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system of thinking sometimes (probably misleadingly) called postrationalism: “The systematic mode can, should, must be superseded—not by the communal mode, but by something that combines benefits of both.”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.

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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.
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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).

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.
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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.
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