Economics Memes

I can’t pretend to understand economics the way economists pretend to since I didn’t go to acting or theology school, but I try to form mental models about economics starting with sociological and technological first principles, which I consider the twin phenomenological grounds economics rests on, and the twin sources of the regulatory epistemic pressures that constrains the more cancerous tendencies of economics as a discipline. History used to be a third source but it’s become too captured by economics now to be useful. A good example of sociology-first economics is Donald Mackenzie’s “engine, not a camera” mental model. A good example of technology-first economics is Moore’s Law.

In the world-view of economists, starting with sociology is exactly the wrong thing to do, since in economics dogma, sociology is just a lot of narrative superstition. This is one of the best reasons to start with sociology. Unsurprisingly, the parts of sociology that have suffered the most from the replication crisis are the parts that look the most like economics, based on shaky statistical reasoning on questions that should probably have been only explored with more conservative ethnographic methods to begin with. And when economists do incorporate sociological thinking at all, it is in the form of, well, mathematized narrative superstition a la behavioral economics, which carries over a lot of the irreproducibility sociology and social psychology have become associated with. In the sociology-economics relationship, economics makes a good servant but a poor master. When economics bosses sociology around, both get worse.

Economists tend to be less willing to challenge technology narrative forcing functions. I’ll leave that relationship for another day. Let’s talk about how sociology can remain the master of economics: Economics memes.

[Read more…]

Four Modes of BDFxing

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Lunchtime Leadership

Made up a 2×2 after a long time. And am kicking off a new Lunchtime Leadership blogchain. Name inspired by Hitchhiker’s Guide joke about most work being done by random people who wander into offices while leaders are out to lunch, see something worth doing, and do it. BDFxing, the idea I introduced in the first part, is of course a core idea. It stands for Benevolent Dictator for x, where x is a time period between an hour (a meeting) to about a year. Happily it could also stand for eXecution, since usually it is execution needs that create leadership needs. The central dogma of Lunchtime Leadership is that most things don’t need leadership most of the time. BDFxing is one obvious implication of the dogma — that most leadership should be part time. Being a leader is fun. Just not 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Most of the time, for most things, there should be no leaders, and when there is, it should be a focused leader suited to the situation, who should only lead while the need exists. With a norm of people just walking away if they think somebody is trying to lead unnecessarily, which makes BDFxing a self-limiting pattern that resists the power-hungry. So the follower discipline corresponding to BDFxing is opt-in followership. If you don’t think something needs leadership, don’t follow. And everybody should be capable of stepping up to lead some of the time, in some way. A lot of my thinking here is shaped by the Yak Collective, which runs entirely on BDFxing and opt-in followership.

The “size” of a leadership episode could be measured as a product of stakes and energy. Ie, the value of what’s at stake times the energy output rate (in the sense of Andy Grove’s idea of “high-output management”) that needs to be put in for the duration, to make something happen. Here’s the 2×2 with the resulting for BDFxing archetypes (which are transient roles, not personalities).

Obviously, high-stakes, high-energy BDFxing makes for the shortest bursts of leadership, and the typical situation is when something that is the output of a longer period of leaderless activity needs to be converge to a launch event of some sort, calling for a Launch Boss. Too many decisions need to be made, too fast, for things to happen through consensus or deliberation, or go through judicial style review processes by lots of people. So somebody just grabs executive authority to drive the launch through. I used to play this role more in the past but these days it is too intense for me unless it is really short, like running a meeting.

High-stakes, low-energy BDFxing is needed when a collective effort has created a lot of great raw materials that just need a bit of creative catalysis to come together. Like a grain of dust being dropped into a superheated or supercooled liquid. I like the metaphor of a proto Frankenstein monster laying on the operating table, a bunch of parts that have been assembled, but aren’t coming to life. You need a lightning bolt of creative synthesis, but usually not in terms of content. You need a creative frame provided by a Lightning Conductor. I often play this role. Often all a mass of creative content needs to come together is just a 2×2 to structure or a spreadsheet it for divide-and-conquer finishing drive, and I’ve often been the one to supply the 2×2. Lightning conducting looks very similar to traditional project management, but is like doing only the fun creative part, because everyone manages their own work within the creative frame.

Low-stakes, low-energy BDFxing makes for the longest burst of BDFxing. At the Yak Collective, we sometimes refer to this as “tours of duty,” where entropy has accumulated somewhere for a while (like years), but it’s in a state where a few weeks of steady, low-intensity TLC will restore it to full vigor. It calls for a Landscaper. I personally think this is the most important kind of BDFxing, and the hardest to culturally incentivize. Lots of people are willing to handle intense 1-day launch events or less intense 1-week lightning conductor jobs. But one month of housekeeping at a few minutes to an hour a day is a pattern of entropy-arresting energy injection that is really rare, and correspondingly valuable. It is doubly valuable because when something is seen to be done in a disciplined way for a few weeks, other people form good habits around it, which persists even after the period of landscaper BDFxing ends. This is why we also often say about participating in the Yak Collective: 1 hour a week over 10 weeks is more valuable than 10 hours in 1 day.

Low-stakes, high-energy BDFxing is usually called for when something needs a marketing or PR “face.” Unlike traditional leadership where that is a high stakes performance in its own right, the BDFxing version is much lower stakes, since much less actually depends on the leader’s talents, but still calls for high energy. I like the archetype of Ringleader for this. In a circus, the ringleader has to keep the energy high and the energy of the show going, but it’s the acrobats, jugglers and other individuals who are responsible for the stakes. I often play this role as well, and have taken to calling myself a “frontman” when I do. By virtue of being a relatively better known mediocre influencer, in groups with less known people, I often attract more attention than I “deserve” for whatever is happening. Which means the job is really to direct it to the right places.

Everybody should try their hand at all four kinds of BDFxing, and figure out what they’re best at. And then do it for the things they are involved in to the degree it is fun. If nobody has enough fun doing the BDFxing to supply the leadership of the activity, the activity should probably just be abandoned. A leadership deficit that’s fixed by coercive force and misery poisons the activity and the outcome.

Cozy Hypertext for the Dark Forest Web

We need to reinvent hyperlinks in a cozy idiom for the contemporary dark forest online environment before web2 platforms succeed in their decade long quest to kill them (though they don’t deserve all the blame for hyperlinks being increasingly suboptimal constructs). I trace the origins of this effort to Google’s Amp product which had “faster mobile user experience” as the casus belli for the disproportionately belligerent war on links, which is now starting to look like the Drug War in the US. Now Google routinely hijacks links for shitty and unnecessary eager highlighting and PDF handling. The view of hypertext culture I shared 15 years ago in The Rhetoric of the Hyperlink, which was quite popular at the time, now seems hopelessly idealistic. When I just googled for that link, ironically, I had to strip out some shitty highlighting crud. The war extends even to cozy internal linking within a blog to the extent you rely on external tools, such as by using Google as your internal search tool. Which is why cozy products like Roam and Notion wisely choose to build seamless internal search-and-link-while-writing author experiences (AX) that can’t be “improved” by Google.

The disingenuous philosophy in support of this war is the idea that URLs are somehow dangerous and ugly glimpses of a naked, bare-metal protocol that innocent users must be paternalistically protected from by benevolent and beautiful products. The truth is, when you hide or compromise the naked hyperlink, you expropriate power and agency from a thriving commons. Sure, aging grandpas may have some trouble with the concept but that’s true of everything, including the friendliest geriatric experiences (GXes). My grandfather handled phone numbers and zip codes fine. URLs aren’t much more demanding and vastly more empowering to be able to manipulate directly as a user. Similarly, accessibility considerations are a disingenuous excuse for a war on hyperlinks.

A useful way to think about this is the interaction of the Hypertext Experience (HX) with Josh Stark’s notion of a Trust Experience (TX), which needs to be extended beyond the high-financial-stakes blockchain context he focuses on, to low-stakes everyday browsing. We all agree that the TX of the web has broken and it’s now a Dark Forest. The median random link click now takes you to danger, not serendipitous discovery. This is not entirely the fault of platform corps. We all contributed. And there really is a world of scammers, trolls, phishers, spammers, spies, stalkers, and thieves out there. I’m not proposing to civilize the Dark Forest so we don’t need to protect ourselves from it. I merely don’t want the protection solution to be worse than the problem. Or worse, end up in a “you now have two problems” situation where the HX is degraded with no security benefits, or even degraded security.

[Read more…]

The Dark Forest Marketing Agency

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Fiction

The Pasha sat gravely on a beautifully rendered Ottoman-era chair. A discreet timer hovered above his head, reading 0:15. To one side, the medieval Istanbul cityscape was visible through a window. The Pasha gestured me towards a chair identical to his own. I sat down, briefly registering the dissonance between the visual of the luxuriously cushioned antique chair and the hard barstool I was actually sitting on in my apartment. I did not have the budget for luxuries like adaptive texture chairs and 2d treadmills. But as usual, the dissonance was fleeting.

The Pasha spoke.

”Welcome to the Dark Forest Marketing Agency. I am required by Turkish law to disclose that I am Pasha7, a certified digital twin representing Mr. Ibrahim Pasha of Sultanahmet, the renowned human marketing expert with whom you have signed the contract for this initial fifteen-minute consultation at the low introductory price of 0.05 ETH. As per Turkish law, Mr. Pasha accepts full legal responsibility for my actions on his behalf, as an AI model trained to track and mirror his evolving expertise as a marketing consultant, and offer affordable AI-based counsel on his behalf. I will strive to provide services comparable to the full-price ones provided by Mr. Pasha himself, to the select clients he handles personally. Please indicate your awareness that you are speaking with an AI mirror model.”

[Read more…]

Mediocratopia: 13

This entry is part 13 of 13 in the series Mediocratopia

Meant to blog this earlier but forgot. A couple of months ago, Eric Platon shared an image of a couple of French books (not available in translation) on mediocrity with this comment:

Just discovering that the meaning of mediocrity changed with Renaissance in Europe (don’t know which one yet). Mediocrity was apparently not pejorative before!…The back cover is rich: Mediocrity used to mean anything “median”, finding compromise , perplexity, mood balance, notion of androgyny, intermediary positioning in politics and religion. Very different from post-Renaissance apparently.

This tracks for me. Mediocrity used to mean something closer to the Buddhist middle path doctrine. It got recoded somehow to mean low quality, apathy, sloppiness and so on.

The point about being on the middle of various spectra rather than at an extreme is that it forces you to acknowledge it as a spectrum. Being at 0 or 1 on an (normalized) parameter allows you to essentially drop a dimension and build in a degeneracy. Being at 0.534 forces you to model the dimension thoughtfully. I’ve said before that mediocrity is about fatness — reserve resources. Now we can add — it’s also about fullness. Full rank. Max dimensionality. No unnecessary reduction to binaries or absolutes. Everything in the nature of the thing is also in the tradeoff space of dealing with the thing. This also means there is something tentative about a mediocre thing. All options are open. None have been foreclosed.

“Excellence” is also about optimization, and to the extent optima occur at boundary extrema rather than interior points, you get a similar degeneracy from the mere fact of using optimization frames. If you’re on a boundary you don’t need to model the interior. This is why mediocritization is the opposite of optimization. The Taoist fable, Maybe so, maybe not, we’ll see captures the spirit of this idea.

The drive to excellence is often a pathological drive towards degeneracy and legibility via a leaning-out of fatness and fullness. And false determinacy. Converting maybes into yeses and noes by fiat, and not waiting to see. It is high modernism — an aesthetic pretending to be an ethic.

I want to connect up one more thought I might elaborate on later. Mediocrity is often more thorough in its consideration of things in all their fullness. Excellence often has a focus on some notion of efficiency. Every notion of optimality is also a notion of efficiency that sacrifices thoroughness to some degree. By the efficiency thoroughness tradeoff (ETTO) principle, you can’t have both at once.

Thoroughness is often associated with craft where efficiency is associated with industry. Craftsmanship does not manifest excellence in the sense a quality industrial product can. It is a not-even-wrong standard to apply. But a well-crafted thing often expresses the fullest nature of a thing. A beautiful wabi-sabi bowl may look rough butcaptures the nature of the bowl, including its transience and mortality, in the fullest way. But it seems strange to think of it as excellent.

BDFxing, Or Post-Charismatic Distributed Leadership

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Lunchtime Leadership

The management cultures I inhabit in my very-online blogger life tend to run a generation ahead of the ones I support in my very-offline consultant life, since I mostly support executives roughly my age (49) or older in traditional orgs. But sometimes, it is helpful to signal-boost management patterns pioneered by younger people, not just because they work better than old patterns in new media organizational contexts (Slack-based orgs for example), but because they work better, period.

One such pattern I strongly recommend you understand and cultivate in your org if you don’t already is the BDFx, or Benevolent Dictator for x, pattern, where x is a time period between an hour or a year or so. The limits vary by context. In various orgs I’m in, it tends to be days to months.

BDFx as a prescriptive term derives from BDFL, L for “Life,” as a descriptive term. That term is old and dates to 1995. It originated in the Python community and is now generally used to describe the condition of an open-source leader who may find themselves saddled with more, and longer-term, expectations of selfless (bordering on martyrdom) leadership than they may want. The condition of the BDFL is captured by this famous xkcd cartoon.

You see, actual leadership is a thankless job even when you’re motivated by, and being rewarded with, great wealth (stock etc), power, and fame (being US President, a Hollywood producer, etc). As I’ve argued before (in a 2015 post) most leaders motivated by those things don’t actually lead. Instead they indulge in a theatrical grifter activity I call leadering, which delivers the rewards without requiring them to deal with the responsibilities. In the open-source world, since these adverse selection incentives are mostly missing, you see more actual leadership, but also more honest appraisals of what leadership is. And more willingness on the part of people who do it to say fuck you and walk away when the job goes from being merely thankless to attracting things worse than ingratitude, like resentment and unfair blame. If you’re toiling away in thankless obscurity with no wealth, fame, or power anyway, the only reason to accept martyrdom is if you’re either a masochist or a true saint defending the world against serious pain. Which is sometimes the case but far rarer than it might seem, since fake saints are ubiquitous.

Now what’s the alternative to selfless leaders being burdened beyond endurance, to the point they say fuck you and walk, causing things to collapse on the rest of us?

[Read more…]

A Tale of Two Kits

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Ribbonfarm Lab

I’m working on two kits at once: A Lego Technic Perseverance kit, and a “hello world” spoon using a beginner’s whittling kit. They could not be more different, yet I can see why both deserve to be called kits. Both come complete with all the tools and materials needed, and guidance on what to build. Both are designed with an initial outcome in mind, but can also be used to build lots of other things the designers didn’t think of. Both embody design dispositions towards accessible design spaces. They are weakly opinionated engineering artifacts.

But there the similarities end.

The Lego kit has no tools, complete instructions, over 1000 parts, and a very credible assurance of getting to the promised outcome with ordinary skills. The manual is unambiguous pictures, no text. If you think the instructions are wrong, it’s probably you that’s wrong. The kit is built in 4 modules, and the parts for each are separated into 1-2 bags.

I’m part way through module 1. They’ve wisely front-loaded a small win in module 1: the main subgoal is that you assemble part of the rover chassis, but first you build the complete Ingenuity helicopter. They’ve really shaped the motivation curve. Here’s where I am:

Close-up of the helicopter:

The whittling kit comes with 3 knives, a sharpening/honing strop, some wood blanks, cut-resistant gloves, a pattern for making a bunny (I’m making a spoon instead; seemed simpler), no instructions, and no assurance of getting anywhere. I started to wing it, but struggled, so I had to find some YouTube videos to learn basic techniques. Here’s how it started:

[Read more…]

Thoughts on XMTP

I use 9 messaging services to varying degrees: Slack, Discord, Telegram, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Signal, SMS, Google Voice, and Twitter. Not counting various narrower inboxy things for vertical services and “secure messaging centers” associated with banking or healthcare apps. About half of these ride on top of phone numbers in one way or another, for discovery and meta-alerting, and the other half ride on email (which of course is now primarily for password resets, 2FA codes, official government notices, and newsletters, with the Substack app trying to siphon away that last category and reduce it to pure messaging middleware).

While there is some rationale for segregated basic comms (I think financial and healthcare being segregated is good, and perhaps some like dating might have softer cases for being compartmentalized) this is overall obviously a stupid situation. Stupid but foreseeable, since every agent in the picture except the end user has an interest in aggregating and walling off their share of messaging flow for various other reasons, and both the identity systems underlying these services are controlled by third parties you’re forced to trust (the phone number or email provider).

And trying to solve the problems within the paradigms (web/email and phone systems) that created it will inevitably lead to the xkcd “Now there are 15 competing standards” situation. In non-cartoon world, we have the beyond-stupid green bubble/blue bubble wars in Appleverse and the associated sorry tale of Beeper. Is there no way out of this misery?

Enter XMTP. It’s not a solution so much as a way to potentially replace this tired old misery with a fresh new one. The xkcd cartoon dynamic will reappear, but at a whole new locus, and that might be at least fun.

The cost of a workable single standard, for the moment, is apparently unavoidable conflation with financial transactions on blockchains. Let me explain, to the extent I understand what’s going on.

[Read more…]

The Bartleby Trough

By my slacker standards, which are best illustrated by this Bender meme, I’ve been unusually overworked lately.

So I made this futile graph in an effort to find some solace.

I guess it’s an overwrought version of the Ballmer Peak mashed up with some notion of the NPV of the must-do part of your to-do list, and an existential-Buddhist-stoicism twist thrown in at the tail. With alcohol % replaced by commitment level. As Jerry Seinfeld liked to ask, is this anything? 🤔

[Read more…]

Lego Soup

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Ribbonfarm Lab

I’ve been mildly hostile to Lego as a medium of tinkering. Even though I’ve bought all sorts of other kits as I’ve built up the Ribbonfarm Lab over the last few years, I’ve resisted the siren song of Lego. Until now. I’ve finally succumbed. It all started when I inherited a starter box from a Summer of Protocols workshop exercise, worth about $30, in July. It sat around for 6 months, until I finally caved, and played with it for a bit over the winter break. Turned out it was a relatively weak kit, heavy on cosmetic detailing and greebling parts (googly eyes, flowers, tiny 1-stud contour-smoothing wedges) apparently aimed at 4-year-olds, rather than expressive and versatile parts. The kit was the Lego equivalent of the stone in Stone Soup. Before I knew it, I’d spent another $170 or so. Here’s my current Lego meta-kit.

The reason I’m mildly hostile to Lego is it takes away too much friction and engineering messiness in favor of simplicity of UX (PX? play experience?) and aesthetics (apparently this has been a trend known as “juniorization”). I argued this point in Truth in Inconvenience, via a Lego-Meccano comparison. Lego fosters somewhat utopian engineering sensibilities. Compared to Meccano or electronics kits for example, it encourages an excessively sanitized view of engineering problem-solving. I have no experience of the Technic or Mindstorms lines (they were wildly beyond my means as an 80s kid in India — my sister and I only had a couple of very small Lego kits), so I’m looking forward to seeing whether my first-ever Technic kit, the Perseverance kit shown above, offers a more Meccano-style experience.

I have to say though, I’m very impressed with some of the advanced original builds by adult experts I’ve seen on social media, such as this dragon, these curved forms, and these African style sculptures. The representational art bias doesn’t necessarily mean the engineering complexity is lower. Hat tip to Topias Uotila (@thuotila.bsky.social) on Bluesky and Dorian Taylor, among others, for helping soften my Lego-skepticism with good arguments and examples. Also thanks to Chenoe Hart for providing me with a crash course on the Lego maker scene.

That said, as a personal preference, I like to see the higher-dimensional messiness of real-world engineering reflected in a tinkering medium. So I doubt Lego will ever become my favorite tinkering medium. But it’s \ likely to become a strong supporting medium. I suspect I’m also generally suspicious of colorful-fun vibes.

So despite my misgivings, I suspect I’ll end up spending a couple of hundred dollars more rounding out my Lego inventory. I’m already eyeing a couple of buckets of additional off-brand parts and a few more interesting Lego-branded parts. Apparently, even though most of the important Lego patents have expired, generic competitors still can’t make the larger parts as well as Lego can (I suppose tolerance stacking is the issue?)

I’m still developing intuitions around what might be interesting lines of tinkering investigation with Lego, but two that intrigue me are interoperability with other construction kit languages and the idea of kit-bashing.

This universal construction kit (HT @rational.bsky.social) kinda gets at what interests me with regard to interoperability, though it seems to involve custom 3D printing Lego-compatible parts, a notoriously difficult thing to do due to the tight tolerances, and doesn’t include my favorite, Meccano, in its “universal” scope. I might instead try to use off-brand Lego parts set in custom-designed 3D-printed coupling sockets that mate with Meccano.

Kit-bashing is about exploring design spaces created by pooling two or more kits. Once I build the rover, I might buy a second technic kit and explore that question in-universe. It feels like kit-bashing is a good way to explore a question that interests me: the problem of scavenging parts from one machine for another, in pursuit of accretive robotics. The key idea is that instead of working with an inventory of nonspecific parts, you work with a teardown inventory. Everything comes from a nominal design. It’s like sexual reproduction rather than interchangeable-parts manufacturing.

Anyway the Lego soup is now bubbling away in the cauldron. Stay tuned for Cultural Learnings of Legoland to Make Benefit Glorious Lab of Ribbonfarm.