In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, when someone attempts a submission—say they extend your arm and exert pressure onto the rear of your elbow joint—you have three options. The first, and the most desirable, is escape. Find a way out and continue to fight on. The second, either virtuous or stupid depending on the situation and your outlook, is refusal. Choose not to surrender. Recent examples include Romulo Barral getting his ankle snapped at the 2017 BJJ World Championship and Holly Holmes being choked into unconsciousness at UFC 196. The third option is to tap.

Roberto Abreu with a double collar choke in the 2009 Pan American Championship.

To tap is to admit defeat. It’s an acknowledgement that your opponent has you in a position that is either too painful to endure or too dominant to escape from. It’s also a consequence of the realisation that your adversary could do some serious damage.

Consider chokes, a common occurrence in BJJ bouts. They fall into two categories: blood chokes and air chokes. Air chokes occur when pressure is applied directly to the upper airway. Blood chokes occur when pressure is applied to the carotid arteries and/or the jugular vein. The former is much rougher and takes longer to come into effect than the latter, but the end result of both is unconsciousness, via restricted air flow or via restricted blood flow to the brain. Of course, depriving the brain of its essential nutrients is not something to be done lightly. Maintained for too long, chokes can result in permanent damage to the brain, and even death. That’s why you tap out. That’s why you submit. You’re asking your opponent to preserve the integrity of your anatomy and your existence. You’re issuing a polite request for the rest of your life back.

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Chekov’s Gun and the Principle of Sufficient Reason

I have a sneaky trick I use to figure out the murderer when watching mystery shows. If there’s a random background character — say a doorman or a random neighbor — who gets insufficiently motivated screen time and lines in an early scene, they’re the murderer. If the role is being played by a mildly famous actor rather than a bit-part nobody, then you can be doubly sure. My hack exploits a human-character special case of the fact that good storytellers tend to follow, the Chekov’s gun principle:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

This isn’t an entirely fair trick of course, especially if you use the mildly famous actor clue, since it’s an extrinsic structural clue that’s outside the narrative proper, and one that won’t necessarily lead you to further guess the motive, or means. The lesson of the trick though, is that the assumption that there are no insignificant details in a story (or equivalently, that there is a good author behind the story) is an extremely powerful one. One that allows you to solve the mystery faster than if you had to sort out the significant details (as you would have to in a real murder). Of course, a great author, as opposed to a merely good one will distract you with a plausible alternative explanation for the Chekov’s gun that will lead you astray,.

The fact that Chekov’s gun can be used as a cheat points to why the corresponding idea in metaphysics, the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), made famous by Leibniz, is so controversial.

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The Well-Being Machine


Social policy is a machine for turning force into utils.


A Rube Goldberg machine. Nancy Cartwright analogizes the “nomological machine” to this type of contraption.


This is an extreme reduction of a view that is widely held (if unconsciously), but, I will argue, wrong. As my friend David Chapman says, “Philosophy has no good new thoughts to teach you. However, you can learn why the thoughts you didn’t know you had are wrong.” The subjects here are two of the messiest folk concepts in existence, and they are the most central to whatever it is that we care about: causality and well-being. [Read more…]

Reality Maintenance

The idea that reality is something that is constructed by our minds out of sense experience, and therefore requires design, programming, and maintenance, is a curiously divisive one. To some people — myself included — it is the most obvious, even banal idea in the world; a basic starting assumption required to do any sort of interesting metaphysical thinking. As I’ve argued before, all realities are escaped realities, and the interesting question is, what is the direction/degree of escape?

To others, it is a horrendously toxic attack on all that is Good and True and a French Cultural Marxist Conspiracy Against Enlightenment Values. These people are known as normies.

Setting aside these debates, it’s interesting to try and trace how we construct and maintain realities. Here’s my picture.

Turns out, if you start with sense experience as primary (the blue/gold dress is just the tip of that iceberg of worms) there are at least three distinct well-posed notions of reality — objective, subjective, and social — each of which is best understood in terms of a particular experience of time, or to use a bigger word, a particular kind of temporality. In my previous post on escaped realties linked above, I associated the three with atoms, qualia and bits, but the three kinds of temporality is a more satisfying mapping.

As you might expect, there are Greek gods for all three. Very roughly, you have Chronos for objective time, Kairos for subjective time, and the least-known, Aion, for a sort of outside-of-time eternalism. With each of these notions you get a particular manner of constructing the self (material, introspective, and social), and from that, everything else in the reality gets bootstrapped.

Of course, each of us inhabits a reality that’s a mix of the three kinds of escapism and temporality, so reality maintenance involves ongoing non-degenerate action along all three vectors. Falsification and update of material beliefs is the most familiar kind of reality maintenance (more narrowly referred to as truth maintenance). The other two might be called stream of consciousness maintenance and recognition maintenance.

It is perhaps simplest to think of each kind of reality construction in terms of its associated kind of reality destruction, or death. So you have material death, death by loss of appetite for life (or will to live), and social death by loss of being seen by others in a social reality matrix. I

This gives us 7 degrees of death, based on whether 1, 2 or all 3 kinds of reality maintenance processes have collapsed for you. So there are 6 kinds of zombie, 1 kind of fully alive person, and 1 kind of complete corpse. I’ll leave you to work out the details.

Refactor Camp: Cryptoeconomics and Blockchain Weirding Summary and Wrap Up

Last weekend we hosted a diverse crowd for this year’s Refactor Camp.

You can see the schedule and copies of the public talks here:

Attendee Tim Beiko prepared a great set of notes for many of the talks:

Links to the talks during the livestream are below.  We will be uploading edited versions soon!  Check back later for a complete set of all available public talks.



Refactor Camp 2018 Livestream

Just a quick post: Refactor Camp 2018 is currently underway in Austin and you can watch the livestream here.

Notes on Doing Things

I have a stupid hippie mantra that my brain says to itself when I’m running and I notice that I’m second- or third-guessing myself over some little decision, like which route to take or how far to go:

Body is driving.

When my brain says this to itself, it’s using a dualistic metaphor similar to the one Jonathan Haidt uses in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. Briefly, there are two selves, one conscious, introspective, logical, and verbal; the other subconscious, sensory, emotional, and largely non-verbal (therefore relatively opaque to introspection by the verbal self). The elephant is apparently responsible for a great deal of behavior.

One upshot of this model is that you can’t just do things: you have to somehow get the elephant to do them. The popular tradition of productivity and getting things done is built around techniques for imposing the will of the rider on the elephant.

However, I am here interested in another way of looking at the duality, which I think my embarrassing, intrusive running mantra explains concisely: how to give the elephant the ability to do what it wants, sometimes even taking a rest and abdicating on behalf of the elephant. [Read more…]

The Art of Longform

In December 2016, over two weeks, Sarah Perry and I taught the Ribbonfarm Longform Blogging Course to a pilot class of 10 participants. In June 2017, we expanded the course from 4 to 6 sessions, renamed it the Art of Longform, built out a Teachable course site, and taught it to a second cohort of ~30 participants.

The second time around, feeling foolhardy, we decided to record the videoconference sessions.

Then I procrastinated for nearly a year, telling myself I’d learn video editing, auto-tune, and 3d graphics skills, polish the raw videos into TEDdy brilliance, add CGI dinosaurs, and release it as the first episode of the Ribbonfarm Cinematic Universe.

Well, that never happened, but I did manage to upload the raw videos, re-record one segment that I’d lost due to sloppy recording, add some new collateral, and FINALLY put the thing together (with an aesthetic pivot from summer blockbuster to cinéma vérité along the way).

So I give you: The Art of Longform as a self-paced pre-recorded course.

Over 10 years of blogging experience, 650+ longform posts, millions of words, frequent appearances on aggregator front pages, insights from the work of many dozens of contributors, and the lessons of at least a handful of legit memeceptions and viral hits went into the pile of superstitions, magical thinking, and dubious blogging lore that constitutes the metis of ribbonfarm today.

That illegible pile of metis, distilled, legibilized and compacted into ~7 hours of  authoritarian high-modernist cinéma vérité, is the Art of Longform.


The course is currently priced at $100. It currently contains 6h 48min of video content, 6 core slide decks, a handful of collateral documents, and plenty of resource links. I may add more material in the future, and/or update existing material if we do the live course again. The course home page linked above contains a brief intro video, and the syllabus. Some of the collateral material and the participant town hall video from the last session are open for free previewing.

If you enroll and work through the material, you’re welcome to try and make your money back from the course, by pitching us a post. As you might know, contributors receive a $100 honorarium for posts (our editors contribute for free, as befits their status as Gracious Elders Giving Back to the Blogosphere with Gravitas).

My goal with this course is like Thanos’ goal in Infinity War: to bring balance to the universe. Well, balance to the operating cost structure of ribbonfarm at any rate. My cunning plan here rests on the assumption that I’ll be able to use course revenues to completely cover hosting costs and contributor honorariums. We’ll see how that goes.

Course alumni and ribbonfarm editors have discounts codes available to them, so if you know one of the editors or someone who took the live course, you may want to ping them.

If you really, really, want to take the course, but really, really cannot afford it, pitch us a post, and if we like and accept your pitch, we’ll comp you access to the course.

If you’ve EVER contributed a post to ribbonfarm, you can get free access. Just email me.


I would like to thank the ~40 participants of the live course for helping make this happen, as well as editors-at-large Carlos Bueno, Taylor Pearson, Joe Kelly, Renee DiResta, and Kevin Simler for supporting the course by helping edit the participant course essays, and chiming in during the live sessions on occasion, and general background discussions. Carlos also contributed his world famous bird cartoon as course logo.

Special thanks to Evan Thomas, at the time a writing instructor at OSU, for his guest lecture, which added a modicum of credentialed respectability to this extremely shady operation that would totally be an unaccreditable diploma mill if we offered diplomas.

Ribbonfarm School


With this first serious offering, I’ve officially taken the plunge and decided to make Ribbonfarm School happen.

Right now, this is the only serious course on there, but more are in the pipeline, starting with the Breaking Smart 101 course based on Breaking Smart Season 1 workshop. I’m putting the finishing touches on that right now. Stay tuned.

And as always, I’m open to suggestions for other courses you’d like to see.

Here’s the Art of Longform course page link again.

Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre

I have a theory about why the notion of an arms race between human and machine intelligences is fundamentally ill-posed: the way to survive and thrive in an environment of AIs and robots is not to be smarter than them, but to be more mediocre than them. Mediocrity, understood this way, is an independent meta-trait, not a qualifier you put on some other trait, like intelligence.

I came to this idea in a roundabout way. It started when Nate Eliot emailed me, pitching an article built around the idea of humans as premium mediocre robots. That struck me as conceptually off somehow, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the problem with the idea. I mean, R2D2 is an excellent robot, and C3PO is a premium mediocre android, but humans are not robots at all. They’re just intrinsically mediocre without reference to any function in particular, not just when used as robots.

Then I remembered that the genesis form of the Turing test also invokes mediocrity in this context-free intrinsic sense. When Turing originally framed it (as a snarky remark in a cafeteria) his precise words were:

“No, I’m not interested in developing a powerful brain. All I’m after is just a mediocre brain, something like the President of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.”

That clarified it: Turing, like most of us, was conceptualizing mediocrity as merely an average performance point on some sort of functional spectrum, with an excellent high end, and a low, basic-performance end. That is, we tend to think of “mediocre” as merely a satisfyingly insulting way of saying “average” in some specific way.

This, I am now convinced, is wrong. Mediocrity is in fact the sine qua non of survival itself. It is not just any old trait. It is the trait that comes closest to a general, constructive understanding of evolutionary adaptive “fitness” in a changing landscape. In other words, evolution is survival, not of the most mediocre (that would lead to paradox), but survival of the mediocre mediocre.

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Symmetry and Identity

This is a guest post by Kenneth Shinozuka.

Everything is changing all the time, even though many of the objects in the world around us appear to be totally still. As the philosopher Heraclitus said over two millennia ago, “Everything gives way and nothing stays fixed … You cannot step twice in the same river.”

The leaves change color. Buildings decay. Your body grows old.

Yet most of us subscribe to the idea that there is a stable identity that underlies all of this metamorphosis. A leaf that is now red isn’t, we believe, a separate entity from the one that was originally green. We don’t think that someone changes into a different person if he swaps out his outfit or dyes his hair to another color. In fact, we believe that you keep the same identity throughout your entire life, even though your appearance will change so much that it might be impossible for someone else to recognize you based on how you looked when you were many decades younger. In other words, identity is a feature that persists through the changes brought on by time.

Many of us believe that an object can retain its identity even when it undergoes far more dramatic changes. For example, the age-old Ship of Theseus thought experiment asks whether a ship remains the same object after all of its components have been replaced. A lot of us are inclined to believe that it does, since the new ship, though comprised of an entirely different set of planks, looks no different from the previous one.

But questions about identity become much more complex once we move beyond this simple case, and some of these complexities take us to the unstable world of quantum mechanics, where nothing is easily distinguishable.

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