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 7 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 5 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 6 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 9 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.

Mediocratopia: 3

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Mediocratopia

Mediocrity is, rather appropriately, under-theorized.  An upcoming book by David S. Milo, Good Enough (ht Keerthik), seems set to make it a little less undertheorized. The subtitle is inspiringly underwhelming: The tolerance of mediocrity in nature and society.  Reader Killian Butler sent me this post on being mediocre. Our movement is really slouching along now.

There is a paradox at the heart of mediocrity studies: excellence is not actually exceptional. If you see an excellent behavior or thing, it’s likely to be a middling instance at its level. The perception of exceptionalism is an illusion caused by inappropriate comparisons: you think it is a 99 percentile example of Level 3 performance, but it’s really a median example of Level 4 performance.

Changing levels of performance is self-disruption. The moment you hit, say, the 60% performance point on the current S-curve of learning, you start looking for ways to level up. This is the basic point in Daniel F. Chambliss’ classic paper, The Mundanity of ExcellencePeople who rise through the levels of a competitive sport do so by making discrete qualitative changes to level up before they hit diminishing returns from the current level. This process of leveling up, has less to do with striving for excellence in the sense of exceptional performance, and more to do with repeatedly growing past limits. The visibly excellent are never at a local optimum.

In Age of Speed, skier Vince Poscente claims he won primarily by practicing his skills at a level above the one he was competing at. So during actual competition, he could win with less than 100% effort.

Making winning a habit is about making sure you’re always operating at a level where you have slack; where you are in fact mediocre. If you’re being pushed towards excellence, it’s time to find a new level.

Domestic Cozy: 1

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Domestic Cozy

I made a prediction on Twitter on February 6th: If Millennials (b. 1980 – 2000) were the premium mediocre generation, Gen Z (b. 2000 – 2020) is going to be the domestic cozy generation.

I was waiting for the perfect image to start blogging the idea, and last week supplied one: the Celestial Buddies plush toy that rode on the Crew Dragon test flight. The symbolism is perfect: an oddly satisfying little squeezable nugget of comfort within the disorienting, weird domesticity of a spaceship.

Domestic cozy is in an attitude, emerging socioeconomic posture, and aesthetic, that is in many ways the antithesis of premium mediocrity. Unsurprisingly, it takes its cues from the marginal shadow behaviors of premium mediocrity.

It finds its best expression in privacy, among friends, rather than in public, among strangers. It prioritizes the needs of the actor rather than the expectations of the spectator. It seeks to predictably control a small, closed environment rather than gamble in a large, open one. It presents a WYSIWYG facade to those granted access rather than performing in a theater of optics.

Premium mediocre seeks to control its narrative. Domestic cozy is indifferent both to being misunderstood and being ignored.

Instagram, Tinder, kale salads, and Urban Outfitters are premium mediocre. Minecraft, YouTube, cooking at home, and knitting are domestic cozy. Steve Jobs represented the premium that premium mediocrity aspired towards. Elon Musk represents the relaxed-playfulness-amidst-weirdness at the heart of domestic cozy.

Premium mediocre looks outward with a salesman affect, edgy anxiety bubbling just below the surface. Domestic cozy looks inward with a relaxed affect. A preternaturally relaxed affect bordering on creepy. One best embodied by the rise of the ASMR-like sensory modality (which even the NYT has noticed) that has come to be known as oddly satisfying.

Premium mediocrity is the same everywhere, every patch of domestic cozy is domestic cozy in its own way.

Premium mediocrity expends enormous energy preserving the illusion of normalcy. Domestic cozy slouches into the weirdness and simply ignores it, preferring to construct sources of comfort rather than trying to make sense of the weirdness in the environment.

Premium mediocrity strains to pretend it understands what is going on. Domestic cozy openly acknowledges it has no clue, and simply seeks to preserve equanimity, if not sanity. Premium mediocrity is edgily neurotic. Domestic cozy is blissfully psychotic.

As an aesthetic, domestic cozy superficially resembles the hipster aesthetic. There is a focus on craft and production, and it can appear artisan-like due to the focus on small, individual scale. The key differences are that the locus of the aesthetic is domestic rather than public, and it has no particular affection for retro traditionalism. Both knitting and Minecraft can be domestic cozy.

The key is that the activity must be conducive to an oddly satisfying state of mind within the weirding.

The oldest Z’s are just about enter adulthood. Unlike premium mediocrity, which I called at its peak, I’m calling domestic cozy just as it is getting started. So I’ll track it as a blogchain.

Worlding Raga: 1

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Worlding Raga

I have found a new evil twin, my first new one in a decade. His name is Ian Cheng and he is an artist. In my 2009 post on evil twins, I defined an evil twin as:

“…somebody who thinks exactly like you in most ways, but differs in just a few critical ways that end up making all the difference. Think the Batman and the Joker”

Back then, I identified Nassim Taleb and Alain de Botton as my evil twins. I have since demoted Taleb to mostly harmless, and de Botton seems to have diverged from me. I did tentatively add Bruce Sterling in 2016, but he is really more like an evil uncle than an evil twin. I tried making Sarah Perry an evil twin, but she’s neither evil enough, nor twinny enough.

But Ian is definitely a new evil twin, starting with the fact that he crafts a mean 2×2. This one, from his art book, Emissaries Guide to Worlding, is an A+. Tag yourselves, I’m obviously top right, “emissary to the WORLD.” Portal art is the perfect term for what I like to do.

Ian’s primary interest right now is what he calls worlding, and mine is what I call escaped realities. James Carse’s notion of finite and infinite games is a foundation for his current thinking, as it is for mine. He appears to take Philip K. Dick’s definition of reality as “that which does not go away when you stop believing in it” as a personal affront, as do I.

There is even a very evil-twin story to how I encountered Ian’s work (I haven’t met him yet).

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Elderblog Sutra: 4

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Elderblog Sutra

The idea of hypertext trails predates the internet. Vannevar Bush envisioned trails and trailblazing as early as 1945, in As We May Think.

I am part of a long tradition of trying and failing to build trails technology. I led a team at Xerox that built a product, called Trailmeme (2008-12, RIP), that created navigable, visual trail maps of web content that looked like this.

It was a lovely product that did exactly what I wanted. We just couldn’t find a way to sustain it.

Failures stay with you in a way successes don’t. I’m still licking my wounds from that failure, but I’m also still trying to figure trails out. So are others. Every couple of years, somebody takes a fresh tilt at the problem and fails. One part of my elderblogging experiments is a second serious stab at trails, this time from the content side rather than the technology side.

The closest we’ve ever come to trails has been the special case of chronological ordering, which eventually became the stream UX metaphor. But piggybacking chronology as a way to get to trail-based organization is not only limiting, it is a kind of cheating. Like floating down a river, but pretending to be moving under your own power.

The best generalized embodiment of trail-based organization can be found on blogs, in the form of post series. But such series rarely go beyond 2-3 parts.

But we’re close to cracking trails. The key breakthrough has been the rise of threads on Twitter (an invention arguably attributable to Marc Andreessen). Twitter threads are genuine trails, even though they’re confined to a single platform. They are not chronological sequences. The key idea: trail-like structure is created during the act of authoring, not as part of subsequent curation. The trail authoring and blazing problems are coupled.

Weirding Diary: 4

This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series Weirding Diary

The Things Fall Apart series on Epsilon Theory is an excellent exploration of the Great Weirding, particularly the “As Above, So Below” principle:

“As Above, So Below” means that our social lives are organized as a fractal, that when there is disorder in the heavens or the seats of worldly power, so is there disorder in our communities, our families, and our personal lives.”

Case in point: Recently, a Starbucks I used to frequent closed. The story was obvious to regulars: it had become an urban deadzone, more attractive to the homeless than to laptop warriors.

Over several years, the store deteriorated. You would often find homeless men parked in armchairs for hours, nursing a single grimy cup. Once, one such man got out of his armchair, and there was a pool of what I could only hope was water under him. He flipped the cushion over and left. Going to the restroom increasingly meant finding a homeless person washing up. I observed the Schelling sorting effect play out to the end, as the clientele drifted to the sort better served by a McDonald’s.

The Starbucks menu has a digital soul. It is a combinatorial consumption feast at the end of a global supply chain weaving its way from plantations, through factory-scale roasteries that  tame natural variety to nail a consistently mediocre taste year after year, to the cups of us cloud mice.

Starbucks stores, however, are firmly situated in meatspace, canaries in the neourban cores of the Weirding at the “below” end.

Today, I’m working out of a Starbucks in laptop-warrior zone, because the other Starbucks I frequent is also closed, for President’s Day, a surreal holiday that makes no sense in the flexwork economy embodied by Starbucks. And Howard Schultz is running for President.

As above, so below.