🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 43
March 17th, 2022
Episode 43 — March 17th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/43
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Justin Quimby, Dimitri Glazkov, Alex Komoroske, Erika Rice Scherpelz
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, 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.
“You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.”
— Malcolm X
🪑☯️ Just sit with it
Many problems can be overcome if we just exert a bit more effort. Education and culture have taught us how to approach these problems: hone skills, build experience, stay focused. However, there is a class of problems that do not yield to this approach. These problems feel different: more slippery, harder to define.
Domains like engineering tend to be dominated by the first kind of problem. The realm of organizing people is dominated by the second. This creates a gnarly mix in fields like engineering management: a set of solvable problems mingled with ones that are not. Leaders face the daunting task of making sense of this interplay. We put the “pedal to the metal” to solve problems effectively and efficiently, yet the gains are infuriatingly lackluster. Approaching unsolvable problems with brute force just creates more problems… and “now you have two problems.”
The challenge is that we often confuse solvable problems with unsolvable ones. As the problems multiply, we become inundated. Our intuition tells us to go even faster — but the faster we go, the more we exacerbate our plight. To get back on track, we need to do something wholly unintuitive. Rather than continue to run in the same direction, we need to sit with it.
“Sitting with it” means deliberately choosing to slow down, to step out of the churn. It means taking time to reflect on what’s happening around us. Are we still going the right way? Or are we being dragged along by the never-ending stream of syncs, reviews, check-ins, and last-minute changes? Are our processes helping us? Or have we become subservient to them? “Sitting with it” means accepting that we won’t be able to solve all the problems. We need to have patience and let solutions bubble up to the surface.
For expert problem-solvers, “sitting with it” can be profoundly uncomfortable. In an effort to escape the burden of facing unsolvability, we will be tempted to invent processes that allot appropriate amounts of sitting-with-it time. We may come up with checklists and spreadsheets that assure us that we’ve sat enough. We want to get on with our busy schedule.
Yet it is in the midst of the storm of deadlines, in the busiest of times, when we need this approach the most. It will feel like wasting time. It will feel like losing our grip. Despite all that, lifting our heads and looking around might give us the necessary pause. We might realize we’ve been busy pushing on the door with the sign that says “pull.” And that might be exactly the glimpse of insight we need.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏📜 Police in Russia arrested a protestor holding a blank sign
Russian police have arrested hundreds of anti-war demonstrators in dozens of cities across the country. One such arrest went viral: a protestor in Nizhny Novgorod was arrested for holding up a blank white sign.
🚏🔦 Ukraine shut off production for half the world’s neon, a key input in microchip production
Neon is a key ingredient in microchip production: neon gas makes up 95% of the lasers used to etch circuit patterns onto silicon wafers. Only extremely pure neon will work for this process, and it’s estimated that a handful of Ukrainian companies collectively manufacture about half of the world’s semiconductor-grade neon. These companies have halted production amid the war, and while the neon manufacturers and chipmakers have a few months of neon supply in reserve, analysts are worried about the potential for another crippling semiconductor shortage.
🚏🇺🇸 The White House briefed TikTok stars on how to talk about the Ukraine war
White House and National Security Council officials invited 30 TikTok stars to speak with White House press secretary Jen Psaki about the war in Ukraine and the US’s role in the conflict. The goal was to help the TikTokers get clarity on how to “communicate effectively about the crisis” and how to debunk misinformation about the war. Addressing the TikTokers, the White House’s director of digital strategy said:
“We recognize [TikTok] is a critically important avenue in the way the American public is finding out about the latest, so we wanted to make sure you had the latest information from an authoritative source.”
🚏🌏 Hong Kong and mainland China are facing a deadly Omicron wave
While much of the Asia-Pacific region has suffered a COVID-19 outbreak in recent weeks, it’s been particularly deadly in Hong Kong, which currently has the highest rate of COVID-19 deaths per million people on the planet. The reasons? One reporter pointed to Hong Kong’s low vaccination rate among the elderly, who are the most vulnerable; the low-quality Sinovac vaccine used in much of East Asia; and Hong Kongers’ lack of natural immunity due to the government’s “Zero COVID” policy. He added that many of the same factors apply in mainland China, which faces a mounting Omicron crisis of its own.
🚏🔐 Russia created its own HTTPS certificate authority after sanctions cut the country off
In order to let users connect securely over HTTPS, websites need to keep their TLS certificates up-to-date; if their certificates expire, web browsers will show an error message and urge visitors to leave. Websites need to pay Certificate Authorities (CAs) to renew their certificates, but most CAs are based in countries that have imposed sanctions on Russia, making Russian companies unable to send money to the CAs and thus unable to refresh their certificates. So, the Russian government set up its own state-run CA to offer free certificates to Russian sites. But mainstream browsers like Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox don’t accept those certificates, so Russia is encouraging its residents to switch to Russian-made browsers that do accept them.
🚏🌐 A Russian Wikipedia editor was arrested, perhaps for his edits about the war
A prolific editor of the Russian-language Wikipedia, with over 200,000 edits to his name, was arrested in Belarus after his personal information was shared on the Belarusian state security apparatus’s Telegram channel. It’s unclear what he was charged with, but he was accused of “distributing fake anti-Russian information” and editing Wikipedia articles about the invasion of Ukraine. The arrest comes on the heels of Vladimir Putin’s new law that punishes people who spread “fake news” with up to 15 years in prison and Russian censors’ threats to block Wikipedia in the country over its articles about the war.
🚏🤑 A $4 billion hedge fund is shorting Tether, the notorious stablecoin
There are almost 80 billion Tether coins (each of which is nominally pegged to 1 US dollar) in circulation, representing an almost 20-fold increase in the last two years. Tether sometimes claims that it backs these coins 1-to-1 with “cash or cash equivalents,” but most of these reserves are in short-term commercial debt, known as commercial paper. A $4 billion hedge fund, betting that this paper (which it thinks is tied to China’s collapsing real estate market) will lose value, has constructed a way to effectively “short-sell” Tethers. The fund thinks the bet on Tether going bust could pay off in as little as 12 months.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Russia’s Long-Term Economic Prospects (Branko Milanovic) — Argues that Western sanctions on Russia are here to stay for as long as 50 years. While the USSR was able to grow despite heavy sanctions, several key economic changes have made it hard for modern Russia to do the same. One ambitious option for Russia would be to radically shift its focus away from an unfriendly Europe and toward a more neutral East Asia.
Grand Corruption as a Systemic Parasite Upon Society (Aeon) — Argues that the popular definition of corruption (as bribe-seeking and explicit quid-pro-quo deals by individual bureaucrats) is far too narrow. This atomizing focus on “petty corruption” leaves us blind to the broader systemic rot of “grand corruption”: where networks of elites (spanning the public and private sectors) reshape society to enrich themselves in the long run. Unlike petty corruption, this happens in “developed” countries too.
Why the Web Won't Be Nirvana (1995) (Newsweek) — A cantankerous skeptic bashes on the future of the web, making a litany of predictions that turned out wrong to various degrees. It’s an eye-opening read 27 years later; revisiting pundits from the past is a useful exercise that reminds us just how difficult the future is to predict.
The Kind of Smarts You Don’t Find in Young People (The Atlantic) — Describes the differences between fluid and crystallized intelligence and how younger and older workers bring complementary skills and value to an organization. Argues that Silicon Valley, with its emphasis on youth and innovation, often misses out on the synthesis and mentorship abilities that older workers can bring.
Can You Warm Yourself With Your Mind? (New Yorker) — Studies in Nature show that advanced practitioners of “g-tummo” meditation can raise their core temperatures by 1–2 °C and their extremities by around 10 °C. This is done by contracting abdominal and pelvic muscles and visualizing a flame rising from below the navel to the top of the head.
What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun? (David Graeber) – In a rambling essay, Graeber highlights anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin’s observation that species that cooperate most effectively tend to have the greatest competitive advantage in the long run. Kropotkin argues that, somewhat counterintuitively, animal cooperation often has nothing to do with survival or reproduction — rather, it’s a form of pleasure in itself.
Lab-Grown Meat is Supposed to Be Inevitable. The Science Tells a Different Story. (The Counter) — Details the steep economic, technical, and biological barriers facing the lab-grown meat industry; argues that the industry’s projections of cheap, abundant lab-grown meat in the near future are far too optimistic; and reflects on how our human desire to believe in the revolutionary potential of invention often runs up against scientific reality.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend FLUX: 8 Superpowers for Thriving in Constant Change by April Rinne (2021, 216 pages).
Flux: the whirlwind of complexity that surrounds us, the change that seems to just keep coming. Flux can be overwhelming and daunting. It can also be exhilarating. If you’re looking for a guide to help you make sense of flux, April Rinne’s book might be a good place to start. It’s structured as a framework (three steps, eight superpowers) and is a synthesis of many insights from various sources. The book is written in a conversational, engaging style that feels like a breath of fresh air, inspiring us toward optimism and hope.
The superpowers the author mentions are judo moves: asymmetric, often counterintuitive, strategies that help you operate in flux. One such judo move is “slowing down.” Another is “getting lost.” These ideas are likely to pique your interest, especially when we’re all trying to go faster or find ourselves.
🕵️♀️📆 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 balcony and the dance floor.
“Sitting with it” can be quite challenging. It can be hard to even understand what this means. To help, here’s a lens first introduced by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky.
Imagine yourself on a dance floor. You’re in the mix, you’ve got moves, you’re dancing with everyone, and having a good time. Suddenly, people around you start bunching up, leaving less and less room for your moonwalk. What is happening? It’s clear that something is moving the crowd, but alas, you are on the floor. You can’t see the bigger picture.
You need to get onto the balcony. Getting on the balcony means that you need to make your way to the stairs. More importantly, it means that you need to stop dancing. Getting on the balcony removes you from the action. You won’t be able to see the details, but you will be able to see the larger forces that are invisible from below.
Whether it’s phrased as a subject-object shift, “sitting with it,” or “getting on the balcony,” all of these metaphors point at the same thing. Instead of being swept up in the action, sometimes we need to stop doing what we’re doing, step away, and find a vantage point that allows us to see the problem from the outside, not the inside. Only then will the nature of the seemingly-unsolvable problem become apparent and possible to manage.
🔮📬 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.
// Content warning: This week’s postcard indirectly references the ongoing violence in Ukraine.
// 2065 pop quiz for a class on 21st century history
Which company was the first to ratify the Geneva Conventions so that their internal military forces would be afforded prisoner of war protections during military conflicts with nation-states?
ADT Security Services
What was the longest military occupation between 2020 and 2050?
Russia / Ukraine
China / Taiwan
Japan / Kuril Islands
Israel / Suez Canal
Tesla / South America’s Lithium Triangle
Which country was the first to formalize social networks as part of their warfighting doctrine?
What triggered the “flash crash” of US financial markets in 2023?
Tsunami hitting Florida
Banning of individual stock trades by elected US officials
Jon Stewart’s reporting on hedge fund positions
Coinbase API bug
Short answer questions:
Which was the first internet browser to add a “site propaganda indicator”?
How many Russian oligarchs were banned from re-entering Russia after losing their foreign citizenships?
How many new countries declared possession of nuclear weapons in the period between 2022 and 2032?