Y Tribenator

I once saw a tourist with a shirt that said, in big letters on the back, “BOMB TECHNICIAN”. Then in smaller type underneath, “If you see me running, try to keep up“. That’s basically my strategy for exploring the new. For whatever reason I don’t have the temperament to be an early adopter. To fake it I surround myself with early adopters, and watch what they do.

This method doesn’t always work. In 2012 I got paid 5 Bitcoin at the insistence of a reader. I smiled and took the digital funny money. I’m sure it’s still on a hard drive somewhere. In 2014 my early-adopter friends were talking incessantly about a different digital funny money called Ether, which you could only buy with Bitcoin. I didn’t bother to look for the file. If I had converted that Bitcoin to Ether at the initial sale price of 2000:1, today I’d be over a million dollars richer. Sometimes I wish I was more reflexively willing to try new things.

Be careful what you wish for. I’m suddenly finding myself in the middle of a kind of tribe-generating metatribe of bloggers, helping coordinate a sprawling collection of highly weird writing projects through a clever Ether-based poker game slash taskboard called Colony.io.

Over the last few years Ribbonfarm has evolved from Venkat’s one-man blog to a group format, with many good guest posts and the steady hand of Sarah Perry as contributing editor. One of the goals is to increase the number of writers who make “refactoring” ideas a habit. The main way to do that is through a longform blogging course taught by Venkat and Sarah. Over the last few weeks about a dozen contributors and editors earned Colony tokens (jokingly called “ribboncoin”, “Venkoin”, “BitQuine”, etc) by reviewing prospective students’ applications.

Part of the application asks you to name your favorite articles from anywhere. From the responses several of us noticed distinct “tribes” coalescing around different writers: Sarah, Venkat, Scott Alexander, and (somewhat disturbingly for me) the rationalists / John Stuart Millenarians. The nature of the writing samples submitted by applicants was often an affront to a given reviewer’s taste.

This is not a bad thing. In fact, we came up with Weirdness Points as a ha-ha-only-serious metric when evaluating applications. One WP granted for styles or attitudes that offend the reviewer’s sensibility in interesting ways. A ponderous writing voice or lifehack derping is offensive but not interesting. Making a coherent argument for, say, combining reverse population control (more babies), universal basic income, accelerated inflation, and a shutdown of immigration is both offensive and interesting.

Here’s a surprising admission: Ribbonfarm contributors often find each other’s posts hard to read and impossible to imitate. Sarah is ruthlessly analytical, hunting philosophies for sport and mounting their heads on her wall. Venkat’s only principle is to not get nailed to a principle. I was tapped to be an editor precisely because I’m unapologetically classicist and didactic; Renee because she has actually defeated trollbot armies on their own turf. We are free in different dimensions. The point of crowding together a merry band of misfits like this is to maximize weirdness and interestingness. The goal of Ribbonfarm writers is not to win, but to keep writing. The goal of Ribbonfarm editors is to cultivate more writers exploring the bits of nature and psyche we think are the most interesting.

When I wrote Lauren Ipsum it was impossible to get publishers interested in children’s computer science fiction. The genre didn’t exist. Kid’s fiction publishers didn’t understand the tech, sci-fi publishers didn’t understand kids, and kid’s tech publishers didn’t understand fiction. They all passed. So I had to self-publish it, sell thousands of copies, rank high on Amazon for fiction and non-fiction simultaneously, appear on national radio, and get invited to the White House. Only then could I go back to the publishers and say “do you believe me now?” Later, once I’d published with them and sold well I even got to say things like “you should totally sign this other writer”. Today there are dozens of examples of kidtech fiction, most of them better and more popular than my book, and none of which I could imitate. That was the goal.

The founders of Y Combinator chose the name because it is a metaphor for what they do. The Y combinator is a mathematical function that generates other functions, specifically enabling non-recursive functions to recurse. YC is a company that helps generate new companies, and several former founders have gone off to start their own investment firms. The goal of this “Y Tribenator” experiment is to be a fuzzy group of idea explorers that generates new fuzzy groups of idea explorers, and after that all bets are off.

The future is already here– it’s just not evenly edited yet.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Carlos Bueno

Carlos Bueno is a Ribbonfarm editor-at-large. He is a former Facebook engineer, graphic designer, video game repair man, and tattoo artist. His children's novel Lauren Ipsum has the curious distinction of having featured in both academic reviews of theoretical computer science and School Library Journal.


  1. Blogospheroid says

    Please can I have some more examples of this kidtech genre? Looks like something good to keep lying around the house to be discovered by the young one. :)

    • I didn’t want to turn this into an advertisement. :D But I like what Gene Yang is doing with Secret Coders. He was wildly successful already but is now using his experience as a high school CS teacher to build a cool comic universe. Jeremey Kubica is targeting a slightly older audience with his Computational Fairy Tales and CS Detective series. Hello Ruby was a runaway Kickstarter hit targeted at the 4-7 crowd. Heather Lyons’s work oscillates between fiction and nonfiction, and is pretty good. Erica Sandbothe’s Codecrafter is overlooked, I think. Andrea Beaty’s books (eg “Ada Twist, Scientist”) are kindred. Classics / proto-examples include Logicomix, The Number Devil, Penrose the Mathematical Cat, and The Man Who Counted.

    • On my to-read list:

      “If I Were a Wizard” by Paul Hamilton
      “Measuring Penny” by Loreen Leedy
      “Dot.” by Randi Zuckerberg
      “Six Dots” by Jen Bryant
      “What do you do with a Problem?” by Kobi Yamada

      ps — there are WAY too many books about Ada Lovelace. Done to death. :(

  2. Blogospheroid says

    Dear sir, http://www.laurenipsum.org/ is not opening with either IE or Chrome.

  3. Seems to me if you’re going to build new groups of explores then they need places to, gather, talk, and share funny cat pictures . Comments on long form blogs not withstanding.