Discover more from 🌀🗞 The FLUX Review
🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 114
August 24th, 2023
Episode 114 — August 24th, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/114
Contributors to this issue: Erika Rice Scherpelz, Ben Mathes, Boris Smus, Neel Mehta, MK, Dimitri Glazkov
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, Stefano Mazzocchi, 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.
“Sometimes it seems as though each new step towards AI, rather than producing something which everyone agrees is real intelligence, merely reveals what real intelligence is not.”
— Douglas R. Hofstadter (1979)
🦋💐 The risks of peculiar specialization
In the lush complexity of rainforests, certain relationships evolve between organisms, such as a specific plant that co-evolved with a specific hummingbird species. The long, narrow flowers of one plant are a perfect fit for a hummingbird with a long, straight beak. Likewise, the curved flowers of another have corresponding hummingbirds with curved beaks. Each pair is adapted to a specialized niche.
This relationship serves as a metaphor for professionals long embedded in a peculiar organizational culture with its particular business pressures. Consider senior employees experienced in writing technical roadmaps, crafting product designs, and influencing decisions. They may profess their particular organizational dogma as universally correct, and the organization develops blind spots as a result.
Why a blind spot? This expertise can be likened to a highly specialized environment. When these professionals embark on new ventures, they discover their robust strengths in one environment don’t always work as well elsewhere. Akin to a tropical hummingbird suddenly teleported to the plains of Canada, what we knew then isn’t as important as what we need to know now.
For experienced professionals in a new environment, a key question to ask ourselves is whether what we’re trying to do aligns with our specialized skills. If we’re at a consumer hardware company and our specialty happens to be consumer hardware, everything lines up. If we are at a company that values scale and reliability, and we just happened to be software reliability engineers, it all clicks. We’re the specialized, curved-beak hummingbird in a world of curved flowers: our skill set is the perfect fit.
But attempting something new might reveal that some of our specialist expertise is ill-adapted for the new environment — like moving to a startup that may even be in the same industry, but with different culture and practices. That’s when variety from outside sources becomes invaluable. Put differently, if we feel like we’re true generalists, we might just be subject to a blind spot of not having different experiences.
The lesson here is twofold: understanding the specialized nature of our skills and recognizing when they align with or diverge from our current environment. Like the hummingbird and the flower, success comes from the harmony between specialization and adaptability. It’s about finding the right niche for our unique abilities, whether flitting through the rainforest or venturing into uncharted plains.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🎬 Hollywood studios are offering writers protections against Generative AI
Hollywood writers have been on strike since May, and the studios that employ them have come to the table with a proposed deal. In addition to wage increases and improvements to residual payments, the offer comes with protections against generative AI: “because [GenAI] is not a person, it is not a ‘writer’ or ‘professional writer’... and, therefore, written material produced by [GenAI] will not be considered literary material.” The studios explained that this means that writers’ “compensation, credit, and separated rights will not be affected by the use of [GenAI] produced material.”
🚏🍎 New York City schools will allow high school students to enroll virtually
New York City’s public school district, the largest in the US, will allow a limited number of students to study virtually year-round. The program, called the Virtual Innovators Academy, is slated to have 17 teachers and 200 students (all in 9th and 10th grades) for the upcoming 2023-24 school year, and the city plans to add a new grade level each year. Students meet in person for “required state exams and monthly social gatherings,” but most instruction and many extracurriculars, like esports and drone flying, are done from home.
🚏🌬️ A new wind-powered cargo ship is setting sail
One shipping firm is piloting a new cargo ship that comes with two 123-foot (37.5-meter) high sails made of steel and fiberglass, the same material that wind turbines use. These “wings” are folded down in port and unfurled at sea. The hope is that wind power can help blow the ship across the ocean and take the load off the engine, thus (potentially) reducing a ship’s lifetime emissions by up to 30%.
🚏💸 The biggest NFT marketplaces are no longer enforcing royalties for creators
One of the stated advantages of non-fungible tokens was that the original creators would get paid a small royalty with every resale, but that rule wasn’t written into the smart contracts — instead, it was up to individual NFT marketplaces to enforce it. But when an NFT marketplace called Blur suddenly beat out the market-leading OpenSea by slashing royalties (and thus reducing the prices for buyers), a race to the bottom ensued. Now, OpenSea has announced that, starting in March 2024, it too will no longer enforce NFT royalties; buyers will have the option to pay the creator, but they won’t have to anymore.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
The Automation Paradox (The Atlantic) — Observes that, throughout recent history, “when computers start doing the work of people, the need for people often increases.” Computers indeed eliminate jobs for people like typographers and telephone operators, but they usually balance that out with new openings for, e.g., graphic designers and receptionists. Though written in 2016, well before the GenAI cycle, the piece’s lessons still ring true today.
Explore/Expand/Extract (Kent Beck) — A well-articulated exploration of corporate behavior at different parts of the S-curve. The definitions of “fast” and “slow” are quite different at each stage.
Domitian: Dominus et Deus (The Past) — Evaluates the peculiar legacy of Rome’s 11th emperor. Looking at archaeological and historical records, Domitian’s reign was a success, but history has thought of him as an unhinged tyrant in the vein of Nero. A likely reason is that Domitian, the self-styled “lord and god,” aggravated the Senate and wealthy ruling classes, who were the primary authors of the history books — small wonder, then, that they criticized him!
The Language Rules We Know — But Don’t Know We Know (BBC) — Explores some strange language rules that native English speakers intuitively understand but may not be able to explain. For instance, we say things like “criss-cross” and “zig-zag” rather than “cross-criss” and “zag-zig” due to a rule called ablaut reduplication; adjectives need to be put in a particular order; and constructions like the pluperfect progressive passive are surprisingly common.
🔍🪑 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: kayfabe and cargo cults.
Imagine joining a team and noticing it has a lot of processes that don’t seem to serve any useful purpose. The team might claim adherence to Agile methodologies, yet underneath, they are doing waterfall planning. What's happening here? What's the purpose of these empty rituals?
Kayfabe, a term borrowed from professional wrestling, is the art of portraying staged performances as genuine. A key part of kayfabe is everyone knows the performance is staged, but we’ve all agreed to go along with it anyway. In some situations (like professional wrestling), kayfabe can be harmless, but if we find ourselves in a situation where everyone else knew this was just a show, be wary: we might be the chair that is about to be broken over someone’s head.
Cargo-culting, on the other hand, involves mindlessly following the practices of others without understanding the underlying principles. We are going through the motions and we expect to get results, but all of our efforts are in vain.
In many ways, kayfabe and cargo-culting are opposites. In kayfabe, the players know it’s a performance. In cargo-culting, the participants believe that their actions will lead to results. However, both can look the same from the outside: seemingly ineffective course of actions, followed with way too much enthusiasm.
When dropped into one of these environments, a key place to start is understanding what sort of situation we're in. Ask about the practices: do people try to convert us to their cult? Or are they showing us the script that makes everything way easier? Ask about the lack of results: do people respond defensively or with a knowing wink? Often, we’ll find a mix where some people are practicing kayfabe and others sincerely believe in the process.
In a kayfabe situation, try to understand the reason behind it. Are there forces that incentivize the perception of motion over the reality of progress? In a cargo-cult situation, understand why the desired outcome isn’t happening. Is the underlying theory itself unsound or are there other factors that are preventing otherwise good actions from having results? Either way, avoid engaging in slum clearance and try to understand before we replace what is, on the surface, failing.
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