Ark Head

This week is probably the closest we’ve ever gotten in my lifetime to the brink of nuclear-powered World War 3, yet people seem strangely indifferent to the developments. I share in this under-reaction. Shouldn’t we, I don’t know, have a stronger collective reaction?

There’s of course other stuff going on–a potentially extreme climate-change-amplified hurricane, the UK economy collapsing, and so on–but all that does seem to be categorically of a lower order. Visa shared this meme that gets at this feeling of curious under-reaction.

As Steve Walsh said in a reply, “I suspect this is actually how people in 2022 would receive UFO’s.” I agree with that assessment. Aliens landing would be at least a couple of levels of weird past nuclear World War 3, but I don’t think we have it in us anymore to generate reactions a couple of levels more intense. There is something exhausted about the collective human psyche right now. It’s been battered so relentlessly for so long with things calling for reactions (either practical, or in the form of futile derangement syndromes) that we’re at saturation. We can’t respond any more strongly. We can’t get any more deranged than we already are.

Hunter S. Thompson famously remarked that when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. Well, we can’t turn any more pro at this point.

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Tangle Logic

The word tangle is generally used pejoratively in the English language, as in Walter Scott’s line, Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive. Or at least disapprovingly, as in tangled mess. Darwin’s usage, in the last passage of The Origin of the Species, is the only famous example I know of where the word is used in an approving way:

“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.”

The Darwinian notion of a tangle can be understood as a snapshot of a robust, open, evolutionary process, with all the optimality and efficiency properties that entails or doesn’t (I would summarize it as “a mediocre slouching towards continued existence”). Darwin goes on to link his evocative observation directly to his theory of natural selection, but I think the idea of a tangle is more general, and has roots in the fundamental mathematical structure of reality. Take for instance, this picture of various optimal packings from a great thread of many such examples by Daniel Piker (thanks to all who responded to my twitter prompt looking for this sort of thing):

These are very simple examples of a large class of things I define to be proper tangles: complex things that are efficient but not orderly. And you know what these pictures remind me of? Traffic in India.

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ε/δ Thinking

We live in a world shaped by, and highly conducive to, discrete or 0/1 thinking. But not so long ago, we lived in a world shaped by, and highly conducive to, a kind of thinking you could call continuous, or ε/δ (epsilon/delta) thinking.

The basic idea behind ε/δ thinking is to think of the world primarily in terms of change, and secondarily in terms of extremely smooth, in fact infinitely smooth types of change. The symbols ε and δ are known as infinitesimals — quantities that can approach zero arbitrarily closely. The δ refers to an arbitrarily small input, while the ε refers to the corresponding arbitrarily small output.

The discrete, or 0/1 view of the world is fundamentally built around the fiction of being. Things either are or aren’t. Change is an illusion. “Things” merely get “created” and “destroyed.” 0s turn into 1s and 1s turn into 0s. There are no gray areas, merely insufficient bits of precision. There is no smoothness, merely ontologies beyond resolution limits. Reality is quantized.

The continuous, or ε/δ view of the world is fundamentally built around the fiction of becoming. Things always are (or equivalently, never are; in a becoming-centric view, it doesn’t really matter). There is no creation or destruction. Things just become more or less beingy.

Thinking about this stuff always reminds me of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, which goes from being a 0/1 cat to being an ε/δ cat:

“Did you say pig, or fig?” said the Cat.

“I said pig,” replied Alice; “and I wish you wouldn’t keep appearing and vanishing so suddenly: you make one quite giddy.”

“All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

I suspect Carrol intended this as commentary on discrete/continuous mathematics, including the little bit of wordplay about pig/fig (which reads to me like a joke about ε/δ adjacency ambiguities exposed by comprehension noise in a notionally discrete symbol space). There’s a world of philosophical fun in this one passage.

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September 2022 Blog Update

I haven’t been in a creative blogging mood for a month, thanks to oven-like conditions in Los Angeles these past few weeks, and of course the general Augustiness of August, the Armpit of the year. August gets Augustier every year thanks to climate change. Even the less demanding kind of writing I now reserve for my newsletter (periodic reminder — I have a paid substack called Ribbonfarm Studio that is stylistically downstream of the R&D mode of this blog) has been hard to do.

Anyhow, the funk seems to be lifting a bit now. I just landed in India for a long-overdue visit with my parents, and in what feels like a sign of the times, it’s actually much cooler and pleasanter here. California is enduring mega droughts on a millennial scale, while South Asia is experiencing extreme rain and flooding. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Anthropocene is here in earnest now. If I had to pick a poison, I’d definitely pick too much rain over too little.

2 views from balconies

Though the trip here was not exactly fun (post-Covid international travel has its burdens), I’m already feeling productively knocked out of the claustrophobic uncreative rut I’d gotten myself into over the last few years. For starters, the view from my parents’ balcony (the one on the left) is a refreshing change from the view from my own back in LA.

Anyhow, just dropping this quick note here to keep the lights on here at ribbonfarm while I proceed to Seek Inspiration and get at least one of several experimental drafts across the finish line.

Narrative Slipstream Effects

This entry is part 13 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

Drafting is a behavior in bird-flock-like systems where one agent rides the slipstream of another in a way that delivers a collectivizable benefit, usually net energy savings. The instantaneous savings rates from drafting can be very non-trivial, ranging from 5-50%, depending on the agent geometry, formation topology, physics of the situation, and other conditions. Birds, bicyclists, race-car drivers, long-distance runners, and truckers on highways do it. It is possible to do it with airplanes, though the technology hasn’t been commercially deployed yet, as far as I know. Autopilots capable of maintaining the precise wingtip-to-wingtip formations required, for long periods (which human pilots can’t do), were developed in the early 90s. It is possible to do it with driverless cars. The reason only race cars do it today is that it requires precision bumper-to-bumper driving in platoons (linear formations of several cars) at high speeds, which ordinary drivers can’t do. A project back in the 90s, the Berkeley PATH project, demonstrated this with specially kitted-out Buicks on specially modified “smart” highway segments. Teslas today have the hardware and software capability to do it. The main blocker is not technological, but legal: who will be held liable if a platoon crashes?

Drafting offers a very fertile metaphor and mental model for social systems comprising individuals who “travel together” in a conceptual space with political, cultural, and economic dimensions. Something like Hofstede’s cultural dimensions model might be a suitable metaphoric space for thinking about societal formation flight. The equivalent of the shared travel path is the shared grand narrative, and we can think in terms of narrative slipstream effects delivering the benefits of drafting.

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A Dreaming World

This entry is part 12 of 14 in the series Psychohistory

I haven’t written a truly interesting general trend piece since approximately 2017, when I wrote Premium Mediocre. I don’t count Internet of Beefs (2020), since it is less of a trend piece, and more of a “there are no more trends” end-of-history type argument. The closest I’ve come is probably my Superhistory, not Superintelligence essay on AI (on the Ribbonfarm Studio newsletter). But though large in scope, that’s more a reframe essay than a trend piece. Another close-but-no-cigar piece was the pandemic-themed first chapter of Clockless Clock, my serialized book-in-progress. Again, large in scope and sweep, but more metahistorical than historical.

But it’s not just me. If it were I’d conclude that maybe I’m just growing old and worse at this game. Thing is, I haven’t even read a truly interesting general trend piece in the last 5 years. One that makes me feel attuned to the fate of the world. I’ve read many insightful essays about specific topics like Covid or Russia, slice-of-the-local-zeitgeist impressionist pieces, subtle technology analyses on things like AI or crypto, good explainers on why certain specific things like the real estate boom or the chip shortage are happening (and how to bet on them), ambitious manifestos about the way the world ought to be or become, but not truly interesting general trend pieces. And I think there is a reason: we are living through a liminal, dreamlike period of world history marked by what I’ll call psychohistorical tenuousness.

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This week, my inventory of scavenged cardboard tubes increased from 9 to 36, grew 6x in total length (from 13′ to 84′), and 23x in total volume (0.36 cf to 8.5 cf), thanks to a job lot of free tubes my wife happened to find for me. Here’s the current hoard — the 7 large and 20 medium size tubes are from the new find.

And here’s a spreadsheet view:

Why, you ask, have I been building up a hoard of scavenged cardboard tubing for years? Fair question. And the answer is: because the tubes are there to be scavenged.

But I finally know what I am going to do with it. I’m going to build a Tubeworld!

Elon is building hyperloops and tunnels under LA. Mohammad bin Salman is building The Line, an arcology that’s part of his Neom Ozymandias project, so why can’t I have a Tubeworld? Huh?

So what is a Tubeworld?

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Storytelling — Tellability

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series Narrativium

I’ve been reviewing my own experiments with fiction (the stand-alone ones are on a separate fiction blogchain) to try and understand what makes an idea for a story tellable. I got to thinking about it because I was recently asked whether writing was a “particularly fluent” experience for me. The answer is: with nonfiction it definitely is, but with fiction, it isn’t. At least not yet.

I think it’s because “tellability” of stories is a more complex phenomenon that takes longer to turn into muscle memory where it feels like a fluency. Fiction fluency is to non-fiction fluency as riding a unicycle is to riding a bicycle. Developing this fluency, so I can go from idea to story in one sitting, with little to no metacognitive overhead, is kinda what I’m aiming at for now. I don’t really care about whether the stories are “good” as such, or meet other people’s formal notions of what a story ought to be. I just want to develop a fluency in “telling” so I can log the big wordcounts easily, while enjoying myself doing so. I want to learn to balance and ride the unicycle, and worry about getting somewhere later.

It’s not a point I’ve seen addressed in any of the storytelling material I’ve read so far, perhaps because it’s so obvious to people with natural fiction fluency. A story gets told if it is worth telling to the would-be teller, and is tellable. Just as an essay gets written if it is essayworthy to the would-be essayist, and essayable. It’s like whether a flight plan gets flown. The flight plan has to be tripworthy it for the pilot to do the actual flying, and the plane has to be flyable. Skill matters only after these two conditions are met, and the second one is the more basic one. Even a skilled pilot can’t make a bus fly. Not even if you put a gun to his head to make it worthwhile.

Tellability of a story

Tellability is not about whether the story is good or bad. It is about whether the storyteller can literally sit down and (almost unconsciously) work out how to tell it at all. In whatever medium — screen/stage, comicbook, live oral performance, or prose. Skill is usually medium-specific, but tellability is a property of the story idea. If a story idea lacks tellability, the story won’t get told. As with essays, there can always be major edits and surgeries later, and first-dump drafts might get abandoned. But the point is, the basic story idea has to be worth telling and be tellable in order to get told.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

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Virtue Degeneracy

Last summer, in a burst of enthusiasm for pious, healthy living, I got into the habit of making and consuming this rather elaborate salad, using only the freshest farmer’s market produce, on a regular basis.

I named it the mansion salad as a joke, and proudly shared the recipe and my prep routine on Twitter. It’s not often that I feel like I’m modeling behaviors good enough to virtue signal to my fellow premium mediocrities.

The self-congratulation was hard-earned. I’d prep batches of ingredients every Sunday, and eat this several times a week for lunch. Except for the pickled olives, I turned up my nose at grocery store ingredients. Only crisp, fresh farmer’s market lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers would do. The prep took time, but both the taste and the feeling of virtue felt worthwhile. This, I felt, was what it meant to live well. I kept this up for months.

The mansion salad sparked joy. It wasn’t just instagrammable, it tasted good.

Fast forward to this year.

While I’ve held on to the healthy habit, it has degenerated into a grim goblin-mode parody of last summer’s mansion-salad routine.

Behold the slum salad: eating handfuls of greens straight out of a grocery store bagged salad mix.

The salad is often wilted and on its last legs by the time I finish a bag. Sometimes I have to pick out the good leaves, since a few might even be rotting.

I usually eat a few handfuls, follow it up a few cherry tomatoes, wash it down with a protein shake, and award myself my healthy living points for the day. If there happen to be cucumber or carrot in the fridge, I just chomp on those too (unpeeled, unchopped, but I haven’t sunk to unwashed yet). No lemon dressing. No olives. No home-pickled jalapenos, no baked tofu. Not even salt and pepper. The noble avocado has retreated to breakfast where it originally lived (my health fortress).

No cleanup.

The whole experience is exceptionally mediocre. Tastes worse than the mansion salad, is less hearty and satisfying, and delivers zero sense of virtuous accomplishment. This is pure path of least-resistance instrumental healthfulness.

The slum salad does not spark joy. It is not instagrammable. And while it does not actually taste bad, it is definitely not tasty.

The mansion salad beats the slum salad on basically every dimension except two.

First, though the mansion salad is cheap (about $2 for what would be a $13 salad at a chain like Sweetgreens) this is even cheaper (about $1 I’d guess). But the additional savings isn’t significant enough to matter.

It’s the second advantage that wipes out all the other advantages of the mansion salad: it is a hundred times easier to sustain as a habit. The elimination of all prep and cleanup works wonders. I could keep this up through wars and zombie apocalypses so long as grocery supply chains were intact. Chop off zombie head with goblin axe, chomp grimly on expired bag salad stolen from desolate grocery store, retreat to lair.

I’ve taken to calling myself a salad degen, by analogy to defi degen (the term of art in crypto world for degenerate investors grinding out an income through tedious, joyless yield farming). I’m in a state of salad degeneracy. A Gollum eating preciousss wilting salad out of a bag. It’s like ramen degeneracy among ambitious young people building startups, except for middle-aged people trying to delay shutdown.

It’s a weird kind of slummy-virtuous feeling. There’s a sense of accomplishment, as in ”at least I avoided the mansion salad being replaced by junk food!”

Not that I don’t eat junk food, but that’s a separate dietary line item that was present last year too. The point is, the salad line item didn’t get cut and replaced by worse calories, despite the deep motivational recession.

I’m looking around to identify other potential states of virtue degeneracy available to occupy. For example, I’m typing out this post one-fingered on an iPad on the couch while rewatching Thor, because I’m feeling too lazy to sit up with a laptop. A degen blog post is better than no blog post.

If its worth doing, its worth doing well is a big lie from the virtue-industrial complex.

Degenerate virtues are still virtuous. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing in degenerate goblin-mode form.

The times of high-energy virtue will return, and I will eat mansion salads again some day. But now I know I can get through a winter of salad degeneracy too.

It’s not how high you can fly during good times that defines you, but how low you sink during bad times. 😇

What is a Life?

It’s an odd question, but what is a life?

A good scoping definition to start with is: life is the objectively observable and subjectively experienceable existence of a living being over its lifetime. While helpful, this is a bit like saying a liquid is the contents of a tank that can hold that liquid.

But it’s a start.

Clearly, any answer must rest on particular understandings of objective observation, subjective experience, and time, but without getting into the philosophical intricacies of those three entangled phenomena, or into the question of life itself as a general phenomenon distinct from non-life, what can we say about the contents of a specific life? Specifically, a specific human life?

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