🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 29

November 18th, 2021

Episode 29 — November 18th, 2021 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/29
Contributors to this issue: Justin Quimby, Neel Mehta, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Robinson Eaton, Dimitri Glazkov, Stefano Mazzocchi, Alex Komoroske
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Ben Mathes, Boris Smus

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.

“Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked.”

— Warren Buffett

📝 Editor’s note: Next week is Thanksgiving in the US, so we won’t be publishing an issue of the FLUX Review. We’ll be back to our regular schedule the week after!

🧠🔮 The wonderful power of prediction

Imagine you’re suddenly transported to an environment you’ve never been before, it could be the middle of a rain forest or the middle of a foreign city. You will be overwhelmed with signals: sights, sounds, smells. You may find yourself frozen in place, uncertain what to do next. 

Learning seems like a paradox: our senses receive too much information for the human brain to process it all. There has to be a filter somewhere, something that decides what to focus on and what to ignore. Yet it seems that deciding what to focus on requires some structure to already be in place. How do our brains know where to focus? How does the brain learn to learn?

One common hypothesis is that the nature of our brains is predictive. They constantly try to predict the immediate future. They quickly filter out information that matches such predictions and focus on the information that violates them: the prediction errors. Our brains learn by focusing on what they don’t predict well. Doing so allows them to keep updating how they predict, improving their capacity to do so, further tailoring the filter.

This is an incredibly effective method of bootstrapping. Start by predicting something, anything! If you are right, great! — there’s no more to learn. However, if you made a prediction error, you have data to bootstrap the next prediction. Predictions don’t have to be perfect. You just need to get it right enough to stay alive for the next round. 

It seems fairly straightforward, but ends up being incredibly subtle. Our worlds are full of prediction errors, so we learn to live with them, kind of like we do with a level of ambient noise. When the world changes slowly, we may not get strong enough feedback that the previously correct predictions are no longer accurate. Many cognitive biases fall out of this framework: we don’t question predictive rules that have previously worked if the level of prediction errors is low. When we’re making decisions where accuracy is important, it’s important for us to slow down and reflect: are there significant insights hiding in the noise of prediction errors?

As another downside, our predilection for filtering out well-settled predictions can keep us from experiencing the wonder of the everyday. Taking time to try to recover a childlike wonder and curiosity can help us see the everyday with new eyes: the glory of the clouds, the majesty of a tree, the wonder of another human.

Despite these risks and limitations, our predictive brains are amazing things. Without the ability to focus on what was novel and consolidate predictions that would work in the past, every moment would be like being dropped into an unknown environment. 

🛣️🚩 Signposts 

Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.

🚏🎞 Live YouTube feeds are monitoring GPU availability 24/7

Since May, a live YouTube feed has been constantly monitoring a dozen online marketplaces, updating every second to check if they have GPUs in stock. Their tracking board is almost always a wall of red “Out of Stock” messages, but when a set of GPUs “drops,” the video plays a loud noise (called “screaming”) to draw your attention before they’re all sold out. The feed includes rotating memes referencing how hard it is to snag a GPU, plus a buzzy live chat for GPU hunters.

🚏🌧 Vancouver was completely cut off from the rest of Canada due to flooding

Days of catastrophic flooding and the resulting mudslides, rockslides, and waterfalls blocked off all the highways and railways that connect the Vancouver region to the rest of Canada. At one point, the only way to get from Vancouver to the rest of Canada was through the United States. (Vancouver’s port is Canada’s largest, and the floods halted the $440 million in cargo that flows through the port every day.)

🚏🧤 New smart gloves will let you “feel” things in the metaverse

Meta (formerly Facebook) announced it’s working on a VR glove that will let you “feel” digital objects. The glove will use microfluidic feedback, which inflates tiny air pockets to mimic the pressures and vibrations that come with handling objects or feeling textures. (Another VR startup says it’s been working on the same thing for a few years now.)

🚏👛 The Brave web browser is integrating a native crypto wallet

Originally, the only way to store your cryptocoins was to download and configure a PC app. Then it migrated into an installable browser extension. Now, the web browser Brave has added a built-in crypto wallet feature (including the ability to buy with fiat), abstracting away the wallet software entirely.

🚏🤚🏼 A missing teen was rescued after using hand signals popularized on TikTok

Many TikTokers have been posting viral videos that teach viewers a hand sign that signals “domestic violence — I need help.” So when a 16-year-old from North Carolina was kidnapped, she made this signal from the back of the car. A nearby driver saw the signal, knew what it meant (presumably thanks to TikTok), and called the police, ultimately leading to the girl’s rescue and the captor’s arrest.

🚏⚛️ Researchers hope a new laser could bring us closer to nuclear fusion

One common way to experiment with nuclear fusion is to blast a small ball of hydrogen items with powerful lasers, compressing the atoms and heating them to 100 million degrees Celsius — eventually, the atoms ignite and are fused together. The US’s Naval Research Laboratory normally uses a krypton fluoride laser for this, but a new argon fluoride laser they’re testing looks like it could generate far more energy with greater power efficiency. Physicists say that they hope this breakthrough could eventually enable the creation of small, cheap, and practical fusion power plants.

🚏🤑 Someone bought an NFT from themselves for a record-shattering $530 million

Flash loans are new DeFi inventions that let you quickly borrow a large amount of crypto, make some transactions, and return the original funds, all within the same smart contract call. One unknown crypto user used a massive flash loan to buy their own CryptoPunk for 124,547 ETH — at the time worth a staggering $530 million. The user only paid gas fees. But while the mechanism is clear, the reason isn’t. Were they seeking bragging rights? Were they an “NFT whale” trying to revive the media buzz around these tokens? Or were they a flash loan provider trying to get the press to teach readers about flash loans?

📖⏳ Worth your time

Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.

  • Combinatorial Innovation and Technological Progress in the Very Long Run (What’s New Under the Sun) — Introduces the concept of “combinatorial innovation,” where new inventions are composed of two or more older inventions; shows how this should, in theory, lead to explosive growth in technological progress; and explores some limiting factors that, in practice, limit us to slowing or constant progress.

  • 7 Takeaways After 1 Month of Contributing to a DAO (Bankless DAO) — A DAO member shares the good and bad of her experience: the passion, community support, and monetization opportunities are remarkable, but things like coordination, decision-making, and implementing new ideas are still a challenge. Adds that “Technology cannot operate without humans building, challenging, maintaining, and cultivating it. Humans are the glue.”

  • Individuals Matter (Dan Luu) — Argues that too many leaders, from HR high-ups to charity executives, treat their organizations as “SimCity” games, with a set of knobs and dials that will change things in predictable, legible, and uniform ways. Rather, individuals are non-fungible and outcomes are unevenly-distributed, and failing to realize this can lead to organizational turmoil.

  • McDonald's: You Can Sneer, but It's the Glue That Holds Communities Together (The Guardian) — Shows how, despite the presence of official community centers, McDonald’s has organically become a major gathering point for many people in lower-income and middle-class neighborhoods. Includes some powerful stories of the people and communities the reporter met there.

  • Our Software Dependency Problem (Russ Cox) — Argues that the proliferation of package managers, which seek to minimize the friction of launching, downloading, and installing dependencies, has improved code reuse but also made modern software fragile. Then, lays out some best practices for using dependencies wisely and safely.

  • Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design (Univ. of Maryland) — A veteran spacecraft designer’s 45 hilarious and wise quips about design, engineering, planning, and organizational politics. One of our favorites: “Half of everything you hear in a classroom is crap. Education is figuring out which half is which.”

  • Why Tokyo Works (Metropolis Japan) — Explores urban design factors that make Tokyo such a dynamic, interesting, safe, and affordable city: the city’s decentralized design, its dense public transit networks, and its relaxed zoning laws.

​​🌀🖋 More from FLUXers

Highlighting independent publications from FLUX contributors.

In a short Twitter thread, FLUX’s own Robinson Eaton writes about his misgivings about the dynamics underpinning ConstitutionDAO, the crowdfunding project that aims to gather enough crypto to buy an original copy of the US Constitution at a Sotheby’s auction.

Robinson writes that crowdfunding is indeed the killer use case for blockchain technology, but he shares an early warning that not all applications will be as benign as buying a copy of the Constitution. He makes a call-to-action to begin discussing how we might engineer responsibility into a system that — by design — eschews it.

📚🌲 Book for your shelf

An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.

This week, we recommend Libra Shrugged: How Facebook Tried to Take Over the Money by David Gerard (2020, 180 pages).

In this book, crypto journalist David Gerard tells the tale of Facebook’s ill-fated Libra project (later known as Diem), where Facebook tried to create a global stablecoin backed by a basket of world currencies. Gerard uses Libra to address the question of whether a cryptocurrency could feasibly become the global currency.

Along the way, Gerard explores thought-provoking financial topics like how crypto doesn’t necessarily help bank the unbanked; why successful financial systems enable an “informal economy” that’s not entirely legible to the state; why projects like Libra have echoes of the 2008 financial crisis; why the biggest problem with international payments isn’t the tech but rather the compliance issues; and why the “code is law” approach conflicts with the usual way that finance regulations work (namely, that there should be human oversight and trust baked into the system).

Libra Shrugged is bearish on crypto — perhaps too much so — but it presents a compelling case, and it’s a refreshing counterbalance to the crypto buzz that seems to take over the internet every so often.

🕵️‍♀️📆 Lens of the week

Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.

This week’s lens: The hedgehog and the fox.

Apparently originating in ancient Greece, the saying goes: “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.” More recently, Isaiah Berlin developed it into a lens to draw a distinction between the types of leaders and thinkers.

For hedgehogs, everything revolves around a central vision — a single, universal truth. They seek and refine the one organizing principle that explains why and how anything happens. Hedgehogs are firm believers. When they are found to be wrong, they — like hedgehogs — curl up into a spiky ball and wait until they can get back on the same path. When hedgehogs are right, they are visionaries and saviors.

Foxes are less choosy about their principles. They pursue all possible opportunities, often contradictory - and seize on the momentum when one pans out. It is very hard to weave all of the different things that foxes have going at any given moment into a coherent picture. It’s a mess, bursting with serendipity. Foxes are rarely found to be wrong or defeated, since they weren’t that committed to the battle in the first place. When foxes do win, it feels accidental and random: it’s hard to tell what happened. Any causality is dubiously narrated post factum.

Most of us live in the continuum between the full fox and the total hedgehog, choosing to stay nimble in one situation and commit in another. This is where the lens might come in handy. If you find yourself paralyzed with impossible choices, consider adopting a more fox-like attitude and see if just going with the flow would reveal that next step forward. Conversely, if you find yourself yearning for more deep and meaningful outcomes, perhaps taking a more hedgehog-like principled stance might prove effective.

🔮📬 Postcard from the future

A ‘what if’ piece of speculative fiction about a possible future that could result from the systemic forces changing our world.

// In a near-future world where large-scale climate change efforts have failed, how might other energy-intensive industries handle potential political and consumer backlash?

<An off-the-record exec meeting at MegaGamingCorp in 2027>

“Okay folks, we’ve got some stuff to deal with today. Looks like Miami is starting to experience permanent flooding; Venice, Italy just declared a state of emergency; and the NYC transit authority is days from permanently closing 30 stations due to flooding. Regardless of the larger climate change debate, no one can argue with the rising water levels.

“Congress is looking for a scapegoat, and gaming hasn’t done a good job buying influence, as gold and oil did. So what the heck are we going to do?”

<A single virtual hand is raised in the video conference>

“Okay Alex, what do you have?”

“We make the carbon-costs of gaming legible to the press and gamers.”

<An explosion of objections ensues>

“Hear me out — we can’t stop making high-end games. We still need to drop great, movie-quality game trailers. Since those [redacted] crypto miners are still scooping up all the new GPUs, most folks do not expect to play at max graphical settings. So what do we do? We make it clear on a per-game-session basis how much carbon is produced for that. 

“Since we are first, we set the terms. For every game, we add ‘premium,’ ‘standard,’ and ‘eco’ modes. These just map to our existing quality settings. So the folks with the mega-gaming rigs can brag about how they play the game (and pay for the privilege), while the folks with low-end rigs are just ‘temporarily embarrassed gamers’. 

“It's either this or we introduce carbon tax microtransactions…”