About Guest

Ribbonfarm is a longform blog featuring a variety of themes and perspectives. The common factor is the general idea of "refactored perception." If you are interested in writing for us as a guest contributor, check out this page.

How to Dress for the Game of Life

This is a guest post by Pamela J. Hobart.

Being basic involves wearing regular stuff for being regular’s sake. And “normcore” is the practice of choosing certain clothes to blend in, instead of to stand out. What makes basicness and normcore very different from other fashion trends is that they must be understood referentially, in comparison to what other people are wearing, and psychologically, in terms of why a wearer chose the look (instead of being a characteristic inherent in the clothes themselves).

Over the past couple of years, the concept of normcore (as initially conceived by trend forecasting group K-Hole) has been mocked and bastardized, all while quietly taking hold anyway. Its motivation — a frustrated need for belonging — is still felt keenly, and fashion cycle exhaustion is only worsening in a wired, 24/7 world. Models who might have hit the runway a few times per year have given way to fashion bloggers who change outfits multiple times per day. A quick scroll through Instagram is all you need to figure out the hard truth: there’s nothing new to wear under the sun.

The promise of normcore

The promise of normcore

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Cannon Balls, Plate Tectonics, and Invisible Elephants

This is a guest post by Hal Morris.

For our pre-technical ancestors, the clockwork at the bottom of the material world was so clothed in messiness that hardly a trace of it appeared on the surface.  But you could say that three exposed bits collectively formed a Rosetta stone to the mathematical language of nature:  a thrown rock, a pendulum, and the solar system, revealed by the night sky.  The last had to be viewed from such a difficult angle that reams of tables, centuries worth of exact observations, and a huge advance in mathematics were required to see it, but it was there to be seen.

Antique Orrery, source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons 20

The concept of machine pervades our culture, and has driven many philosophical debates for centuries.

For example, it is often argued that living organisms, or the human mind, are “ultimately just machines”. I.e. underlying all the messy organic complexity of the world’s surface is a level at which things function with mechanical or mathematical precision.  Sometimes it is then too blithely concluded that this proves we can eventually replicate anything, including the human brain.

But if “everything is a machine”, it can’t contribute anything to any argument  because it doesn’t distinguish anything from anything else.

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Rolling Your Own Culture and (Not) Finding Community

This is a guest post by Timothy Roy.

In economically advanced democracies, whose universities teach some sort of Enlightenment tradition and technocratic specialty, societies often do not share in common (and do not teach) certain important cultural cores.

These cores, which I think of as modules, include personal conflict resolution (how do we disagree? how do we apologize?), personal finances (how do we spend our money? how luxuriously should we live? how much should we save?), personal fitness (how do I maintain my body? what athletic skills should be practiced to promote health and strength?), and emotional or spiritual growth (more on this later).


These cultural modules are important because they address large parts of day-to-day life and overall lifestyle. They are also important because each module or chunk of teachings/practices can be fairly extensive, and hard to derive from scratch. Individuals, and entire societies, may take a long time to rediscover some of these helpful practices.

Fortunately for those of us bred in educational systems which run light on these cultural modules, there are lots of gurus around which are not too hard to discover. By taking a guru here and a guru there, you can form a complete personal culture, a complete lifestyle.

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Robert Martinson and the Tragedy of the American Prison

This is a guest post by Adam Humphreys based on a documentary he’s making. This is an early version of an evolving story, and this post may be updated as ongoing research uncovers more details.


The idea that prisons should do more than hold people and that criminals might be reformed, or corrected, collapses endlessly under the pressure of human experience, but persists nonetheless. Among its first American proponents was a man named Zebulon Brockway.

As superintendent of several prisons in the middle of the nineteenth century, Brockway came to view crime as a kind of disease, and the prison as a kind of hospital. He wrote, “to reduce crime a true prison system should recognize the criminal classes for what they are, and bring to bear upon them the forces necessary to modify their behavior.”


Brockway experimented with several such forces—vocational training, rewards for good behavior, so-called moral education—but it wasn’t until 1876, as superintendent of Elmira Reformatory in Elmira, New York, that he was given the latitude to implement his most daring conceit: the indeterminate sentence.

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Paradox and the Origins of Civilisation

This is a guest post by Darren Allen, joining us from his home turf at expressivegg.org.

The famous duck-rabbit optical illusion is a paradox, meaning that it is both one thing, and another, at the same time. The interpreting mind can never experience it this way. To the mind the image is either a duck or a rabbit, one after the other, but not both at the same time. The abstract thinking mind may know it is both, but this knowledge is itself a non-paradoxical either-or idea. The thinking mind cannot experience something that is simultaneously itself and something else; it can only comprehend one thing after another. Every time you try to directly experience the image as it fully, paradoxically, is, as both things at once, it is immediately reduced to what it partially, non-paradoxically is; to one thing or another. For a split second you think you’ve got both the full, direct, primary duck and rabbit simultaneously—perhaps because you can successfully label it a paradox—but really you are just flashing rapidly between partial, indirect, secondary mental interpretations.

Duck-Rabbit Duality

Duck-Rabbit Duality

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Crowds and Technology

This is a guest post by Renee DiResta

“There is no other hope for the survival of mankind than knowing enough about the people it is made up of.” – Elias Canetti

Two closely related themes have proved very newsworthy over the past several months: the candidacy of Donald Trump, and harassment mobs on the Internet. The overlap between them is interesting because in the past we haven’t typically associated American Presidential campaigns, no matter how close or contentious, with online mobs. This time, however, we have stories about the election intersecting with the rise of online harassment mobs, anti-Semitic Twitter trolls, and even Kremlin influence bots.

Illustration by Grace Witherell

Illustration by Grace Witherell

Although this weird election cycle has made them more newsworthy, mobs, demagogues, and populist movements are obviously not new. What is new and interesting is how social media has transformed age-old crowd behaviors. In the past decade, we’ve built tools that have reconfigured the traditional, centuries-old relationship between crowds and power, transforming what used to be sporadic, spontaneous, and transient phenomena into permanent features of the social landscape. The most important thing about digitally transformed crowds is this: unlike IRL crowds, they can persist indefinitely. And this changes everything.

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Startups, Secrets, and Abductive Reasoning

Guest post by Joseph Kelly.

But we must conquer the truth by guessing, or not at all.  CS Peirce

An early episode at at my last company demonstrated one of the paradoxes of startup product development.  At this time our product was still early and undefined.  I had spoken with a potential client about their goals for a project and was trying to create a sales proposal with the engineering team.

Pretty quickly I grew frustrated.  When I’d ask the engineers what we could do for a particular feature, every answer was “well, how does the client want it?”  I wanted to present the client something concrete, but being capable engineers, my team believed they could build anything.

This went on for several minutes before I broke the cycle and said: “If you’re a contractor and the client asks you to build them a gazebo, you don’t ask them everything from what roof pitch angle they want to what kind of screws to use.  You pitch one gazebo design, or a few, then you work together to reach a final version.”  That clicked instantly and we were able to move forward.  My anecdote forced us to adopt a lesser-known mode of reasoning that I’ll explore in this essay, called abduction, which is critical to developing your product strategy.

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The Political Hangover of Prohibition

This is a guest post by Craig Roche, a data scientist and artisanal landlord.

Whiskey is very easy to make.  Farmers used to make it at home using their crops, and Henry Ford designed the Model T to run on home-distilled ethanol.  George Washington distilled 55,000 bottles/year when he retired from being President. Even the mutineers from the Bounty set up a still on Pitcairn Island, and proceeded to get rip-roaringly drunk for weeks at a time. Whiskey is also very cheap to produce;  a bushel of corn ($5 or so), plus 60 cents worth of natural gas can produce 11 liters of automobile-grade ethanol, which, when suitably diluted and aged for drinking purposes, can fill 35 bottles.  Whiskey for human consumption requires higher-quality inputs, more energy for multiple distillations, and additional handling, but even so, decent hooch can be produced for less than $2/bottle. In the 1830s, the equivalent of a bottle of whiskey went for about $5, and Americans responded by guzzling roughly one each week per capita; as young children generally abstained, actual drinkers drank substantially more, all of which was tax-free.

If we assume that the desire to drink, especially among the poor, is an important motivation in peoples’ lives, you would expect alcohol markets to shed light on political conditions across states.

Jack Daniels is the world’s most popular brand of whiskey, and is widely distributed in every state in the US in a standard 750ml container; it is produced fairly close to the mean center of US population, so it should therefore work as a good lens on alcohol politics. Left to a free market, one would reasonably expect that the cost of a retailed bottle would vary with transportation costs, and somewhat with labor rates, or alternatively, that lower-income consumers would spend about the same fraction of their income on Jack Daniels across the USA, or in other words, that the working time per bottle would be constant.

To test this, I researched the cost of a standard bottle of Jack Daniels in each of the states at a high-volume liquor store in the largest city in each state, and compared it to the average wage at the 25th percentile:


Figure 1: Labor Cost of Jack Daniels (Image source: Craig Roche)

The results were not what I expected. It turns out that the constant-working-time-per-bottle hypothesis is not even close.

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Cognitive Archeology of the West

This is a guest post by Paula Hay 

Venkat’s recent post The Disruption of Bronze touched on a subject I’ve been pursuing fervently for the better part of a decade now: the time frame in which psychologically modern humans evolved. More than that, however, my interest is in why and how human psychology shifted to cause the sudden, radical changes that ultimately resulted in civilization.

My view is that without an understanding of this shift, there can be no evolution beyond the devouring, predatory virus that is civilized culture. In a mere 10,000 years, civilization has all but wrecked the planet — a truly impressive horror.

Collapse (of either the slow or sudden variety, take your pick) is a certainty, in my opinion; what I needed, for my own sanity, was a context in which to fit this state of affairs. Does the story really begin and end with American avarice? Are humans condemned to repeat the rise-and-fall of civilizations until we wipe ourselves out for the last time? Is there no greater narrative arc here?

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King Gustavus’ Folly: The Story of the Vasa

Guest post by Jim Anderson

In my life, new product ideas are always showing up. However, whether we’re talking about new products or just new ideas, if too many people get involved in making them “better”, the whole thing can fall apart. Perhaps a story would help me to make my point.

(This is a guest post by Jim Anderson of Blue Elephant Consulting. Click here if you are interested in guest posting.)

My favorite story of what can happen when you let too many other people get involved in designing a solution has to do with a boat. Maybe I should say this more clearly: it has to do with a ship that was created a long time ago in Sweden.

(Picture by Javier Kohen, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0)