The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial

A few months ago, while dining at Veggie Grill (one of the new breed of Chipotle-class fast-casual restaurants), a phrase popped unbidden into my head: premium mediocre. The food, I opined to my wife, was premium mediocre. She instantly got what I meant, though she didn’t quite agree that Veggie Grill qualified. In the weeks that followed, premium mediocre turned into a term of art for us, and we gleefully went around labeling various things with the term, sometimes disagreeing, but mostly agreeing. And it wasn’t just us. When I tried the term on my Facebook wall, and on Twitter, again everybody instantly got the idea, and into the spirit of the labeling game.

As a connoisseur and occasional purveyor of fine premium-mediocre memes, I was intrigued. It’s rare for an ambiguous neologism like this to generate such strong consensus about what it denotes without careful priming and curation by a skilled shitlord. Sure, there were arguments at the margins, and sophisticated (well, premium mediocre) discussions about distinctions between premium mediocrity and related concepts such as middle-class fancy, aristocratic shabby, and that old classic, petit bourgeois, but overall, people got it. Without elaborate explanations.

But since the sine qua non of premium mediocrity is superfluous premium features (like unnecessary over-intellectualized blog posts that use phrases like sine qua non), let me offer an elaborate explanation anyway. It’s a good way to celebrate August, which I officially declare the premium mediocre month, when all the premium mediocre people go on premium mediocre vacations featuring premium mediocre mai tais at premium mediocre resorts paid for in part by various premium-mediocre reward programs.

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Questions Are Not Just For Asking

This is a guest post by Malcolm Ocean

Are questions just for asking? It kind of seems like it. I mean, if you consider the phrase “ask me a ______”, then the blank is obviously “question”. Just like how the blank in “that boggled my _____” is obviously “mind”.

But hang on a sec—boggling is indeed a thing that is only done to minds, but minds are capable of much more than just being boggled! Similarly, asking might be a special feature of questions, but questions are actually a versatile tool that can be used in many other ways.

In order to access those uses though, first you need to know how to comfortably hold a question without immediately asking it. Questions are a kind of creature that is easily startled.

(a panel from an excellent comic by Kostas Kiriakakis on collecting questions)

Effective asking of questions is an important skill. Being able to hold questions without asking them (when that makes sense) is a further skill, much as meta-systematicity builds on systematicity. In particular, operating in the fluid mode, seems to involve a certain kind of spaciousness that’s different than the space that a question holds for an answer. It’s a spaciousness into which you can start noticing your background assumptions and perceptual blindspots.

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The Crisis of the Lonely Atoms

This is a guest post by Alex Hagen

No civilized state will execute
Someone who is ill
Till it makes the someone well
Enough to kill
in a civilized state,
As a poem does.

“Poem does.” Going Fast, Frederick Seidel

The future is a foreign country to be avoided at all costs.

Ask a child to imagine their future.

Firefighter, dancer, doctor, pilot, professional athlete, cop, movie star.

No child says “a forever child.”

Nor do adults often suggest permanent adolescence as a life goal for children.

We are facing a generation of unskilled 20-something men, largely unemployed, largely unconnected, largely irresponsible for a want of anything to be responsible for. They are living no one’s fantasy, but they fantasize constantly inside alternative worlds that provide pleasure and escape from a reality largely ignored. Call them the Lonely Atoms.

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Body Pleasure

Suffering is very serious. Death is very important. Let me instead talk about something else that is becoming both serious and important, as the world gets richer and more awesome: the problem of pleasure.

Excessive leisure time is a problem that has only become widespread in the past century. As non-human intelligences get more sophisticated, it may be the case that human work remains extremely important; however, it may also be that humans are faced with increasing leisure. If that is the case, the critical problem facing humanity will be how to enjoy ourselves. If that seems silly, consider your favorite dystopian images of the future: only humans who understand how to enjoy themselves can demand living conditions in which they are able to do so.

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On Being Nosey

This is a guest post by Michael Dariano

For this it would be great if you were a dog. You’re not. Instead, we’ll need a shovel. A serious shovel. If you have a garden spade don’t even think of bringing it, it won’t be enough. You’ll need a good back too, curiosity’s treasures are a bitch to extract.

Richard Feynman knew this. He recalled being in the woods one summer and all the other dads knew the names of every bird, branch, and bend of the creek. He asked his dad, someone he considered a pretty smart guy, why he didn’t know the names of those things. Feynman’s dad said, names, we don’t need no stinking names. He went on explain that the name of thing tells you nothing about the thing. What younger Feynman learned was that animals share some things in common: how to eat, sleep, and make babies. That’s what mattered, not the names.

To learn the name of something is superficial curiosity. That’s garden spade territory. The names of things are searchable, starting with algorithms. Google can identify cat videos. Treasures need big shovels.

The bestest curiosities are like journeys. “What happens if I destroy the ring?” “What happens if I take the red pill?” “What happens if I follow this man through a tunnel in Chateau d’If?”

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I Can’t Be Your Hero, I’m Too Busy Being Super

This is guest post by Jim Stone.

In the 1930s Dorothy Lucille Tipton took up piano and saxophone, joined the high school band, and developed an aspiration to be a performing jazz musician. By 1940 Tipton began presenting as a man on stage, and adopted the name “Billy”.  Eventually he began presenting as a man in private as well, and he kept his birth-assigned gender identity and female genitalia hidden from everyone (including wives, lovers, and children) until the day he died, at age 74.

Talk about living in a closet.

If she could have advised Billy, Brené Brown might have told him “Dare to be vulnerable. Be yourself. You’ll be happier if you stop caring so much much what people think.”

Maybe. But people don’t generally take on the burdens of inauthenticity without good reason. Often it’s because they want to occupy social roles that allow them to get their physical and psychological needs met, and other people won’t let them play those roles unless they are the right kind of person. Sometimes people put on masks simply to secure the role of “community member” or “citizen” or “human being”.

We can represent Billy’s dilemma as a conflict of self-portraits like this:

If the Private Self is how we see ourselves, the Public Self is how we think others see us, and the Hero Self is how we think others expect us to be in order to fill the social roles we want to fill. We can get a sense for the dynamics involved in reputation management by thinking of the Public Self is a button on a slider that slides between the Private Self and the Hero Self.

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The Ominouslier Roar of the Bitcoin Wave

This post is co-authored by Artem and Venkat

We have been annoyed with the state of blockchain visualizations. On the one extreme, we have the crappy not-even-wrong images of piles of gold coins to represent cryptocurrencies (there are much better visual metaphors you could use). On the other extreme we have stock-market type visualizations designed for salivating traders. It is actually remarkably hard to find good visualizations of the blockchain qua blockchain. Block explorers only give you a lost-in-the-weeds view at individual block and transaction levels.  There is no good, visual, empirically grounded thing you can point to when normies ask you what is this blockchain thing? So we made a video visualizing and audiolizing (there appears to be no auditory equivalent to visualize) the bitcoin blockchain.

In the wave animation above, the x axis is the block number, and the y axis is the amount in unspent outputs at that block location at a given time. One bar represents 300 blocks, and one frame of the video represents a 300-block increase in block height. We also treated the evolving wave as a sound spectrum to create the accompanying audio track. It sounds like a primordial slow roar. Watch with the sound on to hear it.

The wave basically represents value on the blockchain moving forward in time, as transactions move balances from older to newer blocks. “Bitcoins” are actually just moving balances.

This video was the result of a recent straggling chat over several days in the #blockchain channel of the ribbonfarm slack, between Artem and Venkat, with Sarah and Joe joining in occasionally (yes, there is a ribbonfarm slack, and yes, there is a #blockchain channel in it). Editing out several arguments over technical details and idle digressions into how to make your own MRI machines, speculations about an AI that collects all the bitcoin to gain control over humanity, arguments about whether Hedy Lamar was a geek or a nerd, and various other critically urgent and important topics, the conversation went as follows.

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From Monkey Neurons to the Meta-Brain

What can one neuron tell us about brain function?  It can tell if we are looking at a picture of Jennifer Aniston. Brain surgeon and researcher Itzak Fried, in 2005, was probing a certain brain region in patients with epilepsy to pinpoint the source of their seizures.  This is open brain surgery done while the patient is conscious (the brain doesn’t have pain receptors).  These patients agreed to additional probing in the interest of science.  Fried was showing patients pictures, some of famous people, and kept running into neurons that would fire to multiple representations of the same person or object, and to nothing else (within the limited but large set of images used).  “The first time we saw a neuron firing to seven different pictures of Jennifer Aniston–and nothing else–we literally jumped out of our chairs,” recalled R. Quian Quiroga, who did subsequent work on the phenomenon with Fried.

In a study by Quiroga, Fried and others, severe epilepsy patients each had 64 tiny probes implanted in different parts of the brain, to study how the seizures manifested. The patients also agreed to view sets of images while the probes were monitored. A number of invariant responses (the same neuron firing to multiple views of the same person/thing) were found.  “In some patients, Jennifer Aniston neurons would also fire to her fellow actresses in Friends, … But they would never fire to other similar-looking, but otherwise unconnected, actresses” (Nature Magazine).  Either way, a connection was made between a concept and a single neuron.  Finding connections between a specific neuron and one specific memory has been going on for seven decades, and single neuron stimulation has triggered laughter, remembered childhood scenes or hearing snippets of music, but this association, apparently with the concept of a certain person, instantly became and remains a major focus of brain research.

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Crash Early, Crash Often

I woke up this morning bleary-eyed and entirely unrested. Between the cat singing a soulful aria in the middle of the night and the bedroom going from too hot to too cold, I’d gotten almost no sleep. It was, in other words, a crashed morning, which led predictably to too much coffee and a crashed day. A terrible kind of day for most things, but a very appropriate one for launching the third ebook in the Ribbonfarm Roughs series: Crash Early, Crash Often, now available on your Friendly Neighborhood Kindle for $2.99. The price will increase in August, so grab your copy now.

Crash Early, Crash Often (hereby abbreviated CECO) is the first ebook based on posts from what we refer to in the backroom here as the Snowflake Age (2013-2017) of ribbonfarm. Here is the blurb I wrote for the Amazon page (I always enjoy writing about myself in the third person):

In this fine collection of essays, the third volume in the Ribbonfarm Roughs series, Venkatesh Rao (author of Tempo, The Gervais Principle, and Be Slightly Evil) ponders midlife crises, immortality, graceful aging, learning, personal growth, community, individualism, and the Big Question of how to live a life full of meaning, dignity and significance. Drawing on the lessons of his own life and the philosophies of Douglas Adams and James Carse among others, he attempts to construct a playbook for a life full of enriching experiences, satisfying accomplishments, and deep relationships. After a dozen long, meandering essays, he entirely fails to get to anywhere even remotely useful, and crashes gracelessly to the edge of the void, where he discovers the void giving him the stink eye. Originally published on ribbonfarm.com between 2014, when Rao turned 40, and 2016, when he turned 42 (a significant threshold in his religion), having learned nothing in the interim, these essays provide a poignant and vivid illustration of the art of entering middle age with all your indignity, incomprehension, and cluelessness intact.

Here are the posts in the ebook, linked, and in the sequence they appear, for those of you too cheap to shell out $2.99 for the pleasure of reading them on your Kindle, or living in places that haven’t been Amazoned yet.

  1. A Beginner’s Guide to Immortality
  2. How to be a Precious Snowflake
  3. Immortality Begins at Forty
  4. Learning to Fly by Missing the Ground
  5. Immortality in the Ocean of Infinite Memories
  6. A Dent in the Universe
  7. Can You Hear Me Now
  8. We Are All Architects Now
  9. Eternal Hypochondria of the Expanding Mind
  10. The Things You Carry
  11. The Art of Agile Leadership
  12. The Epic Struggle between Good and Neutral
  13. Human-Complete Problems
  14. The Principia Misanthropica
  15. Speak Weirdness to Truth

Crash Early, Crash Often (CECO) marks, we hope, the beginning of a more regular and predictable schedule of compiling themed collections of ribbonfarm posts into ebooks.

With CECO, our ebook publishing operations enter a brave new era under the stewardship of former resident Jordan Peacock as ebooks editor, who put this collection together and wrote a courageous and foolhardy preface trying to make sense of whatever the hell CECO is all about (I myself gave up somewhere in the middle of 2015).

Four more ebooks, based on the Rust Age collections, are in the pipeline and will be available in August. They will join the already published first two Ribbonfarm Roughs volumes, The Gervais Principle (GP) and Be Slightly Evil (BSE) to round out a nice six-volume collection covering 2007-2012.

After we get through the Rust Age backlog, we’ll begin trawling the 2013-2017 archives to compile more collections from the Snowflake Age.

For long-time readers we hope these ebooks will offer an opportunity to re-read old posts (including any you may have missed) with the benefit of hindsight, and the context of broader themes that have emerged over the years.

For new readers, we hope these ebooks will offer an easier entry point into the Ribbonfarm Blogamatic Universe, which now has so many superheroes, supervillains, and confused plotlines, we are almost certain to encounter a Crisis of Infinite Ribbonfarms by 2020.

Believe it or not, we don’t actually set out to create such a royal mess. Unlike many insular subcultures marked by moats of carefully curated in-group language, inside jokes, and various protective hexes and curses, we don’t actually mean to be inaccessible or incomprehensible to n00bs around here. That’s just the unintended consequence of living the CECO philosophy. The messy confusion you see here is completely authentic, organic, and free-range. It is not something created to confuse you.

So grab a copy of Crash Early, Crash Often and come on in to join the refactoring. And watch your step as you enter.

Memory Transplants and Climate Risks

Guest post by Lisa M. P. Munoz

Fourteen years ago, I visited the small town of Orting, Washington. Sitting in the shadow of the magnificent yet menacing Mount Rainier, it resembles other small Pacific Northwest or even midwestern towns, but something there was different. The residents, more than any other group I have met, have a profound understanding of risk.

Lahar, Mount St. Helens eruption (public domain)

While Mount Rainier is an active volcano that will eventually erupt, the residents there fear something more hidden: lahars. These massive mudflows – often triggered by glacial melts – have raced down Mount Rainier and buried the valley before and will likely do so again. Orting residents face a 1 in 7 chance that lahars will occur in their lifetimes. But unlike many people who live near the earthquake-prone San Andreas Fault or the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico who don’t think a life-threatening event will ever truly threaten them personally, Orting residents seem to truly believe a lahar could take their lives.

What makes Orting different? Why do its residents relate so uniquely to the risks in their environment? And do their approaches generalize to other risks and populations, in particular,  global climate change risk? The key, I’ve come to believe, is a kind of cultural memory transplant.

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