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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A Glitch in the Theocratic Matrix

When I was a kid — I was about 12 I think —  and relatively new to atheism and its social burdens, I had a little run-in with a sincerely religious classmate. He simply would not believe that my non-belief in religion was even possible. He was sure I was lying or being provocative for the hell of it. As a test, he pulled out a little picture of his favorite god from his wallet, and dared me to tear it up. I did, and he was suitably shocked. After a moment of stunned speechlessness, he said something weak, like “err… oh wow!”

I was reminded of this little episode when a little clip from CNN did the rounds a couple of days back. It features a religious conservative being visibly stunned speechless by the revelation that you do not need to swear on the Bible to assume an elected office in the United States. Ted Crockett really appeared to believe that a Muslim politician could not hold office because “You have to swear on a Bible to be an elected official in the United States of America…a Muslim cannot do that, ethically, swearing on the Bible.”

Like my old schoolmate, this guy was genuinely shocked to learn he was wrong in a fairly trivial way. Unlike my old schoolmate, however, we’re not talking about a 12-year old boy. We’re talking about a man who appears to be in his late fifties or sixties, and has held an elected office.

Like many others, once I was done chuckling, I found myself wondering: how is it even possible to arrive at, and hold, this particular sort of bizarre false belief, about swearing-in ceremonies being necessarily tied to the Bible in a non-theocratic state?

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Prolegomena to Any Dark-Age Psychohistory

When I think about history, the picture in my head is that of a roiling canvas of many choppy, intertwingled narrative streams, enveloped by many-hued nebulous fogs of mood and temper. Star-like cosmic irruption-events, ranging from discoveries to disasters, wink through from the void, disturbing the flow of human affairs and forcing steering imperatives onto those living through them. The picture is as much a portrait of a sentimental sense of history, as it is a map of an unfolding gestalt of events.

When I try to capture this poetic mental image in a drawing however, all I get is the kind of crappy cartoon you see below.

It’ll  do to get the idea across though. This particular sample from my doodle files is what contemporary American history looks like to me today: a generally well-defined low-fog Blue story, getting interrupted by less well-defined, high-fog Red tendrils.

It is this kind of image that is conjured up for me when I ask myself the question many are asking today: Are we in a Dark Age?

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CEOs Don’t Steer

There is a pattern to the most influential business writing, in The World is Flat league. Especially writing that CEOs seem to like enough to exhort their organizations to read. Every such work offers one big, unqualified, unquantified, universal proposition. Usually with an obvious black-and-white moral assessment attached as an implied parenthetical [and this is a good thing]. The proposition will typically offer a big generalization covering a really vast range of things going on in the environment: An extreme, if very lossy, compression.

There are no if…then…else conditions attached. There are no temporal markers or spatial delimiters like this will be true between 2017 and 2022 in the developed world.

Compare:

The World is Flat [and this is a good thing] 

to

Under Certain Assumptions, the World Will Likely Continue Flattening for Approximately at Least Another Decade, and This Is a Probably a Good Thing.

This pattern isn’t mere rhetorical pithiness in the title or a distaste for weasliness. It permeates the entire idea being offered. And it exists as a consequence of a CEO trait:

CEOs Don’t Steer [and this is a good thing].

Big business ideas are the way they are because they are designed to feed and nourish this CEO trait. It’s a proposition that, at first sight, sounds both wildly untrue and something that would be really bad if it were true.
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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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