🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 17

August 26th, 2021

Episode 17 — August 26th, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/17

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.

“To believe is to know you believe, and to know you believe is not to believe.”

— Jean-Paul Sartre

💃🕺 Dancing with delusion

Innovators reside at the frontier between the possible and the impossible, a fertile ground ready to nourish new possibilities. Despite this potential, it can be a discouraging place to live; by necessity, at the edge of the possible, the paths to failure outnumber the paths to success. 

People who live comfortably on this frontier can appear delusional. Their wild optimism triggers discomfort in those who only visit occasionally. Why aren’t they deterred by the layers of despair that discourage others? Are they in denial? Or do they have hard-to-perceive ways of coping with these challenges?

Donella Meadows’ notion of “dancing with a system” can help us understand how to balance the enthusiasm and despair of life on the innovative frontier. When we dance with a system we learn how it operates, how it moves and reacts, how it can lead us, and how it can be led. We cannot “fix” a system, but we can learn to nudge it. 

Successful and continued innovation dances with the delusion, generated by living on the frontier of the possible. It might appear as a form of denial to those who cannot see the choreography. In practice, it is a careful series of movements orchestrated to leverage the possible and overcome the despair conjured by the possibility of failure — all the while maintaining a forward posture which inspires those who need more certainty to operate comfortably.

For some, the dance is effortless; they are naturals in that environment. They often become serial entrepreneurs, community organizers, creatives, artists, writers. For many, this dance is a difficult and draining exercise even when they are effective at it.

When we stand amazed at the ability of some to live comfortably in environments we find too harsh, it is beneficial to look for signs of such dancing. Seeing the specific ways people dance with delusion teaches us that these aren’t just predetermined traits we happen to lack. Instead, they are learnable skills — skills we can ourselves acquire as we move from passive spectators to participants.

🛣️🚩 Signposts 

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

🚏💉 Moderna has used mRNA to develop HIV vaccines

The maker of the COVID-19 vaccine is experimenting with a new use for mRNA: fighting HIV. These vaccines, the first HIV vaccines to use mRNA, are only just entering the early phases of clinical trials, but components of the vaccines “showed promise” in an earlier study.

🚏🏘 US housing prices are getting too high for buyers

Thanks to rising prices for construction materials and skilled labor (the latter likely due to the tight job market), the price of new homes in the US has climbed so high that they’ve become unaffordable for many buyers. Just 56% of new and existing homes sold from April to June were affordable for families earning the US’s median wage, down from 63% in the first quarter of this year and the lowest level since 2012. Accordingly, homebuilder sentiment has fallen to its lowest point in a year.

🚏👩🏾‍🌾 Farmers are ditching farmers’ markets and selling produce online

When the pandemic shuttered farmers’ markets, many farmers started selling on ecommerce marketplaces, where customers can buy fresh food and get it delivered right to their door. The growth numbers have been astounding: one online produce market quadrupled its revenue in the last year, one produce delivery company grew revenue 500% in the same time span, and a platform to help farmers integrate all these digital tools grew sevenfold in the last 18 months.

🚏🌦 Climate change is making wet regions wetter and dry regions drier

According to NOAA, the US’s weather-forecasting agency, the already-wetter eastern half of the country has been getting several inches more rain per year than it did last century, while the already-drier western half has mostly seen even less rainfall. A similar, though weaker, pattern is playing out across the globe: rainy regions like Southeast Asia are getting even more drenched, while drier areas like Africa’s Sahel are getting even more parched.

🚏🏭 Samsung will use AI to design its next microchips

Samsung has confirmed that it’ll be one of the first chipmakers to use a new piece of AI-powered microchip design software, called DSO.ai, to design the next generation of chips used in its phones and other gadgets. In a recent test, the reinforcement learning algorithm used in DSO.ai boosted the performance of a chip by 15%.

🚏👟 A French company is cloning shoes invented in China

While China has become infamous for knocking off European goods like designer handbags, one French entrepreneur is going the opposite way: he’s producing clones of the popular Chinese sneaker brand Feiyue and selling them in the West.

🚏💳 Visa bought a CryptoPunk, a red-hot type of NFT, for $150K

CryptoPunks are a set of 10,000 pixel-art NFTs, considered the original NFTs and some of the most sought-after tokens in the crypto world. Visa bought one “punk” this week for $150,000, citing NFTs as the “future of commerce,” and the price of CryptoPunks soared: at the time of writing, you can’t get a “punk” for anything less than $250,000.

📖⏳ Worth your time

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

  • Why Elon Musk Isn’t Superman (Evonomics) — Tim O’Reilly distinguishes between the traditional “operating economy,” where workers and factories churn out goods and services, and the financialized “betting economy,” where soaring asset prices drive massive wealth gains. He argues that the rich live in the betting economy while the poor live in the operating economy, and the US’s constant promotion of the betting economy is a key factor behind income inequality.

  • When Terrorists and Criminals Govern Better Than Governments (The Atlantic) — Argues that hierarchies imposed from outside are not part of the local feedback system and thus may be ineffective: “if people can’t get the leadership they crave from the state, they’ll find somebody else to do the job.”

  • Copying Better: How To Acquire The Tacit Knowledge of Experts (Common Cog) — Introduces the concept of “tacit knowledge,” which can’t be taught through deliberate instruction and must instead be learned through osmosis and trial-and-error, and explores some methods for gaining this knowledge. Part of an excellent series on the topic.

  • The Mechanism of the Five-Year Plan (Chinese Characteristics) — Tech analyst Lillian Li explains how the Chinese government’s famous Five-Year Plans work, drawing a parallel to big tech companies’ “OKR” processes.

  • A World Without Clouds (Quanta Magazine) — Details a new study that modeled the intricate feedback loops between clouds and the Earth’s broader weather systems; it found that, if atmospheric carbon dioxide rises to 1200 parts per million, a runaway feedback loop will dissolve low-lying clouds and heat up the planet by an additional 8 (!) degrees Celsius.

  • We’d Rather Have the Iceberg than the Ship (Strong Towns) — An urban planning blogger argues that the US has a bad habit of “slash and burn urbanism”: we let our old developments decay as the wealthy move on in search of greenfield developments, leaving aging husks of old towns behind for the less fortunate to live in.

  • Languages Don’t All Have the Same Number of Terms for Colors (The Conversation) — Describes how cognitive scientists found that, across all languages, warm colors like red and yellow are easier to communicate than cool colors like blue or green. Their hypothesis is that cultures invent more color words for things they want to talk more about, and objects tend to be warm-colored while backgrounds tend to be cool-colored.

📚🌲 Book for your shelf

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

This week, we recommend The Goal: A Business Graphic Novel by Dwight Jon Zimmerman and Eliyahu M. Goldratt (2017, 143 pages).

Did you like the fusion of management and illustration from two weeks ago? We’re going full-on comic this time.

The theory of constraints looks at systems by focusing on the bottlenecks in their flows. Changing a system often requires changing the bottlenecks — and changing the existing bottlenecks creates new, sometimes unexpected ones. Even if you’re not familiar with the theory of constraints, this focus on bottlenecks impeding flow may sound familiar: the popular Kanban method is a simplified version.  

Beyond the insights to be gained from studying the theory of constraints, we were intrigued by the idea of trying to convey it in graphic form. Join the protagonist Alex Rogo in his management quest, joined by a scrappy crew of trusted colleagues. While the book ends up being neither a breathtaking story nor a crystal-clear presentation of the theory, it manages to describe the gist of the concepts quite well. It’s a weird sort of art form, and one that we enjoyed.

🕵️‍♀️📆 Lens of the week

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

This week’s lens: The Wile E. Coyote moment.

Everything was going so well. The team was firing on all cylinders. The last all-hands was so full of celebration that we ran out of time. Now everyone is working overtime and on (or past) the edge of being burned out. Where did it go all wrong? Welcome to the Wile E. Coyote moment.

We draw the tops of our S-curves as smoothly-transitioning splines. We tend to experience them rather differently. We believe that the line is still going upward. Eventually, something forces us to see the truth, and we realize that the flattened top of the S-curve lies far below. We experience a disorienting moment where our expectations fall off the cliff between our expectations and reality. 

This effect can be especially pronounced in teams, where the desire for stable growth produces a robust collective illusion. Metrics are conveniently re-baselined, goals silently adjusted, alarmists neatly allocated to isolated projects… until it’s too late. 

The Wile E. Coyote moment is a parable about delays in feedback loops. By the time the signal is strong enough to force you to realize what’s going on, it’s too late to do anything about it. When the feedback loop counteracting your momentum is strongly compounding, that instant can sneak up quickly. You cannot always avoid this moment. However, you can learn to recognize when it’s happening… and maybe cut off the cycle of illusion a little bit sooner.