About Venkatesh Rao

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

The Retiree

The media storm the publicists had been bracing for never occurred. There was no damage to control. The attention they had been instructed to deflect from the Baikal Trust never materialized.

And it was not because Ozy Khan was the thirty-seventh billionaire to launch himself boringly into space, in a space mansion of his own design. The thirty-fifth and thirty-sixth billionaires to do so, after all, had endured nearly as much press, both hostile and adulatory, as the first few had, decades earlier. The public, it seemed, never lost its appetite for the spectacle of great wealth ascending to extra-terrestrial heights. And the billionaires too, had perfected the art of image management in space. There had already been at least three short-lived, but successful reality shows from orbiting mansions.

Nor could the lack of a media storm be attributed to Ozy Khan being an obscure Central Asian oligarch rather than a prominent American or Chinese one. More obscure billionaires had managed to inspire large spikes of interest by ascending to vacations in luridly ostentatious space mansions, and been rewarded with notoriety around the world for their extended departures from it. A space mansion was a reliable ticket onto the center stage of global affairs.

Space after all, as one much-quoted wag had remarked in the 2020s, was the new Davos.

Even the fact that Ozy Khan would not be coming back was not without precedent. The seventh and eleventh billionaires, each terminally ill and with less than a year to live, had both launched themselves on one way trips into space with much funereal solemnity. Both had duly died in space with cosmic gravitas, and been forgotten. Only old people made hope-he-doesn’t-come-back jokes anymore.

Perhaps the lack of drama could be attributed, one commentator suggested, to the fact that Khan had been such a dull presence on earth, it was was hard to craft a story around his departure from it. His sprawling renewables and sequestration technologies empire lacked charisma. It embodied no daring technological vision, only powerful political connections, a lot of imitation and luck, and plodding, sound financial management. His official biography offered little of interest to the story-minded. His career suggested no more than the usual amount of tedious politicking, grift, and geopolitical murkiness.

There really was very little to say about Ozy Khan’s time on earth before he decided to leave it.

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MJD 59,396

This entry is part 17 of 17 in the series Captain's Log

I’ve developed two obsessions through the pandemic that I think will persist long past the end of it, probably to the end of my life: tinkering and story-telling.

On the tinkering front, I’ve built out a nice little science-and-engineering workshop over the last year and acquired more skills in less time than I expected to, since I don’t have a high opinion of my own hands-on abilities. As I’ve mentioned before, this is still hard to write about because while the doing is fun, getting to interesting things to show off and talk about will take some time. It’s good enough fodder for tweeting though, and I’ve been maintaining several fun ongoing threads about electronics experiments, my rover project, and 3d printing. At some point, I hope I’ll be able to write essays about this stuff, but right now it’s only coming together at Twitter level. Overall, tinkering has been the easier journey, I guess because I’m an engineer by training, so I am not really starting from scratch. Though all my old knowledge feels rusty, I think I did hit the ground running when I started around August last year.

Storytelling has been the tougher journey. In many ways, it’s very like tinkering, except with machines that run inside human brains. It is very unlike nonfiction writing. I’ve made more progress on exploring storytelling theory than in actually telling stories. But one of my breakthroughs was realizing that storytelling as a skill is orthogonal to writing skill, and the latter even gets in the way. One way to short-circuit the writer brain is to use cartoons, and I’ve done 2 comic-format stories so far this year: Space Luck and Comet Bob. I’ve also managed one prose story, Non-Contact, though it’s more a world-building design study of an idea than a fully developed story, kinda like the design study prototype I built for my rover early on. I am not yet sure what my storytelling medium is — words or pictures.

Together, these two obsessions are driving what I think is the biggest pivot not just in the life of this blog, but in my own adult life. It’s a lifestyle shift, and I’m still coming to grips with the cascading effects on other aspects of my life. Storytelling tinkerers, I am discovering, must necessarily live a different kind of life than essayist-consultant-observers. So I’ve unwittingly set up a certain narrative tension in my life that’s going to resolve itself one way or another. It’s a different headspace, as lived from the inside, and presents a different picture when viewed from the outside. Switching between nonfiction and fiction modes, or between management consulting and maker-tinkerer modes, is very disorienting, but not in an unpleasant way.

One interesting thing about both is that they are behaviors that can get you put in more of a box than the sorts of thing I’m better known for. Storytelling and tinkering are both play-like behaviors that have a lot more disruptive potential than most “serious” behaviors, but they look harmless and are easy to put in a box and ignore. They are the quintessential mostly-harmless human activities. The median tinkering project or story is entirely inconsequential. Net likelihood of impact, zero. You either enjoy the safe, marginalized obscurity of the boxes you get put in, or you’re playing for the one-in-a-million shot at making history. I’m not sure what I’m aiming at with either activity. Probably both outcomes in proportion to their actual probabilities.

At any rate, it’s nice to have some obsessions going. It makes me feel strangely young again. Obsessiveness is naturally a young person’s mode of being. To discover it again in middle age, in a somewhat mellowed form, is something of an unexpected gift, even if the precipitating event of a pandemic makes it something of a gift from the devil.

Storytelling — Matthew Dicks

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Narrativium

I recently finished, Storyworthy by Matthew Dicks, a quintessentially American storyteller in the Mark Twain tradition. It is perhaps the most unique book on narrative structure and theory I’ve read, after Keith Johnstone’s Impro.

Dicks appears to have lived a very colorful, eventful life that supplies all the raw material you might ever want, to tell lots of outrageous, extreme stories. A very American life. I have friends like that, whose lives seem to be a string of outrageous and improbable events that make for naturally good stories. Only the manner of telling needs work. Dicks insists, however, that you do not need to live a colorful life in order to tell colorful stories. That’s good news for me.

[Read more…]

Storytelling — Mamet’s Conflict Airing Theory

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Narrativium

One of the big questions to which I have yet to find a satisfying answer is what stories are, in the set of things that includes various other kinds of speech. David Mamet has what I think is a partial answer in Three Uses of a Knife, a short, stream-of-consciousness meditation on storytelling which I recently finished (ht: Sachin Benny).

I like plays, but not enough to be an avid theater-goer, so my only real exposure to Mamet’s work is the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross, which lives up to its reputation, and a few episodes of The Unit, which I didn’t quite get into. But his storytelling chops are clearly strong enough for his theorizing to be interesting. His practical advice certainly is — here is a memo he sent to the staff of the Unit (ht Steve Hely), with plenty of gems in it.

But this post is about Mamet’s philosophy of storytelling, not his bag of tricks.

Mamet opens Three Uses of a Knife with a discussion of our tendency to dramatize entirely mundane everyday events, like a bus being late, or the state of the weather, into proto-stories. His opening example is:

“Great. It’s raining. Just when I’m blue. Isn’t that just like life?:

His exegesis:

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Non-Contact

Perhaps it was some sort of strange precognitive cultural memory of the future, but the cliches, it turned out, were all true. Well, almost all true. The aliens did come in large flying saucers that could hover silently and move silently at physics-defying speeds. They did make mysterious crop circles and abduct and probe hundreds of unfortunates — except this time, they were taken from and returned to (disoriented and with memory gaps, but otherwise unharmed) busy public areas, in broad daylight, in full view of hundreds of smartphones. Those who had been taken in previous years and decades, from deserted highways or remote farms, were at once ecstatic and depressed. Now everybody agreed they’d been telling the truth all along, but nobody thought they were special, or even uniquely insane, anymore.

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Space Luck

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MJD 59,354

This entry is part 15 of 17 in the series Captain's Log

Peter Turchin’s concept of elite overproduction has been on my mind increasingly lately. It refers to historical conditions during which there are more people aspiring to elite roles in society than power structures can absorb. In 2021, to a first approximation, this is people with college degrees in fields with low market demand. A good measure of the degree of overproduction is the intensity and rancor around STEM vs. humanities type debates, and “do you want fries with that?” jokes about art history degrees. The idea of elite overproduction is descriptive, not normative. It does not matter who wins Twitter debates about the “true” cultural value of various elite roles and aspirations. What matters is the actual distribution of unemployed human elite overstocks. When large masses of people fail to find economic means to sustain the elite social roles they’ve been conditioned to expect, and trained and enculturated to occupy, you have elite overproduction going on. The prevailing default perception of the specifics of the distribution of surplus elites is correct in broad strokes, even if there are weird exceptions and corner cases. It is probably true right now that the average STEM degree is less likely to make you part of the elite overstock than a humanities degrees.

The jokes about do-you-want-fries-with-that are particularly fraught this year. Service industries struggle to hire workers, but are wary of letting wages inflate even as various other price levels succumb. Unlike commodity prices, which can go up and down with supply and demand, wages are something of a sociopolitical one-way door. They’re harder to push back down once they manage to creep up. There is revolutionary fervor in the air as well, around everything from student-loan forgiveness and stimulus economics to policing and urban blight. The optics around great wealth are much uglier today than 10 years ago, when they were last in the spotlight to this degree. Gen X has joined the Boomers on the villains side of the aisle. Younger generations struggle, while older generations sit on top of record savings.

One reason to take elite overproduction theory seriously as a lens right now is that Turchin has been unusually right lately in his calls about the timing of historical crisis points. He anticipated that 2020 would be a year of crisis, and it was. He didn’t predict Covid afaik, but the pandemic was merely a cherry on top of the dire basic scenario he foresaw.

Thirteen years ago, the Global Financial Crisis led to a generation of disaffected and underemployed young graduates turning their online-native skills to culture-warring. Ten years ago, that reached a flashpoint with the Occupy movement, and led to far right and far left movements making inroads into mainstream politics and shaping the next decade. That whole story was primarily an elite overproduction story. To the extent there was non-elite energy in the movements, it was there because it had been co-opted by wannabe-elite actors in service of their own frustrations. In the US, urban black political issues turned into white wannabe-elite causes, rural and small-town rust-belt blue collar issues turned into white wannabe-elite causes as well. For a few years, all political roads led to elite overstocks, often being transformed unrecognizably in the process. The result was the volatile mix of genuine and imagined grievances, insincere co-option of non-elite causes, and outright grift, that gave us the Great Weirding.

It’s commencement season and we can expect to see a new crop of commencement speeches soon. The global Class of 2021 will probably be much smaller than normal, and have to make do with curtailed or online ceremonies. Despite the small size of the cohort though, I suspect, most of this year’s crop of fresh graduates will still struggle to find jobs and careers, and be in a worse situation than the Class of 2008. I wonder what the commencement speakers will say. I’d have nothing much inspiring to say if challenged to give such a speech. It is hard for privileged older generations to say useful things to younger generations entering adulthood under much worse conditions.

Conditions today are far more fraught than in 2008. Freshly minted Zoomer wannabe-elites today are likely more disaffected than the Millennials who came of age through the GFC, more skilled at channeling that disaffection into elite overstock unrest, and have more history to learn from. On the plus side (such as it is) they have only every known fraught times, and have never known hope in the sense Millennials did. Will that make them more or less energized? I don’t know.

But in the meantime, on the demand side, elite roles have become even more scarce, non-elite under-the-API roles are under even greater stress, and there has been essentially no political or economic movement on the issues of 2011. The far right has, to some extent, shot its shot, but the far left has yet to do so. All-in-all it’s a much bigger powder keg than 2011.

Unless something exceptionally big and positive happens soon, as the emergency civic discipline of Covid loosens its grip on populations around the world, we can expect the 2020s to get even more explosively weird than the 2010s.

Here we go again. Fasten your seatbelts.

Comet Bob

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Storytelling — The American Tradition

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Narrativium

Adam Gurri pointed me to this 1895 Mark Twain essay, How to Tell a Story, which makes the interesting claim that the humorous story, dependent for its effect on the manner of telling rather than the matter, is an American invention:

There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind–the humorous. I will talk mainly about that one. The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.

I’m not sure if Twain’s claim is strictly true even within the narrow scope of his comparison to English and French storytelling traditions, but there’s something to what he was getting at in the essay. For whatever reason, in the 19th century, America reinvented, in a unique new way, an old, primarily oral form of storytelling. A form that appeared centuries after the rise of written and printed forms of storytelling, and within a modern, industrial context.

In making his exceptionalist claim for American storytelling, Twain was, I think, right about something. The question is what?

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MJD 59,326

This entry is part 14 of 17 in the series Captain's Log

I am considering adopting two rules for projects that I think are very promising for 40+ lifestyles.

  1. No new top-level projects (TLPs) (twitter thread)
  2. Ten-year commitments to projects or no deal (twitter thread)

I don’t mean practically necessary projects like doing something to earn money. I mean non-necessary life projects like writing a blog, or a maker project.

Shitposting and idle dabbling are still allowed so long as they don’t grow into new TLPs. They can grow into subprojects of existing TLPs, but even then I need to make a ten-year commitment or not do them at all. There’s a bunch of ambiguity here, around what’s a project versus the contents of one (is a new blogchain a subproject or just a thread of content for the overall blogging project?), but set that aside for now.

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