How I Hired Your Mother

I was once riding in the back of a friend’s car next to an intelligent, beautiful, exciting woman. We’d spent the last few hours talking to each other as though no one else was around. Bar? Jazz band? Where are we now? What language are we speaking? Who cares. Then a pause, and a curious look flashed across her face. I felt my toes curl around the edge of an invisible diving board. She started talking nervously off the top of her head about… something. I said callate mija, a silly thing only old abuelitas say. Then I leaned over and we kissed. Our friends in the front cheered. Three months later we were married.

The stories you tell later about clincher moments are peculiar in both senses of the word: unique and strange. By itself the clincher quip makes little sense, a one-off generated in the moment out of shared context & vulnerability. You had to be there. At the time it’s created it functions like a gavel strike, cueing up a decision. Later, it acts like a bookmark to take one back to a spot in a million-dimensional emotionspace.

The really funny thing is that these stories have the same pattern whether they are about recruiting a key employee, the love of your life, or an enemy spy. They have some elements of a joke but they are not quite jokes. They are also full of purposeful lies. Every clincher story is prepared testimony for a future trial.

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Ten Years of Refactoring

Today marks the 10th birthday of ribbonfarm. I launched this blog on June 13, 2007 (with a book review). The first comment rolled in a few weeks later, organically, on July 4. That was also the day I formally “launched” the blog, by spamming my email address book.

To commemorate and memorialize the historic occasion, our resident alpha hacker Artem Litvinovich put a bit of birthday graffiti on the bitcoin blockchain. Notice the pair of leading 42s on the transaction id? That required some special low-level uber-hacking. It’s not something standard bitcoin applications can do. In his words, “You need to control the innards of the ECDSA signing code to do something like that.” I have no idea what that means, but I’m very pleased to get a special bespoke-magic-engineered birthday card here.

Two 42s is actually kinda nice. One for Douglas Adams, one for me. I was a clueless 32-year-old when I started this blog.

So here we are now, 10 years later.

618 posts later.  9797 comments later. 5 Refactor Camps later. 17 repeat contributors later. 20 guest writers later. 2 blogging courses later (well, 1.16; the second one is underway and will conclude next week).

Hundreds of Facebook discussions later. Thousands of tweets later. Multiple slashdottings and hacker-news-front-page-ings later. Dozens of meetups and couch-surfings later. Thousands of road-tripping miles later. I could go on.

If Google is to be believed later, 4 million sessions later, 2.5 million visitors later, 12 million page views later. 3 books later.

1,346,678 words later. At an average of just over 2179 words.

983,764 words by me. 102,983 by Sarah Perry. Just under 260k by other contributors. And I’m not even counting the comments. There’s probably several hundred regular commenters who’ve been with us off-and-on over the entire decade, dropping pearls of add-on wisdom in the comments section.

There are also words themselves. Dozens and dozens of useless neologisms, gleefully unhelpful abstractions, time-wasting archetypes labels, a steady stream of gratuitous insultings, entire bunny trails lined with thoughts nobody should waste time thinking, and so on.

And don’t forget pictures. A steady parade of ugly illustrations, collages, and cartoons (and a few pretty ones) has kept the torrent of words company.

And where have we arrived? I have no idea, but I think there’s a there there 🙂.

It took long hours, years of sweat and selfless toil and….alright who am I kidding, it took none of that.

I hate to disappoint people who like to see gritty toil behind long-evolving projects, but to be honest, in many ways, this has been the most effortless and entirely self-indulgent thing I’ve ever done. Play that worked, as I put it in a recent Breaking Smart newsletter. I just started writing one day, and forgot to stop. Everything else followed. Like they used to say about the British Empire, the Ribbonfarm Empire was created in a fit of absent-mindedness.

And speaking of Breaking Smart, there’s also a messy, rhizomatic sprawl of half a dozen domains, and a complex slum of infrastructure behind this rolling Internet carnival.

Over the last decade of high-ADD discursive wandering, ribbonfarm has steadfastly refused to have a focus, and outlasted hordes of blogs (and blogs about blogging) that earnestly advised everybody to “find a niche” and “focus.”

Nuts to that. ADHD ftw.

(nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah!)


So what do we have ahead of us for the next decade?

There is a ton of stuff staged and kinda hanging around, waiting to be rolled out over the next few months, to help set the course for the next decade. I’ll be posting more about all those things in next few weeks to months.

But for now, Happy Birthday to us!

Thingness and Thereness

For months now, I’ve been thinking about a whole mess of related ideas with the aid of a Penrose triangle visualization of three key, interconnected loci that frame a sort of canvas on which life scripts (whether canned or improvised) play out. The three vertices are home, public and frontier. This is the simplest version of the visualization:


Between home and public you find subcultures of being and identity, defined by the question, is that a thing now?  Fidget spinners are a thing right now. Gangnam Style was a thing a few years ago.

Between home and frontier you find subcultures of doing and creation, defined by the Gertrude Stein question, is there a there there? There currently seems to be a there there around cryptocurrencies. Opinion is divided about whether there was a there there around Big Data, but we may move beyond that question to the question of whether there’s a there there to Deep Learning, without ever figuring out the thereness of Big Data definitively.

Our lives are shaped by how we relate to thingness and thereness, and how those two qualities relate to each other.

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Why Books Are Fake

Every citation is either a homework assignment or a promise.

A citation, whether a scholarly footnote in an old book or a hypertext link, either promises the reader that the author has given an accurate and relevant account of the cited material, or assigns the reader to read the cited material in order to remedy the reader’s ignorance (and perhaps save the author the trouble of making a faithful summary). It may be both at once; personally, I go back and forth as context dictates.

Crawling and squirming in between the citations are the implicit citations: all those books, ideas, events, controversies, and mundane rituals of daily life that the author assumes (or pretends to assume) that the reader is already familiar with.

A book presents itself as a self-contained artifact. The form of a book (even an e-book) promises to provide a discrete chunk of knowledge. Consider the recent cult of the book – Reading Rainbow, library fetishism, John Waters’ famous admonition that if you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them. As books began to obsolesce as a form, they were attributed almost sacred value as epistemic tokens. I am not immune to the fantasy that a single book can contain valuable knowledge.
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Y Tribenator

I once saw a tourist with a shirt that said, in big letters on the back, “BOMB TECHNICIAN”. Then in smaller type underneath, “If you see me running, try to keep up“. That’s basically my strategy for exploring the new. For whatever reason I don’t have the temperament to be an early adopter. To fake it I surround myself with early adopters, and watch what they do.

This method doesn’t always work. In 2012 I got paid 5 Bitcoin at the insistence of a reader. I smiled and took the digital funny money. I’m sure it’s still on a hard drive somewhere. In 2014 my early-adopter friends were talking incessantly about a different digital funny money called Ether, which you could only buy with Bitcoin. I didn’t bother to look for the file. If I had converted that Bitcoin to Ether at the initial sale price of 2000:1, today I’d be over a million dollars richer. Sometimes I wish I was more reflexively willing to try new things.

Be careful what you wish for. I’m suddenly finding myself in the middle of a kind of tribe-generating metatribe of bloggers, helping coordinate a sprawling collection of highly weird writing projects through a clever Ether-based poker game slash taskboard called

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Blockchains Never Forget

Just three years ago, in 2014, I wrote a little short story set in a future where most work is organized around blockchains. That story was set sometime past the 2120s, but it appears we’ll get there a century earlier than I thought. The idea of organizing work through smart contracts on blockchains has been moving ahead at a breathtaking pace.

Over the last few weeks, I had my first hands-on immersive experience of this particular piece of the unevenly distributed future. I’ll share more about the specifics of this experience, and lessons learned, but mainly I want to enter my first serious attempt at blockchain punditry into the public record: the blockchain is irreversible social computing. 

The message of the medium is this: blockchains never forget. By providing an extra-institutional base layer of irreversibly settling collective memories that cannot be erased, blockchains create a foundation for fundamentally different institutional and technological landscapes. Ones based, as I will argue, on a notion of artificial forgiveness.

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There are bots. Look around.

“There are idiots. Look around.”

So said economist Larry Summers in a paper challenging the idea of efficiency in financial markets, a cornerstone of American capitalism. We’ve hit a point where the same can be said of efficiency in a cornerstone of American democracy, the marketplace of ideas:

“There are bots. Look around.”

The marketplace of ideas is now struggling with the increasing incidence of algorithmic manipulation and disinformation campaigns.

Something very similar happened in finance with the advent of high-frequency trading (the world I came from as a trader at Jane Street): technology was used to distort information flows and access in much the same way it is now being used to distort and game the marketplace of ideas.

The future arrived a lot earlier for finance than for politics. There are lessons we can take from that about what’s happening right now with bots and disinformation campaign. Including, potentially, a way forward.

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Arguing About How the World Should Burn

After eavesdropping on a thousand Twitter arguments and reading just as many thinkpieces, I’ve noticed that there are two main ways of conceptualizing community governance. Both are normative. Both primarily arise when it comes to conflicts over free speech — or who it’s okay to punch.

glitched woman hitting neo-nazi with handbag

A glitched version of the famous photo of an old lady clobbering a Neo-Nazi with her purse. Original photo taken by Hans Runesson in Växjö, Sweden circa 1985.

One mode is to focus on content, and the other is to focus on process. These are two different paradigms that shape people’s reactions to a given controversial issue. For example, let’s say a major news event happens. How do you go about selecting the articles you’re going to read about it?

  1. Choose the outlets or individual writers who share your worldview, and see what they have to say.
  2. Seek out authors who signal thoughtfulness across the political spectrum, perhaps with an emphasis on original reporting.

Here’s another example: Computer scientist Curtis Yarvin applies to speak at a technical conference, and his talk is accepted in a blind evaluation process. After Yarvin’s speaking slot is announced, the conference organizers find out that he has an alter-ego as a blogger called Mencius Moldbug. His blog promotes views that much of the conference’s larger community finds abhorrent.

The content approach is to sever ties with Yarvin — because the content of his character has been judged to be objectionable. His work and their personality are deemed toxic or actively harmful. On the other hand, the process approach is to point out that Yarvin’s submission was selected blindly, on its own merits, and affirm that he will be ejected only via the process laid out in the pre-established code of conduct.

To put it in more abstract terms, content people focus on ends over means, and process people focus on means over ends. This is an imperfect way to summarize the principle, because the reason why process people focus on means is that they think this approach leads to better ends. But “ends over means and vice versa” will do as catchy shorthand. (The distinction is similar to the conflict between deontological ethics and consequentialism, although my emphasis is less on the philosophy and more on the praxis.) [Read more…]

A Priest, a Guru, and a Nerd-King Walk Into a Conference Room…

…The funny thing is it’s as though they are playing a game of Sardines, all trying to crowd into the corner of the room labeled “strategy”. But the other corners are just as necessary and affect each other in interesting ways.

Tech companies function much like the Roman Republic. Your influence is more or less proportional to your equity stake, which is itself proportional to how early you arrived. The Republic assigned voting power and civic privileges proportional to one’s wealth and pedigree. The bulk of voice and power went to the gentry, somewhat less to smallholders, and so on. At the bottom were those citizens with nothing of value but their labor. They were called the “capite censi”, literally the “headcount”.

Philosopher-gurus are the exception. They sit to the side of the main social structure, but within whispering distance of the top. Half of their value comes from this otherness, enabling aristocrats to argue ideas outside of the rules of the hierarchy. A wink from the ruler is as good as a nod, and it’s tiresome to have your underlings scramble their plans, get spooked, spread rumors, or generally misunderstand when you are simply working through an idea. Talking with a guru is a holiday from intrigue.

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Fluid Rigor

What made us human? It’s one of the most enduringly interesting questions, from mythology to science, because the apparent ordinariness of being human conceals an abyss of ignorance about how it works and how it came to be.

A profound answer to this question is the one provided by Darwin: natural selection made us human. Theories after Darwin must attempt to explain more specific aspects of human evolution. What was our selective environment like, and what were the crucial adaptations that allowed for the development of our special kind of cognition and social organization? In what order did they occur? Does evolution act on elements of human culture, or on human groups as superorganisms? Some examples of post-Darwinian origin stories: cooking made us human, running made us human (I’m partial to both), compassion made us human, schizophrenia made us human.

Perhaps you have heard of René Girard. He was an interdisciplinary scholar who proposed a theory of what made us human, a process he calls hominization. I have been reading Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World and have found it to be a fascinatingly troublesome theory of everything. [Read more…]