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🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 68
September 22nd, 2022
Episode 68 — September 22nd, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/68
Contributors to this issue: Erika Rice Scherpelz, Dimitri Glazkov, Neel Mehta, Ade Oshineye, Boris Smus
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Justin Quimby, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman, Julka Almquist, Scott Schaffter, Lisie Lillianfeld, Samuel Arbesman, Dart Lindsley
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.
“Once you see the boundaries of your environment, they are no longer the boundaries of your environment.”
— Marshall McLuhan
🗺️💭 Making space for open-ended conversations
Disagreement can be uncomfortable, especially with people you don’t know. However, disagreement, especially in the form of collaborative debate, is critical for building groups. Collaborative debate helps group members begin to gain each other’s trust, align, and learn how to work together.
Why is collaborative debate so important? To build trust, everyone needs to be able to share their perspectives. But if sharing doesn’t feel safe, the group no longer has access to the full range of perspectives — only those that are deemed safe to share. Healthy debate also shows that, even when we disagree, we can maintain our relationships with each other. We can disagree without being disagreeable.
How do we create space for collaborative debate? It sure seems easier when groups are co-located and harder when they are hybrid or distributed between multiple locations. Do we have to be in-person to bond?
There isn’t anything inherently magical about being in person. However, there is something magical about open-ended conversations. When a conversation has a convergent goal, then the choice to be made looms over the whole discussion. Options that are not chosen will be implicitly labeled as wrong — or at least less right. This need to converge raises the stakes of the conversation.
When a conversation is divergent, the stakes are lowered. Even if disagreeing feels a bit stressful, we know that our idea is not in a battle royale against others. If we don’t need to come to a conclusion, there is less personal risk in bringing up alternatives. By enabling open-ended, divergent conversations, we facilitate collaborative debate — which, in turn, builds trust.
To be effective, teams must create spaces for divergent conversations, where people can bring up options and respond to each other without the risk of having their opinion implicitly declared wrong when something else is chosen.
However, divergent conversations often feel like a distraction from “real” work. Especially for distributed teams, we must fight this feeling. We must intentionally create time and space for open-ended conversations. Because these conversations will feel like a distraction, we need to create an excuse, a reason people can use to justify their participation to themselves. Food and social events can provide this reasoning directly. It can also be provided indirectly through the creation of blank spaces between the official agenda — hence why the best parts of conference and summits are often between the sessions. Whether direct or indirect, it is well worth being thoughtful of how to create these opportunities for open-ended conversation, both in person and remotely.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🔬 Academic publishers are using computer vision to catch fabricated research
A growing number of sleazy researchers have started publishing papers with faked data, often ‘documented’ with doctored photos. These pictures are often “flipped, rotated, shifted, or cropped” versions of other pictures in the paper. Humans have trouble identifying these manipulated photos, but new AI algorithms are able to catch them — and many academic publishers are starting to use these tools in conjunction with human review.
🚏🦫 Beavers are helping maintain wetlands in English despite the huge drought
Even though droughts are ravaging the South West of England, groups of beavers in East Devon have managed to build a network of dams that’s keeping a hectare of farmland underwater. The water is two feet deep in some areas, and it’s been credited with preserving habitats for birds and aquatic animals. However, some local farmers aren’t happy with their land getting flooded.
🚏🏦 The Fed is working on a cheap, real-time payment settlement system
The US Federal Reserve has set a target launch date of mid-2023 for FedNow, its new instant payment settlement platform. Besides making funds available instantly (even on weekends), the new platform should have 80% lower fees than debit cards. Partner banks will be able to build on top of the platform to add payment features to new or existing products. (This system is neither blockchain-based nor a central bank digital currency.)
🚏🍻 The US’s transportation safety bureau wants new cars to thwart drunk drivers
The US’s National Transportation Safety Board has issued a statement urging the relevant federal agency to require new cars to integrate “passive… alcohol impairment detection systems [or] advanced driver monitoring systems” that would “prevent or limit vehicle operation” if they detect that the driver is drunk. Congress has also passed a law that requires that agency to examine mandating this technology.
🚏🎒 Cleaner air and cooler temperatures have been tied to higher school performance
According to a new study, air conditioning and air filtration are key educational tools. Without air conditioning, a 1 ºF increase in temperature during a school year was found to decrease learning by 1%; in New York City alone, “upwards of 510,000 exams that otherwise would have passed likely received failing grades due to hot exam conditions.” Adding air filtration, meanwhile, increased test performance by about as much as pricey interventions like smaller class sizes or intensive tutoring. (Under-resourced schools are more likely to lack AC or air filtration, making this a significant driver of inequality and the racial achievement gap.)
🚏⚛️ Scientists can simulate molecules using tiny “quantum circuits”
Engineers have developed a new type of quantum circuit that can be used to simulate the structure and properties of molecules. By placing carbon atoms in exactly the right places, the researchers can mimic the atomic structure of a molecule of interest and run experiments on it. The team hopes this method could one day help discover “new materials, pharmaceuticals, or catalysts” and plans to scale up the experiment to simulate bigger molecules than classical computers can handle.
🚏🚥 Germany ordered a shutdown of digital ad displays to save energy
Natural gas continues to be in short supply in Germany as a result of sanctions on Russia. As part of an energy-saving plan, Germany ordered that “non-essential digital signage,” such as advertising displays, be turned off between 10pm and 6am daily. (This is proving difficult because many displays are designed to never be turned off, so many retail staff don’t know how to shut down their stores’ screens.)
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Official Myths (Mandy Brown) — Observes that many people think that the problems of modern work (such as junior staffers not getting enough support) could be solved by returning to the office. Counter-argues that these commentators are invoking a make-believe “mythical office… where everyone is welcomed, where collaboration and support is easy-going and automatic.” In truth, offices aren’t necessarily better or worse than remote work; leaders need to grapple with more foundational questions of mentorship and collaboration, regardless of whether they’re done via Slack or face-to-face.
Sprezzatura: The Art of Making Difficult Things Look Simple (Louis Chew) — Describes sprezzatura, a hallmark of the ideal courtier in medieval Italy: the ability to display nonchalance while performing an impressive physical feat. To the untrained eye, the performer has magical powers, but a trained observer sees this sprezzatura as a sign that the person has trained so well that they can make difficult things look natural.
Russian Mobilization Is Likely to Trigger Political Chaos (Kamil Galeev) — Argues that the Soviet Union’s massive amounts of unused military capacity (near-empty battalions, extra training grounds and barracks, etc.) served a vital purpose: they were a sponge to absorb a tsunami of new recruits in the event of mass mobilization. But in the decades since, that extra capacity has been optimized away. If Putin mass-mobilizes the modern Russian army, he’ll have no infrastructure to support all the new soldiers.
Industry-Linked Sustainability Standard Allows Clothing Giants to Ramp Up Emissions (The Intercept) — Argues that the fashion industry is trying to greenwash its carbon dioxide emissions by highlighting a “material sustainability index” created by that same industry. This index uses a dubious methodology that marks cheap synthetic fibers like polyester (which is petroleum-based and releases microplastics) as the most “sustainable” — thus letting fashion giants say they’re “going green” even as they keep polluting.
Alzheimer's Might Not Actually Be a Brain Disease, Expert Says (Science Alert) — Examines the fallout of a July report that alleged that a seminal 2006 paper on Alzheimer’s (pointing to beta-amyloid proteins as a cause) may have been based on fake data. Argues that researchers have gotten stuck in an “intellectual rut” of chasing after (likely ineffective) beta-amyloid blockers; fortunately, scientists have begun forming alternative theories of the disease.
Why Conjugate Verbs?: The Ithkuil Fallacy (K Klein) — Runs an experiment to empirically support a common theory in linguistics: that seemingly-unnecessary features of language (grammatical gender, verb conjugation, adjective agreement, etc.) actually play a vital role in helping listeners “error-correct” what they’re hearing speech in a noisy room or over a lossy channel. These features serve the same purpose as redundancies in computing.
How to Revive Your Sense of Wonder (Psyche) — Laments that the childlike desire to ask “how” and “why” usually fades with age. However, parents can learn to rediscover the joys of wide-eyed discovery by having children around, being open to embracing their ways of thinking, and encouraging their curiosity by asking them generative questions.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990, 303 pages).
More than 30 years after Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi published Flow, the core idea of “flow state” is so familiar that you may wonder whether or not it’s worth reading the book. We think it is! The book goes beyond the basic idea and looks at how happiness differs from pleasure, how the state of flow supports happiness, and how to get into and maintain a state of flow.
Although the book does not explicitly talk about complex systems, it might make an insightful read for subscribers to this newsletter: it appears that some of the properties that help create a flow state are similar to those that help us surf system complexity. The merging of action and awareness, the loss of self-consciousness, and the loss of concern about losing control: this pattern of skilled yet intuitive action also helps when understanding systems that are greater than the sum of their parts.
Not all of the factors necessary for flow are applicable to understanding complex systems, though. For example, flow experiences often require clear goals and feedback — properties which complex systems lack. Instead, think of flow experiences as a “betwixt and between” state, where you can help build up muscles that might help you dance with complexity.
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