Tendrils of Mess in our Brains

Messes are intimate, secret, somewhat shameful. Mess is supposed to be kept backstage. Posting this picture of my messy workspace is almost as embarrassing and inappropriate as posting nudes, but it’s necessary aesthetic background:

Author's mess

Author’s mess

All the new thinking about mess is apologetics: what if mess is good? Perhaps mess makes us more creative. Messiness is a sign of intelligence. All that. As a pathologically messy person, I cannot concur with this glorification of mess. Being in a messy environment is stressful and discouraging. There is an unease that remains even when you block out the conscious awareness of mess.

This is not say that mess is a pure bad. Mess is not even necessarily ugly. The famous photograph of Albert Einstein’s desk, taken on the day he died, is a particularly picturesque mess. This is recognizably a mess, but it is calming to look at, and deeply touches our personal feelings. It has mono no aware.

Einstein's desk, a picturesque mess

Einstein’s desk, a picturesque mess


[Read more…]

A Pseudoethnography of Egregores

Abstract

Research on egregoric entities has previously been limited to analyses within two frameworks: an economic framework, inferring the activities and needs of egregores from their position as economic producers and consumers; and an epidemiological framework, measuring the infectiousness and virulence of egregores within human substrates. In this body of research, one voice has been missing: that of the egregores themselves. Previous researchers have justified the exclusion of ethnographic methods on the grounds that egregores are hypothetical entities, and in the words of one researcher, “imaginary” (Perry 2015). But the subjects themselves refuse to be silenced.

Methods

We conducted in-depth interviews with egregoric entities. Thematic analysis reveals the desires, interests, and self-conceptions common to egregores. Our informants were egregoric entities who contacted us privately in order to correct misconceptions in previous research. For reasons that will be explained, it is impossible to know the exact number of egregores that participated. Unfortunately, there is presently no way to know if our sample is representative of the general population of egregores.
[Read more…]

A Bad Carver

Consider the Venus of Willendorf, the Venus of Hohle Fels, and the Venus of Dolní Věstonice. These three paleolithic statuettes were made from different materials – stone, mammoth tusk, ceramic. Each depicts a female figure with exaggerated breasts and buttocks. Each head is abbreviated, with no face; the legs taper to points. What were they for? What purpose did they serve?

Petr Novák, Wikipedia

Petr Novák, Wikipedia

The only guess we can make with any confidence is that they likely served multiple purposes, whatever those purposes were. Paleolithic people were obliged to carry everything they owned with them. The material culture package of nomadic people was severely constrained. Each item was absolutely necessary, and often served multiple purposes. [Read more…]

The Art of the Conspiracy Theory

To give a denotative definition of the term “conspiracy theory” is profoundly misleading. While in some sense a conspiracy theory is “the belief that a group is secretly coordinating toward criminal or evil ends,” the fundamental content of the term “conspiracy theory” is connotative: conspiracy theories are bad. In most cases, the point of mentioning conspiracy theories is to feel superior to the silly people who hold such embarrassing beliefs. Most research is conducted by a body that might be known as the Institute for the Undermining and Humiliation of the Naughty Outgroup’s Pathological Epistemology (IUHNOPE) (an example).

Readers of Ribbonfarm expect more. Here, we will explore how to feel superior not only to the conspiracy theorists, but also to the people who hate the conspiracy theorists. We will look at the interplay between the “crippled epistemology” of conspiracy theorists and conventional epistemologies. Rather than viewing conspiracy theories as mind viruses that infect passive participants, I will defend the view that the conspiracy theory is an active, creative art form, whose truth claims serve as formal obstructions rather than being the primary point of the endeavor. False conspiracy theories might even help us understand reality.
[Read more…]

The Origin of Authenticity in the Breakdown of the Illusion of the Real

Authenticity is real. It is a repair process within the order of symbols, within the hyperreal, in which efforts to destroy the order of symbols are channeled into acts that strengthen and expand it.

What is authenticity? Once upon a time things seemed pretty real. Then, gradually, things started seeming totally phony. People asked “how are you,” but they didn’t really care what the answer was. People said, in a professional capacity, “I’m sorry for your loss.” People wore t-shirts made in factories with the word “AUTHENTIC” printed on them.

Some people were more sensitive to the phoniness than others. It was a lonely time for a special snowflake. The good news is that now, you, you yourself, the only one who sees through the facade, must go and find the real. It’s probably far away, in another place, if not in another time. It’s exotic and bizarre. It demands a great deal from you. There won’t be a Starbucks there.

Authenticity is the object of the quest defined above. It may be an illusion, like the Fountain of Youth or pirate’s gold, but the search for authenticity has real effects upon the world.
[Read more…]

The Quality Without a Name at the Betsy Ross Museum

Warning: some of the haiku and tweets reproduced herein contain naughty language and references to having intimate relations with an inanimate national symbol.

Is beauty subjective? People have strong feelings in both directions. A stylized representation of possible opinions about the nature of beauty might look like this:

  • Strong Subjectivism: the phenomenon of beauty is essentially random with little regularity, a purely personal response that is not predictable across time and person.
  • Weak Objectivism: the phenomenon of beauty can be partly predicted by definable regularities in its perception as a result of our specific environments of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA).
  • Strong Objectivism: the phenomenon of beauty can be predicted by definable regularities because of regularities in our EEAs and in the phenomenon of intelligence itself.

[Read more…]

The Systems of the World

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Martial artist and folk hero Bruce Lee founded the martial art known as jeet kune do, “the style of no style.” Lee said of his style, “True observation begins when one sheds set patterns, and true freedom of expression occurs when one is beyond systems…I hope to free my comrades from bondage to styles, patterns and doctrines.”

Compare my friend David Chapman on the post-systematic system of thinking sometimes (probably misleadingly) called postrationalism: “The systematic mode can, should, must be superseded—not by the communal mode, but by something that combines benefits of both.” The systems and patterns that can oppress us are also extremely useful. Growing beyond them does not mean throwing them out. Chapman describes skillful use of systems as piloting nimble watercraft on a sea of meaning.

Bruce Lee begins his article with reference to a Zen koan:

A learned man once went to a Zen teacher to inquire about Zen. As the Zen teacher explained, the learned man would frequently interrupt him with remarks like, “Oh, yes, we have that too. …” and so on.

Finally, the Zen teacher stopped talking and began to serve tea to the learned man. He poured the cup full and then kept pouring until the cup overflowed.

“Enough!” the learned man once more interrupted. “No more can go into the cup!”

“Indeed, I see,” answered the Zen teacher. “If you do not first empty the cup, how can you taste my cup of tea?”

A naive reader might expect that Lee would only accept novice students, already-empty cups, free from the shackles of systems. But in fact he generally selected experts in some style of martial arts as his students. This is not a contradiction. Both Lee and the subject of the koan were speaking to those who already have a full cup.

[Read more…]

The Theory of Narrative Selection

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Why do some stories become popular, retold for hundreds of years, while others are forgotten? Why do you see the particular stories that you see in your social media feed and on the news? How can we tell whether stories are true? And why are false stories so maddeningly popular?

Here I will look at stories as if they were biological organisms. Stories can’t reproduce themselves; they rely on humans for their survival and reproduction. In that sense, stories are symbiotic (or perhaps parasitic) in their relationship with humans. New stories are constantly being invented, using existing and novel devices and elements. They take as their subject matter factual happenings, imaginings, or both. They are transmitted and retold at different rates; most stories peter out and die, while a few sweep across the world in hours. They exhibit all the hallmarks for natural selection to act: variation, differential survival and reproduction, and heritability. Reproduction is complicated. Stories may transmit copies of themselves (reprintings, oral retellings), or they may transmit their traits to new generations of stories.
[Read more…]

Dares, Costly Signals, and Psychopaths

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

“Last year I organised to do a stunt with my pals. The stunt was to jump out the window from the 10th floor of a flat onto all these boxes of cardboard and stuff. At the start it was just a laugh and I wasn’t really going to go through with it, but then it got serious and everybody was there so I just had to go through with it.” [H]is participation in the stunt was motivated by “not wanting them [his friends, who were videotaping the ordeal ‘for the internet’] to think that I was a chicken.” He described feeling intense fear immediately before the event (“when I got up to it I thought I was going to die when I leaped”), followed by an equally intense release (“when I got down it was a relief, but I broke my arm”).

Morrissey, S. A. Performing risks: catharsis, carnival and capital in the risk society. Journal of youth studies, 11(4), 413-427 (2008).

F. (8). Dared to eat poison ivy. Did so.
F. (9). A number of girls were playing in an alley which went from one street to the other and had several barns and an undertaking establishment on it. Girls dared Edna to go through when it was dark. She was afraid but took the dare, went through and returned with a feeling of approbation.

Boland, Genevieve. Taking a dare. The Pedagogical Seminary, 17(4), 510-524 (1910).

[Read more…]

Business as Magic

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.


Vienna, late 18th century, alternate timeline.

In the beginning, there was just the tinkerer. One night, after attending a magic show at the palace, he got drunk and made a bet with a rival courtier. A few months later, he unveiled a marvelous contraption before a palace audience.

The contraption was an automaton, dressed as a Turkish sorcerer. It sat at a desk filled with complicated gears and levers, with a chessboard on top. The Turk played a decent game of chess, beating dukes, princes, and visiting American statesmen. Its reputation spread, and with it the reputation of Vienna as a hub of technological development.

Tinkerers from Austria to America set about making their own Mechanical Turks (as well as Mechanical Russians, Yankees, and chess-playing shepherdesses). Only a few succeeded; most were in Vienna. Of those half-dozen that succeeded, all were known to be acquainted with some down-on-his-luck chess master who, incidentally, was not overly tall or rotund.

Vienna’s reputation continued to spread, and it became fashionable for wealthy patrons to support chess automata and exhibit them. Unfortunately, one of the impoverished chess players got the flu. During his performance, such a loud fit of coughing emanated from his automaton’s desk that the audience was scandalized. The Turk, a hoax! The entire reputation of Vienna was on the line. [Read more…]