🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 41
March 3rd, 2022
Episode 41 — March 3rd, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/41
Contributors to this issue: Alex Komoroske, Neel Mehta, Dimitri Glazkov, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Boris Smus, Spencer Pitman, Justin Quimby
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, 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.
“If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
— Lewis Carroll
🎭🖋️ All the world’s a stage
Some events appear to repeat. It feels like we’ve seen this movie before, with only slightly different circumstances and people. Why do we find ourselves stuck in the same bad spot, despite trying our best to avoid it?
It might help to look at how narratives guide our lives. Narratives are like plays on the stage of our mind. The people around us are the characters and we, of course, are the protagonists. When we make decisions and act, we do so based on the script of this play. This script comes from an amalgamation of learning and assumptions. They can be bits and pieces of stories we remember from TV, movies, or books, as well as events from our past. This script is not always continuous or coherent: we jump seamlessly from part to another, forming a narrative that fits the needs of the moment.
Because narratives are formed from what we already know, they tend to rhyme: this colleague is just like that other colleague from back then. When something happens, we predict what will happen next. What might be difficult to see is that the events that follow are subtly manipulated by our internal narrator to fit the script of the story. We bend its arc, filter the content, and emphasize narrative beats to make it fit that which we already know.
It can be useful to reflect on the nature of these narratives. By default we are subject to the narrative, letting it play out without us noticing. But if we pay attention, we can make our narrative an object and start examining its script. Do we really have to rhyme that particular unproductive habit? Do we need to replay the same act that we already know will leave us exhausted and burned out? The discovery of being subject to a narrative might spur us to eschew narratives altogether. Yet, proclaiming ourselves free of any narrative is a narrative in itself. We can’t escape being part of the grand play that our minds constantly construct for us. However, with some effort, we can learn to recognize the sources of the scenes and stop being passive participants. Perhaps, instead of playing out the stories that were already told, we can start authoring our own.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🇩🇪 Germany says it’ll get 100% of its power from renewable sources by 2035
This week, Germany announced that it would aim to get all its electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2035, a speed-up compared to its previous plans to reach that milestone by 2040. One German minister called renewable electricity “the energy of freedom,” and another directly cited the need to make the country less reliant on Russian fossil fuels.
🚏🛩 Viral footage of the famous “Ghost of Kyiv” came from a video game
Many Ukrainians’ (and Americans’) morale was boosted upon hearing the urban legend of the “Ghost of Kyiv,” a supposed ace Ukrainian fighter pilot who’d shot down half a dozen Russian planes in the early days of the war. One YouTuber made an homage to the Ghost by uploading a video generated in a combat simulator video game, showing a pilot dramatically shooting down an enemy. While the original uploader explicitly said that the footage was from a game, snippets of the video (treating it as real combat footage) started circulating on social media, with even the official Twitter of Ukraine’s armed forces sharing this supposed clip of the Ghost in action.
🚏🏛 The first Russian official has resigned in opposition to the war in Ukraine
A senior advisor to Russia’s representative at the World Bank, who had worked at the institution for more than 24 years, announced his resignation in protest of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, making him the first Russian official to do so. In an email, he wrote, “In view of the ongoing events I can no longer associate myself with my government, and will have to resign my position.”
🚏💸 Ukraine’s plan to airdrop tokens to crypto donors spawned a counterfeit project
The Ukrainian government announced it would “airdrop” thank-you tokens to anyone who’d donated crypto to support the war effort, which attracted over $7 million in new donations. Then, news started spreading that the airdrop was starting early, with “Peaceful World” tokens being sent out by what appeared to be the government’s official crypto address. But it was later revealed that the “Peaceful World” coins were fake and that its creators had used some trickery to make it look like the coins had come from the government’s address. (The Ukrainian government eventually canceled the plan and pivoted into selling NFTs to raise funds instead).
🚏🗺 Google Maps’ live traffic feature was the first indication of the Russian invasion
Hours before the wider public knew about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, open-source intelligence analysts noticed something strange on Google Maps: a huge traffic jam on the Russian side of the border near the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. This, along with satellite imagery of the area, tipped off researchers that Russia was planning its invasion. (Contrary to popular belief, the “traffic jam” wasn’t caused by Russian soldiers leaving their phones on but rather by other drivers who got stuck behind the convoy of military vehicles.) Google has since disabled the live traffic view in Ukraine.
🚏🧬 Scientists have created the most complete computer simulation of a cell ever
A team of scientists created a nearly-complete computer simulation of a “minimum viable cell,” which includes all the key proteins, organelles, behaviors, and chemical reactions that a living bacterium would need. Modeling such a complex system has long been prohibitively difficult, but the team simplified the problem by reducing the cell to the bare bones of 493 essential genes, just an eighth of the gene count of the common E. coli bacterium. The researchers hope they’ll one day be able to simulate E. coli itself, since that species is essential for biomanufacturing proteins for pharmaceutical use.
🚏🏴☠️ Nvidia was hacked by activists who want drivers to be open-sourced
A group of hackers stole up to a terabyte of data from Nvidia, including engineering diagrams of popular computer chips, and has started leaking some of that proprietary information onto the internet. The hackers have made at least two demands of Nvidia: they’ll only stop leaking if the chip-making giant agrees to lift the limitations that make its GPUs less useful for crypto miners, and if it makes all the drivers for its GPUs free and open-source.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
My Russian and Ukrainian Name (Gawker) — A writer with Ukrainian and Russian heritage reflects on his life living between the two (similar, yet distinctly different) cultures and languages.
Context Collapse (Dirt) — Reflects on the discomfort people felt upon seeing footage of the war in Ukraine juxtaposed with an Applebee’s ad on CNN. Concludes that our minds use “attention compartmentalization” as a way to cope with stress: we actively separate the entertaining from the sobering, and when those barriers are removed (like in the CNN example) it can be jarring.
Don’t Get Caught In the Monkey Trap (The Guardian) — Describes the Einstellung effect, where our preconceptions prevent us from finding better ways to do things. This trips up even experts. The way around it is what Zen Buddhists call “beginner’s mind”: learning to look beyond the limits of your own expertise.
How Would You Run a 10,000-Year Endowment? (The Diff) — Former financier Byrne Hobart imagines what it’d be like to invest for the ultra-long term and finds that concepts like “risk” and even “wealth” break down on such massive timescales. At a certain point, such planning “slowly shades from finance into eschatology.”
Convex and Concave Dispositions (Vitalik Buterin) — Ethereum’s founder explores situations where a polarity (when two desirable attributes are in conflict) is resolved better by picking one of the poles than by trying to find something in between. He takes the example of COVID lockdowns: a 100%-effective travel ban is far more useful than a half-hearted lockdown. Or, given a choice between war with country A and war with country B, halfway invading both countries would be a very bad idea.
Hidetaka Miyazaki Sees Death as a Feature, Not a Bug (New Yorker) — The creator of Elden Ring and Dark Souls describes how he used the infamous difficulty of his video games to explore some profound parts of the human experience: failure, resistance, pain, resolve, struggle, and grit.
Adversarial Collaboration (EDGE Lectures) — Daniel Kahneman highlights the value of collaboration between people who come from opposing epistemic stances. Challenges the idea that reason leads people to change their beliefs, suggesting instead that the arrow of causality is reversed: people start believing the reasons after they start accepting the conclusion.
🌀🖋 More from FLUXers
Highlighting independent publications from FLUX contributors.
In The Cost of Opinion, FLUX’s own Dimitri Glazkov provides a framework to reflect on the long-term costs of choices made by developers of frameworks and libraries, as well as the interplay between their intentions.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
This week, we recommend A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History by Manuel DeLanda (2000, 336 pages).
What can the formation of sedimentary rocks on a streambed teach us about the emergence of new species? What can language evolution teach us about the development of institutions in European colonies? Traditional science and history might say, “not much.” Realms of knowledge are siloed; the things we learn in one domain aren’t of much use in others. Manuel DeLanda begs to differ. In A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, the philosopher finds surprising connections between seemingly far-flung phenomena, showing how the same types of nonlinear dynamics animate many different systems.
DeLanda looks at European history from the years 1000 to 2000 through three different lenses: geological, biological, and linguistic. He focuses less on the details of history than on “abstract machines”: dynamical patterns that show up over and over again in different fields. For instance, the “stratifier” machine sorts a mishmash of objects into a set of homogeneous layers, then binds the items in each layer together. This is the abstract process behind sedimentary rock formation (pebbles of different sizes are separated, then “cemented” into rock layers), speciation (a group of organisms is separated by geographical barriers, then solidified into new species), and military organization (a diverse band of recruits is rigorously separated into specialized roles). Abstract machines like this one unite vastly different realms.
Through this lens, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History covers an astonishing amount of ground, from urbanism to sociolinguistics to epidemiology to capitalism. It’s a challenging read, but it moves quickly and brings bold ideas to every page. The reader walks away with that mind-expanding feeling of “zooming out” and realizing that all kinds of domains are connected by a few simple dynamics.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: convergent and divergent narratives.
Not all narratives offer the same outcomes. Here’s a simple distinction that you might find useful: convergent and divergent narratives.
A convergent narrative closes upon itself. It is constructed to reduce change and only accepts information that reinforces the narrative. Convergent narratives provide focus and collapse the option space. They can feel refreshingly simple, leading to conclusions that leave no room for doubt. For example, if we adopt the “do or die” narrative, our choices are reduced to only two options. Convergent narratives tend to represent finite games: the objective of the narrative is to come to an end. This can be valuable when there’s a need to take action.
A divergent narrative opens up possibilities. It pushes us away from conclusions. Because they create more questions than answers, divergent narratives are often uncomfortable. This is the stance of an infinite game: to keep playing, never quite settling on a “right” answer. This can seem downright unproductive within organizations. Why encourage narratives like “think long term” when there’s all this work to be done right now? But in complex situations, divergent narratives can help develop broader understanding of the possibilities.
There is rarely just one kind of narrative playing out. However, organizations dominated by convergent narratives may find themselves trapped in a perception of the world as it was before, unable to react to the changing environment. At the extremes, cults, autocracies, and conspiracy theory groups are organizations where convergent narratives dominate. Even between these extremes, the organizational center of gravity often tilts toward the predictability and stability of convergent narratives.
If an organization doesn’t put effort into nurturing divergent narratives, it will eventually lose them. Once you can see these two types of narratives, you can start to understand which is the right tool for the job. When you’re making a decision, pull out a convergent narrative. When you’re in the midst of a longer term, ambiguous situation, pull out the divergence.
🔮📬 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.
// If the Russian invasion of Ukraine escalates, how might corporations escalate their responses to Russia?
// March 2040. A retrospective essay on late-stage capitalistic structures.
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine dragged on, companies joined various nation-states in enacting sanctions against Russia. European energy companies BP, Shell, and Equinor all ended plans for joint ventures in Russia. Swedish automaker Volvo suspended car shipments to Russia. Germany’s Daimler Truck AG froze all business activities in the country.
Things changed when, in the third month of the invasion, the Russian army fixed some of their logistics failures. As a result, the Russians started using artillery, including the 2S7 Pion and its specialized munitions, for sustained bombardment on resisting areas. The imagery horrified the world.
Corporations, while not having artillery themselves, brought out the big guns.
One of the more iconic actions was that of Apple. Apple spokesperson Fakey McFakerson stunned the press with the following statement:
“In light of the Russian artillery bombardments in the Ukraine, Apple is enacting operation ‘No Shame’. Since the Russian oligarchs, who provide the financial power behind the Russian nation-state, seem not to know shame, we will help provide some consequences. Starting today, every text message sent on Apple devices by any member of a Russian oligarch’s family or inner circles will no longer show as blue. They will appear red, as their hands are stained with the blood of the Ukrainian people.”
Without firing a shot, Apple declared cultural war. The spouses, children, and relatives of those funding the Russian war machine were “outed” to their social circles. No longer could these members of the global 1% hide their source of power. The “shame” of having red messages was directly tied to the leveling of cities.
And thus the age of the MegaCorp was ushered in.