🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 57
June 23rd, 2022
Episode 57 — June 23rd, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/57
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Scott Schaffter, Justin Quimby, Boris Smus, Dimitri Glazkov
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman, Julka Almquist, Lisie Lillianfeld, 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.
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
— Dr. Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park
🔑🚪 Invite them in
As we’ve mentioned before, the most pernicious lenses are the ones we don’t easily recognize. If we recognized them, we could use them as glasses: we’d take them off or put them on anytime we please. The tricky lenses are the ones we aren’t fully aware of, whose effects we can only attribute after the fact — if at all. The practice of self-work helps us gently excavate these lenses and learn to hold them as objects, rather than having them hold us.
But how do we find something we can’t see? To discern the lenses that hold us, we must venture inward. It may seem surprising, but our bodies often tell us more about our lenses than our thinking. Think of the last time when you felt a strong emotion, especially in a situation that seemingly didn’t call for it. Perhaps it was a sudden sense of annoyance when talking with a relative, a sudden flow of tears when reading a doc, or a burst of anxiety about the stove that may have been left on.
These swift, strong feelings are our lenses at work, manifesting themselves through their refraction of reality. Despite our often-strong habits of rationalizing these spikes of feelings — “of course I was irritated, he was asking for it!” — we continue to wonder about their nature.
When we want to uncover our submerged lenses, we can lean into these wonderings. We tend to avoid negative feelings, but for a courageous lens explorer, a negative feeling can be an invitation. The unexpected presence of a strong somatic response is a signal that there’s a lens that has become deeply embodied. We are called to sit with these feelings, listening to our bodies intently and having patience to hear what they’re saying. In the poem Guest House, Rumi describes the process beautifully:
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Lenses speak to us, even when we can’t see them. In the most distressing moments of our private suffering, there are profound insights waiting to be found. And once we find enough resilience to invite them in, they can guide us to a more joyful way of being.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏⛅️ Ukraine uploaded vital data to the cloud just a week before Russia wiped it
A Ukrainian data protection law had barred the government from storing data on the cloud, but that law was repealed just a day before Russia’s invasion. Soon, the Ukrainian government had uploaded reams of important data to public cloud providers. They were just in time, too: a week later, Russian missiles destroyed server farms holding large amounts of Ukrainian government data, and Russian hackers ran “wiper attacks” to delete large amounts of data stored on the Ukrainian government’s networks.
🚏🌡 France predicted blazing-hot summer temps for 2050… then hit them 28 years early
As part of a climate change awareness campaign in 2014, a French weather presenter showed a hypothetical map of what summer temperatures could look like in France in 2050. But when France experienced a record-melting heat wave last week, it reached similar temperatures 28 years ahead of schedule — with Paris hitting 38ºC (compared to 40ºC on the hypothetical map) and southern France reaching 40ºC (compared to about 39ºC on the hypothetical map).
🚏🚰 Scientists developed a solar-powered desalination device that uses 10x less energy
The winners of MIT’s latest entrepreneurship competition are a team that developed a solar-powered device that’s “capable of producing enough drinking water for 10 people at half the cost and with 1/10th the power of other water desalination devices.” Unlike the traditional, power-hungry reverse osmosis method of cleaning water, this method uses electrical currents at low pressures to remove salt and bacteria from seawater, consuming less power than a phone charger.
🚏🚙 General Motors 3D-printed 60,000 car parts to deliver SUVs in half the time
General Motors engineers made a late tweak to the design of the Chevy Tahoe SUV that required the addition of a new plastic part. Developing the manufacturing infrastructure to build this piece with traditional injection-molding techniques would have taken months, thereby delaying the shipment of 30,000 cars. So GM partnered with an industrial-scale 3D printing firm to churn out these pieces (two per car) in just five weeks — less than half the time it would’ve taken with the traditional process. CNET thinks “this is almost certainly the largest deployment of additive tech in a production car” to date.
🚏🎭 The US has been funding VPN apps to help Russians avoid censorship
From 2015 to 2021, the US government indirectly funneled nearly $5 million to three companies that make VPNs, with the stated purpose of helping Russian residents bypass their government’s internship censorship. Since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, these VPN apps have seen large usage increases in Russia, and the US government has reportedly increased funding for the apps by almost 50%.
🚏📦 Amazon might run out of warehouse workers to hire in the US by 2024
Amazon’s “fulfillment centers” are famous for their massive workforces, aggressive hiring, and sky-high attrition rates (which stood at 159% in 2020, meaning that the average worker lasted less than a year). But because of that, Amazon appears to be burning through its available labor pool; internal documents forecast that the company could run out of potential warehouse recruits in the United States by 2024 — and even earlier in some metro areas.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
The Carbon Offset Problem (Wendover Productions) — Argues that the market thinks of carbon offsets as a commodity: corporations simply look for the cheapest credits. But because cheap offsets are often of dubious quality (where it’s hard to verify how much carbon is actually being removed from the atmosphere) while high-quality offsets (like those for direct air capture) are more expensive, the cheap yet ineffective offset programs tend to get far more demand.
What’s Happening With the Russian Economy? (Kamil Galeev) — A wide-ranging systemic analysis that seeks to explain how sanctions are (temporarily) making the ruble stronger; how Russia’s reliance on Western imports makes Western economies (like Germany’s) financially dependent on exports to Russia; why import substitution isn’t happening much in Russia; and how the Russian economy only rewards regions that specialize in feeding the war machine.
Reflections on Trusting Trust (1984) (Association of Computing Machinery) — In his classic Turing Award lecture, Ken Thompson introduces the famous backdoor he (could have) snuck into the C compiler: while the backdoor doesn’t show up in the compiler’s source code, the compiler’s binary will sneak it into any new C compiler it compiles. Thompson uses this to argue that trust is essential in computing; the only way to guarantee that your system is 100% secure would be to write the entire computing stack from scratch.
India: Why Did Working Women Disappear? (Bloomberg’s Pay Check) — Explores efforts to improve girls’ education and career prospects in India by staving off child marriage, then examines how the pandemic set back that goal in often-surprising ways (for instance, the reduced cost of holding weddings during lockdowns made many villagers impatient to marry off their young daughters).
Record-Breaking Voyager Spacecraft Begin to Power Down (Scientific American) — As the famous Voyager space probes (the farthest human-made objects from Earth) start to shut off their instruments, this story highlights the probes’ long journey and remarkable findings, and how they’ve changed the way astrophysicists understand our solar system.
Elon Musk Is Acting Like Henry Ford (Bloomberg) — Details how, after his initial success, Henry Ford purchased a failing newspaper, promulgated his anti-Semitic views, and drove away his most capable lieutenants, replacing them with sycophants. His empire was ultimately dethroned by Alfred P. Sloan, an MIT trained engineer who eventually assumed control of GM and pioneered consumer financing. Will fellow automobile magnate (and possible future Twitter boss) Elon Musk suffer a similar fate?
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend The Family Firm by Emily Oster (2021, 318 pages).
In The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years, Emily Oster brings back her signature data-driven lens on parenting (see her previous books). However, what makes this book interesting is that as children get older, the answers to parenting questions become less clear and more context-dependent.
What makes this book FLUX-y is Oster’s recognition that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to making family decisions. There are day-to-day decisions which are best delegated to individual caretakers and larger decisions that require framing the question, fact-finding, deciding, and revisiting the decision. However, both sets of decisions benefit from a family knowing its “Big Picture” — the set of values, principles, and common decisions that guide these other decisions. These “Big Picture” values can range from fundamental moral beliefs to how much the family values dinner together to generally applicable rules of thumb on snacks and dessert.
But this book is not just about the big picture framework. Oster dives into the data around a number of topics that are important to caretakers of school-age children: nutrition, sleep, schooling, screens, and more. Seeing the application of the same framework to all of these domains can get a bit repetitive at times. In the end though, this is a thoughtful, practical book that can help parents bring a bit more intentionality to their hectic lives. It’s also a helpful reminder that going back to the big picture is likely helpful in other complex problem spaces.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: I would simply.
“I would simply,” or “IWS” as we at FLUX affectionately call it, is a useful lens to reflect on a temptation to delude ourselves and overlook the inherent complexity of hard problems. “Need to change team culture? I would simply have more frequent all-hands!” “Want to lose weight? I would simply exercise more!” “Want to solve city traffic problems? I would simply start digging!”
Saying “I would simply” may not always be a bad move. Stating “I would simply <action> to solve <hard problem>!” can be rather invigorating — wow, someone finally figured it out! — and attract a crowd of fellow enthusiasts. As long as there's a general understanding that things will get a lot more hairy over time, this rallying cry might be a reasonable tool for temporarily injecting energy into the otherwise long slog through the fog of ambiguity. Sometimes, new interesting things are uncovered that do indeed unlock new opportunities.
However, those who don’t realize that this is a helpful self-delusion are setting themselves up for the inevitable crash into the wall of complexity. They might become disenchanted and disappointed, significantly souring the crowd’s mood. Be careful when applying IWS as a leader, especially if you plan to stick around.
Another way to use this lens is to distinguish between folks who have experience with the problem and those who do not. Especially around particularly tricky challenges that have long evaded solutions, someone invoking IWS is a sure sign that they may not be as informed about it as they’ve been led to believe. To find experts in such a space, look for those who pause and/or wince as if in pain when asked about possible solutions. Few things are better than scars to point at the accrual of embodied experience.
🔮📬 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.
// What would happen to all the GPUs bought by crypto miners if crypto crashes completely?
// Early 2023. A sponsored article on PCGamer.com.
Are you in the market for a new gaming PC, but haven’t because crypto miners bought all the high end video cards, causing a shortage? You didn’t just imagine it. In the first three months of 2021 alone, crypto miners spent roughly half a billion US dollars to buy 700,000 graphics cards, or 25% of all GPUs produced!
Well, your wait to upgrade your gaming PC is OVER!
Thanks to the massive 2022 crypto crash, the market is flooded with video cards from former crypto-mining operations. Most crypto mining GPUs are damaged due to the constant uptime and high heat generated from computing algorithms to help determine the supposed ownership of a URL pointing at a picture of a rock.
That damage means that your new rig with a crypto GPU might fail after only a week or month of usage. Who wants to deal with hassle?
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It wouldn’t be a PC accessory without customization. You can have the failover occur silently, or accompanied by a custom sound effect, like the ‘ping’ of a Garand M1, a sad trombone, the powering on of a proton pack, sentry guns running dry, or a wave motion gun firing. Our deluxe options include robot arms that physically ‘reload’ the new graphics cards atop your rig.
When your final set of GPUs is nearing the end of life, just unplug the cables, and drop the Crypto-Clip in a box to ship back to us. We’ll take the cards and then recycle the tungsten, copper, tin, aluminum, and gold inside, saving you the hassle of trying to find a trustworthy recycling spot. Not only is this better for the planet, but also we’ll give you cash or a discount on your next Crypto-Clip!
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