🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 37
February 3rd, 2022
Episode 37 — February 3rd, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/37
Contributors to this issue: Justin Quimby, Neel Mehta, Dimitri Glazkov, Alex Komoroske, Spencer Pitman, Erika Rice Scherpelz
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Boris Smus, Robinson Eaton
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.
“Show me a completely smooth operation and I'll show you someone who's covering mistakes. Real boats rock.”
— Frank Herbert
🗣🌱 Normative, informative, and generative voices
“Get over here right now!” “There are 45 parking spaces in this lot.” “This perspective provides an interesting contrast.” How we speak depends on our purpose, and those purposes may or may not be clear on the surface. Although the nuances are endless, a simple framework can help us to listen closely for the intent of the conversation.
The normative voice spurs us to action. It aims to exert control. Signs in public places tend to be written in a normative voice. Objectives, team principles, political slogans, and codes of conduct — all typically have that same quality. The normative voice usually conveys an intention, whether veiled or direct.
The informative voice is not here to tell us what to do. It just wants to share what it’s seeing. It says “here’s a thing I see” or “here is what I am doing.” The informative voice tends to come across aloof and unemotional, like that of a detached observer.
It is hard to separate normative and informative voices. Informative statements can turn normative, intentionally or accidentally: a teen stating, “Mom, all the kids have <cool item of clothing> and I don’t” has a certain outcome in mind, no matter how neutrally presented. Conversely, we might write normative prose with no firm call to action. This is a common outcome when intention is whittled away by a committee-driven wordsmithing process: “Be the best in our field… We swear, this mission statement was meant to point somewhere! We just can’t remember where.”
The struggle and confusion between the two voices can seem unsatisfying and hopeless. Conveniently, we have a third voice.
The generative voice accepts and builds on the struggle. It embraces the emotional resonance of the normative voice along with the concrete insights cherished by the informative voice. At the same time, it aims to hold intentions lightly. The generative voice spurs us to improvise, to jam with ideas, to layer another track onto the music of thinking.
Pulling back the curtain a little, we aim for the generative voice in this newsletter. We use the words “might” and “tends to” to indicate that the things we see aren’t exact truths. We try to explore every side of the framing with empathy, inhabiting each corner for a little while. Most significantly, we hold up the hope that after reading these, you feel invited to play with the ideas, to riff on them, departing from the original content into places that are personally resonant.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🏪 The pandemic has accelerated the US’s boom in entrepreneurship
The rate of new business formation in the US has been steadily increasing over the last decade, but the pandemic has sent that rate skyrocketing, with 2021 a record year and 2022 on track to top it. Pandemic-related reasons that experts have cited include work-from-home letting people nurture hobbies and side hustles; reduced expenses giving people the savings to start businesses; and even a “Great Reflection” where time away from the office lets people think about what they want out of their lives. Long-term, structural reasons include the increasing availability of non-employer-provided health insurance and the declining benefits of traditional jobs.
🚏🐑 Shepherds are grazing animals in forests to reduce wildfire risk
The Mediterranean basin has been having a wildfire problem: the amount of forested land burned every year has doubled since the 1970s. One group, called “Herd of Fire,” is trying to solve this problem by encouraging shepherds to have their livestock graze in the forests. Grazing animals eat up some of a forest’s biomass, reducing the amount of fuel available for fires, and they trample plants in the understory, creating a break between vegetation on the forest floor and the trees’ foliage (which makes it harder for fires to spread). The group’s shepherds now graze animals in 600 “fire-critical” areas, and researchers think that “payments for targeted grazing save up to 75 percent of the costs of managing forest biomass for fires.”
🚏🌬 Cigarette smoking is making a comeback among American youth
Cigarette use in the US has been steadily declining for 30 years, driven in part by vaping and cannabis. But reporters are now documenting an uptick in cigarette usage among 20- and 30-somethings. Researchers and new smokers have put forward reasons including people seeking self-medication for pandemic-induced stress and loneliness; a rejection of “wellness culture” (which, one smoker said, has come to include cannabis); and the desire to give off a “grunge sophisticated” or “atypical” vibe.
🚏🚛 Protesting truckers blockaded the Montana–Alberta border crossing for days
A new regulation requires truckers crossing the US–Canada border to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19. In protest of the rule, a group of truckers have used their trucks to blockade a busy border crossing between Montana and Alberta. Hundreds of other truckers have reportedly been stranded on either side of the border, along with their shipments (which has led to worries about supply chain disruptions). The blockade has also cut off the border town of Coutts, Alberta from mail service and the nearest hospital, supermarket, and gas station.
🚏🗳️ 300+ political campaigns have signed up for an NFT fundraising platform
A new platform called Electables promises to enable “grassroots funding” for US political campaigns using NFTs, citing the tokens’ popularity among youth and their ability to build loyal communities of promoters and enthusiasts. The platform says that more than 300 campaigns have already joined its waitlist. For its part, the Federal Election Commission (the US’s campaign finance watchdog) says there’s “little to no official guidance” on NFT fundraising.
🚏🔋 Fast-charging quantum batteries became a bit more possible thanks to new research
Quantum batteries are quite attractive in theory: each energy-storing molecule helps other molecules absorb more energy, resulting in economies of scale where bigger quantum batteries can charge faster. The physics principle that should enable this behavior, called superabsorption, had not been demonstrated in practice, but researchers created a small “proof-of-principle” quantum battery that had the theorized properties — showing that superabsorption can indeed work, at least on small scales.
🚏🏴☠️ Members of an NFT-holding DAO voted to liquidate, perhaps due to “corporate raiders”
ApeDAO is a decentralized organization that collectively holds 81 Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs, each of which currently sells for over $250,000. Given the net worth of the DAO’s treasury, each of the DAO’s tokens (which grants one vote in the DAO’s decision-making processes) should be selling for about $16. But the token sells at just $8. So one member started a proposal to liquidate the NFTs and return the proceeds to token-holders, which by their estimate would yield about $20 per token. The liquidation proposal passed by an easy 65%–35% margin. One former ApeDAO member likened it to a corporate raid, where outside investors buy up shares, take over a corporation, and milk it for money.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Hello From the Year 2050 (Time) — Environmentalist Bill McKibben of 350.org imagines what the future might look like if humanity manages to avoid the worst of climate change, emphasizing that low-hanging fruit like electric cars won’t be enough: we’ll need to fundamentally rethink our economic, geopolitical, and cultural systems, and we’ll have to adapt to deal with the changes we’ve already set in motion.
We’re All Going to Make It (Foldable Human) — A piece of speculative fiction similar to our “Postcard From the Future” series; imagines a dystopian future that might emerge if current trends in crypto, the gig economy, meme coins, mobile gaming, and hyper-financialization get carried to their logical extremes.
Is This The Real Reason Weather Is Getting Wilder? (PBS Terra) — Shows how recent extreme weather events that seem wildly different, such as the deep freeze in Texas and record heat in western Canada, may have been caused by the same underlying phenomenon: as the jet stream slows, it meanders more, making wild weather more common.
Enron Corporate Responsibility (Enron) — The infamous energy corporation’s list of company values demonstrates the thin correlation between written values and what a culture actually embodies through its decision-making and incentives. Hard to read with anything more than cynicism, it provides a mirror for our current times and shows how there may be deltas between what we say and what we do.
Espoused Theories and Theories-in-Use of Information Literacy (American Society for Information Science and Technology) — An academic exploration of the phenomenon observable in the above Enron document, this paper examines two ways that people understand and reason about concepts: through theories they claim to follow (espoused theories) and through the mental models they actually use (theories-in-use). These methods are sometimes congruent, but often not.
A Rare, Isolated Script Invented From Scratch Holds Clues to The Evolution of Writing (Science Alert) — Traces the evolution of a writing system invented by illiterate Liberian men in the 1800s, then shows what anthropologists and linguists have been able to learn about the forces that nudge scripts to become more or less complex over time.
The Inevitability of Trusted Third Parties (Cory Doctorow) — Suggests that mere technology is not enough to enable trustless transactions; technologies like blockchains are only as trustworthy as the people who operate them. Instead of bringing in trusted auditors or umpires, these projects often try to use financial incentives to get people to behave properly, but this often makes things worse by attracting bad actors.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures by Antonio Damasio (2018, 290 pages).
When a book about feelings and their role in our lives starts with a discussion of single-cell organisms, you know you’re in for a wild ride. Thankfully, the author delivers. Damasio’s writing style, which should be familiar to the readers of his famous Descartes’ Error, is informal, fanciful, and a bit meandering, but almost always brimming with big ideas. The connections are resonant and quickly come to seem obvious.
The central concept is the process of homeostasis. Damasio defines this not as equilibrium-seeking, but more specifically as something that aims above merely sustaining ourselves. We don’t actually want equilibrium. We want to survive and flourish. Our feelings relentlessly guide — and misguide — us toward that. Methodically and carefully, Damasio builds a compelling, well-crafted narrative about the human condition, one that can provide new insights and provocations to the grateful reader.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Benchmark islands.
Many fields rely on inward-looking measures of success. Computer science researchers who work in fields like ML, programming languages, or processor design rely on well-defined benchmark problems. Large companies create mandates driven by internal standards rather than against users’ needs. In our personal lives, we often choose our beliefs based on how well they fit with our current models.
These benchmark islands come up anytime the measure of value or success for a domain separates from reality. This can result in nominal progress that doesn’t translate into real world results. Algorithms perform well on benchmarks, but not on more diverse data. Companies release features that appear unrelated to the actual needs of their users. People can fall into complex conspiracy theories that, from the outside, seem trivial to debunk.
Benchmarks and internal standards are indeed useful. Integrating new information into our existing mental models is key to both learning and insight. However, we need to balance this with other methods of ground-truthing. Every evaluative process has its own limitations and biases, so when we find ourselves on a benchmark island, we need to look for evaluative tools that are not directly correlated with our current island. For example, a team choosing a particular ML algorithm might look at how widely and successfully it’s used in real products in addition to how it performs in benchmarks. Even if you don’t believe your measures of success are decoupled from reality, taking this “archipelago” approach to evaluating success might give you deeper insights and greater flexibility.
🔮📬 Postcard from the
Instead of speculating about where today’s systemic forces could lead us in the future, this week we’re looking at an alternative history.
// What would happen if certain technologies got introduced decades earlier?
// 1996. A dim room, lit only by the glow of a CRT monitor and the dulcet tones of 2400Hz.
[ Entering EnderZone | ANSI-BBS | 38400-N81 FDX ]
[ CHAT MODE ON ]
KillerB> Hey d00dz!
Phaze> Hey hey!
KillerB> You see the crazy cyberwar announcement?
Phaze> Whut?!? What are you talking about? Did the Russians launch an attack?!?!?
KillerB> No no, it’s Bill Joy and Richard Stallman! The battle royale for the ages! Vi vs Emacs!
Phaze> Oh no…
KillerB> Yeah, so someone introduced something called “cyber-currency” based on some crazy math. Joy and Stallman have minted their own ViBit and EmacsGold. It’s a whole new digital currency! You can either buy into it or donate some of your mainframe time to support it. The money and compute helps fund their development efforts — plus, you can use your unique token to sign your emails and IRC messages. Print out your code and take it with you to San Francisco. You can enter it into a terminal at the DNA Lounge or c-base to pay for drinks! The folks who ‘minted’ it can continue to get a cut of ongoing transactions. This really is a way to never give Western Union your money ever again. Wired’s doing a cover story on it next month. Hack the Planet!
Phaze> Oh wow. What’s Stallman going to do with his money?
KillerB> Don’t know, but apparently there is going to be something crazy with the BuzzLine…