Archives for 2011

Tempo: Year One

It’s time for a roundup of all the posts in this first year of the Tempo book blog and a review of the performance/impact of the book itself. I wrote the book with the expectation that I’d evolve it through multiple editions and spin-off  activities over at least a decade, so the book blog has been especially important in my thinking and planning.

This is where I hope to test out ideas to add to future editions, maintain a sort of notebook of ongoing research, and prepare an online home for the book for when the paper book finally becomes a relic.

If the book endures, I expect editions beyond about 2015 to be purely digital, with paper copies being mostly souvenirs. Books seem to be heading inexorably towards continuously-updated-and-versioned digital entities. I predict that beyond the 2nd or 3rd edition, I’ll end up converting the book into a sort of a la carte online thing with mechanisms for readers to keep up with updates and new material.  I’ll probably still keep producing paper versions even if there is no real market, because the dead-tree finality of a paper edition serves to enforce a kind of extreme discipline on the writing process.

Anyway, here is a report on the year’s happenings, a preview of 2012, and a list of blog entries for those who want to catch up.

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Complete 2011 Roundup

Time for another roundup. It’s been, ahem, an interesting year, to say the least.  I’ll do a numbers portrait and some narrative highlights for those of you who have been reading long enough to be interested in the meta-story of this blog as a piece of ongoing performance art. For those who don’t care, skip to the end for the complete list of links to 2011 posts. Should make for some good marathon reading for those of you who like to do that sort of thing.

Here we go.

The Numbers

It was a bit of a slump year in terms of number of posts. I had 35 posts, where I had 47 posts in 201059 in 200993 in 2008 and 50 in 2007 (which was a half year, since I started in July).

But the apparent steady decline in number of posts is misleading because the average word count, as well as the frequency of ultra-long epic posts, has been increasing. In fact, I set a personal record this year with an 8000+ word epic post (A Brief History of the Corporation). In a way, ribbonfarm is turning into a series of long posts (2500-4000 words, about the length of a New Yorker feature) punctuated by ridiculously long epic-length posts (6000+ words).

Commenting activity has also been steadily increasing, and along with it, my own comment word-count in response. Of the all-time top 10 posts in terms of number of comments, 7 have been from this year. I am actually starting to do some of my best writing in the comments sections of fertile posts rather than in the posts themselves.

I think what’s happening is that hidden themes (illegible even, or perhaps especially, to me) that have been developing for 4 years have started cohering, leading to longer, fewer posts. There is also significantly more coupling among posts now, so the body of writing is getting more integrated, though it will never cohere into something like a book. I have some thoughts on making this spaghetti bowl more navigable that I’ll be trying out next year.

This trend can’t continue indefinitely of course, otherwise I’ll be at an average of 10,000 words and an epic-peak length of 20,000 words by 2015. I am quite curious about when and how the pattern will change. Probably wrapping up the Gervais Principle series early next year, and putting it out in eBook form, will be the cathartic event necessary for me to switch into a new writing gear, with a frequency and length reset.  We’ll find out.

There was also a lot of other action in 2011. I put out my first book, Tempo and booted up the associated tempobook blog (which is beginning to acquire a recognizable personality, distinct from ribbonfarm), rebooted my E 2.0 blogging at Information Week, started a new blog on Forbes and continued the Be Slightly Evil newsletter.

Narrative Highlights

In terms of narrative highlights, I got Slashdotted for the third time in my blogging career (for my Forbes post The Rise of Developeronomics). That sort of milestone is always nice.

There was also that major road-trip across the country in the summer (6 weeks, 8000 miles) during which I ended up meeting a lot of you guys in person, in all sorts of unexpected places like Nashville and Omaha.

There was some boundary expansion too. I did non-academic/non-trade speaking gigs for the first time, and pulled together three in-person events (two field trips and an improv session). So I seem to be diversifying cautiously off the blogging base. I suspect this kind of activity will increase in 2012.

Between the road-trip and the in-person events, I think I met something like a hundred regulars in 2011. That’s up from maybe 1-2 in previous years. I quite enjoyed it. Maybe I’ll start keeping count and shoot for 200 in 2012.

And of course, the big event for me personally was jumping ship from a paycheck job to full-time writing and consulting and navigating a tricky course between successful lifestyle retrenching and noble, writer-ly destitution.

The List

So here’s the list, in reverse-chronological order. My personal favorites are starred (*), and crowd-favorites are double-starred (**).

  1. How the World Works: Part II
  2. Acting Dead, Trading Up and Leaving the Middle Class**
  3. How the World Works
  4. The Towers of Priority
  5. The Evolution of the American Dream
  6. Technology and the Baroque Unconscious*
  7. Ribbonfarm Field Trip #3: Computer History Museum, 11/19/2011
  8. Three Deep Videos and a Roundup
  9. The Quest for Immortality (guest post by Greg Linster)
  10. The Gervais Principle V: Heads I Win, Tails You Lose* (not **, did I jump the shark with GP?)
  11. The Stream Map of the World**
  12. Ubiquity Illusions and the Chicken-Egg Problem
  13. The Milo Criterion**
  14. Fixing the Game by Roger L. Martin
  15. The Scientific Sensibility
  16. The Calculus of Grit**
  17. The August Reading List Freeze
  18. On Being an Illegible Person**, *
  19. Houseboats, Containers, Guns and Garbage: the 2011 Ribbonfarm Field Trip
  20. Diamonds versus Gold
  21. The Las Vegas Rules II: Stuff Science
  22. A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100**
  23. The Las Vegas Rules I: The Slightly Malevolent Universe
  24. Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia (guest post by Stefan King)
  25. My Experiments with Introductions*
  26. The Russian Fox and the Evolution of Intelligence (guest post by Brian Potter)
  27. Extroverts, Introverts, Aspies and Codies**
  28. Cognitive Archeology of the West (guest post by Paula Hay)
  29. The Return of the Barbarian**
  30. Where the Wild Thoughts Are (my “going free agent” post)*
  31. Waiting versus Idleness*
  32. The Disruption of Bronze*
  33. Boundary Condition Thinking*
  34. The Gollum Effect**
  35. How Leveraged are Your Resolutions?

If you are new to Ribbonfarm and want to go further back, here are the201020092008 and 2007 roundups.

Anyway, a “Welcome aboard, Ahoy!” to the new 2011 readers, and a sincere thank-you to long-time readers who decided to keep me company for yet another year. It’s starting to feel a bit surreal, now that I’ve known some of you for nearly 5 years. Maybe I’ll do some sort of 5-year anniversary event in July.

I’ll be off the grid starting Friday, until the new year, so here’s wishing everybody a good break.

How the World Works: Part II

Last time, I did a quick comparative scan of Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political OrderPankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0 and David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5000 years, and covered Fukuyama’s book in more detail.

Let’s tackle World 3.0 next.

Ghemawat’s book is a tour de force of quantitative synthesis. Let’s start with an annotated version of the 2×2 that anchors World 3.0 (cleverly rotated by 45 degrees; I don’t know why other 2×2 inventors don’t do this)

This 2×2 is almost the only major piece of conceptual scaffolding in a book that is otherwise an empiricist’s delight. Everything is argued with numbers, and what cannot be argued with numbers is mostly not argued at all. It makes for a book with a lot of narrative potholes wherever the data gods to not smile, but where there is data, the book is extremely solid. It’s a refreshing change for me to read something that stays away from data-free speculation.

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Acting Dead, Trading Up and Leaving the Middle Class

I want to share the story behind approximately $2700 dollars worth of my spending this year that reveals how I am finally starting to leave the middle class, materially, financially and psychologically. No, I am not moving up into the rich class or down into the poor class. I am doing something complicated called trading up. 

This $2700 is money that, if I’d decided to pull the trigger and spend it a few months earlier, would have spared me a ton of unnecessary frustration. Why didn’t I spend it when I should have?

One reason is that I still have residual middle-class financial programming in my head, expertly misguiding me to the wrong answers. Getting it out of my head feels like getting a bad malware and virus infection off a computer. It is painful and messy, and there are really no completely reliable tools that work in all cases. And you’re never quite sure if you got the last infected file off the system, when the infection is really bad.

Another reason is that I was (and remain to some extent) guilty of what science fiction writer Bruce Sterling calls acting dead: being irrationally averse to spending money where it matters, in a misguided attempt to “save” money to the point that the behavior paralyzes you. A large segment of the middle class is starting to act dead these days. Which makes sense since the class itself is dying. To stop acting dead, you have to resolve to exit the traditional middle class as well, unless you want to go down with it.

Not acting dead involves a strategic spending pattern that marketers are starting to call trading up: buying premium in some areas of your life, while buying budget or entirely forgoing spending in other areas. This pattern of conscious, discriminating consumption defines the emerging replacement for  the middle class.  As the picture above illustrates, there isn’t really one “New Middle Class.” Instead, it is a fragmented social space, with each little island being defined by a specific pattern of trading-up, and an associated lifestyle design script.

This effect is a sort of the opposite of what I called Gollumization earlier this year: unthinking, undiscriminating consumption to the point that consumption defines you.

There’s a pretty neat book about it, Trading Up by Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske, which you should read if you, like me, have exited or are planning to exit the traditional middle class.

But back to acting dead and my $2700 dollars, which I’ll use as my running example to get at various things.

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What Really Happened Aboard Air France 447

Popular Mechanics has a fascinating and terrifying look at the decision-making failure in the Air France crash:

“We now understand that, indeed, AF447 passed into clouds associated with a large system of thunderstorms, its speed sensors became iced over, and the autopilot disengaged. In the ensuing confusion, the pilots lost control of the airplane because they reacted incorrectly to the loss of instrumentation and then seemed unable to comprehend the nature of the problems they had caused. Neither weather nor malfunction doomed AF447, nor a complex chain of error, but a simple but persistent mistake on the part of one of the pilots.

Human judgments, of course, are never made in a vacuum. Pilots are part of a complex system that can either increase or reduce the probability that they will make a mistake. After this accident, the million-dollar question is whether training, instrumentation, and cockpit procedures can be modified all around the world so that no one will ever make this mistake again—or whether the inclusion of the human element will always entail the possibility of a catastrophic outcome. After all, the men who crashed AF447 were three highly trained pilots flying for one of the most prestigious fleets in the world. If they could fly a perfectly good plane into the ocean, then what airline could plausibly say, “Our pilots would never do that”?”

Read full story.

Tempo now available on the Nook

You can now get Tempo on the Nook. I hope I’ve now got 90% of you covered. If you’re on some other reader (Sony, Kobo), you’ll have to wait. Seriously, get with the monopolists program and get on one of the big guys already.

Kidding aside, should have  other outlets covered by year-end.

Nook away. I don’t own one, so would appreciate an all-ok note from one of you Nookers.

How the World Works

If you want to seriously level-up your thinking about how the world works, you might want to try reading 3 very ambitious books together: Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0 and David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5000 years. All three are from the reading list that I posted in August, so I am hoping at least some of you have been attacking them.

It’s worth reading them together because they attempt to tell the same story, towards the same purpose — explaining how the world works in some sense — drawing on roughly the same body of raw material. It is illuminating to see the surprising ways in which the stories agree and disagree. All three books are also particularly valuable for me personally, since I hope to take a stab at telling the same story some day.

My version will of course be the definitive one when I write it, but let’s take a look at the versions of the story on the market today.

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The Pomodoro Technique

The last few times we’ve chatted, my good friend and fellow time-management-hacker, Erik Marcus, has been urging me to try out something called the Pomodoro Technique (there is a book that’s available free at the website). The idea is deceptively simple: to organize work in 25 minute uninterruptible sessions, with forced 5-minute breaks in between (and longer breaks every 4 sessions), using a clearly visible time signal. The 25-minute session is called a pomodoro (named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that the author, Francesco Cirillo, first used when experimenting with the idea).


Reading it, I realized that I’d encountered versions of this idea before (I recall my 9th grade biology teacher making us try something like it back in 1989), but had never stopped to consider the psychology of the idea. I recommend reading the book (it is free like I said, and very short at 45 pages). Here are my initial thoughts on how/why it works and how it relates to the ideas in Tempo. If you’ve used it, I am curious about your take.

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The Towers of Priority

First, let me get an announcement out of the way: Tempo is now out on the Kindle. Buy it, give it as a gift, tweet it etc. Whew! That’s a big, high-priority item checked off my to-do list.

Speaking of priorities. I had one of my weirder Aha! moments: you can use the well-known Towers of Hanoi game as a metaphor to understand the behavior of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (or any similar hierarchy of priorities) under changing life circumstances, and the role of compartmentalization as a costly coping strategy. Here’s a picture:

If the details and implications of the metaphor aren’t immediately obvious, read on for the help-text.

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Tempo Now Available on Kindle

Tempo is finally out on the Kindle.  The link is to the US version ($9.99), but it is available on all the international Kindle stores as well.  In case you weren’t aware, you don’t need the Kindle device to read a Kindle book. You can use your smartphone or PC (just download the appropriate free reader app from Amazon). You can also give Kindle books as a gift (hint, hint!).

Curious factoid I thought I’d share: I now have the Kindle device, as well as apps installed on my iPhone, iPad and laptop (PC). Since the apps all synchronize, I often find myself reading a book in small or large bursts across multiple devices and reading sessions. Surprisingly, I get a lot of the reading done on the iPhone, since I always have it with me, and often have a few minutes here and there (while waiting in line at the post office for instance). The tempo of my reading habits has changed.  I now finish most books via a series of 5-minute sessions rather than a few 2-3 hour sessions. It is somewhat more inefficient, due to the switching costs and getting back into the flow of the book. I suppose I’ll be thinking about this new behavior of the book medium a lot more with my next book. Maybe design it to be coherent at both the 5-minute burst level and the extended-session level.

I’ll get to other readers (Nook and the rest) shortly. I’ll also be sending out the promised free copies to those who played the pass-it-along game with the early beta edition.