About Venkatesh Rao

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

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.


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.


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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Make Your Own Rules

We seem to be in the middle of a renaissance of rules for life. Not since Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten (1987) and Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits (1989) has there been such a peak of interest in such rules. Then, as now, we were going through a period of deep global changes, and everybody was very anxious because nobody knew what the new rules for the new normal were.

The proximal trigger of this current wave is I think, Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules, as well as the late John Perry Barlow’s 25 principles, which have both been doing the rounds. But the root cause is growing market demand for anomie-busting.

Well of course if there’s a gold rush of this sort on, I have to sell pickaxes. And my pickaxe is a DIY template for making your own set of life rules. Here’s an in-progress snapshot of the pickaxe in action in my own notebook (cleaned-up version with readable annotations key further down, but I wanted to share the working version, which includes several technical mistakes). My model may be a bit hard to grok if you haven’t been reading me for a few years, but the good news is, it’s color-by-numbers easy to use. And all it takes is pen and paper.

I only have one actual imitable rule to offer in the marketplace of life rules: Make Your Own Rules. But I do think I have a good theory of life rules, and a meaningfully systematic procedure for generating them that I’m hoping to sell to the Deep Mind team for making well-behaved AIs.

In the short term, other people’s rules can get you through a rough patch. In the medium term, you have to at least adapt them to your own life. But in the long term, only making your own rules works.

Because, to snowclone what Eisenhower said about plans, rules are nothing, but rule-making is everything.

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The Elephant in the Brain

Long-time contributor and editor-at-large Kevin Simler has a great new book out, The Elephant in the Brainco-authored with Robin Hanson. A bunch of us over here in the refactoring lair have been reading it of course, so you can expect to see the ideas in the book seeping into future posts. There’s a couple of excellent reviews out already if you want to get oriented in the snowballing conversation around the book (the book website has a running compilation) .

The book tackles our blindspots regarding our own motives:

Human beings are primates, and primates are political animals. Our brains are therefore designed not just to hunt and gather, but also to get ahead socially, often by devious means.

But while we may be self-interested schemers, we benefit by pretending otherwise. The less we know about our own ugly motives, the better. And thus we don’t like to talk — or even think — about the extent of our selfishness. This is “the elephant in the brain,” an introspective blind spot that makes it hard to think clearly about ourselves and the explanations for our behavior.

Kevin of course needs no introduction for long-time readers, but for those who came in late, he’s the author of past hits like Minimum Viable Superorganisms and Anthropology of Mid-Size Startups. His home blog, Melting Asphalt, has been one of our oldest blogosphere neighbors (some of my favorite posts there include Neurons Gone Wild and Personhood).

So go grab the book. It’ll be required reading around these parts. And while you’re at it, go poke around in Kevin’s other writing. You’ll thank me later.

Boat Stories

Last year, I discovered Ursula LeGuin’s fascinating talk, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, (transcript) by way of Donna Haraway’s equally interesting talk Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene. Both have been nagging at me for a year now.

The theory, building on the significance of containers (bags, baskets) to early humans — the default human here is female of course — in forager societies, offers a model of narrative as a “carrier bag” of community context and its evolution. It is a model that stands in radical opposition to the hero’s journey model of narrative.

Panels from Asterix and the Great Crossing, a boat story.

Thinking about the two opposed theories, it struck me that between the carrier bag story and the hero’s journey, there is a third kind of story that is superior to both: the boat story. A boat is at once a motif of containment and journeying. The mode of sustenance it enables — fishing, especially with a net, a bag full of holes — is somewhere between gathering and hunting ways of feeding; somewhere between female and male ways of being. It at once stands for the secure attachment to home and a venturesome disposition towards the unknown. It incorporates the conscientiousness and stewardship of settled life, and the openness to experience of nomadic life. A boat is a home, but a home away from home. A boat story is a journey, but one on which you bring home, and perhaps even Mom, along with you. But it isn’t an insular home, even though it has a boundary. It is a territory but it is not territorial. It is socially open enough to accommodate encounters with strangers, and is in fact eager to accommodate them. Xenophobes do not generally go voyaging.

Boat stories, like hero’s journeys and carrier-bag stories, are a good way to understand the human condition. They are especially good as a mental model of blogging.

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Complete 2017 Roundup

It’s been a disorienting pivot year of mayhem and chaos here at ribbonfarm. I am going to pretend it was entirely by design. I decided at the beginning of the year that since I was personally feeling rather annoyed and upset by all the disturbances in the Force, I ought to spread the cognitive pain around. If I can’t enjoy a pleasant, harmonious life of the mind, why the hell should you? We practice grievance-driven blogging around here. “With malice towards one and all” as my old writing idol Khushwant Singh used to put it.

And since we observed (“celebrated” seems like a stretch) our 10th anniversary this year, it was high time anyway to blow things up and put the pieces back together in a new way. Mission 50% accomplished. We’ll get to the “put together again” next year.

Main symptom of the blowing-up: After years of cautious growth in number of contributors, we had a whopping jump: 32 contributors bringing in 62 posts (not counting administrative ones), with traffic holding miraculously roughly steady. By comparison, in 2016, we only had 13 contributors for 57 posts. Much of the increase was due to the spectacular output (in terms of both quality and quantity) from the longform writing course Sarah and I taught twice in the last 12 months. That course may or may not have benefitted participants, but it sure helped stir things up for us.

One effect of this step-function increase in the number of contributors is that I have effectively lost the editorial plot. In a good way though. To create a new order, you first have to create chaos.

Read on for a tour of the debris and a big list of the 62 posts.

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