🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 132
February 8th, 2024
Episode 132 — February 8th, 2024 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/132
Contributors to this issue: Ben Mathes, Ade Oshineye, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Dart Lindsley, Alex Komoroske, Scott Schaffter, Gordon Brander, Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, MK
Additional insights from: Spencer Pitman, Julka Almquist, Lisie Lillianfeld, Samuel Arbesman, Melanie Kahl, Dimitri Glazkov, Jon Lebensold, Robinson Eaton, Justin Quimby
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.
“Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward. They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.”
🧰 🤝 Holistic development
It is common to see leadership advice highlight the difference between coaching and mentoring. Coaching is generally defined as applying active listening and questioning to help people solve problems themselves. Mentoring helps people understand their situation through the guidance and advice of the mentor. This is a useful distinction. Coaching and mentoring are important tools in our toolbox when we’re trying to help someone be their best.
However, we can get into trouble when we mix up the activities to the relationship as a whole. When we say “A coach is someone who…” or “A mentor is someone who…” we artificially limit the tools we bring to the conversation. A good advisor — whether we call them a coach, a mentor, a manager, or something else — uses both mentoring and coaching to help others to grow and solve problems. They know that growth is most likely when people solve their own problems but they also know that examples are useful for helping others understand the possibilities.
The tools of effective advisors are not limited to just coaching and mentoring. When we look at sports coaches, they also engage in actions such as detecting where performance deviates from the ideal and providing corrective feedback. They can break down skills and demonstrate them. We don’t need to understand badminton (or Korean) to see how the coach in this video provides highly targeted feedback that requires breaking down the player’s actions in depth. Advisors in other contexts can do the same, for example, by having someone replay a scenario and breaking down what happened step-by-step.
When in the role of an advisor, we must draw on a broad suite of tools. We need to look at the needs of the person we advise holistically and meet them where they are. If they already have the tools they need but can’t figure out how to apply them, we can coach them. If they want to expand their toolbox, we can mentor them. If they need to refine their skills, we can observe, demonstrate, and correct. No need to limit ourselves to one tool at a time. If we keep in mind that our goal is to help someone be their best, then we can adjust our approach to their needs.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🎥 A deepfaked video call swindled $25M from a multinational firm
A finance worker in Hong Kong was tricked into sending fraudsters $25.6 million after a deep fake video call that appeared to be from the company’s chief financial officer. The worker had originally gotten a suspicious email “from” the CFO, which he suspected was a phishing email, but after the convincing video call — which featured AI versions of not just the CFO but also several other coworkers — he sent over the money.
🚏💣 Researchers proposed an unusual approach to unilateral nuclear disarmament
A recent paper suggested a striking unilateral “approach” to nuclear disarmament: shoot a 1000 TeV muon-to-neutrino beam (weak by human standards, but massive by particle accelerator standards) right through the earth so that the particles decay near fissile material, thus “slightly” detonating the bombs, making them “fizzle” out, and rendering them useless.
🚏🌀Hurricanes are getting too strong for the max Category 5 rating, so a Category 6 was proposed
Every hurricane with maximum sustained wind speeds above 156 miles per hour (251 km/h) is considered a Category 5 — the highest possible ranking — on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. But climate change stands to dramatically increase hurricane speeds, and a new Category 6 has been proposed for hurricanes reaching an astounding 192+ miles an hour (309 km/h). There have already been 5 such hurricanes in the last decade.
🚏🕷️ Scientists have created bacteria that convert plastic into spider silk
Researchers have developed a strain of bacteria that can convert polyethylene (a kind of plastic often used in single-use items, and thus a major component of plastic waste) into green fluorescent proteins, which are useful in microbiology and medical research, and a “spider dragline-inspired silk protein” that’s remarkably strong and light. There’s likely still a ways to go to scale this approach, but scientists are optimistic about the research’s potential impact.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
The Search for the Longest Infinite Chess Game (Naviary) — Begins as an interesting chess problem but goes on to investigate exotic forms of mathematical infinities, ordinal numbers, and advanced number theory research. It features a series of stunningly bizarre contraptions — quite like the guns and gliders in Conway’s Game of Life — that create chess games that are infinitely longer than the last one.
"Wherever You Get Your Podcasts" Is a Radical Statement (Anil Dash) — The head of Glitch observes that podcasting is one of the last bastions of the open web: the tech can’t be owned by any one company and audiences are “portable,” allowing creators to seamlessly shift platforms (often called the ‘credible threat of exit’). This lack of centralization makes it hard for big companies to push algorithms or advertising on users and also hard to shut down hate speech. Without large-scale advertising, the economics can be rough for creators.
First Support for a Physics Theory of Life (Quanta Magazine) — Explores how computer simulations have shown that order will spontaneously arise and self-tune as long as you can harvest energy from the environment; the ‘drive’ for greater entropy can “foster the growth of complex structures.” But do these simulations generalize to the genesis of life itself?
Baseball Has a Baseball Problem (Baseball Doesn’t Exist) — Describes how tiny changes in a baseball’s long and tangled supply chain can have huge and unpredictable effects on the game. In one instance, making the ball’s red seams just 9% thicker increased home runs by 46% (and then reducing the thickness somehow increased home runs even more!). It’s a perfect example of chaos theory in action.
🔍📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: N-ply thinking.
In game theory, a “ply” is a turn taken by one of the players in a multiplayer game. With 1-ply thinking, a player doesn’t think further than the current turn. For example, it’s easy to win against a young child at tic-tac-toe — they always take whatever turn moves them closer to winning right now. As they get older, they engage in 2-ply thinking and start to realize that they need to block you from winning. Eventually, they may figure out that tic-tac-toe is not worth playing since there’s an easy strategy for playing perfect games. 1-ply thinking is insubstantial, like the 1-ply toilet paper its name may remind you of.
1-ply thinking is a common trap that leads to various problems in complex systems with multiple competing actors, power dynamics, and time horizons. Some examples include getting trapped in local maxima while hill-climbing, chasing pyrrhic victories, overlooking the negative externalities of our actions, repeating loops of harmful behavior, and being easily manipulated by our opponents. This happens at every scale, from toddlers who lack a theory of mind to companies that don’t understand the difference between iterative and non-iterative games to multinational alliances run by brilliant strategists who fall prey to the politician’s syllogism:
We must do something.
This is something.
Therefore, we must do this.
N-ply thinking allows you to adopt a more sophisticated strategy by thinking through multiple rounds of turns. However, go too many layers deep, and there are so many strategies, counterstrategies, possibilities, and contingencies that you may be unable to choose a move. When the “game” you are playing is life, this can be debilitating. This combinatorial explosion of possibilities is why many games have developed sophisticated strategies so players can combine a plausible amount of look-ahead with patterns that extract the key elements of deeper look-ahead paths.
N-ply thinking is also how we start to see systems. It’s how we start to identify the leverage points in those systems due to the observed consequences of our previous interventions. This lets us start to see the patterns that govern the complex interactions between the pieces of an unpredictable whole.
This tension between thinking through consequences and following patterns echoes the trilemma between the main schools of normative ethics: consequentialism, deontological ethics, and virtue ethics. Consequentialism evaluates the rightness or wrongness of an action based on its consequences, even those many orders removed from the original action. Deontological ethics looks primarily at the intrinsic rightness of the action itself. By contrast, virtue ethics doesn’t judge the rightness of the actions but rather whether the person is acting according to various virtues. Taken to an extreme, all are untenable.
What’s the right answer? As thousands of years of philosophical debate about ethical theories teach us, there is no perfect answer. However, we can pull from game theory and hypothesize that part of the answer lies in finding a dynamic balance: always look at least a few steps ahead, make the best choice you can, compare what happens to your predictions, and then learn patterns you can use in the future. These become the strategies and intuitions that allow you to get the benefits of a deeper ply of thinking without always paying the total computational overhead. And sometimes, when things are too hard, all you can do is take a breath and do the next right thing despite the costs.
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