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🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 81
January 5th, 2023
Episode 81 — January 5th, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/81
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Dimitri Glazkov, Erika Rice Scherpelz, 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.
“He does not mean that it does not hurt. He does not mean that we are not frightened. Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive.”
— from Circe by Madeline Miller
⏳💎 Life at the speed of meaning making
Most of the time, it feels like the world is moving too fast. Be it for work or for fun, we always feel behind, behind, behind: on emails and messages, books and articles, projects and repairs.
By contrast, the old world feels too slow. Few of us would want to go back to a world where communication happened primarily via phone calls and faxes, where we learned about world events on a timescale of days. Even fewer of us would want to go back to the world where we were connected by letters, when information took weeks or more to traverse all but the smallest of distances.
So what speed should the world move at? It seems like the answer changes over time, both for individuals and for a society. We'd like to suggest that there is a right speed of life, but that it's a qualitative answer, not a quantitative one. Life appears to move at the right speed when our experiences match our ability to make meaning of them.
If that's the case, why does it seem that this speed changes over time? Meaning, it turns out, is not something we make for ourselves. We need to get others to share in that meaning. Meaning-making is a game for two or more players. This multiplayer nature is why entering a vibrant new community can feel so invigorating. Finding new people to make meaning with can accelerate your ability to make meaning.
Still, we cannot grow our capacity arbitrarily quickly — plus, the things that increase our meaning-making capacity can themselves add to the inflow. Sometimes what we need is to pause and catch up with ourselves. We can borrow the idea of a Technology Shabbat where we periodically take a break from screens. We can declare bankruptcy and bulk mark emails as read. We can give ourselves an off day from our workout or our task list. Even just taking a half hour truly to ourselves can be a welcome respite.
These breaks give us room to stop diverging for a bit and to see where our minds converge. Maybe we remember why we're doing all of this. Maybe we discover a new insight. Maybe we just have a moment of calm which we've been missing.
The thing to think about is what you need to match your life to your capacity to create meaning. Whatever it is, the answer is likely something that's suited to you and your current life stage. Find it, embrace it, and then accept when your needs change once again.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🍔 Manufacturers are intentionally adding sesame to foods because of a new labeling law
A new US law requires foods to be labeled if they contain sesame; if a product isn’t labeled as containing sesame, the manufacturer needs to take painstaking efforts to avoid cross-contamination. Many manufacturers have found that it’s actually easier to purposely add sesame to a recipe than to follow the onerous steps of keeping foods away from sesame-containing products. Multiple restaurant chains and bread makers have thus started adding sesame to baked goods that didn’t previously contain it — probably the opposite of the law’s intended effect.
🚏🇬🇧 The UK got 40% of its power from renewables in 2022, up 4x from a decade ago
According to a new report, renewable energy sources (wind, solar, biomass, and hydro) accounted for 40% of the United Kingdom’s electricity last year, up from 35% in 2021, and a four-fold improvement from a decade prior. Natural gas, meanwhile, had its biggest year since 2016, accounting for 42% of Britain’s power. The big loser has been coal, which accounted for a measly 1-2% of the energy mix in 2022 — a far cry from 2012, when it was regularly hitting 40%.
🚏💶 QAnoners are joining a new conspiracy theory: that all debts will soon be forgiven
Across Europe, QAnon adherents seem to be migrating to an older conspiracy theory: GESARA, which believes that any day now the financial system will collapse, governments around the world will announce a “financial reset” and eliminate all debts, and “45 digits’” worth of funds will be awarded to worthy people. The current stock market slump, crypto crash, and rise of fraudsters and grifters seem to be feeding into this narrative.
🚏🕹 Desktop GPU sales hit a 20-year low
Demand for discrete GPUs (“dGPUs”) soared during the pandemic as people picked up PC gaming and crypto mining. But as the world reopened and Ethereum moved to proof-of-stake (thereby eliminating its form of mining), demand for dGPUs has crashed. In the third quarter of 2022, about 6.9 million of the cards were shipped, a near-halving of the 13.4 million shipments in Q1 of that year and the lowest figure since at least Q3 2005. (Discrete GPU sales have been largely declining since 2007, when over 20 million cards were shipped each quarter.)
🚏💸 A new site lets you sell your useless NFTs for 1¢ to harvest tax losses
A company called Unsellable is offering a service that’ll buy your NFTs from you for 1 cent a pop (though you’ll need to pay them $4 for the privilege). Why? Many people overpaid for now-useless NFTs during the last crypto boom, and by offloading them for a gigantic loss, they’ll be able to claim capital losses, which will offset their capital gains, thus reducing their tax bill. One man used the service to “liquidate his 15 worthless NFTs,” thereby writing down $3,700 in losses and cutting his tax bill by over $1200.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
What Caused the Chaos at Southwest (New York Times) — A surprisingly deep systemic analysis of what caused Southwest’s avalanche of cancellations. The airline’s “point-to-point” model, which has many small bases around the country rather than a few big hubs, lacked the ‘slack’ to handle a few initial cancellations; outdated tech couldn’t handle the “cascade” of failures; and Southwest’s lack of partnerships with other airlines left stranded customers without options.
A Critical Review of Diagramming Tools for Conceptualizing Feedback System Models (1982) (John D.W. Morecroft) — Argues that Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs) might be an evocative and concise way to describe the various feedback loops inside a complex system, but they can only be put together after lots of critical thought and simulation. Thus, CLDs are not a great tool for the conceptualization stage, despite their proponents’ insistence.
How Not to Play the Game (Bloomberg) — Matt Levine writes that the sordid FTX affair is a symptom of the fact that the entire crypto industry has built a “toy financial system.” This makes it attractive to coders who don’t want to get bogged down with legacy rules and infrastructure, but it also encourages irresponsible speculation, ignoring regulations, and outright cheating — which, as we saw with FTX, can cause real-world harm.
Why Everything Looks the Same (Knowable) — Showcases several industries (cars, Airbnbs, fashion, direct-to-consumer brands, etc.) that all seem to have converged on the same “sanitized” and inoffensive style, which the author dubs “blanding.” Even as Millennial aesthetics give way to countercultural “Gen Z” aesthetics, this “blanding” continues: everyone just moves to a new generic style.
Behind the Painstaking Process of Creating Chinese Computer Fonts (MIT Technology Review) — Describes how computing pioneers created the first bitmap representations of Chinese characters back in the 1970s. It was orders of magnitude harder than making an ASCII font: you had to clearly encode at least 8,000 glyphs using a tiny 16x16 canvas. Documents about this project show an impressive attention to detail and respect for the Chinese script.
💊🍀 A dose of hopepunk
An optimistic sign that our world’s systems are changing for the better.
One remarkable feat of internet collaboration is iNaturalist, a site where people can upload pictures of living things they’ve encountered in the world. Then, a community of amateur naturalists discuss and debate until they agree on what species it is. This crowdsourced knowledge has been cited in thousands of scientific papers, and the site processed over 90 million pictures since its founding in 2008 — with more than a quarter of those identifications coming in 2022 alone.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande (2009, 208 pages).
We frequently explore techniques for dealing with complexity. However, it is also valuable to have techniques for dealing with the complicated. This is where Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto comes in.
Checklists shine in areas where each step is one for which a trained practitioner would say "I know how to do that", but where, in the hectic conditions of the real world, it can be hard to remember to do each step. Checklists can improve outcomes, but this is not because practitioners are unskilled. Instead, checklists free up capacity to think about the complex aspects of a problem.
Checklists should be short – five to nine items is a good rule of thumb. They should be triggered by unambiguous pause points, e.g., just before making the first incision in an operation. The wording should be simple and exact; a checklist should not tell you how to do something, just that you should do it. Most importantly, checklists should be tested under realistic conditions.
When is it worth doing all of this work to create a good checklist? Reach for them in situations where intervention can significantly change the odds of a good outcome. If the consequences of something being done wrong are not bad, cut it out. If something is so ingrained that practitioners truly never forget it, cut it out. But if something is sometimes forgotten and makes a noticeable difference in aggregate, then it is a good candidate for a checklist item.
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