About Venkatesh Rao

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

Stack Luck

Last year, I sensed my luck changing. It felt like a streak of good fortune, stretching back at least three decades, was gently but firmly coming to an end. But not because of anything I personally did or didn’t do, and not limited to me. Rather it was the luck equivalent of a big, slow earthquake deep down in the stack of civilizational infrastructure upon which my life, and the lives of people like me (information economy global urban elites, let’s say) depends. I call this kind of luck stack luck, an unreasonableness in the nature of the world working for or against you, creating either serendipity or zemblanity in your life. The best description of stack luck I have found is a passage in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22:

“I really can’t believe it,” Clevinger exclaimed to Yossarian in a voice rising and falling in protest and wonder. “It’s a complete reversion to primitive superstition. They’re confusing cause and effect. It makes as much sense as knocking on wood or crossing your fingers. They really believe that we wouldn’t have to fly that mission tomorrow if someone would only tiptoe up to the map in the middle of the night and move the bomb line over Bologna. Can you imagine? You and I must be the only rational ones left.”

In the middle of the night Yossarian knocked on wood, crossed his fingers, and tiptoed out of his tent to move the bomb line up over Bologna.

The kicker of course, is that the next morning, the map is mistaken for the territory and effect turns into cause. The commanding officers assume that Bologna has been captured, and cancel the bombing run. Contrary to the rational expectations of Clevinger, a Harvard graduate who believes in the fundamental reasonableness of the world he inhabits, action driven by superstition works in the crazy environment of the World War 2 bureaucracy. The course of events is changed by a self-validating superstition. And if you think this sort of thing can only happen in fiction, you haven’t lived enough.

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Remembering Pierre Kabamba

I think it was sometime in 1998 or 99. I was walking down the hallway of the faculty floor of the Aerospace Engineering department of the University of Michigan, where I was a graduate student at the time. One of the professors had tacked a recently published paper by his door, as professors like to do. It was something about computing asteroid rendezvous orbits, and it used some rather pretty continued-series approximations of a sort that were popular in the 19th century. The professor in question was chatting with another, Pierre Kabamba, and was making some sort of self-deprecating remark about his paper (though he was clearly pleased with it), but Pierre was having none of that.

Pierre T. Kabamba, 1955-2014

He exclaimed with a characteristic ebullience, “But this is wonderful! You’re doing ROMANTIC mathematics!”

The remark made me smile, and put me in an unreasonably cheerful mood for the rest of the day. At the time, I was working with another professor, and growing increasingly depressed and jaded (I was too inexperienced at the time to recognize a fundamental incompatibility). I didn’t know it at the time, but I would go on to switch topics and advisors, and complete my PhD with Pierre. I would spend a wonderful three years in his company, rediscovering, as an adult, the spirit of romanticism in engineering that had me memorizing airplane silhouettes in high school.

Last week, I learned, much to my shock, that Pierre passed away just over four years ago, in 2014, of lung cancer. He was only 59, and the last time I saw him, in 2011, he had been his usual cheerful and energetic self. We had last collaborated in 2006, on a course we co-developed and taught in parallel (me at Cornell, Pierre at Michigan).

The easiest way to describe Pierre is this: he was a real-life Hercule Poirot, and in many ways, the person who taught me to think in the ways I still try to practice on this blog. So let me tell you about Pierre and what I learned from him.
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Happy 2019

We don’t have a post ready to go to kick off the year, but I figured I’d memorialize the New Horizons flyby of Ultima Thule into a new year’s greeting card for you guys. The story of how my new favorite Kuiper Belt Object was discovered and targeted is told in this excellent twitter thread by Alex Parker, who was part of the team.  I wrote about New Horizons during the Pluto flyby.

Hope you all had a good break. We’ll get going with real posts next week. Happy New Year!

Complete 2018 Roundup

Well, that was a slow slog of a year. I personally felt like Spider-Man in the 3rd Toby Maguire movie, where he inexplicably briefly loses his powers. Surprisingly though, I did end up writing more posts than in 2017 (18 versus 13, even though 5 were… uhh… not quite longform). It was like pulling teeth, but I appear to be gathering momentum again.

Let’s do the roundup first, and then some commentary.

Editor-At-Large Posts

  1. Justifiable AI by Carlos Bueno
  2. Tarpits and Antiflocks by Carlos Bueno
  3. Glitches, uh, find a way by Carlos Bueno
  4. The Digital Maginot Line by Renee DiResta

Sarah Perry posts

  1. Luxuriating in Privacy by Sarah Perry
  2. Light of the American Whale by Sarah Perry
  3. The Well-Being Machine by Sarah Perry
  4. Treasure Hunting by Sarah Perry
  5. Cringe and the Design of Sacred Experiences by Sarah Perry
  6. Notes on Doing Things by Sarah Perry
  7. Hedonic Audit by Sarah Perry
  8. Social Media Consciousness by Sarah Perry
  9. Boilerplate by Sarah Perry
  10. Justice Fantasies by Sarah Perry
  11. “Something Runs Through The Whole Thread” by Sarah Perry
  12. Deep Laziness by Sarah Perry

Venkatesh Rao posts

  1. Think Entangled, Act Spooky by Venkatesh Rao
  2. Unflattening Hobbes by Venkatesh Rao
  3. The Speakeasy Imagineering Network by Venkatesh Rao
  4. Dodo Thoughts by Venkatesh Rao
  5. May You Live in Epic Times by Venkatesh Rao
  6. The Age of Early Divinity by Venkatesh Rao
  7. Why We Slouch by Venkatesh Rao
  8. How Do You Value a Human Being? by Venkatesh Rao
  9. Flying Blind into the Anthropocene by Venkatesh Rao
  10. Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre by Venkatesh Rao
  11. Boat Stories by Venkatesh Rao
  12. The Key to Act Two by Venkatesh Rao
  13. A Quick (Battle) Field Guide to the New Culture Wars by Venkatesh Rao
  14. Make Your Own Rules by Venkatesh Rao
  15. Reality Maintenance by Venkatesh Rao
  16. Chekov’s Gun and the Principle of Sufficient Reason by Venkatesh Rao
  17. Quiver Doodles by Venkatesh Rao
  18. Armpit Futures by Venkatesh Rao

Guest Posts

  1. Near-Deathness by Matthew Sweet
  2. The Unapologetic Case For Bullshit by Stefano Zorzi
  3. (Don’t) Be the Gray man by Patrick Steadman
  4. Symmetry and Identity by Kenneth Shinozuka

Community Stuff

  1. Into the Fediverse by Venkatesh Rao
  2. Refactor Camp 2018: Cryptoeconomics and Blockchain Weirding Post-Mortem by Taylor Pearson
  3. Refactor Camp 2018: Cryptoeconomics and Blockchain Weirding by Taylor Pearson
  4. Refactor Camp: Cryptoeconomics and Blockchain Weirding Summary and Wrap Up by Joseph Kelly
  5. The Art of Longform by Venkatesh Rao
  6. 2018 Annual Letter by Venkatesh Rao

Refactorings Roundups

  1. Refactorings Roundup 09/16/18 — 10/06/18 by Editor
  2. Refactorings Roundup 11/13/18 – 12/08/18 by Editor
  3. Feed Fox Links: 8/12/18 — 8/18/18 by Editor
  4. Refactorings Roundup 08/26/2018 09/1/2018 by Editor
  5. Refactorings Roundup 10/07/18 — 11/12/18 by Editor
  6. Refactorings Roundup 09/02/2018 — 09/15/18 by Editor
  7. Refactorings Roundup 08/19/2018 – 8/25/2018 by Editor

Here are the 2017, 2016, 20152014 and 2013 roundups.New readers, here is the new readers start page. If you want to do some binge reading further back into the archives, there is a page for the Rust Age (2007-12) with both curated selections and complete roundups for 2007-12, as well as Kindle ebook collections.

After the monster 62-post year that was 2017 (thanks to the big bump created by guest contributions from people who took the longform writing course, which is now available in recorded form) this was a bit of a home-game year. Not counting administrative/community posts, we only had 38 proper posts: 18 by me, 12 by Sarah Perry, 4 by guests, 3 by Carlos Bueno, and 1 by Renee DiResta.

On the community front though, we probably had the best Refactor Camp ever  this year in Austin. There was also a healthy flow of meetups in the Bay Area, New York, Austin, London, LA, and Seattle.

The 2019 Refactor Camp will in be Los Angeles, probably on the weekend of June 7/8. Mark your calendars. Details in a month or so.

We also spun un a Mastodon server, and refactorcamp.org (open registration) has now been humming along quietly for 6 months. That has been the source of the irregular Refactorings Roundups posts (scroll up for back issues) with links to things people are reading and writing.

Interesting changes have gotten underway in the subterranean foundations of ribbonfarm, where our pet Cthulhu lives, so expect to see those bubble up to the surface next year.

Happy Holidays!

Why We Slouch

All physical structures can sag, but only sentient beings like you and me can slouch. To slouch is to adopt a degenerate behavioral posture. One that is aware of the potential for less degeneracy, and retains within itself a seed of an ability to actualize it, but consciously takes it out of play. Slouching is a posture of self-aware incompleteness of presence; a kind of dehydrated behavioral state of lowered availability that is less than fully engaged in the here-and-now.

Slouching is the essence of enlightened mediocrity; the recognition that you’ll live longer overall if you don’t try to be 100% alive all the time. Slouching is a good thing. I attribute many good things in my life to my ability to slouch well.

When you slouch, you sag like a non-sentient physical structure, your body physically conforming to a shape dictated by the interaction of environmental forces and backstop constraints. Think couches and floors. When you slouch and sag, these constraints activate, and support you automatically against a prevailing environmental force, without any need for you to adopt an appropriate attitude towards optimal performance in the environment.

When a chain is hanging under its own weight between two supports, it adopts a shape known as a catenary. A child who goes “boneless” as a form of passive resistance also takes on a rough catenary shape if picked up and carried by hands and feet.

Here’s a question that’s I’ve been wondering about. Why do we slouch? The answer to save energy is no answer at all. That’s merely a possible (but not necessary) consequence of slouching; one shared with many other efficient behaviors that look nothing like slouching.

So why do we slouch?

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The Age of Early Divinity

If you’re the sort of person who reads this blog, you’re probably the sort of person who wastes time wondering what we should name the age we are living in, instead of being out there doering things. Is it the Information Age? Digital Age? Eternal Millennial September? Avocado Toast Age? Anthropocene? Terminal Hobbesian Age? Post-industrial? Post-capitalist? Post-authentic? Post-reality? Post-post-modernist?

Are there quality long-arc candidates, good for at least a couple of centuries, that are not a depressingly negatively defined, backward looking post-something, with reasonable supporting logic? Allow me to offer a new candidate: Early Divinity. Here’s a table illustrating the logic of the name, which I’m fairly confident (p < 0.05), is a good one.

The name is inspired by the line Stewart Brand stole from anthropologist Edward Leach for the inaugural Whole Earth Catalog: We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.

Early divinity, simply defined, is an age, or more technically, aeon (a period presided over by a particular incarnation of Aion, the eternalist personification of time in Greek mythology), when we are as gods but aren’t yet good at it. In fact we suck at it. It is an aeon marked by the taking-on of civilizational challenges worthy of gods, and getting really mediocre or failing grades at it. One day, we might get good at this god game, but it’s going to be a while. So settle in and enjoy the Mediocre Civilizational Universe of Early Divinity, MCU-ED.

Periodization, of course, is something of a parlor game for amateur historians like you and me. Real historians are going to hate this anyway, so we might as well have fun with it. Here’s my meta-theory of Aionic periodization that yielded this label for our age, and a preview of what godly things are in our near future.

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May You Live in Epic Times

At most times, in most places, history is busy rhyming with itself. The same holds true of the future: at most times, in most places, the future is busy rhyming with itself. There are always golden and dark ages in the past. There are always utopias and dystopias just beyond the horizon.

The fact that histories and futures rhyme so much, or as I like to think of it, are in rerun mode so much, allows us to inhabit escaped realities that are effectively outside of time. The sort of timeless time that the Greeks associated with their least-known third god of time: Aion. Unlike the better-known Chronos and Kairos, Aion personifies neither objective time, nor subjective time, but timelessness. Aion is the god of the nontemporal eternities, utopian and dystopian, golden and dark. He is the god of cyclicalities and finite games, symbolized by the ouroboros, a serpent biting its own tail. Asian time, arguably, is entirely the ahistorical shadow of an Aionic world. Karma is Aion in disguise.

When Aion is ascendant, you can choose to escape reality and live inside the rhymes of the past and future, inhabiting time via Fourier transform, rather than living in the present. In fact, when Aion is strongest, your escapes can be so complete, you even lose awareness of their being escapes. Because there’s nothing new in the present and everything can be found in the rhymes. You can check out completely.

Most humans spend much of their lives living in the commodity non-time of  the Aionic realms, inhabiting escaped realities. Time is something that happens to other people.

But when the future is not like the past, the present becomes unique, and you must actually live in it. At least for a while.

Such times are interesting times. Such times are epic times. And depending on the part you’re called upon to play, they may be cursed times, or blessed times. [Read more…]

The Speakeasy Imagineering Network

Today I learned that the term normalcy was popularized by Warren Harding, US President between 1921-23, over the then-accepted variant normality. His campaign slogan, return to normalcy, promised a return to a Pre-World War I condition.

Harding’s administration, however, also saw the beginning of the Prohibition era (1921-33). So presumably he meant a return to normalcy, but without the alcoholism, rampant domestic abuse, and corrupt saloon politics of the pre-War era. During the Roaring Twenties, to the extent it needed alcohol as fuel, the American romantic imagination (and here I mean the tumultuous Sturm und Drang of uninhibited subjectivity rather than the tepid nostalgia of pastoralism) either had to go abroad, to Europe, or hide in speakeasies.

I’ve been thinking about our own contemporary condition in light of the complicated relationship among cultural production, the romantic imagination, and Prohibition in the twenties, an era which rhymes in somewhat messy ways with our our own.

In particular, looking at the 2010s through the lens of the 1920s, I got to the interesting conclusion that what requires protection during times of overweening reactionary moral self-certainty is not the truth, but imagination.

The truth can take care of itself better than you might think, but without imagination, it cannot take care of you. And imagination, unlike truth, requires a degree of tender loving care, room for unconstrained expansive exploration, and yes, a reliable supply of Interesting Substances and safe spaces to consume them.

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Unflattening Hobbes

In political science, the idea of a Hobbesian state of nature, featuring an endemic war of all against all, is a notional initial condition from which civilization could plausibly emerge. A generous reading of the model is that it is not about evolutionary realism, but about the plausibility of a pristine peaceful order emerging from a primordial violent chaos, under unfavorable assumptions about human nature (selfish and innately violent). In the classical Hobbesian model, the layers of the civilizational stack are bootstrapped from conditions that constitute a “flat world” in a social sense. Peace and structure evolve in parallel from this violently chaotic flatness.

But consider a conceptual alternative to the traditional Hobbesian model: what happens when we discard the assumption that structural order and endemic conflict are mutually exclusive? Or that peace goes with order and violence with chaos? Do we necessarily run into a contradiction? Could order emerge from chaos and endure, without peace necessarily emerging from war and enduring in parallel?

What if a Hobbesian condition of endemic war of all against all does not require the world to be a materially devastated and socially flat one, populated by warring packs led by grim young men in Henleys? What if it just feels like today’s world, but gets steadily slightly worse, slouching towards dystopia without ever arriving or unraveling? A Hobbesian end to history rather than beginning?

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Seattle Drinks-and-Waterfront-Walk Meetup, Friday 19th

There will be a meetup on Friday the 19th, at 4:00 PM at Paddy Coyne’s by Pier 70. As with last time, we’ll hang out for a bit and get a drink to start, then go for a walk along the waterfront. Sunset is around 6:20 these days, so should be nice.

RSVP on this Facebook invite. Thanks to Weston Edwards for organizing.