About Venkatesh Rao

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

Notes: The Starship and the Canoe by Kenneth Brower

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Book Notes

This next book has probably my favorite so far of my pandemic reads. Kenneth Brower’s The Starship and the Canoe. It’s a strange paired biography of physicist Freeman Dyson and his son, adventurer and historian George Dyson. The “starship” refers to the nuclear powered Orion rocket program that Dyson Sr. helped conceive and lead, while the canoe refers to the adventures of Dyson Jr. building and voyaging around the Pacific Northwest in canoes.

Freeman Dyson died on February 28, just before the pandemic, which is how I found this book, via a obitweet by Ross Andersen. Normally, it would have gone straight to my someday/maybe pile as an intriguing but not urgent book. But with the pandemic growing more ominous by the day, somehow the timing felt right for such a liminal read (this is one of the few books that actually deserves that adjective).

I read the book between March 2 and April 4, through the early prepping weeks, and the first couple of weeks of lockdown. It felt pretty poignant to meditate on horizons terrestrial and extraterrestrial while locking down my own life within tight domestic boundaries. Looking back, six months into the pandemic, it was the perfect sort of mental preparation. On to the notes.

[Read more…]

The Stack: A Love/Hate Story

For a while now, I’ve been interested in what I think of as “stack research” — investigations into how the high-tech built environment stack works at all levels. I have a milquetoast cyberpunk story to tell you that sheds some light on the matter.

It is about how I retrieved this remote control for my Canon EOS camera after dropping it. Yes, there’s a 2200-word story to be told about dropping something and picking it up. You see, I didn’t drop it on the floor. I dropped it from my 7th floor balcony into the backyard of the neighboring building.

To understand how absurd this story is, consider how simple this could and perhaps should be: in a traditional ordinary city, in say 1980, you’d just go over next door, ring the doorbell, and ask whoever answered if you could go back there and look for it. There’s no story there.

But of course, I live in Los Angeles in 2020, not Ordinary City in 1980. So it has to get more complex.

[Read more…]

Notes: Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Book Notes

Back when I started my pandemic deep-dive book-reading binge in late February, the first book I started with was Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee. But it’s only now, months later, that I have a clear sense of why it felt salient right now. Hence this out-of-order notes post based on my tweetstorm from February/March.

I read the book partly because I was interested in the life and career of John W. Campbell, and partly because I had this sense that the Golden Age of science fiction (loosely, 1938-1960), understood in context, had a set of important lessons to offer for us in 2020, dealing with the Great Weirding, and the aftermath of Covid. Turns out, my instincts were correct.

What follows are some prefatory remarks, followed by a slightly cleaned-up version of the live tweetstorm.

[Read more…]

Clockmaking: 1

As most of you know, I’m working on (another) book about time, The Clockless Clock, which I’m serializing on the Breaking Smart email list. In the spirit of getting a hands-on understanding of the subject, a while back I decided to build an actual clock as a semi-homemade project. Maybe more than one, but let’s start with one. This one, the ROKR 3D wooden mechanical pendulum clock:

I bought the kit ($45.99 on Amazon in case any of you wants to join me in the build) several months ago, but only just started building it. The thing is almost entirely laser-cut parts on several sheets of wood, so the first order of business was over an hour of painstakingly popping out the parts. It’s like a masochistic version of popping bubble wrap.

[Read more…]

Elderblog Sutra: 11

This entry is part 11 of 11 in the series Elderblog Sutra

When I started the blogchain experiment in January 2019, I had in mind a metaphor of a new system of tunnels under an old landscape of skyscrapers, creating a feel of what I called infratextuality. The decade’s worth of archives from the Rust Age (2007-12) and Snowflake Age (2013-18) would be the skyscrapers. The blogchains would be the tunnels, weaving a subterranean connective layer through the themes. In the process, ribbonfarm would age gracefully into an elderblog.

In recent months, I’ve shifted to a new metaphor: angkorwatificaction, after Angkor Wat, with its ruined-and-somewhat-restored temple complex intertwingled with wild plant life reasserting itself.

Image credit: Velvetscape.com

Applied to a blog, angkorwatification is a sort of textual equivalent of rewilding. You have a base layer of traditional blog posts that is essentially complete in the sense of having created, over time, an idea space with a clear identity, and a more or less deliberately conceived architecture to it. And you have a secondary organic growth layer that is patiently but relentlessly rewilding the first, inorganic one. That second layer also emerges from the mind of the blogger of course, but does so via surrender to brain entropy rather than via writerly intentions disciplining the flow of words. I’ve seen some other old sites undergo angkorwatification. Some seem to happily surrender to it like I am doing, others seem to fight it, like I won’t.

A related mental model is that of marine life colonizing sunken shipwrecks, forming artificial reefs. Deliberately contrived blog posts, like ships, have a design lifespan. If you scuttle them in the right locations when they start to feel old, new life can grow on the rusting hulks. It’s kinda fun to think of my archives as the sunken shipwreck of my own dead thoughts.

Memento mori. Not entirely though. It’s not ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s life to life. Language is a living force, and writing must necessarily deaden it in the pursuit of specific intentions. To abandon specific intentions is to surrender to the living force. Perhaps an elderblog, like a talkative child, should be a somewhat embarrassing social presence. Abandon gravitas in order to be more alive, for longer.

I like this metaphor better than my original towers-and-tunnels metaphor, because the way I’m writing here now is more like tree roots weaving inexorably through fragile human architecture than any sort of planned infratextual tunnel construction. The spires of the temple complex still represent the same thing: old style blog posts. Catchy headlines, meme-worthy core ideas, viral-intent writing. The sort of thing that, for a decade, ruled the web at large, and this site specifically.

Lightning strikes of viral attention can strike the spires of Angkor Wat as surely as they can skyscrapers, but the metaphor of an encroaching forest suggests something different than a system of tunnels. Where a tunnel system respects and attempts to preserve the landscape it weaves through, an encroaching forest does not. Roots can weave through cracks in the architecture, topple spires, and crumble walls. The idea of encroaching forests also suggests an abandonment of the base layer to its fate, which I like. The encroaching forest is neither friendly, nor hostile. It just follows its own ungoverned, more alive logic, casually destroying the old structure where it resists, leaving it alone where it doesn’t.

This year, though I’ve written a few old-style posts, including a big hit (Internet of Beefs), my expectations of them have been different. I have no interest in capturing the flash floods of attention by doubling down on the themes that attract them. I am now thinking primarily in terms of elder games, late style, and C├ęsar Aira’s strange idea that art — and ribbonfarm remains at heart an art project — is not something that should be done well.

Much of my polished writing energy has been diverted to Breaking Smart and Art of Gig. So ribbonfarm is being reclaimed slowly by what for me is not so much a new style, but a newly public style. I now find myself treating this blog the way I treat my private notebooks, as a sort of scrapbook space. The stuff that feels truest to this new mode is my Captain’s Log blogchain with its numbered parts, and my book review live reads, pulled in from Twitter.

In trying to situate this process within what I’ve dubbed A Text Renaissance, it strikes me that angkorwatification is the evil twin of what many are starting to call digital gardening. Instead of a mindful and effortful curation of a slightly intimate space built from scratch, angkorwatification is a sort of letting-go; a surrender to the natural entropic forces that begin to emerge in a brain that has aged enough, and accumulated enough memories, both internally, and externally in blog-like prosthetic spaces. It is of course, only an option available to elderblogs. You can’t surrender territories to rewilding processes that you never attempted to civilize to begin with.

There is something wonderfully liberating about viewing ribbonfarm in this creative-destructive way, as a space slowly going to ruin under the onslaught of an encroaching forest. The first 11 years (2007-18) saw the construction of what strikes me in retrospect as a rather high modernist, premium-mediocre textual space, hustling for its share of the viral attention economy. In 2019, I began reversing course tentatively, with blogchains. In 2020, I think I’ve embraced this trajectory completely. What will this blog look like as angkorwatification progresses? I don’t know, but I’m curious to find out.

Notes — Freedom’s Forge by Arthur Herman

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Book Notes

My second deep dive pandemic read is Freedom’s Forge by Arthur Herman, covering the history of the United States’ industrial mobilization for World War 2. There is a good deal of resemblance between the mobilization to beat Covid (and coming soon: climate) and WW2 mobilization, so it’s a good history to have in your back pocket for the next decade.

As with my previous deep dive, on Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, this is just a cleaned-up version of my livetweeting as I read the book. As with that book, this one too benefits from a lot of Wikipedia side-trails, and I’ve linked a bunch of them.

[Read more…]

Notes: A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Book Notes

I just finished the heaviest read so far in my pandemic reads list, Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, about the 14th century, loosely an account of the European experience of the Black Death. It is a 784-page monster and I read it in 15-30 minute chunks at bedtime over 68 days, while live-tweeting it.

I was going to try and reshape my live-tweeting into an actual longform review/summary, but people seemed to like the live/fresh feel of the livetweeting, so I decided to just clean up and post the thread here as notes, with some light editing, linking, and addition of a few post-twitter [editorial additions]. This is also a book that benefits from a lot of Wikipedia bunnytrailing on the side, and I found myself doing a lot of reading about characters and events mentioned in passing. I’ve linked a selection of those to these notes.

Aside: if you like this format, let me know. I have a bunch of threads on Twitter that are probably suitable for this sort of light-touch blogification.

[Read more…]

Mansionism 1: Building-Milieu Fit

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Mansionism

In politically turbulent times, when it is not clear which way the arc of history will bend, it is useful to reframe the question of political futures in terms of built-environment futures. Instead of asking, what kind of milieu will we inhabit, you ask the potentially easier question, what sort of built environment will we inhabit? You then try to infer the future of the milieu from that. The question can also be asked in more specific ways, such as what sorts of futures contain mansions? Besides allowing you to focus materially on what you likely really care about, such questions allow you to finesse more fraught political questions.

Loosely speaking, the reframe turns a scenario-planning question into a design-fiction question. The underlying hypothesis is that the medium is the message. If you can forecast something about the medium, you can forecast something about the message. Here, the medium is the built environment, and the message is the range of milieus that might thrive or wither within it. This gives us the idea of a building-milieu fit (BMF), by analogy to the product-market-fit idea used in the startup world.

[Read more…]

MJD 59,004

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Captain's Log

I’ve been thinking a lot about experiments. In an interview last year, James Mattis described America as “this great big experiment of ours.” I made a 2×2 to think about this. America falls in the Grand Design Experiments quadrant. The x-axis is self-explanatory, the y-axis is ordinary versus extraordinary in the sense of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I wrote about this before in Extraordinary Laboratories.

As an experiment, America is a set of extraordinary (and not coincidentally, exceptionalist) claims about the nature of government.

[Read more…]

New E-Book, and a Portfolio Update

I have a new Kindle ebook out: Breaking Smart Archives: Selected Newsletters, 2015-19. This is a sequenced selection of 32 of the better essays from the Breaking Smart newsletter from the last few years, covering the period between the original 2015 Breaking Smart essay collection on software eating the world (also available as an ebook), and my recent pivot of that whole project to a subscription newsletter for serializing my longer projects.

As I’ll be the first to admit, the collection is weirdly choppy, both in form (a mix of essays and twitter-style threads), and content. But it was oddly satisfying to put together (thanks to Alex Wagner for his help), and I did my valiant best to impose some sort of coherent thematic structure onto it.

[Read more…]