Gardens Need Walls: On Boundaries, Ritual, and Beauty

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

This essay attempts to place ritual in the context of evolving complex systems, and to offer an explanation for why everything is so ugly and nobody seems to be able to do anything about it.

On Boundaries and Their Permeability

Boundaries are an inherent, universal feature of complex systems. Boundaries arise at all scales, defining the entities that they surround and protecting them from some kinds of outside intrusion. To be functional, boundaries must be permeable, allowing the entities to take energy and information from outside themselves. If we are looking at complex systems, we will find boundaries everywhere.

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What Is Ritual?

Sarah Perry  is a resident blogger visiting us from her home turf at The View from Hell.

If we should inquire for the essence of “government,” for example, one man might tell us it was authority, another submission, another police, another an army, another an assembly, another a system of laws; yet all the while it would be true that no concrete government can exist without all these things, one of which is more important at one moment and others at another. The man who knows governments most completely is he who troubles himself least about a definition which shall give their essence. Enjoying an intimate acquaintance with all their particularities in turn, he would naturally regard an abstract conception in which these were unified as a thing more misleading than enlightening. And why may not religion be a conception equally complex?

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture II

Khlyist ecstatic ritual

What is ritual? The religious studies scholar Ronald R. Grimes presents six pages of short definitions of ritual as an appendix to his The Craft of Ritual Studies; they make for fun reading, but also suggest a hopeless confusion surrounding a tempting and fascinating topic. William James, in his 500-page Varieties of Religious Experience, provides for us, instead of a single essence of religion, what he calls an “apperceiving mass” – plentiful examples through which the nuances of the matter will gradually reveal themselves. Since a blog post is hardly the place for such an “apperceiving mass,” I will attempt instead to define ritual within a tidy framework, keeping in mind that any such reduction will necessarily miss some of the important aspects of a major human domain. Nonetheless, I do think my simple model provides insight into the nature of ritual, and helps us to make sense of the seemingly irrational behaviors of other cultures, as well as the ways in which modern Western culture is itself a strange, ritual order.

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The Future of Tipping

A couple of weeks ago, I was introduced to the bitcoin-based tipping service for Twitter, ChangeTip, by Leslie John Dilley. It is a fascinating thing to experiment with, and you should try it out if you’re interested in bitcoin. What makes it particularly interesting is that you can define your own pseudo-currency units called “monikers”. The result is a deceptively simple-seeming UX that not only lowers online tipping friction dramatically, but nails the psychology of tipping in a very powerful way. You simply mention who you want to tip in a tweet, and how much (using either a standard unit or a personalized moniker), and cc @ChangeTip. The service then sends out a tweet inviting the recepient to collect. The second tweet looks like this (notice how the 2nd and 3rd examples in the image are using personalized monikers; “bits” in the first one is one of the standard system-wide monikers):



Besides making you feel all important because you get to name your own currency, it is interesting because it helps you shape the social perceptions that ride along with a tip. One of my personal monikers, for instance, is “refactorings” where a refactoring is worth one penny. If I tip somebody 100 refactorings on Twitter, it means they get a dollar if they choose to collect, and if they know me, they also know that they’re getting it because one of their tweets helped me see something in a new way.

The idea of shaping the perceived meaning of a transaction is a hugely important one I think, and opens up very interesting new territories for economics. One of its effects might well be to increase the importance of tipping and decrease the importance of “meaningless” basal transactions. This is an interesting development because one of my assumptions so far has been that digital transactions break tipping cultures.

I have now changed my mind to the polar opposite view: going digital will eventually strengthen tipping culture to the point where the tipping economy might even become bigger than the basal transactional economy.

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The Adjacency Fallacy

Lately, I’ve been having quite a few conversations with people who are trying to reinvent themselves for the new economy. The most common pattern is MBA-types trying to reinvent themselves as entrepreneurial types. The second most common pattern is mid-career types who would normally be moving into either middle management roles trying to reinvent themselves as online lifestyle business types.

It took me a few data points to spot the pattern, but I eventually realized that most people navigating such moves don’t get stuck trying to acquire new, relevant skills. That is actually not quite as hard to do as people think. In many cases, you barely need any skills retraining at all. Often you need no new skills at all. You might even be able to drop some skills and get by with a subset of the skills you had to use before.

The sticking point tends to be something I call the adjacency fallacy: the idea that the roles that suit your personality and soft-skill strengths are likely to be socially adjacent to the one you are leaving behind. “Nearby” roles in some sense.  What sense precisely, we’ll get to.

Adjacency thinking works poorly even if you stick to the old economy. Over the years, we’ve seen the metaphor get increasingly complicated: from the “career ladder” to “lateral moves” to Sheryl Sandberg’s  notion of a “career jungle gym.” The last is a concept so byzantine, merely thinking of it exhausts me to the point of wanting to take a nap.

But adjacency thinking does not work at all if you’re navigating a path from old economy to new economy.

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The Political Hangover of Prohibition

This is a guest post by Craig Roche, a data scientist and artisanal landlord.

Whiskey is very easy to make.  Farmers used to make it at home using their crops, and Henry Ford designed the Model T to run on home-distilled ethanol.  George Washington distilled 55,000 bottles/year when he retired from being President. Even the mutineers from the Bounty set up a still on Pitcairn Island, and proceeded to get rip-roaringly drunk for weeks at a time. Whiskey is also very cheap to produce;  a bushel of corn ($5 or so), plus 60 cents worth of natural gas can produce 11 liters of automobile-grade ethanol, which, when suitably diluted and aged for drinking purposes, can fill 35 bottles.  Whiskey for human consumption requires higher-quality inputs, more energy for multiple distillations, and additional handling, but even so, decent hooch can be produced for less than $2/bottle. In the 1830s, the equivalent of a bottle of whiskey went for about $5, and Americans responded by guzzling roughly one each week per capita; as young children generally abstained, actual drinkers drank substantially more, all of which was tax-free.

If we assume that the desire to drink, especially among the poor, is an important motivation in peoples’ lives, you would expect alcohol markets to shed light on political conditions across states.

Jack Daniels is the world’s most popular brand of whiskey, and is widely distributed in every state in the US in a standard 750ml container; it is produced fairly close to the mean center of US population, so it should therefore work as a good lens on alcohol politics. Left to a free market, one would reasonably expect that the cost of a retailed bottle would vary with transportation costs, and somewhat with labor rates, or alternatively, that lower-income consumers would spend about the same fraction of their income on Jack Daniels across the USA, or in other words, that the working time per bottle would be constant.

To test this, I researched the cost of a standard bottle of Jack Daniels in each of the states at a high-volume liquor store in the largest city in each state, and compared it to the average wage at the 25th percentile:


Figure 1: Labor Cost of Jack Daniels (Image source: Craig Roche)

The results were not what I expected. It turns out that the constant-working-time-per-bottle hypothesis is not even close.

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The Veil of Scale

There’s an old Soviet-era joke about communist notions of sharing. Two party workers, let’s call them Boris and Ivan, are chatting:

Boris: If you had two houses, would you give one to your comrade?
Ivan: Of course!
Boris: If you had two cars, would you give one to your comrade?
Ivan: Without a doubt!
Boris: If you had two shirts, would you give one to your comrade?
Ivan: You’re crazy, I couldn’t do that!
Boris: Why not?
Ivan: I have two shirts!

There are two things going on here. One is of course, the skin-in-the-game effect. The other is what I call the veil of scale: we choose small-and-local behaviors differently depending on how we think those behaviors will have emergent scaled consequences. The joke here depends on going from large-scale to small-scale questions, surprising Ivan with a question that’s real for him.

The veil of scale is about thought experiments of the form: how would you act in a situation if you didn’t know the extent to which your actions were going to be scaled?

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The Economics of Pricelessness

The digital economy has taught us a lot about one extreme of pricing: zero. The price-point of zero is a place where weird things happen. We now know what it is to have our attention productized in three-way attention markets. We understand what it means to  devalue to a zero price, things which required nonzero effort to produce. Perhaps most importantly, we know what it is like to constantly be inundated by advertising, the sine qua non of zero-point economics. The zero-point economy has of course always existed, but it has only recently gained a great deal of economic mass.

But we aren’t talking as much about the other end of the spectrum, the price point we poetically call priceless, as in the Mastercard tagline, “there are some things money can’t buy, for everything else, there’s Mastercard.” I think the two are connected (mathematically, via division by zero, and philosophically via “the best things in life are free”), so it is impossible to construct a proper theory of the zero price point without also creating a theory of the infinity price point.

Pricelessness is at the heart of what I call saint-saint transactions, a weird economic regime where people who abide by the guardian moral syndrome, in the sense of Jane Jacobs, are forced to play by the commerce moral syndrome. This means somehow trading things, which are culturally assumed to be priceless, via indirection. Depending on who you ask, the category of nominally priceless products and services includes life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, nature, human dignity, religious values and the welfare of children.

Such priceless things trap us between a rock and a hard place. If we admit that we do in fact price these things indirectly, and get rid of the indirection, we might manage the economy better, but will likely stress our sanity. If we continue, as we do today, to pretend that priceless things are literally rather than poetically priceless, we will continue with our grand display of possibly unsustainable species-level honor and nobility.

An economics of pricelessness might help find a way to get out of this bind. The fact that the phrase itself likely sounds like a profane contradiction in terms suggests it is the right direction to explore. Let’s take a stab at it.

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Structure Follows Context

I like mirroring principles in business a lot. My two favorite ones in business are Conway’s Law (product structure follows organizational structure) and Chandler’s Law (structure follows strategy). In conversations about business in recent years, I’ve been adding two more principles to complete a loop of sorts: market structure follows product structure and strategy follows market structure. The whole thing is what I call the data-driven death spiral, and is the reason I’ve become a partisan on the question of product-driven versus customer-driven thinking.  It operates through unimaginative leaders navigating entirely on the basis of market signals, which ultimately leads to businesses chasing their own tails. The only way a maturing business can break out of the death spiral is through the actions of a very strong leader. One capable of injecting a stiff dose of imaginative authoritah from the top.

dddspiralThat said, I’ve been sensing that my model is incomplete in a significant way. The biggest mirroring effect is the one it is easiest to miss: structure follows context. A context is the evolutionary environment (which is not the same as the competitive environment) within which a business grows, and which they shape to serve their needs as they grow. A city is the classic example of a context, but there are other kinds, such as ancient trade routes, or github (for purely virtual software teams). Contexts host businesses, but are not themselves primarily or necessarily businesses.

A context  is the sum of all history rolled up into a present-day operating environment, like a canvas with an evolving painting already on it. A new business must be painted onto some such canvas, just as software must be compiled for a specific machine. Only dictators have the luxury of razing a living context, creating a blank canvas (a dumb thing to do in almost every case).

Let’s look at the example of Seattle to see what I mean.

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Saints and Traders: The John Henry Fable Reconsidered

I only recently learned (from Sarah Constantin, whose new blog is worth checking out) of the American folk legend of John Henry, a steel driver who raced against a steam drill and won, only to drop dead right after. Wikipedia tells the story thusly:

He worked as a “steel-driver”—a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock away. He died during the construction of a tunnel for a railroad. In the legend, John Henry’s prowess as a steel-driver was measured in a race against a steam powered hammer, which he won, only to die in victory with his hammer in his hand and heart giving out from stress. The story of John Henry has been the subject of numerous songs, stories, plays, books and novels.

The amazing thing about John Henry is not that he chose to race against a machine. The amazing thing is not even that he won a Pyrrhic victory. The truly amazing thing is that he was turned into a folk hero rather than a cautionary tale, and a symbol of human dignity when in fact his behavior was what you might call morally robotic: based on non-negotiable values that killed him.

The key word above is prowess. It’s a rather archaic word, one I’ve never heard used in conversation, but a useful one. It has connotations of both skill and valor, bundled together in a notion of dignity. On a level playing field with a closed and bounded set of fixed rules, prowess could also be considered synonymous with competitive drive. 

Unfortunately, a human racing against a steam drill is not exactly a level playing field and the economic activity of building profitable railroads is not exactly a cleanly circumscribed Olympic competitive sport. Asymmetric and open-ended conditions separate prowess from competitive ability and turn it into a liability. A large fraction of the labor force today is in a John Henry situation within protectionist sectors of the economy, so it is important to knock down this particular idol with some unsentimental revisionism.

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The Logic of Uberreaction

I recently made up a word: uberreact. To uberreact is to  insist that regulations which exist for the benefit of  incumbent producers in a market (and their political patrons) are there to protect the interests of consumers. The inspiration for the term, of course, is the very predictable pattern of response by taxicab companies when Uber enters a market. Here’s a particularly clear example from London, where the taxicab union is arguing that Uber drivers should be required to have licenses to act as booking centers (rather than just driver’s licenses), since they operate under minicab laws:

“It’s like when you buy a saucepan online and you use PayPal to pay for it. Your transaction is with the guy you bought the saucepan from, not with PayPal,” McNamara told “With Uber, the guy taking the booking is the operator and so needs a license and a licensed operating center which can’t be a car…One day there’ll be a major accident in one of these cars and there will be a multimillion pound claim and an insurance company will look at it and say that the hiring didn’t take place through a licensed operating center so it won’t be insured,”…

Bertram [Uber UK GM] points out that the intention of the law is to protect passengers and that there are many public safety measures that technology like Uber’s can bring. “The point of knowing who accepts the booking is so that there’s traceability. We have the name, photo and registration of the driver, you can share a live map of the journey with family and friends and get a full copy of the details in a receipt.”

The taxicab union argument against Uber conflates the principle of protecting the consumer interest with a specific technology-dependent mechanism for doing so, and Uber representatives very reasonably offer the counter-argument that their technology actually offers many improvements towards the intent of protecting customer safety.

But what is curious here is why both the taxicab unions and Uber seem to have tacitly agreed to talk about customer safety rather than what the rest of us assume is the issue: suddenly devalued million-dollar medallions and jobs under threat.

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