🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 85
February 2nd, 2022
Episode 85 — February 2nd, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/85
Contributors to this issue: Ade Oshineye, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Dimitri Glazkov, Scott Schaffter, Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Ben Mathes
Additional insights from: 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.
“Differences in cycle time should be a much bigger driver of org design and architecture than they ever are.”
— Jabe Bloom
📦🪤 The trap of mismatched perceptions
If there’s a tiger in the bushes, we’re in trouble. If there is no tiger, we are safe (from tigers, at least). So what happens if we hear rustling in the grass of a tiger’s habitat?
We can perceive any situation as safe or unsafe. And the situation can be safe or unsafe. Our perception and the situation don’t have to match. This creates a 2x2 between perceived and actual safety:
The top right: we perceive the situation as safe, and it actually is safe. When we face churn and uncertainty, we long for this relief. This quadrant is a great place to be as long as we notice when the circumstances start to change.
The bottom right: we perceive it as safe, but it is actually unsafe. This is naivete. This is the home of Taleb’s Turkey, a bird who experiences a great life… until Thanksgiving. This is the most dangerous quadrant because we stop being alert. Whenever the shock of reality hits, how we respond decides if we grow or suffer. Think of the naivete of childhood: sometimes it results in disillusionment, other times it results in invention.
The bottom left: we perceive it as unsafe, and it is indeed unsafe. This is the quadrant of the Dread Pirate Roberts: “Good night, Westley. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the morning.” If we end up there, we do our darndest to get out. The one advantage here is clarity of purpose: there is a tiger in the bushes. We must protect, defend, or escape.
The top left: we perceive the situation as unsafe, while it is actually safe. Chicken Little decides the sky is falling when she is hit by an acorn. The problem here is that we get little feedback to let us know that we are safe. Our fear makes us doubt any signs of safety. We are trying to avoid falling into the bottom right and becoming Taleb’s Turkey ourselves. Traumatic encounters from the quadrant of unwarranted optimism, when left unhealed, forcefully drag us to the quadrant of unwarranted angst. When here, we tend to show up as limited versions of ourselves, haunted by ghosts of our past experiences.
The shift we need is to match our perceptions with our reality. This is hard! How can we find ground truth that we can trust? We have to establish multiple, independent ways of knowing, like seeking a second opinion from another doctor. Once we understand the ground truth and have shifted our own perception, we can shift the perception of others by showing them the same evidence that convinced us.
That shift is easy to describe, but escaping the trap of mismatched perception takes persistent, significant effort — especially when the perception of others varies. In the flux of today’s world, it may seem nigh impossible. And yet, against all odds, we try. Perhaps that is why the old saying resonates: “be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🛂 It now takes over a year to get a US visa appointment in much of the world
Getting a visa to visit the US has always been a lengthy process, but it’s slowed to a crawl in recent months: just getting an interview appointment now takes over a year at many embassies or consulates. The worst offenders for standard tourist visas are Bogota (872 days) and Lima (831 days), but the problem spans the globe, hitting Mumbai (638 days), Lagos (474 days), and Dubai (498 days). People who want student visas in Kingston, Jamaica need to wait for over 999 days (the data source seems unable to show numbers higher than that).
More philosophically, major world powers have always had a tension between who gets to be a citizen and the benefit of tapping outside talent. The ancient world’s models of slavery via conquest and wars over who gets to be a citizen that come to us from Rome show just how ever-present a puzzle this is, though great powers often lie far from the efficient frontier between the two tensions.
🚏☀️ Wind and solar were the EU’s top electricity source in 2022 — for the first time ever
Last year, wind and solar made up a combined 22.3% of the European Union’s total electricity generation, edging out the long-declining nuclear power (21.9%) and the faltering natural gas (19.9%). Wind and solar have been enjoying a meteoric rise over the last few decades; they made up just 0.8% of the EU’s electricity output back in 2000. Meanwhile, European hydro power suffered from a “one-in-500-year drought” in 2022, though experts think it should recover somewhat.
🚏🙊 An AI voice generation startup is cracking down after a spate of hateful deepfakes
One AI startup launched a “voice cloning” tool that lets people upload a short clip of someone talking and then generate audio of that person “saying” anything they want. Somewhat predictably, 4chan users began using the tool to generate audio clips of celebrities saying racist, homophobic, and violent things. The company has since vowed to crack down, and has floated solutions like requiring ID verification before cloning someone’s voice, or even manually verifying every voice cloning request.
🚏📵 Flip phones are Gen Z’s new favorite “retro” technology
Flip phones are seeing a resurgence in popularity among youths, with #BringBackFlipPhones and #y2kAesthetic videos going viral on TikTok. Many Gen Z’ers report that flip phones have helped them disconnect from technology and spend less time on social media (which they say has been bad for their mental health); others just like the vintage aesthetic of grainy, blurry pictures.
🚏🌪️ Tornado Alley is shifting southeast
The roughly north-south swath from Nebraska to northern Texas is known as “Tornado Alley,” and it’s historically been the epicenter of tornado activity in the US. But over the last 40 years or so, Tornado Alley has been shifting southeast, with tornado frequency dropping in the Great Plains and rising in a region centered on Arkansas, Missouri, and Mississippi. Meteorologists think the underlying reason is a prolonged drought in the Southwest, which has sapped tornadoes of the moisture they need to form, compared to a warmer Gulf of Mexico (and thus wetter Southeast) thanks to climate change.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
The Machines of Mastery (Ethan Mollick) — Argues that generative AI can help us with “deliberate practice”: challenging, intensive practice with plenty of personalized feedback. Human coaching is the traditional way to get this, but simulation games can help, as can AI. As an example, the author had ChatGPT role-play to help him practice his negotiation skills; the chatbot gave solid feedback and pushed him to improve.
Problems With Causal Loop Diagrams (1976) & Revisited (1997) (George P. Richardson) — A pair of research papers argue that causal loop diagrams are under-specified. A simple CLD can’t be “read” correctly and its dynamic behavior can’t be inferred, largely because there is no distinction between rates (i.e. flows) and levels (i.e. stocks), and there is no distinction between additive and proportional links. These deficiencies are illustrated through entertaining examples including an example of a family feud between the Hatfields and McCoys.
The Cost Overruns of Megaprojects (Philip Oldfield) — Excerpts a table from a database of 16,000 megaprojects spanning power plants, roads, bridges, airports, and other infrastructure. Nuclear storage projects have the worst average cost overruns, at 238%, with nuclear power itself in third place at 120%. The best megaprojects tend to be highly modular: solar power was the most cost-efficient, with just 1% mean cost overruns.
The Impossible Power of This Simple Math Proof (Up and Atom) — Describes how the pigeonhole principle — a simple and fairly obvious piece of mathematical reasoning — can lead to powerful discoveries about data compression, probability distributions, and the different sizes of infinity.
We Finally Know How Ancient Roman Concrete Was So Durable (Science Alert) — Investigates why 2000-year-old Roman concrete buildings have survived so well to this day. One reason is that Roman concrete is self-healing: when cracks form, they migrate to lumps of lime called “clasts,” and when water gets into the cracks, it reacts with the lime clasts to glue the crack back together.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: the highway pothole effect.
Imagine two roads: a rickety country road and a high-speed highway. Both have a pothole of the same diameter and depth.
On the run-down road, potholes are common and easily seen at low speeds, so drivers will carefully navigate around them. They already distrust the state of the road, and so driving becomes a puzzle that needs to be solved. This pothole is just one more piece.
However, the same pothole may be lethal for a highway driver hitting it at 77 mph. Driving on a highway is a high-trust engagement: in exchange for rapid, efficient transportation, we place ourselves into the hands of construction workers who build and maintain the roads. A lapse in this trust — a pothole — can have severe consequences.
This is the highway pothole effect: even a small lapse in an implicit, previously stable understanding can have an outsized negative impact on trust.
The effect can be especially impactful in groups of people. The resilience of a team’s culture depends almost entirely on the stability of norms within its corporate environment. A pothole may not be lethal for the organization, but it will result in shock to the culture and most certainly trigger irreversible change. The impact of the pothole depends on the level of trust that’s embodied by its culture: what might not seem like a big deal in one organization can do significant damage to another.
The effect is amplified when multiple choices are available. Aside from adventurous thrill-seeking, why would one choose a treacherous forest path over the paved road? We humans tend to intuitively gravitate toward contracts with higher levels of trust, given the choice. In an environment rich with choices, even a minor pothole can empty the highway.
When we look at seemingly small issues, we need to look at their context as well as their individual details. What might be a country road pothole that can be dealt with later in one context can become a destructive highway pothole in another. Seeing the difference can help you choose a proportional response.
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