🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 107
July 6th, 2023
Episode 107 — July 6th, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/107
Contributors to this issue: Stefano Mazzocchi, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Justin Quimby
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, Ben Mathes, Dimitri Glazkov, 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.
“We know what we are, but not what we may be.”
― William Shakespeare
💎🎭 Facets of identity
Who am I? We will each spend a lifetime answering this complicated question. Part of the answer is that our “I” is rarely singular. As Walt Whitman said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
What are these multitudes? Are they masks, artifices we put for others? Are they an inherent part of us? They can be both.
“We wear the mask that grins and lies.” Paul Laurence Dunbar’s classic poem of racial code-switching vividly captures the reality of performative masks. Some masks exist so we can protect ourselves by hiding what lies underneath. For minorities, this can be a quite literal protection from abuse or violence. Whether they protect us from literal violence, experiences of shame, or anything in between, we all have masks of protection in our wardrobes.
Other aspects of these ‘multitudes’ are more like the facets of a gemstone. We show them to others based on circumstance. We are one person with our family. We’re another person with this set of friends and another with that set. Yet another with coworkers. No single facet is our whole self. None of them could be. However, they are not false, either. They reflect a true, though limited, aspect of our personality.
If our many selves are well-integrated, we are like a cut gem. Existing in three dimensions, it is impossible to see our whole selves at once. When we show one side, some facets show while others are completely hidden. Twisting and turning can show the whole picture, but never all at once. However, as with gemstones, each facet matters. When we look at a gem, the light reflected from the facets we cannot see plays a critical role in making what we can see sparkle. You may not watch Fast & Furious with one set of friends or read Seeing Like a State with your family, but all of our facets reflect light to make up the beautiful whole that is each of us.
When our aspects are not integrated, we are like a partially cut gem. The facets don’t yet reflect light to each other, but they still make up a whole. We are all imperfect gems grinding against the wheel of life to get, we hope, incrementally more sparkly.
Other aspects, like those masks of protection, are artificially placed on top of our natural facets. Left in place too long, especially when they feel inescapable, these masks may feel integrated. However, if they don’t help our whole selves sparkle, then they will eventually make us less. It can take hard work — and sometimes professional help — to grind these masks away. The grinding metaphor is apt. We aren’t just molding ourselves painlessly like clay. We are rubbing up against life, and sometimes that hurts.
Yet there is one key advantage we have over gemstones. Unlike a piece of rock, which can only ever be ground away, we are constantly growing and adding new material to work with throughout our lives. Doing so is vital. If our current selves were merely refined versions of our childhood selves, we would be a smaller, less-rich self than we are with all of the material of our lives, good and bad.
The beautiful thing about our gemlike selves is that we no longer need to be too concerned about our many aspects. Our “true” self is not a separate aspect that’s hidden away from the others. Our true self is the three-dimensional whole that is inseparable from the two-dimensional facets that make up its surface. We can value and cherish each of these facets even as we grind them toward something better. We can even express gratitude to the obscuring masks for their protective role while we wait for the day when we can grind them off to reveal our full sparkle.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🏭 Steam is banning some AI-generated art in video games
The video game platform Steam recently rejected a game that included some “assets that were fairly obviously AI generated.” After the news went viral, Steam clarified that the issue comes down to copyright: “it’s unclear if the underlying AI tech used to create the assets has sufficient rights to the training data.” The problem, as one journalist pointed out, is that “most AI tools can’t really claim to have legal rights to all their training data” — and thus, the move “basically amounts to a blanket ban of AI-generated assets in games.” (Using generative AI to build storylines, worlds, or characters seems to still be fine.)
🚏🇮🇳 A $12 4G phone is coming to India
Reliance Jio, India’s top telecom company, is unveiling a new 4G phone called the Jio Bharat, which will retail for just 999 rupees ($12); it’s a successor to a 4G phone that sold for upwards of $80. The phone supports mobile payments and video streaming, and it comes with a data plan that offers 14 GB of data for $1.50 a month. Jio says it hopes that this cheap plan will move up to 250 million Indians off the country’s “legacy” 2G networks.
🚏🍪 Researchers used AI to design a simple CPU in under 5 hours
A team of scientists used an AI trained on CPU inputs and outputs to design a RISC-V CPU in under 5 hours; they claimed this was about 1000 times faster than a human team could have designed a similar chip. The resulting chip was quite weak, performing on par with the 1990s-era i486 chips, but the AI seems to have “discovered the von Neumann architecture from scratch.”
🚏🥵 Earth recorded its hottest day on record, three days in a row
This Monday’s average global temperature was 62.6 degrees Fahrenheit (17.0 ºC), marking an all-time high since recordkeeping began in 1940 (though scientists are fairly certain that it was the warmest temperature in “at least 100,000 years”). Tuesday topped even that figure, hitting 62.9 degrees (17.2 ºC), and Wednesday tied this new record high. The records came amidst heat waves across the US, Canada, Mexico, Europe, India, and China; the ocean-warming effect of El Niño didn’t help either.
🚏✈️ A prototype air taxi got approved for test flights
A startup called Joby Aviation is building “electric vertical takeoff and landing” (“eVTOL”) air taxis that can take off and land like a helicopter but fly like an airplane; the company says the aircraft is “100 times quieter” than airplanes during takeoff and landing and can reach speeds of 200 miles per hour. The company’s prototype just got FAA approval to run test flights; if that goes well, the Air Force will start using it for “logistics use cases.” Carrying passengers on commercial flights is still a few years away, though.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Tlaxcallan: An Indigenous American Republic (Stefan Milosavljevich) — Introduces a fascinating but forgotten pre-Columbian republic in what is now Mexico; it displayed remarkable egalitarianism and democracy for its era. An archaeologist describes how artifacts and the layout of the city’s ruins can tell us a lot about Tlaxcallan’s political, economic, and religious systems.
Chemists Discover Why Photosynthetic Light-Harvesting Is So Efficient (Phys.org) — Scientists explain that the “disordered organization of the light-harvesting proteins” in chloroplasts helps make photosynthesis better at converting light to energy. Compared to a lattice arrangement, a random jumble reduces the average distance between proteins and thus the amount of energy lost. One researcher muses that disorder “may not just be an inevitable downside of biology, but organisms may have evolved to take advantage of it.”
The Ripple Effects of the Wagner Rebellion (Foreign Policy) — Examines the knock-on geopolitical effects of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s insurrection against Putin: China may be cooling on its alliance with Russia; Western diplomats may be able to drive a wedge between Putin and Russia-friendly countries in the global south; Central Asian leaders are re-evaluating how much they can demand on Putin; Wagner may reduce its presence in Africa; and more.
So Where Are We All Supposed to Go Now? (The Verge) — Observing the implosion of Twitter and Reddit, as well as the decay of Facebook and Instagram, the author speculates that “the ‘social media’ era is giving way to the ‘media with a comments section’ era, and everything is an entertainment platform now. Or, I guess, trying to do payments. Sometimes both. It gets weird.” The cozyweb may be the only real shared space left.
Choose Good Quests (Pirate Wires) — Argues that it’s easier to implore others to embark on a good quest than it is to embark on one yourself. While the piece avoids the postmodern question of what makes a quest “good,” it’s true that pausing to reflect on the nature and worthiness of the quest you’re currently on is a worthwhile activity.
🔍🐍 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 Snake Oil Test.
Decision-making is simple, right? We look at our needs. We look at each option and evaluate them against our needs. We choose the best option. Done!
In practice, though, it’s not that simple. An exhaustive evaluation is generally prohibitive, so we apply heuristics that influence how deeply we research a particular decision. This sort of meta-rational thinking allows us to tune our process to our needs. For example, if a decision is transient, inexpensive, or easy to reverse, it may be fine to apply a less rigorous process. We shouldn’t put as much effort into choosing lunch as we put into purchasing a home.
There’s another meta-rational tool we can apply to decision making: the snake oil test.
When we apply the snake oil test, we vary the diligence of our decision-making process based on how reliable the information and products in a domain are. The snake oil test is not a decision process in its own right. It’s not saying, for example, “Avoid AI because there’s a lot of snake oil around there right now.” Instead, like other meta-rational decision tools, the snake oil test helps us decide how we will make a decision.
Most of the time, we use this test automatically. We tend to approach political messages with more skepticism than weather reports. We more deeply vet something that might be a financial scam than we do savings accounts from established banks. However, there are ways to bypass these protective intuitions, especially if there is a lot of hype or pressure to do something quickly.
In these cases, it can behoove us to turn the snake oil test from something we apply intuitively to something to apply intentionally. We can ask ourselves, “How reliable is information in this space? How many players have delivered tangible value?” When we find ourselves in a space high in snake oil, we can increase our evaluation standards. For example, we might look for opportunities to try before we buy. We might look for third-party evaluation and validation. We might ask for deeper access to internal experts or system design.
This level of diligence would be a waste of time if applied to every decision. When what you see is what you get, then there are better decision criteria to apply. However, when the snake oil test tells us that the odds of deception are high (intentional or not), then it is worth our while to apply the extra effort.
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