🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 53
May 26th, 2022
Episode 53 — May 26th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/53
Contributors to this issue: Erika Rice Scherpelz, Boris Smus, Dimitri Glazkov, Neel Mehta, Julka Almquist, Justin Quimby, Ade Oshineye
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Alex Komoroske, 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.
“To make objects with complex holistic properties, it is necessary to invent generating systems which will generate objects with the required holistic properties. The designer becomes a designer of generating systems — each capable of generating many objects — rather than a designer of individual objects.”
— Christopher Alexander, Systems Generating Systems
🙊👂 Hearing the sound of silence
Environmental experts advise the government on rapidly addressing climate change. Meanwhile, players in the oil industry lobby for a slow, gradual rollout of renewables that favors their existing business model. Both domain experts and self-interested lobbyists (of course, the line between them is often blurry) have something in common: like the proverbial squeaky wheel that gets the grease, interested and motivated parties tend to have more influence. Persistence is part of what gives them power. Even if their view is a minority one, the highly-interested exert influence because they regularly invest energy toward realizing their desired outcome. The well-tested hypothesis goes that when a decision maker keeps getting nudged in a certain direction, they will tend to lean toward it — unless they have a strong view pushing another direction.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. When the majority opinion is largely neutral, interested parties can help break through the apathy. A passionate expert can guide the mostly-aligned majority through the details. However, problems start emerging when the influencer’s view goes against the more weakly-held majority opinion. In the short run, this leads to outcomes that go against the wishes of the majority. In the long run, this undermines the legitimacy of the decision-making apparatus.
What should we do? Should we listen to the loudest voices, or write them off as self-dealers? How widely-held is their view? Does that even matter? More fundamentally, can you tell if you are wisely listening to public-minded experts — or being twisted around the finger of a self-interested party? Often, there may not be a single clear answer to these questions. People invariably have mixed motives. An environmental expert passionate about combating climate change may also care about advancing their career. An oil executive could have some legitimately good ideas about how to adapt existing infrastructure for green energy. Because of this inherent complexity, there are no hard and fast rules. We can't just ask, “Does this person have a personal interest in the outcome? Do they have expert knowledge?” Both answers could be “yes” at the same time.
Instead, one of the best tools at our disposal is simply listening, especially for the silent voices, the people who are not speaking up. Go out of your way to ask them what they think. If they do not have well formed opinions, try breaking things down a bit: “Do you prefer X or Y?” Another approach is to borrow a trick from electoral polling: ask people what people in their social circles prefer. Even that may be getting to the point too quickly. Sometimes, you need to understand where someone is coming from before you — or they — can understand what they would prefer: “How has this come up in your life? How does it make you feel?”
Even when the quiet majority and the vocal minority have different opinions, that does not mean one or the other is automatically right. What’s most important is making space to hear the different voices — even when some of them are silent.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🌻 Portable solar generators are helping Ukrainian hospitals keep the lights on
Russian hackers and soldiers alike have been targeting Ukraine’s power grid, oil refineries, and seaports where oil is imported. The resulting electricity crisis has caused major problems for Ukrainian hospitals. Conventional diesel generators aren’t of much help when diesel is hard to come by, either. So, a team of renewable energy experts have been deploying “solar microgrids” to Ukrainian hospitals to smooth over power outages. Unlike diesel generators, these solar microgrids can easily store generated energy, are quieter (a boon for refugees traumatized by the cacophony of war), don’t store flammable fuel, and generate less heat (which makes them harder for enemy heat-seeking technologies to detect).
🚏📸 92% of US execs say camera-off remote workers “don’t have a long-term future” at the firm
According to one survey, over 90% of business executives in the US thought that remote workers who didn’t turn their cameras on were “less engaged in their work” and therefore “[didn’t] have a long-term future at their company.” Over 40% of surveyed execs suspected that people on mute or off-camera were browsing social media or texting during meetings. (Still, almost half of the executives admitted that they weren’t “providing the tools to allow their [remote] workers to be as engaged as their in-person counterparts.”)
🚏🤖 New York State is giving “robot companions” to the elderly
As part of a new initiative, New York State will provide robot companions to more than 800 seniors. It’s part of a bid to address the problem of social isolation among the elderly, especially among the growing number of older adults who live alone. The bots can hold conversations with humans, including remembering details about their partner’s life, adjusting their personality to fit their partners’, and even cracking jokes if their partners laugh often. The contraption also includes a touchscreen tablet for staying in touch with family and a face-like lamp that swivels toward whoever it’s talking to.
🚏🧂 New molten salt batteries could help with long-term renewable energy storage
Conventional batteries create a steep ion gradient between two sides of the battery — which, when released, drives chemical reactions that generate power. But because ions naturally diffuse across the barrier, these batteries lose significant amounts of power over weeks or months. A new type of battery suspends the ions in a solution of molten salts; when the salts freeze solid at 180º C, no ions can diffuse, and so the batteries can maintain most of their power for months on end. Researchers think this long-term storage could help store solar energy generated in summer until the next winter, when renewable energy is harder to come by.
🚏🏗 China plans to 3D-print a 590-foot dam, building it entirely with robots
Chinese officials are reportedly planning to implement an ambitious research paper that laid out a plan to build a 590-foot-high dam across the Yellow River, entirely with robots. After materials are delivered to the site, a network of “unmanned bulldozers, pavers, and rollers,” coordinated by an AI algorithm, will build the dam up, layer by layer. If completed, this project will be the tallest 3D-printed project in history.
🚏🌒 The collapsed Terra Luna cryptocurrency is re-launching
Just a few weeks after the Terra Luna and TerraUSD cryptocoins crashed — wiping out almost all of their $60 billion combined market cap — the Terra community passed a proposal to launch a new Terra blockchain and, along with it, a new Luna currency. Of the new Luna coins, 35% will be “airdropped” to those who held the old Luna token before its demise; 10% will go to pre-crash holders of TerraUSD; and 25% will go to traders who still hold those coins. (The resurrection proposal was spearheaded by Terra’s controversial founder, Do Kwon; in the proposal, he argued that Terra was worth preserving because, after the collapse, it had “strong brand recognition and a name that almost everyone in the world will have heard about.”)
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Reversion to the Mean: The Real Long COVID (John Luttig) — Interprets the recent tech “crash” as a simple reversion to the pre-COVID mean: many of the shifts and accelerations we saw during the pandemic were fleeting, not a new normal. Luttig then shares advice for how investors, founders, and employees can navigate this post-exuberance landscape.
We Created the ‘Pandemicine’ (The Atlantic) — Ed Yong writes that climate change is forcing animals into new habitats where they interact with species they’ve never met before. Scientists are predicting that these new encounters will increase the spread of latent viruses, and in turn increase the chances for future human pandemics.
Planetocopia (World Dream Bank) — A series of illustrated simulations of what Earth would look like if our poles were shifted, sea level was 100 meters higher, or other aspects of geographic history changed. Through vivid descriptions and imagery, it explores the major emergent effects that these minor tweaks would have on biogeography, climate, culture, and even human history.
The Unintended Consequences of China Leapfrogging to Mobile Internet (Yiqin Fu) — Argues that skipping the desktop web era has had some negative side effects for China’s tech ecosystem: writing long-form, evergreen content (like on blogs) is disincentivized thanks to China’s many unsearchable walled gardens, and forging weak ties across companies (like with email) is harder thanks to China’s emphasis on insular, Slack-like messaging products.
A Philosophy of Games That Is Really a Philosophy of Life (The Ezra Klein Show) — An interview with author C. Thi Nguyen that explores games, gamification, and the difference between the two. Looks at art through the lens of “crystallized” human experience and explores games as an art form that crystallizes the experience of decision-making.
Why Traffic Congestion Grows Exponentially, Why It Matters, and What To Do About It (CityNerd) — Develops a mathematical model to show how congestion is a nonlinear phenomenon, with each additional car causing more and more delays. Then argues for the importance of offering mass transit modes to give people an alternative in times of congested roadways.
Why Pebble Failed (Eric Migicovsky) — Half a decade after the promising smartwatch company failed, Pebble’s CEO shares a postmortem highlighting the importance of reaching product-market fit, having a well-communicated long-term vision, hiring a good marketing team, and not overextending your company "in anticipation of future growth.”
💊🍀 A dose of hopepunk 🆕
An optimistic sign that our world’s systems are changing for the better.
After 30 years and £19 billion, London’s Elizabeth line is finally here. It will take 200 million people a year from one side of London to the other, hence the nickname “crossrail.” In effect, this new line shrinks the city and increases the number of people who can participate in the UK’s capital by simultaneously improving multiple dimensions of accessibility.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Move: How Decisive Leaders Execute Strategy Despite Obstacles, Setbacks, and Stalls by Patty Azzarello (2017, 296 pages).
There is a standard recipe for change: start with an undeniable picture of why things need to change; add a compelling vision of where to go; throw in clear first steps and accountability. But even when change efforts have all these factors, they can still fail, often because they get stuck in the long “middle” of execution. In Move, Patty Azzarello discusses how to execute strategy through the setbacks of the long middle. What makes Azzarello’s book compelling is her focus on how leaders can set up systems to keep things moving rather than falling into the traps of micromanaging or being too hands-off.
Here is one tool from the book. Plans often fall into one of two failure modes: too high-level or too detailed. When the plans are too high-level, it is impossible to tell if things are on track (until the initial deadline wooshes by). When plans are too detailed, the unimportant deadlines are missed all the time and people stop caring. Both modes lead to unreliable execution. Instead, organizations should focus only on the milestones which matter. How do you figure those out? Work backward.
Choose a concrete outcome and a deadline you think you can realistically achieve it within.
Work backwards in increments and figure out intermediate milestones. For instance, “to do this in 12 months, what needs to be done by month 9? To do those by month 9, what needs to be done by month 6? Month 3? Today?”
Track those milestones, and only those milestones. Anything more granular is unnecessary detail. Anything less granular can’t tell you when you’re off track. (Revisit these milestones as you learn more.)
Move is full of techniques like this. The combination of principles for shaping systemic interventions and concrete implementation details makes this book a compelling read for anyone who is involved in a long-term effort.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Developmental stages.
Developmental stages can be used to describe processes that happen over time. The concept is fairly simple: a continuum of time is broken into a sequence of stages. Sometimes, the sequence is structured as a waterfall. Other times, it is curled into a cycle, where the end of the last stage also marks the beginning of the first. We break things down into stages all the time: product and engineering development cycles, stages of child and adult development, team formation. Even washing your hair becomes “later, rinse, repeat.” Yet some nuggets of wisdom hide behind this lens’ familiarity.
First, the presence of a sequence implies that there’s some rhyme and reason to the process. Stages follow a prescribed order, inferred from experience and observation. Following that order typically makes the process more predictable, easier to estimate, and open to optimization. If a set of developmental stages fails to help, we probably haven’t found the rhyme yet. Keep looking. Avoid temptation to shoehorn reality into a particular model.
The second insight is that developmental stages are path-dependent. You can’t get to the next stage without first completing the previous one. If we skip the “testing” stage and go straight to the “release” stage, we will ship bad software. This may feel obvious for engineering processes. Yet, this clarity recedes once we turn our attention to organizations or individuals. It feels so tempting to skip the turmoil of the “storming” stage and jump straight to “performing.” However, stages are lined up that way because they are developmental: you can’t get to the end without walking the path.