MJD 59,354

This entry is part 16 of 19 in the series Captain's Log

Peter Turchin’s concept of elite overproduction has been on my mind increasingly lately. It refers to historical conditions during which there are more people aspiring to elite roles in society than power structures can absorb. In 2021, to a first approximation, this is people with college degrees in fields with low market demand. A good measure of the degree of overproduction is the intensity and rancor around STEM vs. humanities type debates, and “do you want fries with that?” jokes about art history degrees. The idea of elite overproduction is descriptive, not normative. It does not matter who wins Twitter debates about the “true” cultural value of various elite roles and aspirations. What matters is the actual distribution of unemployed human elite overstocks. When large masses of people fail to find economic means to sustain the elite social roles they’ve been conditioned to expect, and trained and enculturated to occupy, you have elite overproduction going on. The prevailing default perception of the specifics of the distribution of surplus elites is correct in broad strokes, even if there are weird exceptions and corner cases. It is probably true right now that the average STEM degree is less likely to make you part of the elite overstock than a humanities degrees.

The jokes about do-you-want-fries-with-that are particularly fraught this year. Service industries struggle to hire workers, but are wary of letting wages inflate even as various other price levels succumb. Unlike commodity prices, which can go up and down with supply and demand, wages are something of a sociopolitical one-way door. They’re harder to push back down once they manage to creep up. There is revolutionary fervor in the air as well, around everything from student-loan forgiveness and stimulus economics to policing and urban blight. The optics around great wealth are much uglier today than 10 years ago, when they were last in the spotlight to this degree. Gen X has joined the Boomers on the villains side of the aisle. Younger generations struggle, while older generations sit on top of record savings.

One reason to take elite overproduction theory seriously as a lens right now is that Turchin has been unusually right lately in his calls about the timing of historical crisis points. He anticipated that 2020 would be a year of crisis, and it was. He didn’t predict Covid afaik, but the pandemic was merely a cherry on top of the dire basic scenario he foresaw.

Thirteen years ago, the Global Financial Crisis led to a generation of disaffected and underemployed young graduates turning their online-native skills to culture-warring. Ten years ago, that reached a flashpoint with the Occupy movement, and led to far right and far left movements making inroads into mainstream politics and shaping the next decade. That whole story was primarily an elite overproduction story. To the extent there was non-elite energy in the movements, it was there because it had been co-opted by wannabe-elite actors in service of their own frustrations. In the US, urban black political issues turned into white wannabe-elite causes, rural and small-town rust-belt blue collar issues turned into white wannabe-elite causes as well. For a few years, all political roads led to elite overstocks, often being transformed unrecognizably in the process. The result was the volatile mix of genuine and imagined grievances, insincere co-option of non-elite causes, and outright grift, that gave us the Great Weirding.

It’s commencement season and we can expect to see a new crop of commencement speeches soon. The global Class of 2021 will probably be much smaller than normal, and have to make do with curtailed or online ceremonies. Despite the small size of the cohort though, I suspect, most of this year’s crop of fresh graduates will still struggle to find jobs and careers, and be in a worse situation than the Class of 2008. I wonder what the commencement speakers will say. I’d have nothing much inspiring to say if challenged to give such a speech. It is hard for privileged older generations to say useful things to younger generations entering adulthood under much worse conditions.

Conditions today are far more fraught than in 2008. Freshly minted Zoomer wannabe-elites today are likely more disaffected than the Millennials who came of age through the GFC, more skilled at channeling that disaffection into elite overstock unrest, and have more history to learn from. On the plus side (such as it is) they have only every known fraught times, and have never known hope in the sense Millennials did. Will that make them more or less energized? I don’t know.

But in the meantime, on the demand side, elite roles have become even more scarce, non-elite under-the-API roles are under even greater stress, and there has been essentially no political or economic movement on the issues of 2011. The far right has, to some extent, shot its shot, but the far left has yet to do so. All-in-all it’s a much bigger powder keg than 2011.

Unless something exceptionally big and positive happens soon, as the emergency civic discipline of Covid loosens its grip on populations around the world, we can expect the 2020s to get even more explosively weird than the 2010s.

Here we go again. Fasten your seatbelts.

Comet Bob

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Storytelling — The American Tradition

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Narrativium

Adam Gurri pointed me to this 1895 Mark Twain essay, How to Tell a Story, which makes the interesting claim that the humorous story, dependent for its effect on the manner of telling rather than the matter, is an American invention:

There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind–the humorous. I will talk mainly about that one. The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.

I’m not sure if Twain’s claim is strictly true even within the narrow scope of his comparison to English and French storytelling traditions, but there’s something to what he was getting at in the essay. For whatever reason, in the 19th century, America reinvented, in a unique new way, an old, primarily oral form of storytelling. A form that appeared centuries after the rise of written and printed forms of storytelling, and within a modern, industrial context.

In making his exceptionalist claim for American storytelling, Twain was, I think, right about something. The question is what?

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MJD 59,326

This entry is part 15 of 19 in the series Captain's Log

I am considering adopting two rules for projects that I think are very promising for 40+ lifestyles.

  1. No new top-level projects (TLPs) (twitter thread)
  2. Ten-year commitments to projects or no deal (twitter thread)

I don’t mean practically necessary projects like doing something to earn money. I mean non-necessary life projects like writing a blog, or a maker project.

Shitposting and idle dabbling are still allowed so long as they don’t grow into new TLPs. They can grow into subprojects of existing TLPs, but even then I need to make a ten-year commitment or not do them at all. There’s a bunch of ambiguity here, around what’s a project versus the contents of one (is a new blogchain a subproject or just a thread of content for the overall blogging project?), but set that aside for now.

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MJD 59,323

This entry is part 17 of 19 in the series Captain's Log

Yesterday, I was testing a new bench power supply I just bought. I tested it with a multimeter, then connected it up to a motor, to make it go brrr for fun. It’s the sort of thing I haven’t done since grad school, decades ago.

As I was tinkering, I was idly wondering about whether there was any fodder for blog posts in what I was up to. I don’t mean Maker posts. A lot of people write about Maker stuff, and do it a lot better than I ever could. I mean riffs on Life, the Universe, and Everything inspired by tinkering with a new power supply.

Most of my writing to date has been inspired by things like working in an office, consulting, watching TV and of course, reading words written by others. That stuff is good fodder for riffs on Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Though I’m having a lot of fun rediscovering engineering with a middle-aged mind, I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to mine tinkering for insights on Life, the Universe, and Everything. Tinkering In, Words Out, TIWO, is a tougher transformation than SIWO: Symbols In, Words Out. Which is why it’s an interesting challenge.

Possibly it’s just me getting used to once again looking at the world through a long unused lens, but I think there’s more to it. There seems to be some sort of mutual inhibition function between tinkering with ideas with words and tinkering with stuff with atoms. Digital bits, as in programming, are somewhere in between.

While tinkering, you’re thinking a lot of mostly nonverbal thoughts. In this case, I was wondering about what the floating ground terminal was for, noticing how the sound of the motor was changing pitch at different voltages, observing the voltage deadzone between the motor starting/stopping as you turn the voltage up/down, thinking of ways to measure rpm and torque easily, and so on.

Depending on how you think about it, there’s either nothing to say about this sort of mundane tinkering stream of consciousness, far from Archimedean eureka moments, or there’s enough to merit several thousand words of prose. And I don’t mean how-to and instruction manual type stuff.

You could, for instance, write about the edifying, soul-uplifting effects of working with your hands. You could write satire about cliche mid-life crisis activities like tinkering in a home workshop, triggered by too much time spent in the world of symbols. You could wax philosophical about materiality, and sensory-experiential mindsets. You could write some poignant poetry about the smell of multimeters in the morning.

And of course, you could write about the actual activity itself, like the not-in-textbooks metaphysical subtleties lurking beneath apparently well-understood things like voltage and current. That is the sort of thing Brian Skinner has been blogging about on here lately.

But the thing is, whatever you think you might want to say, you have to stop the physical tinkering and start the verbal tinkering. You have to switch context from subsymbolic to symbolic ways of experiencing the world.

Physical activity radiates plenty of cues from which verbalized thought can begin, but to actually follow a verbal train of thought you have to stop the physical stream of activity, and think with symbols again. The context-switching is much more drastic than between two symbolic-domain activities.

I suspect the blue-collar/white-collar divide is about more than pre-modern class boundaries being perpetuated by industrial forms of organization. The prototypical activities involve different sorts of cognition.

Physical tinkering is basically 5-sense environment scanning at a very high bitrate driving tactile action that’s much more complex than producing symbol streams, aka typing. The literal Fingerspitzengefühl — finger-tips feeling — is more complex and less available to ensnare with words. And if you force it, either the words will suffer, or the skill will.

While tinkering, you’re logging a lot of information, and even though most of it is very low-salience, processing it is fundamentally different than working with streams of symbols. Symbol tinkering is very low bitrate, but the acrobatics it can sustain are much more complex. Physical tinkering is a Big Data computation for the human brain, while symbolic tinkering is ordinary computation. Reading and writing of course is mostly symbolic. Writing about social stuff and interactions with other people is also mostly symbolic, though of course there’s a world of non-verbal detail to observe if you want to.

Programming is somewhere in between subsymbolic and symbolic tinkering, and is harder to turn into Life, the Universe, and Everything fodder than either. Maybe that’s why movies and TV shows have struggled the most with portraying lives lived amid code.

Here’s why we don’t understand heavier-than-air flight

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Mystifications

If you’ve been reading popular science websites or magazines lately, then you may have heard the news: we don’t understand how airplanes work.

For example:

This fact may surprise you, given that humans have been successfully designing, building, and flying airplanes for over a century now. But I’m afraid that the articles are pretty clear:

In this post, I will consider the question of why we don’t understand heavier-than-air flight.

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Kinds of Potential

I’ve been thinking about the idea of potential lately, especially in the sense of the phrase “technological potential” as applied to say countries, growth sectors, trends, and charismatic engineering companies like SpaceX.

Or on a smaller scale, things like just a workbench with tools.

For instance, what sort of potential does a well-stocked workbench have? Here’s my 6-month old one. It’s young, but pretty well-stocked at this point. You can’t measure its potential in volts, but it certainly has a quality described by the word potential.

For the past 6 months, I’ve been doing increasingly complex maker projects (from a low baseline where getting an LED to blink felt like an accomplishment), and slowly buying equipment and supplies along the way, in the process building out this workbench corner in my home office. It feels like watching a peculiar battery slowly get charged up to its full potential.

I call this corner of my office the Ribbonfarm Lab. Someday I hope to rent space and grow that corner into a whole room. And then that room into a mansion with its own underground lair and air defense system.

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Elderblog Sutra: 12

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Elderblog Sutra

The last time I added to this blogchain, in July 2020, I was thinking about the metaphor of angkorwatification of elder blogs — the rewilding of an essentially complete, but ruined-and-restored structure, with plant life reasserting itself. A different tree metaphor has been on my mind lately, that of Groot, the ancient character in Guardians of the Galaxy who dies and regenerates as Baby Groot, with no memories of his past life (Baby Groot inaugurated the reboot-trope that has since been made more famous by Baby Yoda). In a curious way, I feel like ribbonfarm has gone full circle and is back to being a baby blog again, to the extent blogs can be babies at all in 2021.

Strangely enough, the rapid rise of Substack, the sudden explosion in highly produced essays on static sites, and most recently, essays being sold as individual works of art via NFTs (non-fungible tokens), has made me feel old in the relatively young newsletter/static site world (which I also participate in), and young again in the blogging world.

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Here’s why we don’t understand what electricity is

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Mystifications

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written in 1818, the young Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with the idea that electricity is a kind of fluid that endows living things with their life force. This obsession leads to tragedy.

Shelley’s view of electricity was, in fact, not an uncommon perspective at the time: just a few decades earlier the Italian scientist Luigi Galvani had shown that a shock of static electricity applied to the legs of a dismembered frog would cause the legs to kick. Galvani concluded that there existed a kind of “animal electric fluid” that was responsible for the animation of living creatures.

A diagram from Galvani’s De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius, 1791.

In the two hundred years since Frankenstein our view of electricity has certainly evolved, as has our ability to generate and control electric currents. But do we really understand what we’re doing? Do we even know what electricity is?

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Storytelling — Harmon vs. McKee

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Narrativium

I’ve been on a gigantic yak-shave for the last few months exploring storytelling theories, so I figured I’d start a new blogchain to compile my findings.

The most useful line about storytelling I’ve read so far is this line from Walter Benjamin, quoted at the opening of Reality Hunger:

“All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.”

I realized the line accurately describes all stories I like, and also everything I attempt in my own fiction experiments, whether or not I succeed. Hitchhiker’s Guide, for example, dissolved the genre of space opera. Iain M. Banks’ Culture series resurrected and reinvented it. Storytellers who do one of the two things tend to do at least a little bit of the other as well, but tend to have a preference. It’s like being left or right-handed.

One storyteller who seems particularly good at dissolving genres, and to a lesser extent, inventing them, is Dan Harmon.

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