About Venkatesh Rao

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

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.

I think it was satisfying to produce because it logs some fairly significant evolution in my thinking, through a truly turbulent period in the subject matter it covers — the tech world through the Great Weirding. It is also interesting as a record of four years of sense-making effort through a period when a lot of people were just giving up and checking out. I’m kinda proud that I stayed in the fray and wrote over 140 newsletter issues. It was quite hard to make the cuts and pick the 32 to include in this volume. But the result, I think, is worthwhile.

This is my 10th ebook. Arranging all the covers in a 2×5 panel does make for a rather snazzy view of my portfolio of work if you don’t look too hard.

Thanks to some pretty decent covers, this view suggests more coherence to the underlying material than there really is.

Of these ten volumes, one was written as a regular book and is also available as a paperback, five are based on curated collections of stand-alone ribbonfarm blog posts (the bottom row), two are based on email newsletter content (this new one, and Be Slightly Evil), and two are essay collections composed as long-arc series (The Gervais Principle and Breaking Smart: Season One). I haven’t done a word count, but I suspect together they add up to at least half a million words. The oldest material here is over fifteen years old (Tempo is based on work from 2004-16), and the newest is less than a year old (the most recent essay included in BSA is from late last year).

While I think this evolving collection of ebooks captures a lot of my better material, and surfaces some of the more interesting broader patterns, there are definitely big gaps here.

For instance, there are quite a few significant posts from 2012-16, such as Welcome to the Future Nauseous, The Locust Economy, You Are Not an Artisan, On the Design of Escaped Realities, Can You Hear Me Now, and several others that never made it into any collection. And that’s just the ones I can think of, off the top of my head. Blog posts or newsletter issues only get rolled up into ebooks if I can find a coherent thread to weave through them, so material that doesn’t quite fit into the more in-your-face themes tends to fall through the cracks. Maybe I need a collection called Misc. or /etc.

I also haven’t produced any compilations out of my posts since late 2016, a period that includes several personally significant essays (King Ruinous and the City of Darkness, Premium Mediocre, and Internet of Beefs among them). My newish blogchains phase is also not represented.

I’ll get around to fixing some of these gaps at some point, but the ebook series will likely never quite catch up to the gestalt of writing. Some of the gaps in ebook coverage are probably unfixable, which is depressing, and many others are probably not worth fixing, which is even more depressing. This whole thing seems destined to end in a bunch of unsatisfying loose ends, which in a weird, dark way pleases me.

There are many things about the organic evolution of a blogamatic universe that cannot be captured by a set of ebooks, no matter how carefully curated. And that is perhaps as it should be.

I will admit it’s rather tiring to keep up with myself on this front, gathering up my increasingly fragmentary, divergent thinking into these pseudo-coherent curated bundles that keep up the pretense of there being some sort of plan here. So at some level, I’ve kinda given up trying. These ebooks are never going to amount to more than a half-assed archaeological record. A way to make a bit of money while sort of gesturing weakly at accommodating new archaeologists readers who want to explore my writing in relatively completist ways for whatever demented reason. Back in the day I used to call it the absurdity marathon. I’ve stopped calling it that, and people have mostly stopped doing it, but there are still some quixotic souls out there for whom my windmill farm is an irresistibly field of dragons worth slaying.

The writer’s journey here, if there is one, is basically a near-random walk, one that is leaving footprints in the sands of internet bitrot, much of it in a medium — old-fashioned blogging — that many have already written off as dead.

Memento mori, I suppose. One can only start new things, shut down things that aren’t sustainable, and keep going. I’ve sort of 99% decided to shut down Refactor Camp (the conference) unless someone really wants to take it over. I’m also personally withdrawing from running the Refactor Camp Mastodon server (refactorcamp.org), but someone may be taking that over. Earlier this year I also shut down the Tempo blog (though I imported all the blog posts from that here).

Speaking of keeping on keeping on, Bruce Sterling’s Beyond the Beyond blog on Wired is shutting down, and Warren Ellis keeps writing about projects starting and dying. The writing life is full of creative destruction, whether you’re a D-list blogger or an A-lister award-winning novelist or comic-book writer. There’s no escaping it.

Weirdly enough, at the other end, that of extreme fragmentation, over the last few years Twitter has turned into a really useful way for me to commit to, and track, long-term activities spanning multiple individual projects. I now either run or help run eight twitter accounts. I took a shot at organizing them into a 2×2 that has lately been particularly fertile for me: realist vs. escapist, useful vs. useless.

This is in a way a much more complete view of everything I am up to, as a bundle of live log-level streams. But obviously it’s also much harder to keep up with. I think some of my best thinking in the last few years has happened on twitter, particularly on my main @vgr account, but I’ll be damned if I can ever unravel that mess of threads good and bad, shitposts, and bon mots.

The quadrant that is proving most resistant to assimilation by the Ribbonfarm Blogamatic Universe (RBU) is the Useless-Escapist quadrant. But I’m sneaking up on it, with help from some collaborators. My buddies Dan Schmidt and Zac Reid are helping me creep up on it from one flank, via a 3D maze game we’re developing. On the other flank, the Scorpio Season podcast I’m doing with Lisa Neigut is helping me creep up on it with a strict weekly regimen of alphabetical-order audio shitposting.

My newest and youngest personal activity stream commitment is the @basicmansion twitter account, at the heart of the escapist+useless quadrant, where my personal Everest lies. This is sort of my stake in the ground for a somewhat sprawling science fiction project that began with my short story The Liminal Explorer of the Adjacent Possible in 2016. At the moment, 90% of it only exists as notes.

One day, maybe I’ll figure out how to think about the gestalt of my life and it will all make sense. On that day, I should probably retire. But until then, this chaotic mess roles along, trying to make sense of itself one ebook at a time, one twitter account at a time, one new digital medium at a time.

Leaking into the Future

Liminality is hard to navigate, and one can be forgiven for flailing gracelessly when attempting to do so. What makes me impatient though, is people not even recognizing liminality when it is all around them. People continuing to march into non-existent futures, like non-playable characters (NPCs) in video games making walking motions with noses pressed up against impenetrable walls. When there’s masses of such people all around, the liminal turns into the surreal. I made up a visualization to try and get at this sense of surreal mass obliviousness to liminality.

It’s not complete, and you could argue with the particular patterns of forks and merges I have illustrated, but the important thing is the topological structure, and the cowpath-like tracks leaking away from the entire paved system, in a fundamentally new direction. History hasn’t just been knocked off course; our normal processes for constructing history have been knocked out. What I called the Plot Economy in my March 9 post (has it already been 2 months? Wow!) has shut down. Collectively losing the plot means our ability to keep a constructed sense of historical time going has shut down.

Instead of “progressing” or “declining” into a future mapped out over decades, from within the safety of grand narratives shared with millions, we are leaking into the future, one day at a time, sans narrative support.

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Quarantine Art

I tweeted a sketch of the view from my balcony, from an abandoned project to make a proper art piece, and slashdottir made this rather snazzy quick study out of it. Sometimes twitter is very liminal. Also check out people’s interesting art projects.

Liminality?…Well, there’s a free sample!

One of my favorite jokes in Herge’s Tintin comics is a bit in Prisoners of the Sun (1949), where the Thompson twins ask Captain Haddock what’s in a pile of sacks on the dock labeled “guano.” The captain umms and ahhs a bit, but then a seagull poops on one of the Thompson twins’ hats, and the Captain brightens up, having been handed the perfect short answer: “Guano?… Well, here’s a free sample!”

For those wondering why sacks of bird droppings would be on a dock, guano was once a major industrial commodity, an input for nitrogen fertilizers and explosives. The rise of Chile saltpeter as an alternative, and the adoption of the Haber-Bosch process after World War 1, slowly made it obsolete.

A few years ago, I was challenged by a Twitter friend to explain liminality, and I came up with a thread in response that I think is still roughly right. But if I were asked today, I would gesture vaguely at the world around and say, “Liminality?… Well, there’s a free sample!”

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Now Reading: Pandemic Edition

Just updated my Now Reading page. I have suspended my regular reading queue for the most part (except for continuing to work through Terry Pratchett) and made a special section for Pandemic reading. Here’s a quick rundown on what I’ve been reading/plan to read, and why.

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Pandemic Dashboard: 3

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series State of the Pandemic

Unanticipated Consequences

Accidents down, so insurance companies refunding some premiums. Billboard advertising down because nobody out to look at them. Crime down.

Beyond Fat and Lean

Food getting tossed at farms while people face shortages. Toilet paper panic is partly legit because office/commercial toilet paper supply chain is different.

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Pandemic Dashboard: 2

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series State of the Pandemic

Flattening the Curve

We’ve moved on from the innumeracy edition to the “spot the inflection” phase as bureaucrats everywhere try to solve for the flattening and claim success.

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Scorpio Season: A New Talk Show

My friend Lisa (@niftynei) and I decided to start a talk show. It’s called Scorpio Season, since we’re both scorpios. You can subscribe to it as a podcast, or watch/listen it on YouTube. At the moment the video version is just the two of us as talking heads, but we might throw in some graphics in future episodes.

Scorpio Season is a show about everything… in alphabetical order. Since we both have a lot of random little interests that are all over the place, we figured it would be a good, discordian disorganization scheme for our improv ramblings.

The first three episodes, A-C are up.

The first two episodes featured A for Astrology and Aesthetics, and B for beefs, bitcoin, and Biden/Bernie. If we get to 26 episodes, we’ll cycle back to A. As you might guess, in the most recent one, there’s a lot of C for Coronovirus here, but also C for Cartoons.

The next episode is D: for David Deutsch, Doja Cat, and Dark Age. That will be up soon.

Pandemic Dashboard: 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series State of the Pandemic

I’m starting a new blogchain to track the COVID-19 pandemic, in a new, modular, block-based format. Each part will be a variable number of tweet-sized status assessments in titled blocks, coded red/green/yellow, like so:

Flattening the Curve

The innumeracy of the initial versions has given way to an appreciation of the actual level to which the healthcare system will be overwhelmed, but no actual solution.

I call this format a blocktrace dashboard: a dashboard in the form of a blogchain of blocktraces evolving across parts. For this first dashboard, I have 15 status blocks, most of which I think I’ll be tracking for a while. But most updates will probably be 3-4 blocks. If you want to make your own blocktrace dashboard to track the pandemic (or anything else), scroll to the bottom for the how-to. It’s really easy in WordPress.

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Domestic Cozy: 12

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Domestic Cozy

Ever since the coronavirus crisis broke out, multiple people have been telling me I “called it” with this domestic cozy blogchain. I didn’t. What I did call out is a longer-term soft trend caused by unrelated forces — social, cultural, and economic — that happens to be eerily well-harmonized with the necessary hard response to a pandemic. We’re entering an enforced condition of what I call hard cozy, which is acting like a strong tailwind for the domestic cozy trend already underway. This picture popped into my head thinking about our current state (I’m also reminded of my 2014 post, Demons by Candlelight).

Enforced or voluntary, soft or hard, one way or another a vast fraction of humanity is suddenly being forced to discover The Great Indoors.

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