvise: instead of memorizing endless facts about different types of terrain, it monitors feedback from its sensors and adapts its approach on the fly.

📚🌲 Book for your shelf

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

This week, we recommend The (Mis)Behavior of Markets by Benoit Mandelbrot (2007, 335 pages). Yes, that Mandelbrot — the fractals one. 

For nearly a century, the financial world used a model that was, to quote (maybe) H. L. Mencken, “simple, neat — and wrong.” The assumption was that market prices change in independent, often normally-distributed, ways. These models claimed that major crashes should only happen once every few thousand years, and yet these crashes happened every 15 to 20 years. Think of market panics you’ve seen or read about: do you think one person selling during a crash is independent from someone else selling?

Mandelbrot is well known for the visually beautiful fractals derived from his work. But fractals are the general concept of self-similar, repeating, generative patterns that recur on progressively smaller scales. Mandelbrot shows how this fractal model of reality doesn’t just better describe natural things like clouds, crystals, and rivers: it also better describes the financial markets.

In The Misbehavior of Markets, Mandelbrot uses fractal geometry to suggest a better explanation of how prices move in markets: chaotic, self-similar, and repeating. Mandelbrot describes the volatile, surprising behavior that most financial experts missed. He builds a complex view of market behavior to replace the merely complicated view.

🕵️‍♀️📆 Lens of the week

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

This week’s lens: Explore vs. Exploit.

You know what you like. You have favorite foods, favorite music, favorite books. You know what you’re good at. You can quickly and effectively make progress in the realms of your well-honed skills. However, there may be something right around the corner that would provide wonderful new ground for you to explore. Do you stay here, or do you go there? This is the classic “exploit vs. explore" dynamic (also known as hill climbing vs. hill finding). 

Exploiting, or hill climbing, focuses on getting more value where you already are. Unlike the common usage of the term, “exploiting” is not necessarily harmful. Rather, it is continuing to push in a direction that has been successful in the past. 

Exploring, or hill finding, occurs when you strike out into the unknown — or at least the less known. It’s an opportunity to find new growth areas. One challenge is that you often don’t know which directions are fruitful. It can take some amount of investment to even know that there is a hill worth climbing in the first place. However, when you do find a new hill, it can be an exhilarating, or even life changing, experience!

When do we explore? When do we exploit? It comes down to the specific context, but some things to consider include:

  • How expensive is exploration? In some domains, exploration can be as easy as ordering something different from the menu. In others, there’s a lot of upfront investment. We should be making low expense explorations frequently. 

  • How much value are you getting out of your current hill? Are you still getting value by exploiting? Think about value holistically: not just financial value, but also value that comes from your personal values and emotions. 

  • What excites you? Sometimes, there’s still plenty of value in the current hill, but you still feel the call to go into the unknown. When you feel that passion, follow the call!

🔮📬 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.

// The late 1990s’ overinvestment in network infrastructure led to a glut of fiber-optic cable after the 2000 dot.com crash. This excess bandwidth capacity allowed the next wave of companies (Google, Amazon, et al.) to deliver new sophisticated internet services on the cheap. When 2048’s history books look back, what infrastructure from today will we realize has transformed society?

As the 2020s progressed, climate change put increasing stress on existing infrastructure. Deadly floods in the EU. Overwhelmed power grids in Texas. Hydroelectric facilities with no water to generate power. There were so many problems with power generation in the 2020s that the decade became known as the “brownout” decade. 

The same decade saw the creation of a surfeit of infrastructure. Some of it had the seeds of its destruction built in from day one. Cryptocurrencies ran into the wall of government regulation after the Chinese Bitcoin ban of 2025. Huge numbers of GPUs were manufactured for cryptocurrency mining, but because of the high loads put on them, most cards were at end-of-life by the time they became available for other uses. Satellite internet became harder to deploy as it ran into the debris which had been strewn in the upper atmosphere from the billionaire vanity space race. But not all of the infrastructure of the era was without value.

As centralized power generation and distribution infrastructure sputtered and failed, people started looking for their own solutions. This led to an explosion of community and personal power grid investment. The large number of people who worked or studied from home needed reliable power and internet. As a result of the huge demand, solar roof tiles went from a specialized piece of hardware to a commercial product available at Lowe’s and Home Depot in several colors and sizes. House-based electrical storage systems became the norm by 2028. Some states mandated that all new construction have local power storage.

With these infrastructure elements in place, a number of things previously impossible to imagine happened rapidly in the 2030s. A tipping point was reached. Electric vehicles were far easier to own when most residences had the infrastructure to charge them. Local power generation resulted in fewer forest fires started by old, unmaintained transmission lines. 

The changes were not all positive, though. Local power generation reduced demand at centralized power facilities. Without the centralized demand from those plants, shipping fossil fuels across countries to generate power became economically unviable. The drop in economic activity in coal- and oil-generating regions sparked several small-scale military conflicts, leading to the destabilization that defined the 2040s. Ironically, these conflicts have been able to sustain themselves because of the insurgents’ access to decentralized power generation.