The Epic Struggle between Good and Neutral

/* Zapp: prepare to continue the epic struggle between good and neutral */

Let’s say you are a member of the proud Red tribe, enjoying a ritual communal feast. There is mirth and joy in the air. There is eating, dancing, and various other sorts of revelry in progress. Everybody is enjoying the priceless feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves.

Suddenly, a young buck of your tribe runs into the camp ground, exhausted, wounded and bleeding. He delivers news of a grievous insult to your tribe dealt by the chief of the hated Grey tribe, and dies.

Now a different sort of priceless feeling of being part of something bigger descends on your tribe. This feeling is not derived from festive joy, but from infinitely outraged honor. Joy races against rage in every head. Hot heads and cool heads, young bucks and grey eminences, all start talking at once, to process the emotional calculus.

ContendingEmotions

Eventually, a consensus narrative emerges and a course of action develops. The narrative has done its job: helped you decide how to feel, allowing action to cohere and precipitate.

How should we understand the unfolding of this course of events? The answer lies in a principle it’s taken me quite a while to formulate to my satisfaction: narrative abhors a vacuum. 

What sort of vacuum?

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Minimum Viable Superorganism

Of all the remarkable things about our species — and there are many — perhaps the most striking of all is our ability to band together and act as a united, coherent superorganism. E pluribus unum. From many, one.

A few superorganisms in action. (Top: human towers of Tarragona, fire department, NASA. Bottom: Amish community, rowing team, ISIS.)

A few superorganisms in action. (Top: human towers of Tarragona, fire department, NASA. Bottom: Amish community, rowing team, ISIS.)

I don’t mean anything particularly high-minded by “superorganism.” It’s just a fun way to refer to a cooperative enterprise. Co-, together + operari, work. Acting in concert. Coordinating individual behavior in pursuit of shared goals.

Superorganisms, in this sense, include such mundane arrangements as law firms, soccer teams, city governments, and party planning committees. In fact, most of the groups we care about are superorganisms. A mere crowd, on the other hand, isn’t a superorganism. It’s just every man for himself — all pluribus, no unum.

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Berliners #9: The Scent of a Yak

berliners9final

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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

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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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