About Venkatesh Rao

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

Into the Fediverse

As many of you already know, for the last few weeks, we’ve been running a Mastodon instance at refactorcamp.org on a pilot basis, kicking the tires and figuring things out. The requisite technical wizardry is being volunteered by Zach Faddis.

For those who don’t keep up with such things, Mastodon is an open-source, federated variant of Twitter, with a few key differences that make it a something of a quieter, slower-paced, more personal kind of space, somewhere in the twilight zone between private and public, local and global.

We are doing an open enrollment period for the next two weeks (till Tuesday, July 24th). You can register on the home page for an account. After the 24th, you will need an invite link from an existing user to join. If you already have an account on another instance, you can of course follow people on this instance.

But before you do either, please read the rest of this post.  Even if you’re already familiar with Mastodon.

If you do register after reading this, please add some meaningful profile info/tags, follow at least a dozen people, post a quick self-introduction with the hashtag #introduction, and do some tooting.

You don’t need to use your real name, and we have no expectations of minimum activity levels. But Zach, myself, and the rest of the Refactor Camp ICE squad will be kicking out pure lurkers, people with indistinguishable generic profiles, and suspected bot accounts, with extreme prejudice. We intend to run a clean, inviting, and safe joint.

Now for more details.

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Semi-Annual Roundup, 2018

It’s been a relatively slow first half of the year, thanks in part to a busier-than-normal work year for me on the consulting front. Not counting administrative posts, we’ve had 19 “real” posts so far.

Outside of publishing, we did manage to put out the The Art of Longform blogging course though (check it out, $100 for for a solid 6+ hours of video material with plenty of collateral).

We also did the 2018 Refactor Camp on Cryptoeconomics in Austin. I wrote up a glimpse of backstage stuff in the 2018 Annual Letter.

Here’s the roundup, organized by author. Happy 4th of July to US readers!

  1. Near-Deathness (6/21/2018) by Matthew Sweet
  2. The Unapologetic Case For Bullshit (1/18/2018) by Stefano Zorzi
  3. Symmetry and Identity (4/19/2018) by Kenneth Shinozuka
  4. (Don’t) Be the Gray man (2/1/2018) by Patrick Steadman
  5. Justifiable AI (3/13/2018) by Carlos Bueno
  6. Glitches, uh, find a way (1/25/2018) by Carlos Bueno
  7. Notes on Doing Things (5/10/2018) by Sarah Perry
  8. Luxuriating in Privacy (3/1/2018) by Sarah Perry
  9. The Well-Being Machine (6/12/2018) by Sarah Perry
  10. Justice Fantasies (2/8/2018) by Sarah Perry
  11. Cringe and the Design of Sacred Experiences (1/11/2018) by Sarah Perry
  12. Deep Laziness (4/6/2018) by Sarah Perry
  13. Reality Maintenance (5/29/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  14. Chekov’s Gun and the Principle of Sufficient Reason (6/14/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  15. Make Your Own Rules (2/15/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  16. Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre (4/24/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  17. The Key to Act Two (3/29/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  18. A Quick (Battle) Field Guide to the New Culture Wars (3/6/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  19. Boat Stories (1/9/2018) by Venkatesh Rao

Chekov’s Gun and the Principle of Sufficient Reason

I have a sneaky trick I use to figure out the murderer when watching mystery shows. If there’s a random background character — say a doorman or a random neighbor — who gets insufficiently motivated screen time and lines in an early scene, they’re the murderer. If the role is being played by a mildly famous actor rather than a bit-part nobody, then you can be doubly sure. My hack exploits a human-character special case of the fact that good storytellers tend to follow, the Chekov’s gun principle:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

This isn’t an entirely fair trick of course, especially if you use the mildly famous actor clue, since it’s an extrinsic structural clue that’s outside the narrative proper, and one that won’t necessarily lead you to further guess the motive, or means. The lesson of the trick though, is that the assumption that there are no insignificant details in a story (or equivalently, that there is a good author behind the story) is an extremely powerful one. One that allows you to solve the mystery faster than if you had to sort out the significant details (as you would have to in a real murder). Of course, a great author, as opposed to a merely good one will distract you with a plausible alternative explanation for the Chekov’s gun that will lead you astray,.

The fact that Chekov’s gun can be used as a cheat points to why the corresponding idea in metaphysics, the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), made famous by Leibniz, is so controversial.

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Reality Maintenance

The idea that reality is something that is constructed by our minds out of sense experience, and therefore requires design, programming, and maintenance, is a curiously divisive one. To some people — myself included — it is the most obvious, even banal idea in the world; a basic starting assumption required to do any sort of interesting metaphysical thinking. As I’ve argued before, all realities are escaped realities, and the interesting question is, what is the direction/degree of escape?

To others, it is a horrendously toxic attack on all that is Good and True and a French Cultural Marxist Conspiracy Against Enlightenment Values. These people are known as normies.

Setting aside these debates, it’s interesting to try and trace how we construct and maintain realities. Here’s my picture.

Turns out, if you start with sense experience as primary (the blue/gold dress is just the tip of that iceberg of worms) there are at least three distinct well-posed notions of reality — objective, subjective, and social — each of which is best understood in terms of a particular experience of time, or to use a bigger word, a particular kind of temporality. In my previous post on escaped realties linked above, I associated the three with atoms, qualia and bits, but the three kinds of temporality is a more satisfying mapping.

As you might expect, there are Greek gods for all three. Very roughly, you have Chronos for objective time, Kairos for subjective time, and the least-known, Aion, for a sort of outside-of-time eternalism. With each of these notions you get a particular manner of constructing the self (material, introspective, and social), and from that, everything else in the reality gets bootstrapped.

Of course, each of us inhabits a reality that’s a mix of the three kinds of escapism and temporality, so reality maintenance involves ongoing non-degenerate action along all three vectors. Falsification and update of material beliefs is the most familiar kind of reality maintenance (more narrowly referred to as truth maintenance). The other two might be called stream of consciousness maintenance and recognition maintenance.

It is perhaps simplest to think of each kind of reality construction in terms of its associated kind of reality destruction, or death. So you have material death, death by loss of appetite for life (or will to live), and social death by loss of being seen by others in a social reality matrix. I

This gives us 7 degrees of death, based on whether 1, 2 or all 3 kinds of reality maintenance processes have collapsed for you. So there are 6 kinds of zombie, 1 kind of fully alive person, and 1 kind of complete corpse. I’ll leave you to work out the details.

Refactor Camp 2018 Livestream

Just a quick post: Refactor Camp 2018 is currently underway in Austin and you can watch the livestream here.

The Art of Longform

In December 2016, over two weeks, Sarah Perry and I taught the Ribbonfarm Longform Blogging Course to a pilot class of 10 participants. In June 2017, we expanded the course from 4 to 6 sessions, renamed it the Art of Longform, built out a Teachable course site, and taught it to a second cohort of ~30 participants.

The second time around, feeling foolhardy, we decided to record the videoconference sessions.

Then I procrastinated for nearly a year, telling myself I’d learn video editing, auto-tune, and 3d graphics skills, polish the raw videos into TEDdy brilliance, add CGI dinosaurs, and release it as the first episode of the Ribbonfarm Cinematic Universe.

Well, that never happened, but I did manage to upload the raw videos, re-record one segment that I’d lost due to sloppy recording, add some new collateral, and FINALLY put the thing together (with an aesthetic pivot from summer blockbuster to cinéma vérité along the way).

So I give you: The Art of Longform as a self-paced pre-recorded course.

Over 10 years of blogging experience, 650+ longform posts, millions of words, frequent appearances on aggregator front pages, insights from the work of many dozens of contributors, and the lessons of at least a handful of legit memeceptions and viral hits went into the pile of superstitions, magical thinking, and dubious blogging lore that constitutes the metis of ribbonfarm today.

That illegible pile of metis, distilled, legibilized and compacted into ~7 hours of  authoritarian high-modernist cinéma vérité, is the Art of Longform.

Details

The course is currently priced at $100. It currently contains 6h 48min of video content, 6 core slide decks, a handful of collateral documents, and plenty of resource links. I may add more material in the future, and/or update existing material if we do the live course again. The course home page linked above contains a brief intro video, and the syllabus. Some of the collateral material and the participant town hall video from the last session are open for free previewing.

If you enroll and work through the material, you’re welcome to try and make your money back from the course, by pitching us a post. As you might know, contributors receive a $100 honorarium for posts (our editors contribute for free, as befits their status as Gracious Elders Giving Back to the Blogosphere with Gravitas).

My goal with this course is like Thanos’ goal in Infinity War: to bring balance to the universe. Well, balance to the operating cost structure of ribbonfarm at any rate. My cunning plan here rests on the assumption that I’ll be able to use course revenues to completely cover hosting costs and contributor honorariums. We’ll see how that goes.

Course alumni and ribbonfarm editors have discounts codes available to them, so if you know one of the editors or someone who took the live course, you may want to ping them.

If you really, really, want to take the course, but really, really cannot afford it, pitch us a post, and if we like and accept your pitch, we’ll comp you access to the course.

If you’ve EVER contributed a post to ribbonfarm, you can get free access. Just email me.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the ~40 participants of the live course for helping make this happen, as well as editors-at-large Carlos Bueno, Taylor Pearson, Joe Kelly, Renee DiResta, and Kevin Simler for supporting the course by helping edit the participant course essays, and chiming in during the live sessions on occasion, and general background discussions. Carlos also contributed his world famous bird cartoon as course logo.

Special thanks to Evan Thomas, at the time a writing instructor at OSU, for his guest lecture, which added a modicum of credentialed respectability to this extremely shady operation that would totally be an unaccreditable diploma mill if we offered diplomas.

Ribbonfarm School

 

With this first serious offering, I’ve officially taken the plunge and decided to make Ribbonfarm School happen.

Right now, this is the only serious course on there, but more are in the pipeline, starting with the Breaking Smart 101 course based on Breaking Smart Season 1 workshop. I’m putting the finishing touches on that right now. Stay tuned.

And as always, I’m open to suggestions for other courses you’d like to see.

Here’s the Art of Longform course page link again.

Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre

I have a theory about why the notion of an arms race between human and machine intelligences is fundamentally ill-posed: the way to survive and thrive in an environment of AIs and robots is not to be smarter than them, but to be more mediocre than them. Mediocrity, understood this way, is an independent meta-trait, not a qualifier you put on some other trait, like intelligence.

I came to this idea in a roundabout way. It started when Nate Eliot emailed me, pitching an article built around the idea of humans as premium mediocre robots. That struck me as conceptually off somehow, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the problem with the idea. I mean, R2D2 is an excellent robot, and C3PO is a premium mediocre android, but humans are not robots at all. They’re just intrinsically mediocre without reference to any function in particular, not just when used as robots.

Then I remembered that the genesis form of the Turing test also invokes mediocrity in this context-free intrinsic sense. When Turing originally framed it (as a snarky remark in a cafeteria) his precise words were:

“No, I’m not interested in developing a powerful brain. All I’m after is just a mediocre brain, something like the President of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.”

That clarified it: Turing, like most of us, was conceptualizing mediocrity as merely an average performance point on some sort of functional spectrum, with an excellent high end, and a low, basic-performance end. That is, we tend to think of “mediocre” as merely a satisfyingly insulting way of saying “average” in some specific way.

This, I am now convinced, is wrong. Mediocrity is in fact the sine qua non of survival itself. It is not just any old trait. It is the trait that comes closest to a general, constructive understanding of evolutionary adaptive “fitness” in a changing landscape. In other words, evolution is survival, not of the most mediocre (that would lead to paradox), but survival of the mediocre mediocre.

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The Key to Act Two

How do you top life rules? With a life script, that’s how. Here’s an absolutely minimalist 2-step one. Guaranteed to work for 90% of humanity. Across all neurotypes, astrological signs, preferred pronouns, quadrants of the political compass, and Myers-Briggs types. Tested across multiple scenarios, utopian and dystopian, decentralized and centralized. Constructed to be compatible with blockchain futures, rated to survive Category 5 culture wars, and resilient to climate change. Here it is, in picture form first, ready?

And now in words:

First become a key, then go look for a lock. 

This script picks up where the first-stage parental booster gives up, at around age 21, marking the beginning of Act 1. The becoming-a-key Act 1 phase lasts 3-21 years. Then there is a bit of an intermission of about 2 years, which for most people is a very confusing, unscripted time, like an inter-airport transfer in a strange foreign city with sketchy-looking shuttle buses that you are reluctant to get on, and long queues at the bathroom.

And then you’re in Act 2, which begins at age 42 on average. In a previous post, I argued that immortality begins at 40. Act 2 is about unlocking the immortality levels of the game of life. The essential truth about Act 2, which you must recognize in order to navigate it well, is this: Unless you make a special effort, you are probably not going to get damaged enough in Act 1 to become a key.

So to work this script, you are going to have to undergo some trials. In double-quick time if you’re already pushing 40.

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A Quick (Battle) Field Guide to the New Culture Wars

I am basically a pacifist, inclined to what in India is sometimes derisively referred to as Gandhigiri (loosely “LARPing Gandhi”). If I don’t check the tendency, I naturally retreat from, and go into denial about, unpleasant and violent realities. But it’s time to admit it: the United States is in the middle of the worst culture wars I’ve seen in my life, either in my 20 years in the US, or in the previous 20 years in India (which in the 90s saw equally ferocious, but less digitally mediated, culture wars). And for once, you can’t blame Trump. He’s more consequence than cause.

To endure through a war without either retreating from the fray, or developing crippling PTSD from losing too many poorly picked battles, you need a good map of the battlefield, a sense of the movements of various combatant groups, their objectives, tactics and strategies, awareness of recent battles and their outcomes, current live battles, and emerging flashpoints. Here’s my first draft attempt.

I’ve used the popular politics 2×2 meme (left versus right, authoritarian versus libertarian) as a basic canvas for this map. Let’s start with the numbered key to the conflicts before launching into some commentary.

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2018 Annual Letter

I’ve been increasingly lazy about doing some sort of annual letter (I think I last did one in 2014). So I am overdue for a roundup of a bunch of housekeeping items and updates. My excuse is that it’s getting increasingly hard to do a State of the Rhizome, especially in the middle of a global culture war. We’re in that weird awkward growth phase between an overgrown pimply personal blog and a professionally run media operation with, you know, an actual editorial process, business model, graphic arts department, and rude receptionist.

This isn’t really a true annual letter, more of a grab-bag of ribbonfarm update stuff mixed in with personal stuff. Anyway, here we go.

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