A Neptune Kid, Waiting to Always-Already Know Pluto

If you’ve ever wondered what it means to always-already know something, you’re about to get a powerful demonstration, along with the rest of the planet. If all goes well with the NASA New Horizons mission, in a few weeks, you will always-already know what Pluto looks like. At crater-level detail.

As of June 29th, these low-detail teaser images of the Pluto-Charon system, based on the latest New Horizons update, are as good as it gets:



Savor the moment. Those born after around 2010 (I assume 5-year-olds are too young to appreciate the moment) will never know what it was like to not know what Pluto looks like. And those of us who do know will find it hard or impossible to re-experience that mental state of not knowing.

Moments like this, just before a significant collective mind-expansion, are rare. The last time we experienced something like this was in 1989, when Voyager 2 arrived at Neptune. That event changed my life.

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Where do Electric Forces Come From?

This is a guest post by Brian Skinner. Brian is a theoretical physicist who currently works at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago.  He blogs at Gravity and Levity.

There’s a good chance that, at some point in your life, someone told you that nature has four fundamental forces: gravity, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and the electromagnetic force.

This factoid is true, of course.

But what you probably weren’t told is that, at the scale of just about any natural thing that you are likely to think about, only one of those four forces has any relevance.  Gravity, for example, is so obscenely weak that one has to collect planet-sized balls of matter before its effect becomes noticeable.  At the other extreme, the strong nuclear force is so strong that it can never go unneutralized over distances larger than a few times the diameter of an atomic nucleus (\( \sim 10^{-15}\) meters); any larger object will essentially never notice its existence.  Finally, the weak nuclear force is extremely short-ranged, so that it too has effectively no influence over distances larger than \( \sim 10^{-15}\) meters.

That leaves the electromagnetic force, or, in other words, the Coulomb interaction.  This is the familiar law that says that like charges repel each and opposites attract.  This law alone dominates the interactions between essentially all objects larger than an atomic nucleus (\( 10^{-15}\) meters) and smaller than a planet (\( 10^{7}\) meters).  That’s more than twenty powers of ten.

But not only does the “four fundamental forces” meme give a false sense of egalitarianism between the forces, it is also highly misleading for another reason.  Namely, in physics forces are not considered to be “fundamental”.  They are, instead, byproducts of the objects that really are fundamental (to the best of our knowledge): fields.

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The Boydian Dialectic

If you’re a certain sort of metacognition-obsessed person, at some point in your intellectual wanderings, you will eventually run into a murky and illegible world of ideas and practices swirling around words and phrases like OODA loop, control the tempo, snowmobile, fast transient, maneuver warfare, E-M theory, inside the decision cycle of your adversary, fight the enemy, not the terrain, and be somebody or do something. If these seem vaguely familiar or have a peculiar resonance for you, you’ve encountered this world. It is the world of “Boydian” ideas, which swirls chaotically around the life and intellectual legacy of John Boyd. You’ve seen glimpses of this memeplex on this site before, and probably elsewhere on the Internet and in meatspace as well.

In the last four years, I’ve found myself giving impromptu and messy introductory tutorials on Boydian thought multiple times, in contexts ranging from casual emails and executive coaching conversations to online debates and talks at events. I’ve done 1-minute versions and 3-hour versions. I get reactions ranging from instant recognition (“Oh, I’ve often done that, I didn’t know there was a German word for it!”) to complete and bewildered incomprehension.

I figured it’d be fun to try writing a quick-and-dirty practical guide to this stuff, so I don’t have to keep repeating myself. So this post is the first of a series meant to serve as an initiation of sorts into Boydian thought. It’s not an “introduction” since the idea space resists that kind of entry. Think of it as a guided segue into an ongoing live-fire conversation.

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The Things You Carry

The title story in The Things they Carried, Tim O’Brien’s classic collection of loosely related short stories about a group of Vietnam-era American soldiers, is one of my favorite pieces of fiction. Here’s a taste:

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives,  heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.

While the story is well worth reading for its own sake, what has stuck in my mind since I first read it is the idea that the things we carry reveal a great deal about us. Oddly enough, this has become more true as more of the things we carry get eaten by smartphone apps. The things you carry, both on and off your phone, now say a lot more about you. Because they are mostly not determined by necessity; they are determined by possibilities.

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Puzzle Theory

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Let me set the mood by revealing that the starting point for this investigation was the movie Room 237, a “fan theory” documentary about people contemplating Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining. A fan theory is an interpretation of an item of art, usually fiction of some kind, that is surprising, bizarre, novel, or disturbing, and puts the item of art in a new perspective. TVTropes calls the phenomenon “fridge brilliance” (that is, theories that you fumble toward after the show is over, when you’re camped in front of the fridge swigging from the milk jug). Movies, television, and books are the usual stuff discussed in the mode of fan theory; the phenomenon also manifests in discussions of the meanings of song lyrics.

In Room 237, theories about The Shining range from the plausible to the bizarre. We are presented with evidence for a subtext of the holocaust, and for a related subtext of the genocide of the American Indians. Individual frames are scrutinized for references to minotaurs and labyrinths. The case is made that Kubrick cunningly alludes to faking the documentary footage of the Apollo moon landings (while the fan theorist explicitly says his theory has no bearing on whether the famed moon landings are factual and happened, he proposes that the iconic Apollo video footage is fake).

One has the sensation of creeping into a labyrinth of enormous size and complexity. The movie is pleasantly chilling, but also profoundly satisfying, hinting at promised gifts, unexplored creation, a frontier. [Read more…]

The Amazing, Shrinking Org Chart

About a year ago, an 1855 org chart of the New York and Erie railroad was cascaded worldwide by the VP of the Infographics Department of the Internet. There was a good deal of admiration as well as lamentation. Apparently we no longer care enough about our corporations to create beautiful depictions of their anatomy, ars gratia artis. Whatever else the shortcomings of mid-nineteenth century corporate management (they had a tendency to start wars and gun down workers in pursuit of their Missions and Visions among other things, and you had to be a quick-draw gunfighter to earn a Harvard MBA in those days), they clearly cared. 


Library of Congress (via McKinsey)

By contrast, a modern set of org charts is usually a showcase of apathetic PowerPoint banality. In fact, you rarely ever see a big global view anymore. Just little local views that could, in principle, be patched together into a global view, but in practice never are. Often, even CEOs only have a coarse, low-resolution view of the whole, with blocks representing entire huge divisions of thousands of humans and billions in capital assets. There is usually no operational capability for drilling down into finer points where the situation demands it (Proctor and Gamble, apparently, is an exception). Most senior executives — VP and above in organizations of 1500 or more people say — are in the position of surgeons operating on the basis of having played the kids’ game Operation rather than on the basis of medical training and tools like MRI machines.

There’s a very good excuse for this though: the pace of organizational and environmental change today turns static maps into garbage very quickly. The part of the organization that is both possible and useful to represent using an org chart has been rapidly shrinking.

What, if anything, should be done about it?

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Pretending to Care, Pretending to Agree

A couple of years ago, I happened to catch the tail-end of a performance of Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play Our Town on TV, and the poignant closing soliloquy stuck in my mind:

Most everybody’s asleep in Grover’s Corners. There are a few lights on: Shorty Hawkins, down at the depot, has just watched the Albany train go by. And at the livery stable somebody’s setting up late and talking. Yes, it’s clearing up. There are the stars doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky. Scholars haven’t settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk … or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. The strain‘s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.

Being the unsentimental jerk I am, what stuck in my mind was not the poignancy, but the evocative stress and relaxation metaphor. Today, thanks to the medicalization of angst, most people would use the word stress rather than strain to convey the thought.

But it is actually the engineering sense of both terms, used together, that sheds the most light on the cultural idea underlying the passage above. The distinction and relationship between stress and strain can be understood using a stress-strain graph. Here is a pair I made up that I think represent the human psyche (I’ll explain how to read it in a minute).


In common usage, the stress and strain are used interchangeably, but in engineering, stress is the force acting on a material, while strain is the resulting distortion in the material. In humans, stress can be measured by the internal anxiety we feel, and various physiological symptoms. Strain can be measured by the distortion represented by the social masks we need to maintain, in order to function under that stress.

There are two basic types of masks: masks of pretending to care are exit masks, and masks of pretending to agree are voice masks. I suspect these two kinds of masks, between them, cover almost all cases of preference falsification, the concept Sarah introduced us to in her post a couple of weeks ago. Much of her post had to do with the effects of voice masks at the scale of nations, but in this post I want to consider both together at an individual scale.

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Technopaganism and the Newer Age

Ryan Tanaka is a resident blogger, visiting us from his home turf at http://ryan-writer.com.

Elon Musk, in response to the popularity of HBO’s hit comedy Silicon Valley, once remarked that Hollywood doesn’t “get” SV culture because it doesn’t understand what Burning Man is all about.

Most of us here have seen the pictures and heard something it, but what exactly is Burning Man, anyway?  Why are pictures of the event posted in the hallways and offices of the Googleplex, and why is it a topic of conversation that comes up over and over among those working in tech?

Burning Man

Photo by Kyle Harmon from Oakland, CA, USA. (Accessed from Wikipedia – 05/10/15)

Beneath the confusion and craziness, Burning Man can be seen as a manifestation of the sentimentality and spirit of the Bay Area, compressed into an intense, week-long ordeal: techies, hippies, individualists, creatives/artists and progressives all living in close proximity, thrown together into an uncontrolled mix. A giant social experiment of sorts, organized into a ceremonial ritual, conducted year after year.

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Weaponized Sacredness

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Author’s note: The thinking that gave rise to this essay was committed in collaboration with St. Rev. Errors, suspicious implications, and dubious conclusions are my own.

On March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam, just north of Los Angeles, California, failed catastrophically and sent a wave of water through the valley that caused the gruesome deaths of hundreds of people. No one had predicted the disaster, but after an investigation, it was decided that the dam was built on inadequate soil; the disaster was, in theory, predictable – after the fact. People thought they had control over a massive force (the water), but their control turned out to be illusory.

Considering political and social disasters like the famines of the Great Leap Forward in China or the French Revolution, a similar explanation for the resulting piles of bodies seems apt: social forces over which humans thought they had control (in the sense of being able to coordinate with each other for well-being and sustenance) turned out not to be under their control. No one ever sees it coming, but after the fact everyone is anxious to demonstrate how inevitable it was. If mass violence and destruction seem impossible in our time, consider that everyone who was about to experience revolution felt pretty much the same way. Even the revolutionaries themselves often think they have little chance of success until the revolution is already underway.
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Roundup: January – April 2015

It’s been a busy few weeks for me. Since I just returned from three weeks in Chile and am still catching my breath, you get a roundup instead of new material this week. We’ve had 16 posts so far this year: four from Sarah, two from Haley, one from Ryan and nine from me. The themes have been all over the place: rituals, community, art theory, video games and corporate humor. Both for me personally, and for the blog, it appears to be a season of experimentation.

  1. A Better Art Vocabulary, Part 1 (Haley)
  2. The Capitalist’s Zombie (Venkat)
  3. The Essence of Peopling (Sarah)
  4. The Art of Gig III (Venkat)
  5. The Art of Gig II (Venkat)
  6. The Art of Gig (Venkat)
  7. The Art of Agile Leadership (Venkat)
  8. Gardens Need Walls: On Boundaries, Ritual, and Beauty (Sarah)
  9. The Mother of All 2x2s (Venkat)
  10. A Dent in the Universe (Venkat)
  11. What Is Ritual? (Sarah)
  12. The Heroine’s Journey (Haley)
  13. Let’s Play! Narrative Discovery vs. Expert Guides (Ryan)
  14. On the Design of Escaped Realities (Venkat)
  15. Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture (Sarah)
  16. Black Mirror as Hell-Is-Other-People Futurism (Venkat)