Episode 89 — March 2nd, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/89
Contributors to this issue: Dimitri Glazkov, Neel Mehta, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Boris Smus
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, 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 idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin
⏳⚔️ You can’t slay quicksand
Danger looms. Our hero stands before it, sword in hand. They know that if this monster is not defeated, then doom will surely follow. Our hero slashes again and again, making contact each time. Yet, they don’t seem to be making progress. Instead, they feel themselves being engulfed by the monster. Defeat is imminent.
The monster, it turns out, was quicksand.
In the face of a threat, we are often tempted to engage in heroic motion. We work all night to get that last change in. We single-handedly fix the system on the verge of catastrophic overload. We take action, save the day, and receive the accolades of those around us.
Then a variant of the same thing happens again (and again and again). Our heroics become habits. We have fallen prey to what Donella Meadows, in Thinking in Systems, refers to as shifting the burden to the intervenor. Our heroic focus on short-term relief causes the system to depend on that relief, and we avoid the long-term restructuring needed to address the root of the issue.
You can’t slay quicksand.
Heroic motion can be necessary in the face of a clear and present danger. However, sometimes that danger is merely the symptom of a more systemic underlying problem. And systemic problems, it turns out, are rarely amenable to being slain in one fell swoop. They are often entirely different kinds of problems: you can’t solve court intrigue by swinging a sword around. Often, the distinction maps to that of technical versus adaptive challenges. Technical problems are easy to identify and lend themselves to concrete solutions. Adaptive challenges are hard to identify and will require changes in values/roles/beliefs/etc. They are never fully solved.
How do we balance the need for acting in the moment and solving the technical element of the problem against addressing the underlying adaptive challenge? You don’t want to be fixing the underlying issue while things are actively failing. One tool is to use blameless postmortems with an action item plan. We start with investigating, mitigating, and repairing this particular incident. To create a cycle of learning and improvement though, we also need to invest in detecting, mitigating, and preventing future incidents based on what we’ve learned from this one.
Blameless postmortems provide a way for looking for the quicksand that underlies what may, at first, seem to be an isolated danger. Once you find it, you can figure out how to deal with it. You can’t slay quicksand, but you can route around it, build a bridge over it, or find some other approach that is better than sinking again and again.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🏗️ Apartment rents fell in every major US metro area over the past 6 months
A glut of new housing stock in the US has had a predictable impact: median apartment rent fell every month from August 2022 to January ‘23, the first time in five years that rents dropped for six months straight. This pattern appeared across the country, with median leases in January costing 3.5% less than in August. Expect the trend to continue: “the biggest delivery of apartments in nearly four decades is slated for later this year.”
🚏📈 Retail investing has hit a new plateau since COVID-19
Retail investors in the US plowed money into the stock market during the early days of the pandemic, and while it may have seemed like a temporary fad at the time, data suggests that the trend was sticky. Ever since 2020, net dollar inflows have consistently sat at the new plateau of about $1.2 billion a day — a threefold increase from the old rate of about $400 million a day. (Commentators aren’t sure whether this trend has been driven by “YOLO’ing” day traders, 401k investors rotating funds from bonds into equities, or other factors.)
🚏🌷 Leaves and flowers came 20+ days early across much of the US
Spring arrived early in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions of the US, with portions of Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey getting leaves and flowers more than 20 days earlier than normal. New York City, which just had its warmest January on record (10º F above average), saw spring hit 32 days early — which marked the “earliest onset of biological spring in 40 years” in the Big Apple.
🚏🪁 The world’s largest wind turbine is in the works; it could save $120M for big projects
A manufacturing company has announced the largest wind turbine ever built: its blades will be 459 feet long (as tall as a 40-story building), and they’ll sweep an area of 711,000 square feet (as big as 12 NFL football fields). Each offshore turbine will produce enough energy annually to supply 96,000 people. Offshore wind turbines are getting huge because that minimizes fixed costs: every turbine, no matter how tall, needs to be anchored to the sea bed — a pricey proposition. So, installing fewer, beefier turbines is more cost-efficient; by one estimate, these huge new turbines could save upwards of $120 million for a large-scale wind project.
🚏🏴☠️ The victim of a crypto heist got a court order to rewrite a smart contract and seize the funds back
Jump Crypto, a crypto trading firm, owned the Wormhole bridge, a piece of crypto financial infrastructure that was hacked to the tune of 120,000 Ether (then $330 million, now $190 million) a year ago. The thief has since moved many of their funds to Oasis, a crypto lending platform. Jump noticed that Oasis’s smart contracts were upgradeable, meaning that the platform could update its code at any point. So, Jump got a court order that forced Oasis to rewrite its contract to allow Jump to pay down the thief’s $80 million loan and claim their $220 million in collateral. Oasis complied, and Jump netted $140 million — thereby using a new exploit to reverse the impact of the old exploit.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
ChatGPT as Muse, Not Oracle (Geoffrey Litt) — A conversation between the author and ChatGPT where they discuss how we can think of large language models (LLMs) as “tools for inspiring human creativity, not giving us answers.” Fittingly, ChatGPT served as a muse for the author in writing this very essay.
Alexa, What Happened? (Margins) — Proposes a few reasons why voice assistants have fallen far short of their original hype. For one, zero interest rate policies led to companies shooting for hypergrowth (and failing), rather than slowly building toward real product-market fit. What’s more, companies pushed to make “closed-off ecosystems” around their voice assistants, which might have sounded good for the companies but greatly limited the assistants’ functionality for customers.
The Legacy of Genghis Khan: The Mongol Impact on Russian History, Politics, Economy, and Culture (International Journal of Russian Studies) — Describes how the Mongol invasion of Russia isolated the region from the cultural and religious influences of medieval Europe for nearly three centuries. Contrasts two historical interpretations of this event: the Westernizers valued Enlightenment ideals like democracy and freedom, and blamed the Mongols for Russia’s backwardness. Meanwhile, Eurasianists embraced the Mongol legacy, saying it strengthened the founding pillars of the Tsarist Russian state, such as Orthodoxy and autocracy, and thus contributed profoundly to Russia’s security and stability.
The Trust Thermocline Explains How Companies “Suddenly” Lose Customers and Employees (Adam Fisher) — Applies the analogy of the thermocline, a sharp discontinuity in temperature in a body of water as you go deeper, to corporate trust. Uses the concept of a homeostatic plateau: the normal operating range of a system which, if exceeded, will cause a breakdown. This rhymes with a Hemingway character’s famous quip about how he went bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
The Postmodern Design Hellscape of the Cheesecake Factory (Max Krieger) — A surreal look at the bizarre design of the popular restaurant chain (“both ostentatiously gaudy and consistently cheap”), plus commentary on what this says about American society (a “relic” of a booming but brief era of American prosperity, where “wealth run wild… was sold to the American public as a utopian concept”).
🔍🔦 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 Product Development Flashlight.
Is our product good enough to launch? Are we wasting time refining something users don’t actually want? The minimum viable product (MVP) is a common tool for building just enough. However, when applied too simplistically, defining minimum-viable tends to lead to endless debates about what is truly the minimum.
We can shine a light on the idea of MVPs by turning the distinction from a binary — minimum or not — into a continuum. Imagine a flashlight: coverage of the illuminated area increases with distance but the strength of illumination diminishes. The flashlight has a certain overall brightness, but how the brightness is distributed depends on how we choose to use it. That, in turn, depends on our goal. If we want to illuminate a large area, we pull back, trading off brightness for coverage. If we have a decent idea of where we need to look, we can move closer and illuminate the area of interest more brightly.
Applying this to product development, if we think of our development lifecycle having a certain amount of energy we want to put into it, we can move from a binary idea of minimum or not to a continuum of tradeoffs between breadth and quality. For a given amount of energy, do we want to spread it over a broader area (more features) or a narrower area (higher quality)? There is no fixed answer to this question. Rather, like with our flashlight, it depends on the current goal. “Minimum viable” is a tradeoff whose target is determined by our product and learning goals. And, importantly, we are the ones in control of that tradeoff.
The next time you find yourself falling into a debate about whether or not a particular requirement is really part of the MVP, see if you can turn it into a discussion of whether or not this is an area that needs bright illumination on a narrower area, dim illumination on a broader area, or something in between.
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That product development flashlight approach is interesting, as the approach reinterprets viability. Most people see viability as binary (does the feature work or does the feature not work). However, this approach says viability is really about how "good" (really, how reliable) a feature is. The less bright the flashlight, the worse the feature. No brightness means the feature is cut.
So "minimally viable" is then translated to a different level of quality for different features. Is that an appropriate interpretation?