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…]


Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

In Minimum Viable Superorganism, Kevin Simler posits a minimal structure by which an institution made up of self-interested participants can achieve its goals:

Individuals should grant social status to others for advancing the superorganism’s goals.

There are two definitive activities within the prestige economy:


In this model, prestige inequalities are not socially harmful, but a consequence of a system that harnesses self-interest to achieve the goal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

This bears only a vague resemblance to the system we currently find ourselves in. And that’s not a criticism of the model. Humans as a species are unimaginably richer now than in ancestral times, compared to how many of us there are. Why, given this ingenious mechanism for the distribution of talents and resources, is there still so much hunger, misery, and boredom? [Read more…]

Free Money

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

To: Human Subjects Review Board
Re: Universal Basic Income Study

We propose to give people money for five years. We will have them fill out some surveys.

Recently, Y Combinator announced plans to fund a research study on universal basic income. Everybody is all excited and/or mad about it. I do not have an opinion; rather, I’m interested in using it as a lens to think about predictions in complex systems, avoiding harm, the modern invention and subsequent fall of the work ethic, and the innovation-driving effect of procrastination and useless hobbies.

[Read more…]

On Some Possibilities for Life as a Joke

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

If we hear the metaphor “life is a joke,” our usual inference is a negative one: that a joke is a pitiful and sad thing for life to be, that life should be more than a “mere” joke. It seems to be a negative judgment of both life and humor.

Here I will explore the difficulties of living life as a joke, a feat that requires agency, intelligence, creativity, and hard work, and has perhaps been achieved by only a handful of sages throughout history, if at all. I will examine other common metaphors for life, and see how they compare to life-as-joke on moral and aesthetic grounds. A joke is itself a complex cognitive phenomenon; I will review the most promising theory of humor from cognitive science, that of Hurley, Dennett, and Adams, to highlight the technical problems of the phenomenon of life as a joke. I will distinguish mere deception and other phenomena that might first appear to be living life as a joke, but upon closer inspection are lesser things. Finally I will present a few candidates for successful lives-as-jokes: Laozi and Zhuangzi, Socrates, and Andy Kaufman. I will argue that a joke is an excellent thing for a life to be, though of course very few can achieve it.
[Read more…]

An Ecology of Beauty and Strong Drink

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

According to the theory of cultural evolution, rituals and other cultural elements evolve in the context of human beings. They depend on us for their reproduction, and sometimes help us feel good and accomplish our goals, reproductive and otherwise. Ritual performances, like uses of language, exhibit a high degree of variation; ritual performances change over time, and some changes are copied, some are not. As with genetic mutation, ritual novelty is constantly emerging.

The following presents several ecological metaphors for ritual adaptation: sexual selection, the isolated island, and the clearcut forest. Once these metaphors are established, I will explain how they apply to ritual, and suggest some policy recommendations based on this speculation.

[Read more…]

Ritual Epistemology

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

If you are reading this, you are probably aware of the existence of the rationalist community. The community is characterized (broadly) by a scientific worldview, skepticism of religion and paranormal claims, atheism, and an almost fanatical devotion to Bayes’ rule. The skeptic wing of rationalism devotes itself to debunking “woo” – paranormal phenomena, energy healing, psychics, spoon benders, and the like. The wing known as “effective altruism” devotes itself to doing good in the most rational ways possible: donating money to charities that save the most lives per dollar, for instance. (My personal observation is that many self-identified effective altruists are vegans, evidencing their concern for not only human but animal lives as well.) Overall, the rationalist community is concerned with having correct beliefs; a troll might even call this their sacred value. Frequent topics of discussion include artificial intelligence, game theory, and optimizing effectiveness in personal goals.

You may or may not be aware that there is such a thing as post-rationalism (see, e.g., this and this). Post-rationalists tend to value true beliefs, but have more sympathy for religion, ritual, and tradition (including monogamy) than the rationalist community. They are skeptical of the ability of science (as it is practiced) to solve humanity’s problems and provide a sense of meaning or happiness.
[Read more…]

Meaning and Pointing

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

A cognitive phenomenon that can happen to you (if you are unlucky, perhaps) is known as depersonalization or derealization. It is a mild relative of the symptom recognized in psychology as disassociation, a component of many mental disorders.

Derealization is the loss of the felt sense of the world as real, as an unchanging and solid world differentiable from the mock world perceived in dream states. It can cause significant anxiety. It is a condition often articulated in art, for instance in our own time in the movie Waking Life by Richard Linklater.

As with many abnormal psychological phenomena, the existence of derealization points to its absence in the normal world: the negative phenomenon of the loss of the sense of the average-everyday orientation points to the positive phenomenon of constructing the sense of the real. We can ask how people experiencing derealization can snap out of it and begin to experience life as ordinary and meaningful again. But more importantly, we can ask how people not experiencing derealization come to construct a meaningful, solid, ordinary world out of their stream of experiences. In this essay I will explore a cartographic metaphor for the ways people create meaning and navigate the complex systems of meaning they create, based on pointing, reference, and maps.
[Read more…]

Cartographic Compression

Cartography is the practice of making maps. In the narrowest sense, a map is a symbolic depiction of geographic, spatial information, inscribed onto a two-dimensional surface. In a broader sense, a map is an abstract representation of information about any domain, spatial or otherwise – “abstract” in the sense that certain features or kinds of information are highlighted to the exclusion of others. But not every abstract representation is a map. Maps have axes, usually at least two; they elucidate relationships between features of the domain; and they are useful for orienting, navigating, or engaging in goal-directed behavior within that domain.

Maps that are inscribed on some kind of surface – paper, clay, rock, or an electronic screen – are useful for sharing, pointing at, and comparing with the domain. But the cognitive capacity for map-style thinking likely precedes cartographic inscription. Intimate familiarity with the domain, viewed through the special attention-directing lens of language, is enough to generate mental maps in different minds that are verifiably highly similar. [Read more…]


Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Disneyland is the most important place in America, and Frontierland is the most important part of Disneyland. By area, it is the largest part of Disneyland. The design of Frontierland occupied a special importance for Walt Disney himself (Richard Francaviglia, Walt Disney’s Frontierland as an Allegorical Map of the American West). Even as the Imagineers had trouble keeping the futuristic buildings of Tommorowland looking “futuristic,” the archaic appeal of Frontierland never faded. Frontierland does not refer to just any frontier: it presents an immersive narrative about the American western frontier, a narrative centered on popular myth and literature. (There is no American Indian genocide in Frontierland, because Frontierland is not about the historical reality of the American frontier.) But its appeal reaches far beyond the American West, drawing visitors from all over the world and self-replicating in Japan, Hong Kong, and France. As the American frontier ceased to exist as a geographic and political reality, in myth it transcended space and culture.

As much as it is composed of myth, theater, and simulation, Frontierland is actually the real frontier.

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960

[Read more…]