Episode 83 — January 19th, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/83
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Dimitri Glazkov, Scott Schaffter, Ben Mathes
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, 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.
“Alter the speed
Or the direction of Change.
Vary the scope of Change.
Recombine the seeds of Change.
Transmute the impact of Change.
Adapt and grow.”
— Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower
🪨🐴 See the horse
…You come to, disoriented and bewildered. Did you black out? You realize that you are being dragged through a field. Rocks, brushes, branches — all have a painful, methodical go at you. Ow! Ow! Ow! It’s a rough deal. You can’t figure out how to stop it. Try to curl into a ball? Grasp at the passing tree root as you bounce over it? Attempts to make things better only make them worse. Ouch!
Eventually, an insight dawns — you are being dragged by your foot. The foot is stuck in… a saddle stirrup? Then you see it — the horse that drags you. The horse that you fell off of.
Your perspective shifts from a “Something is dragging me across the field” situation to a “How do I get back on that horse?” situation. Nothing changed materially. You are still being sand-blasted by dirt, accumulating bumps and bruises at a harrowing pace.
But now you have agency. You are not yet in control. You are not yet on the horse. But you are forming plans and making moves.
See the horse. If you find yourself being dragged through life by invisible forces, put your energy into understanding the nature of the force and how it might be harnessed. Look for wrinkles in your understanding that point to what you might be missing. Are there things that keep causing you pain and surprise that come from similar places? Maybe you have blind spots there. Maybe there’s a horse in that there blind spot.
This could take a while and be frustratingly difficult, and all the while you are still taking a beating from the environment. As an individual or an organization, understanding the nature of the forces that batter you is the key to finding agency. Agency alone is not a solution to your problems, but it is a necessary precondition to finding those solutions. Sometimes you get back on the horse, sometimes you get your foot unstuck from the stirrup. But you won’t do either if you can’t see what’s yanking you around.
Agency nearly always stems from a perspective shift — more often than not a shift in how we perceive the forces that drag us. You’ve got to see the horse.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🇨🇳 China’s population fell for the first time in decades
According to a new report from the Chinese government, mainland China’s population (excluding foreigners) fell by 850,000 in 2022, to a new total of 1.41 billion. This marks the first population drop in mainland China since the 1960s. Relatedly, the Chinese population continued to age: the share of the population between ages 16 and 59 fell from 62.5% to 62%. Many experts link the shrinking of China’s productive-aged population with a sort of time limit for taking risks on the world stage.
🚏🕴 Laid-off workers are being targeted with recruiting scams
One emerging scam involves a fraudster impersonating a corporate recruiter, running fake interviews with candidates, and extending fake remote job offers — including sham onboardings and calls with fictitious colleagues. The scammers try to get the new “employees” to spend thousands of dollars on equipment from fake stores, or they try to extract sensitive info like Social Security Numbers or bank account details. Commentators attribute the sharp rise in such scams to the struggling tech job market, a flood of layoffs in recent months, and the rise of remote work.
🚏❄️ A new refrigeration technique could reduce greenhouse gas use
Current refrigeration methods use hydrofluorocarbons, which are infamously powerful greenhouse gasses. A newly-developed refrigeration technique eliminates HFCs by using electric currents to move ions around and change a material’s melting point; drop the refrigerant below its freezing point and it’ll absorb energy from the environment as it freezes. One experiment used an iodine-sodium salt plus ethylene carbonate and was able to change the temperature by 45º F with less than a volt of charge. The new technique could be more efficient, safer, and greener than the normal method — and because ethylene carbonate requires CO2 as an input, its manufacture could even be carbon-negative.
🚏⛽️ Wyoming is considering banning the sale of electric cars
State lawmakers in Wyoming introduced a bill that would phase out the sale of new electric vehicles in the state by 2035, citing the need to support the state’s “proud and valued” oil and gas industry, which supports “countless jobs” and tax revenue. The bill added that a lack of charging infrastructure in Wyoming would hold back EV adoption, and that EV batteries are hard to recycle and require rare minerals. The bill’s sponsors admitted that the bill was a symbolic, “tongue-in-cheek” move, but the point was to start a conversation. Many people, as a result, are indeed communicating at those state officials.
🚏❎ Excel’s row limit helped bring down a company that made fake users to get acquired
JPMorgan Chase acquired the fintech startup Frank for $175 million, in large part because of Frank’s assertion that it had 4 million users — mostly college students who’d signed up to use the app to apply for federal financial aid. But it turned out that Frank only had 300,000 users and had fabricated data for the rest. The fraud began to unravel when one JPMorgan employee looked at Frank’s list of purported customers and noticed that it had exactly 1,048,576 rows — the maximum number allowed in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Defending Inflation (Robin Sloan) — Argues that the specter of inflation tends to be used more as a scolding cudgel to stop debate rather than an honest discussion of what’s going on. Many commentators attack money-printing as causing inflation, missing the fact that supply shocks are equally big contributors to inflation. What’s more, inflation actually benefits many people: it reduces the real value of debts and encourages people to spend now rather than later, thus propelling the economy forward.
Netflix Has Created a Self-Fulfilling Cancelation Loop With Its New Shows (Forbes) — Argues that Netflix’s data-driven strategy of canceling shows with low viewership has caused a vicious cycle: people avoid getting invested in shows that they know might get canceled, which causes low viewership, which causes the shows to get canceled, which reinforces viewers’ decision to not watch new shows. In fact, if viewers want a show to get renewed, they have to strategically watch it immediately to send Netflix the right signals.
Sanderson’s Third Law of Magic (Brandon Sanderson) — Describes a common worldbuilding pitfall of “complexity creep,” where authors bloat their worlds with endless new mechanics. It’s often more compelling to go deep rather than broad by doing a thorough examination of how just a few new mechanics affect a wide world. (Sanderson’s First and Second Laws of Magic are also worth reading.)
Book Review: What We Owe the Future (Asterisk Magazine) — Argues that Effective Altruism founder Will MacAskill’s new book does a good job of “driving home the sheer magnitude and potential of humanity’s future” and noting what might influence it, but shirks the details that arise when you end up “face-to-face with problems that are deeply unclear and solutions that are deeply technical.”
Shorting Tether for Fun and Profit (Fake Money News) — Asks why so few people have shorted the infamous (and likely insolvent) stablecoin Tether; it seems like easy money given Tether’s high chance of collapsing. The problem is counterparty risk: the crypto company you bought the shorts from might itself collapse. Even if you short on a decentralized exchange, you’re just transforming the counterparty risk into “protocol risk”: you’ll still lose money if the DeFi platform explodes.
💊🍀 A dose of hopepunk
An optimistic sign that our world’s systems are changing for the better.
A Dutch supermarket chain introduced a slow checkout lane, known as the “chat checkout” (Kletskassa), where customers who aren’t in a rush can spend a few minutes chatting with a cashier. The feature is designed to combat loneliness among seniors, and it’s become so popular that the supermarket chain is planning to build out 200 of these slow lanes across the Netherlands.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Puzzles and Mysteries.
In an episode of the EconTalk podcast, writer Ian Leslie explores the difference between puzzles and mysteries. Both puzzles and mysteries refer to situations where there is an unknown to investigate. However, there is a key difference between them. A puzzle, by Leslie’s definition, is something where, once you know the answer, you no longer care about the specific instance any more. Most mystery novels are puzzles of this variety, as are things like the daily crossword or Sudoku. A mystery, on the other hand, tends to open up the more you know. Learning that gravity is what makes things fall opens up the mystery of what gravity is.
A category error that’s easy to fall into is confusing the two. One example given in the podcast is human behavior. We can tend to treat other people as a puzzle — “she did that because she’s a jerk” — when really they are always mysteries with depth beyond what we can imagine. This category error can go the other way too. We can treat a puzzle as a mystery when we engage in conspiratorial thinking. We can apply this lens in many domains. For example, team strategy is often treated as a puzzle to be solved, when really it should be treated as an ever-changing, ever-interesting mystery.
We often grow up and learn about things in school that are puzzles: solve this math problem, highlight the adjectives in this sentence, calculate this chemical formula. But at some point we leave the realm of learning what humanity already knows, and we enter a land with more mysteries than puzzles. You probably mistake more mysteries for puzzles than the other way around.
One takeaway from this is that we can choose our attitude toward the unknowns in our lives. More often than not, we’ll find more interest and depth if, when we have the choice, we choose to approach things as mysteries rather than puzzles.
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I find the puzzles vs mysteries distinction interesting. I have a blog post on LindkedIn that highlights several distinctions between the complicated world and the complex world through the lens of various theories. If anyone is interested!
Love the idea of applying a lens of mystery > puzzles