Breaking Smart Afternoon Workshop, and Evening Meetup, London, Sept 11

I’ll be in Europe for Sept 6-14 doing a few Breaking Smart workshops in Zurich and London. One of these  is a public (ticketed, but free) workshop on Friday, September 11, at Campus London in Shoreditch, 12:30 PM – 2:30 PM. If you are based in London, it’d be great if you can make it. Click here to register.

I’m also planning to pull together a ribbonfarm/breaking-smart drinks meetup later on the same day, at 7 PM, also in Shoreditch. If you can make it, please RSVP on Facebook. Location TBD.


I’ll also have some limited availability over the weekend (12th, 13th) if you want to meet. Especially if you’re willing to play tour guide briefly :)

This will actually be my first non-airport visit to the UK. Somehow I’ve never managed to manufacture an excuse to visit the UK on previous Europe trips. So I’m looking forward to meeting long-time online friends and exploring a bit. For those who missed the announcement, breaking smart is a new site+workshop+mailing list I launched last month. Go check it out.

Learning is the Opposite of Healing

I was trying to analyze the difference between various ways of learning-by-doing, and came up with a 2×2 that captures an idea that is in hindsight very obvious: learning is the opposite of healing. Learning is an activity with a high failure rate, and therefore high probability of damage and injury. Which means the opposite is an activity that heals. I got to the idea by taking what I consider the three basic kinds of learning (goal-directed or project-based, habit-directed or play-based, and recipe-directed or rote-based, corresponding to the three ethical orientations), classifying them by certainty in means versus certainty of ends, and realizing that you could complete a 2×2 like so.


Moral of the story: always complete a triad into a 2×2. You don’t know what obvious-in-hindsight idea you might be missing. By performance in the diagram, I mean an activity that is expected to result in the generation of value in the external world, through some sort of means-ends reasoning. By this definition, ritual that is informed by sincere and literal belief in religious ideas is not actually ritualistic. It belongs in one of the other three quadrants (usually recipe-directed), even though it is based on unproven or false causation models.

This 2×2 suggests that there is or ought to be a distinct ethics associated with ritual-directed behavior, similar to deontological, consequentialist and virtue ethics informing the first 3 quadrants. I think it is ironic ethics. To do something in a genuinely ritualistic way is to do it ironically. This is why the anti-performance label works.

A Children’s Picture-book Introduction to Quantum Field Theory

First of all, don’t panic.

I’m going to try in this post to introduce you to quantum field theory, which is probably the deepest and most intimidating set of ideas in graduate-level theoretical physics.  But I’ll try to make this introduction in the gentlest and most palatable way I can think of: with simple-minded pictures and essentially no math.

To set the stage for this first lesson in quantum field theory, let’s imagine, for a moment, that you are a five-year-old child.  You, the child, are talking to an adult, who is giving you one of your first lessons in science.  Science, says the adult, is mostly a process of figuring out what things are made of.  Everything in the world is made from smaller pieces, and it can be exciting to find out what those pieces are and how they work.  A car, for example, is made from metal pieces that fit together in specially-designed ways.  A mountain is made from layers of rocks that were pushed up from inside the earth.  The earth itself is made from layers of rock and liquid metal surrounded by water and air.

This is an intoxicating idea: everything is made from something.

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Extraordinary Laboratories

Where it is actually used, a (not the) Scientific Method, which I’ll just refer to as a (big-M) Method, is used for scaling an instance of a small-s-small-m scientific method. One that achieved unreasonable traction with respect to a particular problem, suggesting hidden investigative potential: a Method-Mystery Fit (MMF), by analogy to the notion of a Product-Market Fit (PMF) in entrepreneurship. There is no canonical Scientific Method, just a plurality of scalable investigation processes that come and go with particular streams of discovery. When an investigative approach proves to be unreasonably effective, we scale it from method to Method. When we attempt scaling without MMF, we get the cargo cult process I called Science! (with exclamation point). You can tell the difference easily: true Methods are built around scientific instruments, not philosophical concepts. A class of instrument-makers emerges around a true Method. Telescopic observation is a Method. Some funding agency bureaucrat’s idea of “observation, hypothesis, experiment, theory” is not.

Science itself is a methodologically anarchic process, driven by a sensibility rather than a set of techniques. The aggregate of all currently fertile Methods constitute only a small part of all science. But the scaled Methods do share two features: a finite lifespan (there is no immortal Method that yields great discoveries for all eternity at a steady rate) and a deliberative element you could call “experiment design.”

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Executive Engagement

Corporations spend vast amounts of money researching “employee engagement” and worrying about how to shift the distribution in one direction or another as part of some sort of change initiative.

There are good and bad, qualitative and quantitative ways of studying employee engagement. You can study it using survey instruments (something my wife does for her clients), and you can study it using various anthropological lenses, such as metaphors of organization or my model in the Gervais Principle.

Here’s the thing though: when organizational change is possible and desirable at all: executive engagement matters a heck of a lot more, and almost nobody studies it formally. If you take care of executive engagement, employee engagement almost (but not quite) takes care of itself.

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Low Humanity Orbit

I acquired a new hobby last week: watching the International Space Station zip across the sky. The ISS is in low Earth orbit (LEO), with altitude varying between 200-270 miles. It moves fast enough (and is bright enough) to be mistaken for a plane. That gives you an idea of how quickly it moves along in its 93-minute orbit. Since Seattle airport flight paths also pass over where I live, the comparison is quite stark.

I harbor some ISS envy. I’d like to be in the lifestyle equivalent of a LEO orbit: moving incredibly fast, all around the world, using practically no energy, and at an altitude that offers a great view of Earth, but with none of the friction of actually living on Earth. I think of such a lifestyle as a low humanity orbit, LHO. Seeking LHO is, to be quite blunt about it, always a kind of rent-seeking. In the worst case, LHO is parasitism. But in the best case, as with satellites in LEO, you can add some value back on earth while enjoying the easy life yourself (note, here the “easy life” refers to the life of the satellites, not astronauts). A low humanity orbit is also a low-humanity orbit, hyphenated. Not only are you somewhat removed from the main action, you are also a little less human than people in the fray. You’re acting at least a little dead.

Most of us can only expect to experience brief, sub-orbital flights into societal outer space, not LHO. Calendaring friction is a clear first symptom of “getting back in the fray.” In any attempt to create a lifestyle with a high element of routine, unpredictably evolving “hard landscapes” (a GTD term) on the calendar are the main source of LHO rituals getting messed up.

It is easy to be ritual driven if you’re sufficiently above the fray in the vacuum of fully designable lifestyles. This usually means having enough money to either not deal with people at all, or deal with them only on your own terms.

The second option is to be in a tethered orbit, where  you stabilize your lifestyle by hitching it to people or organizations that are in LHO. Tethers create a lot of drag, but do have some of the advantages of being in orbit. You experience atmospheric friction, but don’t have to actively maneuver with it.

The third option of course, is acting completely dead.


Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Disneyland is the most important place in America, and Frontierland is the most important part of Disneyland. By area, it is the largest part of Disneyland. The design of Frontierland occupied a special importance for Walt Disney himself (Richard Francaviglia, Walt Disney’s Frontierland as an Allegorical Map of the American West). Even as the Imagineers had trouble keeping the futuristic buildings of Tommorowland looking “futuristic,” the archaic appeal of Frontierland never faded. Frontierland does not refer to just any frontier: it presents an immersive narrative about the American western frontier, a narrative centered on popular myth and literature. (There is no American Indian genocide in Frontierland, because Frontierland is not about the historical reality of the American frontier.) But its appeal reaches far beyond the American West, drawing visitors from all over the world and self-replicating in Japan, Hong Kong, and France. As the American frontier ceased to exist as a geographic and political reality, in myth it transcended space and culture.

As much as it is composed of myth, theater, and simulation, Frontierland is actually the real frontier.

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960

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The Four Forces for Sociology

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the four fundamental forces in physics ever since I first learned of the idea. I used it as a metaphor for Big History in A Brief History of the Corporation a few years back. Brian Skinner’s meditation on Coulomb interactions and some conversations with my favorite crazy engineer Artem Litvinovich (blog, twitter) have gotten me thinking about the four forces again.

I made up a metaphorical mapping of the four forces to sociology. It’s not pretty, but it’s interesting.

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The Chinese Compressibility Parable

I read the story somewhere as a kid and can’t recall the source now (perhaps one of you can help me). It goes something like this.

There was once a Chinese emperor who wanted to know about everything that had ever happened. This was before Wikipedia, so he instructed his court scholars to go write it all down so he could read it. The scholars toiled for 10 years, and returned with a caravan of 20 camels.

“Here you go,” said the chief scholar. “Twenty camels, twenty beautifully bound volumes per camel. I think we got everything.”

“Are you kidding?” the emperor yelled. “There’s no way I’m going to get through that in one lifetime. Go write me a shorter version. Include only the important stuff that happened.”

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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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