LCD Curtains

Once upon a time I read about Bill Gates’ smart house. And I thought: how nice would it be to have the curtains close and open automatically? Then I thought, why use curtains? Just put a big liquid crystal display (LCD) screen in the window, and use that to enable or disable the light.

Those were the days of the single LCD TV standing prominently in the big mall with a multi-thousand dollar price tag below it, so I laughed at the idea and forgot about it.

Fast forward 20 years.

Today I wanted to take a nap, and wondered how good it would be to be able to just flip a switch and turn off that annoying sun. The old idea came back. The difference is, today window-sized LCD screens are dirt cheap. People throw these TVs into the garbage once the batteries in the remote run out.

Some googling showed that there is pretty much nothing like the LCD curtains I was imagining. Some frosted/clear switchable “smart glass” and some aerospace stuff, but nothing that lets you flip a switch and block out the sunshine.

So, I dug up a screen panel from a broken laptop.

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Alice and Bob Discover Capitalism

Capitalism has historically been defined by its opponents rather than its proponents, and in terms of its consequences rather than its mechanisms. Specifically, it tends to get defined primarily in terms of its intended malicious effects and unintended/unaccounted damaging effects: oppression and social costs.

To navigate by such definitions is to deeply misunderstand the nature of the beast, so I want to propose a definition of capitalism (or if you prefer a less loaded term, commerce) in terms what I will argue is its essential mechanism:

Capitalism is the indirect manipulation of illegible human relationships, through the peaceful manipulation of decision contexts.

In practice, capitalism often operates with directness and violence, but the point of this definition is to get at the sine qua non that distinguishes it from other societal mechanisms. The role of “capital” is actually peripheral, since capital plays a role in defining the mechanisms of politics, kinship and war too.

The central fact about the mechanism of capitalism is that it needs neither capacity for direct action on a system, nor violent means, to influence it. This is not just a claim about an idealized model of capitalism: it is a claim about the real thing. Capitalism in our world has arguably gotten less direct and less violent over time. Today the visible motif that best captures the spirit of capitalism is not the East India Company warship, but advertising: messaging mechanisms that work to shape the background context of decisions.

Let me attempt an exegesis of my definition with a parable about the It Couple of geekdom, Alice and Bob.

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Meaning and Pointing

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

A cognitive phenomenon that can happen to you (if you are unlucky, perhaps) is known as depersonalization or derealization. It is a mild relative of the symptom recognized in psychology as disassociation, a component of many mental disorders.

Derealization is the loss of the felt sense of the world as real, as an unchanging and solid world differentiable from the mock world perceived in dream states. It can cause significant anxiety. It is a condition often articulated in art, for instance in our own time in the movie Waking Life by Richard Linklater.

As with many abnormal psychological phenomena, the existence of derealization points to its absence in the normal world: the negative phenomenon of the loss of the sense of the average-everyday orientation points to the positive phenomenon of constructing the sense of the real. We can ask how people experiencing derealization can snap out of it and begin to experience life as ordinary and meaningful again. But more importantly, we can ask how people not experiencing derealization come to construct a meaningful, solid, ordinary world out of their stream of experiences. In this essay I will explore a cartographic metaphor for the ways people create meaning and navigate the complex systems of meaning they create, based on pointing, reference, and maps.
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What is the Largest Collective Action, Ever?

I’ve lately become interested in the question of climate change from the perspective of the scale of organizational capabilities that are emerging globally to tackle it (a question that exists and matters whether or not you believe climate change is real). I came up with this conceptual graph to think about it. I’ll explain my capability measure in a minute.

Screenshot 2015-09-29 14.02.54


In some ways, “dealing with climate change” is the largest, most complex collective action ever contemplated by humans. Here I don’t mean collective action in the leftist sense of a political coalition based on egalitarianism and solidarity. I mean any kind of large-scale action involving coordination (not getting in each other’s way), cooperation (not working at cross-purposes), collaboration (combining efforts intelligently) and conflict (structured adversarial interactions encompassed by the system  to allow net action to emerge from a set of warring ideologies), in a politically neutral sense. Everything from weaponized sacredness (think the Pope’s statements on climate change) to war and unmanaged refugee crises can fit into this broad definition, but as I’ll argue, it’s not so broad as to be useless.

So the definition includes everything from the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China to the Normandy landings in WW II, the building of Standard Oil, the modern bond market, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Historically, the “peak-load capabilities” of our biggest collective action systems have been expanding steadily, modulo some ups and downs in the interstices of imperial ages, since the Neolithic revolution and the first pot-sized granary.

The interesting question is, what are those “some ways” in which a response to climate change futures is unprecedented, and what does that imply for the likelihood of it succeeding?

A useful way to focus this question is to ask what is the largest collective action, ever, and how much of a stretch are we talking to respond to (say) a speculative 2-degree rise scenario?

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Samuel Beckett’s Guide to Particles and Antiparticles

I was 12 years old when I first encountered this quote by Samuel Beckett:

“Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.”

That quote impressed me quite a bit at the time. It appeared to my young self to be simultaneously profound, important, and impossible to understand. Now, nineteen years later, I’m still not sure I understand what Beckett meant by that short sentence. But I nonetheless find that its dark Zen has worked itself into me indelibly.

The Beckett quote comes to mind in particular as I sit down to write again about quantum field theory (QFT). QFT, to recap, is the science of describing particles, the most basic building blocks of matter. QFT concerns itself with how particles move, how they interact with each other, how they arise from nothingness, and how they disappear into nothingness again. As a framing idea or motif for QFT, I can’t resist presenting an adaptation of Beckett’s words as they might apply to the idea of particles and fields:

“Every particle is an unnecessary defect in a smooth and featureless field.”

Of course, it is not my intention to depress anyone with existential philosophy. But in this post I want to introduce, in a pictorial way, the idea of particles as defects. The discussion will allow me to draw some fun pictures, and also to touch on some deeper questions in physics like “what is the difference between matter and antimatter?”, “what is meant by rest mass energy?”, “what are fermions and bosons?”, and “why does the universe have matter instead of nothing?” [Read more…]

Significance Appreciation

There’s a phenomenon I’ve observed where ideas that seem banal when you’re young acquire increasing significance as you age. Until they become so pregnant with significance that you start experiencing a peculiar sort of loneliness because you cannot communicate them any differently than you used to. At best, you slowly acquire an ability to recognize kindred spirits who attach as much incommunicable significance to an idea as you do. If you’re lucky enough to meet any.

Take the seemingly yawn-worthy idea, you should always be learning new things.

You probably had an adult tell you something like that when you were a teenager. Probably in that slightly pompous manner adults seem to affect when telling teenagers things. A manner that makes every line sound like an unreconstructed ritual incantation uttered by a society-programmed robot, rather than a deeply felt idea being expressed by an autonomous, thinking human.

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How to be a Precious Snowflake

Every few months, one of my much more successful friends will get frustrated by my apparent lack of aggressive hustle in service of my own work, and declare that I could be 10x better known and make 10x as much money if only I did x. The unstated assumption is that I am perversely being a precious snowflake by not doing x.


Every few weeks, I also have a different kind of conversation, usually sparked by a particularly poignant email from a youngish reader who has been persuaded by something I wrote to “go sociopath” (a la Butters going Professor Chaos). Typically, my new best friend will express a desire (and seek my help) to pursue some creative mission of personal, soul-enriching significance, without getting eaten alive by some species of shark in their waters. These emails often strike me as precious (as in snowflake, as well as in every other sense of the term).

We need a term for an anti-snowflake. I propose clod. 


If you view someone as a precious snowflake, they necessarily view you as a clod. This post is about the clod-snowflake dynamic.  All culture arises out of it.

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Why Nerds Have Bad Taste

This is a continuation of my Better Art Vocabulary series. You don’t need to have read the others, but feel free.

I grew up encouraged to an old-school sense of taste. Not as old-school as opera and $300 bottles of wine, but as old-school as liking literature and paintings and museums for no real reason other than that I was supposed to, and thinking that other stuff was kind of…unclean. I have two peculiarly strong memories from when I was young: one was my mother saving up to take me to a DaVinci show in New York, and the other was being caught watching Pokemon–which struck about the same fear in my heart as being caught masturbating might have done. Taking me to that show was a truly beautiful thing to do, and an important youthful artistic experience, but it caused some internal conflict. Why did certain artistic things deserve sacrifice, and others shame? 

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The Greater Ribbonfarm Cultural Region 2015

A special treat for you today: the 2015 Greater Ribbonfarm Cultural Region map.  Vastly improved since the 2012 version, much better illustrated (by Grace Witherell) and representative of an older, if not necessarily wiser blogger. Click for a bigger image. This map will now be available on the You-Are-Here page via the sidebar link.


Rather serendipitously, Sarah just posted a thoughtful piece on the nature of maps like this, so I won’t bore you with meta-commentary. Since she is now a contributing editor, I figured I’d put her on the map. You can have some fun figuring out where she is on the map and why.

I won’t attempt much commentary other than to say that some things have stayed the same, some things have changed, some things have been dropped, and many more things have been added. If you’ve been reading ribbonfarm long enough, comparing the 2012 and 2015 maps side by side on two monitors might be fun. I think the evolution says quite a bit about me, but probably more about the changes in the cultural environment in which bloggers like me exist.

I plan to do a screencast narration/virtual walking tour of the map soon, so I’ll leave my detailed riffing for that. In the meantime, you can Ask Me Anything about the map in the comments.

I’m pleased enough with this thing that I might reverse my position on never doing schwag, and put this up for sale in the form of a printed poster.

Addendum: Thanks to Carlos Bueno and Anthony DiFranco for suggestions that made it into the map.

Cartographic Compression

Cartography is the practice of making maps. In the narrowest sense, a map is a symbolic depiction of geographic, spatial information, inscribed onto a two-dimensional surface. In a broader sense, a map is an abstract representation of information about any domain, spatial or otherwise – “abstract” in the sense that certain features or kinds of information are highlighted to the exclusion of others. But not every abstract representation is a map. Maps have axes, usually at least two; they elucidate relationships between features of the domain; and they are useful for orienting, navigating, or engaging in goal-directed behavior within that domain.

Maps that are inscribed on some kind of surface – paper, clay, rock, or an electronic screen – are useful for sharing, pointing at, and comparing with the domain. But the cognitive capacity for map-style thinking likely precedes cartographic inscription. Intimate familiarity with the domain, viewed through the special attention-directing lens of language, is enough to generate mental maps in different minds that are verifiably highly similar. [Read more…]