🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 121
October 12th, 2023
Episode 121 — October 12th, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/121
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Ben Mathes, Ade Oshineye, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Stefano Mazzocchi, MK
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, Justin Quimby, Dimitri Glazkov, 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.
“History is not the past. History is the present. We carry our history with us. To think otherwise is criminal.”
— James Baldwin
⛷️⏩ Shifting forward
Here’s an idea that would feel at home on the self-help bookshelf: the moment we turn to blame, we short-circuit our agency. An attitude of external blame removes ourselves from the equation. Blame makes us feel better by removing our own culpability, but it sacrifices our ability to see ourselves as part of the solution.
Applied to oneself as a motivational statement, this perspective can be empowering. When applied by others, it can come across as a blindness to the importance of context. This perspective whispers an underlying assumption that we have unlimited agency. If we have problems, it must be because we are not trying hard enough, or trying the wrong things, to fix them. Telling ourselves we can change things is motivational. Being told we have to solve everything on our own is disempowering.
We can use a less binary lens to focus on empowerment and agency: posture change.
In skiing, as in many sports, a pivotal skill is mastering control of our body’s center of mass, often in ways that seem unintuitive to the novice. An advanced skier may appear to just be floating down a steep slope, but they have carefully figured out how to balance their actions with the situation: gravity and the rocks and snow. To those still working on moving their skis and keeping their balance, hearing that they should lean forward sounds inadequate — and somewhat terrifying. This advice seems too simple, even somewhat patronizing. The advice may even feel wrong, as their inner-ear is calibrated for flat ground. Being balanced for this new situation feels like falling downhill. There are hundreds of muscles and micro-movements involved in using skis; how can moving our center of gravity a few inches forward make any difference?!
And yet it does. Adjusting our posture forward changes our leverage points. It dramatically reduces the energy, effort, and force needed to move our skis and adjust to changes in the terrain. It makes us more responsive and more comfortable supporting ourselves in the face of unexpected change.
Crucially, a posture change is gradual and reversible. We can “fall back” into our previous defensive posture and perceive the increased difficulty. The posture metaphor also highlights that we can lean too far forward. If we go too fast and get too confident, we can fall. Our attempted agency outpaces what is possible (perhaps at our current skill level, perhaps due to factors outside our control).
Our agency is influenced by our posture, but not generated by it. The posture lens allows us to feel in control of our agency without the boolean dichotomy that we retain control only if we believe there is nothing external in our way. It gives us movement and gradual empowerment. This approach tolerates failure or fatigue, recognizing that reverting to a simpler stance is just a temporary adjustment, not an indicator of personal inadequacy.
Changing our posture to lean forward helps us when we are up against problems that are beyond our control. When we feel boxed in by insurmountable problems, being told that we should stop blaming and start acting feels patronizing, condescending, and inactionable. We’ll feel it when we fatigue faster, because it takes extra effort to maintain the gap between our current posture and the balanced one for our situation. In work, this can look like someone used to critical infrastructure starting to play with prototypes, but maintaining the same posture of rigor. They burn far extra energy eliminating all potential errors, no matter how small, while also trying to rapidly try out new ideas. Their posture was right in a past situation, but ill-fit here.
Yet even in these situations, when we feel exhausted and fatigued, we can still readjust our posture. We can rebalance our metaphorical center of mass to fit the gravity of our situation. We can adjust our stance toward challenges without assuming the full burden of solving them.
Learning to rebalance our posture can feel difficult and scary but not patronizing or unsurmountable. Our posture is something we can retain control over, do at our own pace, and try again when we fail. This approach is not only actionable but also gradual and reversible—qualities that align perfectly with our goal to empower others and enhance their sense of agency.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏⛰️ Vermont’s electric utility wants to give customers batteries to avoid power outages
Rather than relying solely on power lines, Vermont’s Green Mountain Power wants to lease “television-size” home batteries to customers to help them not lose power if the grid goes down. This $1.5 billion plan to “decentralize” the grid is pending regulatory approval, but the utility argues that it’s cheaper than the alternative grid resiliency strategy, which involves building lots of new power lines and power plants. If the plan is approved, the utility hopes it will be able to eliminate power outages by 2030.
🚏📱 A Dubai electronics store is one of YouTube’s fastest-growing channels
A family-owned phone store in Dubai, Zamzam Electronics Trading, became YouTube’s fourth most popular channel in September; it’s racked up almost 30 million new subscribers this year. This unexpected rise in popularity began when the store’s owner allowed his 17-year-old brother to manage their social media, leading to frequent giveaways and content that’s perfectly tailored for the YouTube algorithm: “the same hazy intersection of pranks, skits, contests, and braggadocious charity that MrBeast has refined to a science.”
🚏🎙️ Spotify will auto-translate podcasters’ voices using AI
Spotify is launching an AI-powered voice translation feature that can reproduce podcasts in other languages using the original podcaster’s voice. Initially, select podcasters will have their English episodes translated into Spanish, with French and German translations to follow.
🚏🍫 Ozempic may have caused a sell-off in candy and beer stocks
Walmart recently reported a decrease in shopping demand due to consumers taking appetite-suppressing medications like Ozempic and Wegovy, causing shares of food and beverage companies to decline, some to multi-year lows: chocolatier Lindt dropped 5%, alcohol company Anheuser-Busch InBev fell 3.4%, yogurt maker Danone fell, and food giant Unilever also saw stock losses. However, some bankers warned not to read too much into the news, saying that “it is far too early to make sweeping conclusions on what [these drugs] might mean for consumer habits.”
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Announcing the $12K NIST Elliptic Curves Seeds Bounty (Filippo Valsorda) — Explains a modern-day cryptographic mystery: the seed phrases used to generate NIST’s famous elliptic curves were lost 25 years ago, and nobody’s been able to guess the right phrases since. The author calls on the public to help guess and check phrases by running them through a one-way hash function; he speculates that the seed was based on a sentence like “Jerry deserves a raise.” (Dr. Jerry Solinas picked the original sentences, but they were lost when his computer was upgraded.)
How to Build a Heat-Resilient City (Grist) — Details some urban design techniques that can help keep cities cool in a warming world: cooling pavements, strategically aligned alleys, cooling towers, green roofs, misting machines, reflective glass, and (of course) public transit.
Claudia Goldin’s Nobel Prize in Economics (Enda Hargaden) — Showcases some of the new Nobel Prize winner’s work in the labor market outcomes of women, including her paper on technology and skill complementarity: “new technologies (e.g. computers) increase growth, but what if you don’t use a computer in work? Then you might get left behind.”
Why Did Comedy Die? (Kvetch) — Argues that the genre of comedy movies appears to have peaked in the 1990s. Perhaps it’s a regression to the mean, maybe comedy movies are hard to translate for a global audience, or perhaps it's “sequelitis” and Marvel movies sucking all of the air out of the room… or perhaps the author is getting old and curmudgeonly?
Could a New Law of Physics Support the Idea We’re Living in a Computer Simulation? (Phys.org) — Discusses a new proposed law of physics called the second law of infodynamics, which suggests that informational systems’ entropy remains constant or decreases over time; this law would challenge our understanding of genetic mutation, atomic physics, cosmology, and more. The physicist who put forward the new hypothesis argues that symmetry is suspiciously common across the universe, and “high symmetry corresponds to the lowest information entropy state, potentially explaining nature's inclination towards it.”
🔍📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Hidden keystones.
In tech companies, the limelight often falls on the software developers crafting the newest features or the sales team landing big clients. However, in the background, there's a system administrator who ensures the servers run smoothly, backups are taken, and security protocols are updated. To the untrained eye, they might seem to be “just doing their job,” but their role accumulates knowledge and tension over time, much like a dam holding back a reservoir of water. If they were to suddenly depart, or if pressures overwhelm them, the entire organization could grind to a halt.
This individual is a hidden keystone of the company. Much like the undergrowth in a forest that binds the soil and supports countless organisms, hidden keystones gather and bear the tensions within the system, ensuring its smooth operation.
These hidden keystones who hold everything together are sometimes dismissed as merely doing “glue work.” The illegibility of their work means they don’t get rewarded in performance management systems. Occasionally, these systems actively punish this type of work, causing surprising (but illegible) failures across the organization when a team member starts focusing on the work that is rewarded.
It can be hard to tell the difference between a keystone and a buzzing, Brownian motion. Maybe that person is a keystone, and maybe they take reports from one office and walk them down the hall to another. Apprehension about such trivial roles often leads people to categorically dismiss the significance of keystone or glue-work. But this is a mistake if done categorically.
The unobtrusive nature of hidden keystones often makes them areas of unknown risk, as they can fail suddenly and unexpectedly, causing unexpected ripples in the rest of the system. Hidden keystones often silently manage tensions that other parts of the system remain unaware of—until the keystone fails and the burden shifts onto them.
Multiple strategies exist for mitigating the risks associated with hidden keystones. We can add redundancy so that there is no single keystone bearing all the load. We can add ways of relieving the tension so that it doesn’t accumulate and lead to critical failures. We can engage in practices of repair and replacement to keep systems robust over time.
However, before we can do any of that, we must first recognize these hidden keystones for what they are: critical components whose quiet strength often belies their true importance.
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