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🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 112
August 10th, 2023
Episode 112 — August 10th, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/112
Contributors to this issue: Neel Mehta, Ade Oshineye, Justin Quimby, Boris Smus, Dimitri Glazkov, Erika Rice Scherpelz
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, 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.
“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
🛶 📈 Paddling down the river of success
On a river, rowing downstream is easy. Each sweep of the oars moves us forward at an impressive pace. However, we aren’t always aware of how much our environment is doing for us. We are aware of the effort we put into rowing and give ourselves credit. Yet if we’re unaware of the extent of the current, we may not properly credit just how much the river contributes to our efforts. When we see someone struggling to paddle upstream, we might wonder, “Are they less fit? Holding the paddles wrong? Look at how easy it is for us to stride forth!”
Life, it turns out, is full of metaphorical currents. Sometimes they carry us along, and sometimes going against them is a constant struggle. Yet we consistently fail to see those currents… especially when they’re flowing in our favor. One way these currents are obscured is the fundamental attribution error, where we are more likely to explain the behavior of others by reference to their personality instead of their circumstances. Our inattention to the currents that push us is a variation of this. Not only do we fail to see the currents that are holding others back, we also fail to see how the same currents are pushing us forward.
This mistake of perspective is something that both companies and individuals make.
Such illusions are common when organizations find themselves at the center of a large societal shift, especially those brought about by technological innovations. The emergence of a new technical innovation can have an impact that takes decades to play out. If our organization’s strengths are aligned with the positive consequences, then we might achieve years of success from being in the right place at the right time. When we are at the crux of the change, the powerful forces of the underlying change are strong enough to move us forward — despite the mistakes we might make.
Companies founded in such conditions grow up with a constant feeling that everything is going their way. This feeling becomes the background, the baseline of the environment and the company’s ethos. This can become a problem if this is internalized as a belief that this organization or its leaders have figured out the secret to success.
In highly complex environments, where the forces around us are difficult to discern, people tend to over-attribute success to their unique abilities and gifts. As long as they and the flow are going in roughly the same direction, the environment will continue to support this illusion. It is only when we decide to shift direction and decide to paddle elsewhere that we might suddenly discover just how much it was the river’s flow moving us all along.
This perspective shift is usually shocking to experience and difficult to accept. When a follow-on product gets no usage or a successful founder’s second act flops resoundingly, it’s very likely that we’ve forgotten — or never realized! — that the first act was riding the river’s flow.
It’s not only those who are rowing with the current who might miss how much it is doing for them. When we look at successful individuals or companies, we often think that it is something that they are doing that is bringing them success.
One test for whether or not this is the case is to see what happens when others diligently copy their practices and cultural habits (or hire away their top talent). Oftentimes, we’ll find that this copying doesn’t bring benefits. If anything, it may bring negative results. Cargo-culting – thoughtlessly following the practices of others without understanding the principles underneath – rarely brings success. However, if even thoughtful attempts to follow the best practices don’t yield results, be suspicious. While it is still possible that the peer truly has some inimitable secret sauce, it’s more likely that we’re looking at an org that has been paddling down the river.
Whether it is our own organization or one we admire, we benefit by studying the nature of the river’s flow: the forces of societal change that propel the organization’s fortunes. The better we understand these forces, the more likely we will be able to orient our own boats for leisurely voyages downstream.
In short, be conscious of which direction you are paddling, because no one can paddle upstream forever.
The final twist is that there is a third and far more subversive (and even revolutionary) approach. What if you paddle not up or downstream, but instead cross-stream? What if you take yourself across the river to a completely different goal? Now the value system and assumptions of the river are secondary to something you defined.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🕸️ OpenAI will let sites opt out of being used for GPT training
OpenAI announced that GPTBot, the web crawler it uses to gather training data for its large language models, would now honor website owners’ requests to block the bot. To tell GPTBot not to crawl their site, website owners need only add two lines to their robots.txt file (the same file they’d use to tell search engine crawlers to steer clear); they may also block GPTBot’s known IP addresses. The change comes amid rising concerns over data privacy, unauthorized use of copyrighted content, and the ethics of scraping data for LLM training; US lawmakers have also started debating “data privacy and consent questions'' in recent hearings.
🚏⏰ Over $900K in crypto was stolen because of an app’s bad RNG practices
According to a new cybersecurity disclosure called Milk Sad, one popular crypto wallet app used an insecure random number generation (RNG) technique for creating users’ private keys, the “passwords” needed to unlock the funds in a crypto account. The app used the operating system’s timestamp as the seed for a pseudo-RNG algorithm, which is problematic because these timestamps are only 32 bits long, compared to the industry standard of 128 to 256 bits. “A decent gaming PC can do a brute force search through 2^32 wallet combinations in less than a day,” the researchers argued; it would thus be very easy to guess the private keys of people’s wallets and steal their money. The team estimated that over $900,000 has already been lost to this exploit.
🚏⛽️ GM will enable bidirectional charging across its electric car fleet by 2026
GM has announced that all of its electric vehicles, including Chevrolets, GMCs, and Cadillacs, will come with “V2H,” or “vehicle-to-home,” charging by 2026. This type of bidirectional charging will let GM owners use their cars’ batteries as backup generators during power outages or periods of peak electricity demand. This feature will require the purchase of a hardware and software kit; pricing details haven’t been released yet.
🚏📰 CNET is deleting thousands of old articles for SEO purposes
The technology site CNET announced that it’d deleted thousands of older articles from its site in an attempt to boost its search rankings, saying that it’d “signal” to search engines that CNET was “fresh” and “relevant” (although experts question whether this actually helps). The move is part of a broader aggressive SEO strategy by CNET’s parent company, a private equity-backed marketing company that made headlines earlier this year for using AI tools to write articles.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Our Natural Human Defenses Against AI Culture (W. David Marx) — Argues that, despite generative AI’s increasing ability to create human-like art, true culture formation requires human acceptance, interpretation, and value assignment, which AI can’t replicate. While AI may propose countless cultural artifacts, humans inherently discern and gravitate towards authentic creations rooted in human intention and meaning.
The Circle of Control (Simon Cross) — Introduces a framework for managing anxiety and improving resilience by focusing your energy on what you can influence and preparing for what you can’t. It divides challenges into a “Circle of Control” (things you can directly manage), a “Circle of Influence” (things you can sway but not fully control) and a “Circle of Interest” (things beyond your control).
How Methamphetamine Became a Key Part of Nazi Military Strategy (TIME) — Explores how Pervitin, an early methamphetamine (aka “speed”), helped German soldiers go on working for 50 hours without feeling any noticeable fatigue. Part of the speed of the Blitzkrieg literally came from speed, often dispensed to pilots and tank crews in the form of chocolate bars.
The Optimization Sinkhole (Anne Helen Petersen) — Explores the perils of “optimization culture”: the persistent belief that there’s always a “better” option out there, whether it’s a coffee maker or a home remodel. The relentless pursuit of perfection, driven in large part by consumerism and social media, leads to perpetual dissatisfaction and crowds out genuine gratitude and contentment. The only solution is to recognize the value in imperfections and cherish simplicity and satisfaction with life.
🔍📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: regression to the mean.
Regression to the mean is a well-known phenomenon in finance. Portfolios that performed extraordinarily well in the past might not continue to perform in the future. Regression to the mean will inevitably draw their performance toward the average.
Statistics tell us that extreme or unusual values in a set tend to move closer to the average (mean) over time. A breakout year for a rookie or an exceptional score on an exam are exhilarating, but they are likely outliers, and subject to regression to the mean. It is much, much more likely that the next season or grade will be just ho-hum.
Yet in both cases, we will hope that somehow, this time, it will be different. Why are we so susceptible to this phenomenon? Perhaps there are two factors.
First, we love a good story. The narratives of truly special individual or transformational change are well-entrenched into our mythos. After all, all it took was one mutant spider bite for Peter Parker to turn into Spiderman. In our stories, these shifts are complete and irreversible. In actual nature, less so.
Second, we might not yet have the average to base our measurements against. When a new technology breaks into the scene, we truly might not know its full potential. Where will the baseline of generative AI end up? How far will it be from where we are now? At this point, these questions are simply unknowable.
To better orient ourselves in a situation that feels novel and perhaps extreme, we can apply the regression to the mean lens. We ask ourselves how might these two factors be playing tricks on us and creating a sense of inflated expectations, and try to find data points that guide us toward the eventual mean.
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