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🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 78
December 8th, 2022
Episode 78 — December 8th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/78
Contributors to this issue: Dimitri Glazkov, Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Ade Oshineye
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, 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.
“The gates of hell are open night and day; / Smooth the descent, and easy is the way: / But to return, and view the cheerful skies, / In this the task and mighty labor lies.”
— Virgil’s Aeneid, translated by John Dryden
🧫 Safe-to-fail experiments
In the book Simple Habits for Complex Times (which we’ll discuss more later in the episode), one of the key tools the authors share is safe-to-fail experiments. In an age of flux, this one is a must-have. The main idea is a mindset shift about approaching gnarly problems: instead of trying to find one perfect solution, start small and nimble. Try a bunch of simple things (the experiments) and see if they work. Look for surprising outcomes, successful or not. Surprises are new insights about the system, and an inspiration for further experimentation.
Part of what makes an experiment safe to fail is letting go of the idea that it alone will get us to the destination we have in mind. Focus on small stepping stones instead. As long as we’re moving in the right direction, we’re doing well. If our dream is to build the next UI toolkit, making helpful contributions to an existing open source toolkit might be a nice first step.
Another attribute is experimenting at the edge. Rather than trying to pull out a sword and hacking at the knot where we suspect the trouble hides, start in areas where stakes are lower and situations are more forgiving. Trying to convince the team lead to adopt a previously controversial technology? Try starting with a conversation about the challenges the lead is experiencing now.
Pick experiments that are inexpensive and pragmatic. What is the least costly way to try something? Do we really need to start a new team to pursue an ambiguous direction? Perhaps letting one person mess around with it will be enough.
Lean toward playfulness when choosing and pursuing experiments. Creativity and being too serious are like oil and water. To let minds fly, we need to give ourselves permission to have fun. This can be difficult, especially when everyone is so busy firefighting. Safe-to-fail experiments require having some slack.
Finally, don’t expect the best outcomes. Yes, we’re all achievement-oriented here. However, with safe-to-fail experiments, the goal is to learn something new. Orient the experiment toward learning. With this mindset, failure can be an amazing outcome, especially if it surprises everyone: we have gleaned something new about the system we’re studying. Given how hard it can be to get such glimpses, that alone is a reason to celebrate.
A common objection that arises when suggesting safe-to-fail experiments is that there doesn’t seem to be any room for such nonsense. Everyone is busy doing important things. No attention can be spared for something that doesn’t even move the objectives forward.
Though the sentiment is understandable, it is usually the organizations in this state that most need safe-to-fail experiments. They are likely stuck in some vicious cycle, trying harder and harder to apply solutions that just cause more problems. If you find yourself in such an environment, your first series of safe-to-fail experiments might just be the gentle nudges that help reveal the stuckness.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🏴☠️ TikTokers are playing a game where you collect virtual “dabloons” by watching videos
A new trend on TikTok is for users to earn and spend a fictional currency called “dabloons.” As you scroll through your For You feed, you’ll sometimes stumble upon videos where a cat charges or gifts you dabloons; it’s your job to keep track of your current balance, whether on a whiteboard or on your phone’s Notes app. Some people have sparked fears of “inflation” by posting generous videos that award viewers hundreds of dabloons; others are running stores that give you virtual goods for your dabloons (all in your imagination, of course); yet others are becoming “thieves and pirates” and robbing people of their hard-earned dabloons.
🚏🧥 Chinese students invented a coat that makes you “invisible” to security cameras
A team of students from a Chinese university has designed a coat that evades both visible light cameras (through a camouflage design) and infrared security cameras (by emitting unusual temperature patterns). This coat can thus help the wearer travel undetected by day or night; in one test, the coat reduced campus security cameras’ detection accuracy by 57%. But according to the researchers, this innovation isn’t designed to defeat China’s surveillance state — it’s designed to help the country’s computer vision tech identify and patch up its weak spots.
🚏🇳🇬 Nigeria is limiting ATM cash withdrawals to promote digital transactions
The Central Bank of Nigeria has instructed banks to limit customers’ ATM withdrawals to just $45 per day and $225 per week, much less than the previous limit of $338 per day. The move is designed to encourage customers to use internet and mobile banking, credit cards, and the country’s new Central Bank Digital Currency, the eNaira.
🚏🚂 France is banning short-haul flights in favor of trains
The European Commission has recently approved a new French law that will eliminate flights between French cities that are less than 2.5 hours apart by train. This will initially ban flights from Paris Orly to Nantes, Lyon, and Bordeaux, though more routes may come on the chopping block as high-speed rail service improves.
🚏🎭 Disney made an AI tool that’ll make actors look older or younger in videos
Disney researchers have unveiled a new artificial intelligence tool that will age or de-age a person’s face, even if they’re moving around in a video clip. Instead of directly generating a new headshot, the neural network “predicts what parts of the face would be altered by age, such as the addition or removal of wrinkles,” and layers that on top of the original image. Visual effects artists can adjust this extra layer as needed before rendering the final image, thus giving them much more flexibility than traditional age-altering AIs.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
AI Isn’t Artificial or Intelligent (Motherboard) — Argues that much of the hype around AI is missing the reality that much of the work that goes into building shiny AI models — data labeling, image annotation, beta testing, content moderation, etc. — is tedious, low-wage work that’s largely done by workers in the developing world. While these workers earn pittances, most of the economic growth enabled by AI accrues to tech companies in the wealthy world.
Causal Explanations Considered Harmful (Superb Owl) — Argues that we can’t model trends in human societies with simple directed acyclic graphs (DAGs); sociological systems are far too dynamic for that. Instead, we have to use causal loop diagrams (CLDs), with their tangled webs of positive and negative feedback loops. People seeking simple cause-and-effect explanations for things will often extract a specific subset of the CLD, but you could also reach a completely different conclusion by picking a different subset.
‘Make Your Soul Grow’ (Letters of Note) — A touching letter from Kurt Vonnegut to a high school class, where the author encourages students to “practice any art, music, singing, dancing… no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.” He challenges students to write a poem, not show it to another soul, and tear it up.
The Good Delusion: Has Effective Altruism Broken Bad? (The Economist) — Examines how, as Sam Bankman-Fried's crypto empire collapses, the public is turning a critical eye toward the “earning to give” and “existential risk is good” strains of the Effective Altruism movement, which inspired SBF and nudged him to use destructive means to achieve questionable ends.
Don’t Believe Facebook: The Demise of the Written Word Is Very Far Off (Michael Hiltzik) — Disagrees with one tech executive’s assertion that video conveys more information than text. Video has less information density, and it’s a purely linear medium, which makes it harder to jump around, skim, or search for specific bits of information. Text has survived for so long because it’s so malleable, flexible, cheap to produce, quick to consume, and “computable” (it’s easy to search through, run operations on, and plug into other technical systems).
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston (2015, 272 pages).
The world is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. How do we as leaders — formal or informal — deal with that? This book is part business novel, part standard non-fiction. It explores tools that we can use to get a handle on these challenges.
The tension that Garvey Berger and Johnston try to help you overcome, through both the narrative and the explanations, is the feeling that you don’t have time to sit with the problem, communicate clearly, experiment, change direction, and potentially fail. The message they emphasize is that for complex adaptive problems, where you don’t know the solution in advance and where the things you try will change the system you’re trying them on, you don’t have the time not to do these things. Organizations and individuals need to learn, grow, and adapt, which means pulling away from the temptation to jump into big heroic motion.
Overall, this book is full of valuable insights and practical takeaways. The business novel aspect, while not the most thrilling read, makes it a book that is a fairly light read relative to the depth and lasting impact of the ideas it contains. If you find that grand plans are failing to solve your organization’s challenges and want some advice on what to do instead, Simple Habits for Complex Times is worth a read.
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