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🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 75
November 10th, 2022
Episode 75 — November 10th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/75
Contributors to this issue: Boris Smus, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Neel Mehta, Dimitri Glazkov, Scott Schaffter
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Justin Quimby, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman, Julka Almquist, Lisie Lillianfeld, Samuel Arbesman, Dart Lindsley, Jon Lebensold
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 compelling poetry also has a dark side. Dogmatic, mindless, and inflexible application of any mindset can get you or your organization in big trouble. A mindset should be treated like a compass or the global positioning system in your car or on your phone. It is something that points you in the right direction most of the time. But you can’t follow it blindly; otherwise, every now and then, you will plow into obstacles that you should have steered around or miss your destination.”
— Robert I. Sutton and Huggy Rao, Scaling Up Excellence
➰🤏 From molehills to mountains
The critical software project isn’t getting done in time! Quick — throw more engineers on the project!
If you’ve been in this situation before, you already know that this strategy is almost certainly doomed to failure. In addition to running into problems of the Mythical Man-Month, an unstructured “throw more resources at it” approach is unlikely to solve the problem. In our hypothetical project, throwing more engineers at it is unlikely to help if the problem is about an endless approval process or any of the dozens of other things that can slow a project down.
The Theory of Constraints and its operationalized offspring, such as Kanban, emphasize the importance of finding and fixing bottlenecks. Bottlenecks are points where demand of a critical ingredient outpaces the supply. Instead of indiscriminately throwing resources at a slow project, the Theory of Constraints emphasizes the importance of finding and resolving bottlenecks.
This theory is popular in domains such as manufacturing, where manufacturing process flows were traditionally linear. When dealing with more complex flows, a set of linear processes is replaced with overlapping feedback loops. In this context, it can be hard to see which bottlenecks are the most important. The most obvious candidates (such as the narrowest bottlenecks or the ones in the dead-center of your web of feedback loops) might not actually be the most important bottlenecks. Rather, the most important bottlenecks are the ones on your strategic positive feedback loops.
Back to our hypothetical example. Suppose that large software project you are working on is a developer-focused API. Your team might think that the key problem is that you don’t have enough features to acquire new customers. But upon closer inspection, you notice that customer churn is very high. You then realize that because your developer documentation is cryptic, it makes using your product about as fun as crawling through glass.
It turns out that you had the wrong theory of change. The problem wasn’t acquiring potential customers. It was getting them to stay in the feedback loop of using your product, deriving value, and using it more. Instead of investing in new features, you’d be much better off investing in improving the documentation. This work isn’t shiny, but because it’s in a critical growth loop, it’s more important than the new features — it compounds, rapidly turning molehills into mountains.
The key thing to remember about bottlenecks on positive feedback loops is that they often look smaller and less important than the other major bottlenecks you are facing. Their outsized impact comes from the fact that the loop hits them over and over again, which makes their value grow exponentially.
So next time you’re looking for why a process seems stuck, don’t forget to look for the quiet little bottlenecks hanging out in your most important feedback loops.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏💿 Physical copies of the new Call of Duty game are effectively empty discs
The new video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II became an instant hit, but fans noticed that the physical Blu-Ray disc version of the game didn’t actually contain the game files. Instead, it held a 72-megabyte program that downloads the actual 150-gigabyte game off the internet. The near-empty discs aren’t a minor product, either: fans who pre-ordered the steelbook got a fancy metal case containing one of these discs.
🚏✅ People are buying blue checks on Twitter to impersonate brands and celebs
Once Elon Musk announced that anyone could buy blue check “verification” for $8 per month, pranksters jumped on the fact that there was no longer an easy way to tell if a Twitter account was official. One person created (and verified) an account that impersonated LeBron James and tweeted that he wanted to get traded; another impersonated an ESPN analyst and tweeted a baseless rumor that an NFL team’s head coach had been fired (the tweet went viral). Yet another imposter created a verified account that claimed to be Nintendo and tweeted a picture of Mario holding up a middle finger.
🚏🦏 Rhino horns are getting smaller due to a century of poaching
A recent study examined pictures of rhinoceroses over the last century-plus and found that they’ve evolved to have smaller horns, which makes sense given that poachers prefer to target animals with bigger horns. The study’s lead author cautioned that this could be bad news for rhinos, since hunters will now need to shoot more rhinos to get the same amount of horn.
🚏🇫🇷 In France, large parking lots will need to be covered in solar panels
The French Senate approved a bill that requires most parking lots with at least 80 spaces to be covered in solar panels. Medium-size lots with 80 to 400 spaces have five years to set up the solar panels; lots with over 400 spots will need to get compliant within just three years. The government says that this plan will generate up to 11 gigawatts of energy, the equivalent of 10 nuclear reactors.
🚏🐢 Chinese chip designers are slowing down processors to avoid US sanctions
The US recently announced sanctions that “cap the processing power of any semiconductor shipped into China without a license,” likely in a bid to slow down China’s silicon industry. Chip factories in mainland China aren’t advanced enough to make state-of-the-art chips, so Chinese chip designers need to rely on the Taiwanese manufacturer TSMC. But since that requires importing semiconductors into China, these designers have had to modify their chip designs to purposely reduce processing speeds — thereby rendering much of their recent R&D efforts useless.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Not So Wicked (Tetradian) — Digs into so-called “wicked problems,” which (in contrast to “tame” or “kind” problems) lack a definite answer and are highly complex. Argues that the term “wild problem” (as in “wild animal”) captures this pattern better, in that it’s unpredictable and more organic; tame problems, like tame animals, rarely occur in nature. The author also draws an interesting parallel between these wild problems and infinite games.
Status as a Disservice (Divinations) — Argues that Twitter’s new offer of blue-check “verification” to anyone who pays $8 a month belies a fundamental misunderstanding of how status works in social networks. People like gaining status, but nobody enjoys substance-free status games. Instead of a “gamified empty version [of status] that is fixated on the symbols,” Twitter should instead focus on helping people create more useful and interesting content — from which status will flow naturally.
The Death of a Statesman (Ed Zitron) — A great synopsis of the intrigue surrounding the collapse of the crypto exchange FTX and its famous CEO, Sam Bankman-Fried. Illustrates the financial house of cards that SBF’s empire was built on, then argues that this is a huge blow to the crypto industry, since SBF was a crypto’s main “respectable spokesman” and a key pillar that supported the often-shaky industry with plentiful bailouts and investments.
"You Know Nothing”: A Conversational Mindset (David Gasca) — Suggests a stance that can help you have better conversations: resist the urge to make assumptions about your interlocutor and start from a place of curiosity. From this place, it's easier to initiate and hold a good conversation.
Ancient Mars Microbes Triggered Climate Change That Made It Hard for Them To Survive (Space) — Shares a new study that argues that, if primitive life existed on Mars billions of years ago, it could have brought about its own demise. These ancient microbes would have eaten up the hydrogen gas — an extremely potent greenhouse gas — in the red planet’s atmosphere, thus plunging Mars into an ice age that it never recovered from. This could be a common pattern across the universe: life might emerge often but snuff itself out at a similarly high rate.
📚🌲 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).
Despite being an economist, Russ Roberts has a tendency to disparage his own field. His core argument is that a lot of the thinking employed by economists applies to overly simplified models along the lines of “imagine a spherical cow.” In particular, Roberts focuses on so-called “wild problems” (wicked problems, but usually in the personal domain). The thrust of this short book is that such problems can’t be solved with a compute-the-costs-and-benefits approach. Whether/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.
A key thought experiment Roberts uses to provide an intuition for these wild problems is the Vampire Problem. A human cannot imagine what it would be like to be a vampire because they have never been a vampire. Becoming a vampire too will make you 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. They will fundamentally change you, your priorities, and your tastes. 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.
To be sure, this book is not perfect. Roberts soapboxes a lot, imploring readers to stick to their principles, fully trumping any utilitarian considerations. He says that one's values should always stand above the domain of economic utility. No amount of money should be enough to sway this. Reality is clearly more complex than this, though, and ultimately the difficult questions remain difficult. However, given the traditional dominance of the idea that rationality should be all that is necessary, Roberts’ arguments provide a much-needed counterweight.
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