🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 22

September 30th, 2021

Episode 22 — September 30th, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/22

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.

“Human behavior is messy and unpredictable and unconcerned with convenient symmetries.”

― Khaled Hosseini

🌱🌀 To thrive in flux

What a difference a season makes. A mere four months ago, COVID-19 cases were petering out. Vaccinations were up. We had started gathering and traveling again. Hot vax summer was in full swing. Returning to the office seemed inevitable. And then… well, we know what happened next. It still stings. 

When the future resists our predictions, bucks our expectations, and refuses to fit neatly into our box, that’s flux. These days, it often feels like there is more flux than we can take. Even when it looks like things are getting better, we are wary of flux bursting in when least expected. Sometimes it feels like we can barely survive in such a flagrantly unpredictable environment. 

Is it possible to go beyond this? Is it possible to thrive in flux?

Thriving in flux will not look like trying harder, hanging onto predictability, or beating the flux down. It won’t be a glorious rescue, like Prometheus gifting humanity fire from the gods, nor will we harness flux with some new invention that solves all our problems. We cannot escape flux by retreating into increasingly isolated fragments of predictable reality. All bubbles pop — and the more well-crafted the bubble, the more destructive its inevitable dissolution.

To thrive in flux we must accept its mercurial nature while still satisfying the human desire for predictability. It will feel like dancing on the border of the overwhelming while being intensely curious about what lies on the other side. Thriving in flux, we will learn to hold our predictions loosely. We will have faith in happy endings, but won’t invest our hope in one particular end.

We will need to understand our individual capacity for flux. We will need to understand our personal “flux budgets” and become proficient at managing them. We will become less dependent on predictability, reducing our “predictability footprint.” If this sounds daunting, then we probably sized it right.

There is no quick fix, no one simple trick. We might resist the change because we are too busy, too set in our ways, too fearful, or all of the above. And yet, we cannot escape the flux all around us. If we wish to thrive, we’ve got to learn to thrive in flux.

🛣️🚩 Signposts 

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

🚏🧪 A TikTok teenager broke thousands of scientific studies with a viral video

A Florida teenager posted a viral video directing her followers to Prolific, a platform where behavioral scientists recruit paid participants for online studies. She recommended it to her fanbase, which largely consists of young women around her age, as an easy “side hustle” they could do to earn money from home. Scientists running studies on Prolific usually assume they’ll get a representative cross-section of the general population, but after the TikTok post went viral, they were flooded with responses from young women, suddenly invalidating many studies’ data and leaving researchers bewildered.

🚏🔌 Apple and Tesla suppliers are pausing production due to Chinese power restrictions

The Chinese central government has been pressuring several provinces to reduce their energy consumption, leading many of those regions to temporarily cut electricity to local factories. Electronics producers have been hard-hit, with many — including firms that supply components for Apple and Tesla hardware — halting production for up to five days.

🚏🎭 Google Sheets was the venue for a bizarre new improv play

Two playwrights adapted a play called Future Wife for Google Sheets, adding even more weirdness to a show that’s about aliens kidnapping a goat who’s getting married in a barn. Audience members, role-playing as barnyard animals, were welcomed to collaboratively edit cells along with the cast, with each silly edit providing fodder for the improvising actors to advance the story.

🚏🧻 Costco will limit sales of toilet paper and water as supply chains falter

In an echo of last year’s supply chain troubles and the ensuing panic-buying sprees, Costco is limiting the amount of toilet paper, cleaning products, and water bottles that each customer can buy. The big-box store’s chief financial officer named a litany of causes, including “port delays; container shortages; COVID disruptions; shortages on various components, raw materials and ingredients; labor cost pressures, and trucker and driver shortages.”

🚏⛽️ As UK gasoline stations run dry, the military is ready to help deliver petrol

A severe shortage of truck drivers in the UK — caused, in part, by Brexit-driven visa turmoil — has made it hard for gas stations to restock, leading to long fuel lines as drivers panic-buy the little remaining petrol. The shortage has become so extreme that tanker drivers from the British Army have been “brought to a state of readiness” to deliver fuel if needed.

🚏🌮 Taco Bell is the latest fast-food chain to launch a subscription service

For $5 to $10 a month, the new “Taco Lover’s Pass” from Taco Bell will let subscribers get one free taco a day for 30 days. Fast-food chains like Panera, whose $9-per-month unlimited coffee plan has hundreds of thousands of members, and now Taco Bell have latched onto this “food-as-a-service” model as a way to lock in customer loyalty and earn recurring revenue.

🚏⛏ Alibaba will ban the sale of crypto mining equipment

Amidst the Chinese government’s crackdown on cryptocurrencies, the e-commerce giant Alibaba announced that it will stop selling cryptocurrency mining equipment on its platform. The Chinese tech titan will also suspend the sale of adjacent products like “tutorials, strategies, and software” for crypto miners.

📖⏳ Worth your time

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

  • American Gentry: Local Power and Social Order (Patrick Wyman) — Introduces us to a powerful American social class that the media routinely overlooks: land-holding small business owners who run commercial farms, regional restaurant chains, real estate firms, car dealerships, etc. The author shows how these locally-rooted “gentry” account for much of the wealth and influence in Middle America, and compares them to local elites throughout world history.

  • Second Machine Age or Fifth Technological Revolution? (Carlota Perez) — Perez argues that AI and robotics don’t herald the beginning of a brand-new technological revolution; rather, we’re at the start of the explosive deployment phase of the current information age. She then draws political and economic parallels between now and the 1930s, the “turning point” of the previous technological revolution.

  • All These Simultaneous Disasters Are Messing With Our Brains (The Atlantic) — Examines how this current era of nonstop calamities diminishes our ability to cope with future crises and even reduces our finite “reserves” of empathy for our fellow people.

  • The YouTube Revolution in Knowledge Transfer (Samo Burja) — Observes that an overlooked benefit of YouTube is that it allows novices to observe experts at work, reminiscent of the master-apprentice model. This has unlocked a form of mass-scale tacit knowledge transmission that is historically unprecedented.

  • The Psychology Behind “Revenge Bedtime Procrastination” (BBC) — Details how China’s grueling “996” work schedule has led stressed-out workers to stay up extremely late socializing and doing hobbies, sacrificing their sleep for the ability to carve out some rare self-directed time where they, not their employers, decide what they can do with their lives.

  • Strategic Extremism (New York Times) — A prescient 2004 article, which predates modern social media, argues that holding extreme positions is politically beneficial because it lets you galvanize a base that usually does not vote and then narrowly target that base with a more tailored message.

  • It Looks Like a Product But is Secretly a Subscription (Cal Paterson) — Explores the “mental minefield” of whether you should buy goods (capex) or rent them (opex), arguing that many things that appear to be capex are actually opex and that companies often profit by forcing their customers and suppliers to pick the wrong model.

📚🌲 Book for your shelf

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

This week, we recommend Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity by Edward Slingerland (2014, 304 pages).

“If you chase creativity it may not come. The muse doesn’t like to be observed.” 

— Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin points to a paradox that humanity has struggled with for centuries: how can you be spontaneous when the very act of trying negates spontaneity? You can get a sense of this paradox by looking at what it takes to “be cool” — trying to be cool is not cool. During the Warring States Period in Ancient China (475 BCE to 221 BCE) this paradox manifested itself as wu-wei (pronounced ooo-way). Wu-wei is a concept meaning “effortless action.” It emerged in the Spring and Autumn period to become an important concept in Chinese statecraft and Taoism. 

In Trying Not to Try, Edward Slingerland, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, explores the paradox of effortless action through how different schools of ancient Chinese thinkers thought to achieve it. He explores wu-wei’s evolutionary roots, explaining how trust was the critical ingredient to cooperation and how the ability to be spontaneous was crucial in signalling that an individual was not being two-faced. 

Grounded in both ancient thought and modern science, Trying Not to Try is a book of seminal importance, yet one that takes itself lightly. 

🕵️‍♀️📆 Lens of the week

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

This week’s lens: Proof of work.

It’s time to do some work on the house, maybe a kitchen remodel or a new coat of paint. Whatever it is, the result is something you’re going to have to live with for years. How do you choose which contractor will do the work?

Some contractors might exaggerate their past successes, so perhaps you might decide to look at their past projects with your own eyes. In doing so, you’re using proof of work, a cryptographic concept popularized by its association with cryptocurrencies. In a proof of work system, a prover must do something that requires work and which produces evidence that can be verified quickly. You can apply this concept outside of computation by looking for evidence of past actions when evaluating the claims of others. You can use these past examples to extract signals of quality, reliability, alignment of taste, cost/benefit ratio, and more. 

When choosing someone to do business with, looking for proof of work feels obvious. However, “work” in this model is about evidence of effort, not about employment, and it can apply in a variety of ways. If you’re trying to decide where to live, ask about the day-to-day experience of living in a place rather than just the most memorable aspects that define the place. If you’re deciding which job offer to accept, look for evidence of work as done rather than relying on descriptions of work as prescribed. By looking at where the time and effort goes, you can get a better idea of the ground truth than can get from claims alone.

🔮📬 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.

// 2027. A judge’s chamber.

Alright, counsels, listen up. Let me sum up the current state of affairs based on my initial assessment of the evidence, as well as the summations submitted by your legal bots

The Defendant owns property in a state with a wild hog problem. The Defendant hired Software Firm [A] to build software package [B] to identify wild hogs from security camera footage. Firm [A] used open-source computer vision package [C] and machine learning system [D], along with a database of images of wild hogs from Firm [E] to train the ML model.

The Defendant connected the output of the software package [B] to the remote-controlled gun system manufactured by Company [F]. Remote-controlled guns are legal in the state. There is no law on the books explicitly requiring a human to execute the command to fire a gun.

Two years ago, while drunk on Halloween, the Victim trespassed, on a dare, over 100 yards onto property owned by the Defendant. The ML system automatically characterized the Victim as a wild hog, shot them, and wounded them. Whether the victim’s costume was sufficiently represented in Firm [E]’s dataset is not certain.

I need to figure out a liability distribution between the Defendant as well as entities A through F. The EULAs on all the initial software total well over 100,000 pages. The jury will need to have machine learning explained to them. We’ve got a who's who of interested groups ready to testify: gun rights activists, gun control proponents, AI ethicists, pro- and anti-hunting organizations, not to mention immigrants’ rights groups, open source communities, anti-surveillance organizers, the police, government contractors, and the owners of the Spirit Halloween store that sold the costume.

Unless you want this case to last for the next 20 years, I suggest you work out a settlement.