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Ribbonfarm is a longform blog featuring a variety of themes and perspectives.

“It’s Only Cannibalism if We’re Equals”

This is a guest post by Graham Warnken.

Almost all accounts of cannibalism throughout the years agree on one thing: it’s a communal affair. Native funeral parties consume the flesh of the departed in a ritual of respect and grief. Foreign warriors devour foes in cruel rites of victory. A group of desperate survivors stranded on the sea or in a mountain pass draw straws to see which poor soul will offer himself up.

No matter the situation, the many consume the one—the deceased is partitioned out amongst his friends and relations, the defeated champion doled out to boost morale, the weakest link sacrificed that his companions might live. The latter in particular, while it doesn’t remove the central horror of the act, does possess a certain sense of justice. It allows us to see cannibals as more than monstrous. When we think of the Donner party, we don’t recoil in terror. We feel revulsion, but we understand. The doomed pioneers’ act, born of desperation, was all that allowed the community to scrape through its frigid circumstances, minus a few members.

In the Enlightenment era, this communal cannibalism was an excellent example of the bounds of natural law. Cătălin Avramescu’s An Intellectual History of Cannibalism describes the general philosophical view of anthropophagy by way of necessity:

When danger threatens us and another equally, we are obliged to think first of ourselves [. . .] we must set precedence on our own interests, when they enter into conflict with those of another. [. . .] If we accept that necessity—evident and unproblematic in the case of killing [an] aggressor—can excuse an action that is illicit in itself, then on the basis of this reasoning we must also tackle the aberration of forced cannibalism, since it is directed by the same natural and legal resorts.

As with any philosophical topic, there was a mind-numbing degree of back-and-forth about the anthropophagus over the course of the Enlightenment, chiefly because he functioned as a pawn in the larger game of whether or not natural law is valid. But the general philosophical consensus was clear. In cases where cannibalism is necessary for the survival of the community, it is abhorrent but permissible.

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The Internet of Electron Microscopes

This is a guest post by Chenoe Hart

After you have stared at your computer screen for a while, it’s recommended that you give your eyes a break to refocus on a more distant outside view. In past years when our monitors looked more like boxes than tablets, you might have already been looking into such a space. The perception of digital content on the screens of CRT displays was inextricably accompanied by the additional perspective lines of the monitor enclosure extending behind it. Expanses of beige plastic stretching past the foreground of your observation might make the eyes operate in a slightly different manner compared to our modern condition of viewing flat panels whose minimal depth renders them closer to two-dimensional apparitions. We always knew that the internet was an ephemeral entity presented in translation from abstract code into pixels on our screen, but our immediate sensory feedback perceived it to be the front of a three-dimensional box possessing further physical extension.

Construction photograph of the interior of the Statue of Liberty, from the U.S. Library of Congress.

Many of the words we commonly used to describe the early emerging internet reference an implicit dimensionality: “cyberspace” was non-ironically used as a descriptive term, we explored it those spaces through “web portals,” and the act of “surfing” the web implied negotiating the surface of a physical mass which contained further inaccessible fathoms underneath. The “-tron” suffix marketing the electron gun technology used in those CRTs became the name of a film in which our computers contained an alternate universe of extending light grids. Before “the cloud” gained popularity as an ephemeral metaphor abstracting away the details of how we store our data in other people’s computers, The Matrix rendered the physicality of the internet as a dark enclosed underworld of forbidden knowledge.

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Common Sense Eats Common Talk

This is a guest post by Stefano Zorzi.

In November 2008, with the financial crisis in full swing, Queen Elizabeth attended a ceremony at the London School of Economics. Facing an audience of high ranked academics, she posed a simple question: “Why did nobody notice it?”

How could it be that no one among the smartest economists, commentators, and policymakers in all her kingdom – and beyond – had been able to see the formation of a bubble of such dimensions?

Illustration of The Emperor’s New Clothes by Vilhelm Pedersen, Andersen’s first illustrator

And yet critical facts were readily available – facts that could have warned about the craziness of the housing market, on which an even bigger financial house of cards had been erected. A short trip to a “regular” American neighbourhood – like the one undertaken by Mark Baum in The Big Short – would have presented an endless list of properties under foreclosure, real estate agents openly bragging about the laxity of credit requirements, and exotic dancers with multiple mortgage-financed properties.1

Such evidence would have been sufficient to convince most people of the existence of a bubble. However, in London, New York and the other financial centres of the world, an entire class of experts kept blatantly ignoring the facts, anecdotal evidence, and common sense that could have anticipated what was about to happen.

This is a high profile example of a more general situation in which a narrative establishes itself and resists being disproven, even when it is clearly contradicted by information right under our noses. Like the crowd in Hans Christian Andersen’s famous parable, we watch our sovereign parading naked in the street, but are unable to see through his invisible clothes. Until a young boy steps forward and with a little common sense lifts the veil on our “common talk”.

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Winning Is for Losers

This is a guest post by Jacob Falkovich.

Our world is filled with competition, frenzied ambition in every domain. In Western nations, and above all in the United States, it animates not only economic and financial life, but scientific research and intellectual life as well. Despite the tension and the unrest it brings, these nations are inclined on the whole to congratulate themselves for having embraced the spirit of competition, for its positive effects are considerable.

— Rene Girard, The One by Whom Scandal Comes

I. Eating Dogs

Human life is all about competition, from the micro level to the macro.

We are built by genes that outcompeted their rivals over aeons of natural selection.

Children cooperate less and compete more as they grow older, even when competition is irrational. By the time boys and girls hit puberty they start mercilessly fighting for status, in addition to competing for resources and attention. As people enter the world of dating and finding mates, the competition for status only intensifies. With dating having moved online, everyone competes for the attention of their beloved against thousands of other Tinder matches. And sometimes also with the 5 other people they set up a date with in the same bar. The winner takes it all, and nice guys finish last.

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Questions Are Not Just For Asking

This is a guest post by Malcolm Ocean

Are questions just for asking? It kind of seems like it. I mean, if you consider the phrase “ask me a ______”, then the blank is obviously “question”. Just like how the blank in “that boggled my _____” is obviously “mind”.

But hang on a sec—boggling is indeed a thing that is only done to minds, but minds are capable of much more than just being boggled! Similarly, asking might be a special feature of questions, but questions are actually a versatile tool that can be used in many other ways.

In order to access those uses though, first you need to know how to comfortably hold a question without immediately asking it. Questions are a kind of creature that is easily startled.

(a panel from an excellent comic by Kostas Kiriakakis on collecting questions)

Effective asking of questions is an important skill. Being able to hold questions without asking them (when that makes sense) is a further skill, much as meta-systematicity builds on systematicity. In particular, operating in the fluid mode, seems to involve a certain kind of spaciousness that’s different than the space that a question holds for an answer. It’s a spaciousness into which you can start noticing your background assumptions and perceptual blindspots.

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The Crisis of the Lonely Atoms

This is a guest post by Alex Hagen

No civilized state will execute
Someone who is ill
Till it makes the someone well
Enough to kill
in a civilized state,
As a poem does.

“Poem does.” Going Fast, Frederick Seidel

The future is a foreign country to be avoided at all costs.

Ask a child to imagine their future.

Firefighter, dancer, doctor, pilot, professional athlete, cop, movie star.

No child says “a forever child.”

Nor do adults often suggest permanent adolescence as a life goal for children.

We are facing a generation of unskilled 20-something men, largely unemployed, largely unconnected, largely irresponsible for a want of anything to be responsible for. They are living no one’s fantasy, but they fantasize constantly inside alternative worlds that provide pleasure and escape from a reality largely ignored. Call them the Lonely Atoms.

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On Being Nosey

This is a guest post by Michael Dariano

For this it would be great if you were a dog. You’re not. Instead, we’ll need a shovel. A serious shovel. If you have a garden spade don’t even think of bringing it, it won’t be enough. You’ll need a good back too, curiosity’s treasures are a bitch to extract.

Richard Feynman knew this. He recalled being in the woods one summer and all the other dads knew the names of every bird, branch, and bend of the creek. He asked his dad, someone he considered a pretty smart guy, why he didn’t know the names of those things. Feynman’s dad said, names, we don’t need no stinking names. He went on explain that the name of thing tells you nothing about the thing. What younger Feynman learned was that animals share some things in common: how to eat, sleep, and make babies. That’s what mattered, not the names.

To learn the name of something is superficial curiosity. That’s garden spade territory. The names of things are searchable, starting with algorithms. Google can identify cat videos. Treasures need big shovels.

The bestest curiosities are like journeys. “What happens if I destroy the ring?” “What happens if I take the red pill?” “What happens if I follow this man through a tunnel in Chateau d’If?”

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I Can’t Be Your Hero, I’m Too Busy Being Super

This is guest post by Jim Stone.

In the 1930s Dorothy Lucille Tipton took up piano and saxophone, joined the high school band, and developed an aspiration to be a performing jazz musician. By 1940 Tipton began presenting as a man on stage, and adopted the name “Billy”.  Eventually he began presenting as a man in private as well, and he kept his birth-assigned gender identity and female genitalia hidden from everyone (including wives, lovers, and children) until the day he died, at age 74.

Talk about living in a closet.

If she could have advised Billy, Brené Brown might have told him “Dare to be vulnerable. Be yourself. You’ll be happier if you stop caring so much much what people think.”

Maybe. But people don’t generally take on the burdens of inauthenticity without good reason. Often it’s because they want to occupy social roles that allow them to get their physical and psychological needs met, and other people won’t let them play those roles unless they are the right kind of person. Sometimes people put on masks simply to secure the role of “community member” or “citizen” or “human being”.

We can represent Billy’s dilemma as a conflict of self-portraits like this:

If the Private Self is how we see ourselves, the Public Self is how we think others see us, and the Hero Self is how we think others expect us to be in order to fill the social roles we want to fill. We can get a sense for the dynamics involved in reputation management by thinking of the Public Self is a button on a slider that slides between the Private Self and the Hero Self.

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Memory Transplants and Climate Risks

Guest post by Lisa M. P. Munoz

Fourteen years ago, I visited the small town of Orting, Washington. Sitting in the shadow of the magnificent yet menacing Mount Rainier, it resembles other small Pacific Northwest or even midwestern towns, but something there was different. The residents, more than any other group I have met, have a profound understanding of risk.

Lahar, Mount St. Helens eruption (public domain)

While Mount Rainier is an active volcano that will eventually erupt, the residents there fear something more hidden: lahars. These massive mudflows – often triggered by glacial melts – have raced down Mount Rainier and buried the valley before and will likely do so again. Orting residents face a 1 in 7 chance that lahars will occur in their lifetimes. But unlike many people who live near the earthquake-prone San Andreas Fault or the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico who don’t think a life-threatening event will ever truly threaten them personally, Orting residents seem to truly believe a lahar could take their lives.

What makes Orting different? Why do its residents relate so uniquely to the risks in their environment? And do their approaches generalize to other risks and populations, in particular,  global climate change risk? The key, I’ve come to believe, is a kind of cultural memory transplant.

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Zorba, Spock, or Voldemort?

This is a guest post by Matthew Sweet.

To be rational is to make the seemingly right decision, for the seemingly right reason, at the seemingly right time.

Of course, the real question is, how do you know when you’ve found the “right” decision, reason and time? One way to go about discovering it, according to the evangelists of rationality, is to flatten the curve of human experience.

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