The Principia Misanthropica

Let’s recap.

In the beginning, people were mostly unhappy, but not too unhappy about being unhappy. They hunted, they gathered, and when unpleasant things (such as having a leg bitten off by a lion) happened, they shrugged their shoulders and said, “what are you gonna to do, huh?” And they spent as much time as they could being idle, because that seemed to help them not be unhappy for a while. This worked particularly well when there were temporarily no lions around trying to eat them.

Then history began to happen.

The people who first noticed there was history going on — they were called poets — also discovered that it ruined idleness for them (this effect would later be named “the frame problem”). This made them very angry, so they decided to tell everybody about history. If they couldn’t have any fun, why should anybody else? They also decided to write some of it down, just in case their children, and their children’s children, tried to forget the discovery. Future generations, they figured, had a right to remain innocent of unnecessary and burdensome knowledge of events past. Perhaps some pleasure could be found in denying them this right.

There was nothing much they could do about the fact that their ancestors in their graves, unlike their descendants, were beyond the reach of their words. But in a stroke of genius, they realized they could make their descendants more miserable by pretending that their pre-historic ancestors had actually been continuously happy, instead of just free of unhappiness about unhappiness.

That made it look like it was all going downhill, which made the poets happy about being unhappy about being unhappy. Because at least those who came after would feel like they were even worse off.
[Read more…]

Meta-Skills, Macro-Laws, and the Power of Constraints

Nearly every science-fiction novel seems to agree on one thing: in the future, work will be indistinguishable from art. Such wide agreement suggests that work is far more than a means of income generation. Even in a robot servant utopia, with all our practical needs taken care of, human work will still have a purpose. To find or make meaning, to know thyself, to create beauty or value in the world. Productivity is helpful in these deeper pursuits because the fundamental questions it seeks to answer—how order arises from disorder, complexity from randomness, and ends from means—are the very same questions essential to understanding sentience, life, the universe, and everything.

It’s been noted that the best writers know the rules of writing well enough to break them in creative ways. The rules in this way are more than rules. In the beginning, they are crutches. Later, they become guides and useful defaults. Eventually, they become springboards. They crystallize the moments where a writer has to decide what she believes, who she isn’t, and by process of elimination, who she is.v7.001

This is the same role, I believe, that “tips and habits” play in productivity: rules that are designed to be broken in a journey of self-discovery. They resist a little bit, asking “Are you sure you want to choose your own adventure?” Which is helpful, because many times you shouldn’t. This changing role makes it irrelevant whether a piece of productivity advice is “right” or “wrong.” What matters is how fruitful of a domain it circumscribes, and thus whether it’s worth the effort to redesign it. It’s not important whether you “believe in it” or not, but whether you can articulate how it fits (or doesn’t) within your personal system of truths.

[Read more…]

Goodhart’s Law and Why Measurement is Hard

The other day, I was failing to teach my 3-year-old son about measurement. He wanted to figure out if something would fit in an envelope, and I was “helping” by showing him how to measure the width of the envelope, then comparing it to the width of the paper he was trying to insert. It turns out that this is a trickier concept than I had assumed; the ability to understand even simple measurements requires a fair amount of cognitive maturity. 3-year-old kids can compare directly, but the concept of using a measure to compare indirectly is more difficult. I finally let him try to fit the paper in the envelope to see it wouldn’t fit.

As with many other cognitive skills, the fact that it’s a counter-intuitive learned skill for children means that adults don’t do it intuitively either. So why are measures used? There are lots of good reasons, and I think a useful heuristic for understanding where to use them is to look for the triad of intuition, trust, and complexity.

Measuring a Network

Measurement replaces intuition, which is often fallible. It replaces trust, which is often misplaced. It finesses complexity, which is frequently irreducible. So faulty intuition, untrusted partners, and complex systems can be understood via intuitive, trustworthy, simple metrics. If this seems reductive, it’s worth noting how successful the strategy has been, historically. Wherever and whenever metrics proliferated, overall, the world seems to have improved.

Despite these benefits, measuring obscures, disrupts, and distorts systems. I want to talk about the limitations of metrics before expanding on some problems that are created when they are used carelessly, and then show why the problem with metrics — and algorithms that rely on them — isn’t something that can be avoided.
[Read more…]

The Theory of Narrative Selection

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Why do some stories become popular, retold for hundreds of years, while others are forgotten? Why do you see the particular stories that you see in your social media feed and on the news? How can we tell whether stories are true? And why are false stories so maddeningly popular?

Here I will look at stories as if they were biological organisms. Stories can’t reproduce themselves; they rely on humans for their survival and reproduction. In that sense, stories are symbiotic (or perhaps parasitic) in their relationship with humans. New stories are constantly being invented, using existing and novel devices and elements. They take as their subject matter factual happenings, imaginings, or both. They are transmitted and retold at different rates; most stories peter out and die, while a few sweep across the world in hours. They exhibit all the hallmarks for natural selection to act: variation, differential survival and reproduction, and heritability. Reproduction is complicated. Stories may transmit copies of themselves (reprintings, oral retellings), or they may transmit their traits to new generations of stories.
[Read more…]

How to Take Your Brain Off-Road

The more you read, the more you know how to read, and the harder it is to get lost in reading. When you’ve read only a few things, it is not possible to get very lost because each book, article, blog post or tweet stands in isolation. You are not very sensitized to how infinitely intertwingled everything is. But the more you read, the greater the chances that you will have developed a map that obscures the intertwingling. Even if you resist various subtle map-territory confusions, you will slowly grow blind to many things. Which can be a pleasant state, especially if it endures through the rest of your life.

But if you read a lot in a certain disorderly way, you can retain an ability get lost in your reading and prevent knowledge from turning into blindness. I call this approach taking your brain off-road. With a few exceptions, my brain has been off-road, and lost, for decades. You know when your brain is off-road because you are forced to navigate the world of ideas by gut-feel alone. I used to like the metaphor of the gyroscope for this, but now I like the metaphor of Pacific Islander wave navigation, which combines intrinsic and extrinsic, global and local, in interesting ways.


Pacific Islander wave pilots used self-made stick maps of swell patterns between islands (like the ones above) to navigate. One of my time-wasting projects is to actually understand how this was done, and perhaps learn to do it myself. Interestingly, this required literally using your gut: lying on your back at the bottom of the canoe to feel the swells through your body.

There is an opposed, more common way of reading a lot, which is much more orderly. Orderly readers unconsciously prioritize things that they know how to read, which means they never get lost. This is mainly because they are doers, and for doers, being lost is a bad thing. Because you don’t know what to do next, which means you are wasting your life.

To disorderly readers, being lost is not a bad thing, because many interesting things can only be seen nestled in disorder. And you can see disorder only when you don’t know how to read it.

[Read more…]

Examining the Accidental Life

I only have two basic moods accounting for most of my waking hours: one marked by mild to severe ennui, and the other by a rushing energy. Refractory state and burst state. I seem to have largely random-walked through an accidental life so far, imposing barely any discipline on this basic, ungoverned, binary life process. I have no thoughtfully constructed scaffolding of habits and rituals in my life, just a few accidentally set ways. My biggest adult achievement in that department is learning to floss regularly.

I do have a rare third state though, one that only seems to appear only when I am in certain kinds of places, like off-season beach resorts. Like Cannon Beach, on the Oregon coast, a couple of weeks ago. Or the Outer Banks several years ago (which inspired my 2009 post, How to Think Like Hercule Poirota personal favorite).


By definition, off-season means most humans don’t like these places during these times. Most waterfront businesses are closed. There are no peak-season activities on offer. You’re out on a mostly empty, slightly chilly, grey, and cloudy beach. It’s a satisfyingly atemporal environment.

Something about such outings deeply relaxes me. And after years of doing such trips, I think I am beginning to understand why. I think it is because my natural home state is being peacefully lost. Going to a place that, temporarily, doesn’t know what to do with itself,  is one good way to be at peace with being lost. An environment that doesn’t know what to do with itself, and is in no particular hurry to find out, is an an environment that doesn’t know what to do with you. And much of the stress of being lost, after all, comes from the environment pestering you to do stuff.

I like not knowing where I am, where I am going, why, or how I am going to get there. And I like it when the environment leaves me alone in that state.

[Read more…]

Artem vs. Predator

I’m not sure what it was. Might have been the Predator movies, might have been something else.

Heat vision. The ability to see heat was something I wanted for a while.

Back in the old days, however, any sort of a heat vision camera cost more than I’d made in a decade.

You might think “superpower!”, but that’s not what I had in mind.

I had an idea, an image in my mind. Something that is trivial to photoshop, but is absurdly hard to actually see. Things and scenes lit up by the light emitted from a human. The glow of our heat lighting up the scene.


What would it take to make a picture like that? What makes a camera? And how can you make a heat-seeing camera yourself?

[Read more…]

Dares, Costly Signals, and Psychopaths

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

“Last year I organised to do a stunt with my pals. The stunt was to jump out the window from the 10th floor of a flat onto all these boxes of cardboard and stuff. At the start it was just a laugh and I wasn’t really going to go through with it, but then it got serious and everybody was there so I just had to go through with it.” [H]is participation in the stunt was motivated by “not wanting them [his friends, who were videotaping the ordeal ‘for the internet’] to think that I was a chicken.” He described feeling intense fear immediately before the event (“when I got up to it I thought I was going to die when I leaped”), followed by an equally intense release (“when I got down it was a relief, but I broke my arm”).

Morrissey, S. A. Performing risks: catharsis, carnival and capital in the risk society. Journal of youth studies, 11(4), 413-427 (2008).

F. (8). Dared to eat poison ivy. Did so.
F. (9). A number of girls were playing in an alley which went from one street to the other and had several barns and an undertaking establishment on it. Girls dared Edna to go through when it was dark. She was afraid but took the dare, went through and returned with a feeling of approbation.

Boland, Genevieve. Taking a dare. The Pedagogical Seminary, 17(4), 510-524 (1910).

[Read more…]

Immortality Begins at Forty

I discovered something a couple of years ago: Almost all culture, old or new, is designed for consumption by people under 40. People between 40 and Ω (an indeterminate number defined as “really, just way too old”),  are primarily employed as meaning-makers for the under-40 set. This is because they are mostly good for nothing else, and on average not valuable enough themselves for society to invest meaning in.


The only culture designed for people between 40 and Ω is prescription drug ads and unreadably dense literary novels. Between age Ω and ∅, the age at which you die, there is only funerary culture. That second link is to an app for managing your own death called Cake. Why cake? Your guess is as good as mine.

But there’s a plus side. Forty is when immortality begins.

[Read more…]

A Framework of Experimental Habit Formation

One of the key challenges of living and working in the future will be continuous learning and experimentation. I’d like to propose a framework for guiding these efforts that is both feasible and focused on the individual: experimental habit formation. I believe it can help resolve one of the fundamental paradoxes of modern life: how to balance our need for stability and routine with our thirst for novelty and exploration.

Experimental habit formation is a precursor and gateway to behavior change. The question “ How do I change?” is not enough, because it presupposes that you know which behaviors to adopt; even if you do, that these behaviors will lead to the outcomes you expect; and even if they do, that these outcomes will remain personally relevant and meaningful forever. By replacing these risky assumptions with tests, experimental habit formation provides a sandbox to “debug” new behaviors before wider deployment.

[Read more…]