About Venkatesh Rao

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

How to Make History

In the past year, I’ve found myself repeatedly invoking, in all sorts of conversations, a hierarchy of agency with three levels: labor, making, and action. Here’s a visualization. The annotations on the left characterize the kind of agency. The annotations on the right characterize the locus where it is exercised, and the associated human condition.

The hierarchy is based on Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition, so I’ve named the visualization the Arendt hierarchy.

A mnemonic to remember the distinctions is mark time or make history. In everything you do, from posting a tweet or buying a coffee to running for President or tackling the Riemann hypothesis, you must choose between two extreme contexts: to either mark time with labor, or make history with action. In between there is a third context, where you can choose to slow time, which includes any sort of making, including art and trade (which is making in the sense of market-making). Naturally, Arendt thought (as do I) that you must choose action and history-making as much as possible. That is what it means to be fully human.

The scheme is non-intuitive, but once you’ve internalized the concepts, they turn out to be weirdly useful for thinking about what you’re doing and why, whether it is futile or meaningful, nihilistic or generative.

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The Rust Age: A Four-Volume Collection

Back in 2012, I selected, clustered, and sequenced the best posts from the first five years of ribbonfarm (2007-12) into 4 collections, which I collectively dubbed the Rust Age. New readers frequently land on the Rust Age page, get lost and annoyed in the link jungle, and email me asking for this early content in ebook format. Thanks to some stellar production and editing work by Jordan Peacock, and cover art by Josiah Norton, the 4 collections have now been turned into 4 Rust Age volumes, available as Kindle ebooks. The books include a glossary and a map to help you navigate.
The revamped Rust Age series page, with short blurbs for each volume, can be found here. Each individual volume also has its own page with links to the included posts (I’ve just updated the 2012 collection posts to include the respective ebook links).

Note: these collections do not include The Gervais Principle, which is also part of the Rust Age and is its own ebook. The Rust Age also includes two books of non-ribbonfarm content: Be Slightly Evil and Tempo.

Damn, that’s SEVEN books out of 2007-2012. And I was holding down a full-time job too then (and wasn’t slacking off at it). I don’t know where I got the energy. When I write my memoirs, I’ll call that period my roaring mid-thirties.

With this beautifully e-boxed four-volume set done, Jordan and I are now turning our attention to the Snowflake Age (2013-17). As you know, we’ve already put out the first of the Snowflake Age volumes: Crash Early, Crash OftenWe are currently working on a second volume, which will be a compilation of Sarah Perry posts, and trawling through the archives looking for more good compilations we can pull together.

Compilation suggestions from long-time readers welcome. We’ve probably missed some patterns backstage here.

The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial

A few months ago, while dining at Veggie Grill (one of the new breed of Chipotle-class fast-casual restaurants), a phrase popped unbidden into my head: premium mediocre. The food, I opined to my wife, was premium mediocre. She instantly got what I meant, though she didn’t quite agree that Veggie Grill qualified. In the weeks that followed, premium mediocre turned into a term of art for us, and we gleefully went around labeling various things with the term, sometimes disagreeing, but mostly agreeing. And it wasn’t just us. When I tried the term on my Facebook wall, and on Twitter, again everybody instantly got the idea, and into the spirit of the labeling game.

As a connoisseur and occasional purveyor of fine premium-mediocre memes, I was intrigued. It’s rare for an ambiguous neologism like this to generate such strong consensus about what it denotes without careful priming and curation by a skilled shitlord. Sure, there were arguments at the margins, and sophisticated (well, premium mediocre) discussions about distinctions between premium mediocrity and related concepts such as middle-class fancy, aristocratic shabby, and that old classic, petit bourgeois, but overall, people got it. Without elaborate explanations.

But since the sine qua non of premium mediocrity is superfluous premium features (like unnecessary over-intellectualized blog posts that use phrases like sine qua non), let me offer an elaborate explanation anyway. It’s a good way to celebrate August, which I officially declare the premium mediocre month, when all the premium mediocre people go on premium mediocre vacations featuring premium mediocre mai tais at premium mediocre resorts paid for in part by various premium-mediocre reward programs.

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Crash Early, Crash Often

I woke up this morning bleary-eyed and entirely unrested. Between the cat singing a soulful aria in the middle of the night and the bedroom going from too hot to too cold, I’d gotten almost no sleep. It was, in other words, a crashed morning, which led predictably to too much coffee and a crashed day. A terrible kind of day for most things, but a very appropriate one for launching the third ebook in the Ribbonfarm Roughs series: Crash Early, Crash Often, now available on your Friendly Neighborhood Kindle for $2.99. The price will increase in August, so grab your copy now.

Crash Early, Crash Often (hereby abbreviated CECO) is the first ebook based on posts from what we refer to in the backroom here as the Snowflake Age (2013-2017) of ribbonfarm. Here is the blurb I wrote for the Amazon page (I always enjoy writing about myself in the third person):

In this fine collection of essays, the third volume in the Ribbonfarm Roughs series, Venkatesh Rao (author of Tempo, The Gervais Principle, and Be Slightly Evil) ponders midlife crises, immortality, graceful aging, learning, personal growth, community, individualism, and the Big Question of how to live a life full of meaning, dignity and significance. Drawing on the lessons of his own life and the philosophies of Douglas Adams and James Carse among others, he attempts to construct a playbook for a life full of enriching experiences, satisfying accomplishments, and deep relationships. After a dozen long, meandering essays, he entirely fails to get to anywhere even remotely useful, and crashes gracelessly to the edge of the void, where he discovers the void giving him the stink eye. Originally published on ribbonfarm.com between 2014, when Rao turned 40, and 2016, when he turned 42 (a significant threshold in his religion), having learned nothing in the interim, these essays provide a poignant and vivid illustration of the art of entering middle age with all your indignity, incomprehension, and cluelessness intact.

Here are the posts in the ebook, linked, and in the sequence they appear, for those of you too cheap to shell out $2.99 for the pleasure of reading them on your Kindle, or living in places that haven’t been Amazoned yet.

  1. A Beginner’s Guide to Immortality
  2. How to be a Precious Snowflake
  3. Immortality Begins at Forty
  4. Learning to Fly by Missing the Ground
  5. Immortality in the Ocean of Infinite Memories
  6. A Dent in the Universe
  7. Can You Hear Me Now
  8. We Are All Architects Now
  9. Eternal Hypochondria of the Expanding Mind
  10. The Things You Carry
  11. The Art of Agile Leadership
  12. The Epic Struggle between Good and Neutral
  13. Human-Complete Problems
  14. The Principia Misanthropica
  15. Speak Weirdness to Truth

Crash Early, Crash Often (CECO) marks, we hope, the beginning of a more regular and predictable schedule of compiling themed collections of ribbonfarm posts into ebooks.

With CECO, our ebook publishing operations enter a brave new era under the stewardship of former resident Jordan Peacock as ebooks editor, who put this collection together and wrote a courageous and foolhardy preface trying to make sense of whatever the hell CECO is all about (I myself gave up somewhere in the middle of 2015).

Four more ebooks, based on the Rust Age collections, are in the pipeline and will be available in August. They will join the already published first two Ribbonfarm Roughs volumes, The Gervais Principle (GP) and Be Slightly Evil (BSE) to round out a nice six-volume collection covering 2007-2012.

After we get through the Rust Age backlog, we’ll begin trawling the 2013-2017 archives to compile more collections from the Snowflake Age.

For long-time readers we hope these ebooks will offer an opportunity to re-read old posts (including any you may have missed) with the benefit of hindsight, and the context of broader themes that have emerged over the years.

For new readers, we hope these ebooks will offer an easier entry point into the Ribbonfarm Blogamatic Universe, which now has so many superheroes, supervillains, and confused plotlines, we are almost certain to encounter a Crisis of Infinite Ribbonfarms by 2020.

Believe it or not, we don’t actually set out to create such a royal mess. Unlike many insular subcultures marked by moats of carefully curated in-group language, inside jokes, and various protective hexes and curses, we don’t actually mean to be inaccessible or incomprehensible to n00bs around here. That’s just the unintended consequence of living the CECO philosophy. The messy confusion you see here is completely authentic, organic, and free-range. It is not something created to confuse you.

So grab a copy of Crash Early, Crash Often and come on in to join the refactoring. And watch your step as you enter.

Been There, Done That

In a previous post, Thingness and Thereness, I introduced my goat-crow-rat triangle and the in-progress thinking associated with it. Here is my my next iteration of the diagram.

 

In the previous version, I didn’t have a label or annotations for the edge between the public and frontier vertices. Since I am a bit of an obsessive-compulsive maniac with diagrams like this, I couldn’t rest easy till I had figured out a complete, maximally symmetric set of labels. So, here we go. A relatively complete version with no labeling gaps and some pleasing symmetries.

The edge between frontier and public is now officially the been there, done that edge. I hope the label is intuitive enough that at least some of the significance is obvious. Let’s talk about the non-obvious significance.

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Ten Years of Refactoring

Today marks the 10th birthday of ribbonfarm. I launched this blog on June 13, 2007 (with a book review). The first comment rolled in a few weeks later, organically, on July 4. That was also the day I formally “launched” the blog, by spamming my email address book.

To commemorate and memorialize the historic occasion, our resident alpha hacker Artem Litvinovich put a bit of birthday graffiti on the bitcoin blockchain. Notice the pair of leading 42s on the transaction id? That required some special low-level uber-hacking. It’s not something standard bitcoin applications can do. In his words, “You need to control the innards of the ECDSA signing code to do something like that.” I have no idea what that means, but I’m very pleased to get a special bespoke-magic-engineered birthday card here.

Two 42s is actually kinda nice. One for Douglas Adams, one for me. I was a clueless 32-year-old when I started this blog.

So here we are now, 10 years later.

618 posts later.  9797 comments later. 5 Refactor Camps later. 17 repeat contributors later. 20 guest writers later. 2 blogging courses later (well, 1.16; the second one is underway and will conclude next week).

Hundreds of Facebook discussions later. Thousands of tweets later. Multiple slashdottings and hacker-news-front-page-ings later. Dozens of meetups and couch-surfings later. Thousands of road-tripping miles later. I could go on.

If Google is to be believed later, 4 million sessions later, 2.5 million visitors later, 12 million page views later. 3 books later.

1,346,678 words later. At an average of just over 2179 words.

983,764 words by me. 102,983 by Sarah Perry. Just under 260k by other contributors. And I’m not even counting the comments. There’s probably several hundred regular commenters who’ve been with us off-and-on over the entire decade, dropping pearls of add-on wisdom in the comments section.

There are also words themselves. Dozens and dozens of useless neologisms, gleefully unhelpful abstractions, time-wasting archetypes labels, a steady stream of gratuitous insultings, entire bunny trails lined with thoughts nobody should waste time thinking, and so on.

And don’t forget pictures. A steady parade of ugly illustrations, collages, and cartoons (and a few pretty ones) has kept the torrent of words company.

And where have we arrived? I have no idea, but I think there’s a there there 🙂.

It took long hours, years of sweat and selfless toil and….alright who am I kidding, it took none of that.

I hate to disappoint people who like to see gritty toil behind long-evolving projects, but to be honest, in many ways, this has been the most effortless and entirely self-indulgent thing I’ve ever done. Play that worked, as I put it in a recent Breaking Smart newsletter. I just started writing one day, and forgot to stop. Everything else followed. Like they used to say about the British Empire, the Ribbonfarm Empire was created in a fit of absent-mindedness.

And speaking of Breaking Smart, there’s also a messy, rhizomatic sprawl of half a dozen domains, and a complex slum of infrastructure behind this rolling Internet carnival.

Over the last decade of high-ADD discursive wandering, ribbonfarm has steadfastly refused to have a focus, and outlasted hordes of blogs (and blogs about blogging) that earnestly advised everybody to “find a niche” and “focus.”

Nuts to that. ADHD ftw.

(nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah!)

 

So what do we have ahead of us for the next decade?

There is a ton of stuff staged and kinda hanging around, waiting to be rolled out over the next few months, to help set the course for the next decade. I’ll be posting more about all those things in next few weeks to months.

But for now, Happy Birthday to us!

Thingness and Thereness

For months now, I’ve been thinking about a whole mess of related ideas with the aid of a Penrose triangle visualization of three key, interconnected loci that frame a sort of canvas on which life scripts (whether canned or improvised) play out. The three vertices are home, public and frontier. This is the simplest version of the visualization:

 

Between home and public you find subcultures of being and identity, defined by the question, is that a thing now?  Fidget spinners are a thing right now. Gangnam Style was a thing a few years ago.

Between home and frontier you find subcultures of doing and creation, defined by the Gertrude Stein question, is there a there there? There currently seems to be a there there around cryptocurrencies. Opinion is divided about whether there was a there there around Big Data, but we may move beyond that question to the question of whether there’s a there there to Deep Learning, without ever figuring out the thereness of Big Data definitively.

Our lives are shaped by how we relate to thingness and thereness, and how those two qualities relate to each other.

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Blockchains Never Forget

Just three years ago, in 2014, I wrote a little short story set in a future where most work is organized around blockchains. That story was set sometime past the 2120s, but it appears we’ll get there a century earlier than I thought. The idea of organizing work through smart contracts on blockchains has been moving ahead at a breathtaking pace.

Over the last few weeks, I had my first hands-on immersive experience of this particular piece of the unevenly distributed future. I’ll share more about the specifics of this experience, and lessons learned, but mainly I want to enter my first serious attempt at blockchain punditry into the public record: the blockchain is irreversible social computing. 

The message of the medium is this: blockchains never forget. By providing an extra-institutional base layer of irreversibly settling collective memories that cannot be erased, blockchains create a foundation for fundamentally different institutional and technological landscapes. Ones based, as I will argue, on a notion of artificial forgiveness.

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One Weird Longform Trick…on the Blockchain!

Good news everyone!

We are now accepting applications for the second offering of the Ribbonfarm Longform Blogging Course, Summer 2017 edition. The first time Sarah Perry and I ran the course, which was last November, we had 15 participants. We also ended up with 31 people on the waitlist. This time we have an upfront application process (application deadline, Friday May 5) rather than a first-come-first-serve ticket sale.

The application process is to help us screen for participants who are most likely to both benefit from the course, as well as turn into regular contributors. Which is kinda the main point of us doing this.

The course will run in June/July on TBD dates/times based on the scheduling constraints of accepted applicants. It will be an expanded offering compared to last time (6 live video sessions instead of 4), and incorporate all the feedback and meta-learnings we got out of the pilot offering.

We’re also going to try and accept more participants this time. The main constraint there is our editing bandwidth. The most demanding part of teaching the course last time was working 1:1 with participants on their course essays. But I have some tricks planned to make that easier.

And what’s all this about blockchain? Well, read on!

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Nobody Expects The Mongolian Earthship

As a kid, I enjoyed thinking about my address in the universe. You know — the one that extends your regular postal address with Planet Earth, Solar System, Orion Spur, Milky Way. I think we like this game as kids because it provides us with a comforting sense of being at home in the universe. When you know your whole address, there is no foundational ambiguity left in the human condition, cosmically situated, as you experience it. Moral and ideological relativism may leave you disoriented with respect to loftier aspects of it, but at least you know that you’re home relative to material reality. And that there are no horizons beyond which lurk unnamed, unplottable horrors, threatening to refactor that determinate condition. You’re in a universe with a place for everything, and everything is in its place. Including you. A universe where true surprise is profane.

Betty Bowen Command Deck of Spaceship Earth. Coordinates: tidy.advice.curry

Addresses though, are for plants, and at home in the universe is a sessile way of thinking. Real Humans™ are defined by their mobility more than they are by their stationarity, and there ought to be a way to relate to the universe that emerges from a fundamentally mobile, nomadic outlook on life, the universe, and everything. A Hitchhiker’s Metaphysics of the Universe, so to speak, based not on the home metaphor, but perhaps on something closer to the Spaceship Earth metaphor popularized by Buckminster Fuller: the entirety of the planet construed as both a literal and figurative vehicle for the shared human adventure.

Allow me introduce you to my version of Spaceship Earth: the Mongolian Earthship. Its defining feature is one shared by the Spanish Inquisition of the Monty Python universe: nobody expects it.

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