🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 76
November 17th, 2022
Episode 76 — November 17th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/76
Contributors to this issue: Ben Mathes, Dimitri Glazkov, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Justin Quimby
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman, Julka Almquist, Scott Schaffter, 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.
“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.”
― Thomas Pynchon
📝 Editor’s note: We’ll be off next week for the US’s Thanksgiving holiday. We’ll see you the week after!
😨☠️ Fearing dread
Not all news is good news. Layoffs can come. Economic shocks arise from some as-yet unforeseen corner. People close to us suffer through illness. We will all pass away eventually. How we face these different struggles is important, yet there is no single strategy for facing them. These struggles and fears are not all the same.
Horror authors understand the different kinds of fear. Orson Scott Card lays out three the first page of the introduction to his short stories:
Terror: when we see the thing we're afraid of. The attacker is coming at us with a knife. The oncoming headlights are clearly in our lane.
Horror: after the fearful thing has happened, we see its remainder, its relics. We recoil from the grisly, hacked-up corpse.
Dread: the tension, the waiting that comes when we know there is something to fear but we have not yet identified what it is. It’s the fear that comes when we first realize that the window we left closed is now open and swinging on its hinges.
Writers and movie makers show us that dread is by far the worst. It’s a creeping anxiety that something terrible might happen. Our fears fill in the unknown with the worst case. Terror is scary, but it’s something we can face and react to. On this relative scale, horror is the least scary. The bad thing has already happened. We can react and, if we have not been destroyed by it, move on.
All this matters at work, too. Horror is when the layoffs have already happened and the remaining employees are picking up the pieces. Terror is when we know our project is getting cancelled and we need to find a new job. But Dread is when we don’t even know which, if any, layoffs or cancellations are coming. We’re frozen in a state of inaction because they might.
A relentlessly positive culture will tend to hide bad information. In trying to save people from terror or horror, that culture will instead leaves people in a state of dread: if nobody ever gives us any negative news, we are left imagining the worst. People intuitively know that not everything is always sunny and bright. So if everyone is always coming up roses, we feel dread: the bad news has got to be lurking somewhere.
Let’s talk about how we face fears. Mismatches are deadly. If the monster is at the end of the hall and starts running towards us, but we’re still pretending that it’s just hiding in the walls, we won’t think to run away. If we know that layoffs are coming (and can tell people), but aren’t telling anyone, we’re amplifying dread for everyone: they can’t react and plan accordingly to the known terror.
Bad news is real. So is the fear it creates. When matched in kind and degree, fear is a fit response. However, we cannot leave fear unattended. Facing our fear makes it better (although perhaps only relatively). We have to face it in a way that fits the kind of fear. Heal and move on after horror. Face and react to terror. Openly talk about and address the genesis of dreadful things.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🇹🇻 Tuvalu will build a digital version of itself in the face of rising seas
The Pacific archipelago country is expected to be completely underwater by 2100, and its current leaders want to ensure that the state will continue to function even after all its land is gone. Thus, Tuvalu has announced it’s planning to build a digital version of itself in the metaverse, replicating islands and landmarks and creating digital monuments to its history and culture.
🚏🍳 People are making fun of the UK government in its own read-only Discord
HM Treasury, the UK’s economic ministry, created a public Discord server to distribute economic news in tweet-length posts. The server is read-only (only Treasury officials can post), but people have found creative ways to heckle the British government anyway. Some have strung together emoji reactions to spell out taunts like “F*** the Royals,” one letter at a time; others have reacted with the Scottish or EU flags; yet others have abused the fact that there are no constraints on user nicknames, picking monikers like “Thatcher’s Corpse.”
🚏🎐 The world’s largest floating wind farm produced its first power
A Norwegian energy company has created a floating wind farm, which is exactly what it sounds like: wind turbines floating on giant platforms anchored to the sea bed, about 80 miles off the Norwegian coast. The wind farm has just started energy production, with seven more turbines slated to come online later this year. (Ironically, the electricity from this farm will be used to power nearby offshore oil extraction operations.)
🚏🇫🇷 Paris has overtaken London as Europe’s biggest stock market
The combined market cap of all stocks trading on Euronext Paris, the French stock exchange, has now exceeded the combined market cap on the London Stock Exchange. This is the first time that Paris has beaten out London as Europe’s largest stock market since record-keeping began in 2003. Paris had been gaining ground since Brexit, but the British economic slump and currency crash were the decisive blows to the LSE’s standing.
🚏📸 An AI model will generate Tinder or LinkedIn profile pictures for you
A new site called PhotoAI uses an AI model to generate specially-themed pictures of you, given a dozen or so actual photos. There are packages to generate Tinder profile pictures (featuring sunglasses and beefed-up muscles), LinkedIn profile pictures (with tailored suits and ties), pictures of you with celebrities, and even pictures of you in meme templates (you can be the girl staring at a burning building, the man saying “one does not simply,” or others.)
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Money, Credit, Trust, and FTX: Is This a Game to You? (The Diff) — Byrne Hobart argues that SBF’s love of games explains a lot about FTX’s implosion. When playing games, you’re encouraged to “min-max” (to maximize ROI) and sacrifice things (like a queen sac in chess). But using this mindset in business can lead you to sacrifice honesty for growth and skip over sound business practices to get a speed boost.
Tangle Logic (Ribbonfarm) — Venkatesh Rao writes that tangles (disorderly solutions that somehow work, like the free-for-all of Indian traffic) get a bad rap. People often prefer order in the face of chaos, but maintaining order requires an enormous amount of energy input — which in turn requires authoritarianism. Tangles, while complex and messy, are one of the few organic ways to keep chaos at bay.
To Stop Illegal Fishing, Send a Seabird (Nautilus) — Describes a brilliantly simple technique to spot illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing in the middle of the ocean: put trackers and cameras on albatrosses, watch them fly toward huge schools of fish, and use the photos to identify fishing boats that aren’t supposed to be there.
SBF on Kelly Betting (Matt Hollerbach) — Evaluates Sam Bankman-Fried’s argument that he’d prefer to gamble far more than the Kelly-optimal bet size. SBF said that, as a philanthropist, his utility function of money was linear instead of the normal logarithmic curve (thus freeing him from diminishing returns), but he failed to realize that risking it all and losing would hurt more than just himself — it’d harm his investors, employees, and customers.
Russia Wants to Lock Ukraine Back in the Soviet Cellar (Time) — The poet Igor Pomerantsev describes a flourishing civil society in Ukraine at a time of great fear, evocatively describing the primal feeling of being alive in the face of existential risk. When in Ukraine, he constantly gazes upward: “like some medieval villager, the sky seems full of portents, danger, hope and symbols.”
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Working Backwards by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr (2021, 304 pages).
Written by two former long-time Amazonians, this book explains a number of organizational mechanisms used at Amazon. The authors credit Amazon's success to four key principles: (1) customer obsession, (2) willingness to think long-term, (3) eagerness to invent, and (4) pride in operational excellence. The book breaks down how these principles have been applied at Amazon and illustrates them through case studies.
The most interesting takeaways here are not the principles themselves — although those are insightful in their own right. The most interesting takeaways are the background stories behind the principles. Whether or not these particular principles are right for your culture — or even stand the test of further time at Amazon — each story shows how Amazon responded to systemic issues with intentional, systemic responses instead of trusting that the right thing would happen on its own.
If you’ve ever been at a company where an obsolete culture or failing mechanisms are responded to by just doing the same old thing harder, then it can be a breath of fresh air to hear stories about how a company successfully made large changes, often in the face of resistance.
🔮📬 Postcard from the future
A ‘what if’ piece of speculative fiction about a possible future that could result from the systemic forces changing our world.
// What might happen to gas stations if the United States shifts completely to electric consumer vehicles?
// November 2050. A Zoom call.
In the pinned presenter tab, a hand bangs an ornate gavel onto a marble plinth.
“Order, order!! Welcome to the national convention of the American Gas Station, Convenience, and Liquor Store Owners (apca.us).
“I know times have been tough. Back in 2022, there were about 72,000 gas stations in the United States. In 2035 all new vehicles sold in California had to be either electric or plug-in hybrid electrics. And as I don’t need to remind any of you, over 11% of all new passenger car sales nationally happen in California.
<A wave of crab and thumbs-down emojis flood the screen>
“The car makers listened, and they started making more and more electric vehicles and fewer and fewer all-gas cars. Demand for gasoline plummeted, while carbon taxes and import costs rose. More and more folks threw their hands up and exited the industry.
“Our theme for this convention is to give you ideas on what you can do with your gas station, and how you might transform it into a thriving business in this new electric vehicle economy. Topics for this year’s convention include:
Accessing federal and state grants for underground storage tank stabilization and/or removal
Mechanics and legal issues of growing mushrooms and marijuana underground
Templates for funding and building multi-story infill housing on an eighth of an acre
Revenue opportunities from 8G hotspots
Building a thriving classic car community and becoming their physical hub for meetups, drives, and talks
Harnessing the arts: creating an art gallery and capturing influencer and micro-community attention
Converting to a self-driving vehicle charging, repair, and dispatch center
The Urban Folly: turning a station into a “destination” with designer drinks and decoration
The Mini Drive-In: capturing drive-in movie theater nostalgia with automated charging
“As a side note, we know that the vulture capitalists, hedge funds, and real estate investors have been circling, looking for moments of financial weakness to swoop in and buy your land. Any of the known bad actors in this space are labeled as such in the chat groups. If you suspect someone, please let our community team know. We believe in building generational wealth, so don’t sell — transform!”
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Particularly powerful and useful thoughts about fear. Thank you.