The Art of Refactored Perception

When I made up the tagline, experiments in refactored perception, back in 2007, I had no idea how deeply that line would come to define the essence of ribbonfarm. So in this first post in my planned month-long retrospective on five years in the game, I decided to look back on the evolution and gradual deepening of the idea of refactoring perceptions.

(2017 update: you can now buy this collection as a Kindle ebook)

I’ve never attempted an overt characterization of what the phrase means, but over the years, I’ve explored it fairly systematically. This sequence of posts should help you appreciate what I mean by the phrase. I’ve arranged the sequence as a set of fairly natural stages. There is some commentary at the end. Here you go:

An anchor post for general orientation: A Big Little Idea Called Legibility


  1. The Parrot
  2. Amy Lin and the Ancient Eye
  3. The Scientific Sensibility
Preparing to Think
  1. Diamonds versus Gold
  2. How to Define Concepts
  3. Concepts and Prototypes
  4. How to Name Things
  1. How to Think Like Hercule Poirot
  2. Boundary Condition Thinking
  3. Learning from One Data Point
  4. Lawyer Mind, Judge Mind 
  1. Just Add Water
  2. The Rhetoric of the Hyperlink
  3. Seeking Density in the Gonzo Theater
  4. Rediscovering Literacy

Much of the refactoring happens in the second stage.

OODA for Thinking-by-Writing

I don’t know if this is an accident, a case of context-specific rediscovery, or some unconscious channeling, but this is pretty much an OODA loop for “thinking by writing.” The preparing to think stage corresponds to the crucial orientation piece of OODA. As with OODA, this sequence is actually a ridiculously interconnected set of thought processes. Each of the four stages feeds back to each of the others.

Staring at this sequence, I begin to understand why I’ve never seriously considered attempting to teach others this writing-to-think model. Besides the obvious problem that I’ve been figuring it out myself, I don’t think this is very teachable. It’s just a crap-load of practice, to drive certain patterns deep into mental muscle memory.

I suppose some of these pieces are amenable to translation into how-to presentations, but I suspect the market for this comprises exactly 3.5 starving bloggers with perverse instincts. This is practically black-belt level training in How not to Make Money Blogging. I suspect I manage to survive financially despite this model, not because of it.

But if somebody wants to PowerPoint-ize this material into a teaching resource, you have my blessing. I only ask that you make the thing publicly available.

I will probably slap a preface onto this sequence and Kindle-ize it into a cheap e-book when I get some time.

The Retrospective Process

For those of you interested in how I am doing this retrospective, here’s the brief description of the process so far. I started with a first-cut selection. Of over 300 posts, just around 70 made the first cut. I cut out everything that was badly written, off-voice or not part of a broader exploration theme. I also cut out stuff that I revisited in more solid ways later. I did not consider popularity at all, but most of the popular posts made the cut.

So it was definitely a very personal and autocratic selection.

The yield rate was depressingly low, at less than 25%. But the good news is that it has been steadily increasing. As you will see from this and upcoming posts, the lists are dominated by later posts. In the first couple of years, I wrote an awful lot of posts I would now consider terrible.

After the selection, I sorted the set into 5-6 clusters, and forced myself to completely uncouple the clusters (i.e., each post can belong in only one cluster).  I then sequenced each in some meaningful way. I will be doing one post on each sequence.

It was surprisingly (and depressingly) easy to do the pruning. I expected to spend many agonizing hours figuring out what to include and what to exclude, but it took me about 15 minutes to do the cutting, and another 15 minutes to do a first, basic sorting/clustering. The hardest part is developing a narrative arc through the material to sequence each cluster.

On Voice

Yesterday, I posted a beta aphorism on Facebook that many people seemed to like: integrity is an aesthetic, not a value.

A blogging voice is not just an expression of a coherent aesthetic perspective; it is also an expression of a certain moral stance. Developing a high-integrity blogging voice is about learning to recognize, in a moral sense, on-voice/off-voice drafts and developing the discipline to systematically say no to off-voice material, no matter how tempting it is to post it, based on the expedient considerations like topicality or virality. As your filters develop, you write fewer off-voice drafts to begin with. Eventually, you don’t even think off-voice.

One of the hardest challenges for me in selecting posts for this month of retrospectives was posts that were partly on-voice and partly off-voice. I erred on the side of integrity and dropped most such posts, except for a few that were logically indispensable in some sequence.

Learning to recognize off-voice stuff (especially while your voice is still developing) is more like learning to be a tea taster than studying to be a priest at a seminary.

Though I suppose, practiced at sophisticated levels, what would Jesus do? is an integrity aesthetic rather than a 0/1 litmus test. Few religious types seem to transcend the bumper-sticker value though.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. WRT OODA for Thinking-by-Writing is an eloquent characterization.

    I think Paul Graham (and others obv) have come to similar conclusions:

    “I think it’s far more important to write well than most people realize. Writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you’re bad at writing and don’t like to do it, you’ll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.”