A Good Name Points to You

I’m known among my friends and co-workers as the guy to help name your project. Coming up with good names sounds like a trivial talent, but it’s neither trivial nor a talent. It’s a completely understandable skill you can practice. A good name not only helps other people understand what you’re building, the exercise of naming a thing helps you understand why it exists.

It’s not the Wheel. It’s the Carousel.

Things decompose into mechanisms, implications, and consequences. The mechanism is how it works. The implication is what it does. The consequence is what it means for the lives of the audience you’re trying to reach. I choose one of those three to work from and try to tie it back to a simple analogy, soundalike, paradox, cultural reference, or some other hook to evoke an emotional response, which is the only way to get distractible monkeys like us to remember anything. Really make an effort to empathize with your audience and their interests. A name is a pointer to identity, but the arrow goes the other way. A good name doesn’t point to the thing, it points to you.

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Business as Magic

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Vienna, late 18th century, alternate timeline.

In the beginning, there was just the tinkerer. One night, after attending a magic show at the palace, he got drunk and made a bet with a rival courtier. A few months later, he unveiled a marvelous contraption before a palace audience.

The contraption was an automaton, dressed as a Turkish sorcerer. It sat at a desk filled with complicated gears and levers, with a chessboard on top. The Turk played a decent game of chess, beating dukes, princes, and visiting American statesmen. Its reputation spread, and with it the reputation of Vienna as a hub of technological development.

Tinkerers from Austria to America set about making their own Mechanical Turks (as well as Mechanical Russians, Yankees, and chess-playing shepherdesses). Only a few succeeded; most were in Vienna. Of those half-dozen that succeeded, all were known to be acquainted with some down-on-his-luck chess master who, incidentally, was not overly tall or rotund.

Vienna’s reputation continued to spread, and it became fashionable for wealthy patrons to support chess automata and exhibit them. Unfortunately, one of the impoverished chess players got the flu. During his performance, such a loud fit of coughing emanated from his automaton’s desk that the audience was scandalized. The Turk, a hoax! The entire reputation of Vienna was on the line. [Read more…]

Human-Complete Problems

Occasionally, I manage to be clever when I am not even trying to be clever, which isn’t often. In a recent conversation about the new class of doomsday scenarios inspired by AlphaGo beating the Korean trash-talker Lee Sedol, I came up with the phrase human complete (HC) to characterize certain kinds of problems: the hardest problems of being human. An example of (what I hypothesize is) an HC problem is earning a living. I think human complete is a very clever phrase that people should use widely, and credit me for, since I can’t find other references to it. I suspect there may be money in it. Maybe even a good living. Here is a picture of the phrase that I will explain in a moment.

File Mar 31, 9 15 11 AM

In this post, I want to explore a particular bunny trail: the relationship between being human and the ability to solve infinite game problems in the sense of James Carse. I think this leads to an interesting perspective on the meaning and purpose of AI.

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The Holy Grail of Self-Improvement

The holy grail of self-improvement in modern times is a framework for individual experimentation and learning that can be used by the average person. The key question such a framework would have to answer is “How do people change?”


In this essay I will suggest possible answers to this question by looking at the recent history and theory of behavior change, the main obstacles this framework would have to address to be feasible, and a few promising directions from research and practice.

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Berliners #11: Snowflaking Out


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Go Corporate or Go Home

This is a guest post by David Manheim.

If you’re in Silicon Valley, you might have missed the trend, but the percentage of American workers working for big companies has been increasing, even as corporate bureaucracy is getting more stifling. Strangely, this has been happening even as the companies issue press releases about being more flexible and adaptive, to compete with startups, as Paul Graham argues in his recent controversial essay on Refragmentation. But flexible seems to mean layoffs and reorgs into ever more complex and, yes, fragmented corporate structures. They aren’t slimming down into flexible startups.

Worse, startups scale into big companies, and transform into bureaucracies when they do. Harvard Business Review just came out with some advice on how to stop being a startup. Even startups can’t stay startups. Github, the catalyst for distributed software companies everywhere, is itself restructuring. As the author of this post on Github’s restructuring puts it, “Out with flat org structure based purely on meritocracy, in with supervisors and middle managers.” But why?

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Berliners #10: Pie-Carving


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Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

In Minimum Viable Superorganism, Kevin Simler posits a minimal structure by which an institution made up of self-interested participants can achieve its goals:

Individuals should grant social status to others for advancing the superorganism’s goals.

There are two definitive activities within the prestige economy:


In this model, prestige inequalities are not socially harmful, but a consequence of a system that harnesses self-interest to achieve the goal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

This bears only a vague resemblance to the system we currently find ourselves in. And that’s not a criticism of the model. Humans as a species are unimaginably richer now than in ancestral times, compared to how many of us there are. Why, given this ingenious mechanism for the distribution of talents and resources, is there still so much hunger, misery, and boredom? [Read more…]

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.


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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