Berliners #5: Grandparents


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Can You Hear Me Now?

The fundamental question of life, the universe and everything is the one popularized by the Verizon guy in the ad: Can you hear me now?

This conclusion grew out of a conversation I had about a year ago, with some friends, in which I proposed a modest-little philosophy I dubbed divergentism. Here is a picture.


Divergentism is the idea that as individuals grow out into the universe, they diverge from each other in thought-space. This, I argued, is true even if in absolute terms, the sum of shared beliefs is steadily increasing. Because the sum of beliefs that are not shared increases even faster on average. Unfortunately, you are unique, just like everybody else.

If you are a divergentist, you believe that as you age, the average answer to the fundamental Verizon question slowly drifts, as you age, from yes, to no, to silenceIf you’re unlucky, you’re a hedgehog and get unhappier and unhappier about this as you age. If you are lucky, you’re a fox and you increasingly make your peace with this condition. If you’re really lucky, you die too early to notice the slowly descending silence, before it even becomes necessary to Google the phrase existential horror.

To me, this seemed like a completely obvious idea. Much to my delight, most people I ran it by immediately hated it.

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Berliners #4: Cactus and Weasel


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The Berliners #3: Sparring Session


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Distinctions and Differences

The Rumsfeld epistemology of ignorance, along with Taleb’s popular expositions of it, has been one of the more useful additions to the zeitgeist in the last decade. Here’s my 2×2 version, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock since 2003.


This is possibly the most basic map of external, objective realities you can make up.

I’ve long felt that it should be possible to make an equally basic map of internal, subjective realities. I think I have one now.

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The Berliners #2: This is Important

This is important

Climate Change Op-Ed

No long essay this week on ribbonfarm, but I just had an op-ed appear on The Atlantic site, a piece on climate change that’s a response to the (excellent) Bill Gates interview in the print issue.

Why Solving Climate Change Will Be Like Mobilizing for War

What Gates and others are advocating for is not so much a technological revolution as a technocratic one. One for which there is no successful peacetime precedent. Which is not to say, of course, that it cannot work. There is always a first time for every new level of complexity and scale in human cooperation. But it’s sobering to look back at the (partial) precedents we do have.

Go read the whole thing.

I have to thank Sam Penrose and Jim McDermott for helping me think this piece through.

I also strongly recommend the writing of David Roberts on Vox (also this piece on Grist) if you want to dive deeper into the climate change rabbit-hole. Given the length constraint (it’s a ~2000 word piece), I couldn’t fit in all the interesting things I learned research this article.

Some of my recent off-ribbonfarm writing has been a new kind of fun because I’ve taken legible political positions, which I rarely do here. In Breaking Smart, I took a fairly standard libertarian position. Here, I’m taking a left-of-center liberal position. I suppose one of these days, I’ll argue a classic conservative position. Very un-American to pick a side (or not) depending on the specifics of an issue rather than fixed tribal loyalties, but what can I say. I prefer my politics a la carte. 

One learning from doing this off-ribbonfarm stuff is that when political positions are so obviously telegraphed, 80% of readers react very quickly (either negatively or positively) based on the first few dogwhistle phrases they spot. So all nuance is lost. But it’s a good way to filter for people who are worth talking with, since they tend to read more fully and attentively.

The Berliners #1


Introducing The Berliners, an experimental ribbonfarm comic strip inspired by (but not limited to) Isaiah Berlin’s Fox and Hedgehog. Drawn by Grace, written by Venkat. Please bear with us while we both learn the craft.

Alice and Bob Discover Capitalism

Capitalism has historically been defined by its opponents rather than its proponents, and in terms of its consequences rather than its mechanisms. Specifically, it tends to get defined primarily in terms of its intended malicious effects and unintended/unaccounted damaging effects: oppression and social costs.

To navigate by such definitions is to deeply misunderstand the nature of the beast, so I want to propose a definition of capitalism (or if you prefer a less loaded term, commerce) in terms what I will argue is its essential mechanism:

Capitalism is the indirect manipulation of illegible human relationships, through the peaceful manipulation of decision contexts.

In practice, capitalism often operates with directness and violence, but the point of this definition is to get at the sine qua non that distinguishes it from other societal mechanisms. The role of “capital” is actually peripheral, since capital plays a role in defining the mechanisms of politics, kinship and war too.

The central fact about the mechanism of capitalism is that it needs neither capacity for direct action on a system, nor violent means, to influence it. This is not just a claim about an idealized model of capitalism: it is a claim about the real thing. Capitalism in our world has arguably gotten less direct and less violent over time. Today the visible motif that best captures the spirit of capitalism is not the East India Company warship, but advertising: messaging mechanisms that work to shape the background context of decisions.

Let me attempt an exegesis of my definition with a parable about the It Couple of geekdom, Alice and Bob.

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What is the Largest Collective Action, Ever?

I’ve lately become interested in the question of climate change from the perspective of the scale of organizational capabilities that are emerging globally to tackle it (a question that exists and matters whether or not you believe climate change is real). I came up with this conceptual graph to think about it. I’ll explain my capability measure in a minute.

Screenshot 2015-09-29 14.02.54


In some ways, “dealing with climate change” is the largest, most complex collective action ever contemplated by humans. Here I don’t mean collective action in the leftist sense of a political coalition based on egalitarianism and solidarity. I mean any kind of large-scale action involving coordination (not getting in each other’s way), cooperation (not working at cross-purposes), collaboration (combining efforts intelligently) and conflict (structured adversarial interactions encompassed by the system  to allow net action to emerge from a set of warring ideologies), in a politically neutral sense. Everything from weaponized sacredness (think the Pope’s statements on climate change) to war and unmanaged refugee crises can fit into this broad definition, but as I’ll argue, it’s not so broad as to be useless.

So the definition includes everything from the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China to the Normandy landings in WW II, the building of Standard Oil, the modern bond market, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Historically, the “peak-load capabilities” of our biggest collective action systems have been expanding steadily, modulo some ups and downs in the interstices of imperial ages, since the Neolithic revolution and the first pot-sized granary.

The interesting question is, what are those “some ways” in which a response to climate change futures is unprecedented, and what does that imply for the likelihood of it succeeding?

A useful way to focus this question is to ask what is the largest collective action, ever, and how much of a stretch are we talking to respond to (say) a speculative 2-degree rise scenario?

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