Memia 2020.11: 🌌The universe, open sourced 🤯 //going down a level //🌱IT'S TIME TO PLANT🌳// post-covid Bretton Woods // fools and dreamers💭

It's a very, very Mad World

Hi / Kia ora

Welcome to Memia, a weekly roundup of new tech, strategy, foresight and interesting links curated by me, Ben Reid - all with a view from my corner of the world, Aotearoa New Zealand. Please feel free to forward this email - and you can sign up here if you haven’t already.

The most clicked link in the last issue (~8% of openers) was the FT’s Coronavirus Tracked dashboard.

The universe, open sourced

Last week computer scientist, mathematician, theoretical physicist and all-round polymath genius Stephen Wolfram put out an incredible post which blew my mind 🤯:

In it he announces the launch of the Wolfram Physics Project (he likes naming things after himself), an open source collection of software tools and documentation which aims to explain how the observable “laws” of physics can be arrived at from the (“zillions of times”) application of tiny, structureless, logical rules. In this theory space, time, gravity and [hints of] quantum mechanics are all derivable from this basic principle.

He describes the result of repeated applications of a simple rule to a series of “abstract relations between abstract elements” - a hypergraph. This can yield a menagerie of possible forms for different rules after ~1000 applications:


The contention is that if we were to run rules like these long enough (10⁵⁰⁰ times?), they would end up making something that reproduces our physical universe. Or, put another way, out in this computational universe of simple rules, can we find our physical universe?

I’ll leave it for you to read the 25,000-word “non-technical overview” - obviously huge amounts of peer review and substantial testing of this hypothesis are now required, but *if* this approach turns out to be verifiable then it truly changes the underlying paradigm for physics to “universe as computation”. Which has always seemed rather intuitive to me. (And if not, it is still a beautiful logical and mathematical thought experiment.)

In inviting open participation, Wolfram notes:

“…we’re putting up a Registry of Notable Universes. It’s already populated with nearly a thousand rules. I don’t think any of the ones in there yet are our own universe—though I’m not completely sure. But sometime—I hope soon—there might just be a rule entered in the Registry that has all the right properties, and that we’ll slowly discover that, yes, this is it—our universe finally decoded.”


Going down a level

…All of which preceding makes current Covid-19 pandemic events seem relatively ephemeral, if no less visceral.

A graphic with no description

Aotearoa is among the few nations worldwide to be well on track towards effective elimination of the SARS-COV2 virus. The PM announced on Monday that the country’s pandemic lockdown was moving from Level 4 to Level 3 as of 11:59pm next Monday (Anzac Day observed holiday).

It seems that neighbours Australia and also some Pacific Island states may also succeed with an elimination strategy. The promise now is of an economic reboot *of sorts* and a long, quarantined, wait for a vaccine to be developed. At some point we can expect a Pacific-Aotearoa-Australia combined quarantine zone to open up for very expensive air travel. But in the meantime all Kiwis should be able to get on with exploring our own back yard. It could be much, much worse.

After the great pause

There are a lot of futurists out there right now. 🙃

  • Loved this from Julio Gambuto on Medium: Prepare for the ultimate gaslighting. (Gaslighting is defined as psychological manipulation into doubting your own sanity):

    …the treadmill you’ve been on for decades just stopped. Bam! And that feeling you have right now is the same as if you’d been thrown off your Peloton bike and onto the ground: What in the holy fuck just happened? I hope you might consider this: What happened is inexplicably incredible. It’s the greatest gift ever unwrapped. Not the deaths, not the virus, but The Great Pause.

  • Brisbane-based futurist Sohail Inayatullah walks through four potential Post-Covid scenarios (The Zombie Apocalypse, The Needed Pause, Global Health Awakening and The Great Despair) in this podcast interview with Dutch technology researcher Menno van doorn in Utrecht. A fascinating conversation - sometimes I still need to pinch myself that this is now standard to converse by video on opposite sides of the globe - the tyranny of distance gets less and less and less…

  • Are you ready for radical change? Really? Danyl McLauchan gives a rigorous shakedown of Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology in the Spinoff:

    “Capital and Ideology advocates for “participatory socialism”. The two key ideas attached to this are “social property” and “temporary property”. There’s no justification for the sacred nature of modern property rights, [Piketty] argues: it’s just another excuse for inequality…what Piketty is trying to do with this book, I think, is to create a vanguard for that movement; to call into being a radical left that is technocratic, data-driven and intellectually rigorous.”

    As a self-described member of the “Brahmin Left” (expect this term to be used in battle during the 2020 election), McLauchlan isn’t wholly enthusiastic, but seems resigned: “Our current prime minister is a centrist technocratic elite, and look how nice she is, and how well that’s going.” Ah, petal.

  • Kiwi economic advisor David Skilling tells NZ policy makers will need to start moving from fire fighting to an intelligent and thoughtful longer-term economic focus:

    “…what seemed like fringe economic policy even a year ago - Modern Monetary Theory and the like, and basically saying there are no budget constraints and central banks can just buy up government paper, I think we are de facto moving in that direction anyway”

    He sees a 1970s type “stagflation” scenario evolving: very high inflation, high unemployment, and low rates of GDP growth. Woot.


  • The Project Syndicate publishes a compelling call for a Post-COVID Bretton Woods - to rethink global institutions for the age of intangibles:

    “When the world’s leaders gathered at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in July 1944, they agreed on the design for a global institutional system to stop wars between countries and to regulate the functioning of the tangible economy…[but] IP is now the world’s most valuable asset, accounting for 84% of the total value of S&P 500 companies…at issue is the core architecture of the digital economy itself. The fundamental dynamics of the current framework are straining global-governance institutions, and demanding that we create a new set of legal, regulatory, and ethical structures.”

    (As an aside, the armchair [data] scientist in me always struggles with the word “ethical” used in contexts like this: on the prescriptive vs descriptive ethical spectrum I sit firmly at the descriptive end: values vary around the world and evolve over time. Calls to embed “ethical structures” into long-lasting future global institutions make me somewhat queasy…)


  • Polluted, drying out rivers: the latest environmental report on Aotearoa’s lakes and rivers reiterates bleak news about the state of freshwater ecosystems, and warns that climate change will exacerbate existing threats.

  • Native forest carbon sinks: New Zealand's native trees contain staggering amounts of carbon - so much that the country's old-growth forests were recently listed among the world's most irreplaceable carbon sinks. But the current carbon credit system can still incentivise logging over conservation.

    Surely one outcome from the “magic money tree” pandemic fiscal response is to design a carbon AND conservation incentivisation system which is optimised for New Zealand’s long term ecological health: make it financially worthwhile for Fools and Dreamers to replant Aotearoa’s native forests at scale.

[Weak] Signals

A few signals from near and far futures:


Who’s doing what around NZ?

Hidden Gems

Banksy in quarantine:

You may have seen this beautiful lockdown version of Mad World by Tears for Fears lead singer Curt Smith and his daughter Diva doing the rounds - here’s the original, takes me back:

And check out these Brutalist Sandcastles (ht Nick Gerritsen for spotting):

The usual big 🙏 to those readers who have sent in links and feedback to share in the newsletter. If you enjoy Memia, please take the time to share with a friend in 🇳🇿 or around the 🌎🌍🌏.

More next week.

Regards / Ngā mihi