Episode 32 — December 16th, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/32
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Dimitri Glazkov, Alex Komoroske, Ben Mathes, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Justin Quimby
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Boris Smus, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman
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.
“Intellectual knowledge is only practical knowledge, and this knowledge can only tell us ‘how’ and ‘from where,’ but never ‘why’ or ‘whereto.’ It cannot also perceive value, though it can analyze attributes. Therefore this knowledge can never give us a full understanding of existence, for which we have to say: ‘credo ut intelligam’ — I believe in order to understand.”
— Nirad Chaudhari
📝 Editor’s note: The next two weeks are the holiday break in the US, so we won’t be publishing issues of the FLUX Review. We’ll be back to our regular schedule in the first week of January!
🧙✨ Mystery and mētis
A carver tweaks their technique to the grain and knots of a particular piece of wood. A group of jazz musicians change and adapt their music in response to each other. A product manager flexibly morphs between a user perspective and an engineering team’s perspective. All of these fluid adaptations to the situation at hand demonstrate mētis.
As James C. Scott says in Seeing Like a State:
“Mētis is most applicable to broadly similar but never precisely identical situations requiring a quick and practiced adaptation that becomes almost second nature to the practitioner. The skills of mētis may well involve rules of thumb, but such rules are largely acquired through practice (often in formal apprenticeship) and a developed feel or knack for strategy. Mētis resists simplification into deductive principles which can successfully be transmitted through book learning, because the environments in which it is exercised are so complex and nonrepeatable that formal procedures of rational decision making are impossible to apply.”
Their defiance of simplification into formal, easily taught principles is why skills that rely on mētis are so hard to teach explicitly. A living, breathing practice alongside other practitioners is the most reliable way to learn them.
Yet the idea that mētis cannot be taught can be taken too far. Skills can be treated as deep secrets which only a select few can discover. Taken too far, the awe for the unteachable can grow into a disdain for explicit learning and teaching. People either get it on their own or they are not part of the inner circle. Cue the wizards vs. muggles narratives.
Drawing the lines so brightly conflates the teachability of the parts and the whole. For mētis, knowing the parts is not sufficient for teaching one how to successfully integrate them into a whole. However, knowing some of the parts and practicing them deliberately can provide a scaffolding that helps the learner toward uncovering the mystery of the whole. Many fluid, dynamic jazz musicians started with rather rote and structured learning of their instrument of choice. Woodworkers often start with instruction that teaches them basic tool use and safety. PMs may start with one particular methodology. As they have become skilled practitioners, this scaffolding of expertise can help them to sharpen the saw and invest in learning new structured skills.
What makes a practitioner in a mētis-reliant domain an expert is not that they avoid all structure and effortlessly succeed. It’s that they can seamlessly combine well-learned formal rules, rules of thumb, improvising in the moment to adapt their actions to the dynamic forces surrounding them. Mētis is about becoming so skilled with the fundamentals that we can start being playful with them—and that can only come through rigorous practice.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🍽 Microbes are evolving to be able to eat plastic
Humanity dumps millions of tons of plastic into the environment every year, which is a problem because most organisms can’t break it down. But that last fact might be changing: researchers studying microbe DNA found genetic code for new enzymes that can digest plastic, likely an evolutionary adaptation to take advantage of all the “free food” that’s now scattered across the biosphere.
🚏📱 An “Excel influencer” TikToker leveraged her fame to build a million-dollar business
A productivity influencer nicknamed “Miss Excel” has amassed over a million followers on TikTok and Instagram, and she’s been using her reach on those platforms to promote a series of Microsoft Office training courses (including the cleverly-named “Excelerator Course”). Her one-woman business is asset-light — she uses just a phone and some consumer software to make her videos — and yet she says it’s pulling in over “six figures a month.”
🚏🦜 “Birds Aren’t Real,” a Gen Z parody conspiracy theory, has amassed a huge following
Frustrated by the rise of misinformation on the internet, a group of Gen Z-ers started a parody conspiracy theory called “Birds Aren’t Real,” which purports that what we think of as “birds” are actually drones created by the US government to spy on people. Everyone is in on the joke — they know birds are real — but the movement has amassed hundreds of thousands of followers, created a fake history, fabricated “evidence” of the bird conspiracy, and made its way into mainstream news. The organizers say their goal is to point out the absurdity of conspiracy theories; in their words, they’re “fighting lunacy with lunacy.”
🚏☝🏽 A “fat-finger” error cost one NFT seller almost $300,000
Crypto transactions are famously irreversible, which caused trouble for the owner of one Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT. The man meant to list his NFT for 75 ether (about $300,000) on the NFT-trading platform OpenSea, but he accidentally punched in a decimal place and offered it up for 0.75 ether (about $3,000). By the time he noticed his error, a bot that snaps up cheap Bored Apes had instantly purchased the token, helped along by a $34,000 “priority fee” that ensured nobody else could grab the underpriced Ape first.
🚏🤠 Texas farmers are installing vast fields of solar panels to earn extra cash
Seeking new revenue streams, farmers in Texas have started setting up large-scale solar farms, which generate vast amounts of power that can be sold back to the grid. Some farmers fear this will eat up land normally used for agriculture — but the burgeoning “agrisolar” trend argues that farmers can grow plants that do well in the shade (such as lettuce and tomatoes) around solar panels, or use the land for animal grazing.
🚏⚗️ An alternative-health MLM scheme successfully sold “magic dirt” for $110 a bag
The pandemic has led to a boom time for multi-level marketing schemes, thanks to a lot of people having a lot more time to spend at home and a general rise in interest for alternative medicines and “wonder cures.” One of the biggest winners was a company called Black Oxygen Organics, which marketed dirt from a certain peat bog as a way to cure diseases, lose weight, detox from heavy metals, and more (the dirt was said to be edible, too). Buoyed by hype built up on Facebook groups, the company earned up to $4 million a month before it shut down without warning in November.
🚏🇮🇳 When the Indian PM’s Twitter account was hacked, it started pumping Bitcoin
Hackers briefly gained access to the Twitter account of Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India. They then posted a Tweet that falsely claimed that:
“India has officially adopted bitcoin as legal tender. The government has officially bought 500 BTC and is distributing them to all residents of the country.”
It’s not the first time Modi’s accounts were hacked to promote crypto: last year, hackers used his personal account to send Tweets asking followers to donate crypto to a certain relief fund.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
The Thames Barrier Must Never Fail. Here’s Why It Doesn’t. (Tom Scott) — Scott takes us on a tour of a barrier system that prevents London from flooding, exploring how you should engineer systems that cannot be allowed to fail: you build plenty of technical and physical redundancies, and you add a massive margin of error so that you’re OK even in the most extreme of circumstances.
Use Networks to Prioritize Product Features (Fibery) — A startup founder shows how we can draw directed acyclic graphics (DAGs) to help us map out our list of desired features and figure out which ones are most important; includes some useful examples, rules of thumb we can extract from the model, and tips for implementing this technique.
How the Platform Economy Sets Women Up To Fail (Rest of World) — Examines the structural factors that have made women less likely to participate in the gig economy, especially in the developing world: differential time poverty, lower access to the technology and banking services needed to use gig platforms, and less ability to work inflexible hours (which is heavily incentivized by these platforms) due to frequent caregiving responsibilities.
The Pirate Codes (Adjacent Possible) — Describes how 18th-century pirate ships became an unlikely laboratory for creating egalitarian and democratically-run organizations, then reflects on how extreme environments like the sea (or Web3!) are often the sources of radical new ideas in governance and institution-building.
A Log4J Vulnerability Has Set the Internet ‘On Fire’ (Wired) — Tells the story of how a flaw in a popular open-source logging library has opened a dangerous security hole across many internet-connected devices; then, explores how, in a hyper-interconnected world, small errors in fundamental infrastructure can cause downstream problems that are extremely difficult to fix.
Olympus DAO Might Be the Future of Money (or It Might Be a Ponzi) (CoinDesk) — Explores the tensions behind “algorithmic stablecoins” like Olympus DAO, which skeptics think of as automated Ponzi schemes and supporters think of as the future of central banking; while Olympus commands an income-generating treasury of almost half a billion dollars, its coins aren’t really backed by anything, but its users’ sheer belief might keep the protocol going nevertheless.
Techno-Optimism for 2022 (Noahpinion) — Noah Smith explains why he’s still optimistic that “we are potentially at the dawn of not just one new technological revolution, but several at once,” touching on the coming renewable-energy boom, innovations in biotech, a new space race, and the deployment of long-simmering AI and nanotech investments.
🌀🖋 More from FLUXers
Highlighting independent publications from FLUX contributors.
Alex Komoroske’s On Schelling Points in Organizations applies the lens of Schelling points to emergent organizational coordination problems and discusses a few tactics to tame this dynamic. It includes interactive simulations of various configurations, making it easier to experiment with and develop an intuition for the phenomenon.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z. Muller (2018, 240 pages).
In this book, Muller acknowledges that metrics and measurement can solve otherwise intractable problems. For example, metrics, measurement, and their analysis have led to phenomenal successes in the field of industrial production.
In other fields their application can produce significant unintended consequences. If we incentivize teachers to improve test scores, they’ll stop focusing on broader educational goals and instead teach to the test. If we tie teacher pay to the outcomes of those tests, some schools will fib about their metrics. This is not a problem with teachers. It’s a system-wide dynamic: metrics transfer power from experts with tacit knowledge to administrators without it.
When the bloat of creating, collecting, and analyzing metrics set in, the proposed solution is… more metrics. This creates a pernicious feedback loop: bloat inspires an organization to get lean, administrators are hired to study where to get lean, more administrators and analysts create more bloat. This is especially an issue in higher education.
The Tyranny of Metrics gives the reader a great vocabulary for how metrics can go wrong. For example, the author defines “creaming” as the practice of only taking easy work to improve one’s success rate. The book doesn’t decry all usage of metrics; it provides a checklist for using metrics effectively and describes which classes of problems do and do not work well with metrics.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Stepping stones.
So… your project failed. It sucks. As you and your teammates close the chapter on this adventure, you notice that a library that you wrote for the project continues to thrive: there is a vibrant community of contributors and satisfied customers, and even a roadmap for the future. The library became a stepping stone, continuing to live beyond the larger project’s lifespan. In software development, technology more broadly, and in nature, stepping stones are a natural occurrence. Things built for one purpose find their way into another domain, often outliving the original intent. Many inventions are a result of finding new ways to combine existing stepping stones, rather than crafting something entirely new from whole cloth.
Especially when pursuing ambitious and/or ambiguous objectives, a team might benefit from thinking about what stepping stones it might leave behind — and how to architect the system to do so responsibly. It may seem morbid to think about a project's failure when things are just getting started, but it’s a sound farming-for-luck strategy. If the initial direction proves untenable, the forethought put into engineering for stepping stones might just give you that extra room to maneuver and pivot. At a higher level, a larger organization that telegraphs “build stepping stones” rather than “go big or go home” to its teams is multiplying its chances of stumbling into the actual next big thing.
🔮📬 Postcard from the future
A ‘what if’ piece of speculative fiction about a possible future that could result from the systemic forces changing our world.
// Making compelling interactive experiences is hard. Building them on top of open Metaverse standards is even harder. In the future, smaller metaverse developers will need specialized consultants to help with common attack vectors.
// 2029. A private Telegram channel.
“Thanks for reaching out to InteropInc. We specialize in making your ‘Open Metaverse’ project successful.
“By declaring your experience ‘open’ and providing interoperability, you are rolling out the red carpet for exploiters. Maybe 4chan or Reddit users decide to brigade your ‘verse, to crash its economy for the lulz. Or someone wants to farm your experience for achievements and currency. Or some teenager decides to attempt to swat other users.
“Our services include an initial pass over your systems that looks for exploits and weaknesses. We then provide experts to help patch it. Among the attack vectors we look for are:
Physics and rendering engines
Currency, objects, economy, and rewards
Monetization approaches, both crypto and fiat
“We can’t change 4chan or deep-web communities, but we do have deep agents who are part of those communities to act as early warning systems. In critical cases, we can also help redirect the gathering storm away from your organization.
“We also maintain our own internal ‘bad actors’ list. We maintain ongoing monitoring of their activity in a number of forums, be it known crypto wallets, Discord communities, streaming services, or other signals. The signals from our extensive prior work inform this dataset, so your community management team doesn’t need to start from scratch. And yes, our work on your project will help improve our overall monitoring systems for all our clients.
“We look forward to working with you.”
<#Interop-Internal> “Hey, we just landed another one. Add ‘em to the