🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 56
June 16th, 2022
Episode 56 — June 16th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/56
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Dimitri Glazkov, Stefano Mazzocchi, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Ade Oshineye, Lisie Lillianfeld, Justin Quimby
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Ben Mathes, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman, Julka Almquist, Scott Schaffter, 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.
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it… It is your business… to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”
— Martha Graham
🤞🥰 Strategic hope
“Hope is not a strategy.” This well-known platitude reminds us to be vigilant of self-delusion. Indeed, presuming that hockey-stick growth will continue or pretending that things will stay exactly the same are common pitfalls. We are better off keeping our eyes open, orienting toward the challenge at hand, and remaining grounded in evidence. Through this lens, strategy is not about hope. It is about distinguishing “what’s possible” from “what’s likely.”
All this can seem like a call for cynical realism, and yet… in the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, a character makes a startling connection: “When I choose to see the good side of things, I am not being naive. It's strategic and necessary.” This feels in opposition to the previous rational assertion. What does it mean to have hope and be strategic?
Strategic hope is the recognition that we are surrounded by — and are ourselves — frustratingly inconsistent and often dismally irrational people. Yet when it comes to what counts, we want roughly the same thing: joy and peace for ourselves and our loved ones. It may seem irrational on the surface, but it is the opposite of self-delusion. Strategic hope accepts the world for what it is, yet chooses to lean toward seeing the goodness in others.
Strategic hope is a courageous act, especially in this age of uncertainty. It is easier by far to be a cynic who sees their scars as proof that people trend toward awfulness. Who can blame anyone for such thinking? Even a brief exposure to the daily barrage of news and social media can illustrate the point with painful effectiveness.
And yet, somewhere deep down, we recognize that holding a cynical lens produces a vicious cycle. When we give up on others, we give up on ourselves. We reduce humanity to soundbites and, in doing so, deny ourselves the fullness of being. “If everyone is awful, what makes me so different? And if I am not that different, then what does it say of the others?” There is no path forward out of this loop. Cynicism or nihilism comprise a black hole that feeds onto itself and eventually consumes all.
In a world where nothing seems to make sense, strategic hope might be the only stable thing we have. It is a source of clarity that helps us discern the often-fragile but ever-present force of uplifting humanity and aligning with it. It helps us recognize our habits that encourage this alignment — or identify those that detract from it. Strategic hope is how we sort the lenses that lead to virtuous cycles from those that produce vicious cycles. Perhaps hope is not a strategy in itself but merely a load-bearing belief? However, without hope, a viable long-term strategy is unlikely.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🚢 Russia had to slash natural gas exports because sanctions blocked machinery imports
Russia’s Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which sends massive amounts of natural gas to Germany, begins at the Portovaya gas compression station just northwest of St. Petersburg. When some of the gas compression units (GCUs) there broke, the pipeline suffered a drop in capacity. Russia sent the broken GCUs to Siemens in Canada for repair, but Siemens was unable to return the equipment to Russia due to Canadian sanctions. As a result, the gas compression station is still only partly operational, and the Nord Stream 1 pipeline is exporting 40% less gas than it was designed for.
🚏🖨 3D-printing experts are making thousands of tourniquets for Ukrainian soldiers
A robotics engineering student, troubled by news that Ukrainian soldiers couldn’t get lifesaving medical equipment like tourniquets (used to reduce bleeding), decided to put his 3D printing skills to use. He and a team of volunteers created a 3D-printable tourniquet and uploaded the design online. To date, over 5,000 tourniquets have been printed, and the team has also set up logistics infrastructure to ship the printed tourniquets to Europe, test them, sew the fabric together, and deliver them to the front lines.
🚏 🚱 A Texas city’s water infrastructure broke during the middle of a heat wave
Two dangerous trends — climate change and the US’s crumbling infrastructure — intersected in Odessa, Texas on Monday, where a water main broke during the middle of a heatwave. The west Texas city was without water for over 24 hours at the very same time that temperatures soared above 100 ºF.
🚏🚀 A DAO will choose two people to fly to space on Blue Origin’s next launch
A group called MoonDAO, whose stated mission is to “decentralize access to space research and exploration,” recently purchased two seats on an upcoming flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship. The decentralized organization then raffled off one seat to the 8,000 people who minted a free “Ticket to Space” NFT; the group also voted on a second spacefarer from a preset list of nominees. (MoonDAO isn’t the first group to try this strategy: one passenger on the most recent New Shepard launch got his ticket by buying an NFT from a “decentralized space agency.”)
🚏🌬 Google Maps will start showing air quality indices over the US
Public interest in air quality indices has sharply increased since the brutal West Coast wildfires of 2020, and Google Maps is responding by adding an “air quality” layer to its mobile apps. This layer combines government data and crowdsourced data (the latter via PurpleAir), and it’ll show colored dots representing local air quality throughout the United States.
🚏🕹️ GPU prices are sinking as crypto mining becomes unprofitable
When the prices of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum surged last year, so too did the prices of GPUs (commonly used to mine these coins, especially Ethereum). But now that crypto prices are collapsing, mining coins doesn’t yield as many dollars as it used to; mining with one popular Nvidia graphics card is estimated to net just 85¢ in daily profit. With fewer miners buying up graphics cards and ex-miners selling their used ones, GPU prices have fallen 10% in just the last two weeks — and some chips are now selling for less than their MSRP.
🚏⛲️ Japan is experimenting with deep-ocean turbines for always-available clean energy
One lesser-known source of clean energy is deep-sea currents, which move large quantities of water at a consistent speed and direction. Japan sits right on top of a powerful deep-ocean current, so one Japanese company plans to place two massive turbines on the seafloor to generate power. They’re optimistic because of ocean currents’ stability and reliability: deep-sea power generation’s capacity factor (which measures what percent of the time a system is generating power) can go as high as 70%, far higher than solar’s 15% and wind’s 29% and almost matching coal’s 80%.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
The Rise and Fall of Blitzscaling (Patrick Boyle) — Traces the history of the “ignore profits and grow at all costs” strategy that was so popular with startups in the 2010s yet seems to have suddenly fallen out of fashion in favor of free cash flow. Argues that the success of blitzscaling was heavily dependent on low interest rates, and without them, the strategy doesn’t work.
A Remedy for FOMO (Noema Magazine) — Argues that the “fear of missing out” predates social media and is in fact deeply rooted in the human psyche. Contends that reactions like JOMO (the “joy of missing out”) are misguided, and the only true way out of FOMO is to realize that it’s pointless to imagine alternate timelines that we missed out on. Because we co-evolve with our experiences, it’s impossible to rewind time and predict what those other “branches” could have become.
“Everything is Terrible, But I’m Fine” (The Atlantic) — Derek Thompson investigates why Americans’ confidence in the economy is cratering despite people’s personal finances having largely improved. This phenomenon is hard to explain, but Thompson develops a few lenses to analyze it: humans are innately “individually optimistic and socially pessimistic,” and American media outlets have a bias toward doom-and-gloom stories.
When Should an Idea That Smells Like Research Be a Startup? (Ben Reinhardt) — Argues that venture-backed startups are not always a great fit for doing research, which often takes a long and unpredictable amount of time. To succeed as a startup, a research project needs either a “money factory,” very low market uncertainty (“if you build it, they will come”), or a charismatic leader who can convince everyone else that there’s a clear, legible “critical path” that will definitely lead to success.
Anti-Anti-Semitism (2010) (Tablet Magazine) — A foray into the bizarre organization that is World Without Nazism, a “Kremlin-flavored Anti-Defamation League” that supposedly campaigns against anti-Semitism but has been accused of being a mouthpiece for Russian propaganda. It’s especially sinister given the denazification propaganda currently being used to justify Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Where Did Early Adopters of the Automobile Get Gas? (r/AskHistorians) — Examines how automobiles solved the “chicken and egg” problem of creating fueling infrastructure before cars became prevalent. Posters speculate that drivers bootstrapped off the existing infrastructure for kerosene (which was commonly used for lamp fuel) and that engine builders took advantage of the fact that gasoline (a waste product of oil refining) was both abundant and dirt-cheap.
Barbarians at the Gate: Can DeFi Keep Eating Itself? (Fais Khan) — While examining the troubles facing the decentralized finance (DeFi) industry, argues that the low barrier to entry in the space (“permissionless innovation”) erodes any moat that a platform could build. The only way to win is to offer unsustainably high interest rates (“yields”), but this leads to Ponzi-scheme-like protocols edging out anyone with sustainable economics.
💊🍀 A dose of hopepunk
An optimistic sign that our world’s systems are changing for the better.
Hopepunk is intrinsically about the idea that we can choose to make systems better. That includes large-scale public infrastructure such as the ones analyzed in a case study of Italian rapid rail projects. The study found that these projects are now 57% cheaper than the global average due to a combination of interventions including “a wave of reforms targeting the procurement process in the 1990s [which] prompted greater transparency, accountability, public oversight, and competition. Second, the public sector built and maintained strong in-house capacity to perform the core planning, design, and construction management activities.”
Book Movie for your shelf
book movie that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
Once in a while a movie comes out that defies coherent summary. Everything Everywhere All at Once is about taxes, kung-fu, multiverses, everything bagels, googly eyes, failing laundromats, boneless fingers, generational tensions, and hidden depressions… and it manages to say exactly nothing about any of them. Instead, it weaves these elements into an intricate, surprising, stylish, and hilarious visual experience that transports us, without us even noticing, into the core of some of the most philosophically crucial aspects of human existence.
Our protagonist is stuck in a life caught between the attraction of the nihilist destruction of depression and a seemingly trivial and delusional approach to life that nonetheless seems to result in more happiness and satisfaction.Through a whirlwind of adventure and the power of the multiverse, she realizes that the only way out of being stuck is through, no matter how wild that “through” might be.
The movie provides a beautiful representation of adult development theory: struggle, pain, and suffering are not inherent in the world but come from our relationship to it. In our ability to augment our sense-making abilities, we can gain separation and agency where we previously felt stuck and incapable. With the benefit of increased separation, we obtain capacities that liberate our agency even when our choices look trivial, naive and irrelevant to those that can only perceive them flattened.
With separation, even something as trivial and silly as googly eyes can become a renewed source of happiness, satisfaction, joie de vivre… and a fanny pack can turn into a martial arts weapon.
🕵️♀️📆 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 Everything Bagel.
One of the key plot devices of Everything Everywhere All at Once is the concept of the Everything Bagel. Don’t worry, though: even as we offer this as a lens, we won’t spoil the movie.
Often, we strive for accuracy in our understanding: we want to collect every piece of evidence and interesting insight. We are animated by the hope that getting more information will allow us to find the path to a solution. We may be surprised to end up in the opposite situation: more bits of data produce less coherence, not more.
For example, a team that is trying to evaluate design alternatives may get mired in the tangle of trade-offs that only gets more hairy with each new idea. We have arrived at the Everything Bagel point: the sinking recognition that our desire for clarity and order backfired, resulting in a black hole that sucks in all of our motivation and resources, something that’s so overloaded that it has lost its coherence. Everything Bagels can show up everywhere, from software engineering to politics.
When you’re facing an Everything Bagel, it’s a sure sign that the problem you’ve ventured to solve needs reframing. You have arrived at the end of the usefulness of the current framing. No amount of valiant organizing and clarifying will get you back on track. Everything Bagels indicate that you are likely holding the problem too tightly. A good judo move is self-reflection: how am I contributing to the Everything Bagel situation? What can I let go of? How can I shift my perspective to reframe the problem?