🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 65
August 25th, 2022
Episode 65 — August 25th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/65
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Dimitri Glazkov, Dart Lindsley, Ben Mathes, Spencer Pitman
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Boris Smus, 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.
“But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”
— Carl Sagan
🦄💊 Strategy’s many jobs
We typically think of strategy as if it’s a singular thing: a high-level plan for what we are going to do to achieve our goals. But strategy is also a communication tool as much as it is a plan, and sometimes what a strategy is meant to communicate can vary widely from what a company actually does.
FLUX’s own Dimitri Glazkov explored the relationship between the most fundamental elements of our strategy ontology: the stated strategy and the embodied strategy. We encourage you to read the whole essay. To summarize the key definitions: stated strategy is the highly-visible, (usually) consciously-constructed strategy that a company claims out loud. On the other hand, embodied strategy is invisible and emerges from the beliefs and behaviors of people and teams; it’s only detectable by its (often-surprising) effects. Even if we aren’t aware of it, our organization’s embodied strategy constrains its stated strategy.
In fact, there are probably more flavors of strategy, each serving a different role. Can we break down not only what each strategy does, but also how it makes us feel or when it’s used? Here’s a map of some other kinds of strategies you may encounter:
Mythic strategy: A strategy that captures our glorious past and proudly projects it forth, without necessarily understanding the needs and constraints of the present.
Aspirational strategy: A strategy that captures our hopes for the future, whether or not we have the capacity to get there. Many stated strategies are aspirational. Culture can often eat this strategy for breakfast when the embodied strategy doesn’t align with the aspirational one.
Placebo strategy: A strategy that makes us feel good about what we’re currently doing and tells us we don’t need to change anything. Here, the stated strategy is a calcified expression of our embodied strategy that keeps us pointing in the same direction. It’s a pseudo-strategy that seeks to justify the “winging it” that got you and your team to where you are today.
Note that these flavors aren’t mutually exclusive; a single strategy could fulfill multiple roles at once. Think of these more as the various communication jobs a strategy can take on.
What’s more, these roles aren’t necessarily good or bad. Sometimes a mythic strategy can be a trap that prevents us from seeing new opportunities, but sometimes it can be an inspiration for us to play to our strengths. An aspirational strategy can push us out of our comfort zone or be utterly unrealistic. A placebo strategy can be a good way to capture that what we’re doing works just fine, or a way to settle into complacency. A justification-as-a-strategy can be a necessary intermediate step between chaos and an improved future strategy.
What will make these different flavors of strategy succeed or fail is their alignment with the embodied strategy. The embodied strategy can change, but it has momentum derived from its huge mass. Whatever future you hope for, to be successful, you must connect it to the present.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🏡 The 50-year mortgage is coming to Britain, which may foreshadow a housing crash
The UK government has granted a lending company a license to offer fixed-rate mortgages with a term of 50 years; this instrument reduces the monthly cost of owning a home in exchange for charging far more in interest over the term of the loan and requiring the typical homeowner to maintain a steady income into their 80s. Analysts see this as a warning sign that home prices have soared to unsustainably high levels, and that the country’s overheated housing market has reached a “point of desperation” before it runs out of demand.
🚏🍻 Seeking tax revenue, Japan is launching a contest to get youths to drink more alcohol
Alcohol use is dropping among younger generations in Japan, and the country’s National Tax Agency is worried: liquor taxes now account for just 1.7% of overall tax revenue, down from 5% in 1980. So, the agency has launched a contest calling on youths to propose business plans that can “stimulate demand among young people” for alcohol — the campaign’s website helpfully suggested that people use AI and the metaverse as part of their sales techniques.
🚏🐯 Scientists are trying to “de-extinct” the Australian thylacine
The thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, was driven to extinction in Australia in the 20th century, in no small part because of government bounties that rewarded residents for each thylacine they killed. But one company, in partnership with an Australian lab, has announced plans to revive the marsupial species (and later release them into the wild) by using museum samples to grow stem cells, which would then be used for in-vitro fertilization. Marsupial biology makes this easier than the famous project to de-extinct the wooly mammoth: the thylacine embryos would leave the womb (the difficult stage) about halfway through development and spend the rest of their time in the pouch of a surrogate mother (an easier stage to manage).
🚏🌾 £60 million of UK crops have been wasted due to labor shortages
About 40% of surveyed farmers in the UK said they’ve been unable to harvest some of their crops due to the labor shortage currently gripping the country, which led experts to calculate that up to £60 million worth of food has withered on vine this year. Brexit continues to reduce the supply of vital seasonal laborers, who account for at least two-thirds of British farm workers; what’s more, the war in Ukraine (a source of many seasonal farm workers) is preventing men of combat age from leaving the country. The drought and record heat aren’t helping crop yields, either.
🚏✈️ A pilot program will convert solar energy into clean jet fuel
A prototype power plant developed by ETH Zurich is reportedly able to convert water, atmospheric carbon dioxide, and solar energy into fossil-fuel-free kerosene, the liquid used for jet fuel. The solar plant concentrates sunlight 2500-fold and heats a reaction chamber to over 1,500 ºC, which is hot enough to convert water and CO2 into a “synthesis gas” — which, in turn, is converted into kerosene by an onsite gas-to-liquid unit.
🚏🗣 A startup is selling tech to make call center reps sound American
A buzzy Silicon Valley speech technology startup is selling a product that claims to transform the accents of call center workers (many of whom hail from developing countries like India or the Philippines) into a “neutral” General American accent. The company advertises the technology as a tool to mitigate harassment, “break barriers,” and “empower team members around the globe.”
🚏🚲 France is giving up to €4000 to people who trade their cars for bikes
Last year, France started offering a subsidy to people who traded in their cars for bikes (normal or electric). France has recently beefed up that deal, offering up to 4000 euros to people from low-income households, with smaller subsidies for higher-income people. The policy is modeled off a highly successful one from Lithuania, where residents can get up to €1000 in transportation credits for trading in their car.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Bottling Lightning (ARPA Riffing) — Argues that, as long as research funding is finite, there will always be constraints on what projects researchers can pursue; research management is therefore a necessity. Then, develops a 2x2 to evaluate research management methods; the axes are ‘active constraints’ (how much management intervenes in the research process) and ‘opinionatedness’ (how much management tries to set the vision).
Beavers are Heat Wave Heroes (Vox) — Describes how beavers function as natural air conditioners (their dams cool down surrounding areas by as much as 10 ºF), ecosystem engineers (their dams are habitats that many birds and frogs rely on), and defenders against drought and wildfires (their dams replenish groundwater and provide firebreaks).
The Kekulé Problem (Nautilus) — Writer Cormac McCarthy muses about the legend that German chemist August Kekulé discovered the ring-like structure of benzene after daydreaming about the ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake seizing its own tail. If the unconscious is so smart, wonders McCarthy, why the cryptic messaging? Just tell poor Kekulé directly, using language! Alas, the ancient unconscious predates language and moves in mysterious ways.
I Hate Manager READMEs (Camille Fournier) — Critiques the popular practice of managers writing “user guides” for themselves: it doesn’t accurately capture your actual flaws (nobody knows themselves perfectly), it doesn’t encourage your reports to hold you accountable (given the power differential), and it can be used to excuse bad behaviors. Argues that, “if you know you have foibles/quirks that you in fact want to change about yourself, do the work.”
Coding Adventure: Chess AI (Sebastian Lague) — A visual walkthrough of how to build a simple chess-playing engine from scratch. Uses worked examples to explain key gaming AI concepts like minimaxing, alpha-beta pruning, and transposition tables, and touches on general AI processes like search, evaluation, and optimization.
The Dream is Over for China’s Tech Workers (Rest of World) — Examines how China’s high-flying tech industry has been decimated by COVID lockdowns, economic slowdowns, and regulatory crackdowns from the government (a reaction to the industry’s amassing of “undue influence” that the government thought could threaten one-party rule). Chinese tech giants have pivoted from overgrowth to layoffs and “cost control.”
Walking the Cotswolds, Walking Japan (Craig Mod) — Presents a compelling multi-day meetup format involving walking and talking in scenic locales. “A topic is chosen before bed. We chat the next day as we walk, and then we gather for a Jeffersonian-style dinner in the evening. One person talks, then another. Everyone listens.”
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend This is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (2019, 208 pages).
Written as a series of letters exchanged by two skilled time agents, this short yet marvelously-crafted novel uses the ultimate all-out war of wars — The Time War — as a backdrop for a hopeful and optimistic story. This is the book to pick up when you’re feeling deflated in your faith in humanity. It has a simple answer to our wonderings of how a vicious cycle of destruction may ever be stopped. And this answer is love.
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