🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 50
May 5th, 2022
Episode 50 — May 5th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/50
Contributors to this issue: Erika Rice Scherpelz, Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Ben Mathes, Dimitri Glazkov, Julka Almquist, Spencer Pitman
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Justin Quimby, Alex Komoroske, 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.
“Life understood is life lived. But the paradoxes bug me, and I can learn to love and make love to the paradoxes that bug me. And on really romantic evenings of self, I go salsa dancing with my confusion.”
— Timothy “Speed” Levitch
📝 Editor’s note: This week marks 50 episodes of the FLUX Review, and almost exactly one year since we publicly launched. A hearty thank-you to our readers for your continued support and enthusiasm!
🌀✍️ Collaborative editing
One of the most amazing things about this newsletter is how it comes together each week. There’s something magical about the generative collaboration behind the scenes. It seemingly just happens, with multiple writers and editors contributing without explicit coordination.
Collaborative editing is one of the simple rules that enables this. As contributors write drafts, they drop them into a shared Google Doc. At this point, other contributors begin to edit. We don’t add comments or create personal copies to share later or set up meetings to discuss changes. Things begin to change right within the doc.
At some point, the whirlwind of editing settles down. The issue is ready to ship… usually sometime Thursday afternoon. Despite the chaos, this process happens like clockwork, week after week. Like in those complex systems we love to gab on about, each issue is a highly emergent phenomenon.
When trying to puzzle out the ingredients of this experience, a few things stand out. First, the stakes are present but low. An issue does need to ship every week, but since the negative consequences of failure are small, we stay chill about it.
Second, the generative, free-wheeling vibe is fostered through regular live conversations. The conversations visit many topics, meander, go down into rabbit holes, and tread back. Nearly always, some interesting fodder for an article or a “worth your time” is uncovered. The key ingredient seems to be a collective willingness to hold our opinions lightly and hold the spirit of community above our personal aims and ambitions.
Finally — and pragmatically — it helps to have two or three contributors ready and willing to step up in a crunch. Sometimes, the draft doc still looks pretty barebone on Wednesday night. It really helps to have that extra boost to push the newsletter across the line. The weekly newsletter serves as that little push to make something durable out of our freewheeling conversations: Minimum Viable Make Something.
We hope it comes across that these weekly newsletters are a collaborative labor of love. In our minds, the capacity to edit collaboratively feels like a sign of a healthy generative community. It is a precious, highly-sought-after quality in any team that wants to innovate. We hope that lifting the curtains of this newsletter will help you grow something similar in your work, hobby, or even home environment.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏👩🚀 NASA is sending artificial female bodies to the Moon to study health risks
NASA’s new Artemis program aims to bring humans to the Moon for the first time in 50 years — and this time, they’ve pledged to land the first woman ever on the lunar surface. But research suggests that women have a higher chance of developing cancer from space radiation than men, and that radiation may affect female reproductive health. So, NASA is deploying an unmanned mission to the Moon and back, where a capsule will carry two mannequins whose materials “mimic the bones, soft tissues, and organs of an adult woman.” One of those mannequins will be outfitted with a radiation protection vest, and both will be measured for “health” damage when they return.
🚏📲 The CDC bought millions of phones’ location data to track COVID lockdown adherence
In 2021, the US’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) bought access to aggregated location data from tens of millions of phones. The data was to be used for 21 different “potential CDC use cases,” including analyzing whether Americans were following stay-at-home orders and tracking patterns of visits to schools and pharmacies. (The CDC bought the data from the controversial data broker SafeGraph, which this week was revealed to have been selling aggregated data about who visited abortion clinics.)
🚏🚜 Russian soldiers stole farm vehicles from Ukraine, only to find they’d been remotely disabled
Russian soldiers occupying the city of Melitopol in southeastern Ukraine seized a farm equipment dealership and shipped $5 million worth of machinery — including combine harvesters, a tractor, and a seeder — to Chechnya. But when the Russians tried to use the combine harvesters, they found that the GPS-equipped machines couldn’t even be turned on — they’d been remotely disabled.
🚏🏝️ Home sellers in Hawaii will have to disclose if sea level rise threatens their land
As part of a new state policy (the first of its kind in the US), homeowners in Hawaii seeking to sell their homes will need to disclose whether their property is “susceptible to sea level rise impacts based on a 3.2-foot increase in sea level.” What’s more, buyers will be able to use a free mapping tool to visualize which parts of the state could be vulnerable to varying amounts of sea-level rise.
🚏🇷🇺 Russia may recruit tech-savvy prisoners to work for domestic companies
The deputy head of Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service announced that entrepreneurs across Russia had approached the agency asking to hire imprisoned IT specialists to work remotely for domestic firms (likely on the cheap). The official said the agency was seriously considering the idea. The move comes as the Russian economy is reportedly facing nearly 95,000 vacancies in IT roles and many Russian tech firms are “postponing” major projects.
🚏⚖️ The SEC is on a hiring spree to expand its crypto-fraud-fighting unit
The US’s Securities and Exchange Commission, which is tasked with regulating financial markets, announced it was hiring 20 new employees — including attorneys and fraud analysts — to combat cryptocurrency fraud. That represents a near-70% growth in the size of this “Crypto Assets and Cyber Unit,” which will be monitoring a wide range of crypto activities, including crypto exchanges, token launches, NFTs, DeFi platforms, and stablecoins.
🚏🎈 One startup claims to have made cheap carbon-catching balloons
An Israeli startup is developing a carbon-capturing balloon that uses hydrogen gas to rise to nine miles (15 km) above the Earth’s surface, where the temperature falls to -112ºF (-80ºC) — the freezing point of carbon dioxide. The balloon will funnel the frozen carbon in the wind into a special compartment, and the carbon’s weight will bring the balloon back down to earth. The company claims that, at scale, each balloon would cost less than $50 yet could capture up to a metric ton (2200 pounds) of carbon a day.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
The Game Theory Behind the Supreme Court Leak (Amy Kapczynski) — A Yale Law professor and former Supreme Court clerk analyzes the game theory behind the topic of who leaked SCOTUS’s draft opinion on Roe v. Wade. While the leak is far from the most important part of the story, this analysis helps us understand the internal dynamics of the Court and the psychology and tactics of the justices and their clerks.
A Mental Model for Combating Climate Change (Nan Ransohoff) — Develops an estimate for how we can reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 (which is necessary to limit global temperature rise to 1.5ºC), then shares a range of practical steps society can take to reduce carbon emissions and increase carbon removal.
The Tyranny of Structurelessness (Jo Freeman) — Argues that every human organization has a hierarchy; organizations that claim to be “structureless” just shift power to an informal hierarchy ruled by an unaccountable elite while making it hard for rank-and-file members to even know how to effect change. A formal hierarchy, if done right, makes power and decision-making accessible to all. The essay closes with 7 principles for forming a democratic organization where “the group of people in positions of authority will be diffuse, flexible, open, and temporary.”
Inside Shanghai: Questions, Lessons, and Silver Linings (ChinaTalk) — A pair of essays from Shanghai residents reflecting on how the Chinese government’s poorly-planned lockdowns have reshaped society — and what potential shifts in China’s economic, demographic, and political climates may be on the horizon.
How to Design a Sailing Ship for the 21st Century (Low Tech Magazine) — Investigates what it’d take to rebuild the global shipping system on humble (yet zero-emission) sailboats. Unfortunately, sailboats would be impractical for large-scale cargo shipping and couldn’t provide the safety or conveniences we’ve come to expect today. Still, the thought experiment introduces us to novel green technologies like saltwater batteries.
One Hundred Rules for NASA Project Managers (Project Smart) — NASA veterans share philosophical bits of wisdom on decision-making, managing engineers, navigating politics, communicating effectively, and more in the context of a large organization.
The Arrow of Time and How to Reverse It (PBS Space Time) — Explores how, even though the laws of physics work the same way forward and in reverse, the universe seems to only ever move forward in time. Matt O’Dowd’s investigation of the universe’s time asymmetry leads us to some deep truths about entropy and emergence.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering by Thich Nhat Hanh (2014, 82 pages).
This book is a serene acknowledgement of our suffering and shares a concise path to lessen it. The first few chapters could be a survival guide for those times when the world seems to be closing in on us, the burden of suffering weighing down our shoulders.
No Mud, No Lotus is short on pages and long on wisdom. It’s nearly mathematically precise in its formulations, each sentence jam-packed with uncanny depth. It feels like a book one can read over lunch or through the course of an entire life. In either case, it’s worth a look.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Reversibility.
Imagine that the new code you just shipped to production unintentionally breaks everything. Colleagues in different time zones are awakened in the middle of the night to scramble and fix everything. The effort it takes to repair the system is dramatically disproportionate to the effort it took to break it.
What if you could easily reverse these actions? What if you had a universal undo button? You could roll back to a prior version, figure out what’s wrong, and save your colleagues from scrambling to fix the mistake. A system has reversibility when the effort to reverse something is approximately equivalent to that of the initial action. But when reversing an action takes more effort than enacting it, these reversals often don’t happen, and the actions that need to be reversed tend to accumulate. In short, reversibility makes the system more efficient and less laggy. It frees us up to explore and experiment.
That’s not to say that irreversibility is all bad. In fact, we can learn a lot from it. Jeff Bezos says that you should make reversible decisions freely and quickly but be careful with irreversible decisions. The value of confronting irreversibility is that it connects you to what you care about and creates an understanding of the stakes. If there really was an undo button for everything, we could lose sight of the consequences of our actions.
Regardless, the universal undo button — this perfect reversibility — is a dream: little in this world is perfectly reversible. There isn’t an undo button to save a favorite ceramic you just dropped or to put your toothpaste back into the tube. We can’t know the exact results of our actions before we enact them. As the recent saying goes, you have to f*** around and find out. Still, we can keep the spirit of reversibility in mind: even if we can’t create an undo button, we can create environments where we can easily change course. We can experiment and play.
Perfect reversibility may be too high a bar. But if we can lower the costs of undoing, that may well be enough.