Artisanal Hand-Crafted Electrons

Warning:  This post is a spectator view of laboratory experiments by an experienced engineer, not a DIY guide. If you try experiments like this, you do so at your own risk. It is YOUR responsibility to employ proper shielding and safety measures, and to stay in compliance with your local safety laws.

Vacuum tubes. What are they good for today? Believe it or not, they are not exactly obsolete, and can be a more efficient solution than more modern components in some applications.

Where exactly? The first thing that comes to mind is that these are good for making sound.

To start, consider an old cathode-ray-tube (CRT) TV. The CRT needs a stable voltage in the tens of kilovolts range, or the picture would flicker in size from the changes of brightness. In the early days they used a tube-based linear regulator to make it stable. For that end there were special triodes that could withstand these voltages.


Their time didn’t last, since at 20-30 KV they were in the soft X-ray range and putting X-ray emitters into TVs is a bad idea. I suspect that’s where the myth about cacti absorbing radiation from monitors originated.

Anyway, let’s use such a triode as an arc modulator (plasma speaker) to make our own version of “tube sound”.

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Berliners #4: Cactus and Weasel


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The Awe Delusion

Art is a technology. If you did a Casablanca / Law & Order double feature you might notice that although Casablanca perhaps has more ‘artistic value’ (that horribly vague phrase), Law & Order tells its stories with a mind-boggling efficiency that vastly outstrips the former. Some time after 1960 filmmakers learned how to tell more story with less. They learned how to convey more information in less time and without losing depth. If this kind of compression is one example of artistic technology, in other words, we’ve gotten so much better at it that even the workingman filmmakers that produce network television can do it. It’s artistic electricity. Literacy.

According to this model, you could call some artistic movements technological inventions. Or even technological revolutions. Painting realistically, non-linear narrative, or syncopation are all examples of things that had to be invented. And these practical inventions reflect more systemic, abstract inventions that could better be described as ‘ways of thinking.’ The invention of realism, for example, changed the scope of things art could (or should) be about from what was moral or pleasurable to what was truthful.  Modernism, in turn, suggested that what was truthful could be approached by methods other than object-level realism. And so on, and so forth.

My interest in art as a subject is not because of philosophical fascination on its own merits. My interest is fundamentally practical: I want more art that is good. I write about art because of the sneaking suspicion that on some level ‘artistic value’ is a technology too. That ‘good’ is a technology. That it’s something that can be in some way broken down or optimized. That it’s something people can be literate in.  

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Ritual Epistemology

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

If you are reading this, you are probably aware of the existence of the rationalist community. The community is characterized (broadly) by a scientific worldview, skepticism of religion and paranormal claims, atheism, and an almost fanatical devotion to Bayes’ rule. The skeptic wing of rationalism devotes itself to debunking “woo” – paranormal phenomena, energy healing, psychics, spoon benders, and the like. The wing known as “effective altruism” devotes itself to doing good in the most rational ways possible: donating money to charities that save the most lives per dollar, for instance. (My personal observation is that many self-identified effective altruists are vegans, evidencing their concern for not only human but animal lives as well.) Overall, the rationalist community is concerned with having correct beliefs; a troll might even call this their sacred value. Frequent topics of discussion include artificial intelligence, game theory, and optimizing effectiveness in personal goals.

You may or may not be aware that there is such a thing as post-rationalism (see, e.g., this and this). Post-rationalists tend to value true beliefs, but have more sympathy for religion, ritual, and tradition (including monogamy) than the rationalist community. They are skeptical of the ability of science (as it is practiced) to solve humanity’s problems and provide a sense of meaning or happiness.
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Quasiparticles and the Miracle of Emergence

Let’s start with a big question: why does science work?

Writ large, science is the process of identifying and codifying the rules obeyed by nature. Beyond this general goal, however, science has essentially no specificity of topic.  It attempts to describe natural phenomena on all scales of space, time, and complexity: from atomic nuclei to galaxy clusters to humans themselves.  And the scientific enterprise has been so successful at each and every one of these scales that at this point its efficacy is essentially taken for granted.

But, by just about any a priori standard, the extent of science’s success is extremely surprising. After all, the human brain has a very limited capacity for complex thought. We human tend to think (consciously) only about simple things in simple terms, and we are quickly overwhelmed when asked to simultaneously keep track of multiple independent ideas or dependencies.

As an extreme example, consider that human thinking struggles to describe even individual atoms with real precision. How is it, then, that we can possibly have good science about things that are made up of many atoms, like magnets or tornadoes or eukaryotic cells or planets or animals? It seems like a miracle that the natural world can contain patterns and objects that lie within our understanding, because the individual constituents of those objects are usually far too complex for us to parse.

You can call this occurrence the “miracle of emergence”.  I don’t know how to explain its origin. To me, it is truly one of the deepest and most wondrous realities of the universe: that simplicity continuously emerges from the teeming of the complex.

But in this post I want to try and present the nature of this miracle in one of its cleanest and most essential forms. I’m going to talk about quasiparticles.

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The Berliners #3: Sparring Session


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Distinctions and Differences

The Rumsfeld epistemology of ignorance, along with Taleb’s popular expositions of it, has been one of the more useful additions to the zeitgeist in the last decade. Here’s my 2×2 version, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock since 2003.


This is possibly the most basic map of external, objective realities you can make up.

I’ve long felt that it should be possible to make an equally basic map of internal, subjective realities. I think I have one now.

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The Berliners #2: This is Important

This is important

Climate Change Op-Ed

No long essay this week on ribbonfarm, but I just had an op-ed appear on The Atlantic site, a piece on climate change that’s a response to the (excellent) Bill Gates interview in the print issue.

Why Solving Climate Change Will Be Like Mobilizing for War

What Gates and others are advocating for is not so much a technological revolution as a technocratic one. One for which there is no successful peacetime precedent. Which is not to say, of course, that it cannot work. There is always a first time for every new level of complexity and scale in human cooperation. But it’s sobering to look back at the (partial) precedents we do have.

Go read the whole thing.

I have to thank Sam Penrose and Jim McDermott for helping me think this piece through.

I also strongly recommend the writing of David Roberts on Vox (also this piece on Grist) if you want to dive deeper into the climate change rabbit-hole. Given the length constraint (it’s a ~2000 word piece), I couldn’t fit in all the interesting things I learned research this article.

Some of my recent off-ribbonfarm writing has been a new kind of fun because I’ve taken legible political positions, which I rarely do here. In Breaking Smart, I took a fairly standard libertarian position. Here, I’m taking a left-of-center liberal position. I suppose one of these days, I’ll argue a classic conservative position. Very un-American to pick a side (or not) depending on the specifics of an issue rather than fixed tribal loyalties, but what can I say. I prefer my politics a la carte. 

One learning from doing this off-ribbonfarm stuff is that when political positions are so obviously telegraphed, 80% of readers react very quickly (either negatively or positively) based on the first few dogwhistle phrases they spot. So all nuance is lost. But it’s a good way to filter for people who are worth talking with, since they tend to read more fully and attentively.

The Berliners #1


Introducing The Berliners, an experimental ribbonfarm comic strip inspired by (but not limited to) Isaiah Berlin’s Fox and Hedgehog. Drawn by Grace, written by Venkat. Please bear with us while we both learn the craft.