🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 45
March 31st, 2022
Episode 45 — March 31st, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/45
Contributors to this issue: Ade Oshineye, Spencer Pitman, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Justin Quimby, Neel Mehta, Alex Komoroske, Dimitri Glazkov, Ben Mathes, Boris Smus
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Robinson Eaton, Julka Almquist
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.
“Read a thousand books, and your words will flow like a river.”
― Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan
🗺🧗 Guides vs. guidebooks vs. maps
Observe, orient, decide, act: these are the components of John Boyd’s “OODA Loop,” a common decision-making pattern for people navigating unfolding complexity in their environments.
A map is often the first thing we look for when in unfamiliar territory. We respond to newness with the desire to orient. Maps are helpful tools but hardly the only tool for orientation, decision, and action. We can also turn to guidebooks and guides.
Maps are static orienteering tools. They require additional knowledge, maturity, and taste to make good use of. A person lost in the woods with a map needs to acquire a bearing, read the weather, figure out the time, and critically, ground-truth the abstractions on the map to the real landscape. All maps lie a little to communicate useful gestalt information. To make them useful, a person must bridge the gap between the map’s convenient lies and the landscape’s truth. The most accurate map of France is France itself — but it’s a bit hard to fit in your pocket!
A guidebook provides additional documentation on top of a map. It attempts to empower tasteful decision-making about navigating the landscape. In addition to information about where landmarks are, a guidebook helps people to make good decisions about whether and how to navigate to them. A guidebook attempts to render tacit knowledge like “this ski run is hard on a cold day” or “get to this restaurant early before the croissants sell out” ― information that a flat map may struggle to communicate. A guidebook’s information is often subjective or lagging. It should be assessed for currency and how closely its writers represent the reader: a guidebook for navigating the Mediterranean by motor yacht may not be useful to a college backpacker.
Often the most successful aid in a complex environment is an experienced human guide. Guides have both explicit and tacit knowledge of the environment. A good guide has achieved reliable results in the face of changing or uncertain conditions ― they usually have far more up-to-date information about what is happening in a system than any guidebook could. They can proactively tune their guidance to your needs. In some cases, the cognitive burden of navigation and decision making can be entirely outsourced to a guide, allowing you to immerse yourself entirely in the experience of the environment. People living in systems are the best resource for navigating those systems.
If you are facing complexity or are uncertain about the way forward, consider whether there are maps, guidebooks, or guides who can make the way forward clearer and safer.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🥸 Fake fact-checks are being used to spread disinformation about Ukraine
Russian officials have been sharing “fact-check” videos that claim to be debunking fake videos that Ukrainians supposedly posted — for example, something like, “Ukraine shared this supposed video of Russians bombing a Ukrainian city this year, but the video was actually taken several years ago.” The problem? Ukrainians never shared those videos in the first place; everything was fabricated by Russia. These “false flag” disinformation videos have reportedly racked up over a million views on Telegram.
🚏🔦 A type of UV light can destroy 98% of indoor airborne microbes in 5 minutes
One type of ultraviolet light, called UVC, is known to destroy microbes, but it’s historically been unusable indoors since it could be hazardous to people’s skin and eyes. But scientists found that a modified type of “far-UVC light” can still kill microbes while being unable to penetrate human skin. In an experiment, researchers installed far-UVC lights in a room and pumped it full of viruses; 98% were destroyed in less than 5 minutes. The scientists think that cheap far-UVC light installations could beat any variant of COVID-19 (and, indeed, any airborne virus), ultimately making indoor spaces just as safe as outdoor ones.
🚏🤝 AI-generated faces are being used to make sales pitches on LinkedIn
Social media has become a fertile ground for informational conflict: astroturfing, pile-ons, and other new techniques. These techniques have been in use for years in political venues around elections, vaccinations, and more. These same techniques are now being deployed for corporate sales, networking, and business development: bots with AI-generated faces are now trying to connect with you on LinkedIn, typically to pitch you on buying enterprise software.
🚏🏦 A crypto trader briefly borrowed 5 NFTs to claim $1.1 million in free coins
The makers of the popular Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs announced that all Bored Ape holders would be able to claim up to $200,000 worth of the newly-launched ApeCoin. One enterprising crypto trader cashed in on this by taking advantage of flash loans, which let you momentarily borrow hugely-valuable crypto assets, assuming you return them in the same transaction. The trader borrowed 5 Bored Apes (worth about $1.4 million), got their ApeCoins, handed back the Bored Apes, and then sold off their new ApeCoins for $1.1 million.
🚏🇨🇳 China is scaling up its state-backed hard tech incubator amid a broader pivot
2021 saw China’s government crack down on the country’s consumer tech industry. This, combined with a slowdown in the growth of China’s consumer internet giants, has driven China to shift its focus toward hard technology and enterprise software businesses that “enhance the real economy” and align with Chinese national interests. To this end, China is planning to rapidly double the size of its “Little Giants” program, which incubates thousands of companies working in machinery, pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, and other “hard tech” domains and gets them preferential access to the newly-launched Beijing Stock Exchange.
🚏🌋 A startup plans to tap “boundless” geothermal energy by burning the world’s deepest hole
While most geothermal energy is currently harvested by countries that sit atop geothermal hot spots, you can access geothermal energy from anywhere on the planet if you just dig deep enough. One startup out of MIT is trying to make this possible by blasting powerful lasers straight into the Earth, burning holes up to 12 miles deep — about 60% deeper than the deepest holes humanity has ever dug. The rocks at the bottom are permanently heated to about 930°F (500°C), making them an effectively-infinite source of turbine-driving steam.
🚏👨🔧 “Discord grinding” is a new entry-level job in the crypto ecosystem
Many crypto projects take the form of DAOs, or Decentralized Autonomous Organizations, which are largely run on Discord. Having an active community is everything to these DAOs, so some have started hiring freelance “Discord grinders” who’ll post frequently on the project’s Discord server to create the illusion of an enthusiastic community. These “grinders,” who often hail from low-income countries and work for as little as $5 an hour, also offer services like being moderators, answering members’ questions, and building hype around token drops. (These “grinders” exist in a murky legal position: if the SEC considers crypto-tokens to be securities, then the grinders are required to disclose that they’re being paid to promote them.)
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Legality vs. Procedurality in Human Institutions (Kamil Galeev) — Argues that, when seeking to understand human institutions, we should realize that “you're not dealing with humans but with a machine”: an algorithm that follows a bizarre, mechanistic, and deeply-flawed logic. Most people follow the laws unthinkingly, but the rich and powerful realize they can exploit the “bugs” in the system to their advantage.
Is Your Corporate Culture Cultish? (Harvard Business Review) — Examines how techniques that might help build a shared sense of purpose in small doses (corporate social activities, motivational cheers, “culture fit” interviews, etc.) can, in large doses, stifle critical thinking and prevent employees from having identities outside of work.
Feynman and The Connection Machine (Long Now Foundation) — A sometimes-touching vignette about Richard Feynman, as told by Danny Hillis, who founded Thinking Machines to build the world's fastest parallel supercomputers in the 1980s. Nobody really knew how to build computers back then, so the problem was left to amateurs like Hillis and Feynman.
The Lore Zone: How to Read the Internet (Other Internet) — A team of cultural anthropologists examines the peculiarities of meaning-making on the internet. This world defies linear narratives, legibility, and authoritative histories. To properly understand internet phenomena, we have to embed ourselves in the dynamic spaces where context and culture are made, and we must embrace the fact that our reading of the available artifacts is just one of many possible readings.
An Ancient Language Has Defied Translation for 100 Years. Can AI Crack the Code? (Rest of World) — Describes how computational linguists are using a blend of machine learning and old-fashioned human analysis to uncover the secrets behind the Indus Valley’s mysterious script. Reflects on ML’s capabilities and limitations in domains with extremely limited amounts of data, such as this field of undeciphered writing systems.
On Money, Debt, Trust, and Central Banking (Bank for International Settlements) — An economist argues that a monetary system cannot work without trust in the stability of both price levels and the overall financial system, which makes strong, centralized institutions necessary. Further argues that these institutions can and should be improved, but replacing them with decentralized protocols (as cryptocurrencies try to) won’t help build a better monetary system.
A Big Little Idea Called Ergodicity (Taylor Pearson) — An accessible explanation of ergodicity, using startups and Russian Roulette as analogy. In an ergodic system, the ruin of one individual in an ensemble does not affect the others. This simple idea, which connects closely to Taleb’s concepts of black swans and antifragility, can be a useful lens for evaluating finance and corporate strategy.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization by Robert Kegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey, Matthew L. Miller, Andy Fleming, and Deborah Helsing (2016, 336 pages).
The authors of this book are on an adventure to uncover a new kind of organization: deliberately developmental organizations (DDO). These organizations are made to serve as developmental scaffolding for people who work in them. The authors develop what “deliberately developmental” means by surveying a few organizations, describing in detail their observations of the firms’ inner workings and pointing out their developmental scaffolding. Each DDO candidate is fascinating and weird in its own way. At some point, you might even describe some of the practices as cultish. You would not be alone ― we had the same reaction. It appears that nurturing a DDO means walking a fine line between helping people develop and falling victim to the hubris of thinking you know what’s best for others.
The authors are rather optimistic about the idea of DDOs; they even provide some ideas on how to implement deliberately developmental practices in organizations and teams. These ideas are valuable, insightful, and worth reflecting on. Don’t take this as a manual for creating organizations, though. Instead, let this be a book that you think about and riff on, generating your own insights.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: whale fall.
The death of behemoths often seems like a tragedy — but sometimes a death creates a whale fall. When a large entity dies, its slow decomposition may create a long-lived local ecosystem that gorges itself on the remains. We can apply this lens whenever any large concentration of power and resources starts to decay. As the decay accelerates, so does the rain of riches upon those below.
What starts out as the death of the mighty becomes the birth of a new generation. Individuals can take bigger risks and dream bigger; they don't have to worry about their next meal. This unexpected but unsustainable bonanza can last for multiple generations and introduce new evolutionary pressures. Eventually, though, the carcass is completely devoured. What follows might be a sustainable coral reef — or a famine if nothing self-sustaining was built during the boom.
We can find examples of whale falls in many domains. Humanity bootstrapped industrial society on the dinosaur fall of fossil fuels. The Great Resignation is built, for some portion of the workforce, on the greater economic freedom achieved during COVID-19. Microsoft both accelerated and benefited from the slow decline of IBM.
When a large entity falls, look to see who might benefit from the whale fall. On the flipside, if some entity has a disproportionately large amount of resources, it’s worth looking and seeing if a whale fall is hiding behind the abundance, and what might happen when the whale runs out.
🔮📬 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.
// As more and more components of life move online, what might result from it?
// March 2040. A small corporate meeting room like millions of others, with two people typing on laptops.
Melinda looks up from a brightly-backlit laptop. “Hey Eleda, looks like we have a level 9 incident — that may involve mobilizing the black bag team. I know you just shipped up and are still learning the ropes, so walk me through what we’re going to do from the top.”
Eleda straightens their corporate suit and rubs their eyes. “Roger that. We’ve got the deployed systems monitoring workers’ output. Code submissions, corporate chat interactions, corp video conference participation, as well as general corp hardware usage, both phone and laptop. Then, on a separate system, we’re monitoring the top Discord, Slack, and Telegraph groups where there may be union discussions.
“We then compare unknown account activity with work activity, as a way to filter for employees possibly participating in union activities. If we see any ongoing correlations between union activity and non-work activity, we tag the accounts for next-level analysis.
“Next-level analysis involves correlating any crypto or other pseudo-anonymous accounts and seeing if the people are participating in union-organizing DAOs or donating to union efforts.”
Melinda nods. “Great first-order analysis. How do we avoid detection?”
Eleda: “We’ve got tens of thousands of sock puppet accounts. Most have been newly created in the last few years, masquerading as early-20-somethings disgusted with the gig economy. There’s also a portfolio of older accounts that we’ve acquired over the years, some through simple phishing attacks, others through the purchase of exploits and password leaks. A handful we’ve done full pen-test attacks against.”
Melinda: “So what does this level 9 alert mean?”
Eleda: “This means we’ve found a match for active union organizing. Time to send an update to their employer, who’s paying us for ‘efficiency monitoring.’”
Eleda looks out the magnified viewscreen image of Earth from the Akari Heavy Industries Space Station at Lagrange Point L4. “I just wish this was all legal on Earth so we didn’t have to do the computation and analysis out here.”