🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 20

September 16th, 2021

Episode 20 — September 16th, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/20

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.

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

― Charles Darwin

🍆📏 The Subjectivity in Objective Methods

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) are a common tool for goal-setting in organizations. We can look at the UN Millennium Goals (and their successors, the UN Sustainable Development Goals) as a structurally well-formed example. They describe a concrete, clearly defined outcome — the objective — along with measurable results that indicate clearly whether or not the outcome has been met — the key results. The UN Sustainable Development Goal “to promote prosperity while protecting the planet” is translated into 17 objectives (e.g. No Poverty), each of which has a number of key results that specify metrics and target values (“By 2030, eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere, currently measured as people living on less than $1.25 a day”). 

The purpose of well-structured objectives, key results, and metrics is to make progress clear and unambiguous. They give us a sense of clarity: “Did we do this? Y/N.” They let us gauge how far we are from the target and make cost-benefit tradeoffs. Yet, often, this sense of clarity and certainty is followed by unsatisfying outcomes: even though all metrics point to “yes,” the progress toward the goal might feel more like a “meh.”

In such situations, it can help to recognize that, to arrive at crisply-formulated key results, we must journey through subjectivity. Whether choosing a goal or translating it into concrete objectives, whether choosing metrics to act as proxies for the goal or setting target values for them — each step uses assumptions that may or may not be valid. When we mistake our metrics for the objective truth, we turn a blind eye to the vast amounts of subjectivity baked into the process of choosing them.

Tools like meta-rationality can help us grapple with this inherent subjectivity and hold our KRs a bit more loosely. Using these tools, we can notice the factors that are overlooked, ask different questions, describe things in new ways, combine multiple views, and more. We can think explicitly about the subjectivity that arises throughout the journey. What makes this an important goal? Are there other objectives that could fulfill this goal? How might these metrics lead us in the wrong direction? If we achieve the target, what will we really have accomplished? When we use the tools of meta-rationality, we try to embrace the complexity of the system we are trying to change.

And, if we’re courageous enough, we might use these tools to ponder whether a legible process like OKRs is the right way to achieve our goal. Especially in complex systems with high degree of adaptivity, aiming for a specific target can trigger Goodhart’s Law (coined by Marilyn Strathern): “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” 

🛣️🚩 Signposts 

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

🚏🦜 Animals are already evolving to cope with higher global temperatures

A new study suggests that warm-blooded species are evolving to have larger legs, beaks, and ears to help them dissipate heat and keep cool as the Earth warms. The changes are small — some Australian parrot species’ beaks have gotten 4-10% longer in the last 150 years — but noticeable. Looking ahead, one scientist joked that, “we might end up with a live-action Dumbo in the not-so-distant future.”

🚏🚢 Shipping costs between China and the eastern US grew 500% in the last year

The combination of the delta variant and typhoons in the western Pacific have sharply reduced maritime shipping capacity, leading to severe spikes in shipping prices: sending a shipping container from China to the US’s East Coast is now estimated to cost over $20,000, almost twice what it was in July and over 500% more than the price a year ago. The supply crunch has also meant that many less-profitable routes, such as the transatlantic and intra-Asia routes, have seen reduced volumes.

🚏💷 London’s transit cards are losing popularity to contactless payment cards and apps

The tap-and-go Oyster card has long been a popular way of paying for trains, buses, and Tubes in London. But as contactless bank cards and payment apps like Apple Pay have gained steam, they’ve started supplanting Oyster cards. The trend has been going on for years and has remained steady even after the pandemic hit.

🚏🎰  Macau is mulling a crackdown on gambling

Macau, a massive gambling hub and the only place in China where gambling is legal, announced a 45-day “public consultation” that many fear will lead to a crackdown on the gambling industry, in line with the Chinese government’s crackdown on its tech industry. The stocks of several Macau casino companies crashed over 25% when the rumors started spilling out.

🚏🚙 GM is pausing production in some North American plants due to chip shortages

Faced with a continuing shortage of semiconductors, General Motors announced that it’ll shut down eight of its car manufacturing plants across North America for an average of two weeks, though all plants are slated to resume production by the end of September. In the meantime, the few plants that will remain online will prioritize GM’s more profitable vehicles, including SUVs, pickups, and sports cars.

🚏💰 An executive at a top NFT-trading platform ran a “frontrunning” scam

The head of product at OpenSea, a popular NFT-trading platform, drew accusations of “frontrunning” the market, with one Twitter user using the blockchain’s paper trail to support their allegation:

OpenSea confirmed the rumors and announced new bans on “insider” NFT trading by its employees.

🚏📰 Media recirculated a hoax claiming that Walmart would accept Litecoin

In a bizarre turn of events, an unknown pump-and-dumper published a fake press release claiming that Walmart would accept the cryptocurrency Litecoin, and several media outlets spread the story. Walmart swiftly shot down the rumor, and the organization that runs Litecoin denied any involvement (although it initially tweeted about the press release), but Litecoin’s price briefly soared by over 20% before the story was revealed to be a hoax.

📖⏳ Worth your time

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

  • Mutations and the First Replicators (Primer) — Blends well-illustrated (and cute) simulations with mathematical models to build up intuition around how evolution bootstraps itself and how mutations can lead to the emergence of complex and diverse organisms. Part of a great YouTube series.

  • Communal Computing’s Many Problems (O’Reilly) — Highlights the many differences between devices that are meant to be shared, such as smart speakers, and personal devices, and argues that communal devices that miss this context often struggle with issues of identity, privacy, security, experience, and ownership.

  • The Pygmalion Effect (Farnam Street) — Explores how the assumptions and expectations that we place on people affect their performance, and how surrounding ourselves with people who have high expectations for us can push us toward success.

  • Why We Should Be Talking About Energy Storage (Physics Girl) — Argues that energy storage is one of the biggest challenges in the shift to renewable energy and showcases several promising alternatives to traditional lithium-ion batteries, including pumped-water reservoirs, gravity storage, hydrogen splitting, and thermal batteries.

  • “At First I Thought, This is Crazy”: The Real-Life Plan to Use Novels to Predict the Next War (The Guardian) — A look inside Project Cassandra, a flawed but fascinating attempt to quantify literature and its relevant metadata (such as whether the novel was critically acclaimed, banned, popular, etc.) to try to get ahead of the zeitgeist and make predictions about geopolitics.

  • Housing Scarcity is a Force Multiplier for Other Problems (Strong Towns) — Seeks to move beyond the simplistic debates about housing supply and demand, arguing instead that the housing market is a complex system and that a shortage of affordable housing exacerbates existing stresses, from gentrification to evictions to a feeling of zero-sum struggle between new and old residents.

  • Hundreds of Israel’s Archaeological Sites Are Vanishing Under Concrete (Nature) — Explores the tension between “salvage digs,” done to document archaeological remains in danger of destruction due to Israel’s extensive development projects, and the commercial sources of archaeological funding in Israel.

📚🌲 Book for your shelf

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

This week, we recommend A Psalm for the Wild Built by Becky Chamber (2021, 160 pages).

A Psalm for the Wild Built tackles the question of, “what do people need in a post-scarcity society?”. Set in the future on a terraformed moon named Panga, this solarpunk novella follows a monk named Dex, who decided to leave their known experience to become a Tea Monk. A Tea Monk travels from village to village, listening to people and making them tea. Simple? Yes, in theory. But think about the best conversation you’ve ever had with someone over tea or coffee — a conversation that made you feel heard and understood. And now imagine that the person on the other side of the table is a total stranger.

Dex, it turns out, is quite good at being a Tea Monk. But something is missing for them. This novella is a wonderful meditation on what brings us meaning and how our systems of belief intertwine with our environments: both inner worlds, the external built world, and spaces that are wild. Where does the robot on the cover come in? You’ll need to read the book to find out.

🕵️‍♀️📆 Lens of the week

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

This week’s lens: Static and dynamic equilibrium.

Say you’re in a slump: no matter what you plan to try, you end up doing the same activities with the same people day after day, week after week. Or maybe you are in chaos: whatever you try to change generates conflict. Either way, you’re stuck, and that’s no fun. When you are trying to figure out how to get unstuck, it can help to use the lens of static vs. dynamic equilibrium. 

Does the world around you feel fatally peaceful, like an ice crevasse? You may be stuck in a static equilibrium. The forces that create your current world are so large that any change you can make quickly regresses to the status quo. To become unstuck, you must, however begrudgingly, take an insider’s perspective and work with the system as it currently is. From the inside some of the forces you thought were static may reveal themselves as dynamic. (Or maybe you’ll see that the forces are unchangeable — at least for you — and decide to look for a way out.)

Alternatively, you may be surrounded by endlessly churning energy: tempers flaring, fingers pointed, disagreement at every turn. You may be stuck in a dynamic equilibrium, where two or more similarly-empowered processes exert opposing pressure, causing a stalemate. In these cases, understand the forces involved (consider applying the tools for having Crucial Conversations). See what constraints, data, and assumptions people (including you!) have brought to the situation and look for leverage points to shift the conversation. You may have to consider what sort of energy it will take to get over the hump blocking change.

Whether static or dynamic, stuckness is not easy to escape from. Recognizing which type of equilibrium you are stuck in can help you understand what types of approaches are more likely to be valuable. However, that’s only the start to the hard work of actually getting unstuck. Good luck! 

🔮📬 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.

// A postcard from a very theoretical future.

// 2026 — A plain office building in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

<A cough and the shuffling of papers. A man in a suit begins to speak.>

As I’m sure you are aware, Mr. Anderson, your account was flagged by our automated systems, which then escalated to our agents. Their investigation turned up a number of irregularities, which is why you are here today. 

After the banning of stablecoins in 2023 for class-action securities fraud (stablecoins being cryptocurrencies that peg their value to a fiat currency, such as the dollar or euro), only the US’s TreasuryCoin is allowed to act as an anchor for cryptocurrencies. The US Treasury and IRS require cryptocurrency and NFTs to be registered as assets for US tax purposes. 

Sir, your taxes have not included any NFTs for the past three years. However, thanks to the fact that the blockchain does not forget, we know that is not the full truth. So let’s talk about your actual digital assets.

Most of the early NFTs turned out to be junk investments (remember the rock?) So while we know you have 5 Top Shot cards, 1 Twerking Pepe, 1 Pringles CryptoCrisp, 2,308 FoamTokens, as well as 2 Beeple pieces, that’s not why we are here. The reason we are here is that, despite your crypto washing attempts, the IRS knows you own 75% of all the NFTs issued by the band <redacted>. 

Thanks to a bug in the smart contract for those digital tokens, the NFTs get almost 100% of the band’s licensing revenue. And a lawsuit that concluded last year means that the last 12 Avengers movies are in violation of the band’s copyright. You, Mr. Anderson, are due quite the check from Mickey Mouse. That is money taxes are paid on. Taxes that pay for roads and public schools. You do like functioning public infrastructure, don’t you? How would you like to proceed?