🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 42
March 10th, 2022
Episode 42 — March 10th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/42
Contributors to this issue: Justin Quimby, Neel Mehta, Spencer Pitman, Alex Komoroske, Dimitri Glazkov, Boris Smus, Erika Rice Scherpelz
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.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
🤷🙈 Doesn’t look like nothin’ to me
Struggling to understand how you missed a seemingly-obvious connection that could have averted disaster? Can’t fathom how you once held an opinion that now seems so clearly wrong? You might be seeing something that we typically miss: a blind spot.
We might imagine a blind spot as something physically blocking our view. When someone calls our attention to something out of sight, we can just step to the side and see it. But blind spots are actually a lot more pernicious. The experience feels more like looking at Wonder Woman’s Invisible Jet: it doesn’t look like anything. Even when someone points straight at it, we still can’t see it. We may even roll our eyes and proclaim that this someone is mistaken.
Some blind spots are a matter of capacity. Someone living in a 2D world can’t comprehend 3D objects. Through learning (or, in the metaphor, gaining that extra dimension of vision), we gain the capacity to see these blind spots. The seemingly-absurd advice of a co-worker finally makes sense a few years later. The old physics formula we learned by rote memorization suddenly clicks, connecting to other things we’ve learned.
Other blind spots come from our attachment to a specific way of seeing. Changing how we view the world feels threatening… and so often we don’t. Attachment blind spots can be quite resilient. Even given all the facts and evidence, despite multiple pleas, we continue to deliberately not see what is being pointed out. We create increasingly-elaborate explanations for why the others are wrong and we are right. This kind of blind spot is marked by a sense of unease, a spike in the emotional temperature: “Whoa, things just got weird.”
Methods for overcoming capacity blind spots will be futile — and possibly harmful — when the real blind spots come from attachment or identity. When we’re firmly attached to a particular way of viewing things, any attempt to educate will feel like an attack, further entrenching us into our firmly-held perspective. Until we, ourselves, are able to hold this perspective more loosely, we will remain stuck with the blind spot.
The bit about “ourselves” is key. Unlike the efficient and well-understood tools for overcoming capacity blind spots, overcoming attachment blind spots requires the long, patient work of personal transformation. And even when we finally overcome one blind spot, we realize that there are always more. We must keep growing — overcoming blind spots is a lifelong journey.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏📡 The BBC is bringing back WWII-era radio tech to get around Russian bans
Russian authorities blocked access to the BBC’s website after the news network criticized the Russian government. To get around the ban, the BBC announced it would bring back shortwave radio broadcasting (a technology whose popularity has sharply declined since its peak during World War II and the Cold War) to make a nightly news program available to Russian listeners. Shortwave radio is a useful technology in this case, since it’s easily accessible on cheap, portable receivers; it’s hard to jam or censor; and it can transmit broadcasts thousands of miles away.
🚏👩💻 Ukraine says 400k+ volunteers have joined its state-backed hacking operations
Ukrainian government ministers have been rallying volunteers from around the world to join a Ukrainian “IT Army”; one minister wrote that over 400,000 people have joined up. Organizers have encouraged the volunteer hackers to use “cyber and DDoS attacks” on Russian military targets, banks, and telecom companies; send news about the war to Russian citizens via email; and digitally spy on Russian troops. Another post on the “army’s” Telegram channel said they were taking aim at Russia’s GPS network and Belarus’s railways.
🚏⚔️ A tech executive is privately funding volunteers to go fight for Ukraine
Ukrainian President Zelenskyy recently announced the creation of an “international legion” of volunteer soldiers from around the world; over 20,000 people have applied to join. One nonprofit organization — founded and bankrolled by the president of a medical technology company — is aiming to financially support aspiring fighters who don’t have the means to get to Ukraine. The 400 applicants that the organization has accepted so far will get free flight tickets to Ukraine, plus medical supplies and body armor on the ground.
🚏🏰 A $300 million mansion sold for less than half its list price, perhaps due to Russia sanctions
A hyper-luxury mansion in Los Angeles was listed for sale at $295 million, but it reportedly sold for just $126 million during a recent bankruptcy auction. Said one real estate agent:
“The buyer pool for this is very small, and with everything happening in Russia, all of a sudden those Russian billionaires who may have been your best bet to buy it are pulling out.”
🚏🚷 Multiple prominent crypto companies have started enforcing US sanctions
While some crypto-related firms have resisted calls to ban users in sanctioned countries, others have quietly started enforcing those rules in recent weeks. OpenSea, the popular NFT marketplace, and Infura, the company behind the crypto wallet MetaMask, both started banning users from Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and Syria, citing US sanctions. Coinbase added that it would support the “critical economic sanctions” against Russia and said it had blocked over 25,000 addresses linked to Russian “individuals or entities we believe to be engaging in illicit activity.”
🚏🧬 Scientists have made 7 new DNA bases to improve DNA-based data storage
DNA is an exceptionally dense information-storage medium: a single gram of the stuff can hold millions of gigabytes. It encodes this much information despite using just 4 nucleotide bases (A, G, C, and T). To further increase DNA’s storage capacity, a team of researchers created 7 new types of nucleotides, then built a mechanism that can distinguish all 11 bases and precisely read back the information stored on this synthetic DNA.
🚏🕹️ A huge shadow economy is developing around Roblox
Roblox, the gaming platform that’s reportedly used by over half of all children in the US, features an official trading platform that lets players swap virtual items with each other using a virtual currency called Robux. But an enormous unofficial economy has emerged around the game as well: markets where you can swap Roblox items for cash or crypto (a favorite dumping ground for scammers), gambling sites where you can bet your rare items, and even automated trading bots for flipping Roblox goods.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Why Russia Can’t Become Economically Self-Sufficient (Kamil Galeev) — Theorizes that, in Russia, the dominance of a political group is inversely correlated with the economic complexity of the industry it does business in. The most powerful oligarchs run the simplest industries: namely, extractive ones like oil and gas. These oligarchs strategically outsource complex industries like machinery to prevent rival groups from gaining power — which has the side effect of slowing Russia’s economic development.
The Burden of COVID is Shifting to the Global South (The Atlantic) — Argues that COVID-19 is following the same “predictable and depressing pattern” that diseases like malaria and HIV did: rich countries in the global North lose interest and declare the crisis ‘over’ when their case counts drop, leaving poorer countries in the global South to keep struggling with it for years, without the aid or policy that could help them combat it.
Checkpoints (Robin Sloan) — Describes an internet subculture where YouTube commenters turn a video into a “checkpoint” where people reflect on their life in a diary-like format. The phenomenon is named after checkpoints in JRPG games: after barely surviving through a dangerous section, you reach a peaceful oasis where you can rest and save your game before the next boss fight.
Let’s Build a Computer in Conway’s Game of Life (Alan Zucconi) — Shows how the famous Game of Life is Turing-complete, then builds a series of logic gates and memory to demonstrate how you’d build a computer inside the Game. Culminates by simulating the Game of Life within the Game of Life itself.
What Green Costs (Logic Magazine) — Investigates the environmental costs of the green energy transition by visiting Andean salt flats where lithium is mined. Writes that a familiar force is at play here: unemotional industrialists extracting materials from the ground without consideration for the indigenous communities and ecosystems that are negatively affected.
The Inner Ring (C. S. Lewis) — Argues that, while every organization has a legible hierarchy, the world is really structured as an overlapping network of concentric rings — each one a shadow organization that is illegible to the uninitiated. To a young person, the world seems full of exclusive, sought-after “inner rings.” But if you follow that desire, you’ll reach no “inside” that’s worth reaching. The true road to satisfaction lies in a different direction: mastering a craft.
What Was the TED Talk? (The Drift) — Documents the TED conference’s meteoric rise to the peak of popular intellectual culture and its slow fall, connecting this to the general disillusionment with technocracy and the utopian promises of technology that characterized the 2010s. Describes how TED’s “inspiresting” content exemplifies a flawed worldview where simply sharing a great idea is supposedly enough to change the world.
🌀🖋 More from FLUXers
Highlighting independent publications from FLUX contributors.
Check out Alex Komoroske’s essay The Doorbell in the Jungle, which develops a fanciful parable to help build intuition about how to cultivate positive exposure to miracles in product development.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience by Brené Brown (2021, 336 pages).
If you’re a Brené Brown fan — like we are! — you might be surprised to find that this book is not like her previous books. Structurally, this book is an atlas. The title is not figurative!
In a marvelous feat of semantic disambiguation, Brené Brown uses her research to provide crisp and resonant definitions for the feelings and emotions we experience, organized into a loose taxonomy. Yet, it’s still very much a Brené Brown book: an atlas woven together with stories and anecdotes.
It’s worth mentioning that the audiobook, narrated by the inimitable author herself, is more like a second edition of the book. It contains more anecdotes, a touch more strong language, and a lot more heart.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: what you will not do.
Here’s a common anti-pattern when people are deciding on a group’s priorities: everyone says what’s important to them, and then the entire group agrees that everything is a priority. Yet if everything is a priority, then nothing is. There will always be more worthwhile things you could do than you ever will have the time or energy to actually do. Priorities must cleave a line between the good things you will do and good things you will not do.
It’s easy and usually trivial to make a tradeoff between a desirable thing and an undesirable thing. For a strategy to be useful, though, it must explicitly frame the difficult tradeoffs between desirable things: “we will prioritize <one good thing> over <another good thing>.” A classic example of this is The Agile Manifesto’s way of describing its values: “while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”
Framing priorities in terms of what you won’t do serves two key roles. First, it commutes intent to people outside the group in a provocative way that is more likely to generate discussion and feedback. And second, it provides a useful decision-making lens for people within the group
Next time you’re writing your priorities, consider starting with the “even over” format: “we value <good thing 1> even over <good thing 2>.” Then, open the space for discussion. You’ll often get a lively and nuanced conversation about what you’re not selecting for this time around.