🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 16

August 19th, 2021

Episode 16 — August 19th, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/16

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.

“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”

— Anaïs Nin

🕊️⚔️ War and peace in the adaptive landscape

We want to believe that there are good leaders and bad leaders, good strategies and bad strategies. We want to say that hedgehogs are better than foxes… or that foxes are better than hedgehogs. But we also recognize that the needs will vary based on the context of the moment.

One metaphor for this contextual difference in leadership styles is that of “peacetime CEOs” and “wartime CEOs.” This idea posits that entirely different skillsets are needed at different stages in the company’s lifecycle. When a company is growing and has a large set of opportunities available to it (i.e. peacetime), very different strategies and tactics are required than if the company is in a zero-sum fight over scarce resources with limited opportunities available (i.e. wartime). 

Zooming out a bit, what might we learn from the “peacetime” versus “wartime” distinction? The distinction appears to apply to more than just companies: any complex system can shift between these two states — or occupy an intermediate state. Just as companies need different types of CEOs in different stages, systems might need different adaptive techniques in different situations. For instance, a biosphere trying to survive in the midst of a mass extinction event will select for different species than one that’s growing and thriving in a lush period. Indeed, the human body has a “fight or flight” (wartime) mode caused by an adrenaline rush, and otherwise resides in a “rest and digest” (peacetime) mode. 

Consider whatever systems you care about: businesses, economies, biospheres, ecosystems. Which footing are they on: peacetime or wartime? Are the current markers of success aligned with the environment they are currently experiencing? What strategies are better-suited to the current footing? What might cause the system to switch?

🛣️🚩 Signposts 

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

🚏🇮🇳 India’s largest private employer says it’ll be 75% remote, permanently

Tata Consultancy Services, which employs over half a million people, is thought to be the largest private employer in India. In a recent interview, the company’s COO said that the company had barely experimented with remote work before COVID-19, but it’s worked out so well that the company plans for over 75% of its staff to be working remotely by 2025.

🚏🏜 The Southwestern US is facing its first-ever federal water shortage 

The US federal government announced the first-ever water shortage for the lower Colorado River Basin, which covers most of Arizona and parts of California, Nevada (including Las Vegas), Utah, New Mexico, and northwestern Mexico. Lake Mead, the reservoir that serves tens of millions of people in the region, has seen its water level fall to all-time lows, sparking sharp cuts in these states’ water allocations; Arizona is losing 8% of the water it uses each year. Water loss at nearby Lake Powell may also reduce the amount of electricity generated at its dam.

🚏🏈 The NFL has a record 12 female coaches this season

The US’s National Football League has announced that the league has an all-time-high of 12 women in coaching positions, plus 12 female scouts, two female officials, and multiple female team presidents. The league’s diversity, equity, and inclusion department added that 38% of league office roles are filled by women, another all-time high.

🚏🚗 Mercedes is offering car features as a subscription service in Germany

Mercedes-Benz’s new EQS sedans will all come with the hardware to do 10-degree rear-wheel steering. But German EQS models will be packed with software that limits them to just 4.5 degrees of rear-wheel steering, unless the buyer pays $576 per year to unlock the feature and upgrade to the full 10 degrees. (Meanwhile, American EQS models will get all 10 degrees for free.)

🚏🏨 Hotels are experimenting with an “a la carte” pricing model

A growing number of hotels, following in the footsteps of the airline industry, are cutting their nightly rates but starting to charge for individual amenities. Early check-in at one hotel chain will cost $20; pool use will cost $25 at peak times; and gym use and breakfast will come at a price.

🚏🛩 Airlines are getting pessimistic about summer and fall travel again

As recently as a few weeks ago, Southwest Airlines was optimistic about the booming demand for travel, expecting to be profitable in the third and fourth quarters of this year. But the airline has changed its tune as the COVID-19 delta variant has spread, expecting August and September revenues to be about 20% lower than the same period in 2019, and saying that it’d have difficulty turning a profit in the third quarter.

🚏🍿 AMC is going all-in on its meme-stock status by accepting Bitcoin

The American movie chain AMC is leaning into its status as a favorite “meme stock” of trading clubs like WallStreetBets. The company’s CEO said that AMC theaters would start accepting Bitcoin payments for tickets and concessions, which is likely to be a PR stunt given that it currently costs over $10 in fees to make a Bitcoin transaction.

📖⏳ Worth your time

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

  • The MAYA Principle (Interaction Design Foundation) — Explains the design philosophy of building the “Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable” product: when we’re creating something new, we have to balance innovation with familiarity. Adds a case study of Apple’s approach to product design.

  • State Collapse and Nation Building in Afghanistan (Peter Turchin) — The now ex-president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, started his career as an academic and wrote a book called Fixing Failed States. Turchin reviews the book and argues that deliberate state-building is hard, but perhaps accidental state-building has been happening in the background in Afghanistan.

  • Some Trees May “Social Distance” To Avoid Disease (National Geographic) — Describes the phenomenon of “crown shyness,” where the tops of trees in a forest are separated by narrow gaps (pictured at the top of this episode), and highlights some hypotheses for this mysterious behavior, including that it may help prevent bugs and microbes from spreading between trees.

  • Why is China Smashing Its Tech Industry? (Noahpinion) — Noah Smith argues that, after the Cold War, the West’s priorities shifted from survival to enjoyment, but China has doubled down on survival, moving toward the view that “hard tech is more valuable than products that take us more deeply into the digital world.” That, in turn, explains the crackdown on sectors that don’t help China stockpile national power.

  • Hidden Computational Power Found in the Arms of Neurons (Quanta Magazine) — Explores new research that has found that some brain cells are capable of far more advanced computation than previously thought, with single neurons capable of doing what we used to think would require entire neural networks.

  • The US’s Mistake of Suppressing Opium Cultivation in Afghanistan (Jeffrey P. Clemens) — In a Twitter thread, an economist uses supply and demand elasticity to show how the US’s efforts to reduce opium production in Afghanistan actually increased production of the drug and shifted power to the opposition.

  • Chaos: The Science of the Butterfly Effect (Veritasium) — A well-illustrated scientific primer to chaos theory that details the theory’s history, shows how the universe can be at once deterministic yet totally unpredictable, and muses on the limits of what we can know about the future or even the past of chaotic systems.

📚🌲 Book for your shelf

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

This week, we recommend Strange Planet by Nathan W. Pyle (2019, 144 pages).

The mundane becomes fascinating and adorably weird in Nathan W. Pyle’s Strange Planet. In this book of comics, aliens experience everyday life from an outsider perspective, helping us see it in a new way. For a preview, you can check out the author’s Instagram feed.

🕵️‍♀️📆 Lens of the week

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

This week’s lens: Approach or avoid.

Suppose you want to improve your health. Do you avoid the things that are bad for you, resulting in bland meals and an exercise routine that is much less engaging than your favorite TV show? Or do you look for the good in your new lifestyle and fall in love with something new, perhaps za’atar roasted carrots and barre?

When confronting a challenge, we can choose to approach or avoid. When we approach, we center what we want to move toward rather than what we want to retreat from. We focus on creating a path. Conversely, when we decide to avoid something, we create barriers between ourselves and the challenge. Avoidance can be necessary: if there’s a fire coming toward your home, follow the orders to evacuate! 

However, in many situations, approaching can be more effective than avoidance. Approaching frames both the goal and the intermediate steps to get there in a positive light: I want to be healthier and I look forward to my morning run. Compare this to avoidance, which often produces conflicts: I want to be healthier and I want to eat these cookies. Avoidance also tends to feel worse and foment stress. When you focus on the bad things that will happen if you fail, the inevitable failures spiral into existential threats rather than the temporary setbacks that they are. 

When you want to create change, whether in yourself or in a group, intentionally choose whether you want to approach or avoid. Is there a clear and present danger with a straightforward solution? Avoidance can provide a useful sense of urgency and clarity. However, when you have the time and space to choose your approach, try to frame the change as something to approach rather than something to avoid. You'll find that looking forward to roasted carrots is much easier than staring down a salad stripped down to a bare heap of lettuce.

🔮📬 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.

// We’ve seen that Bitcoin miners will look for any available free compute surface and then attempt to exploit it, from Roblox to Starbucks to free CI systems. This is the tragedy of the commons on the Internet. Where else is the risk/reward ratio good enough for exploiting public surfaces to be potentially worth it?

// WIRED Magazine, August 19th, 2025

In 2017, the US Supreme Court ruled that patent holders can no longer choose where to file infringement suits. This was bad news for patent trolls and the town of Marshall, Texas, which until that point was the preferred site for filing patent suits. Thousands of patent cases were brought there each year — 2,500 in 2015 alone! Of those cases, almost 95 percent were initiated by non-practicing entities, a favorite patent trolling technique.

But while the Supreme Court shut down the Marshall loophole, it did not take away the core temptation and motivation of patent trolls: money. So when the US Patent Office rolled out a switch to DOCX format for all patent applications in 2022, some of the dormant trolls smelled opportunity. 

Though trolls couldn’t choose the venue of the suit, they could still increase their chances by improving the quality and quantity of their patent portfolios. How? Machine learning.

Utilizing the advances in Natural Language Processing (NLP) that became publicly available with open source versions of GPT-3 in late 2022, trolls began large-scale campaigns of patent generation, using dormant Bitcoin farms left behind from China’s crackdown on bitcoin mining. Once those documents made it through the new patent application process, trolls used those same ML systems to scan the easily machine-readable applications of target companies. When the ML systems detected a proximity between two patents, the trolls could strike. 

Thanks to ongoing waves of COVID-19, courtrooms went (and stayed) online, enabling the trolls to use lawyers from all over the country to prosecute their cases in the appropriate jurisdictions, bolstered by AIs generating the legal paperwork. And thus the patent troll wave of 2024 was born.