Domestic Cozy: 5

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Domestic Cozy

Drew Austin devotes the latest issue of his excellent Kneeling Bus newsletter (highly recommended; a weekly short dose of urbanism, infrastructure etc) to “Inner Wear”:

I like the idea of a leather jacket being a form of armor—the notion that the outside world is a harsh wilderness and clothing is the only layer shielding you from its threats. That is something to be nostalgic about in the present condition, where we’re embedded in layer upon layer of additional protection, and only by artificially engineering those man-vs-nature situations (by getting on a motorcycle or going camping) does clothing’s protective role kick in. Marshall McLuhan wrote that “clothing and housing are near twins…housing extends the inner heat-control mechanisms of our organism, while clothing is a more direct extension of the outer surface of the body.” By that definition, cars, too, are a kind of clothing, yet another outer layer, even an exoskeleton…

… Rem Koolhaas observes that “air conditioning has launched the endless building,” and if we’re always effectively indoors, our need for functional outerwear diminishes accordingly.

And his take on what I’ve been calling domestic cozy.

Clothing today is more casual and comfortable than it’s ever been, and the urban environments that once spawned Greenfield’s leather-armor-clad punk rock aesthetic are now the vanguard of Allbirds and athleisure. That shift is easy to gripe about, but it feels like a truer embrace of the clean, safe 21st-century experience, where a climate-controlled escape from the elements is never more than an app-click away.

In other sightings of the domestic cozy idea, Jessica Stillman has a quick mention over at Inc.

Yep. It’s catching on. We’ll make domestic cozy happen and put the darn kids into that box until they work themselves out 😎.

A New Newsletter: The Art of Gig

As some of you already know, I’ve added a new thing to the sprawling Ribbonfarm Media Empire: a paid newsletter on substack ($5/mo or $50/y) called The Art of Gig. To quote myself from the About page:

This is a weekly newsletter for indie consultants who are in the gig economy for the deep fun of it. I took the name, The Art of Gig, from a rather idiotic absurdist short story I wrote about the consulting life a few years ago, which had my regular readers groaning and laughing in equal parts. The phrase itself, as you might guess, is a joke reference to Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

Read the rest of the About page to learn more. I’m now 2 weeks, and 3 issues, into it. The plan is to do at least 1 paid issue a week, and 1 free issue a month. The first issue, 42 Great Imperatives, is free to read. The second and third issues are for paying subscribers only. By way of a teaser, here is a picture of a strategometer, a device I discuss in my most recent issue.

The Strategometer

So far, I have 418 subscribers signed up, of whom 198 are paying subscribers. Clearly, readers of this list are poised to take the consulting world by storm, while funding an early retirement for me 😎.

So if you’re looking to improve your independent consulting game, or hoping to break into it, you may want to consider subscribing to The Art of Gig.

Predictable Identities: 9 – How to Change

This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Predictable Identities

You’ve changed your mind and who you want to be. Your social web is having none of it. What to do?

One option is to simply power through. Stick to your (new) guns and admit that your mind is indeed changed. The “zeal of the convert” is important here: it takes extra commitment to convince those who knew the old you to change their story.

A savvier approach is to leverage common tropes and adopt a role that entails transformation. If you want to switch from layabout to responsible professional, or vice versa from workaholic to self-caretaker, it may help to have a romantic partner break up with you. “Area person reassesses life priorities after heartbreak” is a familiar story that people can get behind. “Area rationalist reassesses life after Hamming circleisn’t, even if that’s what actually happened.

But the easiest option may just be to GTFO and change the scene. I’ve reset my social web several times, usually with positive results.

By the time I learned how to be funny in elementary school, everyone had decided that I’m a boring nerd. I moved to a new city for high school and did better as the clever class clown, but these traits were not in high demand when I enlisted in the military. I eventually grokked professionalism, but it was too late to gain the trust of my officers. I emigrated. I did better in my next two stops but blew through my weirdness budgets and couldn’t shake off my reputation as a weirdo.

Finally, I came to New York, where I did not know a single soul. I took my craziest opinions out of the office and onto the internet. I started acting like the person I wanted to be seen as, not who I was before.

It works, for now.

Domestic Cozy: 4

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Domestic Cozy

I came across a phrase in the coverage of the admissions scandals now plaguing several elite US universities: snowplow parenting. The phrase refers to a particular kind of contemporary active parenting that focuses on clearing obstacles from the paths of Gen Z children. The phrase is an interesting hardening of the idea of helicopter parenting, which parents of Millennials were accused of in the 90s.

The difference between helicopter and snowplow parenting is the difference between peacetime social ambition and a wartime circling of wagons around kinship interests.

Helicopter parents, I suspect, fought to give their kids an unfair leg up in a system they saw as essentially meritocratic and fair, during a decade (the 90s) that was widely viewed as prosperous. It was a covered call bet on a society that was perceived to be winning overall.

Snowplow parents, on the other hand, I suspect want to give their kids an unfair leg up in a system they see as essentially corrupt, during a decade and half (2008-24) that they view as a slow collapse. It is shorting of a society that is perceived to be losing overall.

What does it even mean to short society? In the case of university admissions scandals, I suspect it means, “use my wealth and social capital to get my kid a prestigious degree while that still means something.”

Timing is more critical in a short bet after all, and it is easier to justify participating in unambiguous corruption; you can pretend you’re just getting your share of harvestable value from something that’s already dying.

Snowplow parenting is an interesting metaphor. There is the sense of harsh outdoor conditions full of obstacles that require clearing to create comfortable survival conditions.

Winter has arrived. Snow must be cleared to achieve a state of domestic cozy.

Worlding Raga: 5 — World How?

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Worlding Raga

A bit of fun synchronicity. A few weeks ago, I came up with a snowcloned line inspired by a famous tldr of general relativity: narratives tell archetypes how to evolve, archetypes tell narratives how to curve. 1 Right after, I found a Terry Pratchett quote that says almost the same thing, but less ponderously: “Our minds make stories, and stories make our minds.” I prefer my version though, since I like the synaptic link to physics it creates.

Narratives drive archetype evolution (“stories make minds”) through irreversible expansion of awareness of possibilities, via actual instances playing out. Here is a 2×2 of what I think is a good set of answers to the question in my subtitle, world how?

When you ask who worlds? as Ian did last time, you get at archetypes telling narratives how to curve. When you ask, world how? as I am doing this time, you get at narratives telling archetypes how to evolve. The short answer is: through irreversible actions including a very special irreversible action that I’ve plotted in the center of the 2×2: waiting.

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Predictable Identities: 7 – Weirdness Budget

This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series Predictable Identities

Social life needs predictable people who conform to expectations. There are common expectations which apply to every person in the group, and personal expectations based on one’s perceived role and past behavior.

Deviating from common expectations costs idiosyncrasy credits. Dressing differently, eating strange diets, watching documentaries that no one else does and not watching the show everyone talks about – these all exhaust a limited budget of nonconformity. The budget accrues to people who conform or are popular; the two often go hand in hand.

As Homer Simpson noted: “Marge, I can’t wear a pink shirt to work, everybody wears white shirts. I’m not popular enough to be different.”

When someone exceeds their idiosyncrasy budget, their opinions will get dismissed on grounds of absurdity bias and the horn effect. If you want to tell your millennial friends about crazy ideas like unfriendly AI or Ribbonfarm, make sure you are otherwise appropriate.

Personal expectations include playing out roles and simply being the same person over time. Even changes of mind that don’t violate group norms, like hating a movie that you liked last year, can be grating. If you’re not changing in ways that are fun for your friends, you’re just making yourself hard to model and get along with.

Imagine a conversation with just a few people. When deciding whether to tell a joke, you have to consider your friends’ likely reactions to the joke. But you also have to consider their reaction to everyone else’s reaction, and what it implies about everyone’s relationships and status, and so on down many layers of metacognition. If you can’t rely on heuristics of shared group expectations and consistency over time, the computational effort is overwhelming. You’re likelier than not to go look for a more predictable group of friends to joke with.

Elderblog Sutra: 6

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Elderblog Sutra

Last time, we took an content graph view of this elderblog. Now let’s take a word-count view. There is something pleasantly honest about word counts. They strike a thoughtful balance between weighing writing in too-literal (compressed file sizes) and too-abstract (post count) ways. Ribbonfarm has averaged 11,491 words/month over its 11.5 year history.

3 month moving average of ribbonfarm word count

The two spikes in 2007 and in 2017 are explained by me flushing out a pile of private drafts when I started, and the publishing of the longform course participant essays respectively. The steady accumulation is even clearer in the cumulative word-count graph:

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Infinite Machines: 3 — Turking Interfaces

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Infinite Machine

At its peak, the 18th century Mechanical Turk toured the world; leaving audiences in awe at its seemingly advanced ability to beat opponents in chess. It only became publicly known after decades the Turk had a human chess master below who would manipulate the machine to make moves on their behalf. Over two centuries later in 2017, Google’s AlphaGo beat the world’s best Go player with no human intervention. In this case, the core technology evolved from human to machine, but personas were constructed along the way to disguise human labor behind the interface.

Beyond entertainment, this type of persona construction extends to humans used for service labor. As trains became commercialized in the 1860’s, black porters were known as George’s amongst passengers. This name comes from George Pullman, manufacturer of the Pullman Sleeper car. The George, similar to the Turk, functioned as a mask to human identities. Though George’s (as an interface) represented a deeper charade of power relationships.

Amazon adopted the Mechanical Turk name for one of their platforms, and it has since grown to be the world’s largest online workforce, comprising roughly 500,000 contract-based employees around the world. These ‘turkers’ help researchers and tech companies bring structure to unstructured data and train AI; with activities ranging from spotting fake news to filling out surveys. While it’s known that humans are behind the interface, they’re represented only as a string of letters and numbers to requestors.

In Finland, the Criminal Sanctions Agency is partnering with Vainu, an enterprise SaaS tech company, to employ prisoners as ‘turkers’ to validate data that will help organizations arrive at more comprehensive business decisions. While the company boasts the prisoners are gaining transferable skills, the dissonance between the worlds of the end user and prisoner blur the lines of where the human labor ends and the machine begins.

Predictable Identities: 8 – Roles People Play

This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series Predictable Identities

We fit strangers in stereotypes, and we like strangers who fit our stereotypes and act congruently. Dealing with people we know allows for more personalized modeling, but we still want associates and companions to stick to their roles.

Most everyone in most every office resembles a character on The Office, not just in the broad strokes of the Gervais Principle but down to details of job, dress, and personality. Husbands and wives have played out “if it weren’t for you” patterns long before Games People Play described them.

The main difference from predicting strangers is that dealing with familiar people allows for active inference: enforcing others’ conformity to prediction. Valentine Smith describes this in his excellent essay The Intelligent Social Web:

You move away [from your family] and make new friends and become a new person […] But then you visit your parents, and suddenly you feel and act a lot like you did before you moved away. You might even try to hold onto this “new you” with them… and they might respond to what they see as strange behavior by trying to nudge you into acting “normal”: ignoring surprising things you say, changing the topic to something familiar, starting an old fight, etc.

This nudging is effected by thousands of small actions perpetrated by dozens of people. We receive small negative reinforcements when we do something unpredictable that causes others’ models to momentarily fail, and positive rewards when we conform to our roles. The social life of an office or a family is too complex to compute without stable roles assigned to people, the same way a brain can’t cohere a visual scene without the expectation that visual objects remain stable.

Life in the social web means that growth and change are harder than they appear. Hard, but not impossible.

Mediocratopia: 4

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Mediocratopia

You’ve probably heard of optimization, that nihilistic process of descending into valleys or ascending up hills till you get stuck, having an existential crisis, and then flailing randomly to climb out (or down) again. Mediocritization is the opposite of that: never getting stuck in the first place. Here’s a picture.

Optimization versus mediocritization
Optimization versus mediocritization

The cartoon on the left is optimization. The descent is a relatively orderly process (“gradient descent” takes you in the local steepest incline direction). The getting-out-again part is necessarily disorderly. You must inject randomness. The cartoon on the right is mediocritization: don’t get stuck.

When people talk of “global” optimization, they usually mean that over a long period, you flail less wildly to get out of valleys because the chances that you’ve already found the deepest valley get higher as you explore more. This process goes by names like “annealing schedule”.

Global or local, the thing about optimization is that it likes being stuck at the bottoms of valleys or the tops of hills, so long as it knows it is the deepest valley or highest hill. The thing about mediocritization is that it does not like either condition. Mediocritizers likes to live on slopes rather than tops or bottoms. The reason is subtle: on a slope, there is always a way to tell directions apart. The environment is different in different directions. It is anisotropic. Mediocritization is an environmental anisotropy maintaining process (not a satisficing process as naive optimizers tend to assume).

Anisotropy is information in disguise. Optimizers get stuck at the bottoms of valleys or tops of hills because the world is locally flat. No direction is any different from any other. There are no meaningful decisions to make relative to the external world because it is the same in all directions, or isotropic. This is why you need to inject randomness to break out (mathematically, the gradient goes to zero, so can no longer serve as a directional discriminant).

Generalizing, in mediocritization, you always want to have a way available to continue the game that is better than random. This means you need some anisotropic pattern of information in the environment to act on.

Three examples of mediocritization:

  1. When Tiger Woods was king of the hill (a position he just regained after a long time), his closest competitors performed worse by about a stroke on average. Apparently, when Tiger is in good form, there’s no point trying too hard. See this paper by Jennifer Brown..
  2. My buddy Jason Ho, who just had this entertaining profile written about him, is on the surface, a caricature of an optimizer techbro. But look again: he trained hard and placed second in an amateur body-building competition, and then moved on to newer challenges rather than obsessing over getting to #1.
  3. When I was in grad school, and occasionally hit by mild panic at the thought of somebody scooping me on the research I was working on, I came up with a coping technique I called “+1”. For any problem, I’d always take some time to identify and write down the next problem I would work on if somebody else scooped me on the current one. That way, I’d hit the ground running if I was scooped.

Carsean moral of the 3 stories: optimization is how you play to win finite games, but mediocritization is how you play to continue the game.