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🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 117
September 14th, 2023
Episode 117 — September 14th, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/117
Contributors to this issue: Ben Mathes, Ade Oshineye, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Boris Smus, Neel Mehta, MK, Dimitri Glazkov
Additional insights from: 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.
“You can see some things through the lens of the human eye, other things through the lens of a microscope, others through the lens of a telescope, and still others through the lens of systems theory. Everything seen through each kind of lens is actually there. Each way of seeing allows our knowledge of the wondrous world in which we live to become a little more complete.”
— Donella Meadows
🎭💍 “To Be or To Do” in “The Inner Ring”
In “The Inner Ring,” C. S. Lewis warns of the moral compromises and loss of individuality that result from excessively pursuing the human desire to belong to exclusive groups or inner circles. He advises us to focus on pursuing our vocations and morals over seeking approval from these exclusive “inner rings.” In doing so, we will find our own more valuable inner ring of people who also choose this very decision to avoid exclusivity-climbing.
In other words: focus on quality and authenticity to surround yourself with quality and authenticity.
In “To Be or To Do,” military strategist John Boyd presents a choice between prioritizing personal ambition, titles, and recognition (“to be somebody”) and prioritizing actionable contributions that make a difference (“to do something”). He encourages individuals “to do” and choose the path of action. Boyd emphasizes the fulfillment and respect that comes from genuine accomplishments rather than chasing recognition. Shakespeare fans will notice echoes of Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy.
What happens when we look through both of these lenses as a portmanteau? After all, when we focus on being visible to the people who seek “the inner ring,” we lose ourselves. Instead, what if we focus on finding the people who value our choice of to do over to be?
Navigating the world through the dual lenses of C. S. Lewis’s “The Inner Ring” and John Boyd’s “To Be or To Do,” we discover a path to others who also value and reward authenticity and action over conformity and status. By shifting our focus from the elusive allure of “inner rings” to a community that values genuine accomplishments, we cultivate environments where merit and integrity are paramount.
This approach not only safeguards individuality but also promotes a culture where actions speak louder than titles. It is a call to reject the superficiality and moral compromises often tied to the relentless pursuit of being part of the “in-group.” Instead, this lens portmanteau encourages forging paths with like-minded individuals who appreciate the intrinsic value of doing — of creating, contributing, and making a tangible difference.
This is not a rejection of community, but a call to form communities grounded in substance and shared values, where individuals are united by a common purpose and a mutual respect for each other's contributions. This fosters a richer, more fulfilling, and ethical way of living and working together.
It is also a warning to protect against shifting away from valuing and rewarding quality. Each little step towards rewarding fame and status-seeking is a crack in the wall of quality. When our sense of value is grounded in our group membership, then the shifting or dissolution of the group is experienced as a threat. However, If our sense of value is grounded in authentic actions, the loss of a single group is sad, but not threatening: our identity is in our ability to do high-quality, authentic things.
With the right group, the inner ring forms around us. We get to be when we do.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🔋 The world’s largest lithium deposit was found at the Nevada-Oregon border
Geologists believe they’ve discovered the world's largest lithium deposit at the McDermitt caldera along the Nevada-Oregon border, with estimates suggesting that up to 40 million metric tons of lithium could be present — beating out Bolivia’s salt flats, which only hold 23 million metric tons. The deposit could significantly impact global lithium supply and pricing, which is crucial for the growing electric vehicle market. However, the area is of cultural significance to local indigenous tribes, who argue that mining operations could result in “green colonialism,” disrupting sacred lands, local ecosystems, and their way of life.
🚏🌧️ LLMs are sharply increasing cloud computing’s water usage
Large language models like ChatGPT require significant amounts of water to cool the supercomputers used in their training (to say nothing of the water needed to cool the power plants that give electricity to the computers). According to one researcher, the rise of LLMs has been a major reason why two major cloud computing vendors saw their global water consumption spike by 20–30% from 2021 to 2022. The researcher’s team found that each ChatGPT session (defined as a series of 5 to 50 prompts) indirectly consumed 500 milliliters of water, about as much as a 16-ounce water bottle.
🚏🇸🇪 Sweden is bringing printed books and handwriting practice back to classrooms
Sweden is starting to shift its educational focus from its current tech-heavy approach back to more traditional methods like printed books, quiet reading time, and handwriting practice. The change comes in response to concerns from politicians and experts that the emphasis on digital learning, including mandatory tablets in preschools, has contributed to a decline in basic skills like reading and handwriting. While Swedish students still score above the European average in reading, there has been a noticeable decline in fourth-grade reading levels between 2016 and 2021, which has prompted the Swedish government to invest heavily in book purchases for schools.
🚏🧑💼 Lawyers have collectively earned $700M from the crypto collapse
The collapse of major cryptocurrency firms, including digital currency exchange FTX, has resulted in over $700 million in fees for lawyers, accountants, and other professionals, according to a New York Times analysis. These mounting fees have sparked outrage, especially among amateur traders who lost personal savings, as they consume funds that could have been returned to creditors. Major law firms have billed in the hundreds of millions for their services, with scrutiny and calls for cost reduction coming from both the crypto community and appointed fee examiners.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Why Note-Taking Apps Don’t Make Us Smarter (The Verge) — Casey Newton argues that, while note-taking apps promise to spark ideas and make our thinking more organized, they often fall flat. The core problem isn’t the software itself but rather the inherent limitations of trying to automate the active, often nonlinear process of human thought. Although Newton hopes that AI might provide more effective tools in the future, he contends that effective thinking is an activity that resists automation and requires focused human attention.
Model Metropolis (Logic Magazine) — Describes how systems scientist Jay W. Forrester’s complex modeling influenced the creator of SimCity to build a game that promulgates similar biases to its players. More generally, the author explores the limits to modeling and the built-in assumptions that models carry in them. While itself flawed, this article is a healthy reminder that a model is just a map, and possibly a faulty one.
Voluntary Carbon Offsets are Headed for a Crash (Volts Podcast) — Argues that carbon offsets are often fraudulent or dubious due to a lack of regulation and the inherent incentives for both buyers and sellers to overstate their impacts. It’s also hard to verify the actual impact of offsets, especially in cases where the funded emissions reduction might have happened anyway — in which case the offsets would have done nothing.
The Dream of Russia (1886) (The Atlantic) — Written nearly 150 years ago, this essay describes Russia’s deeply held imperial ambitions, focusing on their desire to control Constantinople. “Can any parallel instance be found, in which a nation has held fast to one great idea for a thousand years, through all vicissitudes of fortune, and all changes in government, religion, and civilization?”
🔍🔡 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: composable alphabets.
To most of us, the concept of a written language seems so intuitive and straightforward that we don’t even notice — and pause to respect — the staggering impact of such a relatively simple system. Take a handful of letters, string them into words, turn them into sentences, and witness the unrelenting, exponential pace of human progress.
Legos are another example. It’s basically just a few bricks with tiny knobs. Yet the creative potential they unleash is nothing short of amazing. Some prominent technologists go so far as to say “always bet on text” for these very composable properties.
And let’s not forget about the A, T, C, and G – the four bases that describe life in DNA.
All of these are based on the idea of composable alphabets: simple systems that enable composing a relatively small set of elements into a nearly infinite amount of combinations based on a simple set of rules.
Once we adopt “composable alphabets” as a lens, we begin seeing them everywhere.
Our organization’s principles might be seen as the letters of a cultural alphabet. Are some of those letters silent while others are still missing? Can we describe the intention behind our actions in terms of our principles? If we develop a user interface for an application, what is its alphabet? How does this alphabet enable composing various screens and panels into a coherent story?
Note, though, that not every random collection of components or products is a composable alphabet. They also need a composition mechanism (like the dots on Legos) and a compositional grammar that says which combinations are valid. But if the right pieces are in place, these combinations can become new components that can be further composed to help climb the spiral of complexity.
Composable alphabets are a powerful lens because they help us assess whether or not our methods of communicating with others are consistent and expressive enough to convey the intended meaning. And often, they help us better understand the meaning we wish to convey. They also help us discover when we have built an alphabet that doesn’t compose well or which fails to provoke emergence.
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