🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 70
October 6th, 2022
Episode 70 — October 6th, 2022 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/70
Contributors to this issue: Dimitri Glazkov, Neel Mehta, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Boris Smus, Ade Oshineye
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Justin Quimby, Alex Komoroske, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman, Julka Almquist, Scott Schaffter, Lisie Lillianfeld, Samuel Arbesman, Dart Lindsley
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.
“Often we are ourselves struck at the strange differences in our successive views of the same thing. We wonder how we ever could have opined as we did last month about a certain matter. We have outgrown the possibility of that state of mind, we know not how. From one year to another we see things in new lights. What was unreal has grown real, and what was exciting is insipid.”
— William James
💃🕺 Choose enthusiastic dance partners
Change comes in different shapes. Sometimes it’s like a military action: we have to buck the trends, go where we aren’t wanted, disrupt the status quo. Other times, change is more a dance. We need to collaborate with others to achieve our goal, working together to achieve something that we can’t achieve on our own. It’s important not to confuse the two. If we bring a conquer-and-control approach to a situation that calls for dancing, we’re going to end up with a failed collaboration as we push away those we need to succeed.
Suppose we’ve already identified that we’re in a collaborative situation. Now, we need to choose a dance partner (or a whole group of them). There are always many factors to consider when choosing collaborative partners: are their aligned with ours? Are they using compatible technologies? Would our shared goal have a good cost-benefit tradeoff?
One thing we sometimes forget to consider is enthusiasm. As many of us learned from experiences of our youth, dancing with a reluctant partner is tedious and somewhat embarrassing, whatever their technical proficiency may be. And we may have had the opposite experience too: when dance partners are mutually enthusiastic, they can be pretty impressive, even if they lack skill. Combine the two — technical skill plus mutual enthusiasm — and we can create something amazing.
The same holds for collaboration. Partners who are enthusiastic to collaborate can make up for many — although not all — of the shortcomings our partnership might have. Yet we so often neglect to take these simple guidelines into account, especially in a work setting.
Next time you are choosing partners for a collaborative project, take the time to consider how well you get along with your potential collaborators. Double down on the areas where you see positive signals. And if you’re forced into a partnership without mutual enthusiasm, spend some time building the relationship to see if you can build it up. If you can, it will pay off in spades.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏🤒 COVID might have driven a seasonal flu strain to extinction
Thanks to travel restrictions, quarantines, and increased public health measures, 2020’s flu season was “all but canceled.” A potential victim was the B/Yamagata strain of the seasonal flu, one of the 4 common strains. Researchers detected this strain over 51,000 times back in 2018, but just 43 times last year and 8 times so far this year — and experts think these might just be “erroneous detections” from past flu vaccinations. If B/Yamagata really did disappear, it’d show that the “population bottleneck” of COVID-19 crashed the genetic diversity of the seasonal flu.
🚏🕹 Someone modernized the graphics of a ‘93 video game with an AI image synthesizer
The first fighting game with fully 3D polygonal graphics was Sega’s Virtua Fighter, launched in 1993. One artist decided to “remaster” the game with the image synthesis model Stable Diffusion. The artist used Stable Diffusion’s “img2img” tool, which takes in an original image and a text prompt and outputs a new, AI-generated image. The result was a bunch of realistic-looking versions of the retro characters, though it took a lot of trial and error to craft prompts that worked well.
🚏💊 Walgreens is using robots to fill prescriptions amidst a pharmacist shortage
The US is currently facing a pharmacist shortage thanks to staffing shortfalls and COVID-19 stretching pharmacists thin with tests and vaccinations. To save pharmacists’ time, Walgreens has unveiled a network of medication-filling centers, where robotic arms automatically sort pills and place them into bottles. The company says the new tech could cut pharmacists’ workloads by 25% and free them up for higher-value tasks like vaccinations and patient outreach.
🚏🐛 Moth larvae are able to break down plastic bags, say scientists
Wax worms are usually considered a pest; they’re the larvae of moths that infest beehives. But when one scientist-slash-beekeeper found wax worms chewing through a plastic bag, researchers began investigating. They found that enzymes in the worms’ saliva are able to break down polyethylene, which makes up 30% of plastic production and is frequently used in plastic bags. This reaction happens at normal temperatures and pH, raising hopes that it could be used in plastic recycling projects.
🚏🎨 The owner of a $10 million Frida Kahlo drawing burned it & sold it as NFTs
During an exhibition at his home in Miami, an art collector took a page from Frida Kahlo’s diary (a painting he claimed was valued at $10 million), put it in a martini glass, and set it on fire. The goal was to promote the 10,000 NFTs he’d created of the artwork; proceeds would go to charity. The Mexican authorities weren’t amused, though, saying that “the deliberate destruction of an artistic monument constitutes a crime.”
🚏📜 The White House drafted an “AI bill of rights”
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy released a new Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights to guide the development of AI products. It describes five “protections” that all Americans should be entitled to, including freedom from algorithmic discrimination, the ability to opt out of AI algorithms (when appropriate), and agency over how your personal data is used. The document doesn’t focus on specific policies or enforcement mechanisms, preferring instead to lay out a high-level vision to guide future rulemaking.
🚏🏈 Crypto traders launched a fantasy NFT-trading league
The NFT market has collapsed this year, with daily trading volumes down 97% since January. So, one crypto founder launched a fantasy league to help down-on-their-luck NFT traders relive “that sweet adrenaline rush of flipping JPEGs.” Players can use play money to buy simulated versions of real NFTs. Their mock portfolios will “appreciate” if the NFTs’ prices go up in the real markets, just like in stock market simulators.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
Scott and Scurvy (Idle Words) — Probes the fascinating question of how scientists in the early 1900s were ignorant as to what caused scurvy, even though the cause had been definitively proven back in 1747. Uses the story to argue that technological progress can paradoxically cause us to regress in other fields; that we often create theories that fit some data points but mis-diagnose the cause of the problem; and that societal knowledge, once attained, isn’t necessarily permanent.
Eighteen Pitfalls to Beware of in AI Journalism (AI Snake Oil) — Two AI researchers share examples of how major publications over-hype the potential of artificial intelligence. These include using profound-seeming phrases to describe mundane AI actions; uncritically repeating AI companies’ PR statements; or limiting valid criticism to a “skeptics say” framing that paints it as uninformed.
The Boom-Bust Cycle of Baby Names and Dog Breeds (Vice) — Uses the cyclical popularity of baby names and dog breeds to explore “frequency-dependent selection,” where the rate of a trend’s spread depends on how popular it currently is. Popularity drives viral spread to a certain extent, but when something’s too common, people shift away from it. This nonlinear boom-and-bust pattern shows up not just in cultural traits but also in biological evolution, politics, linguistics, and the spread of (mis)information.
I Should Have Loved Biology (James Somers) — Recalls how little the writer enjoyed learning biology, which, despite its interestingness as a field, felt like a “lifeless recitation of names.” What if, instead of focusing on seemingly arbitrary facts, biology was taught historically, by acquainting students with real biological questions and the scientific processes biologists used to answer them? What if it gave students the opportunity to put themselves in the scientists’ shoes and wonder? What if it involved more inspiring and beautiful illustrations and explorable explanations?
An Injection of Chaos Solves Decades-Old Fluid Mystery (Nautilus) — Describes a puzzling phase transition in fluids that long baffled scientists: certain “weird” fluids suddenly become extremely viscous as soon as they start moving beyond a certain speed. Explores how researchers simulated this chaotic behavior on a small scale before turning to full-scale phenomena.
Big Gods and Big Societies: A Closure (Cliodynamica) — While discussing scholarship around the “Big Gods” question, Peter Turchin argues that the “directed acyclic graph” approach to analyzing societal trends is unable to prove causality, since it omits any information about time. Instead, he describes the “dynamic regressions” framework for analyzing causality using temporal information; it can also account for feedback loops, unlike DAGs.
The One Parenting Decision that Really Matters (The Atlantic) — Shares results from a large-scale study of children's success outcomes as a function of many variables. It found that the effect of “nature” on a child is far stronger than “nurture,” but one parenting factor stands above the rest: the geographic location of the childhood home. See The Opportunity Atlas for more details.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: dandelions and elephants.
Some ideas fit easily into tweets that spread with ferocious intensity (like memes). Others take a long time to fully grasp and spread slowly (like quantum physics or organic chemistry). Memes are short-lived, but they replicate and evolve and replicate again, never quite going away once released into the wild. Quantum physics and orgo seem to be completely different: they are rigorous and robust, and they improve gradually, generally with significant effort.
This difference is captured in the (rather poorly named) r/K-selection theory. The idea is from ecology but translates well into other realms with evolutionary dynamics. According to the theory, all organisms’ evolutionary strategies fall somewhere on a spectrum between two extremes: r-selection and K-selection.
An r-selection strategy focuses on rapid replication: make copies of yourself as quickly as possible and mutate freely from generation to generation. It tends to be effective in highly unstable environments. If individuals cannot keep up with the changes they experience within their lifespan, it’s better to let sheer numbers and the evolutionary algorithm do the adaptation. Dandelions are an example of a plant that’s adopted this strategy: multitudes of tiny seeds are blown across wide areas. They take root and rapidly produce another generation of seed pods.
K-selection, meanwhile, focuses on quality over quantity. It’s a strategy best suited for a population already at carrying capacity. The various species who share an environment are typically strong competitors in their crowded niches, with limited free resources available. To obtain these resources against competitors, adaptation needs to happen within each individual’s lifespan. Organisms that follow this strategy tend to live longer lives, nurturing and teaching their few offspring. Elephants are one such species: big, long-living, and protective of their calves.
To alleviate the terrible naming problem (“which one is r? which one’s K?”), we’ll name this lens after the archetypes from above: dandelions and elephants.
Ideas that are like dandelions are short, viral, blink-and-they’re-gone. Ideas that are like elephants are robust and strong, well-established, and improved incrementally, with very few genuinely new ideas as offspring. On the spectrum between these extremes, every idea is a little bit of both. In volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (“VUCA”) environments, dandelions will tend to flourish. In more stable and close-to-equilibrium settings, elephants rule.
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