🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 59
July 14th, 2022
Episode 59 — July 14th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/59
Contributors to this issue: Dart Lindsley, Spencer Pitman, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Justin Quimby, Neel Mehta, Boris Smus, Ade Oshineye, Ben Mathes
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Dimitri Glazkov, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Julka Almquist, Scott Schaffter, Lisie Lillianfeld, Samuel Arbesman
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.
“Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.”
— Carl Sagan
🐦🦅 Cascades of change
Consider a single starling flying in a murmuration — one of those enormous, undulating flocks that fly at dusk in certain parts of the world.
Can one starling in a murmuration change the path of the whole flock?
It seems unlikely. Start with a simple model where each bird knows its neighbors’ locations, positions, directions, and velocities. Each starling uses this knowledge to modify its own path. In this scenario, all birds respond only to local information about their neighborhood, without awareness of the motion of the larger flock. The location, position, direction, and velocity of the whole flock is only contained between the birds.
Suppose a single starling decides to shift its direction slightly. It influences the motion of birds nearby; those birds in turn influence the motion of yet more neighboring birds, and so on until the cascade has affected the whole flock. But the signal created by the original movement is lossy. As the signal passes farther out into the flock, it slowly dissipates. The signal eventually gets so faint that it’s drowned out by noise being introduced by other birds in other parts of the flock. And if our bird is in the middle of the flock, degrees of freedom are limited by the risk of crashing into its neighbors. It seems impossible for a murmuration of starlings to ever change its overall direction, given all the lossy diffusion and petering-out of change.
And yet, we know that these sudden, sweeping changes do happen. The key is that it’s not just one bird changing its local variables — the flock’s shared “story” changes. A hungry falcon arriving transforms the flock’s story from “We are birds catching dinner at dusk” to “We are birds evading a falcon” and the flock responds en masse. One plucky bird can affect change by changing the flock’s story; imagine one calling out, “I saw tasty bugs over here!” Schools of sardines respond similarly. In the absence of predation, schools spread out over a large area to gather the most food, but in the face of danger the school retreats into a tight ball and flees as a coherent mass.
Let's make our starlings and sardines more metaphorical, since birds and fishes, for the most part, follow rules laid down in their genes. Now imagine that our single (and increasingly metaphorical) bird could alter one variable in the rules followed by all members of the flock. If the bird could convince the flock as a whole that they faced a new external threat, it could change the flock’s strategy and overall movement. Humans have an extremely old story warning about the over-abuse of this power: The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Changing the story may have a broader effect than an individual’s change in motion, but, in the same way that the signal created by one bird changing direction dissipates as it spreads through the flock, so too does the effect of a new context-changing story dissipate as it runs up against competing stories also being transmitted through the flock.
An even more powerful form of influence is to change the rate at which new signals move through the flock by changing each member's level of trust in its neighbors. Does one’s neighbor have an accurate perception of what’s going on in the environment? Are they responding appropriately to threats and opportunities? The more trust among the group’s members, the faster new stories can spread, and thus the more coherence in the group’s movement. You can play Nicky Case’s excellent The Evolution of Trust game to explore how trust and other social behaviors like cooperation can wildly change which kind of team player survives in human groups.
As the game suggests, flocking birds and schooling fish provide a fruitful metaphor for driving change in groups of people.
The nodes-and-edges perspective of social network analysis can be powerful, but the constant change and flow of a murmuration of starlings can provide a better feel for dynamic systems, in part because flocks occupy only a few dimensions and in part because their structure and movements are easy for us to observe. In groups of people, there are more dimensions at play, and our position from within our own flock makes the group’s overall structure and motion harder to perceive. People, like starlings, regularly check our “distance” from our peers and, by observing what they do, consume, and believe, adjust our actions, decisions, and beliefs accordingly. We calibrate our behavior by watching the reactions of others. Remove social interaction, and we lose a key tool that keeps us calibrated.
We can see stories move through our flock. A story can be as small as a name: “The Rachel” is still the name of a haircut made popular in the 90s by Jennifer Aniston’s character on Friends. Major brands actively try to wedge themselves into our stories. Stories moving through society can be as large as human hope, such as Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her bus seat, providing momentum for the civil rights movement of which she was already a part. Stories are how people coordinate in large groups. The story does not cause change directly; rather, it changes how people decide how to change.
It’s easy to feel like an anonymous node in a network too large to comprehend, much less change. The next time it feels like no amount of effort can change something you care about, it’s worth considering the level at which you’re introducing change: local motion, changing the story for the whole group, changing the rate at which stories propagate, or perhaps something even higher-level. Are you a starling who’s always bumping into your neighbors as you try to steer the whole flock in a better direction? Instead, try telling people a different story about why they need to move in a different direction. On the other hand, remember that sometimes local change is enough — that although a signal you release into the flock may seem to dissipate, it may be alive and spreading in parts of the flock beyond what’s visible from your local vantage.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🌍 Several ex-French colonies in Africa are joining the UK’s Commonwealth
Gabon and Togo — both francophone countries and former French colonies — have just joined the Commonwealth of Nations, which is largely made up of former British colonies. Neither Gabon nor Togo have historical ties to the UK, but analysts believe that joining the club could help the countries acquire “soft power,” build international connections to the anglophone business world, and make a statement about the increasingly tense relationship between France and French-speaking Africa. (Interestingly, nearby Ghana — a former British colony — is aiming to become a full member of France’s version of the Commonwealth.)
🚏🔮 Amazon smart speakers will be able to deepfake dead people’s voices
Amazon announced at a conference that its Alexa smart speakers would be able to “synthesize short audio clips of a person’s voice” given just a one-minute recording of that person’s actual voice. Alexa’s Head Scientist said the technology’s goal is to “make memories last” after having “lost someone we love;” he then presented a demo of a deceased grandmother’s voice being used to read her grandson a bedtime story.
🚏🇱🇹 Schengen “visa shoppers” are creating fake trips to Lithuania
The 26 European countries in the Schengen Area have eliminated border controls with each other; get a visa to any one Schengen country and you’ll get free passage to any of the other countries. Getting visas for tourist hotspots like Spain, Italy, and Greece is difficult, so many travelers have found a hack: get a Schengen visa from Lithuania, which sees little tourism and has generous visa policies, then head elsewhere in Europe. You need to show proof that you’re traveling to Lithuania, though, so many tourists have started fabricating entire Lithuania itineraries that they have no plan of going on — complete with flight tickets and hotel reservations. (One popular website automatically creates fake flight and hotel reservations in any Schengen country for just $35.)
🚏💗 An injectable gel could help heart attack patients regrow their hearts
After a heart attack, a patient’s heart has trouble regenerating dead tissues by itself, and only 1% of injected donor cells usually stick to the healing heart. But a newly-developed biodegradable gel can help these grafted cells stick to the heart with far more success, thereby helping damaged hearts repair themselves. This “scaffolding” gel has been tested in labs and is undergoing testing in mice.
🚏🙈 The Bored Ape makers are suing an artist for copying their NFTs
Conceptual artist Ryder Ripps created an NFT series called “RR/BAYC,” whose 10,000 NFTs use the exact same images as the original Bored Ape Yacht Club tokens. Ripps said his project was a statement on “the power of NFTs to change meaning, establish provenance, and evade censorship,” but the company behind the original Bored Apes wasn’t amused. It filed suit in a California court, accusing Ripps of trademark infringement and false advertising for knocking off the BAYC name — though, notably, the suit doesn’t accuse Ripps of copyright infringement.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Nancy Roman, “Mother of Hubble” (NASA) — A 2017 interview with the legendary astronomer Nancy Roman, who was NASA’s first chief astronomer and the agency’s first female executive. She created NASA’s space astronomy program (in contrast to traditional ground-based astronomy) and was instrumental in making the Hubble space telescope a reality.
The Complicator’s Gloves (The Daily WTF) — Describes a common failure case in engineering: well-meaning inventors will create flashy yet overcomplicated solutions while forgetting that cheap, low-tech solutions often already exist.
Why Dyslexia Is Not a ‘Disorder’ but an Evolutionary Advantage (The Telegraph) — Scientists argue that dyslexia is a “useful specialization” that gives people superior skills in creativity, invention, flexibility, and “explorative cognitive search.” While dyslexia is often seen as an individual hindrance in today’s literacy-focused society, it gives a population a useful balance of “explorers” (those with dyslexia) and “exploiters” (those without).
Diaspora Communities Reframe History, One Instagram Post at a Time (Rest of World) — Describes how often-marginalized peoples in West, South, Central, and East Asia have turned to tools like Instagram to create crowdsourced, visual digital archives of their cultures. Unlike formal scholarly research, this method focuses on oral histories, family photo albums, and everyday life — and it’s filtered through the eyes of locals, not outsiders.
Non-Rigid Linguistic Theories Proven Right by ML? (Meaningness) — Tells the story of a 1970s researcher who claimed that Chomsky’s rationalist linguistic model was too rigid to account for the messiness of human language, arguing that Chomsky fell into the rationalist trap of “trying to find a perfectly crisp mathematical model for an inherently nebulous domain.” The paper was widely ignored at the time, but ML models may have proven it right decades later.
Why City Life Has Gotten Way More Expensive (The Atlantic) — Derek Thompson writes that, when interest rates were near zero, VC money flowed freely and subsidized many unprofitable businesses that aimed to “blitzscale” their way to monopoly status by effectively subsidizing products for consumers. As the economic tides turn, blitzscaling is becoming harder to execute, driving up prices for food delivery, ridesharing, and meal kits.
💊🍀 A dose of hopepunk
About 300 new bookstores have opened across the US in the past few years, a stunning reversal from their steep decline in 2020. This revival seems to be meeting a demand for “real recommendations from real people.” Perhaps the limits of ML recommendations are being discovered. And perhaps people are rediscovering the need for shared spaces and community. Maybe bookstores, like coffeeshops, can be valuable Third Places.
📚🌲 Book for your shelf
An evergreen book that will help you dip your toes into systems thinking.
This week, we recommend The Ski Guide Manual by Rob Coppolillo (2020, 298 pages).
It is not obvious how a book about ski guiding is a systems-thinking tool, but if you consider for a moment the complexity of assessing terrain, making critical decisions in the face of time and environmental constraints, and using tools and heuristics to reliably achieve an outcome in the midst of all this, you may get a sense of why The Ski Guide Manual has lessons for anyone wading through complex adaptive systems.
Immensely pragmatic, Coppolillo gives frameworks for the obvious (making educated guesses about avalanche terrain, assessing risk of ascent & descent routes) to the less obvious (how to debrief the team, what constitutes valid feedback) to the universal. Critically, the 6th chapter on decision-making could be ripped out and put nearly unedited into a training course for leaders in complex business systems. Its lenses for building and checking intuition, recognizing biases, making your thinking explicit and reviewable, and encouraging productive disagreements are incredible management tools. The backdrop of navigating in the high alpine can either serve as a neat metaphor or an exciting place to really test these ideas out.
Sometimes we look to the theoretical, sometimes to the aspirational, sometimes to the fictional for systems thinking inspiration, but the Ski Guide Manual is a fun path to praxis from an unlikely source.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Zeroth Principles.
This lens from Bryan Johnson contrasts first-principle thinking with zeroth-principle thinking. First-principles thinking is the idea of going back to the fundamentals to try to derive new insights. An example is using principles of Euclidean geometry to derive insights about triangles. The principles define the framework you reason within. First principles thinking can be incredibly powerful. It can help you understand things at a more fundamental level, and it can create new insights.
Zeroth-principle thinking is about breaking outside the frame. Zeroth-principle thinking says, “What if we play around with those first principles?” This is where we get non-Euclidean geometries such as elliptic geometry — geometry on, say, a sphere, where parallel lines don’t exist, all lines eventually intersect, and triangles’ angles sum up to more than 180 degrees. In a group setting, outsiders can be good sources of zeroth-principle thinking. They can bring first principles from other domains and mix them to discover something new.
The next time you get stuck, try going back to first principles. And if that’s not enough, try going back a little further and playing around with the principles themselves. What would be different if some of your foundational assumptions changed?
🔮📬 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.
// There are no accommodations, such as inheritance, for the death of a person who owns crypto assets. What implications might this have in the coming years and decades?
2035/07/14 — NEW CLIENT INTERVIEW
ATTORNEY CLIENT PRIVILEGED
[Lawyer] We got the signed NDA, the engagement letter, and the initial consulting fee. This conversation is now under the protection of attorney-client privilege. So, what is the nature of your problem?
[Client] About a decade ago, we acquired a number of crypto coins which granted access to the [redacted] DAO. A DAO is a Decentralized Autonomous Organization, with no central authority. Power is distributed across token holders who collectively cast votes.
The challenge we are facing is that it appears that more than 50% of the governance tokens belong to three crypto wallets which belong to one individual. That person died last year. The rules of this DAO mean that any proposal must get >50% approval in a vote, so the DAO is now a zombie. It’s unable to do anything with the assets that the DAO controls.
The reason we care is that the DAO bought a number of other cryptocurrencies with the initial funds coming from the sale of the governance tokens. It's been 10 years, and thanks to some crazy Reddit memestock-style behavior, some of that crypto is now worth over $100M.
The remaining DAO governance group members (including us) want to sell it, but cannot, thanks to the governance model and inability to get 51% approval.
[Lawyer] Interesting. From our previous dealings with DAOs, the actual mechanism for controlling the assets is often handled by off-blockchain actions, usually a person or three with the passwords to the DAO’s shared wallet. Why do you need us?
[Client] Unfortunately, the DAO was set up in such a way that control of the wallet is only unlocked with a successful blockchain vote. It gave the whole project legitimacy back in the day when ‘rug pulls’ were incredibly common. I can’t even count the number of failed crypto projects that promised to fund a video game, only to never deliver anything or to have the founder run away with the proceeds.
[Lawyer] I remember something about this DAO now. Wasn’t their tag line something along the lines of ‘our code is law,’ or something to that effect?
In this situation, we’ve got a few potential options:
Find a bug in the smart contract and exploit it to get around the 51% lock
Get access to the deceased token holder’s crypto wallets, either through passphrase or the exchanges that hold them
Create a fork of the underlying cryptocurrency that this DAO operates on top of, such that the new smart contract removes the pesky 51% restriction
Invoke the legal system on the estate of the deceased token holder to get compensation for negligence to operate and maintain the DAO
Each of these options has a spectrum of approaches which are consistent with the relevant evolving state and federal regulations. And there are… other approaches.
Oh no, hang on — it looks like our system is having “difficulties.”
Hold on a moment before I finish this thought…
[Audio/Visual: still transmitting, all signals green]