Flying Blind into the Anthropocene

For several days, Seattle has been enveloped in wildfire haze, with an air quality index (AQI) between 150-200, coded red for unhealthy. For these few days it has been among the most polluted cities on the planet. Many of us learned for the first time about N95 masks, which are rated to keep out 95% of 3 micron particles. Supposedly an AQI of 150 is equivalent to smoking 7 cigarettes a day.

Photo credit: Sean McCabe in Vanity Fair

It struck me that we’ve been doing the everyday equivalent of piloting an airplane on instruments. Weather reports, AQI numbers, mask ratings, and metaphoric comparisons to cigarettes have been more useful for guiding behavior than direct sensory evidence. Even the knowledge that we are breathing wildfire haze rather than some other sort of less harmful smog is based on on instruments, since the actual fire is in Canada, too far away for the smell of burning to carry.

Though there has been direct sensory evidence — being outside felt like being in an awful smoke-filled bar, the sunsets have been a lovely red, and visibility has been poor — the sensory reality has been something like a spectator sport with a very misleading relationship to atmospheric reality and meaningful responses to it. Air quality degrades to harmful levels well before you notice it. You can either believe the reports and numbers, or find out the hard way that going for a run outside is a bad idea. You can either wear the recommended mask, or find out the hard way that being outside for a long time makes you feel ill.

AQI numbers are abstract proxies and open to criticism, but they are not bullshit. They have a detectable relationship to reality. Wearing the masks is a matter of faith in the science, but their efficacy exceeds that of ceremony or superstition. Understanding the numbers and responding by limiting outdoor activity, keeping windows closed, and perhaps wearing masks, is instrumentally rational behavior in a literal sense: it has to do with how we think about reality through instruments.

By this standard, only a small fraction of people in Seattle (many of them tourists from Asia where mask-wearing has been socially normalized) are being instrumentally rational. I have been among the instrumentally irrational. Though we own a mask, the idea of wearing it and standing out made me not wear it, so I came home the other day wheezing and short of breath.

Our condition this week in Seattle has been something of a microcosm of the human condition in the anthropocene. Through a mix of design and accident, we’ve created a novel environment that is at once strongly shaped by human behaviors and highly opaque to normal human sensory modalities. But we haven’t instrumented this environment well enough to make up for our sensory deficits.

Worse, we seem to collectively lack the instrument rating to fly this civilizational airplane.

So we are flying blind into the anthropocene, without the appropriate instrument rating, on a wing and a prayer.

Armpit Futures

I’ve long been on record as an August hater. Recently I decided that August will henceforth be known as Armpit, at least in my head. Armpit is the True Name of August; it is truly the armpit of the year. My greatest fear for the future is that it will be an Eternal August. I call such possible futures armpit futures. Listless, sweaty grey timelines where history just sort of runs out of narrative energy with a whimper rather than a bang, and settles into a shitty plotless equilibrium full of T. S. Eliot’s hollow men that everybody hates, but not energetically enough to do anything about. Sometimes, I think the explanation for the Fermi paradox is simply that it is August all the time, almost everywhere in the universe.

Anyhow, why is August, I mean Armpit, so bad?

Here’s the thing, besides all the obvious things wrong with it (ranging from listlessly ugly, enervated weather  to the ugly social calendar as documented in this David Plotz anti-August rant), Armpit is when people give up on the year. It is the month of abandoned hope. The inescapable liminal passage of refractory ennui you must get through before you can peel yourself off the floor (where you will have been lying sticky and facedown for 31 days) to take another swing at Destiny.

Through the end of July, which vaguely sounds like June and so vaguely feels like you’re still in the first half of the year with a shot at salvaging something, you’re basically fine. Armpit is when you realize it’s too late, but can’t do anything about it. In September, you can formally write off the year as a deadweight loss booked in Q4, reset your horizons and start thinking about the next year or seven.

But for the 31 days of Armpit, if you have a brain, you’re in that sweaty, muggy, hopeless, newsless, atemporal state of mild-to-medium existential despair that is not even severe enough to justify active intervention. Like airplane food that is just short of bad enough to complain about. Where eating it versus going hungry seem like equally bad options. You kinda just have to get through it. It won’t be good no matter what you decide.

Europeans and VCs in America try to put lipstick on the pig by collectively going on “vacation” but as Plotz argues, the good vacation month is actually July. Armpit is when you kind of just take a weak swing at pretending to be alive to keep up appearances, since it is not polite to act dead in the West. Adults have beach-time poisoned by dreading Fall Budgeting Bureaucracy. Kids have their last few weeks of vacation poisoned by looming schoolwork. Nobody is having a good time, and most people don’t even have the energy to pretend.

Anybody who is enjoying Armpit is either clueless, or powered by energy drawn from the dark dimensions. All signs of life in Armpit are hollow and fake, a case of civilizational premium mediocrity on display (not coincidentally, I wrote that post in Armpit last year).

Armpit is awful everywhere on the planet (even the southern hemisphere I suspect), and I think the reason is that it is the truest glimpse we get of the human condition. Yes, we’re most likely to end up in an armpit future, not a dystopian or utopian one. And Armpit is the one month of the year we cannot avoid facing that fact, like Sisyphus in the moment just after he summits and watches the rock wobble portentously.

September is the dawn of new hope. Even the Eternal September of the online world, despite the generally n00b-infested, culture-warring craptitude of it, is tinged with hope and demented stupid energy. October through July we have The Struggle, when we manage to steal a shred or two of dignity from the universe.

Other naturally bad months during The Struggle, like blazing-furnace-hot July and calamitously cold and depressing January, at least have interesting social action going on. Or present the kind of urgent stress you can feel good about tackling head-on and overcoming. The plot is moving along even if most people have lost it.

But Armpit? Pure zombie month. Not even a villain of a month. The entropic heat-death month of the calendar, during which Time may or may not choose to regenerate. Beating August doesn’t even feel like a win.

Enjoy your last week of July. As with every Armpit, there’s a small chance we’ll never come out of it, and end up in an Eternal August armpit future.

Quiver Doodles

I don’t know if this is still true, but I once read about exploited workers in the ship-breaking industry who were worked so hard, and paid so little, they could not even afford to buy enough calories to sustain themselves. They were slowly starving to death. I call this phenomenon entropic ruin, a generalization of the idea of gambler’s ruin to open-ended games that can be non-zero-sum and need not involve gambling. In this case, it’s a deterministic death march. If you systematically consume fewer calories than you expend long term, you will die a premature death.

Entropic ruin gives us an interesting way to measure the quality of a strategy. Here’s a 12-point reference scale based on the idea.  Entropic ruin is represented as a reference circle in all 12 cases. A bunch of arrows shows the set of activities that are trying to outrun ruin. I call the drawings on the scale quiver doodles (think of each as a quiver viewed from above).

Trivially, in the long term, we all face the ultimate case of entropic ruin, death, but what’s interesting about non-trivial cases is that you don’t even beat the house in the short term. So entropic ruin can be defined as predictably dying faster than you need to. No matter what you are doing, you can draw a little circle of entropic ruin around your activities. If you’re inside that circle, you’re heading for premature death.

If you have (or are generating) abundance on every resource you might need in relation to your goals, you don’t need a strategy. The circle can shrink to zero. This is the other end of the spectrum from entropic ruin: entropic flourishing. A wealthy person who is earning more in interest on their capital than they can spend in a day is an example. The scale is really more of a 6-point scale that zig-zags between entropic ruin and flourishing up 6 levels between complete chaos (Brownian motion) to complete order (laser beam).

If you’ve been through the ups and downs of enough projects, the 12 quiver doodles on the scale probably make intuitive sense to you, but let me offer a bit of additional explanation for those who need it.

[Read more…]

Into the Fediverse

As many of you already know, for the last few weeks, we’ve been running a Mastodon instance at refactorcamp.org on a pilot basis, kicking the tires and figuring things out. The requisite technical wizardry is being volunteered by Zach Faddis.

For those who don’t keep up with such things, Mastodon is an open-source, federated variant of Twitter, with a few key differences that make it a something of a quieter, slower-paced, more personal kind of space, somewhere in the twilight zone between private and public, local and global.

We are doing an open enrollment period for the next two weeks (till Tuesday, July 24th). You can register on the home page for an account. After the 24th, you will need an invite link from an existing user to join. If you already have an account on another instance, you can of course follow people on this instance.

But before you do either, please read the rest of this post.  Even if you’re already familiar with Mastodon.

If you do register after reading this, please add some meaningful profile info/tags, follow at least a dozen people, post a quick self-introduction with the hashtag #introduction, and do some tooting.

You don’t need to use your real name, and we have no expectations of minimum activity levels. But Zach, myself, and the rest of the Refactor Camp ICE squad will be kicking out pure lurkers, people with indistinguishable generic profiles, and suspected bot accounts, with extreme prejudice. We intend to run a clean, inviting, and safe joint.

Now for more details.

[Read more…]

Semi-Annual Roundup, 2018

It’s been a relatively slow first half of the year, thanks in part to a busier-than-normal work year for me on the consulting front. Not counting administrative posts, we’ve had 19 “real” posts so far.

Outside of publishing, we did manage to put out the The Art of Longform blogging course though (check it out, $100 for for a solid 6+ hours of video material with plenty of collateral).

We also did the 2018 Refactor Camp on Cryptoeconomics in Austin. I wrote up a glimpse of backstage stuff in the 2018 Annual Letter.

Here’s the roundup, organized by author. Happy 4th of July to US readers!

  1. Near-Deathness (6/21/2018) by Matthew Sweet
  2. The Unapologetic Case For Bullshit (1/18/2018) by Stefano Zorzi
  3. Symmetry and Identity (4/19/2018) by Kenneth Shinozuka
  4. (Don’t) Be the Gray man (2/1/2018) by Patrick Steadman
  5. Justifiable AI (3/13/2018) by Carlos Bueno
  6. Glitches, uh, find a way (1/25/2018) by Carlos Bueno
  7. Notes on Doing Things (5/10/2018) by Sarah Perry
  8. Luxuriating in Privacy (3/1/2018) by Sarah Perry
  9. The Well-Being Machine (6/12/2018) by Sarah Perry
  10. Justice Fantasies (2/8/2018) by Sarah Perry
  11. Cringe and the Design of Sacred Experiences (1/11/2018) by Sarah Perry
  12. Deep Laziness (4/6/2018) by Sarah Perry
  13. Reality Maintenance (5/29/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  14. Chekov’s Gun and the Principle of Sufficient Reason (6/14/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  15. Make Your Own Rules (2/15/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  16. Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre (4/24/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  17. The Key to Act Two (3/29/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  18. A Quick (Battle) Field Guide to the New Culture Wars (3/6/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  19. Boat Stories (1/9/2018) by Venkatesh Rao

Chekov’s Gun and the Principle of Sufficient Reason

I have a sneaky trick I use to figure out the murderer when watching mystery shows. If there’s a random background character — say a doorman or a random neighbor — who gets insufficiently motivated screen time and lines in an early scene, they’re the murderer. If the role is being played by a mildly famous actor rather than a bit-part nobody, then you can be doubly sure. My hack exploits a human-character special case of the fact that good storytellers tend to follow, the Chekov’s gun principle:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

This isn’t an entirely fair trick of course, especially if you use the mildly famous actor clue, since it’s an extrinsic structural clue that’s outside the narrative proper, and one that won’t necessarily lead you to further guess the motive, or means. The lesson of the trick though, is that the assumption that there are no insignificant details in a story (or equivalently, that there is a good author behind the story) is an extremely powerful one. One that allows you to solve the mystery faster than if you had to sort out the significant details (as you would have to in a real murder). Of course, a great author, as opposed to a merely good one will distract you with a plausible alternative explanation for the Chekov’s gun that will lead you astray,.

The fact that Chekov’s gun can be used as a cheat points to why the corresponding idea in metaphysics, the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), made famous by Leibniz, is so controversial.

[Read more…]

Reality Maintenance

The idea that reality is something that is constructed by our minds out of sense experience, and therefore requires design, programming, and maintenance, is a curiously divisive one. To some people — myself included — it is the most obvious, even banal idea in the world; a basic starting assumption required to do any sort of interesting metaphysical thinking. As I’ve argued before, all realities are escaped realities, and the interesting question is, what is the direction/degree of escape?

To others, it is a horrendously toxic attack on all that is Good and True and a French Cultural Marxist Conspiracy Against Enlightenment Values. These people are known as normies.

Setting aside these debates, it’s interesting to try and trace how we construct and maintain realities. Here’s my picture.

Turns out, if you start with sense experience as primary (the blue/gold dress is just the tip of that iceberg of worms) there are at least three distinct well-posed notions of reality — objective, subjective, and social — each of which is best understood in terms of a particular experience of time, or to use a bigger word, a particular kind of temporality. In my previous post on escaped realties linked above, I associated the three with atoms, qualia and bits, but the three kinds of temporality is a more satisfying mapping.

As you might expect, there are Greek gods for all three. Very roughly, you have Chronos for objective time, Kairos for subjective time, and the least-known, Aion, for a sort of outside-of-time eternalism. With each of these notions you get a particular manner of constructing the self (material, introspective, and social), and from that, everything else in the reality gets bootstrapped.

Of course, each of us inhabits a reality that’s a mix of the three kinds of escapism and temporality, so reality maintenance involves ongoing non-degenerate action along all three vectors. Falsification and update of material beliefs is the most familiar kind of reality maintenance (more narrowly referred to as truth maintenance). The other two might be called stream of consciousness maintenance and recognition maintenance.

It is perhaps simplest to think of each kind of reality construction in terms of its associated kind of reality destruction, or death. So you have material death, death by loss of appetite for life (or will to live), and social death by loss of being seen by others in a social reality matrix. I

This gives us 7 degrees of death, based on whether 1, 2 or all 3 kinds of reality maintenance processes have collapsed for you. So there are 6 kinds of zombie, 1 kind of fully alive person, and 1 kind of complete corpse. I’ll leave you to work out the details.

Refactor Camp 2018 Livestream

Just a quick post: Refactor Camp 2018 is currently underway in Austin and you can watch the livestream here.

The Art of Longform

In December 2016, over two weeks, Sarah Perry and I taught the Ribbonfarm Longform Blogging Course to a pilot class of 10 participants. In June 2017, we expanded the course from 4 to 6 sessions, renamed it the Art of Longform, built out a Teachable course site, and taught it to a second cohort of ~30 participants.

The second time around, feeling foolhardy, we decided to record the videoconference sessions.

Then I procrastinated for nearly a year, telling myself I’d learn video editing, auto-tune, and 3d graphics skills, polish the raw videos into TEDdy brilliance, add CGI dinosaurs, and release it as the first episode of the Ribbonfarm Cinematic Universe.

Well, that never happened, but I did manage to upload the raw videos, re-record one segment that I’d lost due to sloppy recording, add some new collateral, and FINALLY put the thing together (with an aesthetic pivot from summer blockbuster to cinéma vérité along the way).

So I give you: The Art of Longform as a self-paced pre-recorded course.

Over 10 years of blogging experience, 650+ longform posts, millions of words, frequent appearances on aggregator front pages, insights from the work of many dozens of contributors, and the lessons of at least a handful of legit memeceptions and viral hits went into the pile of superstitions, magical thinking, and dubious blogging lore that constitutes the metis of ribbonfarm today.

That illegible pile of metis, distilled, legibilized and compacted into ~7 hours of  authoritarian high-modernist cinéma vérité, is the Art of Longform.

Details

The course is currently priced at $100. It currently contains 6h 48min of video content, 6 core slide decks, a handful of collateral documents, and plenty of resource links. I may add more material in the future, and/or update existing material if we do the live course again. The course home page linked above contains a brief intro video, and the syllabus. Some of the collateral material and the participant town hall video from the last session are open for free previewing.

If you enroll and work through the material, you’re welcome to try and make your money back from the course, by pitching us a post. As you might know, contributors receive a $100 honorarium for posts (our editors contribute for free, as befits their status as Gracious Elders Giving Back to the Blogosphere with Gravitas).

My goal with this course is like Thanos’ goal in Infinity War: to bring balance to the universe. Well, balance to the operating cost structure of ribbonfarm at any rate. My cunning plan here rests on the assumption that I’ll be able to use course revenues to completely cover hosting costs and contributor honorariums. We’ll see how that goes.

Course alumni and ribbonfarm editors have discounts codes available to them, so if you know one of the editors or someone who took the live course, you may want to ping them.

If you really, really, want to take the course, but really, really cannot afford it, pitch us a post, and if we like and accept your pitch, we’ll comp you access to the course.

If you’ve EVER contributed a post to ribbonfarm, you can get free access. Just email me.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the ~40 participants of the live course for helping make this happen, as well as editors-at-large Carlos Bueno, Taylor Pearson, Joe Kelly, Renee DiResta, and Kevin Simler for supporting the course by helping edit the participant course essays, and chiming in during the live sessions on occasion, and general background discussions. Carlos also contributed his world famous bird cartoon as course logo.

Special thanks to Evan Thomas, at the time a writing instructor at OSU, for his guest lecture, which added a modicum of credentialed respectability to this extremely shady operation that would totally be an unaccreditable diploma mill if we offered diplomas.

Ribbonfarm School

 

With this first serious offering, I’ve officially taken the plunge and decided to make Ribbonfarm School happen.

Right now, this is the only serious course on there, but more are in the pipeline, starting with the Breaking Smart 101 course based on Breaking Smart Season 1 workshop. I’m putting the finishing touches on that right now. Stay tuned.

And as always, I’m open to suggestions for other courses you’d like to see.

Here’s the Art of Longform course page link again.

Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre

I have a theory about why the notion of an arms race between human and machine intelligences is fundamentally ill-posed: the way to survive and thrive in an environment of AIs and robots is not to be smarter than them, but to be more mediocre than them. Mediocrity, understood this way, is an independent meta-trait, not a qualifier you put on some other trait, like intelligence.

I came to this idea in a roundabout way. It started when Nate Eliot emailed me, pitching an article built around the idea of humans as premium mediocre robots. That struck me as conceptually off somehow, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the problem with the idea. I mean, R2D2 is an excellent robot, and C3PO is a premium mediocre android, but humans are not robots at all. They’re just intrinsically mediocre without reference to any function in particular, not just when used as robots.

Then I remembered that the genesis form of the Turing test also invokes mediocrity in this context-free intrinsic sense. When Turing originally framed it (as a snarky remark in a cafeteria) his precise words were:

“No, I’m not interested in developing a powerful brain. All I’m after is just a mediocre brain, something like the President of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.”

That clarified it: Turing, like most of us, was conceptualizing mediocrity as merely an average performance point on some sort of functional spectrum, with an excellent high end, and a low, basic-performance end. That is, we tend to think of “mediocre” as merely a satisfyingly insulting way of saying “average” in some specific way.

This, I am now convinced, is wrong. Mediocrity is in fact the sine qua non of survival itself. It is not just any old trait. It is the trait that comes closest to a general, constructive understanding of evolutionary adaptive “fitness” in a changing landscape. In other words, evolution is survival, not of the most mediocre (that would lead to paradox), but survival of the mediocre mediocre.

[Read more…]