Touching Transistors

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Ribbonfarm Lab

After a longish break, thanks in part to my stuff being packed away in boxes I was too lazy to unpack because we’re theoretically house-hunting (that’s going slow), I’m finally back tinkering in my lab. A couple of days ago, I fulfilled a teenage dream from the 1980s: Getting an LED to flash using a 555 timer chip.

This is a weirdly anachronistic circuit to build in this brave new age of Arduinos, RPis, and what I’ve come to think of as microcontroller supremacism. But there’s something very fun about doing something with primitive, simple parts and no code (though wiring up a logic circuit is a kind of coding). Making an LED blink without an Arduino is the engineering equivalent of touching grass. Call it touching transistors.

As my younger and more knowledgeable friends tell me, doing electronics this way isn’t a particularly useful skill in today’s technological environment. It’s like using hand tools for wood-working. Borderline quixotic. The “right” way to make an LED blink in 2023 is to write a “blink” program for a microcontroller. Software ate this older style of electronics sometime in the mid 2000s. “Blink” on an Arduino is now the “Hello world” of electronics (I got past that milestone in my learning curve a couple of years ago). Apparently only a few experimental musicians making weird music synth gadgets do things in this 1980s way anymore.

Still, I was unreasonably pleased with myself at making a 555-blinker, and checking off a 35-year-old to-do item. The experience really took me back, and got me thinking about how electronics has evolved since the 80s.


[Read more…]

The Future of the Blogosphere

Two weeks ago, I was trying to finish up a blog post when I noticed a bunch of weird characters showing up in posts. Here’s a sample from Worldly, Yet Carefree:

It turned out to be a fairly complex problem, with roots in the sheer age of this blog (2007) and crud inherited from generations of updates to WordPress, MySQL, and indirectly I suppose, PHP. Turns out, the weird characters were due to UTF8 characters being tagged as latin1 characters, and then re-encoded as UTF8. This was due to MySQL’s history of dealing badly with character sets, and WordPress making janky accommodations for that. The most recent MySQL update finally did something that made an invisible problem a visible one.

My rather expensive hosting service, WPEngine (whose database migration process caused the break, since it was apparently unaware of ancient-blog problems), basically threw up their hands and said they could do nothing after a couple of unhelpful support chats. Finally, Dorian Taylor, with some help from Artem Litvinovich (both of whom have contributed here), figured out what was going on and fixed it. If you’re interested, and able to follow the detailed technical postmortem, head over to Dorian’s post-game analysis (and strident opinions, some of which I share). There are some deeper techno-historical insights there, but the big takeaway for me at a non-technical level is that the blogosphere, like any techno-social hyperobject, is showing its age at all levels. From the lowest technical level to the highest cultural level.

Problems like this will only grow, as various pieces of infrastructure age with more or less grace. The blogosphere has a lot of history at this point, and it’s getting gradually more expensive to deal with, in terms of money, time, skill, and connections (if you don’t have friends like Dorian and Artem, it would actually be non-trivial to find people capable of fixing such problems).

The question is, given these slowly mounting problems and costs, does the blogosphere have a future?

[Read more…]


This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Thinkability

The most idiosyncratic and esoteric visualization I’ve ever made up is the Goat-Crow-Rat triangle, which I first wrote about in Thingness and Thereness (2017). I’m renaming it my Thinkability Map, and this blogchain Thinkability. It is an exploration of the map of all the thoughts I’m capable of thinking (which itself has a place on the map of course). Everything I think about seems to find a natural home on this map. And since I think about a lot of stuff, though not necessarily well, you might find it useful too. It may be clear as mud, but it covers my ground at least. It’s my Hitchhiker’s Guide, and since I’m middle-aged, it’s about half full. Optimistically, I’ve thought about half the thoughts I ever will.

I’ve also been doing some retrospective taxonomizing of my older writing, and I realized that two old posts that were both pretty popular and personal favorites, Welcome to the Future Nauseous (2012) and The Design of Escaped Realities (2014), actually constitute prequels to this whole trail of thought, so I’ve retconned them here. It is really satisfying to see an unconscious thought-trail, developing over more than a decade, finally start to cohere.

This post probably won’t make much sense to you unless you read the most recent three parts first (and optionally, the retconned prequels). After that, there’s a 50% chance it will still make no sense to you. You’ve been warned. This stuff is for ribbonfarm completists with a streak of masochism who don’t mind the sophomoric dorm-room messiness of the inside of my head.

The current state of the thinkability map takes the form of a rather elaborate maze I made with the help of mazemaker Dan Schmidt, which also serves as the cover graphic for my in-progress Clockless Clock book project, for which this map is providing significant but invisible background scaffolding. If you’re following that project, you probably won’t see this this trail of thought explicitly referenced. This is backend tooling that I don’t really know how to talk about in stuff meant for a general audience. It probably needs fictional treatment for that.

I just made a couple of very significant updates to it, to add two things that I’ve been thinking about a lot this year, and I want to talk about one of them in particular, the idea of vastness.

[Read more…]

Worlds in Waiting

I learned the phrase Keep the Lights On (KTLO) several years ago in a consulting gig with a big company, where it’s an official planning term. Projects in that company are spoken of as having a claim to a “KTLO level” budget to keep them alive and at least minimally functional. KTLO level is not the same as maintenance level. Maintenance level investments keep a thing functional at the current level of functional capacity. KTLO activities can sink lower, to hibernation levels of metabolism.

I now think of my activities as being factored into three buckets: living, archival, and KTLO. You probably also have a KTLO bucket even if you don’t call it that. Attention devoted to KTLO activities is dark attention (ironic, huh?). There’s more of it than you probably realize, both in your individual life and in the world.

KTLO is both a set of practices (identifying life-critical processes that constitute the life of a thing and devoting scarce resources to them first) and an interesting sort of goal that says something about your values. We live in a barbell world that focuses visible attention strongly on things that are either obviously dead (but beloved) or obviously thriving and bursting with life. Things that call for either loving preservationist attention or lusty growth attention. This latter category dominates attention overall. Projects that are proceeding at a brisk pace, happening scenes, growth stocks, fads heading towards a peak, and so on.

In the middle are things that are not quite alive, but definitely not dead. I’m not talking about zombie things being kept alive out of sentiment or sunk-cost fallacies. Those are activities you just haven’t admitted are archival. I am talking about things that are sort of adjacent to living, and might enter (or reenter) the realm of the living at any time. This is the universe of KTLO things. KTLO-space, or K-space, is sort of like the dungeon dimensions of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Fantastical things lurk there that might burst into our world at anytime.

There’s a deliciously Lovecraftian quality to K-space. As the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred says:

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.

One relatively well-understood (and non-fantastical) category of such things is options. KTLO for options is a very legible matter. In a market, you have to pay a regular fee to keep an option alive. The longer you keep it alive, the higher the return from a potential payoff has to be for it to be worth it. It is a bit weird to think of options investing as a kind of KTLO, but that’s what it is You’re keeping the lights on in a narrow adjacent possible world of investment outcomes that only a minority of people believe in. You might even be the only inhabitant of the possible world represented by your options portfolio. And investments don’t have to be explicitly structured as options to be KTLO: A stock that’s listed at junk-level prices and barely trading is being held in K-space. The cost there is of course the opportunity cost of being invested in livelier things.

But it’s easier to see the essence of K-space with less legible things. I’m very invested, in more ways than one, in two things that are currently in KTLO mode — the blogosphere and the cryptoeconomy.

The blogosphere has definitely taken a battering from the rise of newsletters (which despite Substack’s efforts to appropriate the term blog, are definitely not blogs), generational churn (blogs are something of a Gen X medium), the rise of competing visual and audio media, and perhaps most importantly, the retreat of the public social web as a means of distribution (in which category I include both RSS as a retail protocol, and Old Twitter). The rise of the Cozyweb as a check on the capture of public spaces is nice, but is not enough to keep the blogosphere out of the KTLO bucket.

But the blogosphere is something that to me is obviously worth putting in the KTLO bucket, as long as something like WordPress exists. I can’t pretend this blog hasn’t taken the backseat to my substack, but I definitely enjoy keeping it going at KTLO levels.

Even without the subscription income, the distribution power of substack alone is priceless in a post-Twitter world. Still, Substack lacks something the blogosphere, even in KTLO mode, still has. Earlier this year, I identified blogs as a saltwater medium where things like Substack (and private platform media in general) are freshwater media. That’s probably part of the logic of why blogs are worth keeping going in KTLO mode. Another part of the logic is the sense of owning over renting. A third part of the logic is that there are forces that have openly declared they’re out to kill blogs in the conventional sense, such as the newsletter industry and the static website industry. I applaud the economic dynamism behind such bloodlust, but I also have a contrarian streak that has me defending blogs simply because there are people determined to kill them. I personally think blogs will outlive most current challengers.

But there’s more to it. I don’t know what, but there’s more than sunk cost and sentiment keeping this blog going. I don’t need to figure it out though. I just need to trust my instincts that there’s a Cthulhu-like creature (Blogthulu?) lurking in the depths of the blogosphere that “can eternal lie.” I’m like a member of one of the degenerate Cthulhu cults that show up in Lovecraft stories.

The cryptoeconomy is a somewhat different beast from K-space. It has historically gone through booms and busts (or “winters”) every few years, and people who’ve lasted in it (and I suppose I’m one of them) tend to trot out “winter” behaviors and keep at it. You could say it pops in and out of K-space as predictably as cicadas (though hopefully this winter won’t last 17 years). Though I have much less personal agency there than in the blogosphere, and much depends on the creative efforts of others, it too feels like something I’ll always want to keep alive in my KTLO bucket.

In both cases, these things belong in my personal KTLO bucket because they are more than projects or subcultures. They are proxies for entire adjacent possible worlds I’d personally like kept alive indefinitely.

Blogs are an indicator species for a world that features a robust public commons. Not just an indicator species, but a charismatic megafauna type indicator species. The health of blogs says things about the health of the public sphere the way the health of polar bears says things about the health of the North Pole. Even where they replicate the affordances of blogs, newsletters and static websites represent other worlds that I don’t care for as much (platform media world and cozy world respectively).

The cryptoeconomy is not yet truly real in the full sense of the idea. Dedicated stans point to trading volumes and the few narrow thriving use cases like global remittances in times of war and strife, but if that’s all that the cryptoeconomy ends up being, regardless of how big it gets and how much market share it takes away from gold and fiat monies, it is not interesting. It is merely a sideshow tent technology. I’ll be happy to bank returns from investments in it, but I won’t be excited about it. The cryptoeconomy is not particularly interesting as an isolated functional technology. It is truly interesting only as a radically different kind of economic-computational-informational foundation for the world. That’s why it belongs in the KTLO bucket through successive winters. That’s why hodling is an act of faith in a world that might be rather than a rational investment management strategy.

There are several other things in my KTLO bucket, and each of them is a proxy for an entire possible world. Cosmopolitan globalism is one. Secularism is another. Modernism is a third. Belief in diversity and pluralism is a fourth. There are non-isms too. Our world is somewhat on-edge and increasingly humorless right now, but humor, as a central phenomenon in the world, is definitely in my KTLO bucket.

Then there are more personal things, like a couple of fiction projects that are in KTLO mode, and the vague ambitions I’m harboring of home mansion-ownership and being a “real maker” who builds robots that can get past the crawling stage. While they are not proxies for worlds that look different to others, they are for me. A world in which I have written one of the novels I want to write, built one of the robots I want to build, and am living in my own home mansion, is very different for me than one where I never escape the gravity well of my current abilities, limitations, and un-mansioned privation.

It is also interesting to think about things that don’t make the cut for the KTLO bucket. I was personally surprised by how unsentimental I was about essentially walking away from Twitter/X. I even had an affectionate Lovecraftian metaphor going for my once energetic posting activity there: Threadthulu. The Threadthulu is dead now, and my Twitter history is an archival project. Turns out, push come to shove, there wasn’t actually a thing that “can eternal lie” lurking under the Twitter surface. As a privately owned corporate platform in the skin of a protocol, the thing simply doesn’t have the kinds of structural depth within which my kind of Ancient Slightly Evil™ can lurk indefinitely. It’s depth-limited by Elon Musk’s social media imagination and corporate debts. Even if he were a very different person, it wouldn’t be any different. The reason Old Twitter was capable of harboring entire worlds was that it was too big to fit the imagination of any one individual. Musk managed to fit it into his imagination by shrinking what it used to be, not by expanding his mind to god-size capacity.

While I’m still nominally present on Twitter, and tweet my links, my activity is definitely far below KTLO levels, and I’m largely indifferent to the rapid algorithmic hollowing out of my once significant reach there (it’s really funny to watch the follower count remain the same while the effectiveness of tweets declines sharply).

If a thing is not a proxy for an entire possible world (or three), it doesn’t go in the KTLO bucket for me, regardless of how big and impressive and alive it seems. That’s perhaps not rational, but I’ve never been particularly rational about such things.

I’d say my current attention distribution is something like 40% living activities, 50% KTLO activities, and perhaps 10% preservationist activities. I’m not much of a sentimentalist or nostalgic, but I’m apparently content to mostly live in the adjacent possible. In worlds-in-waiting that could one day turn into worlds that are.

Stepping back, I do wonder about how much energy the world has in its collective KTLO bucket, and how that is trending. The more we have in there, individually and collectively, the more we’re living in adjacent possible worlds rather than the actual world. This draining of energy is not cost-free for the actual world and those invested in it. Actuality starts to acquire a ghost-like quality when people fundamentally uninterested in its offerings withdraw sufficient energy from it to pump into K-space.

This can be hard to spot, because ghostly actualities can be full of sound and fury, and K-space by definition is a quiet and barely visible kind of space. Some signs of withdrawal of energy are noticed (“quiet quitting” anyone?) but ignored. But eventually, if the attention drain to K-space continues, actuality gets too ghostly to sustain itself, and one or more worlds-in-waiting burst through from the adjacent possible. And a new reality is born.

Worldly, Yet Carefree

The 90s and aughts were pretty optimistic times through much of the world (with the notable exception of Russia). There were troubles of course, but it felt like everyone felt on top of things. There was no general sense of being collectively overwhelmed and rendered helpless. The world was getting more complex and troubled, but our sense of our own agency, especially technological agency, was growing even faster. So it was easy to not worry.

One sign of this could be found in the kind of humor that ruled culture. In the United States, shows like Seinfeld and The Simpsons managed to at be once worldly, yet carefree, WYC. After around 2000, what is now known as cringe comedy, which is neither worldly, nor carefree, gradually became more prominent. WYC humor slowly degenerated into a strained, mechanical, and formulaic genre that increasingly failed to land.

After the Global Financial Crisis, humor needed at least some obliviousness and escapism to work at all. Nowhere was this clearer than in cringe comedy, which over the course of a decade ate almost all humor (with the metamodern nihilism of Rick and Morty being a notable exception). The last relatively watchable example of 90s-aughts style worldly-yet-carefree humor in the US was probably The Big Bang Theory, which wrapped in 2019. South Park, perhaps the only show to span both eras successfully, evolved from WYC to a kind of meta-aware escapism, marked by the spotlight shifting from the precociously world-aware kids to the marijuana-peddling cringe adult character Randy Marsh.

WYC is an attitude that’s aware of and actively attending to what’s going on in the world, but confident enough about the collective human response to the world’s troubles to routinely kick back and relax with a sense of security. Cringe, by contrast, is a retreating kind of humor that requires a certain obliviousness to the world to work, and is never quite free of a vague sense of subconscious neurotic insecurity about the state of the world. There are other aspects, but that’s the main difference.

The protagonist of WYC humor is the Straight Man: aware, reasonable, and skeptically amused by the world. The world of the era consisted the Straight Man, like Jerry Seinfeld, the Funny Man, like Kramer, and a distant cast of powerful people ineptly (but not catastrophically so) running the world, driven by venal (but not catastrophically so) self-interest. They ran the world well enough that you didn’t need to worry, but fumbled often enough to keep you amused and entertained. They were not admirably competent, like 50s SF heroes, but they were not worryingly incompetent. They were not idealistic and noble, but they were not driven by vicious, world-destroying venality either. WYC humor fundamentally believed in the soundness, if not the sanity, of the world it poked fun at.

The world of cringe comedy has no Straight Men, and the Funny Man has evolved from Kramer-like characters to cringe characters. From harmlessly crazy and deluded at the margins to worryingly crazy and deluded at the center.

In cringe comedy, there are only embarrassing protagonists you fundamentally feel sorry for, maintaining an attitude of sufficient obliviousness and unworldliness to cheerfully keep going, striving towards their modest and myopic goals. It seems noteworthy that though cringe comedy too started with men (Larry David, Steve Carell), it was turned into a fine art by women (like Phoebe Waller-Bridge of Fleabag). Ironically, retired stalwarts of WYC comedy — Seinfeld, Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais and others — seem increasingly out of touch and unable to find the funny vein in the course of world events, to the extent they even bother to come out of semi-retirement to try at all. They’ve joined the ranks of fundamentally bewildered and dismayed culture war commentators. They have mostly given up and retreated from the fray, muttering ominously about about woke sensitivities, utterly convinced of the rightness (and righteousness) of their response, and the degeneracy of contemporary responses by the younger generation.

For all its faults, cringe at least still tries to make sense of the world; it hasn’t complacently retreated to a smug, superior resentfulness. It was born of doubt, and has retained a capacity for it. WYC in a way never had any real doubts about the world. Cringe may be less worldly, but it just might be more wise.

I think cringe rose to prominence because worldly-yet-carefree became fundamentally untenable. Starting around 2007, you could either pay attention to the world, or feel relatively untroubled about the world. You couldn’t have both.

What is fascinating about cringe comedy is that all the other characters on-screen, cringing on our behalf, are equally oblivious to the world. They’re merely less embarrassingly incompetent at functioning in a state of studied obliviousness within the very limited world on display. So you see a great deal of commentary about the minutiae of everyday life, but no awareness of the larger world. It’s not that Seinfeld or The Simpsons had profound commentary to offer about world affairs. But the world at least showed up as a stable through-line element, in the form of a stream of cameos and contemporary references. Cringe, by contrast, is a cozy style of humor. It does not take its cues from the world to any significant degree. All it needs is flawed humans watching even more flawed humans in a shared bubble of obliviousness.

I don’t blame comedy writers for going down this path. It’s been hard to sustain worldly-yet-carefree attitudes. This became especially clear in the evolution of shows like The Daily Show. The premise of attending to the real news from a skeptically amused but fundamentally untroubled point of view gradually unraveled, until the show turned into an increasingly unfunny partisan outpost of dubiously self-confident sermonizing in the culture war.

I’ll admit I’m not particularly fan of cringe comedy, though I turned watching an early example (The Office, which arguably is proto-cringe) into a consulting career. I like staying aware of the world, and being amused in a carefree way by it. But I’m not smart enough to do it by myself. I need good television to help me see the world that way, and a sense of borrowed confidence derived from watching more capable people visibly doing a competent job of running the world.

Arguably — and this is an 80s upbringing armed with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy talking — worldly, yet carefree is the ideal attitude for the vast majority of the world to adopt almost all the time. It allows you to enjoy life, do your bit, and be rationally invested in the fate of the world without being overwhelmed by your sense of its troubles. When humor must escape the world to find laughs, it is not as satisfying.

So why did this happen? There are three possibilities here.

The easiest answer is, I think, wishful thinking — that there is simply a cultural cycle here, and we’re due for a swing back.

The slightly more troubling answer is that even though the world is not fundamentally in worse shape in 2023 than in 1993, we know so much more about it, and see so much more of its irredeemable ugliness, it just takes a lot more work to maintain worldly-yet-carefree attitude. Perhaps a Buddha-level sense of humor is necessary on a mass scale. That would mean WYC was not actually as worldly as it thought it was. It was a blissful false consciousness that rested on insufficient information. If you put the typical 90s sitcom and its typical audience into a new meta show, you’d get a cringe show today.

The third and most troubling answer is that the world has actually slipped out of our grasp and into an ungovernable downward trajectory. That it’s not just that we hear more of the bad news, but that there is more bad news. And our growing collective agency is no longer staying comfortably ahead of our growing collective problems.

I hope the first is true, I suspect the second is likely true, but I’m afraid I can’t dismiss the third scenario as impossible. There’s a chance we can’t enjoy worldly-yet-carefree laughs together because we are genuinely in serious trouble, and things are about to get much uglier (and unfunnier).

I suppose it says a lot about me that I’m more interested in rediscovering a new-and-improved vein of WYC humor (without putting in any growth work) than in helping solve the world’s problems. This might be impossible in the future. Perhaps we can never again reclaim that sense of carefree worldliness, and must make do with some mix of cringe, dark humor, nihilism, and earnestly humorless gravitas.

That would frankly suck.

The Resourceful Life

I used to think of resourcefulness as a kind of practical intelligence, but I’ve recently started thinking of it as a combination of an energy state, an attitude, and an unexamined philosophy. A lived and embodied, but rarely articulated, Weltenschauung. Rarely articulated because the people living and embodying it are too busy being alive to indulge in the (let’s face it) slightly acting-dead game of articulating things.

It is the philosopher’s conceit that the unexamined life is not worth living. The resourceful person, by simply existing, gives the lie to that self-congratulatory belief. While some resourceful people certainly do lack the capacity for critical reflection (as do many philosophers), it is by no means the case that all of them do. Many can be provoked into critical reflection even if they aren’t naturally prone to it, especially when it serves a practical purpose in unlocking a more resourceful direction to head in. But they are fundamentally bored by critical reflection, judging it to be (often correctly) a cope for people afraid to live life fully.

So what is resourcefulness?

[Read more…]

Hello Again, Seattle

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Regenerations

Last week, for the 11th time in my adult life, I made a long-distance move to a different city. But for only the second time, it is to a city I’ve already lived in: Seattle. And the first time doesn’t really count, since it was for a year-long break from grad school I always knew I’d be back from.

When I left Seattle for Los Angeles 4 years ago, in June 2019, the intent was to stay a year, and decide where to go next right after my fellowship at the Berggruen Institute ended, with a return to Seattle only one low-likelihood possibility among many. At the time, I wrote about it in my post Regenerations, the fourth installment in a straggling decade-plus blogchain chronicling my moves. Then the pandemic happened, one year turned into four, and a city I thought I’d just pass through as a longer-term tourist turned into the venue of a significant life chapter. I was 44 when I left. I’m 48 now, a few months from 49, and less than two years away from the big 5-0.

But though it took longer than I expected, I’m once more in that familiar (and at this point, rather tiresome) liminal passage, having left one empty apartment behind, living out of another, with my stuff (now in 1.5 containers rather than 1) in transit somewhere in the containerized ether.

[Read more…]

Life After Language

In October 2013, I wrote a post arguing that computing was disrupting language and that this was the Mother of All Disruptions. My specific argument was that human-to-human communication was an over-served market, and that computing was driving a classic disruption pattern by serving an under-served marginal market: machine-to-machine and organization-to-organization communications. At the time, I didn’t have AI in mind, just the torrents of non-human-readable data flowing across the internet.

But now, a decade later, it’s obvious that AI is a big part of how the disruption is unfolding. Two ongoing things drove it home for me this week.

Exhibit A, the longest regular conversations I’ve had in the last week have been with an AI-powered rubber duck. Berduck is a bot on Blue Sky that is powered by GPT, and trained to speak in a mix of English and leetspeak. It is likely playing a non-trivial role in driving the Blue Sky craze (Blue Sky is a decentralized Twitter-like protocol funded by Twitter itself in the before-times). I can’t speak for others, but I probably wouldn’t be using Blue Sky much if it weren’t for Berduck.

Berduck is genuinely entertaining, with a well-defined personality, despite only having episodic memory, a strong predilection for hallucinations and confabulation (like all AI-powered chatbots), sharp boundaries around negative valence conversations, and a strong aversion to even the slightest whiff of risk. Despite all these annoying limitations, shared by way more humans than we like to admit, (yes, I am an AI accelerationist, why do you ask), Berduck is already a more interesting companion than 90% of humans online, and I can totally see myself passing the time with one of his descendants in my dotage. The limitations are both tolerable and mitigable, and the benefits quite striking.

[Read more…]

Storytelling — The Penumbra of Mortality

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series Narrativium

I’ve been reading Permutation City by Greg Egan, my first taste of his work. I picked it because it seemed like something of a contemporary chaser to J. G. Ballard’s work, whose complete short stories I just finished and thoroughly enjoyed (also a first taste for me). I was not disappointed. Though a much weaker writer, Egan’s writing scratches the same itch as Ballard’s. He seems to be generally classified as hard science fiction but I suspected going in that this was a misclassification, and I was right. I’d classify both Ballard and Egan as ontological speculators whose work draws on mathematics (and to a lesser extent, science), for generativity rather than constraints. Rather than telling human stories stressed by the limits of math or science (like the value of pi or the speed of light), both tell mathematical stories stressed by the limits of conventional human subjectivity. Both explore the same basic question: how weird of a reality can a subjectivity experience while still remaining a recognizably human subjectivity.

Egan is obviously the better mathematician, and Ballard obviously the better storyteller. To some extent, Ballard was better because he knew not to spend time on elements of craft that clearly bored him. Both are clearly bored by conventional storytelling craft, and want to get to the cool ideas. But where Egan diligently grinds through conventional character and plot elements with awful, wooden prose, Ballard had the nerve to just skip them entirely most of the time. But when he did do plot and character, he did a much better job than Egan does (at least in this one novel). While Ballard was not at the level of say a Dickens or Tolstoy, he clearly possessed a workmanlike competence in conventional storytelling departments. There are occasional sparks of genuine liveliness, and even authorial interest where the elements rise above mere scaffolding to directly help explore the ideas. There are a couple of Ballard characters who rise to almost-memorable 2.1 dimensional, where Egan struggles to break one dimension.

But in one important area, both Egan and Ballard seem like kindred souls: their prose is deliberately and consciously loveless. In their universes, emotions like love are mostly unimportant noise that get in the way of exploring interesting mathematical conceits, and within the logic of their universes, they are right. Explorations of the emotional lives of their characters would be annoying and pointless in their stories. The humans in their fiction are creatures of timeless and austere mathematical universes, interesting primarily as subjective points of view whose experiences illuminate the character of the world. They serve as measures of reality rather than parts of it. Egan’s humans in Permutation City are effectively origins of solipsistic coordinate systems for apprehending reality. Ballard’s humans are more complex, but also seem like automaton subjectivities, contrivances designed to mediate speculative experiences of space, time, and materiality.

But one very human aspect of subjectivity does seem to strongly interest both these imaginative ontological speculators: death.

[Read more…]

Permissionless Research

The philosophies of science that I find most compelling, such as Paul Feyerabend’s, tend to argue for methodological anarchy as the characteristic of the most historically impactful science. It is not immediately obvious, but I think this is equivalent to arguing that the best science (and any sort of inquiry conducted with a scientific sensibility) is necessarily permissionless. Anarchic permissionlessness though, does not equal chaotic lack of structure. It is just that structure emerges from the nature of the research, rather than generic procedural templates. Investigations always require protocols, even casual ones, but they need not be derived from some abstract high-modernist notion of a uniform “scientific method.”

Do uniformities in the nature of all knowledge justify privileging particular research methods at all? This is an epistemology question to which I have yet to hear a satisfying answer. In some ways this is the most important practical question in the philosophy of science. Whether or not you think you need permission from an authority figure to do research depends on whether or not you think certain methods ought to be naturally privileged.

[Read more…]