🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 127
January 4th, 2024
Episode 127 — January 4th, 2024 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/127
Contributors to this issue: Dart Lindsley, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Justin Quimby, MK, Neel Mehta, Boris Smus
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Ben Mathes, Dimitri Glazkov, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman, Julka Almquist, Scott Schaffter, Lisie Lillianfeld, Samuel Arbesman, 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.
“If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”
― Richard Buckminster Fuller
🌊✨ Navigating the many ways of knowing
Modern digital maps are only the most recent advance in the storied history of navigation. That mapping app on your phone followed a long series of path-dependent inventions to arrive in your hand. Over centuries, navigators across Asia, Europe, and Africa developed tools such as compasses, sextants, timepieces, charts, and the underlying units of measurement to lay out paths from origin to destination across land and sea. Along the way, they also developed a third-person, god’s-eye mental model that imagines looking down at the navigator as they move across a fixed landscape.
This approach is powerful, but it’s not the only model for navigation. Micronesian navigators routinely crossed up to 450 miles of open ocean without any of the tools considered indispensable to navigators in other parts of the world. And although both methods were effective, when Europeans and Micronesians first met, they found each other’s approaches mutually incomprehensible.
The Micronesian tools and their associated mental model originated in a different environment and followed a different path of invention. In Micronesia, less than two-tenths of one percent of the earth's surface is land. The rest is open sea, upon which little stands still: the sun, moon, clouds, waves, and stars are all in constant motion. So, the navigators of Micronesia oriented by identifying the recurring patterns of movement. They marked 32 navigation points by identifying the “star lines” made up of all the stars that rise at one point on the horizon and proceed in a line across the sky to set at a second point on the opposite horizon. They oriented using wave patterns generated as reliable ocean swells diffracted around and reflected off islands beyond the horizon. They knew the range of different birds and used their presence or absence to indicate proximity to land.
Theirs was a fundamentally first-person approach. Micronesian navigators imagined their canoes as fixed and immobile to the equally fixed star paths while the water, air, and islands moved around them as they traveled.
Cognitive anthropologist Edwin Hutchins remarked that many species of ideas have gone extinct due to European colonization, and he hypothesized that such extinction is partly caused by “the removal of the contexts in which the ideas evolved and functioned." How much was the evolution of navigation in Asia, Europe, and Africa dependent upon the predominance of land? Did the tools developed in the context of land-based navigation actually delay navigation beyond coastal routes?
This raises an interesting question: how many people around you operate effectively using completely different mental models? When someone can’t seem to hear you, is it possible to discern the depth of disagreement? Are they operating from a different set of facts, or is the challenge deeper, at the level of their mental model? When you see that happening, consider if you might be able to adopt part of that mental model — the way Micronesian navigators quickly grasped the value of compasses.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🚢 A major shipping company has suspended shipping through the Suez Canal
Maersk, a large shipping company, recently announced that it’s suspending shipments through the Red Sea and Suez Canal “until further notice”; the move came shortly after Houthi fighters from Yemen attacked one of its ships in the Red Sea. (The Iranian-backed Houthis say the attacks on commercial ships are “revenge against Israel” for the conflict in Gaza.) One journalist commented that not using the shipping shortcut afforded by the Suez Canal could lead to millions more barrels of oil being burned.
🚏🌡️ Data centers are being used to heat homes in Europe
In the mid-sized Danish city of Odense, an estimated 11,000 homes are heated by excess heat from Meta’s 50,000 square meter (12 acre) data center on the edge of town. Meta isn’t alone in this recycling of waste heat: an Amazon data center in Dublin helps heat a local university, while Microsoft’s upcoming data center in Finland is projected to be the world’s largest data center heating system. This trend is expected to get even better as AI ramps up, since AI-focused data centers have denser server racks and thus emit more heat.
🚏💵 The number of active VCs in the US fell 38% in 2023
According to data from Pitchbook, the number of active venture capitalists (those who made two or more deals in the first three quarters of a calendar year) fell 38% from 2022 to 2023; that’s a loss of over 2700 firms. While some VC firms likely shuttered entirely, others may have run out of new capital and become “zombie firms,” while others may have more mundane fates, like crossover investors who shifted dollars away from venture investments.
🚏🏭 US fossil fuel plants are getting revived to power crypto mining facilities
A 40-year-old coal plant in western Indiana was retired in 2020 and supposed to shut down in 2023, but in 2022 a coal company bought the plant and decided to keep running it. A crypto mining company then announced that it’d set up shop right next door, using the cheap energy to mine Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. (The US is quickly becoming a favorite destination for crypto miners, in part because it offers cheap electricity and in part because China — the previous top spot for miners — banned the practice in 2021.)
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
An AI Future Is Much Shakier Than You Think (Foreign Policy) — Argues that, when evaluating the potential of generative AI, we should remember the “Ghost of Napster”: new technologies can seem unstoppable, but existing industries and entrenched interests can easily shut them down. A lesson from Napster that’s particularly relevant in the era of LLMs is that “copyright law doesn’t bend to accommodate your vision of the digital future — the digital future bends to accommodate copyright law.”
66 Good News Stories You Didn’t Hear About in 2023 (Future Crunch) — Shares some great but under-reported news about global health, clean energy, human rights, poverty reduction, and conservation. Some highlights: polio and guinea worm have been almost eradicated (#9), green manufacturing is booming in the US (#17), more girls than ever are getting educations (#31), and over a million square kilometers of ocean was protected (#56).
Old Wards and New Against Fake Humans (Interconnected) — Offers practical advice for detecting a fake human on the internet: challenge him to say something obscene. On a video call? Have your interlocutor turn sideways and show you her ears, and watch for visual glitches. It’s “like shaking hands from the old days, demonstrating that I’m not about to draw my sword.”
How the Most Useless Branch of Math Could Save Your Life (Veritasium) — Details the surprisingly intricate mathematics of knot theory and explores how the field can be applied to improve material science, biotechnology, and even wired headphones.
🔍📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: nemawashi.
Planning often includes a big presentation where one or many teams present their plans to leadership. Sometimes, those meetings go smoothly. Other times, they get completely derailed, and a team is sent back to the drawing board.
One contributing factor is how surprised stakeholders are when they hear our plans. The first reaction to a new idea is often negative — somewhat independent of the merits or demerits of the plan. Other times, the negativity comes from something that could have been easily addressed in advance with a small tweak.
How do you avoid negative reactions that can derail your planning process? One approach is nemawashi, the business practice of talking to concerned parties before presenting a plan publicly. Nemawashi is vital in some cultures, like the Japanese business culture where the term originated.
Taking the time to preview ideas with interested stakeholders not only reduces surprise when it comes time to share them more widely; it also helps make the ideas better. By getting feedback early, we can find the rough corners and smooth them out. We can even pivot more dramatically if we find we are going in the wrong direction.
Done well, nemawashi is a process of sincerely asking for feedback and adjusting accordingly. Done badly, it can feel like brown-nosing, currying favor rather than letting your ideas stand on their merits. By bringing a learning-oriented mindset, we can get alignment, create better plans, reduce surprises, and build relationships, all at the same time
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