🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 40
February 24th, 2022
Episode 40 — February 24th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/40
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Justin Quimby, Dimitri Glazkov, Alex Komoroske, Spencer Pitman, Boris Smus
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, 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.
“I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.”
― Herman Melville
🪜🧗 Climbing the ladder of ambiguity
“Ambiguity” is, itself, often an ambiguous term. We can reduce the ambiguity about “ambiguity” through a simple model: the ladder of ambiguity. Imagine different realms of ambiguity as stacked layers, with the harder-to-resolve ones at the bottom. The right framing can push ambiguity from a lower layer to a higher one, but each transition requires a different set of framing tools.
At the uppermost layer sits factual ambiguity. Everyone is roughly aligned on the desired outcome but don’t agree on how to get there. People are generally excited about the problem and propose a wide variety of approaches. Metrics are a well-honed mechanism for resolving factual ambiguity. By designing a metric that captures the gist of the direction, different approaches can be easily evaluated. Metrics may be relatively straightforward and based on a single factor, like Monthly Active Users, or carefully synthesized from multiple factors, such as Cumulative Layout Shift.
Sometimes, though, metrics are not enough. Although people generally understand the problem, they still talk past each other. In this case, we might be at the layer of semantic ambiguity. Teammates hold different meanings for the concepts at play. For instance, in a conversation about improving software performance, one person may mean maximizing throughput while another wants to minimize latency. Reducing semantic ambiguity requires aligning on definitions within the problem space. With framing definitions in place, the team can elevate their conversation to the layer of factual ambiguity: if this is what we mean by performance, what metric can we use to know whether we’re improving or degrading it?
Deeper still is the layer of ontological ambiguity. Attempts to align on definitions fail. We feel a distinct sense of dread and frustration as the problem shape-shifts before our eyes. We see many fragments, but we don’t have a way to reconcile them into one image. Endless churn characterizes this layer. For example, working groups struggling to define ambiguous cultural attributes can fall into this trap: What is a healthy team, anyway? Given time and psychological spaciousness, we may find our way to shared beliefs that allow us to ascend to the next layer of ambiguity.
At each layer the human desire for certainty pulls us upward… sometimes too quickly. The desire to steer clear of ambiguity encourages the emergence of unproductive framings. These framings are satisfying in the short term because they allow us to rapidly move up the ladder of ambiguity toward solutions. Yet when the problem doesn’t go away, we fall back down to the same spot we started at.
In an ambiguous situation, we must balance our ability to withstand that upward force against the need to nurture framings that help others to allay their fears of the unknown. It is a delicate dance. Try to aim for the perfect framing, and the organization will get stuck in the primordial terror of ontological ambiguity. Frame too quickly, and the organization will run afoul of Goodhart’s Law, the McNamara fallacy, and other framing pathologies. Understanding the ladder of ambiguity can help us find the right rhythm in this dance.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏💵 Stablecoins are selling for well over a dollar on Ukrainian exchanges
As Russia–Ukraine tensions rise, many Ukrainians — seeking safe assets — are trying to move their money into stablecoins like Tether, which is nominally pegged to one US dollar per coin. But while demand has jumped, there’s only a limited supply of Tethers available on Ukrainian crypto exchanges, which has led to Tethers there selling for as much as $1.10 a pop instead of the usual $1.00.
🚏🇬🇧 30 UK firms are piloting a four-day work week
As part of a new research project, 30 UK firms will commit to a four-day work week for six months. These firms will be asked to “maintain 100% productivity” despite only spending 80% as much time on the job; employees’ pay will also stay the same, as if they were still working five days a week.
🚏🗳 A suspicious pattern of round numbers pointed to manipulation in Russian elections
A recent analysis examined voter turnout and vote share data released by the Russian government. It found that a surprisingly high number of data points ended in 0’s and 5’s — a telltale sign of data fabrication and thus election manipulation.
🚏⛄ Ethereum’s founder said a crypto winter could actually be a good thing
As cryptocurrency prices continue to decline, Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin said that many crypto developers might actually “welcome a bear market.” He argued that ballooning crypto prices led to the funding of many hyped-up projects that weren’t viable in the long run, and that a sustained price decline would clear these out, leaving behind just the healthier, more sustainable projects.
🚏🎒 Homeschooling in the US has been growing since long before COVID-19
While COVID-19 has driven a sharp uptick in homeschooling in the US, it’s just been accelerating a long-standing trend. Homeschooling has grown rapidly since 1970, with 2018 figures estimating that 2.3 million American children, or about 3.3%, were getting homeschooled.
🚏🍯 Anti-cheating software firms have set up “honeypot” sites with fake test answers
Online test-taking has proliferated in the last few years, and so too have software companies who promise to catch cheaters. One such company, which counts several large American universities among its customer base, developed a clever new tactic: it created a network of fake websites that supposedly contain answers to real test questions. But when a student clicks to reveal an answer, their IP address is sent to the anti-cheating firm, which can alert their teachers about the attempted cheating.
🚏🛢 For the first time, the US produces more petroleum than it uses
“Energy independence” — a state of producing enough energy domestically that the nation no longer needs imports — has long been a stated goal of many American politicians. And now, at least with petroleum, the US has achieved that goal: in 2020 the US produced more petroleum than it consumed, and in 2021 the two figures were about equal.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Creativity in Management (John Cleese) — The famous comedian argues that creativity is less a matter of skill than of posture; creativity comes when we are in the divergent, relaxed “open” mode and is impossible when we are in the convergent, execution-focused “closed” mode. Cleese then shares some tips to carve out a quiet space where we can stay in the “open” mode, since it’s far too easy to backslide into the “closed” mode.
Why Everywhere in the US is Starting to Look the Same (Wendover Productions) — Examines how globalization has delivered economies of scale, improved standards of living, and, at the same time, a creeping homogeneity of place. Points out how the benefits and costs of this sameness are not felt by the same parties: while global business owners benefit, locals see a loss of uniqueness.
Cocktail Party Ideas (Dan Luu) — Examines the phenomenon of smart people suggesting simplistic solutions to problem spaces they don’t fully understand. Argues that this happens because “many people who have a superficial understanding of a topic assume that the topic is [only] as complex as their understanding of the topic.”
Has Quantum Mechanics Proved that Reality Does Not Exist? (Sabine Hossenfelder) — Challenges the flashy media narrative that claims that quantum mechanics “disproves objective reality.” Walks through the history of quantum theory leading up to the current day and uses a nuanced, scientific lens to examine popular reporting about what quantum physics has found.
Does Reality Drive Straight Lines On Graphs, Or Do Straight Lines On Graphs Drive Reality? (Slate Star Codex) — Examines straight-line graphs that supposedly show that a certain intervention had no impact on a given trend. Argues for an alternative reading, which is that trends are subject to counterbalancing forces: if it moves too quickly, everyone gets bored and progress slows, but if it moves too slowly, people get agitated and speed up progress. Thus, these interventions may still have helped.
Inside Finland’s Plan to End All Waste by 2050 (TIME) — A tour of Finland’s efforts to create a “circular economy,” where waste materials are reused (in contrast to the standard “take, make, waste” linear economy). Focuses on how the country is baking this concept into primary school curricula and encouraging circular-economy startups.
Robert Moses Helped Ruin Penn Station. He’d Have Made It Easier to Fix, Too (The Week) — Examines the infamous city planner’s legacy in contrast to urbanist icons like Jane Jacobs. Argues that, while Moses’s heavy-handed demolition and rebuilding of large swaths of New York harmed many residents, he at least encouraged the evolution of the city to fit its changing needs, as opposed to trying to preserve the old city in amber.
🌀🖋 More from FLUXers
Highlighting independent publications from FLUX contributors.
In a new book review, FLUX’s own Erika Rice Scherpelz takes a deep dive into Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations. It examines the book’s thesis that it’s possible to build organizations that better support autonomy, community, and wholeness than today’s dominant organizational paradigm. The question is: how do we do this at scale?
Combining summary, critique, and personal experience, this writeup is a worthwhile read for anyone who is interested in understanding and improving the way we run organizations.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine (2019, 462 pages).
If you’re a fan of space opera, this book will hit all the right notes: a protagonist thrown into an impossible situation, palace intrigue, murder mystery, and dramatic close-up and far-away views of the story. The classical, real-time pacing of the story unfolds with the beauty of a flower, both patient and breathtaking at the same time.
If you also enjoy thinking in systems, you will sense the author’s fascination with large civilizations and the dynamics within them. That should come as no surprise, since the author is also a scholar of the Byzantine Empire, a climate and energy policy analyst, and a city planner. The systems-thinking lens subtly permeates the book, especially the notion of well-established civilizations meticulously shaping their narrative and eventually becoming trapped by it. The book left us wondering about the power of the narratives in well-established organizations: how might the key defining moments we capture in our company’s ethos be the same things that keep us stuck when we yearn for transformation?
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: ruderal species.
Ruderal species — whose name comes from the Latin word for “rubble” — are plant species that are often the first to colonize disturbed habitats. Such habitats include barren habitats without any currently-living plant species, such as landscapes in the aftermath of avalanches or wildfires, or human-modified environments like a recently-abandoned mine or the side of a newly-paved road. While ruderal species are diverse, they tend to share similar traits: they grow quickly, produce massive numbers of seeds, and can get by with few nutrients. Their evolutionary strategy is that of “r-selection” — they favor quantity of offspring over quality.
Ruderal species often succeed as pioneers, quickly spreading throughout an empty habitat. Yet in the long run, they tend to be outcompeted by more competitive, K-selected plants as the ecosystem moves back toward a climax state. In more competitive landscapes, ruderal species just can’t capture enough resources to maintain their high volume, low quality strategy. But it takes time for this succession to happen; in landscapes that are still desolate, climax species can’t get a foothold for their more capable but needy offspring.
This metaphor can be extended to other domains. Innovation often occurs in barren landscapes where an entrant can quickly build up market share. When their success is easily copied, however, the first entrant may fall prey to the second-mover advantage, where a competitor with more resources quickly builds up market share.
As we think about human environments, consider how the analogy of barren environments and ruderal species might apply. What new industries are in a space with few incumbents and limited resources? What might happen to them as the ecosystem evolves? What social movements gained initial popularity but then waned as more sophisticated variants came into play? What current movements might be in a similar situation?
🔮📬 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.
// Germany has announced the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany in response to the movement of Russian troops into Ukraine. What might happen if the Russia–Ukraine situation escalates even further?
// Lecture from a 2035 college history class on the “troubles of the 2020s.” This is a follow up to the episode 36’s Postcard about the possible implications of the shutoff of Russian natural gas pipelines to the EU.
During the 2022–2023 Ukrainian crisis, the European Union shut down every single pipeline coming from Russia into the EU. While there was an initial surge in energy prices after the Russia–EU pipelines were shut down, the EU responded with a massive infrastructure program with one goal: completely removing the need for natural gas and oil, turning instead to non-carbon power sources.
In 2020, the EU accounted for roughly 15% (3.1 million barrels) of OPEC’s daily oil output. So the pipeline shutdown hit OPEC hard. It doesn’t matter how good your company is: when you lose 15% of your market in a matter of a few quarters, it hurts. OPEC did okay for a while until, in spring 2023, three separate natural gas ships bound for the EU sank in the Persian Gulf, sending panic through the markets and the Middle East. While suspicion was cast on Russian blackops teams, blame was never formally allocated.
Rioting broke out in several OPEC countries. A video (suspected to be supported by a faction of the house of Saud) showed Saudi Arabian port workers dumping brand new Teslas, Rivians, and other electric vehicles into the Persian Gulf.
With rioting in the streets, the House of Saud announced the “Saudi Manhattan Project.” Estimates are that they poured nearly half a trillion US dollars into non-carbon power generation. Nuclear, wind, and solar power experts flocked to the Middle East, with an opportunity for funding every possible scheme and with ‘lax’ safety rules in place that prioritized speed over everything else. Yes, there were accidents. Yes, there are two spots in the desert now nicknamed “Chernobyl 2” and “Chernobyl 3,” but the results of this sprint caused several key breakthroughs in non-carbon energy generation. OPEC thus secured a stranglehold on the next generation of power generation.
The next class will discuss the impacts of the Gibraltar Terawatt Beam project on the EU’s electric grid.