🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 58
June 30th, 2022
Episode 58 — June 30th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/58
Contributors to this issue: Erika Rice Scherpelz, Dimitri Glazkov, Neel Mehta, Spencer Pitman, Boris Smus
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Justin Quimby, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Julka Almquist, Scott Schaffter, 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.
“They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.”
— Clay Shirky
📝 Editor’s note: We’ll be off next week for the US’s July 4th holiday. We hope our US-based readers enjoy the long weekend!
🌂☂️ Opening our lenses
A lens provides value by projecting a problem onto a simplified space, allowing us to reason about it. But sometimes that space can be too simple. We may make a subtle category error that conflates too broad a set of cases. Let’s look at an example.
A “white elephant” is a glum metaphor for an object that has value to some people… but not to the owner who has to maintain it. In software, this might be a project that has attracted a small, stable audience of enthusiastic fans. The creators want to shut the project down, but the reputation hit would be larger than the continued cost of maintenance. The “white elephant” lens tends to portray small projects like these in a negative light. The tiny seed of cynicism embedded into this metaphor can grow rapidly: it may seem inevitable that each new project is just a white elephant in the making.
Such a pattern appears in many lenses. To be memorable, a lens needs to tell a dramatic tale. Lenses with stronger memetic power tend to evoke more emotional responses. However, this same evocative power can cause lenses to be applied to cases where they are not really applicable. It takes deliberate practice and hygiene to not overuse your lenses.
One technique that might help us avoid falling into the evocative drama of an overapplied lens is to open it up a little. By examining the edges of a lens, we can keep its essence but change where it applies. To go back to our example, a white elephant project is a small project whose value has reached a plateau. However, we might be measuring value the wrong way. Maybe this is a “precious weed” that is not wanted here but can bring value elsewhere. Maybe this is a “building block” or “stepping stone” for another effort that can help realize a different type of value. We make a subtle mindset shift from, “this is a small project that is not bringing value” to, “this is a small project that is not bringing value here.”
In other words, software is not an elephant. A literal “white elephant” — a burdensome animal that can’t be gotten rid of — can’t be built on top of or reused in creative ways. Software, meanwhile, is a tool, the center of an ecosystem. It has adjacent possibilities and thus potential to create value in unexpected ways. So while there may be some merit to describing a niche software project as a “white elephant,” we have to avoid category errors and remember that this metaphor has its limits.
Opening up the edges of a lens may sound like an exercise in naivete or optimism. It is neither. It’s a tool to help us discover complementary lenses that help us view the situation from another perspective, opening up just enough space to make progress. These complementary lenses are just as prone to overuse as the original, but together, their stereoscopic projection might be enough to give us that view that is both realistic and brimming with opportunities.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏💉 Pfizer and BioNTech will start testing a universal vaccine against coronaviruses
Pfizer and BioNTech, the makers of the most popular COVID-19 vaccine in the Western world, are planning to start human testing of new vaccines that could protect against a wide range of coronaviruses. The project includes shots that aim to strengthen T cells, which could prevent severe disease, and “pan-coronavirus” shots that could protect against many different strains of coronaviruses. The companies are in talks with regulators and plan to start human testing later this year.
🚏🏥 A telehealth company will set up mobile abortion clinics right inside the Colorado border
Due to the Roe v. Wade repeal, Colorado (which protects abortions under state law) will likely find itself surrounded by large states with strict limits, or even bans, on abortion: Wyoming, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, and Utah. As a result, one Minnesota-based telehealth company has announced that it’ll set up a fleet of mobile abortion-support clinics “just inside the Colorado border” to support patients driving from neighboring states; the clinics will provide consultations and pills.
🚏🏭 Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands are turning back to coal due to Russian sanctions
Due to sanctions, Russia has slashed its natural gas exports to Europe. So the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria — which have relied heavily on Russian gas — have started reviving their moribund coal-fired power plants. Dutch authorities lifted a regulation that limited coal plants to just a third of their maximum output. And though Germany powered up several mothballed coal plants, the government maintained that the country was still on track to close all coal plants by 2030.
🚏📜 US senators posted a draft of their crypto regulation bill on GitHub
Two US senators (Republican Cynthia Lummis and Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand) teamed up to draft a cryptocurrency regulation bill, then uploaded the text to GitHub for comments and suggestions. While some members of the public made constructive suggestions, like adding a tax on crypto mining or tweaking IRS rules for airdrops, others posted jokes or political statements (like a pull request that replaced the text of the bill with the text of a Medicare for All bill).
🚏🛒 Amazon is launching a fully-autonomous warehouse robot
Amazon unveiled a new autonomous robot that can drive around a warehouse and move carts full of packages. Unlike previous warehouse bots, which had to be confined to a specific area, these robots can “navigate around human employees” and thus be integrated into the main warehouse floor. Amazon also announced a robotic arm that can “lift and move packages weighing up to 50 pounds,” with computer vision systems that let it pick a specific package out of a pile.
🚏🤑 The SEC is mulling regulation overhauls in the wake of the “meme stock” frenzy
The US’s Securities and Exchange commission is reportedly considering “the biggest change to Wall Street's rules since 2005” in response to last year’s meme stock bonanzas. The agency is scrutinizing payment for order flow (which incentivizes brokers to nudge their customers to trade more, which may not be in their best interest), the “gamification of trading” on platforms like Robinhood, and the excessive concentration of market power in the hands of a few big market-making firms.
🚏💵 Hedge funds have started betting against the Tether stablecoin
After Terra’s prominent UST stablecoin went bust last month, a growing number of crypto hedge funds have started doubting Tether, the world’s biggest stablecoin. Because Tether is widely believed to not have enough real assets to back its 60 billion outstanding coins, these hedge funds — who have opened “hundreds of millions of dollars’” worth of short positions on Tether — apparently think the stablecoin is at risk of falling below its $1-a-coin peg. This could be catastrophic for the entire crypto industry, since critics argue that Tether’s liberal “money printer” props up the entire crypto-economy.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
How Democracies Revive (Niskanen Center) — Lee Drutman analyzes the current “doom loop” of American democracy through lenses from history and complexity science. Examines how every trend brews a counter-trend; how societies exhibit “punctuated equilibrium;” how political systems cyclically reach “critical points” that result in reforms and realignments; and how “collapses of dimensionality” like partisan polarization lead to breakdowns in complex systems. Concludes by proposing an ambitious intervention to heal American democracy: a proportional, multiparty legislative system that increases dimensionality and “scrambles” existing loyalties.
Why Is There a Charming Small Business In a Sea of Generic Chains? (Joe McReynolds) — An urbanist argues that the survival of the interesting small businesses we see in cities like New York or Tokyo is the result of their landlords not just optimizing for maximum profits. These “unconventional” landlords’ desire to promote local flavor, plus policy choices to encourage things like co-op land ownership, are a big reason why cities aren’t just filled with Chipotles.
Computing a Rosetta Stone for the Indus Script (Rajesh Rao) — A neuroscientist describes how he and a team of computational linguists used machine learning techniques to attempt to decipher the Indus Valley Civilization’s long-forgotten script. Discusses how entropy and historical context helped with the analysis, and how the seemingly-academic question of what the Indus script represents became a cultural flashpoint in South Asia.
Is “Acceptably Non-Dystopian” Self-Sovereign Identity Even Possible? (Molly White) — Dives into the emerging topic of “self-sovereign identity,” or ways to prove which human owns a particular crypto wallet without a centralized authority. Also discusses key concepts like Sybil resistance, the digital identity trilemma, and verifiable attestations, plus the notion of “soulbound tokens.”
We Don’t Need Base Load Power (Clean Technica) — Argues against an energy industry talking point that we’ll always need fossil fuel power plants to provide “base load” electricity: the minimum amount of energy demanded during the day (since demand never drops to zero). However, batteries can remove the need for base load plants, as can always-available renewable sources like hydropower, geothermal, and biomass. A simple combo of wind and solar power can also provide reliable energy for most of the day.
The Rise and Fall of World’s Fairs (Smithsonian Magazine) — Tracks the evolution of world fairs from “the world's universities” in the 19th century to “sites of entertainment” by the late 20th century. In many ways, the Olympic Games and mega theme parks like Disney World’s EPCOT (the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) are spiritual descendants of world fairs.
The “Hollow Abstraction” of Web3 (Galaxy Brain) — Charlie Warzel reflects on two viral interviews where crypto investors were pressed to present “real” use cases for blockchain technologies. What made these podcasts so notable, he argues, was that the hosts “stripp[ed] out all the artifice” and probed beneath the layers of abstractions and jargon where conversations about Web3 often get mired.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Gemba Walks, Expanded 2nd Edition by Jim Womack (2013, 340 pages).
Management trends are almost as fleeting as fashion trends, but the Lean movement’s principles have shown remarkable staying power over the last 30 years. A core concept within Lean is get to the gemba — that is, the real place. Lean philosophy pushes systems designers to “go and see, ask why, and show respect,” never mistaking a beautiful rendition of what should be as superior to what is.
In Gemba Walks, Jim Womack — the founder of the Lean movement — shares personal reflections and insights from his years guiding production systems worldwide in 72 essays. These epistles are brimming with insights to help any systems thinker stay grounded, empathetic, and humanistic, and to root their thinking and design in praxis. Womack encourages us to maintain a sociotechnical view about systems, not separating out humans and technology but recognizing they influence one another. He warns that we should foster more “farmers” while being careful about backstopping heroism. He helps reframe the assumption of management as an extension of personality to a practice of creating conditions for workers to increasingly make decisions for themselves. You wouldn’t know it from the cover, but the book is a nuanced and subtle presentation of what remain radical ideas in corporate systems.
🕵️♀️📆 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 Activity Trap.
Remember that time when you spent a whole day doing Very Important Things yet somehow didn’t accomplish anything? Was it today, by any chance?
Welcome to the activity trap. Also known as the “tyranny of the mundane,” it’s an ever-present condition these days. The emails, the chat threads, the can’t-miss meetings, checking the news, more emails and meetings, and the news again. It’s an all-too-familiar experience in our individual lives, and much ink has been spilled to find ways to help us get out of this insidious trap.
Unfortunately, organizations also find themselves in the activity trap. In its simplest variation, if everyone is going to the same syncs and reviews, who’s doing the actual work? A trickier form of this trap is structural blindness: fixating on the details without seeing the big picture. This one is most common for large and successful products and is a strong marker of approaching the upper arc of the S-curve.
Sometimes, the activity trap is a situation where most of the work goes into just keeping things going: “here’s a pile of bugs, let’s keep fixing them.” In other cases, it’s an inability to explore new spaces: “we have so many users, we need to keep serving them.” In both cases, the organizations can’t see where they’re going — there’s so much stuff to do right in front of them. And so, they stagger around, lurching from one short-term crisis to the next.
At the individual level, activity traps can be overcome with discipline and commitment to living with intention. It takes the courage to slow down when everything around us yells loudly to keep running; it requires you to realize, as Eisenhower did, what is important and what is merely urgent. Perhaps not surprisingly, the same recipe applies to organizations, if you can have the discipline to apply it.