🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 36
January 27th, 2022
Episode 36 — January 27th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/36
Contributors to this issue: Justin Quimby, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Spencer Pitman, Neel Mehta, Ben Mathes, Stefano Mazzocchi, Alex Komoroske, Boris Smus
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Dimitri Glazkov, Robinson Eaton,
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.
“Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.”
― Marshall McLuhan
🛢⚙️ A loss of lubrication
According to the WHO, the pandemic has been grinding on since March 11, 2020 (over 680 days at this point). If you happen to work in a mid- to large-sized company which did not have a strong remote work culture pre-pandemic, you are likely feeling tired or stressed. Why?
The pandemic has drained all the oil from the engine.
The things that lubricated social interactions, planning, and work are gone: coffees, chatting over lunch, seeing someone's smile when you made a good point or cracked a joke, a hand shake or head nod when passing someone in the hallway. Cultures that gained energy from in-person interactions can no longer rely on them to bank goodwill.
Without the oil, what’s left is metal grinding on metal — the bare mechanisms of corporate planning, project management, and executive control. There are some spots where preexisting relationships provide some ‘give,’ but most of the slack or wiggle in the machine is long gone.
Parents having to deal with child care and school closures are at the end of their rope. Single people living in small apartments would really just like to see other people. Folks with well-established faith or performance groups would just like to chat or sing together in the same room again. Everyone is tired. So when things feel totally off the rails, just remember, it isn’t you. There is no oil left in the engine.
Can the engine be lubricated without going back to the old normal? Maybe. First, we must acknowledge that building up relationships is legitimate work. If we see it as extraneous, as something we can do when we’re not busy, we risk that lubricating the engine is deferred in favor of urgent “real” work. Just understanding the vital purpose of oil isn’t sufficient to fix the problems caused by the engine being drained, but it is a necessary start.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏👨🏻⚕️ The low-wage workers who prop up nursing homes are quitting in droves
COVID-19 hits the elderly hundreds of times harder than the young, which is made worse by the fact that many seniors live in dense quarters in nursing homes. These nursing homes employ low-wage workers who have been stretched as thin as international supply chains, and hundreds of thousands of these workers have quit since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the large Baby Boomer generation is set to retire (the “gray tsunami”) and will need nursing homes even more in the coming decades.
🚏🐠 Decommissioned oil rigs are becoming artificial coral reefs
When American oil and gas companies decommission an offshore oil rig, they’re usually allowed to keep it in the ocean in exchange for paying maintenance costs — which ends up being far cheaper than complete removal. It’s also a win for the environment, because the rigs’ underwater metal poles are excellent skeletons for coral reefs and eventually become hosts to thriving ecosystems of fish and other marine life. By one estimate, decommissioned rigs are “the most bountiful human-made marine habitats in the world.”
🚏🌊 Twitter couldn’t load NFT profile pics because its centralized API went down
Last week, Twitter started showing users’ NFT profile pictures in special hexagon shapes. But one researcher found that Twitter was relying on an API from OpenSea, the centralized NFT-trading platform, to show those NFTs instead of trying to read the blockchain directly. So when OpenSea had an outage that same week, Twitter was temporarily unable to load users’ NFTs.
🚏👼 Early studies suggest a COVID-19 linked development dip in early childhood
Children have generally fared less badly when infected with COVID-19, but second-order effects appear to be wreaking havoc on early childhood development. Preliminary studies show that infants born during the pandemic scored lower, on average, on tests of gross motor, fine motor and communication skills compared to those born before it. This might be due to additional prenatal stress, less interaction with peers during lockdowns, online schooling, and parents being stretched too thin. The good news is that the brains of young children are very plastic, and that these setbacks are likely to be temporary.
🚏👩🏻🔬 The last 6 Hugo novel award winners have been women
The Hugo Awards, a set of prestigious annual awards for the best sci-fi or fantasy works, have historically been a male-dominated space. But when the American speculative fiction writer Martha Wells won the Hugo’s best novel award last year for her The Murderbot Diaries, that marked the sixth straight year that a female author has won the best novel award.
🚏🇱🇧 A man in Lebanon held up a bank to withdraw his own money
Lebanon is in the midst of a currency crisis, with its currency having lost 95% of its value over the last two years. To avoid bank runs, the government has instituted limits on the amount of cash people can withdraw from their accounts. One man, though, needed more cash to buy supplies for his restaurant. So he broke into a bank and took nine workers hostage, demanding that he be allowed to withdraw more cash from his savings account.
🚏💽 GPUs are getting cheaper as crypto prices crash
As cryptocurrencies’ prices have fallen — with some almost halfway down from their peaks late last year — so too has demand for the graphics cards often used to mine them. One analysis found that GPU prices have fallen about 5 to 10% since last December, coinciding with sharp drops (often 20% or more) in sales volumes for the cards.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Fighting Bias In Space: When There's A New Telescope, Who Gets To Use It? (NPR) — Describes how the astronomers behind the newly-launched James Webb telescope are deciding which of the thousands of proposed experiments will get to use it, and how they’re working to ensure fairness by focusing on the research itself rather than the researchers.
Economics is Once Again Becoming a Worldly Science (Aeon) — Argues that neoclassical economics, while often wrong when applied to the real world, remains popular because it promises easy, universal solutions to complex policy problems. Then, introduces a new generation of economists who seek greater emphasis on the scientific process and empiricism.
Can a Model Be Differentially Private and Fair? (Google People + AI Research) — Uses interactive graphics to describe the tension between differential privacy in ML models and accuracy among underrepresented groups: if you make the model responsive to outliers, an attacker could extract information about those outliers from the model. Then, shows some potential mitigations, such as gradient clipping and adding random noise.
Why Do We Need a New Philosophy of Progress? (Roots of Progress) — Argues that the philosophy of progress that led the 19th century got humanity quite far, but then met challenges it could not handle in the 20th century. Aims to move past the often-exhausting debate between “what to maximize in the spreadsheet” (a 19th-century mindset) and today’s “everything is subjective, there’s no point in metrics” mindset.
All the Biomass on Earth (Visual Capitalist) — A beautiful 3D visualization of the biomasses (in tons of carbon) of all the world’s organisms. It includes some surprising revelations, such as that plants make up 82% of the planet’s biomass while humans make up just 0.01%.
Aftermath of the Biggest Eruption Ever Seen From Space (Astrum) — Details the scale and after-effects of the recent eruption in Tonga, the largest explosion ever caught on camera. Highlights the globe-spanning shockwave, the short- and long-term effects on the planet’s atmosphere, and the destruction of a recently-created volcanic island.
Crypto and the Apocalypse (Wrong A Lot) — Argues that crypto isn’t “heaven” or “hell” but rather “purgatory”: our “hyperfinancialized” modern society has become reliant on exponential financial growth, and until we can unlock real, exponential productivity gains, we will plow our money into assets that we believe can go up without any real backing.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay (1979, 96 pages).
“It is the year 4022; all of the ancient country of Usa has been buried under many feet of detritus from a catastrophe that occurred back in 1985.” This is how this superbly-illustrated book/mockumentary begins. It documents the fictional archeological discovery of a motel and a perfectly preserved room containing two human remains.
From the “bathtub turned sarcophagus” to the “toilet seat as Sacred Collar and Ceremonial Headband” (pictured above), the pages deliver astute and irreverent criticism of our challenges reasoning in uncertainty and our need to project a causal interpretation onto evidence, no matter how thin.
A fun, small book that can be read in one sitting, it acts like a lighthouse beacon, shining a bright light on the often eye-rolling way anthropologists interpret data, while illuminating a larger epistemic danger zone. The book’s subtle message is especially useful today, when we find ourselves awash with plentiful-yet-thin evidence and a pandemic-heightened craving for certainty.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Watermelon status.
What’s green on the outside and red on the inside? It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but we have a more prosaic answer in mind: a watermelon. This contrast between the surface and the inside has an analog in status reports. A watermelon status is when something that’s going wrong is hidden behind a layer of positive framing.
One well-known form of watermelon status is greenshifting: the process of a project’s status getting more positive as each level in the management chain makes things just a little more palatable for their bosses. However, watermelon status can come in other forms, such as comparing the pros of one option to the cons of another option, selectively choosing metrics that frame your feature in a positive light, or generating a false sense of agreement.
Watermelon status rarely arises from a desire to deceive. Instead, organizational incentives drive people to hide the red behind the green. Projects that give realistic timelines are canceled in favor of those that exaggerate how quickly they can be released. The averaging-out of metrics obscures and simplifies the important “red” stories hidden in the distribution of values. Individuals are often rewarded based on how many features they launch rather than on whether or not they are making the product better.
However, like a watermelon that is kept too long without being cut open, the project that forever hides its risks and challenges eventually turns rotten at the core.
🔮📬 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.
// A hypothetical postcard from the future about the tensions in Ukraine and what might come to pass.
// 2040. A Discord chat room.
Yo! I owe you from the thing at the time with the guy. I know you’re taking that Econ History class about the early 21st century. Professor Spivak loves to give pop quizzes, and a little birdie told me one is headed your way. Here’s a cheat sheet of the key events by week.
=== 2022 ===
Jan 17 — US President Biden warns Russian President Putin of “disaster” if Russia invades Ukraine.
Jan 24 — NATO continues a force build-up in Ukraine and in nearby friendly countries. US stock market begins week 1 of bear run.
Jan 31 — Series of border skirmishes with “separatists” result in running gun battles every day. Cryptocurrencies plummet after Putin bans crypto transactions.
Feb 7 — Artillery fire is exchanged between Ukrainian and Russian lines. UN begins process of implementing additional financial sanctions on Russia. President Biden threatens direct military intervention. Stock markets continue to plummet.
Feb 14 — Weaponized commercial drones drop explosives on a supply depot, killing 12 and wounding 45. One US service member is killed. Russia denies involvement, blames Ukrainian separatists. US declares immediate sanctions against Putin and his extended family, seizing assets in New York and Miami. Putin threatens “dramatic action.” Financial markets, both stocks and crypto, continue to plummet.
Feb 21 — Russia shuts off the Brotherhood and Soyuz pipelines in Ukraine. Natural gas prices in Europe spike. Biden pledges economic and fuel support for the EU. Markets, aside from North and South American oil and gas companies, go into freefall.
Feb 28 — All pipelines from Russia to the EU are shut down. Riots break out across Europe as fuel panic sweeps the continent. (In 2017, 39% of the EU’s natural gas total imports originated in Russia, with some countries like Estonia nearly 100% dependent on Russian natural gas.) Houses of Russian oligarchs in England are burned by angry mobs.
March 7 — The “Ukrainian Three Day War” starts and ends. Cyberattacks target the EU and US power grids, resulting in rolling blackouts. Pirates attack ships in the Persian gulf, resulting in the disruption of shipped natural gas to Europe.
March 14 — First wave of “Operation Torch” US cargo ships arrive in French ports, loaded with natural gas. The EU’s Horizon Europe effort declares a €1T project for energy independence. Battery makers, solar firms, and nuclear companies see their stocks surge.
April — Failed assassination attempts on Putin and Biden occur within 6 hours of each other. Cold War 2.0 starts.
May — French President Macron gives his “everything under the sun” speech on energy self-reliance, including a commitment to building 5 new nuclear reactors before the end of 2023. The EU ceremonially cuts all Russian pipelines at the EU border.
July — EU completes phase 1 electrical grid updates.
August — EU achieves 40% of energy coming from renewable sources (compared to 22.1% in 2020). EU announces a moratorium on all imported natural gas by end of 2023.
The prof doesn’t normally test the 2022 Arab September Solar Revolution until later in the semester. Good luck!