Hedonic Audit


Work and leisure are opposites inextricably entangled with each other, like yin and yang. In economics, the distinction has been formalized in a variety of ways. One distinction focuses on market work, and proposes that work is a disutility (a bad thing, an annoyance) that people have to be paid to do. Leisure, on the other hand, is a utility (a good thing) that people have to be paid to abandon. (See, e.g., Gratton & Taylor, “The Economics of Work and Leisure,” 2004.)

However, not all time outside of market work is truly leisure: there’s a big difference between washing the dishes and watching television. An alternative economic approach is to distinguish work and leisure by the degree to which they can be substituted with market inputs: work is something for which market substitutes exist (Aguiar and Hurst, “Measuring Trends in Leisure: The Allocation of Time over Five Decades,” 2006). For instance, the work of cooking can be substituted with restaurants, prepared meals, microwaves, and the like. Watching television is leisure, by this definition, because one “cannot use the market to reduce the time input into watching television (ibid.).” In this approach, “the leisure content of an activity is a function of technology rather than preferences.” It doesn’t matter if you enjoy cooking or not; it counts as work because there is a market substitute.

A synthesis of these might define work as a disutility for which one must be compensated, OR for which one would have to compensate others to do.

Consider an alternative definition by Robert E. P. Levy:

Any human activity or feature of human activity undertaken as a means to some desired state of affairs can be called work, and thus any kind of play is pervasively laden with elements of productive work

Work is different from play only in that the means are valued less than ends

Play is different from work only in that it is already realizing its value by its means, independent of what might come of it.

So clearly there is no dividing line between work and play, just work-like and play-like aspects of human activities.

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Into the Fediverse

As many of you already know, for the last few weeks, we’ve been running a Mastodon instance at refactorcamp.org on a pilot basis, kicking the tires and figuring things out. The requisite technical wizardry is being volunteered by Zach Faddis.

For those who don’t keep up with such things, Mastodon is an open-source, federated variant of Twitter, with a few key differences that make it a something of a quieter, slower-paced, more personal kind of space, somewhere in the twilight zone between private and public, local and global.

We are doing an open enrollment period for the next two weeks (till Tuesday, July 24th). You can register on the home page for an account. After the 24th, you will need an invite link from an existing user to join. If you already have an account on another instance, you can of course follow people on this instance.

But before you do either, please read the rest of this post.  Even if you’re already familiar with Mastodon.

If you do register after reading this, please add some meaningful profile info/tags, follow at least a dozen people, post a quick self-introduction with the hashtag #introduction, and do some tooting.

You don’t need to use your real name, and we have no expectations of minimum activity levels. But Zach, myself, and the rest of the Refactor Camp ICE squad will be kicking out pure lurkers, people with indistinguishable generic profiles, and suspected bot accounts, with extreme prejudice. We intend to run a clean, inviting, and safe joint.

Now for more details.

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Semi-Annual Roundup, 2018

It’s been a relatively slow first half of the year, thanks in part to a busier-than-normal work year for me on the consulting front. Not counting administrative posts, we’ve had 19 “real” posts so far.

Outside of publishing, we did manage to put out the The Art of Longform blogging course though (check it out, $100 for for a solid 6+ hours of video material with plenty of collateral).

We also did the 2018 Refactor Camp on Cryptoeconomics in Austin. I wrote up a glimpse of backstage stuff in the 2018 Annual Letter.

Here’s the roundup, organized by author. Happy 4th of July to US readers!

  1. Near-Deathness (6/21/2018) by Matthew Sweet
  2. The Unapologetic Case For Bullshit (1/18/2018) by Stefano Zorzi
  3. Symmetry and Identity (4/19/2018) by Kenneth Shinozuka
  4. (Don’t) Be the Gray man (2/1/2018) by Patrick Steadman
  5. Justifiable AI (3/13/2018) by Carlos Bueno
  6. Glitches, uh, find a way (1/25/2018) by Carlos Bueno
  7. Notes on Doing Things (5/10/2018) by Sarah Perry
  8. Luxuriating in Privacy (3/1/2018) by Sarah Perry
  9. The Well-Being Machine (6/12/2018) by Sarah Perry
  10. Justice Fantasies (2/8/2018) by Sarah Perry
  11. Cringe and the Design of Sacred Experiences (1/11/2018) by Sarah Perry
  12. Deep Laziness (4/6/2018) by Sarah Perry
  13. Reality Maintenance (5/29/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  14. Chekov’s Gun and the Principle of Sufficient Reason (6/14/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  15. Make Your Own Rules (2/15/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  16. Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre (4/24/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  17. The Key to Act Two (3/29/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  18. A Quick (Battle) Field Guide to the New Culture Wars (3/6/2018) by Venkatesh Rao
  19. Boat Stories (1/9/2018) by Venkatesh Rao

The Well-Being Machine


Social policy is a machine for turning force into utils.


A Rube Goldberg machine. Nancy Cartwright analogizes the “nomological machine” to this type of contraption.


This is an extreme reduction of a view that is widely held (if unconsciously), but, I will argue, wrong. As my friend David Chapman says, “Philosophy has no good new thoughts to teach you. However, you can learn why the thoughts you didn’t know you had are wrong.” The subjects here are two of the messiest folk concepts in existence, and they are the most central to whatever it is that we care about: causality and well-being. [Read more…]

Refactor Camp: Cryptoeconomics and Blockchain Weirding Summary and Wrap Up

Last weekend we hosted a diverse crowd for this year’s Refactor Camp.

You can see the schedule and copies of the public talks here:

Attendee Tim Beiko prepared a great set of notes for many of the talks: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1aHlJorwzOV4KDAv_WLpmAX6nTZavxndIEF_TZKE7Cb8/edit

Links to the talks during the livestream are below.  We will be uploading edited versions soon!  Check back later for a complete set of all available public talks.



Refactor Camp 2018 Livestream

Just a quick post: Refactor Camp 2018 is currently underway in Austin and you can watch the livestream here.

Notes on Doing Things

I have a stupid hippie mantra that my brain says to itself when I’m running and I notice that I’m second- or third-guessing myself over some little decision, like which route to take or how far to go:

Body is driving.

When my brain says this to itself, it’s using a dualistic metaphor similar to the one Jonathan Haidt uses in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. Briefly, there are two selves, one conscious, introspective, logical, and verbal; the other subconscious, sensory, emotional, and largely non-verbal (therefore relatively opaque to introspection by the verbal self). The elephant is apparently responsible for a great deal of behavior.

One upshot of this model is that you can’t just do things: you have to somehow get the elephant to do them. The popular tradition of productivity and getting things done is built around techniques for imposing the will of the rider on the elephant.

However, I am here interested in another way of looking at the duality, which I think my embarrassing, intrusive running mantra explains concisely: how to give the elephant the ability to do what it wants, sometimes even taking a rest and abdicating on behalf of the elephant. [Read more…]

The Art of Longform

In December 2016, over two weeks, Sarah Perry and I taught the Ribbonfarm Longform Blogging Course to a pilot class of 10 participants. In June 2017, we expanded the course from 4 to 6 sessions, renamed it the Art of Longform, built out a Teachable course site, and taught it to a second cohort of ~30 participants.

The second time around, feeling foolhardy, we decided to record the videoconference sessions.

Then I procrastinated for nearly a year, telling myself I’d learn video editing, auto-tune, and 3d graphics skills, polish the raw videos into TEDdy brilliance, add CGI dinosaurs, and release it as the first episode of the Ribbonfarm Cinematic Universe.

Well, that never happened, but I did manage to upload the raw videos, re-record one segment that I’d lost due to sloppy recording, add some new collateral, and FINALLY put the thing together (with an aesthetic pivot from summer blockbuster to cinéma vérité along the way).

So I give you: The Art of Longform as a self-paced pre-recorded course.

Over 10 years of blogging experience, 650+ longform posts, millions of words, frequent appearances on aggregator front pages, insights from the work of many dozens of contributors, and the lessons of at least a handful of legit memeceptions and viral hits went into the pile of superstitions, magical thinking, and dubious blogging lore that constitutes the metis of ribbonfarm today.

That illegible pile of metis, distilled, legibilized and compacted into ~7 hours of  authoritarian high-modernist cinéma vérité, is the Art of Longform.


The course is currently priced at $100. It currently contains 6h 48min of video content, 6 core slide decks, a handful of collateral documents, and plenty of resource links. I may add more material in the future, and/or update existing material if we do the live course again. The course home page linked above contains a brief intro video, and the syllabus. Some of the collateral material and the participant town hall video from the last session are open for free previewing.

If you enroll and work through the material, you’re welcome to try and make your money back from the course, by pitching us a post. As you might know, contributors receive a $100 honorarium for posts (our editors contribute for free, as befits their status as Gracious Elders Giving Back to the Blogosphere with Gravitas).

My goal with this course is like Thanos’ goal in Infinity War: to bring balance to the universe. Well, balance to the operating cost structure of ribbonfarm at any rate. My cunning plan here rests on the assumption that I’ll be able to use course revenues to completely cover hosting costs and contributor honorariums. We’ll see how that goes.

Course alumni and ribbonfarm editors have discounts codes available to them, so if you know one of the editors or someone who took the live course, you may want to ping them.

If you really, really, want to take the course, but really, really cannot afford it, pitch us a post, and if we like and accept your pitch, we’ll comp you access to the course.

If you’ve EVER contributed a post to ribbonfarm, you can get free access. Just email me.


I would like to thank the ~40 participants of the live course for helping make this happen, as well as editors-at-large Carlos Bueno, Taylor Pearson, Joe Kelly, Renee DiResta, and Kevin Simler for supporting the course by helping edit the participant course essays, and chiming in during the live sessions on occasion, and general background discussions. Carlos also contributed his world famous bird cartoon as course logo.

Special thanks to Evan Thomas, at the time a writing instructor at OSU, for his guest lecture, which added a modicum of credentialed respectability to this extremely shady operation that would totally be an unaccreditable diploma mill if we offered diplomas.

Ribbonfarm School


With this first serious offering, I’ve officially taken the plunge and decided to make Ribbonfarm School happen.

Right now, this is the only serious course on there, but more are in the pipeline, starting with the Breaking Smart 101 course based on Breaking Smart Season 1 workshop. I’m putting the finishing touches on that right now. Stay tuned.

And as always, I’m open to suggestions for other courses you’d like to see.

Here’s the Art of Longform course page link again.

Deep Laziness

Imagine a person who is very lazy at work, yet whose customers are (along with everyone else concerned) quite satisfied. It could be a slow-talking rural shop proprietor from an old movie, or some kind of Taoist fisherman – perhaps a bit of a buffoon, but definitely deeply content. In order to be this way, he must be reasonably organized: stock must be ordered, and tackle squared away, in order to afford worry-free, deep-breathing laziness.

Consider this imaginary person as a kind of ideal or archetype. Now consider that the universe might have this personality.

There is intense laziness apparent in the natural world (which one might come to understand simply by watching household pets). Christopher Alexander (in The Nature of Order, Volume II, pp. 37-39) notes many disparate examples of natural “laziness” that hint at an underlying principle (in history of science, the “principle of least action”): a soap bubble minimizing surface area, Ohm’s law, the shape of a river’s meander. “Many systems do evolve in the direction that minimizes their potential energy,” he says. “The deeper problem is that we are then faced with the question, Why should the potential energy be minimized?” [Read more…]

Refactor Camp 2018: Cryptoeconomics and Blockchain Weirding

Update: The event is now sold out.

From 2012-2016, Ribbonfarm hosted an informal annual meetup called Refactor Camp. The meetup facilitated a space for the Ribbonfarm community to meet and discuss ideas.  Most years it was held in the Bay Area, while 2016’s was hosted online.

Starting 2018, Venkat will step into an advisory role, Ribbonfarm will go from host to principal sponsor, and Refactor Camp will take on a life of its own beyond just the Ribbonfarm community (though we hope many Ribbonfarm readers will attend).

Darren, Joe and myself (Taylor) will be taking over the organizational baton for this year.

This years event and future events will keep to the ethos of previous Refactor Camps: intimate, affordable (run at break-even), unconference style event with a conscious mix of content from technology.

The short version

What: A 2-day conference featuring talks, workshops, and breakout sessions focused on blockchain technology, the sociology of blockchains, and any other weirdness we (or our illustrious speakers) come up with.

Theme: Cryptoeconomics and Blockchain Weirding

When: Saturday and Sunday, May 12-13th

Where:Austin, TX (Specifically The GasPedal Ranch, a beautiful venue just 15 minutes outside of downtown with ample meeting space and outdoor space.)

How much: $75

Our hope with this event is to “stretch the Overton window” a bit in terms of thinking about the implications and elements of blockchain technology and, in the Ribbonfarm tradition, facilitate some more speculative thinking and discussions than what happens at other cryptocurrency events.

This is not a place to “get up to speed” about Bitcoin or get Blockchain 101 exposure. While we anticipate content that’s appropriate for all stages of one’s crypto-journey, this isn’t a place for investment advice, “how to get started,” or how to launch an ICO.

Register here.

One of the breakout rooms at Gaspedal Ranch

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