Refactor Camp Livestream This Weekend

Day 1 Live Stream recording

Day 2 Livestream recording

Just a heads-up that Refactor Camp 2019, on the theme of Escaping Reality, is this weekend in Los Angeles, on Saturday and Sunday. We have a great program lined up, and there will hopefully be a live stream if there are no technical glitches (update: WE DID! Livestream recordings embedded above!). You can follow the @ribbonfarm twitter account and the #refactorcamp2019 hashtag to review the conversation.

We should also have video recordings of most of the talks available a few weeks after the event.

Mediocratopia: 5

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series Mediocratopia

In a world that runs on ceremonial expectations of optimal performances, but where it is rarely in your best interests to actually deliver optimal performances, practicing mediocrity necessarily involves capability masking: the act of hiding the true extent of your capabilities.

Capability masking is the opposite of “fake it till you make it” behavior, and comes in two varieties, illustrated below, both of which are involved in the behavior commonly referred to as sandbagging.

Capability masking has to be done in a subtle way. You can’t just pick a suboptimal performance level that’s in your own best interests and then nail it precisely without breaking a sweat. Sandbagging is an artistic performance, not a throttle setting, and it’s worth learning to do well.

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The Age of Diffraction

There’s a state of mind that’s been increasingly common for me lately, which I can only describe as a sense of being outdoors in time during inclement temporal weather. I’ve been searching for the right metaphor to describe this feeling, and I think it is the feeling of being diffracted. Like being a hapless, innocent electron being tortured through the famous double-slit experiment. Here’s a cool animation I found on Wikipedia (physics would have been so much more fun if these sorts of animations had been available when I was learning this stuff).

Animation by Jean-Christophe BENOIST at French Wikipedia. [CC BY-SA 3.0]

If your state of mind is normally like that of a particle — you are here and now, thinking about this, doing that, with some uncertainty around it all — being diffracted is feeling like a wave. Like you’re in multiple states at once, with those states interfering with each other in ways that creates subjective dyschronia or timelexia.

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Weirding Diary: 8

This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series Weirding Diary

Elections in India and EU, and the US-China trade war, have sparked a fresh round of prognostications in my feeds, on the expected length of the global reactionary swing. Here’s a thread of representative opining from Yascha Mounk.

Weirding is not the same thing as the global rightward swing, but I believe it is going to be co-extensive in time with a generation of extremist politics, with the initiative sparking back and forth between far right and far left across the horseshoe gap, with far right having the overall advantage. Centrist positions are underwater in terms of viability.

I’ve come up with an estimate of my own: the weirding will last another 21 years, or until 2040. Counting from 2015, that makes it a 25 year half-cycle, which triangulates well with the 25 year neoliberal half cycle that came just before, making for a 50-year full cycle. If I’m right, I’ll be 66 by the time we’re done with the weirding, so I might as well get comfortable.

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Domestic Cozy: 5

This entry is part 5 of 7 in the series Domestic Cozy

Drew Austin devotes the latest issue of his excellent Kneeling Bus newsletter (highly recommended; a weekly short dose of urbanism, infrastructure etc) to “Inner Wear”:

I like the idea of a leather jacket being a form of armor—the notion that the outside world is a harsh wilderness and clothing is the only layer shielding you from its threats. That is something to be nostalgic about in the present condition, where we’re embedded in layer upon layer of additional protection, and only by artificially engineering those man-vs-nature situations (by getting on a motorcycle or going camping) does clothing’s protective role kick in. Marshall McLuhan wrote that “clothing and housing are near twins…housing extends the inner heat-control mechanisms of our organism, while clothing is a more direct extension of the outer surface of the body.” By that definition, cars, too, are a kind of clothing, yet another outer layer, even an exoskeleton…

… Rem Koolhaas observes that “air conditioning has launched the endless building,” and if we’re always effectively indoors, our need for functional outerwear diminishes accordingly.

And his take on what I’ve been calling domestic cozy.

Clothing today is more casual and comfortable than it’s ever been, and the urban environments that once spawned Greenfield’s leather-armor-clad punk rock aesthetic are now the vanguard of Allbirds and athleisure. That shift is easy to gripe about, but it feels like a truer embrace of the clean, safe 21st-century experience, where a climate-controlled escape from the elements is never more than an app-click away.

In other sightings of the domestic cozy idea, Jessica Stillman has a quick mention over at Inc.

Yep. It’s catching on. We’ll make domestic cozy happen and put the darn kids into that box until they work themselves out 😎.

A New Newsletter: The Art of Gig

As some of you already know, I’ve added a new thing to the sprawling Ribbonfarm Media Empire: a paid newsletter on substack ($5/mo or $50/y) called The Art of Gig. To quote myself from the About page:

This is a weekly newsletter for indie consultants who are in the gig economy for the deep fun of it. I took the name, The Art of Gig, from a rather idiotic absurdist short story I wrote about the consulting life a few years ago, which had my regular readers groaning and laughing in equal parts. The phrase itself, as you might guess, is a joke reference to Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

Read the rest of the About page to learn more. I’m now 2 weeks, and 3 issues, into it. The plan is to do at least 1 paid issue a week, and 1 free issue a month. The first issue, 42 Great Imperatives, is free to read. The second and third issues are for paying subscribers only. By way of a teaser, here is a picture of a strategometer, a device I discuss in my most recent issue.

The Strategometer

So far, I have 418 subscribers signed up, of whom 198 are paying subscribers. Clearly, readers of this list are poised to take the consulting world by storm, while funding an early retirement for me 😎.

So if you’re looking to improve your independent consulting game, or hoping to break into it, you may want to consider subscribing to The Art of Gig.

Domestic Cozy: 4

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Domestic Cozy

I came across a phrase in the coverage of the admissions scandals now plaguing several elite US universities: snowplow parenting. The phrase refers to a particular kind of contemporary active parenting that focuses on clearing obstacles from the paths of Gen Z children. The phrase is an interesting hardening of the idea of helicopter parenting, which parents of Millennials were accused of in the 90s.

The difference between helicopter and snowplow parenting is the difference between peacetime social ambition and a wartime circling of wagons around kinship interests.

Helicopter parents, I suspect, fought to give their kids an unfair leg up in a system they saw as essentially meritocratic and fair, during a decade (the 90s) that was widely viewed as prosperous. It was a covered call bet on a society that was perceived to be winning overall.

Snowplow parents, on the other hand, I suspect want to give their kids an unfair leg up in a system they see as essentially corrupt, during a decade and half (2008-24) that they view as a slow collapse. It is shorting of a society that is perceived to be losing overall.

What does it even mean to short society? In the case of university admissions scandals, I suspect it means, “use my wealth and social capital to get my kid a prestigious degree while that still means something.”

Timing is more critical in a short bet after all, and it is easier to justify participating in unambiguous corruption; you can pretend you’re just getting your share of harvestable value from something that’s already dying.

Snowplow parenting is an interesting metaphor. There is the sense of harsh outdoor conditions full of obstacles that require clearing to create comfortable survival conditions.

Winter has arrived. Snow must be cleared to achieve a state of domestic cozy.

Worlding Raga: 5 — World How?

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Worlding Raga

A bit of fun synchronicity. A few weeks ago, I came up with a snowcloned line inspired by a famous tldr of general relativity: narratives tell archetypes how to evolve, archetypes tell narratives how to curve. 1 Right after, I found a Terry Pratchett quote that says almost the same thing, but less ponderously: “Our minds make stories, and stories make our minds.” I prefer my version though, since I like the synaptic link to physics it creates.

Narratives drive archetype evolution (“stories make minds”) through irreversible expansion of awareness of possibilities, via actual instances playing out. Here is a 2×2 of what I think is a good set of answers to the question in my subtitle, world how?

When you ask who worlds? as Ian did last time, you get at archetypes telling narratives how to curve. When you ask, world how? as I am doing this time, you get at narratives telling archetypes how to evolve. The short answer is: through irreversible actions including a very special irreversible action that I’ve plotted in the center of the 2×2: waiting.

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Elderblog Sutra: 6

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Elderblog Sutra

Last time, we took an content graph view of this elderblog. Now let’s take a word-count view. There is something pleasantly honest about word counts. They strike a thoughtful balance between weighing writing in too-literal (compressed file sizes) and too-abstract (post count) ways. Ribbonfarm has averaged 11,491 words/month over its 11.5 year history.

3 month moving average of ribbonfarm word count

The two spikes in 2007 and in 2017 are explained by me flushing out a pile of private drafts when I started, and the publishing of the longform course participant essays respectively. The steady accumulation is even clearer in the cumulative word-count graph:

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Mediocratopia: 4

This entry is part 4 of 7 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.