🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 24

October 14th, 2021

Episode 24 — October 14th, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/24

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.

“Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”

— Frank Herbert

🗺💵 The postures of curiosity

Curiosity is the engine of learning, and there are many ways of being curious. One way we can look at curiosity is to apply the explore/exploit lens

Explorative curiosity is all about challenging ourselves to experience an environment we know nothing about. Exploitative curiosity, meanwhile, describes our tendency to stake out an environmental niche — a metaphorical cave — and experience as much of it as possible. Both postures are required for effective learning. Some of us value newness more than mastery, thriving as broadly curious explorers. Others of us value mastery more than newness, becoming deeply-curious exploiters. 

Left alone, our curiosity often leans toward exploitation. Exploitative curiosity hones our ability to make accurate predictions within our chosen boundaries. Our depth can be emotionally (or even financially) profitable — those who go deep in a domain can create amazing things. Through exploitative curiosity, we come to feel safe and content, perhaps even coming to believe that our cave is the entire world.

When an external event — such as a pandemic — displaces us from our cave, we suddenly realize how little our well-honed predictions work outside of it. We are flooded with new things to learn. Fragile and exposed, overwhelmed by unpredictability, we suddenly realize that we have spent too long in the exploitative curiosity posture.

To be more nimble, it’s on us to spend some time in the stance of explorative curiosity, to seek out and lean into the discomfort of unpredictable situations. This can be hard; we need to reserve the emotional budget necessary to sustain this posture even when it feels uncomfortable and straining. We can deeply explore our chosen caves while remaining curious explorers.

🛣️🚩 Signposts 

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

🚏❄️ Last winter’s freezes in Texas are still causing plastic shortages

In February, a giant winter storm hit Texas, shuttering and damaging oil refineries and petrochemical production plants. Combined with lightning strikes in Louisiana and hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, the knock-on effects are still being felt today: production shortages are driving up the prices of a wide range of plastics. The price of a plastic used in PVC pipes, medical devices, and credit cards is up 70%; resins used in paints and adhesives are 170% more expensive; and ethylene, used in food packaging and polyester, has seen its price rise 43%.

🚏📕 Demand for print books is soaring as reading becomes a major pandemic hobby

Print book sales usually increase up to 3 or 4 percent per year, but in the last year they’ve soared more than 13%. The biggest source of growth in 2021 has been in adult fiction, which has led analysts to believe that the uptick in sales is due to an increase in pleasure reading as people continue to seek entertainment at home.

🚏💻 Black workers have gained tremendously from WFH, a survey shows

Slack recently ran a survey of over 10,000 knowledge workers and found a 26 percentage-point increase in Black respondents saying they were “treated fairly at work” compared to a year ago, thanks in large part to remote work. Similarly, a higher proportion of Black than White respondents said they wanted a more flexible work schedule in the future.

🚏🥃 Fractionalized ownership is expanding everywhere, from classic cars to whiskey

Following the crypto trend of selling fractional shares in big-ticket NFTs, many investment firms are offering fractional shares of assets like classic cars, wines, comic books, and sneakers. One fund even bought thousands of barrels of whiskey, hoping to age them for a few years and flip them for a profit, and sold off shares in the project. (The downside of all these fractional funds, of course, is that investors don’t actually own any of the underlying assets.)

🚏🎁 For $200 a year, Best Buy will give you priority access to hard-to-find gadgets

As supply-chain bottlenecks and delays put the holiday shopping season at risk, Best Buy has found a way to make the most of the situation. The electronics retailer announced a $200-per-year program that, among other perks, will let consumers get exclusive access to hard-to-find products at Best Buy. It’s a bet that shipping will remain so slow, and product availability so limited, that serious holiday shoppers will be willing to pay extra.

🚏🇮🇳 India stands on the brink of coal shortages

70% of India’s electricity comes from coal, so economists were worried when the Indian government announced that 80% of the country’s coal-fired power plants had less than eight days of supplies left, less than half of the normal stock they carry. A faster-than-expected economic recovery has increased power demand in India, while supplies of other fuel sources have fallen short, increasing reliance on coal: an uneven monsoon season has reduced hydropower production, and gas prices have risen sharply.

🚏🏈 A crypto startup let you do “fantasy startup investing”... for a day 

One crypto startup started selling NFT trading cards representing the shares of hot startups; while buyers wouldn’t own any equity in the underlying startups, they could compare the performance of their portfolio to other players’ in a sort of fantasy league. But the marketplace’s creators shut it down just a day later, saying they had “underestimated the legal complexities” of selling quasi-securities.

📖⏳ Worth your time

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

  • The Death and Birth of Technological Revolutions (Stratechery) — Ben Thompson argues that, while Carlota Perez thinks we’re still at the “turning point” of the information-age revolution, he thinks we’re in (or even past) the “deployment” phase. He cites the maturation of big tech, the ways governments have made heavy use of surveillance technologies, and the rise of crypto.

  • Evolution as Tinkering (Larry Moran) — Argues that natural selection has no analogy with any aspect of human behavior, but the closest thing might be tinkering. Often without even knowing what she’s going to create, the tinkerer uses whatever she can find to make a workable object.

  • America is Choking Under an “Everything Shortage” (The Atlantic) — Explores how COVID-19’s knock-on effects, from increased consumer demand for goods thanks to the stimulus to a truck driver shortage thanks to cancelled training classes, have badly tangled the US’s complex logistics networks; argues that the failure-proneness of globally-distributed supply chains is a good reason to reshore some production.

  • Learning to Learn, Playing Slowly (Sunday Letters) — Sam Schillace, deputy CTO at Microsoft, describes the philosophy of “go slow to go fast”: when learning something new, be patient and focus on getting the fundamentals right, and then you’ll be able to accelerate your growth from that firm foundation.

  • Doctors Are Being Forced Off Clubhouse by Anti-Vax Harassment (Vice) — Explores how, because of its synchronous nature and dearth of tools to moderate real-time audio, Clubhouse has become a gathering point for anti-vax believers, catalyzed a spread of alternative medical facts, and fostered an atmosphere of hostility towards some in the medical establishment.

  • And You Will Know Us By the Company We Keep (Remains of the Day) — Eugene Wei examines the problems with assuming (as many Western social media platforms do) that a social graph is a good approximation of an interest graph, and shows how designing a social graph forces you to make tough yet irreversible decisions.

  • The Wrong Way to Set Speed Limits (Not Just Bikes) — Explores how the current method for implementing speed limits has it backwards: instead of posting a speed limit sign and expecting drivers to comply, traffic engineers should design streets that naturally make drivers slow down to the desired speed. On a well-designed street, the video argues, speed limit signs are almost unnecessary.

📚🌲 Book for your shelf

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

This week, we recommend The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969, 286 pages).

If you haven’t read this sci-fi classic, set aside some time to do so: the novel is still vibrant and resonant over half a century after it was written. Within the overall story arc, the book reads as a series of parables that resonate with stories we find in our newsfeeds today. It is a multi-faceted, poetic exploration of complexity of humans and societies, told through the eyes of a visiting alien and the natives of the planet. Don’t miss the author’s note; the concentration of wisdom in those pages alone is beyond that of many entire books.

🕵️‍♀️📆 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 thinking hat.

The notion of “wearing” different hats can be a useful lens to try on different perspectives when considering an idea or a situation. We rarely label the vantage points from which we are observing something, yet we are always looking through a particular lens. Realizing the limitations and blemishes of a lens can help us get closer to seeing the deeper truths within a novel problem space.

Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats framework offers an entire framework based on this lens. The six thinking hats reflect different postures one can take in exploring a problem space. Select a “hat” and verbalize the particular view you are taking on. It can be useful to push yourself into a space you might not usually occupy. 

For example, if it’s a problem space you are mostly bullish on, wearing the “black hat” might force you to do a more critical examination of the problem. If you tend to focus on the data, exploring how you feel about the idea can help parse out additional nuance. This is also a useful way to defuse tension in settings where people tend to only bring one perspective to the table. Couching the conversation in this framework and asking others to adjust how they show up can open new, previously-unseen spaces in challenging conversations. 

🔮📬 Postcard from the future

A piece of speculative fiction about a hypothetical future where the systemic forces of the growth of gaming and the fragility of the global supply chain intersect.

// 2026 Twitch stream commentators hyping up their audience of 120 million

“Welcome, everyone, to the 2026 World Logistics Games Championship! We’re excited to kick off three days of intense logistics competitions. But before we get into the details of the team favorites, current meta-game strategies, and recent controversies — Amara, can you give our new viewers a short recap on how we got here?”

“Absolutely, Hye. The Logistics Games evolved over the past five years in response to the massive disruption to global logistics in 2021, thanks in part to COVID-19 as well as the blocking of the Suez Canal by the Ever Given container ship. Companies worldwide scrambled to secure transport for everything from Halloween decorations to food. It got so bad that Costco and other companies started renting and even buying container ships and containers to ensure their deliveries could happen on time. Demand for logistic coordinators skyrocketed (as did their salaries).

“In an effort to figure out some way to navigate the incredibly complex (some would say chaotic) world of logistics, several companies began creating incredibly-detailed digital simulations of the world’s logistic chains. One of the programmers at those companies realized that their Starcraft skills let them compete with, and then beat, the ML models trying to optimize logistics routes. That led to the team creating interfaces for human gamers to compete against the global supply chain. One thing led to another, and suddenly Walmart, Amazon, and others were hiring competitive Starcraft teams to train their ML systems.

“That brings us to today, where the giants of the shipping world put their best teams against each other in a three-day marathon, attempting to best their rivals in a simulation of the next year. Last year, the teams were thrown the curveball of a massive solar flare disrupting GPS for a week. We’ll see what the game masters have in store this time. Back to you, Hye.”

“Thanks, Amara. Now let’s talk about some of the metagame changes we can expect to see this year…”