Nostalgia for Network Effects

The reality of the Biden inauguration hasn’t yet sunk in. It’s not exactly a return to anything resembling normalcy or even a new normalcy (and I don’t expect such a return even after Covid is behind us and Trump is forgotten), but it’s definitely an unmistakeable phase shift to a new regime. Perhaps this is the official first day of what I’ve been calling the Permaweird.

Looking back at the last 4 years, something striking leaps out at me: the big thing that’s been missing in my life since the Trump inauguration — and which hasn’t magically returned today — is some sort of network effect in my activities. A sense of a snowballing accumulation of meaningfulness over time.

Now, on the first day of the Permaweird, I find myself nostalgic for network effects, and wondering if I can ever tap into them again at a personal level.

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Boilerplate Advice

Lately there’s been a gradual uptick in young(er) people asking me for “advice” and a steady decline in my energy to be helpful in any way. So I made up a convenient boilerplate advice table to blow them off with. Some notes follow after. I posted a draft version of this on twitter earlier, where it got some good reactions.

Life StageLight SideDark Side
(0-13 – fairly limited control)
Play, explore, learn life-positive attitudes, get primed for a good life through benevolent supervision by not-too-messed-up adults. Endure abuse, develop fearful attitudes and arrested development, develop unstable tendencies that make you derail under stress, develop PTSD.
Adolescence (13-18 – significant control)Get socialized, make friends, initialize social networks, develop skills to live off of, learn to regulate emotionsGet alienated, disconnect from peers, become isolated, find coping mechanisms like drugs, get caught up in stormy unregulated emotions
Emerging Adulthood
(18-30 — you’re fully in charge for the first time)
Get worldly, develop relationships (including with yourself), learn who/what to trust, thread the needle of cynicism vs. motivation. Learn to be kind to yourself.Get clueless, bewildered, and desperate to be “seen” by someone, anyone. Become vulnerable to radical manipulation, learn resentment and helplessness, become egoistically attached to your talents/skills.
Act 1
Pick risks, battles, commitments, and responsibilities that will make you who you are. Build an open-play win/lose record. Aim to collect 7 significant scars (see The Key to Act Two)Fail to launch. Never take on anything that counts as “living” but continue endlessly optimizing starting positions and justifications. Get trapped in Dr. Seuss’ Waiting Place. Become self-alienated by refusing to discover yourself.
Act 2
Understand your own past, and make your peace with it. Decide what/who to forgive/forget — or not. Decipher your scars and figure out what lock in the universe life has keyed you to open (See The Key to Act Two) Put yourself into a terminal box that you cannot work yourself out of, alongside others who don’t know who they are and never stop waiting for life to start. Allow your physical, mental, and institutional health problems to define you. Become a professional patient of the system.
Act 3
(this is beta since I’m not there yet myself)
Figure out and play your Elder Game in your Late Style, the most mature form of doing whatever you do. Beat a wisely calculated retreat and cede agency to younger people as early as possible.Hold on fearfully to whatever agency you have, for as long as you can. Fail to understand the future and those it belongs to. Gracelessly wear out your welcome and get in their way. Fail to pass on any batons you hold. Set up the future for failure.
(70+) (insufficient visibility)
Advice for a mediocre life


There’s a bunch of things to say about this table that will be obvious to older people and might not be to younger people, so let’s say them out loud.

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2020 Ribbonfarm Extended Universe Annual Roundup

This has undoubtedly been the weirdest year in the 13-year history of Ribbonfarm, and one that marks a pretty decisive break from the past, both in terms of my own writing here, and the kinds of contributions I’m increasingly interested in sourcing/commissioning from others (if you’re interested in submitting stuff here in 2021, scroll to the end of this post to see what I’m looking for).

This was also the year the shape of the messy rhizome that is the Ribbonfarm Extended Universe finally became somewhat clear. So starting this year, I’m going to cover of all my projects in these roundups, since this blog is sort of the soul of the larger beast. The Ribbonfarm Extended Universe currently looks like this:

Within this anarchic mess, it is clear that Ribbonfarm is something like an R&D lab, where I direct both my own experimental tinkering energies, and invite others to experiment. It’s a textual maker-space of sorts. When writing ideas/efforts mature past a point, they tend to go elsewhere. This is one reason themes that used to be the mainstay here have gradually migrated to my more polished (which isn’t saying much) downstream projects like Breaking Smart and Art of Gig.

There were 53 posts here, and a bunch of activity on Other Projects, so there’s a lot of extended universe to cover. So, on to the roundup.

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Notes: Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Book Notes

Concluding my pandemic-themed book reading binge for the year, here’s my summary of Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider (2017), perhaps the most comprehensive popular look at the Spanish Flu, among the many published to date.

There are several books on the topic, and the most popular is probably John Barry’s 2005 book, The Great Influenza, thanks to the now-widely-known-story of George W. Bush being inspired by it in the wake of SARS to beef up the United States’ pandemic preparedness. But I picked Spinney’s book partly because it is more recent (it covers research on the Spanish Flu that wasn’t available in 2005 when Barry wrote his book), and partly because it self-consciously sets out to paint a global portrait.

Here is the original thread on twitter (I read it in September-October). Now on to the cleaned-up notes.

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Stoned Strategy

I started my college education with the belief that marijuana gave me special access to genius ideas. Every time I got high, I would experience what felt like creative breakthroughs. These intoxicated “aha!” moments fueled my fiery desire to study philosophy. I frantically tried to learn a vocabulary to express the magical nuggets inside my mind on the path to my rightful role as a philosopher-king.

I was wrong about marijuana. By the end of college I had painstakingly figured out one key thing:

Marijuana doesn’t give me better ideas, it just makes me more excited about the ideas I already have.

Suffering from intellectual whiplash, for a time I referred to marijuana as a “poison” that breeds delusion and narcissism.

As I get older, the volatile zig zags of my evolving belief system smooth out, taking the shape of more moderate, balanced views of how things work. I’ve concluded that

  1. marijuana boosts my creative productivity, but
  2. using it in this manner requires navigating a sneaky web of landmines.

By the end of this post, I’m going to explain my method for extracting the creative benefits of marijuana while avoiding the traps. The majority of people who use marijuana, I hypothesize, have net negative creative outcomes. By sharing my strategies, I’m hoping to help change this.

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Pascal’s Market

(Part 3 of a series. See Part 1 and Part 2.)

Every publisher insists upon its own epistemic solvency.

Image credit: Scott Herren

Given so many competing epistemic reserve banks (i.e., publishers), which ones keep enough truth in reserve to cover their reserve notes (articles)?

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MJD 59,169

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Captain's Log

If you remember your high-school physics, free energy is the energy available to do work. Energy is conserved, but free energy is not. For example, when a heavy ball drops from a height, the free energy stays roughly constant (ignoring drag) right until the moment of impact. The amount of free energy lost via inelastic collision is proportional to the height lost at the peak of the bounce. The rest is turned into useless heat. With each bounce, more free energy is lost, until finally all of it is lost. In a world without non-conservative forces like friction (which lower free energy), a ball could bounce for ever. Satellites orbiting earth approximate this: orbital motion is useful work that can be continued indefinitely for free.


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MJD 59,163

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Captain's Log

Moore’s Law was first proposed in 1965, then again in revised form in 1975. Assuming an 18-month average doubling period for transistor density (it was ~1 year early on, and lately has been ~3y) there have been about 40 doublings since the first IC in 1959. If you ever go to Intel headquarters in San Jose, you can visit the public museum there that showcases this evolution.

The future of Moore’s law seems uncertain, but it looks like we’ll at least get to 1-3 nanometer chips in the next decade (we were at 130nm at the beginning of the century, and the first new computer I bought had a 250nm Celeron processor). Beyond 1-3nm, perhaps we’ll get to different physics with different scaling properties, or quantum computing. Whatever happens, I think we can safely say Gen X (1965-80) will have had lives nearly exactly coincident with Moore’s Law (we’ll probably die off between 2045-85).

While there have been other technologies in history with spectacular price/performance curves (interchangeable parts technology for example), there is something special about Moore’s Law, since it applies to a universal computing substrate that competes with human brains.

GenXers are Moore’s Law people. We came of age during its heyday. Between 1978-92 or so, the personal computer (pre-internet) was growing up along with us. The various 6502-based home computers, and the 8088, 286 “AT”, 386, 486, and Pentium were milestones of my childhood and teenage years. During that period, performance was synonymous with frequency, so there was a single number to pace our own adolescence. Those computers were underpowered enough that we could feel the difference from power increases even with simple applications. Today, you have to design stress tests with hungry apps to detect the performance limits of new computers.

After the Pentium, things got complicated, and growth was no longer a simple function of frequency. There was register size, watts, core count, RISC vs. CISC…

Life also got complicated for X-ers, and growth was no longer about growing taller and buying higher-frequency computers. Moore’s Law shifted regimes from micrometers to nanometers (in a decade, it should be in the picometer regime)

There’s an Apple event going on today, featuring Apple’s own silicon for the Mac for the first time. The M1 5nm chip. But Moore’s Law is not in the spotlight. Apple’s design is.

I think some of the message of the silicon medium rubbed off on us Gen X’ers. We got used to the primary thing in our lives getting better and cheaper every single year. We acquired exponential-thinking mindsets. Thinking in terms of compounding gains came naturally to us. For me personally, it has shown up most in my writing. At some level, I like the idea of producing more words per year (instructions per cycle, IPC?) with less effort (watts). This is why anytime a new medium appears that seems to make it easier to pump up quantity — Twitter, Roam research — I jump on it. Quantity has a quality all its own, as Stalin said. We are lucky to live in an age when we can expect the fundamental tradeoffs of writing to change several times in a single lifetime. A few centuries ago, you could live an entire lifetime without writing technology changing at all.

But like Moore’s Law, I too am slowing down. The natural instinct when you feel yourself slowing down is to switch gears from quantity to quality. I think this is a mistake, at least for me. Quantity is still the most direct road to quality, as the parable of the pottery class suggests. But as with semiconductors, it doesn’t just happen. You have to consciously develop the next “process node” (like the upcoming jump from 5nm to 3nm), work out the kinks in it, increase “yield rate” (the number of usable chips you get out of a wafer of silicon, a function of defects, design, etc), and then architect for that scale. Each jump to a new process node takes longer, and you face new tradeoff curves.

But each jump begins the same way: stripping away complexity from your current process and going back to the basics of words each time. You can’t add volume to complexity. You can only add complexity to volume.

For writing, sometimes the new “process node” is a whole new medium (moving from blogs to twitter threads), other times, it is primarily a matter of rearchitecting the way you write, like with my blogchains and now this headline-free Julian-date-numbered shtick. It’s always about pushing quantity, not quality. Right now, I’m trying to engineer my next “process.” I don’t think I’ll ever produce the sheer volume of words I used to 10 years ago, but I suspect can be vastly more efficient with my energy if I arrange the toolchain right. More words per year per watt, that’s the thing to shoot for.

MJD 59,151

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series Captain's Log

It’s been a busy week or so in space. NASA found water on the Moon (at concentrations lower than in the Sahara desert, but perhaps enough to extract and turn into hydrogen for fuel?). The OSIRIS-REx mission took a bounce-by biopsy of the asteroid Bennu, which makes me think mining might be closer than we think. And perhaps most interestingly, SpaceX is making Starlink subscribers sign a Terms of Service document agreeing that Mars will be outside of Earth jurisdiction.

Speaking of Mars, here’s a picture I took (Canon SLR attached to a 4.5″ Newtonian). I still haven’t figured out the fancy image-stacking techniques to produce more detailed output from my ongoing raw photography, but I’ll get there. Mars was in opposition on Oct 6, and it is still unusually large and bright, so it’s a great time to observe it. And it’s I think worth everybody’s time to do so — a reminder that there really is a universe out there beyond Earth. It’s not fantasy. There’s an actual neighboring ball of dirt, a pale red dot, in our cosmic backyard. I’ve seen it more directly than I have Antarctica.

The Starlink news is not a joke or merely of academic-legal interest. Starlink technology could easily be modified to provide broadband WiFi coverage for Mars. We really might see at least robotic space settlements in our lifetimes, and these terms of service will matter. I’m really glad SpaceX is forcing this conversation early, with what I think are the right initial conditions.

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MJD 59,145

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series Captain's Log

The terms public and private seem to form a balanced opposition, but they don’t really. In modern usage, private is a bounded and circumscribed domain, while public is an open-ended space defined via negation as non-private. It was supposedly the opposite in ancient Greece, at least by Hannah Arendt’s account. In her version of events, public was a bounded and circumscribed domain, and private was an open-ended survival warfront against nature. I’ve come to see her version of events as mistaken on crucial points, due to her over-indexing on the Greek origin myth for the notion of the public. A bunch of islands in a third-generation civilization is not a good prototype for civilization in general, which mostly arose in continental interiors along river valleys.

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