🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 71
October 13th, 2022
Episode 71 — October 13th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/71
Contributors to this issue: Ben Mathes, Dimitri Glazkov, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Scott Schaffter, Boris Smus, Neel Mehta, a.r. Routh, Jon Lebensold, Spencer Pitman
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, Stefano Mazzocchi, Justin Quimby, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Julka Almquist, 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.
“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”
— Douglas Adams
😈🪄 Three curses of wicked problems
“Wicked” is not just a fun Halloween-themed label. It’s a warning. Sometimes it may feel like the ability to spot wicked problems is an infohazard in and of itself: it increases our suffering, rather than diminishing it.
Imagine a team that has put a lot of work into building for users in a fertile ecosystem. After years of trying, they have nothing to show. What happened? The term “building” is a dead giveaway: ecosystems grow. Treating an ecosystem like blocks that snap together will only produce toy castles. This team probably took on the job of building an ecosystem as a tame problem rather than a wicked problem.
Tame problems have a linear flavor: first identify the problem, then brainstorm solutions, select evaluation criteria, evaluate, decide, and execute. Once identified, tame problems are solved effectively through application of skill and rigorous process. When we hear folks asking for metrics, plans, and success criteria, we are likely seeing an assumption that the underlying problem is tame.
But problems in complex adaptive systems are wicked — and applying tame methods to wicked problems only generates more problems. This endless cycle of problem generation frustrates the would-be solvers and leads to burnout, especially when they think that they only need to apply the tame method harder.
This seemingly inescapable multiplication of problems is what makes wicked problems so… well, wicked. When dealing with a wicked problem, there are three common curses to overcome.
First, wicked problems hide in plain sight. To overcome this curse, here’s a handy rule-of-thumb: if the problem has people in it, it’s probably wicked — or at least, wicked-adjacent. So everything from strategic planning to running cities to protecting the environment is likely to be a wicked problem. Another rule-of-thumb: if pieces in the system react to each other, forming cascades of reactions, it’s probably wicked. This is a hallmark of complex adaptive systems, which means that many CAS-based problems are wicked.
Having identified the problem as wicked, we face the second curse: people resist seeing the problem as wicked. The false-yet-comforting certainty of measurement and process will push us toward tame problem solving. Even after we recognize the problem as wicked, the collective attempts to tame the problem can haunt us: “Am I the only one who sees what is happening? Might I be the one who is overcomplicating things?” To overcome this curse, resist the urge to give into these doubts and find others who see the problem.
Finally, even after broad acceptance that the problem is wicked, wicked problems defy simple solutions. A common outcome of complexity training is the “now what?” response: the look on the audience’s bewildered faces as they realize there is no predefined toolkit. And without any toolkit, many people will fall back onto the familiar problem-solving approaches designed for tame problems.
Since wicked problems defy toolkits, we cannot guarantee a solution. However, we can guarantee that a tame solution won’t work and that masking a wicked problem as tame will fail.
Returning to our team building user-features — instead of masking the problem of growing an ecosystem, we can acknowledge that growing an ecosystem is a wicked problem and seek to better understand why the struggle is a feature of the environment rather than the shortcomings of the team. Hang in there. Be patient. Dance with the delusion. These spooky curses are real, yet occasionally, possible to overcome.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🇧🇩 Bangladeshi farmers are pumping so much water that they’re helping counter floods
During the dry season, farmers in Bangladesh use motorized pumps to extract vast volumes of water from underground aquifers and use this water to flood their rice paddies. As technology has improved over the last few decades, farmers have been able to pull out more water, thus increasing food production. This might be having a positive side effect: it clears out space in the aquifers, leaving room for them to absorb the torrential rain of the monsoon season — thus alleviating flooding.
🚏🚔 Police are using suspects’ DNA to generate 3D models of them
The Edmonton Police Service recently issued a public statement that included a computer-generated 3D illustration of a suspect, created solely with DNA phenotyping — despite significant controversy over that method’s reliability and usefulness. In a policing system already under significant scrutiny for persistent racial bias, DNA phenotyping may further launder systemic issues via opaque computational models.
🚏⚡ Starbucks is building a chain of electric vehicle chargers across the Western US
As the US shifts toward electric vehicles, Starbucks is planning on using its wide distribution to become the fueling station of the future. The Western US is infamously a challenging area for long-distance EV travel since there are often long stretches between towns, much less charging stations. In an effort to rewrite the narrative, Starbucks, in partnership with Volvo (who has also invested heavily in EVs), is going to install EV chargers at its stores approximately every 100 miles on the 1350-mile route between Seattle and Denver.
🚏🎢 iPhone 14s are accidentally calling 911 on roller coasters
The iPhone 14’s new “Crash Detection” feature is designed to help users who get caught in car crashes by automatically calling 911 if its sensors notice extreme acceleration. But it appears that roller coasters — which feature plenty of twists, turns, sudden drops, and hard braking — are accidentally triggering the Crash Detection feature. One amusement park has seen 6 such false alarms since the iPhone 14 launched.
🚏💵 The biggest decentralized lending protocol is investing $500M into bonds
MakerDAO, the group behind the world’s largest decentralized finance (DeFi) lending protocol, controls a pool of assets worth $9 billion, used to back its popular stablecoin DAI. MakerDAO has traditionally invested these funds into crypto-assets, but given that most safe cryptocurrencies (i.e. other stablecoins) give no interest or yield, the group turned to the traditional financial space. MakerDAO will be investing $400 million into short-term US treasury bonds and $100 million into corporate bonds. MakerDAO spokespeople say the community is lending its “adamant support,” but some crypto fans aren’t enthused by the reliance on governments and corporations.
🚏🌬 A prototype wind turbine broke the 24-hour power generation record
A prototype of a huge offshore wind turbine recently generated 359 megawatt-hours in a 24-hour span — enough to break the world record. This one-day output was enough for a mid-sized electric car to drive over a million miles. According to the manufacturers, a single turbine (which packs 350-foot blades) should provide enough electricity each year to power 18,000 households.
🚏🥭 A hacker stole $100M from a crypto platform, then used the funds to vote for leniency on themselves
Someone used price manipulation techniques to drain $100 million from a major crypto trading platform, Mango Markets. The hacker then submitted a proposal to the Mango community, offering to return some of the funds if the group promised to not “pursue any criminal investigations or freezing of funds” against the hacker. The hacker then used the same funds they stole to vote in favor of the proposal, casting almost one-third of the total votes needed to make the proposal pass. (It’s unclear if this proposal would be legally binding.)
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Reality Is Very Weird and You Need to Be Prepared for That (Slime Mold Time Mold) — Builds on the Scott and Scurvy piece we shared last week, arguing that many of the common markers of BS or pseudoscience (special pleading, tangled logic, reasoning full of exceptions and edge cases, etc.) also apply to many actual scientific discoveries. It’s therefore worth revisiting theories that were thrown out due to contradictory evidence or Occam’s Razor, since reality is often more complicated than we think.
Exocentric Verb-Noun Compound Agent Nouns (David Thomas Moore) — Introduces us to a quirky group of English words like “scofflaw,” “sellsword,” “turncoat,” and “cutthroat”: they start with a verb and end with a noun. Oddly, they were all coined in the same 150-year period, they all sound vaguely seedy, and nobody knows quite where they came from. Perhaps this pattern was a faddish, slangy way of hurling insults.
Addition vs Subtraction (Molly Graham) — Argues that corporations (like people) tend to add new processes while rarely removing existing ones, which leads to a steady march towards the overly complicated. Then offers some ideas for combating this trend, like declaring a yearly “calendar bankruptcy” where all standing meetings are deleted, or (for large companies) hiring a full-time employee dedicated to looking for things to stop doing.
Learning Chess at 40 (Nautilus) — The writer reflects on how he and his 4-year-old daughter learned chess together. He finds that children play in a free-form way, making liberal use of heuristics; they dominate with “brute instinct [and] pure fluid intelligence.” Adults find their edge in their greater crystallized intelligence (their knowledge of past games and common patterns), plus strategic thinking prowess and raw endurance.
The Boomtown That Shouldn’t Exist (Politico) — Examines the meteoric rise of Cape Coral, Florida — the USA’s fastest-growing city. Shows how the city’s growth-at-all-costs mindset and focus on retirees have led to harmful externalities, the depletion of natural resources, and difficulty in improving the city’s urban fabric.
Can Russia Execute a Gas Pivot to Asia? (CSIS) — Shines a light on some difficulties Russia will be facing as it tries to send most of its gas exports east rather than west, including the challenge of breaking into a brand-new market full of much larger players and the need to build new pipelines, all while selling its product at a discounted rate.
Our Food System Isn’t Ready for the Climate Crisis (The Guardian) — A beautifully-illustrated exploration of the global agriculture industry’s convergence on single cultivars of plants like bananas and corn. While this yields homogeneous foods that are easy to mass-produce, it leaves us at extreme risk. Without genetic diversity, a single pathogen could instantly wipe out our entire supply of a certain food.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Wild Problems by Russ Roberts (2022, 224 pages).
Who to marry, who to hire, who to befriend, whether to have children: these choices constitute different ways to live, each of which fundamentally changes who you become. This short book argues that such problems can’t be solved with a “compute the costs and benefits” approach and are therefore examples of so-called wild (and wicked) problems. Despite being an economist, Russ Roberts has a tendency to disparage his own field, arguing that economists are quick to adopt overly simplified models.
A key thought experiment Roberts uses to provide an intuition for these wild problems is the Vampire Problem. We cannot imagine what it would be like to be a vampire because we have never been vampires. The change is fundamental: you are much more interested in drinking other people's blood and avoiding the sun. In the same way, you cannot imagine what you will be like after you make major life choices. Such transformations involve a leap of faith. Whether to take it is not a decision that can be made using a decision matrix or rational deliberation. Even bounded rationality is of little help in such transformative situations.
Soapboxing aside, Roberts provides a much needed counterweight to the dominant idea that rationality and logic is all we need.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: time horizons.
How long you plan to be in the game fundamentally changes your decisions. If you plan to work at X company or on Y problem or on Z project for 10 or even 30 years, it fundamentally shifts your behavior. But if you only plan to work at a company for 1 year, it might not make sense to build lasting relationships, invest in long-term bets, or create infrastructure to scale beyond 1 year.
We often lose track of our longer-term goals, leading our day-to-day decisions to skew short-term. The time horizon lens allows you to be intentional about how long you plan to commit to a given space at the outset, and can be a useful way to couch your behavior and lend perspective.
For example, many finance firms have a competitive edge because they have a time horizon measured in years or decades rather than quarters. Retirement planning is a simple example of how this plays out — when you are younger, you have a longer time horizon and can take riskier bets (e.g., more equities), but as you get closer to retirement, market volatility is more impactful, so you shift to less risky bets (e.g., more bonds).
The bumps in the road might not seem so bad if you see them as stepping stones for your longer-term objectives. You can use that longer time horizon to let you play an infinite game and focus on planting seeds that you can let germinate over time. Alternatively, you can adopt a short horizon and remind yourself that you don’t need to stress over the future and can just enjoy the moment.
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