Berliners #5: Grandparents


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An Ecology of Beauty and Strong Drink

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

According to the theory of cultural evolution, rituals and other cultural elements evolve in the context of human beings. They depend on us for their reproduction, and sometimes help us feel good and accomplish our goals, reproductive and otherwise. Ritual performances, like uses of language, exhibit a high degree of variation; ritual performances change over time, and some changes are copied, some are not. As with genetic mutation, ritual novelty is constantly emerging.

The following presents several ecological metaphors for ritual adaptation: sexual selection, the isolated island, and the clearcut forest. Once these metaphors are established, I will explain how they apply to ritual, and suggest some policy recommendations based on this speculation.

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Can You Hear Me Now?

The fundamental question of life, the universe and everything is the one popularized by the Verizon guy in the ad: Can you hear me now?

This conclusion grew out of a conversation I had about a year ago, with some friends, in which I proposed a modest-little philosophy I dubbed divergentism. Here is a picture.


Divergentism is the idea that as individuals grow out into the universe, they diverge from each other in thought-space. This, I argued, is true even if in absolute terms, the sum of shared beliefs is steadily increasing. Because the sum of beliefs that are not shared increases even faster on average. Unfortunately, you are unique, just like everybody else.

If you are a divergentist, you believe that as you age, the average answer to the fundamental Verizon question slowly drifts, as you age, from yes, to no, to silenceIf you’re unlucky, you’re a hedgehog and get unhappier and unhappier about this as you age. If you are lucky, you’re a fox and you increasingly make your peace with this condition. If you’re really lucky, you die too early to notice the slowly descending silence, before it even becomes necessary to Google the phrase existential horror.

To me, this seemed like a completely obvious idea. Much to my delight, most people I ran it by immediately hated it.

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Artisanal Hand-Crafted Electrons

Warning:  This post is a spectator view of laboratory experiments by an experienced engineer, not a DIY guide. If you try experiments like this, you do so at your own risk. It is YOUR responsibility to employ proper shielding and safety measures, and to stay in compliance with your local safety laws.

Vacuum tubes. What are they good for today? Believe it or not, they are not exactly obsolete, and can be a more efficient solution than more modern components in some applications.

Where exactly? The first thing that comes to mind is that these are good for making sound.

To start, consider an old cathode-ray-tube (CRT) TV. The CRT needs a stable voltage in the tens of kilovolts range, or the picture would flicker in size from the changes of brightness. In the early days they used a tube-based linear regulator to make it stable. For that end there were special triodes that could withstand these voltages.


Their time didn’t last, since at 20-30 KV they were in the soft X-ray range and putting X-ray emitters into TVs is a bad idea. I suspect that’s where the myth about cacti absorbing radiation from monitors originated.

Anyway, let’s use such a triode as an arc modulator (plasma speaker) to make our own version of “tube sound”.

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Berliners #4: Cactus and Weasel


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The Awe Delusion

Art is a technology. If you did a Casablanca / Law & Order double feature you might notice that although Casablanca perhaps has more ‘artistic value’ (that horribly vague phrase), Law & Order tells its stories with a mind-boggling efficiency that vastly outstrips the former. Some time after 1960 filmmakers learned how to tell more story with less. They learned how to convey more information in less time and without losing depth. If this kind of compression is one example of artistic technology, in other words, we’ve gotten so much better at it that even the workingman filmmakers that produce network television can do it. It’s artistic electricity. Literacy.

According to this model, you could call some artistic movements technological inventions. Or even technological revolutions. Painting realistically, non-linear narrative, or syncopation are all examples of things that had to be invented. And these practical inventions reflect more systemic, abstract inventions that could better be described as ‘ways of thinking.’ The invention of realism, for example, changed the scope of things art could (or should) be about from what was moral or pleasurable to what was truthful.  Modernism, in turn, suggested that what was truthful could be approached by methods other than object-level realism. And so on, and so forth.

My interest in art as a subject is not because of philosophical fascination on its own merits. My interest is fundamentally practical: I want more art that is good. I write about art because of the sneaking suspicion that on some level ‘artistic value’ is a technology too. That ‘good’ is a technology. That it’s something that can be in some way broken down or optimized. That it’s something people can be literate in.  

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Ritual Epistemology

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

If you are reading this, you are probably aware of the existence of the rationalist community. The community is characterized (broadly) by a scientific worldview, skepticism of religion and paranormal claims, atheism, and an almost fanatical devotion to Bayes’ rule. The skeptic wing of rationalism devotes itself to debunking “woo” – paranormal phenomena, energy healing, psychics, spoon benders, and the like. The wing known as “effective altruism” devotes itself to doing good in the most rational ways possible: donating money to charities that save the most lives per dollar, for instance. (My personal observation is that many self-identified effective altruists are vegans, evidencing their concern for not only human but animal lives as well.) Overall, the rationalist community is concerned with having correct beliefs; a troll might even call this their sacred value. Frequent topics of discussion include artificial intelligence, game theory, and optimizing effectiveness in personal goals.

You may or may not be aware that there is such a thing as post-rationalism (see, e.g., this and this). Post-rationalists tend to value true beliefs, but have more sympathy for religion, ritual, and tradition (including monogamy) than the rationalist community. They are skeptical of the ability of science (as it is practiced) to solve humanity’s problems and provide a sense of meaning or happiness.
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Quasiparticles and the Miracle of Emergence

Let’s start with a big question: why does science work?

Writ large, science is the process of identifying and codifying the rules obeyed by nature. Beyond this general goal, however, science has essentially no specificity of topic.  It attempts to describe natural phenomena on all scales of space, time, and complexity: from atomic nuclei to galaxy clusters to humans themselves.  And the scientific enterprise has been so successful at each and every one of these scales that at this point its efficacy is essentially taken for granted.

But, by just about any a priori standard, the extent of science’s success is extremely surprising. After all, the human brain has a very limited capacity for complex thought. We human tend to think (consciously) only about simple things in simple terms, and we are quickly overwhelmed when asked to simultaneously keep track of multiple independent ideas or dependencies.

As an extreme example, consider that human thinking struggles to describe even individual atoms with real precision. How is it, then, that we can possibly have good science about things that are made up of many atoms, like magnets or tornadoes or eukaryotic cells or planets or animals? It seems like a miracle that the natural world can contain patterns and objects that lie within our understanding, because the individual constituents of those objects are usually far too complex for us to parse.

You can call this occurrence the “miracle of emergence”.  I don’t know how to explain its origin. To me, it is truly one of the deepest and most wondrous realities of the universe: that simplicity continuously emerges from the teeming of the complex.

But in this post I want to try and present the nature of this miracle in one of its cleanest and most essential forms. I’m going to talk about quasiparticles.

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The Berliners #3: Sparring Session


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Distinctions and Differences

The Rumsfeld epistemology of ignorance, along with Taleb’s popular expositions of it, has been one of the more useful additions to the zeitgeist in the last decade. Here’s my 2×2 version, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock since 2003.


This is possibly the most basic map of external, objective realities you can make up.

I’ve long felt that it should be possible to make an equally basic map of internal, subjective realities. I think I have one now.

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