🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 48
April 21st, 2022
Episode 48 — April 21st, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/48
Contributors to this issue: Erika Rice Scherpelz, Gordon Brander, Julka Almquist, Neel Mehta, Justin Quimby, Boris Smus, Alex Komoroske, Dimitri Glazkov
Additional insights from: Ade Oshineye, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman
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.
“No game designer ever went wrong by overestimating the narcissism of their players.”
— Will Wright, designer of the video games SimCity and The Sims
🛋️🌳 The inner and outer stories
Stories can bring and hold organizations together. Stories can also bring them to a sudden end, “gradually, then suddenly.” This transition is governed by the pattern of inner and outer stories.
We all have an inner story and an outer story. They are usually similar, yet separate. The closer they are, the more authentic we are in the world. If they are farther apart, we have to work to reconcile the differences and keep them straight. This gap can protect us, making our outer story a protective shell. But if we are unable to share our inner story even with the closest of friends or family, our protective shell becomes our prison.
When surrounded by others, we tend to adopt the outer story of the group as our own. We might not even realize this is happening. When a group’s outer story mostly aligns with its members’ inner stories, the group flourishes. The less aligned the stories, the less healthy the organization. Outwardly, everyone says the right things, but a weird sense of something being off indicates a hidden inner story. Leaders who detect this misalignment tend to reassert the outer story, to speak it more loudly and with more gusto. In extreme examples, they may forbid sharing inner stories that don’t align with the official outer one. But, paradoxically, repression may strengthen the inner story, making it more and more real.
In the Soviet Union, the stifling outer story of Communist ideology was so pervasive and strictly-enforced that most people just learned to live with it. They outwardly applauded their leaders and attended the parades while using kitchens and samizdat to share their inner stories. Such a process, when it runs long enough, slowly yet inexorably hollows out the outer story. What tends to follow is a phase transition: the outer story collapses in one brief and brutal moment. Sometimes, the collapse is so sudden that it can be captured live, as happened at the infamous Nicolae Ceaușescu speech of December 1989. The swarm of the inner stories spills out of the toppled husk of their former captor, vying in chaos to become the new outer story.
While not as catastrophic as the downfall of the Romanian dictator, teams and organizations experience these transitions as well. Look for a sense of disconnect between what people say in private and what they say at meetings. Are leaders trying to paint a picture that is rosier than reality? Is the picture getting more bombastic with every all-hands? As tempting as it might be to keep reassuring the team and pressing forward, this is the moment for a leader to reflect. Is this outer story still something the organization believes? What is the inner story that’s being whispered outside the halls of power?
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🌬️ Wind energy briefly became the US’s #2 source of electricity
On March 29th, wind energy was the second-largest electricity producer in the US, edging out nuclear and coal, though still far behind natural gas. This was the first day since data collection began in July 2018 that wind had captured the #2 spot. The US still lags behind Europe in wind energy — the US gets 8% of its energy from wind, while Germany gets 24% — but the US is aiming to catch up, with more than 100 planned wind projects in the pipeline.
🚏🇿🇼 Pricey SIM cards have made one Zimbabwe border town a remote work hotspot
Mobile data has gotten expensive in Zimbabwe: 1 gigabyte of data costs over $10, which is a lot for a country whose median annual income is just over $1200. Meanwhile, in neighboring Mozambique, 1 GB costs as little as $1.50. So, some enterprising Zimbabweans have found a workaround: if they’re close enough to the Mozambican border, they can use Mozambican SIM cards to get cheap internet. So, some enterprising traders from the border town of Chimanimani, Zimbabwe have started bulk-buying SIM cards in Mozambique, crossing the border, and reselling the cards to locals at a markup. This rural town has quickly become a hub for people who need internet access, including entrepreneurs, accountants, and NGO workers.
🚏⚖️ A US appeals court reaffirmed that web scraping is legal
LinkedIn brought a legal case against a company that was scraping public LinkedIn profiles, arguing that LinkedIn prohibited scraping and, therefore, these actions counted as “unauthorized access to a computer system” — in other words, hacking. An American appeals court disagreed, saying that “the concept of ‘without authorization’ does not apply to public websites.” The ruling has been called a major victory for archivists, journalists, and academics, who rely on mass-collecting public information off the web and thus had been operating in a legal gray area.
🚏🎒 American teens are forming “banned book clubs”
Several US states are making efforts to remove certain books from classrooms; the American Library Association recorded 729 such attempts last year, the most since they began tracking in 2000. But many middle and high schoolers have become interested in reading these challenged books, many of which cover themes of race, gender, and sexuality. So, some students are forming “banned book clubs” that aim to read one threatened book a month and foster broader conversations around censorship.
🚏📺 Xbox wants to bring ads into free games’ virtual worlds
To help the creators of free-to-play games monetize better, Microsoft is building an ad platform for Xbox that’ll let game makers insert ads into their 3D game worlds. One example of how these ads may show up, according to an insider, is as digital billboards in car-racing games, along with other spaces that “don’t disrupt gameplay.”
🚏🗳 Someone used borrowed money to hijack a DAO’s voting and send themselves $180 million
Decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) let their members create and vote on binding proposals, with one of their associated crypto-tokens usually equaling one vote. So, one attacker used a flash loan — which lets you borrow massive amounts of crypto, assuming you return it in the same transaction — to amass millions of the Beanstalk project’s coins, enough to control 67% of that DAO’s votes. During that same transaction, the attacker rammed through a proposal that sent $182 million from Beanstalk’s treasury to their own, netting a profit of about $80 million.
🚏🤕 One startup says its tech can inflict actual pain in the metaverse
One Japanese startup has developed a wristband that can electrically stimulate the wearer’s arm, which could simulate sensations like catching a ball or petting an animal in VR applications. These electric shocks can be strong enough to inflict real pain — which the company says is a good thing, arguing that it could make virtual worlds more immersive.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Lands of Lorecraft (Ribbonfarm) — Venkatesh Rao reflects on the interactions between a company’s marketing (its external stories) and lore (its internal stories). Then examines the emerging world of “lorecraft,” which Rao calls “the first truly internet-native school of management and organizational thinking.”
How Two Years of Working From Home Changed Workers Around the World (Rest of World) — Introduces us to workers from across the globe, from a logistics specialist in Kyrgyzstan to a reverend in South Africa, who explain how remote work has changed their lives and careers in often-surprising ways. Most are glad they’ve found this new way to live, but they’ve also come to realize the benefits of seeing people in person.
Painting a Landscape With Maths (Inigo Quilez) — A computer graphics expert and artist describes how you can render stunningly beautiful and realistic landscapes with a few simple mathematical equations. He works through an example that includes building cliffs, grass, trees, clouds, and all manner of lighting and shadows.
Is Earth Smart? (The Atlantic) — Building on the notion of a biosphere (life), the noosphere (intelligent life) and technosphere (technological systems created by intelligent life) present major challenges to the planet. The authors argue that, just like the immature biosphere did not really hit its stride until the Great Oxygenation Event, our immature technosphere will be actively destructive until we achieve an equivalent transformation.
Choose Boring Technology (Dan McKinley) — Argues that, instead of always choosing “the best tool for the job” (which often implies using cutting-edge tech), we should realize that adding new tech imposes costs; reusing existing tech is often cheaper in the long run. Also introduces the memorable quip that “every company gets about three innovation tokens;” you should save yours for your core mission.
I Can’t Stop Thinking About This (New Yorker) — Observes that, given the massive number of people competing for our attention on the internet, it’s no longer enough to say that you’re merely interested in something; you have to say that you’re obsessed with it. But by focusing only on things’ entertainment value, we strip away all context and meaning, turning potentially thought-provoking concepts into mindless, disposable shreds of “content.”
The Hyperinflation Gallery (Michal Zalewski) — A collector of bills from hyperinflationary regimes (including several denominated in the millions, billions, and even trillions) shows off his fascinating collection and reflects on what these scraps of paper can tell us about economic development, free trade, and political turmoil.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend Internet Architecture and Innovation by Barbara van Schewick (2012, 592 pages).
Why is the internet so generative? In Internet Architecture and Innovation, Barbara van Schewick looks at how the internet has managed to foster so much innovation and maps this generativity back to specific architectural choices made early in its history. Modularity, layering, and the end-to-end argument — each of these principles was crucial to the evolution of the internet, and together they unlock permissionless innovation. This book has become a foundational text in internet policy and Net Neutrality discussions, and for good reason.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Sagan’s Pie.
If you are considering a “clean room” rewrite of an aging code base, here’s a lens to consider. Astronomer Carl Sagan famously proclaimed that, “if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”
A full-rewrite project can be seen as making a pie in that manner. In an effort to “get things right this time,” the authors eschew the dreaded spaghetti of dependencies in favor of lighter, cleaner hand-crafted code, and replace the obsolete paradigms with the latest and greatest.
The common obstacle these projects encounter is in underestimating the full size and complexity of the universe they are reinventing. As a result, new Sagan’s Pie initiatives rarely meet their initial timelines, despite all attempts at accurate estimation. This can be rather demoralizing for teams whose members signed up to ship something within a year, yet finding themselves slogging through year three of what now looks to be a five-year adventure … or more.
Still, there are situations where it makes sense to start a Sagan’s Pie project, and they’re usually rooted in constraints imposed by the environment. Prior to deciding to pursue such a project, make sure that these constraints are firm and truly necessary. Reinventing the universe is an epic challenge, and is only worth the price in the face of immovable constraints. Make sure you’re honest with yourself. Especially for engineers, the appeal of making an apple pie from scratch is strong and may subvert pragmatic thinking about constraints at the planning stages.