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🌀🗞 The FLUX Review, Ep. 88
February 23rd, 2022
Episode 88 — February 23rd, 2023 — Available at read.fluxcollective.org/p/88
Contributors to this issue Ade Oshineye, Erika Rice Scherpelz, Dimitri Glazkov, Alex Komoroske, Neel Mehta, Boris Smus
Additional insights from: Gordon Brander, a.r. Routh, Stefano Mazzocchi, Ben Mathes, Justin Quimby, Robinson Eaton, Spencer Pitman, Julka Almquist, Scott Schaffter, Lisie Lillianfeld, Samuel Arbesman, Dart Lindsley, Jon Lebensold
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.
“In science, if you know what you are doing, you should not be doing it. In engineering, if you do not know what you are doing, you should not be doing it. Of course, you seldom, if ever, see either pure state.”
—Richard Hamming, The Art of Doing Science and Engineering
🦌🐘 Asymmetric threats
An internal team started work on a product that will compete with yours in some areas. Is this a problem? It depends: is this just one of many things that you work on? Or is this your primary job? How easy is it for you to start doing something else? There are many factors that might be involved, and they impact different stakeholders differently.
We’ve written before about the mismatch between perception and reality when it comes to evaluating danger. In group situations, there is another key source of discrepancy: who fears the potential danger? Before, we assumed you should be afraid of tigers. However, not everyone has the same exposure. A tiger can take down a gazelle much more easily than a full grown elephant.
If our metaphorical elephant and gazelle are working together, the gazelle might think the elephant doesn’t see the tiger, since it isn’t reacting. The elephant may think that the gazelle is crying wolf. Handled badly, this can lead to arguments and accusations — usually with the effect of ignoring real threats. How can we do better?
If you’re the elephant — the person who is not threatened by the change — start by acknowledging your power. Whether or not you generally have more power than your gazelle colleague, your safety gives you power in this particular situation. Given this, your first imperative is to listen when others express fear. Recognize that the gazelle may lash out or be focused on what you consider an overly convergent narrative. Right now, their imperative is survival. Once you understand the threat, see if you can help. Can you use your safety to mitigate the danger? If not, you can at least take the gazelle seriously, providing support and advice where you can.
If you’re the gazelle, first realize that the elephant may not even realize that the situation presents a threat for you. The elephant truly does not see the situation as dangerous. Once you realize this, you can approach things differently. First, you can work to understand why the elephant is not threatened. Can you shift your situation so that you, too, are no longer in danger? Often you can’t, so the next best thing to do is to get the elephant to understand the threat. This is a good time to pull out “I” statements to contextualize why this is a problem for you even if it’s not for them: “This is my primary project, and I am worried that it will be canceled.” If the elephant is in a position to help you, you can ask for help, the more specific the better.
Differentiated threats are a reality of organizational dynamics. When we ignore them, they fester and grow. Instead, we can put them on the table and ensure that we’re responding to the tiger together.
Clues that point to where our changing world might lead us.
🚏📚 ChatGPT is listed as a co-author of 200+ Kindle ebooks
Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program lets authors list books for sale with little more than a PDF — no publishing house needed. Some enterprising writers have started using AI to write and launch books quickly: at least 200 books in Amazon’s e-book store list ChatGPT as an author or co-author. (Of course, there are certainly more AI-generated books that aren’t labeled as such.) Poetry collections and short kids’ books seem to be especially popular, since authors can churn them out more quickly than a full-length book.
🚏💩 Dairy farmers are now turning manure into natural gas
Energy firms have started working with dairy farms to collect cow manure in giant “digester” pools, capture the methane released by the dung, and turn it into natural gas. It’s a clever technique to put a noxious (and planet-warming) waste product to use, and the energy firms tout this as a “carbon-negative” fuel. But agriculture and energy experts warn that this trend could incentivize farmers to raise more cows and churn out more manure — neither of which is good for the environment. Dairy farms “could end up turning into feces farms that happen to also produce dairy.”
🚏⚫ A new algorithm can easily beat the top Go-playing bots, but loses to humans
A team of AI researchers had their AI play a million games against KataGo, a popular and powerful Go-playing bot. They found a gaping weak spot: by using an “encirclement” strategy, their algorithm could beat an engine with superhuman powers 97% of the time. But it’s not like the strategy is overpowered: it gets “easily beaten by a human amateur.” The researchers conclude that “even superhuman AI systems may harbor surprising failure modes.”
🚏🎃 Experts are warning of “zombie” VC funds that don’t fundraise or invest
As tech company valuations have plummeted, venture capital firms have found it harder and harder to raise funds from limited partners (LPs) like pension funds and family offices. In turn, many VCs (especially the many new ones created in the low-interest-rate boom of 2021 and ‘22) don’t have the cash to invest in companies. Analysts say this could lead to a rise in “zombie” VC firms: those that keep managing existing funds but stop deploying new cash for years on end.
🚏👑 NFT marketplaces are cutting creator royalties as competition heats up
Creators of NFTs normally earn a small royalty each time their tokens are resold, but this isn’t always baked into the code — individual NFT exchanges decide how much they want to pay creators. As such, there’s been a race to the bottom among NFT marketplaces as buyers have flocked to exchanges that pay lower royalties (and thus charge buyers lower fees). It’s estimated that 80% of NFT sales volume is now on reduced- or zero-royalty exchanges; this has led OpenSea (one of the best-known exchanges) to slash its minimum royalties to just 0.5%, a far cry from the usual 5–10%.
📖⏳ Worth your time
Some especially insightful pieces we’ve read, watched, and listened to recently.
The New Gatekeepers (Benedict Evans) — The latest of Evans’s annual reports on trends in the tech sector. The 100-slide presentation touches on media, retail, generative AI, advertising, e-commerce, and the post-COVID (and post-zero-interest-rate) economy.
So I Went to Ukraine… During the War (Geography Now) — The host of the popular geography YouTube series documents his recent trip to Ukraine and reflects on how the country is trying to “maintain a functional society and portray its unique identity and culture” while being stuck in the middle of a war. Includes some great footage of notable sights in Ukraine and snapshots of everyday life in a semi-war zone.
Transcribing All Our Conversations 24-7 Will Be Weird and Also Useful Maybe (Interconnected) — Matt Webb imagines a world in which all conversations are automatically recorded and processed by speech recognition and large language models; he envisions some potentially useful tools for thought that could arise from this. In Webb’s mind, this would be “weird, and also useful maybe… good to see some experiments before this all kicks off for real.”
Which Meetings Should You Kill? (Camille Fournier) — Suggests that the excessive time we spend on 1:1 meetings, not including those with direct reports, should be consolidated into “well-run weekly group meetings to fill the trust and alignment gap, rather than having your broader team go through the combined number of subset 1:1 meetings.”
Deep Seriousness and Deep Playfulness Are Not Opposites (Joost Vervoort) — Argues that we should bend the serious-to-playful spectrum into a circle, with both mental states joined at the bottom. Together, they represent the opposite of zombie-like “sleepwalking,” where we go through the motions of life without seriously engaging with people or ideas. Both seriousness and playfulness can help us appreciate the complexity of life and tear down the broken systems that surround us, rather than muddling along with the way things have always been done.
🕵️♀️📆 Lens of the week
Introducing new ways to see the world and new tools to add to your mental arsenal.
This week’s lens: Confabulation.
We rarely get the full story. Even our memories of personal experiences are full of unreliable gaps. Add to this the fact that we hate sitting in uncertainty. Thus, to get by in the world, people are masters of confabulation. Confabulations, as described by a quote from Jonathan Gottschall in Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead, are “lies, honestly told.”
Confabulation is not always a bad thing. In the normal course of events, you have a pretty good mental model of the world, and applying those automatic confabulations is a necessary part of how we turn our streams of input into a coherent picture. It is not usually unreasonable to go from, “My friend gave me a gift on my birthday” to “My friend got me a birthday gift.”
Wait — were those two statements even different? This is where the unconscious power of confabulation comes in. The first statement is a description of a fact: a person (your friend) performed an action (giving you a gift) at a particular time (your birthday). The second quietly inserts an intent: the reason for the gift was your birthday. That might be true… or it might not.
When we see ourselves going from facts to story, we should remember that these are potentially lies. We need to acknowledge that we are confabulating and take a moment to make sure that the mental leap is justified. When we see others doing this, we need to remember that these lies are honestly told. Even when we have information that reveals that a gap was incorrectly filled, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a logical inference for the other person given the knowledge and mental models they have.
Seeing confabulations requires becoming comfortable with sitting in the gap between data and stories. This is a hard place to be, but even if we pause there only a moment, recognizing the moment where we might be confabulating gives us the power to choose whether to accept the story we tell ourselves, reject it, or gather more data.
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