Free Money

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

To: Human Subjects Review Board
Re: Universal Basic Income Study

We propose to give people money for five years. We will have them fill out some surveys.

Recently, Y Combinator announced plans to fund a research study on universal basic income. Everybody is all excited and/or mad about it. I do not have an opinion; rather, I’m interested in using it as a lens to think about predictions in complex systems, avoiding harm, the modern invention and subsequent fall of the work ethic, and the innovation-driving effect of procrastination and useless hobbies.

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Podcasts with Longform and Farnam Street

I did a couple of podcasts in the last few months.

The first was with Aaron Lammer of Longform in November, at their studio in Brooklyn. We talked about living versus observing gonzo lifestyles, developing an identity as a reader and as a writer, life scripts and going off them, and a lot more.

Longform podcast

The second was with Shane Parrish of Farnam Street, over Skype (so there’s a bit of static in parts). We started off talking about Tempo, various styles of decision-making, staying grounded in reality by maintaining cracks in your mental models, being shaped by the work you do and the books you read, and so forth. I think I rambled a bit in this one. Note to self, chunk it up.

Farnam Street Knowledge Project podcast.

I am recording one more podcast, with Dan and Ian over at Tropical MBA, tomorrow. So you can look out for that in the next few weeks. I’ll try and talk about stuff I haven’t already covered in these two.

Podcasts are interesting. I’ve done a few radio programs and podcasts over the years, but there does seem to be a big spike in the medium (I think the last one I did before this spate of requests was in 2013). Several readers have suggested that I ought to try my hand at the game, but I don’t have any good ideas that lend themselves to the format. Plus it seems like a lot of work, so for the moment, I’ve decided to stay out of the game. Being on others’ podcasts is fun though. For those of you who like audio though, it seems Pocket now offers audio for arbitrary content. I haven’t yet tried it, but maybe you’ll like having ribbonfarm posts read out to you.

I’m having a lot of fun taking a break from writing and playing around with comics, which is why I haven’t yet done a real long-form post yet this year. Also because all the posts in my drafts folder seem to be long and complicated, and are taking forever to finish in the midst of a rather messy start to my year on the consulting side.

In other random news, I also recently upgraded to an iPad Pro with a Pencil, and it’s a life-changer for anyone who makes heavy use of thinking tools. Worth getting. It’s better than pen and paper.

Productivity for Precious Snowflakes

We’ve been told for years now that what our parents and kindergarten teachers told us is not, in fact, true — we are not each and every one of us special unique snowflakes destined for greatness. In this essay I want to offer a new theory of productivity for those of us who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, still believe there is something valuable about our particular point of view. I will argue that the fundamental driver of creative work today is not values, goals, or processes, but unique states of mind.

Two identical snowflakes, via the NYT

Let’s start by taking this idea to unreasonable extremes: hyper-advanced aliens and digital souls.

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Berliners #8: Red String

berliners8

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Berliners #7: Organic, Free-Range Chicken and Egg

berliners7

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Berliners #6: Purgatorinomics

berliners6

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On Some Possibilities for Life as a Joke

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

If we hear the metaphor “life is a joke,” our usual inference is a negative one: that a joke is a pitiful and sad thing for life to be, that life should be more than a “mere” joke. It seems to be a negative judgment of both life and humor.

Here I will explore the difficulties of living life as a joke, a feat that requires agency, intelligence, creativity, and hard work, and has perhaps been achieved by only a handful of sages throughout history, if at all. I will examine other common metaphors for life, and see how they compare to life-as-joke on moral and aesthetic grounds. A joke is itself a complex cognitive phenomenon; I will review the most promising theory of humor from cognitive science, that of Hurley, Dennett, and Adams, to highlight the technical problems of the phenomenon of life as a joke. I will distinguish mere deception and other phenomena that might first appear to be living life as a joke, but upon closer inspection are lesser things. Finally I will present a few candidates for successful lives-as-jokes: Laozi and Zhuangzi, Socrates, and Andy Kaufman. I will argue that a joke is an excellent thing for a life to be, though of course very few can achieve it.
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Complete 2015 Roundup

Here’s the complete roundup for 2015 in chronological order. New readers this year might want to check out the 2014 roundup and 2013 roundup. If you want to do some binge reading further back into the archives, there is a page for the Rust Age (2007-12) with both curated selections and complete roundups. This year we released an update to the ribbonfarm map (post 39 below), which is a decent representation (though biased towards my personal interests) of the themes we’ve been exploring through the year.

mapfinal1

Let’s dive in and take a look at the year’s refactoring.

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We Are All Architects Now

When I had my first mid-life crisis at age 17, I really didn’t know how to handle it. I went from sociable and friendly to morose and uncommunicative overnight, and stayed that way for a year. Now, 24 years later, I am getting really good at navigating them. I predicted 11 of my last 5 mid-life crises. I’m now skilled enough that I can provide expert consulting support to people who are too busy to have mid-life crises frequently enough to get good at it.

The key is to freak out early and freak out often (FEFO) in an agile way, and work towards a lifestyle that (ideally) feels like one continuously integrated and deployed mid-life crisis. There is actually good intellectual justification for approaching life this way. It’s called the Lindy effect, which says you’ll live as long again as you already have, until you don’t.

Which means you’re always at mid-life. Until you’re not.

This can be a difficult idea to grasp, so as Matt Damon said recently about poop-grown potatoes on Mars, we’re going to have to discourse the shit out of this thing.

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Field Theory of Swords

I don’t mean to brag, but if you’ve been following this sequence of posts on ribbonfarm, then I’ve sort of taught you the secret to modern physics.

The secret goes like this:

Everything arises from fields, and fields arise from everything.


Go ahead.
You can indulge in a good eye-roll over the new-agey sound of that line.
(And over the braggadocio of the author.)

But eye-rolling aside, that line actually does refer to a very profound idea in physics. Namely, that the most fundamental object in nature is the field: a continuous, space-filling entity that has a simple mathematical structure and supports “undulations” or “ripples” that act like physical particles. (I offered a few ways to visualize fields in this post and this post.) To me, it is the most mind-blowing fact of modern physics that we call particles are really just “ripples” or “defects” on some infinite field.

But the miraculousness of fields isn’t just limited to fundamental particles. Fields also emerge at much higher levels of reality, as composite objects made from the motion of many active and jostling things. For example, one can talk about a “field” made from a large collection of electrons, atoms, molecules, cells, or even people. The “particles” in these fields are ripples or defects that move through the crowd. It is one of the miracles of science that essentially any sufficiently large group of interacting objects gives rise to simple collective excitations that behave like independent, free-moving particles.

Maybe this discussion seems excessively esoteric to you.  I can certainly understand that objection. But the truth is that the basic paradigm of particles and fields is so generic and so powerful that one can apply it to just about any level of nature.

So we might as well use it to talk about something awesome.

Let’s talk about swords.

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