🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 55
June 9th, 2022
Episode 55 — June 9th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/55
Contributors to this issue: Justin Quimby, Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Dimitri Glazkov, Lisie Lillianfeld, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Ade Oshineye, Spencer Pitman
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Julka Almquist, Samuel Arbesman
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.
“Internal obstacles are rarely discussed and often underplayed. Throughout my life, I was told over and over about inequalities in the workplace and how hard it would be to have a career and a family. I rarely heard anything, however, about the ways I might hold myself back. These internal obstacles deserve a lot more attention, in part because they are under our own control. We can dismantle the hurdles in ourselves today. We can start this very moment.”
— Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In
🧶🪢 How to get unstuck
Feeling stuck is the worst. We try and try just to find ourselves in the same spot. The team tries valiantly to ship less bloated software. They commit to closely watching changes, cleaning up the codebase, and updating the processes. Yet, release after release, the size metrics creep upward. A leader decides to reserve more calendar time for open, creative thinking. They work out a special place for it and notify colleagues of its sanctity. Yet, when the moment comes, the slot is filled, squished out by more urgent things. Why does this keep happening?
It may be that we remain stuck because we can’t see the source of our stuckness. If we could see the source, then we would act on it. We may believe that we understand the habits or cultural tics that keep us stuck, but as long as we remain in place, we are likely pointing the wrong way. We are blind to some of the forces that hold us in place.
Only deliberate examination can get us moving. An examination like this tends to yield surprising results. In the example of bloated software, we may trace it to a team culture of celebrating individual achievement. In the curious case of disappearing thinking time, we may discover a deep-seated belief that we always need to be there for our team. In and of themselves, neither habit sounds particularly harmful. These are often good qualities that got us where we are. They are also the ones that keep us there.
If you find yourself stuck, here’s one technique that may help. Find a bit of time to do an inventory of the relevant puzzle pieces in and, especially, around your conundrum. Separate them into two piles: things you absolutely need and want to keep, and things that you believe that you should get rid of or find unnecessary.
Now, for an unintuitive next step: invert your perspective on the piles. Imagine you’d throw out everything in the first pile and keep things in the second. More than likely, the first pile — populated with things that we feel are so important we no longer question them — will hold the sources of your stuckness. That is where the habits that are worth changing hide. And it is the pile of silly nothings where the new opportunities reside.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🧑💻 An Amazon engineer sued the company for not covering WFH-related costs
One Amazon software engineer filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of himself and 4200 other California-based Amazon employees, alleging that Amazon violated a California labor law by not reimbursing them for electricity and internet expenses they incurred while Amazon offices were temporarily closed (even after stay-at-home orders were lifted). The costs were estimated at $50–$100 per month, leading the plaintiffs to seek a combined $5+ million in damages. A judge denied Amazon’s request to dismiss the suit.
🚏🥧 Redditors demanded an apology from the SEC over an anti-meme-stock video
The US’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) released a short YouTube video poking fun at reckless investing strategies like margin trading and “tulip bulbs” — complete with one foolhardy investor getting hit in the face with a pie after he tries to invest in meme stocks. Members of the WallStreetBets subreddit (which often discusses such wild trading strategies) took offense, publishing an open letter demanding “a formal apology on live television” because the SEC was “antagonizing” the next generation of traders.
🚏🚜 Soaring fertilizer prices are making farmers rethink their approaches
Fertilizer prices have roughly doubled since last year, and are up about threefold since two years ago. (A major reason is that heavily-sanctioned Russia normally exports 20% of the world’s nitrogen fertilizers, and Russia and Belarus together account for 40% of the world’s potassium exports.) This has driven many farmers to reduce fertilizer use (which soil scientists say is fine, since many farmers over-fertilize); switch from corn to less-demanding soybeans; and even look toward manure as a cheap, abundant natural fertilizer.
🚏📜 Someone on a gaming forum leaked classified tank schematics… again
Players of one combat simulation game often discuss it on forums, going to great lengths to help make the game more realistic. One fan was so devoted to that goal that they leaked classified schematics of ammunition used in Chinese tanks. This isn’t the first time this game has led to military leaks: last year, someone uploaded detailed specs about a British tank to argue that the game had gotten the tank’s design wrong.
🚏🔊 One scientific lab can now 3D print objects using sound waves
A team of scientists have created a technique they call direct sound printing (DSP), which sends high-frequency sound waves through a chamber filled with resin. This produces “rapidly-oscillating microscopic bubbles” at specific points in the fluid; the bubbles’ temperature momentarily rises to 26,500 ºF (14,700º C) at pressures of 1000 atmospheres, causing the resin to solidify at exactly that point. Researchers think the tech could let us non-invasively 3D print objects inside other structures, like implanting something in a person’s arm.
🚏🗳 Connecticut is hiring a security analyst to monitor misinfo-spreading election memes
As part of a $6 million package to improve the state’s election system, Connecticut is going to hire a “security analyst” who’ll be tasked with monitoring “fringe sites like 4chan” and “mainstream social media sites” alike for election-related rumors and misinformation. The analyst, who is slated to earn $150,000, will be tasked with reporting these harmful election memes to the platforms and “promoting educational content that can counter those false narratives.”
🚏💸 A landlord held a tenant’s security deposit in Bitcoin, then lost half of it
According to a viral Reddit post, one Massachusetts resident was moving out of their house and asked their landlord to return their $3000 security deposit. But the landlord only gave them $1600. The landlord initially claimed they’d put the deposit into an ill-fated money market fund, but eventually admitted that they’d put it into Bitcoin, which they said was “how a lot of landlords operate now.” (Massachusetts law requires landlords to put security deposits into a bank account or return the money with 5% interest.)
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Notes on a Genre (Robin Sloan) — Examines the world of AI-generated art, arguing that most people aren’t interested in the art so much as “in the spectacle of the computer’s interpretation” of the words put into the model. Still, AI could become a useful tool for artists in the same way that synthesizers became a key tool for music production.
Who Actually Controls Gas Prices? (Climate Town) — Argues that the right answer to the question is “no one person,” since the petroleum market is a complex adaptive system that is influenced by countless actors and intimately tied up with almost every geopolitical and economic trend on the planet. Illustrates the point by stepping through the myriad factors that have influenced oil prices over the last 20 years.
Interview: Ramez Naam, Futurist, Author, and Investor (Noahpinion) — Noah Smith conducts a wide-ranging interview that discusses big ideas on energy, climate, and their impacts on politics, plus the feedback loops involved. Later, Naam teases some emerging green technologies, such as synthetic “electrofuels” and floating wind farms.
How Apple Crippled the AdTech Industry (Kaushik Subramanian) — Breaks down how app developers have traditionally monetized by using device-specific identifiers to help serve targeted ads. Argues that Apple’s App Tracking Transparency (ATT) initiative, which made targeted advertising on iOS far harder, was motivated by Apple’s desire to bolster its own ad network.
Does This Water Have Legal Rights? (Reasons To Be Cheerful) — Investigates a trend of people bringing preservation lawsuits on behalf of threatened bodies of water. This is based on an emerging legal framework of “earth law,” which assigns fundamental rights to nature and its ecosystems, instead of seeing nature solely as property for humans to exploit. Earth law dovetails with much of the activism led by indigenous peoples across the globe.
20 Things I’ve Learned As a Systems (Over)Thinker (John Cutler) — A product manager shares twenty snippets of wisdom about influencing others, grappling with system dynamics in an organization, navigating bureaucracies, and protecting your mental health.
The Residential Casino: Asset or Shelter? (Pluralistic) — Cory Doctorow argues that much of the bubble-prone-ness of the US and UK housing markets stems from a policy decision to make homes the primary means for people to build up savings — which leads to constant political pressure to pump up the price of housing.
💊🍀 A dose of hopepunk
An optimistic sign that our world’s systems are changing for the better.
In contrast to the narratives of institutional decay and failure seen in movies such as Don’t Look Up, the B612 Foundation argues that small nonprofit organizations and private donors can take on the challenge of detecting asteroids that threaten life on Earth. By using an open-source astrodynamics tool to analyze historical data captured by scientists from all over the world, they’ve been able to detect 104 asteroids, which have been added to the Minor Planet Center’s registry. It seems like new asteroid-discovery algorithms such as THOR (whose research paper and code are both open access) could retrospectively make old data valuable — which opens the door to new kinds of scientific research.
🌀🖋 More from FLUXers
Highlighting independent publications from FLUX contributors.
In When to Design for Emergence, FLUX’s own Kasey Klimes asks: how can we build systems, tools, and products that empower end-users to do surprising new things? When should we build these things? What makes for a successful implementation of DFE? Hint: it’s a combination of small alphabets and generative grammars that provide a Papert-esque mix of low floors, wide walls, and high ceilings.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend The Power of Ritual by Casper ter Kuile (2020, 224 pages).
The percent of US adults who identify as having no religion has grown from 16% in 2007 to nearly 30%. Instead of going to church, it appears that people are finding meaningful connection — even transcendence — through rituals in other (perhaps unlikely) places: at the coffee shop, in the Crossfit gym, or on the commute.
Whatever their form, rituals tend to share three attributes: intention, attention, and repetition. Rituals can connect you to yourself, other people, the natural world, or the transcendent (in whatever sense works for you). The Power of Ritual elaborates on how religious practices can be used as inspiration for creating our own rituals. For example, inspired by the Jewish Shabbat (Sabbath), the author observes a weekly `Tech Shabbat” where he disconnects from his tech to reconnect with himself and the people around him.
What rituals might already be hiding in your routine? How might you increase your intention, attention, and repetition in these rituals to create deeper experiences of connection? This book will help stimulate these thoughts and, hopefully, lead you to some new ideas.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: wound healing.
Bodies are wonderfully weird. When injured, most people’s and animals’ bodies heal relatively quickly. Yes, there are conditions like hemophilia or infection, which can interfere with this ability. However, if we compare a body to most other objects — like a bicycle — the former’s ability to repair itself is amazing.
There is another way of looking at this ability: a body cannot really be healed by external forces; we can only set up the conditions for proper healing. We can supply cleansing and ointments to prevent infection or provide proper nutrition, sleep, and hydration to create the building blocks and space to mend. But we cannot force the fix. Even in cases where there is an extensive intervention, such as a bone pinning or a skin graft, we depend on the body to conduct the repair.
Many complex systems are similar. When something is wrong, we want to apply some elbow grease and fix them. Yet we must accept that we can rarely fix systems directly. We have to let them heal themselves. Our contributions still matter though. Like with bodily healing, there are things we can do to improve the odds of mending. It serves us well, however, to see ourselves as the facilitators of change rather than as heroes who actually fix things.
The next time you see a wounded system, try switching your mindset from “What can someone do to fix this system?” to “How can we change the conditions to help this system self-repair?” This reflection might just open up just enough space to find a new perspective.
🔮📬 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.
// With ever-increasing sanctions on Russian oligarchs, what unintended consequences might occur?
// Late 2022. A Discord server named “Monument Men.”
[Carter] I told you before, @Glafira — I’m out of the game.
[Glafira] I know, I know. You said that after the job in Paris. But I’ve got an angle you might like. It’s about sticking it to Russian oligarchs.
[Carter] Wait… what do you have against those nation-destroying and wealth-extracting jerks?
[Glafira] Aren’t they responsible for funding the war machine that destroyed the Mariupol Museum in Kyiv, dedicated to your favorite artist Arkhip Kuindzhi?
[Carter] Okay, I’m listening…
[Glafira] All across the world are “free ports,” technically called free economic zones. These are areas in which companies are taxed very lightly — or not at all — to encourage economic activity. A classic example is the Lagos Deep Offshore Logistics Base, or LADOL. It provides logistics, engineering and other support services to offshore oil & gas exploration. LADOL encourages the multinational firms exploiting the Nigerian deep-water oil reserves to use Nigerian companies, thereby creating over 100k Nigerian jobs as well as bringing international training, knowledge, and technology into the country.
[Carter] So, what does this have to do with sticking it to Russian oligarchs?
[Glafira] LADOL is an example of a “good” free port. But it’s the exception. The primary reason the rich and powerful love free ports is because they are an amazing way to launder wealth and avoid taxation.
The Geneva free port in Switzerland has $100B worth of artwork sitting in storage. In the US, there are no federal import duties on art within a free port, so free ports have emerged as a legal way for art dealers and collectors to avoid paying duties and taxes on artworks they might be storing or planning to sell. And guess who has invested heavily in artwork as a way to diversify their portfolios? Russian oligarchs. Shell companies enable the oligarchs to conduct offshore transactions, making the arts industry the largest unregulated market in the United States.
All that artwork, along with high-end watches, precious metals, and a host of other hard assets, are just gathering dust in these free ports. At the same time, sanctions on the oligarchs are getting tougher, to the point where they’re finding it harder to pay their bills. Public and governmental anger against Russian oligarchs is at an all-time high.
It’s time to put a crew together and hit a free port. You in?