Breaking Smart

Today, I am launching a new site: Breaking Smart. It is a seasonal binge-reading site (think Netflix binge-watching, but for blogs) devoted to big-picture analysis of technology trends. Starting with this first season, I plan to publish a complete season of essays once every 2 years. The inaugural season has 20 essays, amounting to a total of about 30,000 words. For those of you planning a lazy, slow August of vacationing, staycationing and catching up on reading, I hope Season 1 of Breaking Smart makes it onto your shortlist and propels you back to work in September with a fresh set of ideas about how the world works. I am also launching a new weekly email newsletter (in illustrated tweetstorm format!) that you can subscribe to on the site.

Season 1 explores the theme of “software eating the world.” Marc Andreessen, who coined the phrase in a 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed, and also helped me explore it through several in-depth discussions last year, has been kind enough to write an introduction.


Unlike my writing on ribbonfarm, which has an unabashedly insider tone (you either get what refactoring is or you don’t), I have consciously tried to make Breaking Smart accessible to a broad audience. Among the most fun parts of achieving a more accessible tone was working with artist Grace Witherell to come up with a bunch of great illustrations to accompany the text. The montage above, composed from a selection of the individual illustrations from this season, should give you a sense of the essays.

So head on over to to start reading. Or read the rest of this post first, for the backstory of how this site came to be, and details on how you can help it boldly go where no website has gone before.

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Inbox Zero versus Flow Laminar

The world of stream-metaphor workflows in tools like Slack and Github — with strongly emphasized temporal structure, and the realistic probabilistic expectations of chat replacing the illusory deterministic expectations of email — has made me reconsider how I think about information processing. In particular, I’ve moved from an Inbox Zero mental model to a Flow Laminar mental model, as illustrated in this picture.

Inbox Zero, while a great concept within the limits of email and paper (“Clean Desk policy”), is a fundamentally authoritarian high-modernist concept. It creates a strong, bright line between profane and sacred regimes of information, and encourages you to get to illusory control (a clean inbox) by hiding precisely the illegible chaos that’s tempting and dangerous to ignore (if you use folders, you likely have one or more misc folders even if you don’t call them that). This is dangerous because you’re just moving unprocessed chaos from a procrastination zone with strong temporal cues (the Inbox) to a denial zone with broken temporal cues (the set of de facto misc folders).

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Cooperative Ignorance

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

“Ironically, once ignorance is defined, it loses its very definition.”
—Linsey McGoey, “The Logic of Strategic Ignorance

In game theory, rational parties try to maximize their expected payoff, assuming that the other parties are rational, too. Rationality can be a handicap, though: a rational party is limited in the threats it can make compared to an irrational party, because a rational party can’t credibly threaten to harm its own interests. An irrational party may be harder to cooperate with and less likely to be chosen as a cooperation partner, but in certain situations, it has more powerful strategies open to it than a party limited by rational maximization of expected value. An irrational party is not to be messed with, and can often demand concessions that would not be given to a rational party. Evolutionary psychologists, for instance, posit that altruistic punishment is an adaptation that fits in this slot – giving people sufficient irrational motivation to harm their own interests for the sake of promoting fairness norms. Rationality is good, but a little strategic irrationality is better – especially in the service of promoting cooperation. [Read more…]

New Horizons

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to start a second track of weekly content on ribbonfarm, featuring short, dense pieces in text or visual form. I can’t think of a better way to kick that off than with an image more dense with significance than almost any image I’m likely to see in my lifetime.


In this one picture of Pluto, taken just ahead of the (now completed, with data streaming back) New Horizons flyby, is encapsulated a few centuries of telescopic astronomy, just over a century of flight, and just over half a century of spaceflight. This picture also marks an end and a beginning. Along with the Rosetta comet lander mission and the Dawn asteroid mission (which returned images of Ceres), New Horizons marks the tail end of a basic exploration of the solar system. At the same time, we are at the beginning of a serious exploration of the universe beyond, thanks to early 21st century planet hunters and the Kepler mission (an excellent summer read on the subject is Five Billion Years of Solitude by Lee Billings) and the upcoming Hubble replacement, the James Webb telescope.

We are exploring beyond new horizons and living once again in brave new times, where men are real men, women are real women, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri are real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri.

A Better Art Vocabulary, Part 2

To recap, in my last post I talked about some of the things people mean when they say a work of art is “good”:

  1. A display of skill awed me
  2. I had a heightened experience
  3. The work gave me animal pleasure
  4. It is morally good that this work exists
  5. The work accurately described reality

Today I’m going to drill down on #4, the big M, m-o-r-a-l-i-t-y. What do we mean when we say (or think, or imply) that a work of art is morally good or bad? Is talking about morality with respect to art a necessary mode or a failure mode? That is, does it matter? How much?

When I was in high school, smart kids would eagerly remind you that Oscar Wilde said “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all”–and feel very clever. I had the entire preface to Picture of Dorian Gray in my Facebook quotes from 2005-2009  so I know what I’m talking about here. But even Oscar Wilde doesn’t really get into what he means by ‘moral’. And this is a problem because just about anyone can clearly perceive that art can have effects that are bad or intents that are good, and those things seem related to morality. So let’s taboo the word ‘morality’ and replace it with some other concepts.

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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?

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…]