About Contributor

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

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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“Another Green World”

Graham Johnson is a guest contributor who joins us from Suspended Reason.

ONE

A world transfigured, or a world anew? A world anew, or a new world? And if a new world, in addition, or as alternative?

I.

In September, Elon Musk announced plans to begin the colonization of Mars by 2024. SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System will transport up 100 tons of cargo and human passengers per ship; eventually, Musk expects the planet to reach a critical population mass of a few million, at which point the planet will become a self-sufficient colony. What was most striking, to many who watched the announcement’s promotional video, was its closing frames – unaccompanied by explanatory text, and raising only the tantalizing possibility – of a terraformed Mars.

Terraforming is an obvious long-shot (or what Alphabet Inc.’s subsidiary X appropriately refers to in-house as a “moon-shot”) project. But Musk sees it as an essential existential safeguard: should something threaten humanity’s immediate survival, there will be another planet, and eventually other solar systems, available to escape to. Human civilizations elsewhere can continue their expansion of synthesis and sentience across the universe.

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Unbuilding the Wall

This is a guest post by Toby Shorin.

Although symbols are intangible, that doesn’t mean they are inaccessible. On the contrary, we routinely understand and interact with the world by interpreting and intuiting their meanings. Symbols can be created, altered, proliferated, and overthrown.

This essay will discuss one symbol and its meanings: Donald Trump’s Wall. During the ‘15-‘16 election cycle, the Wall became as much of an aspirational motif for the right as it was a corrupt one for the left. In some ways, the Wall usurped Trump himself as the central image of the election. Compared to Trump, whose innumerable controversies make him an ethically difficult figure even for many of his supporters, the Wall makes a simple proposition: in or out. This legerdemain condenses a whole lineup of wicked problems and convoluted realities into a highly condensed ideological meme, representing the entire package of Trump’s policies. Ease of compliance is visible in the rally chants of Trump followers (“build the Wall, build the Wall!”), which acknowledge and perpetuate its myth.

Of course, the Wall is not just a symbol; it is a very real political project with significant implications. But symbols are not just ideas; they are very real concentrations of meaning with political agendas and the potential for momentous adoption. For example, the key symbol of the now-dead Occupy movement, “the 99%,” has been instrumental in spreading awareness of income inequality, and nearly 10 years later remains a crucial tool of global leftist discourse. In the apparently straightforward gesture of the Wall is hidden a similarly nuanced conceptual model. The Wall defines America by drawing its boundaries, producing an exclusionary, misleading, and compelling model nation. As a symbol, it functions on three levels: the geopolitical, the psychological, and the semiotic—it fucks with meaning itself.

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Caring and Reality

This is a guest post by Kyle Eschenroeder.

From Tolkien’s palantír to Thiel’s Palantir, from early religions to superintelligence, the dream of omniscience is an old one.

CaringAndReality

Imagine having a real palantír from The Lord of the Rings, a crystal ball which gives its user a perfect view into any and every event, past and present. Such extensive knowledge tends to heighten one’s sense of power and control–which in turn lead to arrogance and over-confidence.

This over-confidence creates blind spots. The White Wizard Saruman’s discovery of the palantír precipitated his downfall. The arrogance that came with his newfound power created an opening for Sauron to take advantage of him. Our own palantírs gave Hillary a  71.4%98% chance of beating Trump. At one point, they gave the Patriots a 0.3% chance of winning Superbowl 51.

The confidence created by our palantír-ish technologies is a confidence in our measurements, not in ourselves. The more minutiae we measure, the less respect we have for taste or experience. Designers are being split-tested into insanity as mob rule decides which color they should use for the buy button. Decision makers are being confused by confident measurements of the wrong metrics.

This is an ongoing larger struggle in the world today between taste and data. Between what’s measurable and what matters. The promise is: here are numbers, let them make decisions for you. Algorithms we don’t understand interacting with, and reporting on, something we hope is reality.

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