Weird Crowds, Weird Planet

Here’s the pre-read for the third and fourth sessions of Refactor Camp.

For our session tomorrow, Tuesday the 26th on The Weird State of the Crowd, we are running a bit behind, so have a partial pre-read for you in the form of  this short summary document on Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. The session will be led by Renee DiResta and Megan Lubaszka. I’ll add the summary deck, which will also cover Eric Hoffer’s, The True Believerto this post, once I have it. Apologies for the delay.

Update: the slides are in!

And for our final session on Thursday the 28th, which will attempt pull it all together via the capstone theme, Weird State of the Planet, here is the slide deck. This session will be led by Jordan Peacock and Sam Penrose.

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The Weird State of Capitalism

This is the slide-deck for the second session of Refactor Camp 2016, on Thursday the 21th. If you’re attending, please make sure to carve out at least 45 minutes beforehand to review this. This session will be led by Mick Costigan. The deck is on Google Docs and you’re invited to add comments to it.


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The Weird State of the State

This is the slide-deck for the first session of Refactor Camp 2016, on Tuesday the 19th. If you’re attending, please make sure to carve out at least 45 minutes beforehand to review this.

Welcome to Nixonland

Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008) is something of a biography, something of a history, and something of a quest to answer the question people have been asking about the 1960s since, well, the 1960s: what the hell just happened? This book is especially relevant to the world of 2016, which has so many tragic echoes coming hard and fast. We don’t have tanks patrolling Pennsylvania Avenue or whole neighborhoods on fire, but each day seems to make it less unthinkable.

Nixon’s career is a vast & billowing revenge play that could have been written by Dumas. There are early triumphs, humiliating defeats, and years of secret plotting in the wilderness. Then there is the “new” Nixon’s calculated reappearance after everyone thought him dead and gone, freely spending treasure of dubious origins, cavorting with highly weird & talented outsiders, making intricate moves within moves, shoving aside lightweights like Reagan, stepping over the bodies of Kennedys, and taking out his enemies with delicious patience, one by one by one.

But Richard Nixon isn’t the star of Nixonland. If he were, the book could be 1/3 as long and titled something like The Count of Yorba Linda. The bulk of Nixonland is about the land: the people in turmoil, from radicalized college student to marching black to shocked & resentful blue-collar worker. It’s about how they found their voices, how their personal identities adapted to the times, and how all that energy was deliberately harnessed by Nixon to serve his drive to power, creating the fractured political world we live in today.

An amazingly large segment of the population disliked and mistrusted Richard Nixon instinctively. What they did not acknowledge was that an amazingly large segment of the population also trusted him as their savior. “Nixonland” is what happens when these two groups try to occupy a country together.

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The Systems of the World

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Martial artist and folk hero Bruce Lee founded the martial art known as jeet kune do, “the style of no style.” Lee said of his style, “True observation begins when one sheds set patterns, and true freedom of expression occurs when one is beyond systems…I hope to free my comrades from bondage to styles, patterns and doctrines.”

Compare my friend David Chapman on the post-systematic system of thinking sometimes (probably misleadingly) called postrationalism: “The systematic mode can, should, must be superseded—not by the communal mode, but by something that combines benefits of both.” The systems and patterns that can oppress us are also extremely useful. Growing beyond them does not mean throwing them out. Chapman describes skillful use of systems as piloting nimble watercraft on a sea of meaning.

Bruce Lee begins his article with reference to a Zen koan:

A learned man once went to a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher explained, the learned man would frequently interrupt him with remarks like, “Oh, yes, we have that too. …” and so on.

Finally, the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full and then kept pouring until the cup overflowed.

“Enough!” the learned man once more interrupted. “No more can go into the cup!”

“Indeed, I see,” answered the Zen teacher. “If you do not first empty the cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”

A naive reader might expect that Lee would only accept novice students, already-empty cups, free from the shackles of systems. But in fact he generally selected experts in some style of martial arts as his students. This is not a contradiction. Both Lee and the subject of the koan were speaking to those who already have a full cup.

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Refactor Camp 2016: Weird Political Economy

Since 2012, we’ve been holding Refactor Camp as an annual offline event in the Bay Area. This year, we’re trying a new format. Refactor Camp 2016 will be an online-only event, in the form of four 2-hour evening sessions, spread over the last 2 weeks of July. You can register here. We will be using the Zoom videoconference system, which has a limit of 50 participants.

The theme this year is Weird Political Economy (tagline is inspired by this great post). Over four sessions, each structured as a short introductory talk (~30 minutes) followed by a discussion (~90 minutes) we will cover four major themes. All 4 sessions will be 8:00 to 10:00 PM US Pacific Time, on the listed dates.

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Session #1: Tue July 19: The Weird State of the State (Venkatesh Rao)
Session #2: Thu July 21: The Weird State of Capitalism (Mick Costigan)
Session #3: Tue July 26: The Weird State of the Crowd (Megan Lubaszka and Renee DiResta)
Session #4: Thursday July 28: The Weird State of the Earth (Jordan Peacock and Sam Penrose)

The idea is to have well-prepped discussions about the general sense that “things are getting weird” in global affairs with a meaningfully broad/rich context. Are we really not in Kansas anymore, or do we just lack the context to grok the patterns in things going on right now? Is it time to apply the principle, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”? Hopefully we’ll generate some interesting, situated thinking.

The four session topics: state, capitalism, crowds, and earth, will hopefully serve as four good overlapping global canvasses for discussion.

A slide deck overview of the theme will be posted a few days before each session, as required pre-read. The idea is for ALL participants to actually review these pre-read decks (should take maybe 30min each) so we can have a discussion where everybody is better prepared than usual in these sorts of symposia.

If you are interested in doing reading beyond these upcoming decks, here are some anchor references the session leaders will be using.  Though session leaders will be drawing on multiple sources, and we expect many participants will be coming from other perspectives, these should give you an idea of the level of discussion we’re hoping to hit.

The Daredevil Camera

Once upon a time I was reading a Popular Mechanics article, the title of which eludes me. Something about playing different music for different parts of a dance floor. They were describing a way to focus sound towards different people.

What struck me about the idea was that there was a way to focus sound. It was a piece of mesh of some sort, which acted as a lens for ultrasonics. This sparked an idea for what ended up being the most complex and expensive of my hobby projects to date.

Imagine using such lenses to focus sound onto a plane of microphones. Just like light in a camera. One microphone is one pixel. An ability to see sound.


Duga 3 radar, image from Wikimedia commons.

I didn’t actually read Daredevil comics until much later, but those who have can see where this is going.

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The Principia Misanthropica

Let’s recap.

In the beginning, people were mostly unhappy, but not too unhappy about being unhappy. They hunted, they gathered, and when unpleasant things (such as having a leg bitten off by a lion) happened, they shrugged their shoulders and said, “what are you gonna to do, huh?” And they spent as much time as they could being idle, because that seemed to help them not be unhappy for a while. This worked particularly well when there were temporarily no lions around trying to eat them.

Then history began to happen.

The people who first noticed there was history going on — they were called poets — also discovered that it ruined idleness for them (this effect would later be named “the frame problem”). This made them very angry, so they decided to tell everybody about history. If they couldn’t have any fun, why should anybody else? They also decided to write some of it down, just in case their children, and their children’s children, tried to forget the discovery. Future generations, they figured, had a right to remain innocent of unnecessary and burdensome knowledge of events past. Perhaps some pleasure could be found in denying them this right.

There was nothing much they could do about the fact that their ancestors in their graves, unlike their descendants, were beyond the reach of their words. But in a stroke of genius, they realized they could make their descendants more miserable by pretending that their pre-historic ancestors had actually been continuously happy, instead of just free of unhappiness about unhappiness.

That made it look like it was all going downhill, which made the poets happy about being unhappy about being unhappy. Because at least those who came after would feel like they were even worse off.
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Meta-Skills, Macro-Laws, and the Power of Constraints

Nearly every science-fiction novel seems to agree on one thing: in the future, work will be indistinguishable from art. Such wide agreement suggests that work is far more than a means of income generation. Even in a robot servant utopia, with all our practical needs taken care of, human work will still have a purpose. To find or make meaning, to know thyself, to create beauty or value in the world. Productivity is helpful in these deeper pursuits because the fundamental questions it seeks to answer—how order arises from disorder, complexity from randomness, and ends from means—are the very same questions essential to understanding sentience, life, the universe, and everything.

It’s been noted that the best writers know the rules of writing well enough to break them in creative ways. The rules in this way are more than rules. In the beginning, they are crutches. Later, they become guides and useful defaults. Eventually, they become springboards. They crystallize the moments where a writer has to decide what she believes, who she isn’t, and by process of elimination, who she is.v7.001

This is the same role, I believe, that “tips and habits” play in productivity: rules that are designed to be broken in a journey of self-discovery. They resist a little bit, asking “Are you sure you want to choose your own adventure?” Which is helpful, because many times you shouldn’t. This changing role makes it irrelevant whether a piece of productivity advice is “right” or “wrong.” What matters is how fruitful of a domain it circumscribes, and thus whether it’s worth the effort to redesign it. It’s not important whether you “believe in it” or not, but whether you can articulate how it fits (or doesn’t) within your personal system of truths.

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Goodhart’s Law and Why Measurement is Hard

The other day, I was failing to teach my 3-year-old son about measurement. He wanted to figure out if something would fit in an envelope, and I was “helping” by showing him how to measure the width of the envelope, then comparing it to the width of the paper he was trying to insert. It turns out that this is a trickier concept than I had assumed; the ability to understand even simple measurements requires a fair amount of cognitive maturity. 3-year-old kids can compare directly, but the concept of using a measure to compare indirectly is more difficult. I finally let him try to fit the paper in the envelope to see it wouldn’t fit.

As with many other cognitive skills, the fact that it’s a counter-intuitive learned skill for children means that adults don’t do it intuitively either. So why are measures used? There are lots of good reasons, and I think a useful heuristic for understanding where to use them is to look for the triad of intuition, trust, and complexity.

Measuring a Network

Measurement replaces intuition, which is often fallible. It replaces trust, which is often misplaced. It finesses complexity, which is frequently irreducible. So faulty intuition, untrusted partners, and complex systems can be understood via intuitive, trustworthy, simple metrics. If this seems reductive, it’s worth noting how successful the strategy has been, historically. Wherever and whenever metrics proliferated, overall, the world seems to have improved.

Despite these benefits, measuring obscures, disrupts, and distorts systems. I want to talk about the limitations of metrics before expanding on some problems that are created when they are used carelessly, and then show why the problem with metrics — and algorithms that rely on them — isn’t something that can be avoided.
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