🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 51
May 12th, 2022
Episode 51 — May 12th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/51
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Dimitri Glazkov, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Spencer Pitman, Ben Mathes
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Justin Quimby, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Julka Almquist
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.
“The idea of the building, the intention of it, its design, are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives. The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself.”
— Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See (1989)
🚢🚀 The fleet of Theseus
Ancient philosophers constructed the thought experiment of the Ship of Theseus. Their question goes: if the ship of Theseus (a Greek demigod) was kept in a harbor for many years and each part was eventually replaced through the course of regular maintenance, would it still be the same ship? Or would it be a whole new ship that is no longer the good ol’ Ship of Theseus?
This simple thought experiment can yield surprisingly nuanced insights. Consider a team whose members have all rapidly rotated out, replaced by newcomers, yet the name remains. Is it the same team? From the inside, likely not. From the outside, from the point of view of its customers, it still bears the same name, so… maybe yes? Will the customers be surprised when their expectations aren’t fulfilled because the team no longer has the same deep understanding? Most definitely. The Ship of Theseus lens helps us shine a light on this situation and, hopefully, navigate it more effectively.
Another version of this thought experiment might be what we call the Raft of Theseus. A changing entity may lack the critical mass to maintain its Theseus-ness. The hefty ship gets downgraded to a rickety raft. If just one or two of the raft’s planks fall off, it sinks. Small teams can suffer from this affliction: it happens when a team is so small that even the most gradual change in membership has a noticeable impact. A Raft of Theseus is held together by a few individuals who were there from the beginning. Once they leave, the raft falls apart into driftwood.
Yet another exploration yields the Starship of Theseus. What if, instead of being kept the same, the ship was actively improved? Today, the ship would likely have a steel hull and an efficient diesel engine. Tomorrow, maybe a reactor. In a thousand years, the vessel could have transformed to be star-faring. This story of gradual improvement that still retains the entity’s character can serve as an inspiring metaphor for organizations.
Which brings us to the final lens. With the tip of a red-and-white hat to the old children’s puzzle, “Where’s Theseus?” is a useful question to ponder when evolving organizations. What are the essences that must remain, even if the people change? What are the traits that retain that Theseus character? Is it the name? Is it how the planks creak a certain way? Is it the particular scar left from a terrible storm in its storied past? Look around your organization and find the source of its Theseus-ness. These are the attributes that must survive reorgs, attrition, priority, and mission shifts. These are the ones that are worth maintaining, while we eventually let go of the rest in the swirl of inexorable change.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🌻 Countries are banning food oil exports due to droughts and the Ukraine war
Food oil prices have spiked recently because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has disrupted exports of sunflower oil; the Black Sea region accounts for over three-fourths of the world’s sunflower oil exports. Even worse, alternative oils like soy and rapeseed/canola are also in short supply due to droughts in Argentina, Brazil, and Canada. As a result, the prices of various food oils have soared, leading multiple countries to lock down their food oil exports in an attempt to keep oils accessible to residents. Indonesia, the world’s top producer of palm oil, enacted a ban on exports of the widely-used edible oil; Argentina, the top exporter of processed soy, briefly banned exports of soy oil.
🚏🛵 A Russian protest band’s leader fled house arrest by posing as a food deliverer
The leader of the Russian activist band Pussy Riot, whose music and performances feature anti-Putin and pro-LGBTQ themes, was under effective house arrest after a half-dozen instances of being thrown in jail for trumped-up charges. This week, she and her girlfriend made a daring escape by dressing as food delivery couriers — complete with a freezer backpack — and sneaking through Russia and Belarus until they reached Lithuania.
🚏📉 Three execs at a tech firm announced they were pouring millions into their stock
Like many other high-growth, newly-public tech companies, Shopify has had a rough year in the stock market: its shares are down over 70% since January 1st. In a departure from their usual practice of not talking publicly about the company’s market performance, three Shopify executives announced they were pouring their own funds into the company’s slumping stock. CEO Tobi Lütke said he’d placed an order for $10 million in Shopify shares; a VP said he’d “liquidated some of [his] family’s portfolio” to buy “a significant amount of $SHOP”; and the firm’s President tweeted that he was “putting [his] money where [his] mouth is” and bought $1 million in shares.
🚏🇨🇳 China censored videos of the WHO chief criticizing the “zero-COVID” approach
In a press briefing, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, criticized China’s draconian “zero-COVID'' strategy, saying “we don’t think that is sustainable… transitioning to another strategy would be important.” China’s state censors blocked official UN articles featuring Tedros’s statement on WeChat, plus video clips of his speech and reports on the speech from foreign media outlets.
🚏🧑🏫 The Brooklyn Public Library is giving free digital library cards to young Americans
In response to “an increasingly coordinated and effective effort to remove books tackling a wide range of topics from library shelves,” the Brooklyn Public Library announced a new initiative that lets anyone between the ages of 13 and 21 in the US apply for a free digital library card. Card holders will have access to not just physical books in Brooklyn but also ebooks and audiobooks representing frequently-challenged titles, which can be downloaded at any time.
🚏⚛️ A rare isotope needed for nuclear fusion may be 10x as common as we thought
Helium-3 (which has one more neutron than the usual Helium-2) is thought to be a key fuel source for future nuclear fusion reactors, but for years this gas seemed to be extremely rare in Earth’s atmosphere. A new paper, however, suggests that known sources of helium-3 account for just 10% of the planet’s total supply — though the source of all this extra fusion fuel remains a “major puzzle.”
🚏👛 Coinbase warned that users could lose their coins if the firm goes bankrupt
The slumping crypto market has sunk the popular crypto exchange Coinbase’s stock price by 75% this year. Amidst this turmoil, Coinbase revealed in an earnings statement that the over $250 billion in user funds it controls (both crypto and fiat) “could be subject to bankruptcy proceedings.” In other words, if the centralized company goes under, investors who kept their funds on Coinbase could become “general unsecured creditors” and be unable to reclaim their funds. (Coinbase’s CEO said the company had “no risk of bankruptcy” and the disclosure was only due to new rules from the SEC.)
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
I Can Feel My Heart Hardening as the War Goes On (The Spectator) — A Ukrainian-American writer considers the parallels between the biblical story of Exodus to Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine as he travels home to celebrate Passover in his hometown of Kiev. In particular, he wrestles with the puzzle of “how to keep your humanity while killing a genocidal enemy,” especially during Passover.
Mechanical Watch (Bartosz Ciechanowski) — A remarkably detailed, visual, and interactive demo that unwinds every single piece of a mechanical watch, starting from basic springs and gears and working up to how advanced features like day-of-the-month wheels work.
The Gig Workers Fighting Back Against the Algorithms (MIT Technology Review) — Part three of a series on “AI colonialism,” this essay introduces us to a sprawling community of food delivery drivers in Indonesia and details how they combat the atomizing forces of algorithmic management with support networks, “base camps” for drivers to rest and recharge, and group chats where drivers help each other out.
Why Are American Chips So Boring? (Eater) — Investigates why the US is stuck with sour cream and onion while most other countries have weird and wonderful potato chip flavors. A major reason is that chip companies want flavors that are broadly acceptable to most of the market, which (in a heterogeneous country like the US) often leads to them settling on the lowest common denominator.
Why France Really Invited Ukraine and Britain to a New “European Community” (ibx2cat) — A geopolitical analysis of French President Macron’s announcement that he wants to create a vaguely EU-like body that could include members that don’t want (or can’t get) full EU integration, like the UK and Ukraine. Concludes that, while this may not be entirely necessary in a world where transnational alliances like NATO and the EFTA already exist, it carries a high signaling value for France and Macron.
Elon Musk Is Already Grinding Us Down (Galaxy Brain on The Atlantic) — Charlie Warzel highlights two dark patterns on Twitter that are likely to be amplified by Musk's upcoming changes: 1) the dominance of pithy, short, reductive utterances (memes) over chains of informative tweets (tweetstorms), and 2) the tendency to race to quickly reply to high profile-tweets so the reply can occupy the valuable real estate below.
DALL-E 2 and the Origin of Vibe Shifts (Divinations) — Compares the evolution of trends in visual design to sexual selection in biological evolution: actors spend resources on costly attributes (fancy landing pages, peacock tails) to signal their fitness to others (customers, mates). Right now, stylish 3D models or custom website illustrations are a valuable costly signal of a startup’s wealth, but what happens when AI lets anyone create dazzling graphics with the click of a button?
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Immune: A Journey into the Mysterious System That Keeps You Alive by Philipp Dettmer (2021, 368 pages).
One part biology systems textbook, one part guidebook, one part immersive illustrated journey, Immune is an appealing generalist dive into the extremely complex system that is the human immune system. The book’s organization rewards skimming, with over 40 pages of bright and fun yet detailed illustrations (you wouldn’t expect any less from the CEO of Kurzgesagt), but the real joy comes from taking on the tome like a novel.
In a relatively short span of pages, you’ll get a fun primer on the evolutionary history of the immune system. You’ll learn about its structure, its function, and the mind-blowing complexity of its array of mechanics. Immune handles a topic that could easily descend into the overly-technical in an approachable way that will have you considering your life through the lens of the immune system.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Drawing a distinction.
In a flux-y environment, we may struggle to make sense of what’s happening. A useful tool in such situations is drawing a distinction. This is a common enough phrase, but it’s worth unpacking the individual words, especially “drawing.” We ask ourselves: is there something that separates these bits from those, a line we can draw between them?
Suppose you see a bunch of people causing a commotion. Taking a look at the behavior in detail, you notice that only a small group of them are rabble-rousing. Others are trying to quiet them down. In doing this, we’ve drawn a distinction between the troublemakers and the rest of the crowd.
Distinctions are especially useful when they reveal a tension between the separated parts. This sense of tension can guide us to look for causal forces. Once we have determined the direction of causality, we can think about how to influence it. Drawing a distinction can turn intractable chaos into a problem we can solve. Now that we can spot the troublemakers in the crowd, we can join in to help resolve the situation. Or we can choose to observe. Now that we know what’s going on, we have options.
Seeing distinction as a lens also helps us remember that distinctions are constructed. They are just one way of looking at a situation that’s usually a lot more complex. We should keep a careful eye on our intuitive distinctions and apply a bit of critical thinking. Is this distinction revealing an interesting tension? What tensions does it ignore and conceal? What irrelevant differences does it amplify? If, in that noisy crowd, we tried to draw distinctions based on what color shoes people were wearing, we would have indeed drawn a distinction. However, that particular distinction would not have served us well in making sense of the situation.