Crash Early, Crash Often

I woke up this morning bleary-eyed and entirely unrested. Between the cat singing a soulful aria in the middle of the night and the bedroom going from too hot to too cold, I’d gotten almost no sleep. It was, in other words, a crashed morning, which led predictably to too much coffee and a crashed day. A terrible kind of day for most things, but a very appropriate one for launching the third ebook in the Ribbonfarm Roughs series: Crash Early, Crash Often, now available on your Friendly Neighborhood Kindle for $2.99. The price will increase in August, so grab your copy now.

Crash Early, Crash Often (hereby abbreviated CECO) is the first ebook based on posts from what we refer to in the backroom here as the Snowflake Age (2013-2017) of ribbonfarm. Here is the blurb I wrote for the Amazon page (I always enjoy writing about myself in the third person):

In this fine collection of essays, the third volume in the Ribbonfarm Roughs series, Venkatesh Rao (author of Tempo, The Gervais Principle, and Be Slightly Evil) ponders midlife crises, immortality, graceful aging, learning, personal growth, community, individualism, and the Big Question of how to live a life full of meaning, dignity and significance. Drawing on the lessons of his own life and the philosophies of Douglas Adams and James Carse among others, he attempts to construct a playbook for a life full of enriching experiences, satisfying accomplishments, and deep relationships. After a dozen long, meandering essays, he entirely fails to get to anywhere even remotely useful, and crashes gracelessly to the edge of the void, where he discovers the void giving him the stink eye. Originally published on between 2014, when Rao turned 40, and 2016, when he turned 42 (a significant threshold in his religion), having learned nothing in the interim, these essays provide a poignant and vivid illustration of the art of entering middle age with all your indignity, incomprehension, and cluelessness intact.

Here are the posts in the ebook, linked, and in the sequence they appear, for those of you too cheap to shell out $2.99 for the pleasure of reading them on your Kindle, or living in places that haven’t been Amazoned yet.

  1. A Beginner’s Guide to Immortality
  2. How to be a Precious Snowflake
  3. Immortality Begins at Forty
  4. Learning to Fly by Missing the Ground
  5. Immortality in the Ocean of Infinite Memories
  6. A Dent in the Universe
  7. Can You Hear Me Now
  8. We Are All Architects Now
  9. Eternal Hypochondria of the Expanding Mind
  10. The Things You Carry
  11. The Art of Agile Leadership
  12. The Epic Struggle between Good and Neutral
  13. Human-Complete Problems
  14. The Principia Misanthropica
  15. Speak Weirdness to Truth

Crash Early, Crash Often (CECO) marks, we hope, the beginning of a more regular and predictable schedule of compiling themed collections of ribbonfarm posts into ebooks.

With CECO, our ebook publishing operations enter a brave new era under the stewardship of former resident Jordan Peacock as ebooks editor, who put this collection together and wrote a courageous and foolhardy preface trying to make sense of whatever the hell CECO is all about (I myself gave up somewhere in the middle of 2015).

Four more ebooks, based on the Rust Age collections, are in the pipeline and will be available in August. They will join the already published first two Ribbonfarm Roughs volumes, The Gervais Principle (GP) and Be Slightly Evil (BSE) to round out a nice six-volume collection covering 2007-2012.

After we get through the Rust Age backlog, we’ll begin trawling the 2013-2017 archives to compile more collections from the Snowflake Age.

For long-time readers we hope these ebooks will offer an opportunity to re-read old posts (including any you may have missed) with the benefit of hindsight, and the context of broader themes that have emerged over the years.

For new readers, we hope these ebooks will offer an easier entry point into the Ribbonfarm Blogamatic Universe, which now has so many superheroes, supervillains, and confused plotlines, we are almost certain to encounter a Crisis of Infinite Ribbonfarms by 2020.

Believe it or not, we don’t actually set out to create such a royal mess. Unlike many insular subcultures marked by moats of carefully curated in-group language, inside jokes, and various protective hexes and curses, we don’t actually mean to be inaccessible or incomprehensible to n00bs around here. That’s just the unintended consequence of living the CECO philosophy. The messy confusion you see here is completely authentic, organic, and free-range. It is not something created to confuse you.

So grab a copy of Crash Early, Crash Often and come on in to join the refactoring. And watch your step as you enter.

Radical Candor

Today’s video blog (~40 minutes) is a conversation with Kim Malone Scott, creator of one of the finer 2x2s I’ve encountered in my long career as a professional quadrantologist. The radical candor 2×2 is deceptively simple: 4 management styles — radical candor, ruinous empathy, manipulative insincerity, and obnoxious aggression — arranged along two dimensions: caring personally and challenging directly. The result is one of the most robust and immediately useful frameworks for understanding how workplace relationships work, and how to be a better manager. I personally feel I spend most of my time in the obnoxious aggression quadrant, though Kim was nice enough to award me a radical candor badge.

Kim is a Silicon Valley veteran, with experience points founding a startup, major roles at Google and Apple, and several years coaching executives. I started chatting with her on Twitter when a friend passed along the 2×2. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her in person, and providing feedback on an early draft of her forthcoming book, Radical Candor (available for pre-order on Amazon, due out March 2017). I suspect it will join books like Andy Grove’s High Output Management and Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things on the Silicon Valley management classics list. Alongside writing this book, Kim has recently been booting up a company, Candor, Inc., built around practices and tools explained in the book. If you are an executive at a workplace with a managerial culture that isn’t quite working, this is probably among the highest leverage investments you could make. I have been using the 2×2 and recommending Kim’s models to all my own clients for the last six months or so, which isn’t something I can say about most of the business/management stuff I read.

In this conversation, we talk about the 2×2, the subtleties of how relationships work, differences and similarities between Silicon Valley today and in the eighties and nineties, how radical candor plays out in different parts of the world, how management culture has changed since the organization-man era, how these dynamics play out online versus offline, and many other interesting things.


Trace of the Weirding

Today’s post is hopefully a bit of a treat for those of you who like audio and video more than text. I’ve updated my You Are Here map for 2016 (thanks Grace Witherell!) and turned it into a narrated video walkthrough. It’s basically about an hour of me talk-walking through a map. If you prefer audio, you can just scan the map to get a sense of it, and then just listen to the audio.

If you’re new to ribbonfarm, this may be a good way to get oriented — or entirely confused. I don’t know. I’m too deep in this thing. The big change in the map from last year’s version is the addition of the whole western 20% or so, and the incorporation of 2016 crazy election year motifs into the landscape. It’s still very US centric, and doesn’t satisfactorily capture some of my newer interests, but it’s a start.

What’s not represented is some of the developing influence of newer residents and their writing on either ribbonfarm or my own thinking. That’s too new, and it’ll probably get folded into next year’s map. So this is mainly me talking about my own interests, with some digressions on Sarah Perry’s stuff.

The narrated walk through was heavily inspired by conversations at Refactor Camp 2016. Here are the links mentioned in the video.

  1. High-res version of the map (5MB)
  2. Refactor camp session slide decks: Thanks to Mick Costigan, Megan Lubaszka, Renee DiResta, Jordan Peacock and Sam Penrose.
  3. Blake Masters’ notes on Peter Thiel’s 2×2 
  4. My gloss on Jane Jacobs Guardian/Commerce
  5. Economics of Pricelessness
  6. Hamilton vs Jefferson
  7. Post on future nausea and manufactured normalcy
  8. A post on New Horizons
  9. My extended riff on hedgehog vs. fox
  10. Bruce Sterling favela chic/gothic high tech talk
  11. Atlantic post on climate change
  12. Some stuff on serendipity versus zemblanity
  13. Sarah Perry’s roundup/introduction on postrationality
  14. David Chapman, Meaningness
  15. Sarah’s book Every Cradle is a Grave
  16. Less Wrong
  17. Slatestarcodex map
  18. The Gervais Principle
  19. Sarah’s theme parks vs amusement parks post
  20. My post on Crash-only thinking
  21. Breaking Smart if you’ve been under a rock and don’t know I do that
  22. The Breaking Smart newsletter in tweetstorm format
  23. Tempo, the book
  24. James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
  25. My Now Reading page with a lot of background

How to Take Your Brain Off-Road

The more you read, the more you know how to read, and the harder it is to get lost in reading. When you’ve read only a few things, it is not possible to get very lost because each book, article, blog post or tweet stands in isolation. You are not very sensitized to how infinitely intertwingled everything is. But the more you read, the greater the chances that you will have developed a map that obscures the intertwingling. Even if you resist various subtle map-territory confusions, you will slowly grow blind to many things. Which can be a pleasant state, especially if it endures through the rest of your life.

But if you read a lot in a certain disorderly way, you can retain an ability get lost in your reading and prevent knowledge from turning into blindness. I call this approach taking your brain off-road. With a few exceptions, my brain has been off-road, and lost, for decades. You know when your brain is off-road because you are forced to navigate the world of ideas by gut-feel alone. I used to like the metaphor of the gyroscope for this, but now I like the metaphor of Pacific Islander wave navigation, which combines intrinsic and extrinsic, global and local, in interesting ways.


Pacific Islander wave pilots used self-made stick maps of swell patterns between islands (like the ones above) to navigate. One of my time-wasting projects is to actually understand how this was done, and perhaps learn to do it myself. Interestingly, this required literally using your gut: lying on your back at the bottom of the canoe to feel the swells through your body.

There is an opposed, more common way of reading a lot, which is much more orderly. Orderly readers unconsciously prioritize things that they know how to read, which means they never get lost. This is mainly because they are doers, and for doers, being lost is a bad thing. Because you don’t know what to do next, which means you are wasting your life.

To disorderly readers, being lost is not a bad thing, because many interesting things can only be seen nestled in disorder. And you can see disorder only when you don’t know how to read it.

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A Koan is not a Riddle

The following is a break from my Marginally Acceptable series. Venkatesh asked for a review of Gilles Deleuze’s Difference & Repetition. This is what he got instead.

Philosophy has long had two distinct approaches, embodied in the approaches of ancient Mediterranean, China, and India. The first, and most commonly recognized, is that of positing answers to elusive questions, an approach that has given birth to religions and the sciences. The second, however, is oriented towards the transformation of the disciple, sometimes radically so. In many cases the two are conjoined: Socrates’ questions about the order of the world were entwined with questions about how to live; Buddha’s wheel of becoming was implicated in his guide to right living; the metaphysics of the Stoics grounded their prescriptions.

In later centuries, these two functions were less closely coupled. The success of the sciences after the Baconian revolution and Boyle’s experimentalism led to frantic, productive activities in the former philosophical method. The latter wasn’t simply left to the moralists, however, but was intellectualized. Kant’s writings on deontological ethics were intended primarily to persuade, rather than form. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that a philosopher explicitly privileged formation over intellectualization: Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of all values” was communicated in aphorisms and parables in part to make the reader complicit in the idea’s expression.

In the late twentieth century, Deleuze’s concerns and methods are likewise complicit; his method the embodiment of the ideas he hoped to make manifest.

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I and Thou and Life in Aspergerstan

Mike is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog Omniorthogonal.

“I want to see you not through the Machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”

– E M Forster, The Machine Stops

Martin Buber (1878-1965) was a Jewish philosopher best known for integrating traditional Judaic thought with existentialism and other modern influences. His I and Thou is one of those little books that can utterly transform your worldview in just a few pages. It has some of the concentrated linguistic power of poetry or mathematics. Given its mystical religious overtones, that makes it feel somewhat dangerous to me — I can’t entirely embrace what it is saying, but fear that its linguistic spell might overpower my usual defenses.

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Notes on Spatial Metaphors for Social Systems

Distance metaphors are natural in any conversation about social phenomena. We talk of the distance between governance systems and the governed, guerrilla movements and host populations,  rich and poor, Chinese and American, Red and Blue.

Kevin Simler’s recent guest post made use of the standard geometric-metaphoric scheme, the Hofstede cultural dimensions model, to talk about startup cultures. The model also forms the basis for the analysis of globalization in Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0, which I reviewed last year. So distance metaphors are very robust across a wide range of social phenomena, from small startups to the entire planet.

Topology — the study of the pre-geometric structure of a space, such as whether it is orientable or not, doughnut shaped or spherical, and so forth — is not as natural or easy to apply, but is also useful if you can pull it off, as Drew Austin’s recent post on the Holey Plane demonstrated.

When you do topology and geometry for social systems incoherently, you get frustrating books like Friedman’s World is Flat.

But more careful approaches aren’t safe either.  In particular, the more I think about Hofstede’s model, the more dissatisfied I get. Is there a better way? I’ve been playing around with a few very preliminary ideas that I thought I’d share, prematurely.

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Discussion Note: Sartre’s Nausea vs. Future Nausea

This is a guest post by Christina Waters, who writes about art, wine, and food for the greater Bay Area community at and teaches Critical Theory and wordplay at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In last week’s post I idly wondered about whether the notion of ‘future nausea’ that I talked about had any relationship to the term in the sense of Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous 1938 novel, Nausea. Reader Dan L. suggested a connection between Sartre-nausea and the idea of mindfulness, which further intrigued me. Christina, who did her PhD work on Sartre’s theory of the imagination,  posted a comment confirming my suspicion that there was indeed a relationship. So I asked her to do a guest post highlighting some possible connections worth exploring.

So here you go. You may want to read the Wikipedia entry about the book, linked above, for context first.


Venkat muses about Sartre’s Nausea seen as a perspective on mindfulness. Perhaps, perhaps not—and we’ll return to that idea a bit later. But nausea is a perspective which makes him (or rather his literary avatar, Roquentin) sick.

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How the World Works: Part II

Last time, I did a quick comparative scan of Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political OrderPankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0 and David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5000 years, and covered Fukuyama’s book in more detail.

Let’s tackle World 3.0 next.

Ghemawat’s book is a tour de force of quantitative synthesis. Let’s start with an annotated version of the 2×2 that anchors World 3.0 (cleverly rotated by 45 degrees; I don’t know why other 2×2 inventors don’t do this)

This 2×2 is almost the only major piece of conceptual scaffolding in a book that is otherwise an empiricist’s delight. Everything is argued with numbers, and what cannot be argued with numbers is mostly not argued at all. It makes for a book with a lot of narrative potholes wherever the data gods to not smile, but where there is data, the book is extremely solid. It’s a refreshing change for me to read something that stays away from data-free speculation.

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How the World Works

If you want to seriously level-up your thinking about how the world works, you might want to try reading 3 very ambitious books together: Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0 and David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5000 years. All three are from the reading list that I posted in August, so I am hoping at least some of you have been attacking them.

It’s worth reading them together because they attempt to tell the same story, towards the same purpose — explaining how the world works in some sense — drawing on roughly the same body of raw material. It is illuminating to see the surprising ways in which the stories agree and disagree. All three books are also particularly valuable for me personally, since I hope to take a stab at telling the same story some day.

My version will of course be the definitive one when I write it, but let’s take a look at the versions of the story on the market today.

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