About Venkatesh Rao

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

Mediocratopia: 4

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Mediocratopia

You’ve probably heard of optimization, that nihilistic process of descending into valleys or ascending up hills till you get stuck, having an existential crisis, and then flailing randomly to climb out (or down) again. Mediocritization is the opposite of that: never getting stuck in the first place. Here’s a picture.

Optimization versus mediocritization
Optimization versus mediocritization

The cartoon on the left is optimization. The descent is a relatively orderly process (“gradient descent” takes you in the local steepest incline direction). The getting-out-again part is necessarily disorderly. You must inject randomness. The cartoon on the right is mediocritization: don’t get stuck.

When people talk of “global” optimization, they usually mean that over a long period, you flail less wildly to get out of valleys because the chances that you’ve already found the deepest valley get higher as you explore more. This process goes by names like “annealing schedule”.

Global or local, the thing about optimization is that it likes being stuck at the bottoms of valleys or the tops of hills, so long as it knows it is the deepest valley or highest hill. The thing about mediocritization is that it does not like either condition. Mediocritizers likes to live on slopes rather than tops or bottoms. The reason is subtle: on a slope, there is always a way to tell directions apart. The environment is different in different directions. It is anisotropic. Mediocritization is an environmental anisotropy maintaining process (not a satisficing process as naive optimizers tend to assume).

Anisotropy is information in disguise. Optimizers get stuck at the bottoms of valleys or tops of hills because the world is locally flat. No direction is any different from any other. There are no meaningful decisions to make relative to the external world because it is the same in all directions, or isotropic. This is why you need to inject randomness to break out (mathematically, the gradient goes to zero, so can no longer serve as a directional discriminant).

Generalizing, in mediocritization, you always want to have a way available to continue the game that is better than random. This means you need some anisotropic pattern of information in the environment to act on.

Three examples of mediocritization:

  1. When Tiger Woods was king of the hill (a position he just regained after a long time), his closest competitors performed worse by about a stroke on average. Apparently, when Tiger is in good form, there’s no point trying too hard. See this paper by Jennifer Brown..
  2. My buddy Jason Ho, who just had this entertaining profile written about him, is on the surface, a caricature of an optimizer techbro. But look again: he trained hard and placed second in an amateur body-building competition, and then moved on to newer challenges rather than obsessing over getting to #1.
  3. When I was in grad school, and occasionally hit by mild panic at the thought of somebody scooping me on the research I was working on, I came up with a coping technique I called “+1”. For any problem, I’d always take some time to identify and write down the next problem I would work on if somebody else scooped me on the current one. That way, I’d hit the ground running if I was scooped.

Carsean moral of the 3 stories: optimization is how you play to win finite games, but mediocritization is how you play to continue the game.

Domestic Cozy: 3

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Domestic Cozy

I increasingly like a thesis I initially resisted: many unusual and toxic culture-war phenomena in nominally public spaces can be understood as an outward projection of a cozy ethos prevailing in domestic spaces. Applying Jungian magical thinking, we should expect this projection to be anything but cozy. The shadow of domestic cozy ought to be a particular pattern of public strife. We should expect this strife to have a recognizably domestic heat signature — the ugly family scene rather than the barroom brawl, soccer riot, or gang war.

When I first tweeted about domestic cozy, Ben Mathes suggested that phenomena like safe spaces and trigger warnings on college campuses, and associated high incidences of depression and anxiety in Gen Z adolescents, ought to be considered an expression of the Zoomer personality. It does seem like the spike in those phenomena coincided with Zoomers starting to enter college. An epimemetic product of a stressful coming-of-age decade, and overprotective (but not necessarily overindulgent) parenting. I resisted the suggestion initially, since it seemed inconsistent with the peaceful domestic expression of the archetype, but I am now on board, via the Jungian argument.

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Weirding Diary: 7

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Weirding Diary

The lament that the United States is turning into a third-world country is at once too pessimistic and too optimistic. What is actually happening is that a patchwork of post-industrial first and fourth-world conditions is emerging against a second-world backdrop.

Here are my definitions:

  • First world: Small, rich European countries. Islands of gentrified urbanism in the US.
  • Second world: Suburban/small-town America, parts of larger European countries, small Asian countries, parts of the Soviet Union before it collapsed, parts of China today.
  • Third world: Countries in global south that began modernizing a century later than Europe, and still have relatively intact pre-modern societal structures to backstop the shortcomings of incomplete industrial development.
  • Fourth world: Parts of the developed world that have collapsed past third-world conditions because industrial safety nets have simultaneously withered from neglect/underfunding, and are being overwhelmed by demand, but where pre-modern societal structures don’t exist as backstops anymore.

The fourth world emerges when large numbers of people fall through the cracks of presumed-complete development, and find themselves in worse-than-third-world conditions: More socially disconnected, more vulnerable to mental illness and drug addiction, with fewer economic opportunities due to the regulation of low-level commerce, and less able to stabilize a pattern of life.

Schemes like LBJ’s Great Society failed to fulfill their promises, but still prevent those facing impoverishment from fending for themselves. The fourth world is the worst of all worlds; an artifact of failed authoritarian high-modernism. A condition of pervasive dependency on non-dependable systems that eliminate old alternatives and limit the growth of new ones. The underbelly of zombie monopolistic safety nets that lack the autopoietic potential to endure through political and economic cycles as living social systems. The functionality withers away, but the negative externalities don’t.

The Great Weirding is revealing that modernization and development are not the same thing. It is a mistake to govern under the presumption that entire populations must necessarily arrive at stable 100% first-world conditions after a transient “development” period. Modernization is the evolution of both wealth and poverty into newer technological forms.

Systems designed for the lowest strata must not assume those strata will eventually go away.

Escaping Reality: Refactor Camp 2019, Los Angeles, June 15-16

Refactor Camp is back! The 2019 edition will be held in Los Angeles, the weekend of June 15-16, at the lovely design studio of Philosophie in Santa Monica. The theme for this year is “Escaping Reality.”

Theme details, registration link and session proposal submission link can be found at the swanky new event website

(it’s the first time in the 7-year history of the event that we’ve had a proper website, thanks to long-time reader Megan).

As you know if you’ve attended before, we’ve always run the event on a no-profit/no-loss basis. The cost this year works out to $95. Registration will remain open until tickets run out. The venue capacity is limited to 120, and as I write this, 63 regular tickets remain (an auspicious 42 tickets were taken during the closed pre-registration period for returning attendees, and we’re holding 15 in our cronyism reserve). The event tends to sell out early, so if you plan on attending, you should register early.

Session proposals are due by April 30, and you can find the proposal submission link on the event site. Earlier is better, and if we get enough proposals early enough, the program may get locked down early, so if you’d like to do a talk or session, get your proposal in as early as you can.

We’re still working out the program details, but as usual there will be a mix of lightning talks, longer talks, interactive sessions, and hopefully a beach outing (outdoor walkabout sessions have always been a feature of Refactor Camp, though we couldn’t do one last year due to it being in the Texas desert with buzzards and rattlesnakes around).

Look for the final program sometime in early May. As with previous years, we’ll be trying to pull together a good mix of returning and new people among both attendees and speakers/session leaders. For now, the theme blurb should give you an idea of what to expect.

This year’s efforts are being led by Darren Kong (who was also a lead organizer last year in Austin), with support from Megan Lubaszka, Patrick Atwater, Nolan Gray, Ryan Tanaka, and myself.

So hope to see a bunch of both new and familiar faces in June. Register and/or submit session proposals here.

Weirding Diary: 6

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Weirding Diary

Weirding is related to uncanniness, as in uncanny valley: a near-subconscious sense of map-territory misregistration. I think there are two varieties, A and B.

Type A uncanniness, which Sarah Perry explored, evokes an “emotion of eeriness, spookiness, creepiness” that you notice instantly, but cannot immediately isolate or explain. Here’s an example:

Human lookalike robot Repliee 2, detail from image by BradBeattie, CC BY-SA 3.0

Type B uncanniness, which Sarah Constantin explored, does not necessarily evoke those emotions, but may provoke a double take. Here are examples from an article on recognizing AI fakes.

Sample faces generated by a GAN, from How to recognize fake AI-generated images by Kyle McDonald

Two increasingly important domains — markets and AI — exhibit both kinds. Free markets and deep learning AIs generate more Type B uncanniness. Markets distorted by regulation, and GOFAI (including humanoid robots) generate more Type A uncanniness.

Kahnemann’s System 1/System 2 model is useful here.

Type A uncanniness is pattern wrongness, detected by System 1, evoking an immediate emotional reaction. If you aren’t fleeing, a slower System 2 response might kick in and supply a satisfactory explanation, and possibly creepiness relief.

Type B uncanniness is logical wrongness (unexpected facial asymmetry or incoherent grammar for example), prompting the double take (and possibly a delayed creeped-out reaction). You have to re-engage System 1 to reconstruct a narrative around the actual prevailing logic rather than the assumed one.

Too-symmetric faces are Type A uncanny. Mismatched earrings on a face are Type B.

Drug prices shooting up 10x suddenly is Type A. Bond markets defying “normal” logic is possibly Type B (I need a better example).

Markets are eating the world, and AIs are eating software. In both, we’re seeing a shift from Type A to Type B. Less creepy, more double-takey. It’s easier to get used to creepy patterns than unexpected logics.

Constructions in Magical Thinking

If you’re one of those sharp-eyed readers who notices such things, you may have noticed that earlier this week, we adopted a new tagline: constructions in magical thinking. We also got a cheery set of new mastheads to go with it (thanks Grace Witherell), which you’ll see in rotation at the top of the site from now on.

In the best traditions of magical thinking, I will now respond to the most Frequently Asked Questions that have never actually been asked about our new tagline, in the hopes that doing so will somehow make them always-already never unasked.

Are you sick of our new schtick yet? No? Well, give it time. We’re sticking with this for the next decade.

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Elderblog Sutra: 5

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Elderblog Sutra

One of the challenges of writing an elder blog is that by definition the archives are extensive, and of very mixed quality. At some point, all formally imposed structure — categories, tags, series, “best of year” or “most popular” lists — buckle under the sheer weight of content. Once you’re past a few hundred posts, with reasonably dense internal back-linking, your only hope for recovering some sort of structure from what is essentially a little walled-garden artisanal web is algorithms. Thanks to John Backus, I have an algorithmic lens on the unkempt wilderness of ribbonfarm for you today.

John mined the archives to compute the internal linking structure, which I then massaged further into an internal page rank for the archives. Here’s a little video of John playing with a graph visualization tool.

 

And here’s the spreadsheet with the mined data. Feel free to make a copy and play around with the data and my PageRank-esque formula, which generates this view of the archives:

The “Adjusted Page Rank” here is a function of three variables:

  1. The number of posts linking to a post. A good post should inspire the author, and hopefully other contributors, to cite it in future posts.
  2. The age of the post. If a post doesn’t accumulate backlinks, it sinks into obscurity. About half the posts in our archives have no backlinks.
  3. The “weight” of the author. Contributors who have written more are weighted less, so Sarah and I have the two lowest weights, at 1.0303 and 1.0037 respectively.

Note that external inbound links are specifically not included in this ranking. This is a purely internal measure. If you want the formulas:

Author_weight = 1+1/(num_posts)

Adjusted Page Rank =  Author_weight*num_links/age

Where num_posts is the number of posts with at least 1 backlink.

Obviously, there’s room for enhancements here, but it’s a start. Thanks John!

Domestic Cozy: 2

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Domestic Cozy

Phrases like domestic cozy and  premium mediocre are what you might call world hashes, fingerprints of worlds. They enable you to instantly classify whether a thing belongs in a world, or is an alien element within it, even before you have characterized the world at any significant level of detail.

Take this picture (a screenshot of the landing page of Offhours.co, an “inactivewear” company, ht Adam Humphreys) for instance: domestic cozy or not?

I’m going to say yes, that’s domestic cozy. It’s not an exact science. The associations with inactivity, indoor life, and comfort over presentability put it firmly in the domestic-cozy world.

There are certainly problems at the margins. The well-groomed look of the model, and the non-messiness of the background suggest there’s a residual element of Millennial premium mediocrity in the positioning. It’s more the fake “good-hair” domesticity of a staged Instagram performance than a representation of a genuinely domestic aesthetic. Maybe they’re trying to get some crossover appeal going.

If I had to fine-tune this graphic to strike exactly the right note, I’d pick a more ordinary looking model, perhaps with properly unkempt frizzy hair and freckles. Maybe  a pile of laundry and unwashed coffee mugs/plates in the background (not disgustingly messy, just TV-messy). Maybe softer, darker evening lighting. Maybe a less glossy, more scruffy visual texture. Maybe a board game next to the model. Maybe a note of anxiety.

Still, close enough. This passes the fingerprint matching test.

Domestic cozy is a world hash that picks out a grammar in a world. As with premium mediocre, domestic cozy is tempting to reductively see as just an aesthetic. But if you like where this going, I suggest you check that tendency, because it makes things so much less interesting. To confuse a world hash with an aesthetic is like saying Sherlock’s Holmes ability to read the clues in his clients’ appearances made him a fashion critic rather than a detective.

This grammar is easiest to pick out in visual elements, but it suffuses all aspects of the world. I’ll save more general theorizing about world hashes for the worlding blogchain, but what does the grammar of domestic cozy tell us about the underlying world? What parts of what it picks out are enduring traits of the generation (remember, Gen Z can expect to live into the next century), and what parts are simply a function of life stage and contemporary conditions?

One thing that strikes me about examples I’ve noticed so far is that they paradoxically combine passivity and sense of play. As Visakan noted in a comment last time, there is a dark note of palliative self-care. Instead of Bruce Sterling’s “acting dead“, what we have here is a kind of playing dead. Instead of favela chic, we have mortuary chic.

This is an aspect that, I predict, will not endure. It is an artifact of life stage and 2019 conditions, not the generational temperament.

But the playfulness will mature into a more alive version of itself.

Worlding Raga: 3 — Slouching with God

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Worlding Raga

Last week, my wife and I watched the new Captain Marvel movie. It strikes a slightly quieter note than the typical Marvel Cinematic Universe romp, and it occurred to me that that’s because the character is arguably the most powerful in the MCU, like Superman in the DC universe. She’s more like a god than even Thanos or Thor, so the usual wisecracking smart-assery would have struck a false note.

A line in Ian’s Worlding Raga episode last week, What is a World, leaped out at me in relation to this:

This voluntary desire to surf chaos, metabolize it into new order, and then do it all over again, is sometimes called “walking with god.” Maybe it’s more like slouching with god around here.

In the MCU, Nick Fury walks with many gods, and Captain Marvel appears to be the most powerful of the lot, which is why Fury sends a prayer-pager call out to her as his last act in Infinity War. Presumably she’ll play a key role in defeating Thanos in Endgame.

Since I’ve been jokingly referring to Ribbonfarm and its surrounding web zone as the “Ribbonfarm Blogamatic Universe” (RBU), Ian’s characterization immediately provokes the question: am I Captain Marvel or Nick Fury in the RBU? I hope I’m not Hawkeye.

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Weirding Diary: 5

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series Weirding Diary

In the South Lake Union part of Seattle, where Amazon has its campus, there is a “community banana stand” where anyone can grab a banana for free. Each time I walk by, I read the sign as a philosophical suggestion for the Weirding. When the going gets weird, the weird go pro, but normies go bananas.

But there’s a deeper lesson in the banana stand.

Most people (including me) who grab a banana are not exactly needy, so to the extent “community” suggests a representative sample of Seattle, including the poor and homeless, the banana stand is in the wrong place. It’s a perk for tech-workers, and the service class surrounding it, with a bit of communitarian lipstick.

As elite hypocrisies go, this one is pretty benign, and I’m happy to participate in it. But why do we even need it? Why narrativize free bananas as a “community” perk.

I think the answer lies in the is-ought fallacy operating among elites to counter-program a self-awareness of their own mediocrity: “These free bananas, which we share out of noblesse oblige, demonstrate our exceptional nature!”

This is an elite rationalization, but the urge to deny rather than embrace a sense of mediocrity is a human universal. In fact, I would define normie as “somebody with an urge to deny their mediocrity.”

Mediocrity denial is using exceptional environments to “prove” your exceptional nature to yourself. It leads to bad theories of weird worlds.

The mediocrity-embracing solution, which is a necessary condition to go pro weird, is to resist the urge to ideologically narrativize bananas. Grab a free banana when you can, pay for your banana when you must.

Weirding and mediocrity are entangled in my head. I haven’t entirely sorted out how, but one dimension is certainly the is-ought fallacy in identity formation.