About Venkatesh Rao

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

Dodo Thoughts

This morning at the Natural History Museum in London, I saw a stuffed (edit: model apparently, not stuffed, according to a knowledgeable commenter) dodo. As I meditated on the poor, dumb extinct bird, I was struck by an unsettling thought: All the thinking ever done by all the dodos that ever lived has been for nought. The species’ failure to continue existing is not just the failure of the dodo genome. It is also the failure of the sum of all dodo thought.

There was once something it was like to be a dodo, and think thoughts only dodos could think, but now there isn’t. The dodo is worse than extinct. In some deep way, it was wrong about everything it thought it knew.

This dodo is dead. This is a dead dodo.

When we think about the adaptive fit of a species to its environment, we think about size, speed, coloration, feeding habits, and so on, but we don’t think about thinking. Sure, we talk about brain size as though it were just another morphological variable like height, but we don’t think about thinking in Darwinian terms. Things get weird when you go there.

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London Visit Next Week, Three Events

I’ll be in London for Sept 19 – 24. This trip, I’ve built in some slack to meet more people and do some leisurely exploration. The main thing I’ll be there for is the Work Marathon, organized by the Serpentine Gallery and held at the Royal Geographic on Saturday 22nd (all-day event). In the words of the organizers:

The 2018 Work Marathon invites artists, sociologists, anthropologists, writers, musicians, architects, scientists and philosophers to address the complex and timely questions of work, labour, automation and leisure.

My talk is titled Archetypes for the Anthropocene. Tickets £15, but I do have 2 guest passes left to hand out for the first two people who ask.

I will also be doing a small informal lunch talk/discussion at Entrepreneur First on Friday, 21st around noon on Anthropocene-Rules Institutions (you may be noticing a theme here). If you’re interested in attending, let me know.

And finally, I’ll be hosting, along with Zhan Li, a small dinner meetup on Wednesday the 19th at 6:30 PM in Bankside. We’ll be limiting this to about 10, and there’s a few spots left if you’re interested. The theme for the meetup is Amateur Hour in the Intellectual Wilderness. 

Besides these 3 events, I should have time on Thursday 20th, Sunday 23rd and the morning of the 24th to meet up with a few people, drop in to visit offices, etc. I am particularly interested in visiting workplaces, since I’m always curious about business culture in other countries.

I also plan to carve out some time for a few touristy things (British Museum, Transportation Museum, Westminster) and would be glad to have company for these excursions.

Contact me by email if you’re interested in one or more of the above.

Think Entangled, Act Spooky

I like the concept of the Anthropocene. It finesses or postpones at least some of the conflict around the idea of climate change, broadens the conversation to include all human impact on the environment, and grounds thinking in geological (heh!) time without overloading it with burdensome sentiments like guilt or fear. The term leaves the future open to both positive and negative possibilities. It acknowledges human agency as the most powerful force currently reshaping the planet without getting too judgmental about what that means.

The Ash Yggdrasil by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

I find existing definitions of the Anthropocene unsatisfying though. Most of them, reasonably enough, focus on planet-scale external markers, ranging from the birth of agriculture to the first nuclear tests and climate change. But this seems too open narrative arbitrariness and not open enough to insight. If we turn inward though, there is a rather natural and fertile definition that immediately suggests itself:

The Anthropocene begins when survival in the built environment is as cognitively demanding as survival in the natural environment of evolutionary adaptation.

Note that “as cognitively demanding” is not the same thing as “as hard across the board”. It means you you have to think as hard for the same survival probability, but many other things might get easier.

A good illustration of this is life in a major city versus life in a small town. The former is more cognitively demanding but many things besides thinking become a lot easier. Nobody ever moved to a bigger city in search of a simpler life. A less emotionally stressful life, perhaps. A less impoverished life, perhaps. A more comfortable and convenient life, perhaps. But not a simpler one.

Now let’s apply that reasoning at civilizational history scale.

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How Do You Value a Human Being?

How do you value a human being?

Only two kinds of humans have a clear consensus value: first responders and what one might call first actors. Doctors, nurses, fire-fighters, cops, and modern soldiers are all first responders; valued because they defend one of the two borders of the human condition against the unknown; the border across which existential threats emerge.  At the other border, the exploratory frontier of the human condition, we find our first actors — scientists, artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, mystics and (when we interior civilians are feeling particularly generous) philosophers. They are the prime movers of the human story.

First responders restore a local human equilibrium after a negative disturbance; first actors disturb a local human equilibrium in positive ways. Both are boundary actors, charged with precipitating a response to things happening at the boundary between the changeless fictive interior of the human condition and the restive chaos of the universe beyond. The value of boundary actors is assumed. The value of interior actors usually requires justification.

Boundary actors are assumed worthy. Using them as a yardstick, everybody else must make their own case.

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Flying Blind into the Anthropocene

For several days, Seattle has been enveloped in wildfire haze, with an air quality index (AQI) between 150-200, coded red for unhealthy. For these few days it has been among the most polluted cities on the planet. Many of us learned for the first time about N95 masks, which are rated to keep out 95% of 3 micron particles. Supposedly an AQI of 150 is equivalent to smoking 7 cigarettes a day.

Photo credit: Sean McCabe in Vanity Fair

It struck me that we’ve been doing the everyday equivalent of piloting an airplane on instruments. Weather reports, AQI numbers, mask ratings, and metaphoric comparisons to cigarettes have been more useful for guiding behavior than direct sensory evidence. Even the knowledge that we are breathing wildfire haze rather than some other sort of less harmful smog is based on on instruments, since the actual fire is in Canada, too far away for the smell of burning to carry.

Though there has been direct sensory evidence — being outside felt like being in an awful smoke-filled bar, the sunsets have been a lovely red, and visibility has been poor — the sensory reality has been something like a spectator sport with a very misleading relationship to atmospheric reality and meaningful responses to it. Air quality degrades to harmful levels well before you notice it. You can either believe the reports and numbers, or find out the hard way that going for a run outside is a bad idea. You can either wear the recommended mask, or find out the hard way that being outside for a long time makes you feel ill.

AQI numbers are abstract proxies and open to criticism, but they are not bullshit. They have a detectable relationship to reality. Wearing the masks is a matter of faith in the science, but their efficacy exceeds that of ceremony or superstition. Understanding the numbers and responding by limiting outdoor activity, keeping windows closed, and perhaps wearing masks, is instrumentally rational behavior in a literal sense: it has to do with how we think about reality through instruments.

By this standard, only a small fraction of people in Seattle (many of them tourists from Asia where mask-wearing has been socially normalized) are being instrumentally rational. I have been among the instrumentally irrational. Though we own a mask, the idea of wearing it and standing out made me not wear it, so I came home the other day wheezing and short of breath.

Our condition this week in Seattle has been something of a microcosm of the human condition in the anthropocene. Through a mix of design and accident, we’ve created a novel environment that is at once strongly shaped by human behaviors and highly opaque to normal human sensory modalities. But we haven’t instrumented this environment well enough to make up for our sensory deficits.

Worse, we seem to collectively lack the instrument rating to fly this civilizational airplane.

So we are flying blind into the anthropocene, without the appropriate instrument rating, on a wing and a prayer.

Armpit Futures

I’ve long been on record as an August hater. Recently I decided that August will henceforth be known as Armpit, at least in my head. Armpit is the True Name of August; it is truly the armpit of the year. My greatest fear for the future is that it will be an Eternal August. I call such possible futures armpit futures. Listless, sweaty grey timelines where history just sort of runs out of narrative energy with a whimper rather than a bang, and settles into a shitty plotless equilibrium full of T. S. Eliot’s hollow men that everybody hates, but not energetically enough to do anything about. Sometimes, I think the explanation for the Fermi paradox is simply that it is August all the time, almost everywhere in the universe.

Anyhow, why is August, I mean Armpit, so bad?

Here’s the thing, besides all the obvious things wrong with it (ranging from listlessly ugly, enervated weather  to the ugly social calendar as documented in this David Plotz anti-August rant), Armpit is when people give up on the year. It is the month of abandoned hope. The inescapable liminal passage of refractory ennui you must get through before you can peel yourself off the floor (where you will have been lying sticky and facedown for 31 days) to take another swing at Destiny.

Through the end of July, which vaguely sounds like June and so vaguely feels like you’re still in the first half of the year with a shot at salvaging something, you’re basically fine. Armpit is when you realize it’s too late, but can’t do anything about it. In September, you can formally write off the year as a deadweight loss booked in Q4, reset your horizons and start thinking about the next year or seven.

But for the 31 days of Armpit, if you have a brain, you’re in that sweaty, muggy, hopeless, newsless, atemporal state of mild-to-medium existential despair that is not even severe enough to justify active intervention. Like airplane food that is just short of bad enough to complain about. Where eating it versus going hungry seem like equally bad options. You kinda just have to get through it. It won’t be good no matter what you decide.

Europeans and VCs in America try to put lipstick on the pig by collectively going on “vacation” but as Plotz argues, the good vacation month is actually July. Armpit is when you kind of just take a weak swing at pretending to be alive to keep up appearances, since it is not polite to act dead in the West. Adults have beach-time poisoned by dreading Fall Budgeting Bureaucracy. Kids have their last few weeks of vacation poisoned by looming schoolwork. Nobody is having a good time, and most people don’t even have the energy to pretend.

Anybody who is enjoying Armpit is either clueless, or powered by energy drawn from the dark dimensions. All signs of life in Armpit are hollow and fake, a case of civilizational premium mediocrity on display (not coincidentally, I wrote that post in Armpit last year).

Armpit is awful everywhere on the planet (even the southern hemisphere I suspect), and I think the reason is that it is the truest glimpse we get of the human condition. Yes, we’re most likely to end up in an armpit future, not a dystopian or utopian one. And Armpit is the one month of the year we cannot avoid facing that fact, like Sisyphus in the moment just after he summits and watches the rock wobble portentously.

September is the dawn of new hope. Even the Eternal September of the online world, despite the generally n00b-infested, culture-warring craptitude of it, is tinged with hope and demented stupid energy. October through July we have The Struggle, when we manage to steal a shred or two of dignity from the universe.

Other naturally bad months during The Struggle, like blazing-furnace-hot July and calamitously cold and depressing January, at least have interesting social action going on. Or present the kind of urgent stress you can feel good about tackling head-on and overcoming. The plot is moving along even if most people have lost it.

But Armpit? Pure zombie month. Not even a villain of a month. The entropic heat-death month of the calendar, during which Time may or may not choose to regenerate. Beating August doesn’t even feel like a win.

Enjoy your last week of July. As with every Armpit, there’s a small chance we’ll never come out of it, and end up in an Eternal August armpit future.

Quiver Doodles

I don’t know if this is still true, but I once read about exploited workers in the ship-breaking industry who were worked so hard, and paid so little, they could not even afford to buy enough calories to sustain themselves. They were slowly starving to death. I call this phenomenon entropic ruin, a generalization of the idea of gambler’s ruin to open-ended games that can be non-zero-sum and need not involve gambling. In this case, it’s a deterministic death march. If you systematically consume fewer calories than you expend long term, you will die a premature death.

Entropic ruin gives us an interesting way to measure the quality of a strategy. Here’s a 12-point reference scale based on the idea.  Entropic ruin is represented as a reference circle in all 12 cases. A bunch of arrows shows the set of activities that are trying to outrun ruin. I call the drawings on the scale quiver doodles (think of each as a quiver viewed from above).

Trivially, in the long term, we all face the ultimate case of entropic ruin, death, but what’s interesting about non-trivial cases is that you don’t even beat the house in the short term. So entropic ruin can be defined as predictably dying faster than you need to. No matter what you are doing, you can draw a little circle of entropic ruin around your activities. If you’re inside that circle, you’re heading for premature death.

If you have (or are generating) abundance on every resource you might need in relation to your goals, you don’t need a strategy. The circle can shrink to zero. This is the other end of the spectrum from entropic ruin: entropic flourishing. A wealthy person who is earning more in interest on their capital than they can spend in a day is an example. The scale is really more of a 6-point scale that zig-zags between entropic ruin and flourishing up 6 levels between complete chaos (Brownian motion) to complete order (laser beam).

If you’ve been through the ups and downs of enough projects, the 12 quiver doodles on the scale probably make intuitive sense to you, but let me offer a bit of additional explanation for those who need it.

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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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