MJD 59,128

This entry is part 7 of 17 in the series Captain's Log

Covid is the first global downgrade in the average human quality of life since World War 2. Some of the individual downgrades are adaptive for climate change as well, and will likely get locked in for a longer term. Lowered global human mobility at all scales, from local driving to international flying, feels like the biggest downgrade to me. It feels sad. Sad like a pay cut, but also sad like the ending of The Lord of the Rings. The end of an era. A paradise lost.

One sense seems to mitigate the sadness, and that is the sense of a closer connection to distant histories and futures. The world just got bigger in space, but smaller in time.

Reading about the Spanish Flu 100 years ago (1918-19), or the Black Death 670 years ago (1348-50), feels in some ways like reviewing my own memories from 6 months ago. Equally, the future 100 or 670 years out suddenly feels a lot more real. I now feel a lot closer to 2120, when Covid will merely be yet another endemic seasonal sniffle, and climate change impacts will be peaking. And to 2690, when the climate wars will likely have settled as a distant memory of a war won (or at least nobly or ignobly fought and survived by a few).

Thanks to Covid, we can now live more fully in what the Stewart Brand crowd calls the long now. It is one of the few tastes that’s easier to satisfy, rather than harder, post-Covid.

After a few decades of collective historic presentism, attended by a certain historical amnesia and future-blindness, we are once again tapping into historical currents that connect us to lives and events far in the past and future. An abstract sense of history and the future has suddenly turned as visceral as personal memory. Living humans, mostly born 1930-2020, have clumsily merged their stories into the larger story of humanity, 20,000 BC to 3000 AD. Through the merge conflict, those of us alive today can, if we choose, outgrow the sense of temporal exceptionalism that has been the human default for decades.

Paul Erdos was good at living in the long now:

In 1970 I preached in Los Angeles on ‘my first two-and-a-half billion years in mathematics.’ When I was a child, the earth was said to be two billion years old. Now scientists say it’s four and a half billion. So that makes me two-and-a-half billion. The students at the lecture drew a time line that showed me riding a dinosaur. I was asked, ‘How were the dinosaurs?’ Later, the right answer occurred to me: ‘You know, I don’t remember, because an old man only remembers the very early years, and the dinosaurs were born yesterday, only a hundred million years ago.'”

(from The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, by Paul Hoffman)

Before Covid, I was 45 years old, in the middle of say a 90-year life (if I’m lucky). Post-Covid I suddenly feel 670 years old, looking forward to a personal future that extends another 670 years out. I’m in the middle of a 1340-year long now. Some of my old posts in this vein (Immortality in the Ocean of Infinite Memories, 2014 and A Beginner’s Guide to Immortality, 2013) suddenly feel a lot more real.

From a 1340-year long-now perspective, looking out at world events somehow feels less sad. The world eventfully existed for long before you and I were around, and will continue to exist for long after. We may be just passing through, playing at most a small part overall, but we don’t have to restrict our presence in the world to our lifespans. We can expand it to occupy the temporal span of all events we are capable of viscerally feeling.

Still, we can’t actually live for 1340 years, even if we get viscerally better at inhabiting such a long now. Living in the long now means feeling more time than you can touch. That begets a longing. Long-nowing means longing-now.

Mansionism 2: Bungalows

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Mansionism

Though I’m big on climate-resilient futures, I have an ambivalent relationship with density as a means to achieve them. I mostly grew up in company bungalows on generous-sized lots, and loved it. Both the word and the architectural style are Indian in origin. The style originated in feudal-era Bengal and spread across north India during the British Raj. In North Indian languages, the word bangla refers both to the style of house and the Bengali language.

As a prominent Bengali nobleman, Rabindranath Tagore likely had mansion-scale super-bungalows in mind when he wrote (emphasis mine):

Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls.

I don’t mean to be snarky, but this is the mansion whose narrow domestic walls he was born and raised in:

Jorasanko Thakurbari, now Rabindra Bharati University (P. K. Niyogi, CC-BY-SA-3)

Tagore is an anglicization of Thakur, which is a feudal title like Lord, not a last name. The Tagore family mansion pictured above, Jorasanko Thakurbari, is now part of the campus of Rabindra Bharati University in Calcutta, a public university dedicated to a Tagoresque tradition of education.

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Notes: The Marshall Plan by Benn Steil

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Book Notes

I read this next book, The Marshall Plan: Dawn of the Cold War, by Benn Steil, in an attempt to take the idea of a “Marshall Plan for post-Covid recovery” seriously.

I’m glad I did because I apparently had an entirely misguided understanding of what the plan was, the context in which it was undertaken, how it worked, and how well it worked.

In the decades since the OG plan arguably saved postwar Europe from collapse, the idea of a “Marshall Plan for X” has become something of a cliche in policy circles, and an event like the Covid19 pandemic is perhaps the most tempting sort of binding for X. I myself tweeted on March 28 that maybe we should shoot for a “bottom-up OODA Marshall Plan” sometime in March.

Now, having read the book, I have to say, the Marshall Plan is perhaps not the best precedent to look at for today’s needs, even though there are elements worth learning from, mostly in the what not to do department. If there are lessons here for post-Covid, they are not the obvious ones.Here is the original thread. On to the notes.

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Epistemic Reserve Notes

The metaphor of learning-as-purchasing pervades language — “are you buyin’ this?”

What is the currency of knowledge exchange?

Perhaps it used to be ‘facts’ — but as explored in Wittgenstein’s Revenge, focusing on facts will never improve public discourse.

We need a new “epistemic currency,” common to everyone. Fortunately, one already exists, and it’s more fundamental than facts: Trust.

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Notes: The Starship and the Canoe by Kenneth Brower

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Book Notes

This next book has probably my favorite so far of my pandemic reads. Kenneth Brower’s The Starship and the Canoe. It’s a strange paired biography of physicist Freeman Dyson and his son, adventurer and historian George Dyson. The “starship” refers to the nuclear powered Orion rocket program that Dyson Sr. helped conceive and lead, while the canoe refers to the adventures of Dyson Jr. building and voyaging around the Pacific Northwest in canoes.

Freeman Dyson died on February 28, just before the pandemic, which is how I found this book, via a obitweet by Ross Andersen. Normally, it would have gone straight to my someday/maybe pile as an intriguing but not urgent book. But with the pandemic growing more ominous by the day, somehow the timing felt right for such a liminal read (this is one of the few books that actually deserves that adjective).

I read the book between March 2 and April 4, through the early prepping weeks, and the first couple of weeks of lockdown. It felt pretty poignant to meditate on horizons terrestrial and extraterrestrial while locking down my own life within tight domestic boundaries. Looking back, six months into the pandemic, it was the perfect sort of mental preparation. On to the notes.

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Wittgenstein’s Revenge

We treat facts like they’re “atoms of truth” — small, indivisible, solid — and if you add them up, you get “big truths.”

But like atoms, facts are mostly empty space, and the closer we examine them, the less solidity we find.

It may be time to graduate from the metaphor of facts completely, to a metaphor that reflects a healthier relationship between truth and people.

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The Stack: A Love/Hate Story

For a while now, I’ve been interested in what I think of as “stack research” — investigations into how the high-tech built environment stack works at all levels. I have a milquetoast cyberpunk story to tell you that sheds some light on the matter.

It is about how I retrieved this remote control for my Canon EOS camera after dropping it. Yes, there’s a 2200-word story to be told about dropping something and picking it up. You see, I didn’t drop it on the floor. I dropped it from my 7th floor balcony into the backyard of the neighboring building.

To understand how absurd this story is, consider how simple this could and perhaps should be: in a traditional ordinary city, in say 1980, you’d just go over next door, ring the doorbell, and ask whoever answered if you could go back there and look for it. There’s no story there.

But of course, I live in Los Angeles in 2020, not Ordinary City in 1980. So it has to get more complex.

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Notes: Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Book Notes

Back when I started my pandemic deep-dive book-reading binge in late February, the first book I started with was Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction by Alec Nevala-Lee. But it’s only now, months later, that I have a clear sense of why it felt salient right now. Hence this out-of-order notes post based on my tweetstorm from February/March.

I read the book partly because I was interested in the life and career of John W. Campbell, and partly because I had this sense that the Golden Age of science fiction (loosely, 1938-1960), understood in context, had a set of important lessons to offer for us in 2020, dealing with the Great Weirding, and the aftermath of Covid. Turns out, my instincts were correct.

What follows are some prefatory remarks, followed by a slightly cleaned-up version of the live tweetstorm.

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Clockmaking: 1

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Clockmaking

As most of you know, I’m working on (another) book about time, The Clockless Clock, which I’m serializing on the Breaking Smart email list. In the spirit of getting a hands-on understanding of the subject, a while back I decided to build an actual clock as a semi-homemade project. Maybe more than one, but let’s start with one. This one, the ROKR 3D wooden mechanical pendulum clock:

I bought the kit ($45.99 on Amazon in case any of you wants to join me in the build) several months ago, but only just started building it. The thing is almost entirely laser-cut parts on several sheets of wood, so the first order of business was over an hour of painstakingly popping out the parts. It’s like a masochistic version of popping bubble wrap.

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Elderblog Sutra: 11

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Elderblog Sutra

When I started the blogchain experiment in January 2019, I had in mind a metaphor of a new system of tunnels under an old landscape of skyscrapers, creating a feel of what I called infratextuality. The decade’s worth of archives from the Rust Age (2007-12) and Snowflake Age (2013-18) would be the skyscrapers. The blogchains would be the tunnels, weaving a subterranean connective layer through the themes. In the process, ribbonfarm would age gracefully into an elderblog.

In recent months, I’ve shifted to a new metaphor: angkorwatificaction, after Angkor Wat, with its ruined-and-somewhat-restored temple complex intertwingled with wild plant life reasserting itself.

Image credit: Velvetscape.com

Applied to a blog, angkorwatification is a sort of textual equivalent of rewilding. You have a base layer of traditional blog posts that is essentially complete in the sense of having created, over time, an idea space with a clear identity, and a more or less deliberately conceived architecture to it. And you have a secondary organic growth layer that is patiently but relentlessly rewilding the first, inorganic one. That second layer also emerges from the mind of the blogger of course, but does so via surrender to brain entropy rather than via writerly intentions disciplining the flow of words. I’ve seen some other old sites undergo angkorwatification. Some seem to happily surrender to it like I am doing, others seem to fight it, like I won’t.

A related mental model is that of marine life colonizing sunken shipwrecks, forming artificial reefs. Deliberately contrived blog posts, like ships, have a design lifespan. If you scuttle them in the right locations when they start to feel old, new life can grow on the rusting hulks. It’s kinda fun to think of my archives as the sunken shipwreck of my own dead thoughts.

Memento mori. Not entirely though. It’s not ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s life to life. Language is a living force, and writing must necessarily deaden it in the pursuit of specific intentions. To abandon specific intentions is to surrender to the living force. Perhaps an elderblog, like a talkative child, should be a somewhat embarrassing social presence. Abandon gravitas in order to be more alive, for longer.

I like this metaphor better than my original towers-and-tunnels metaphor, because the way I’m writing here now is more like tree roots weaving inexorably through fragile human architecture than any sort of planned infratextual tunnel construction. The spires of the temple complex still represent the same thing: old style blog posts. Catchy headlines, meme-worthy core ideas, viral-intent writing. The sort of thing that, for a decade, ruled the web at large, and this site specifically.

Lightning strikes of viral attention can strike the spires of Angkor Wat as surely as they can skyscrapers, but the metaphor of an encroaching forest suggests something different than a system of tunnels. Where a tunnel system respects and attempts to preserve the landscape it weaves through, an encroaching forest does not. Roots can weave through cracks in the architecture, topple spires, and crumble walls. The idea of encroaching forests also suggests an abandonment of the base layer to its fate, which I like. The encroaching forest is neither friendly, nor hostile. It just follows its own ungoverned, more alive logic, casually destroying the old structure where it resists, leaving it alone where it doesn’t.

This year, though I’ve written a few old-style posts, including a big hit (Internet of Beefs), my expectations of them have been different. I have no interest in capturing the flash floods of attention by doubling down on the themes that attract them. I am now thinking primarily in terms of elder games, late style, and César Aira’s strange idea that art — and ribbonfarm remains at heart an art project — is not something that should be done well.

Much of my polished writing energy has been diverted to Breaking Smart and Art of Gig. So ribbonfarm is being reclaimed slowly by what for me is not so much a new style, but a newly public style. I now find myself treating this blog the way I treat my private notebooks, as a sort of scrapbook space. The stuff that feels truest to this new mode is my Captain’s Log blogchain with its numbered parts, and my book review live reads, pulled in from Twitter.

In trying to situate this process within what I’ve dubbed A Text Renaissance, it strikes me that angkorwatification is the evil twin of what many are starting to call digital gardening. Instead of a mindful and effortful curation of a slightly intimate space built from scratch, angkorwatification is a sort of letting-go; a surrender to the natural entropic forces that begin to emerge in a brain that has aged enough, and accumulated enough memories, both internally, and externally in blog-like prosthetic spaces. It is of course, only an option available to elderblogs. You can’t surrender territories to rewilding processes that you never attempted to civilize to begin with.

There is something wonderfully liberating about viewing ribbonfarm in this creative-destructive way, as a space slowly going to ruin under the onslaught of an encroaching forest. The first 11 years (2007-18) saw the construction of what strikes me in retrospect as a rather high modernist, premium-mediocre textual space, hustling for its share of the viral attention economy. In 2019, I began reversing course tentatively, with blogchains. In 2020, I think I’ve embraced this trajectory completely. What will this blog look like as angkorwatification progresses? I don’t know, but I’m curious to find out.