🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 47
April 14th, 2022
Episode 47 — April 14th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/47
Contributors to this issue: Justin Quimby, Neel Mehta, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Alex Komoroske, Dimitri Glazkov, Ben Mathes, Boris Smus
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman, 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.
“The moon is at her full, and riding high, Floods the calm fields with light. The airs that hover in the summer sky Are all asleep tonight.”
— William C. Bryant
🥡🥢 Culture eats
Our personal narratives guide (and misguide) us. Organizations have narratives too. An organization’s narrative brings it together. Team culture is a powerful narrative that, as we already know, eats strategy for lunch. Cultural narratives need to be evocative enough to gain people’s commitment and rich enough to help them stick together during difficult times. Few things are as powerful as a calm, collected leader grounding events in a hallowed past, describing the present situation, and extending it forth into a breathtaking future. Over time, these past–present–future bridges accumulate, helping the team make sense of their environment. In an organization with a strong culture, a tapestry of stories provides both a sense of predictability and a guideline for how to respond when it’s needed most.
But there’s a catch. Inward-looking cultural narratives tend to ossify. The same thing that keeps the narratives alive can make them impervious to change. Mature cultures repeat the same stories, unable to move on or adapt to new circumstances. Mark Twain’s “history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes” quip, albeit apocryphal, describes this dynamic well. The rhyming we sense is not in the events directly but in the cultural stories we weave around them. Dr. Annalinden Weller, a byzantinist, depicted this phenomenon in a wonderful book about a fictional empire trapped in its own stories (which we recommended earlier this year).
When you find yourself in an organization or a community that prides itself on its culture, observe carefully. How much do the stories rhyme with each other? How many of them look like well-crafted yet thinly-stenciled replicas of past stories? Are new stories coming in? Is there a space to share them? Culture does eat strategy for lunch. But unchanging culture can be an indiscriminate glutton, able to devour an organization’s future without skipping a beat.
How does your culture renew itself? It must, if it is to survive. It is no accident that many of the oldest stories humanity tells itself are of an ossified order that needs renewal. This order is not burned to the ground, but rather renewed and refounded. Long-term survival of a culture is in the dance between conserving what was good and discarding and rebuilding what must be updated.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🔥 Europeans are using Tinder to tell Russians about the war in Ukraine
Widespread propaganda and censorship in Russia has left many residents in the dark about the true nature of the war in Ukraine. Some Western volunteers have taken to cold-calling Russians to tell them the truth; one initiative says it’s placed over 84,000 such calls. Others have gotten more creative: they use Tinder’s Passport feature to set their location to somewhere in Russia, match with as many people as they can, and fire off messages before they get banned.
🚏🗺 Ukrainian mappers are scrubbing OpenStreetMap to avoid leaking intel to Russia
Over 100 Ukrainian OpenStreetMap contributors have asked the open-source mapping community to stop updating the Ukrainian map for the duration of the war, and the Ukrainian OpenStreetMap admins have even started rolling back changes that leaked details about Ukrainian military locations. Their stated goal is to prevent Russia from learning about roadblocks, infrastructure, and “military objects” in Ukraine, but critics say that this move is also hindering people who are trying to provide medical or humanitarian aid in the region.
🚏🥬 Group buying is helping apartment dwellers weather China’s lockdowns
Amid Shanghai’s draconian COVID-19 lockdowns, vast numbers of stores have shuttered and couriers have been stretched thin, making groceries and prepared meals hard to come by. One of the few reliable ways to get food is to place bulk orders with wholesalers or large restaurants. So, residents of apartment complexes have banded together to place massive group orders, such as packages of 120 steaks or hundreds of bags of vegetables. Locals say that coordinating hundreds of peoples’ orders and payments has become a full-time job for volunteer organizers.
🚏🚕 Cops stopped a self-driving taxi and found nobody inside… then the car ran for it
San Francisco police pulled over a car for driving at night with its headlights off. The car obeyed and pulled to the side of the road, but when officers approached it, they realized that nobody was sitting inside the car. The vehicle turned out to be a self-driving car from Cruise, likely a robotaxi on its way to pick up a fare. (When the cops turned their backs, the car zoomed across a nearby intersection before pulling over again.)
🚏🏙 Three-fourths of Americans think spread-out housing is more energy-efficient
It’s well-known among environmental scientists and urbanists that dense cities use less energy per person than rural or suburban settings, in large part due to cities’ more compact living spaces and greater use of mass transit. But in one recent poll, 75% of American adults — including many city-dwellers — thought the opposite.
🚏⛽️ Carbon-coated nickel could let us build fuel cells without precious metals
Hydrogen fuel cells can be a clean-burning, portable energy source, but one of their problems is that they usually need precious metals like platinum to catalyze their electricity-producing reactions. Scientists have experimented with cheaper and more common catalysts, but so far they haven’t been durable and have lacked catalytic power. This year, though, researchers found that graphene-coated nickel can catalyze almost as well as platinum (and possibly last even longer) at a fraction of the cost.
🚏✅ A scammer used burned-in “verified” check marks to snag $600k worth of NFTs
The KiwiSwap platform lets NFT holders swap their NFTs with each other. To help users know they’re dealing with authentic tokens, KiwiSwap overlays green check marks atop the images of NFTs from verified collections. One scammer, though, realized they could download the images of some popular Bored Ape NFTs, edit them to include the green check mark, and re-upload them as a new collection — thus making the Apes look legitimate. They traded these fakes for 3 real Bored Apes, valued at the time at $587,000.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
America Is Staring Down Its First “So What?” Wave (The Atlantic) — Argues that the two-year-long pandemic has drained Americans’ motivation to combat the spread of disease or even get tested when they’re sick. The resulting “underdiagnosis and underreporting” of COVID-19 has made it harder for the country to react to new waves and direct resources to the hardest-hit areas.
Optionality, Commitment, and Preparation (Unpredictable Patterns) — Observes that company leadership often likes to “keep its options open,” thinking this has no cost; in reality, never committing to anything slows down progress and hurts morale. If we work in an organization that stubbornly won’t commit, our best bet is to prepare for many possible situations so that we’re ready when the organization finally has to commit.
DALL-E, the Metaverse, and Zero Marginal Content (Stratechery) — Ben Thompson examines the potential implications of DALL-E 2, a new AI tool that can generate images based on textual prompts. While immersive, personalized VR worlds may be the future of tech, the sheer amount of content needed to make them feel realistic has been a high hurdle — but with auto-generated text and pictures, that might be changing.
Pacific Northwest's ‘Forest Gardens' Were Deliberately Planted by Indigenous People (Science) — Explores how some Native Americans planted stands of fruit trees and berry bushes in the middle of forests, creating islands of biodiversity and prime locations for easy foraging. Contrasts this with the European model of agriculture and argues that it’s an example of how "humans have the ability to not just allow biodiversity to flourish, but to be a part of it.”
We Aren’t Just Watching the Decline of the Oscars. We’re Watching the End of the Movies (New York Times) — In a sensationally-titled piece, Ross Douthat gestures at the declining cultural importance of the movies and speculates convincingly about their likely relegation to a stable but niche cultural role like that of theater, opera, or ballet.
The Ladder, the Sphere and the Rhizome (Noēma) — Describes three “epistemic” eras that define European history: that of the ladder (a hierarchy with deities at the top, humans in the middle, and demons at the bottom), the sphere (where biospheres and celestial spheres became important), and the rhizome (where everything is interconnected and systems co-evolve).
Serendipity: When Walls Get in the Way (Architecture Boston) — Examines the history of MIT’s famed Building 20, whose renowned flexibility (even the walls could be moved around) was thought to have enabled collaboration and experimentation. Agrees that “urban-like” office design, with its dynamic mix of public and private spaces, can help drive innovation, but argues that the broader institutional and social context matters more.
🌀🖋 More from FLUXers
Highlighting independent publications from FLUX contributors.
In “The Insidious Cultural Relativism of Failure,” FLUX’s own Stefano Mazzocchi describes the pitfalls of a hill-climbing strategy that only ever focuses on going up: it can leave you stuck atop the crest of a low hill, unable to descend in search of a new peak. This is also shaped by our perception of the environment:
“When people believe hills are rare and hard to find, descending a hill we spent years climbing seems insane, a failure to understand reality. When people believe hills are plentiful and potentially very tall, descending feels reasonable, even if hard.”
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben (2016, 288 pages).
The Hidden Life of Trees is a poetic take on how trees work together in surprisingly complex ways to create thriving forests. It’s a great way to build an intuitive sense of awe for the beauty and majesty of nature. One of our favorite quotes from the book:
“The main reason we misunderstand trees, however, is that they are so incredibly slow. Their childhood and youth last ten times as long as ours. Their complete life-span is at least five times as long as ours. Active movements such as unfurling leaves or growing new shoots take weeks or even months. And so it seems to us that trees are static beings, only slightly more active than rocks.”
🕵️♀️📆 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 two types of hard.
“Wow, that was hard!” We say this quite often, but what does it mean? As this lens from entrepreneur Alex Crompton notes, there are different types of hard. In his essay “Hard is Not Defensible,” we learn about two: “math hard” and “bodybuilding hard”.
Things that are “math hard” are challenging to discover but often easy to reproduce. Many startup ideas or designs fall into this category: just consider how many apps copied the clever idea of Snapchat stories. Things that are “bodybuilding hard,” meanwhile, may be easy in theory but are hard to maintain in practice. Like maintaining a rigorous exercise routine, they require consistent execution. Many challenges in building infrastructure, operations, or labor-intensive services are part of this category.
People often confuse these two types of hard. A company that has built up its reputation solving deeply challenging technical problems may fail to build up the habits of reliable planning and execution that support good customer service. Someone who works hard in school may fail when they realize that this same skill set does not help them succeed in a job where they’re expected to solve novel problems.
Through this lens, we can consider whether the methods we have been applying are the ones we currently need. Perhaps we might discover other types of hard, such as the challenge that comes from deciding if you’re even solving the right problem in the first place.
🔮📬 Postcard from the future
// April 2029. Two engineers sit at computers in a dimly-lit office.
Hedy turns to Beulah with a mischievous smirk. “Hey Beulah, you love the TV show Dark Shadows, right?”
Beulah sighs. “Yes, I love Dark Shadows. It’s a gothic soap opera from the 1960s — how could I not love it? I wrote a book about it. I go to conventions for it. I traveled to the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion in Connecticut to see where parts of episodes were filmed. You still haven’t let me live down talking about it in my ‘Welcome to the Team’ presentation.”
A sheepish grin spreads over Hedy’s face. “Yeah, I really am sorry about that. I felt so bad that the team and I have been working to make amends. You mentioned the lost episode of Dark Shadows. After a lot of digging on the dark web… we found it.”
Beulah’s jaw nearly hits the floor. “You found it?!? What? How! Yes! I want to watch it!!”
// 90 minutes later after much rewinding, fast forwarding, and frame-by-frame advancing
Beulah vibrates in their seat. “I thought you might be pulling my leg, but holy cow, this is real! It’s amazing to finally see it! I can’t believe you found it! We’ve always had the original audio from the episode, but none of the visuals. There is going to be a riot at the con this year!”
// Video stream ends from a hacked webcam in the room. A shadowy figure halfway across the world begins typing.
<Test Log Entry>
Fake Dark Shadows episode successfully deployed via honeypot. The fake episode was created using deep learning reconstruction from the 1,224 existing Dark Shadow episodes and authentic audio from the missing episode.
Fake episode viewed by two subjects. Both subjects think created footage is authentic, including the subject matter expert. Analysis of subjects’ eye motion, body language, and voice cues all check out; they are convinced it is real.
Full pass on all major areas: digital actor motion and voice; camera motion and cuts; digital sets, environmental lighting, and props.
Tell Cave that we’re moving to Phase 2. It’ll be interesting to see if Cave decides to sell this to Hollywood or political campaigns.
</End Test Log>