Storytelling — Harmon vs. McKee

This entry is part 1 of 6 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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MJD 59,256

This entry is part 13 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

2021 is turning out to be a slow year getting off the ground here on ribbonfarm. A quick-and-dirty theory I made up and began testing last year about a kind of play-to-production pipeline for my writing isn’t quite working out:

  • Twitter for play-level shitposting and transient lightning-rod stuff
  • Ribbonfarm for experimental and R&D writing with no QA (open)
  • Breaking Smart and Art of Gig for production-grade stuff with a bit of QA (paywalled)

Ribbonfarm is in a way getting starved of low-hanging fruit to work with as raw material.

On the one hand, if it’s early enough, I shitpost on Twitter about it, often making what I now refer to as threadthulhus — messy intertwingled threads that QT and reference each other in weird ways like a bad Cthulhu dream, exploring a big topic with an utter lack of discipline.

These are not easy to clean up and serialize into essays, so I only do it when the idea feels extra strong, like the Internet of Beefs post which started life as a threadthulhu. But often, the very act of letting something sprawl into a threadthulhu precludes it ever become a cleaned-up essay. You have to switch gears early enough to do that, or it becomes impossible.

On the other hand, if it’s old-style enough (as in, a style I developed here 5+ years ago), it ends up in the newsletters. The subscription mode of the two newsletters keeps me on my toes on the production end, and even when it’s not fun, I’ve disciplined myself to keep writing. And because it is usually very familiar topics, and styles I’ve been honing for a decade, I can produce that kind of content even when I’m not feeling at the top of my game. It’s also stuff that I feel kinda doesn’t deserve a place on ribbonfarm anymore (which is a weird kind of self-snobbery, since I expect people to pay for it) because it is not bold enough in its intentions. It’s safe stuff for me personally. The risk of writing a truly bad newsletter are low because I don’t take many risks with newsletters.

Ribbonfarm is where I’ve always done stuff where I don’t want to be held to others’ expectations (which comes with taking money), but do have my own expectations. The expectations I have of myself here are the opposite of the QA type expectations I have of myself with newsletters and books. I don’t care about consistent quality or thematic coherence. But I do expect stuff I write here to be fun to write, break new ground thematically, and be at least a little technically challenging in writing terms, forcing me to develop new tricks or skills to execute on an idea (I’m almost never methodologically experimental in the newsletters).

This experimental quality means only a small fraction of readers will have the patience to ignore the failed experiments and wait for the experiments that work. It also means it would be kinda unfair to charge for it, since there are no implied promises.

Hey, there’s a 2×2!

The thing that’s making it hard this year is that the two kinds of writing I want to experiment with this year — fiction and maker projects — both involve a lot of upfront design and planning.

For the former, stories have to have more structural work and plotting up front (even if you are a pantser like me, and approach fiction as an improv activity, it still involves way more planning than nonfiction).

For the latter, well, you have to actually design and/or build stuff offstage and take photos to talk about, as in my clockmaking project posts. Otherwise you’re vaping rather than making.

In both cases, you need more time, and longer-range planning. You can’t just make shit up in a day, which creates a problem.

Historically, 90% of the posts on ribbonfarm were conceived and written in a single day — those that took longer did so simply because they were long (~4-5k finished words per day is my physical limit), not because I was planning them. I’ve almost never done preparation, outlining, note-taking etc. I wake up with an idea, and if I have the energy, I write for 4-14 hours, and I have a post. Done.

Lately of course, my energy has been closer to the 4-hour end than the 14-hour end, which is one of the reasons I shifted to the blogchain model. I simply don’t have the physical energy to do the 14-hour–day heavy lifts anymore that fueled this blog in the early years. Worsening middle-aged eyesight and stiffening joints aren’t helping either. I have to pace myself now, and break up writing sessions with physical activity to stay sane and avoid physical pain. Working on stuff that takes more planning and preparation fits better with my current energy patterns in theory, but clearly I’m having some startup troubles.

Anyhow, this is obviously an excuse-post for why more exciting things haven’t been happening here this year, given we’re already into February. The good news is, I’m working it out, and figuring out workflows and tooling and mechanisms to actually write the fiction and maker posts I am itching to write. It’s just taking longer than I expected to retool the factory.

Domestic Cozy: 13

This entry is part 13 of 13 in the series Domestic Cozy

Kyle Chayka, author of The Longing for Less, a 2020 book on the rise of minimalism, has an interesting feature in yesterday’s NYT Magazine, How Nothingness Became Everything We Ever Wanted, exploring the thesis that a “self-obliterating” tendency of retreat was already at work before Covid, and was aggressively accelerated by it.

Signs of a culture-wide quest for self-obliteration appeared everywhere in the time after my first float. I walked by an exercise studio whose sandwich board commanded me to “Log out. Shut down. Do yoga.” REI marketed a garment that “Feels like nothing. And that means everything.” In a January 2020 column about omnipresent noise-canceling headphones and the desire to block out our surroundings with constant sound, The Economist argued, “The shared world is increasingly intolerable.” Friends were picking up the paperback of Ottessa Moshfegh’s best-selling 2018 novel “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” about a young woman’s drugging herself to sleep as much as possible in order to emerge into the world anew. “When did staying in become the new going out?” asked a 2020 ad for Cox internet I saw during the Super Bowl, depicting a family frolicking in their living room wearing virtual-reality goggles, in an eerie precursor of what was just around the corner.

For years, an aesthetic mode of nothingness has been ascendant — a literally nihilistic attitude visible in all realms of culture, one intent on the destruction of extraneity in all its forms, up to and including noise, decoration, possessions, identities and face-to-face interaction. Over the past decade, American consumers have glamorized the pursuit of expensive nothing in the form of emptied-out spaces like the open-floor plans of start-up offices, austere loft-condo buildings and anonymous Airbnbs. Minimalism from the Marie Kondo school advocated a jettisoning of possessions that left followers with empty white walls. This aspiration toward disappearance made luxury synonymous with seeing, hearing, owning and even feeling less…

Quarantine has been widely regarded as a radical break in our daily lives and the ways we interact with the world, but in truth it’s simply an overdose of the indulgences a certain segment of the population was dabbling in already. We’re a little like kids caught with a cigarette, forced to smoke a whole pack at once.

The article quotes me and Domestic Cozy (Kyle interviewed me a few months before the pandemic started, and this feature obviously went into an extended development mode to accommodate the pandemic), and rather hilariously anoints me a “thinkfluencer’s thinkfulencer.” Which is kinda appropriate for this blogchain in particular, since I self-consciously set out to explore this particular bunny trail in an inception-optimized drip-feed form rather than trying to distill a viral-intent long feature out of it myself. Domestic cozy is a tortoise among hare-like memes.

Kyle’s thesis is an interesting mash-up of the longer-term minimalism trend that’s been his primary interest, and the more recent retreat trend. It’s not quite the same as either Domestic Cozy or what I’ve called waldenponding, but adjacent to, and somewhat at odds with, both. Maybe there’s a Venn diagram like this here. It’s not quite right, but close enough.

Domestic cozy is nihilistic, but not naturally minimalist I think. In fact there are strong elements of maximalism and hoarding to it — cozy furniture, too many pillows and blankets, maximalist kitchens, overfull pantries, overstocked workshops, and so on.

But the materialist maximalism does serve the obliterating function Kyle’s talking about, in sealing out the outside sensorily, and minimizing it as a source of dependency. So he’s right about that part. To the extent he’s also right about the existence of a parallel minimalist, eliminativist tendency, the two intersect in interesting ways.

In a way, the material minimalism he’s talking about is an older tendency; one that fits more naturally with premium mediocrity, since it assumes a lot more capability latent in a broader public environment. It’s hard to be a minimalist nomad living out of a laptop bag when airlines, Starbucks and AirBnB are operating in lockdown mode. But on the other hand, if you’re willing to kit out an RV or van like a self-sufficient spaceship, this is a great time to be doing non-minimalist nomadism.

The reason it gets confusing is that in a networked world with deep dependence on complex systems extending from your doorstep to China, minimizing connection and minimizing possession end up in a tradeoff. Rent and own occupy different positions on that tradeoff curve, but the point of the curve is to still shape your exposures to and dependencies on the world beyond your immediate control. Some buy more things to minimize connections, others rent more things as a service to minimize possessions. You can have a lean supply chain and fat household, or a fat supply chain and a lean household, but right now you have to have fat somewhere, or you’re at serious risk. The only non-retreat option, lean-lean is risky.

But though minimalism is perhaps more premium mediocre, the nihilism Kyle calls out is definitely more domestic cozy. There is a hopelessness there that was not there in premium mediocrity.

There’s something really dead-end like about all these trends. The thing about losing interest in the wider world is that there is no guarantee the wider world will also lose interest in you. What they say about politics (“you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you”) is true of the ultimate superset of politics — nature. The world is reeling from multiple ongoing calamities, and only a tiny fraction have the luxury of retreating from it all. Those who lack that luxury are not going to be exactly happy about it. One way or the other, you will eventually have to pay for retreating from the world.

I’m going to call this blogchain archived, since it’s sort of done what I wanted it to do, in terms of helping catalyze a particular conversation. I’ll add any other significant builds by others, but my thinkfluencing of thinkfluencers work is done here.

Nostalgia for Network Effects

The reality of the Biden inauguration hasn’t yet sunk in. It’s not exactly a return to anything resembling normalcy or even a new normalcy (and I don’t expect such a return even after Covid is behind us and Trump is forgotten), but it’s definitely an unmistakeable phase shift to a new regime. Perhaps this is the official first day of what I’ve been calling the Permaweird.

Looking back at the last 4 years, something striking leaps out at me: the big thing that’s been missing in my life since the Trump inauguration — and which hasn’t magically returned today — is some sort of network effect in my activities. A sense of a snowballing accumulation of meaningfulness over time.

Now, on the first day of the Permaweird, I find myself nostalgic for network effects, and wondering if I can ever tap into them again at a personal level.

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Boilerplate Advice

Lately there’s been a gradual uptick in young(er) people asking me for “advice” and a steady decline in my energy to be helpful in any way. So I made up a convenient boilerplate advice table to blow them off with. Some notes follow after. I posted a draft version of this on twitter earlier, where it got some good reactions.

Life StageLight SideDark Side
(0-13 – fairly limited control)
Play, explore, learn life-positive attitudes, get primed for a good life through benevolent supervision by not-too-messed-up adults. Endure abuse, develop fearful attitudes and arrested development, develop unstable tendencies that make you derail under stress, develop PTSD.
Adolescence (13-18 – significant control)Get socialized, make friends, initialize social networks, develop skills to live off of, learn to regulate emotionsGet alienated, disconnect from peers, become isolated, find coping mechanisms like drugs, get caught up in stormy unregulated emotions
Emerging Adulthood
(18-30 — you’re fully in charge for the first time)
Get worldly, develop relationships (including with yourself), learn who/what to trust, thread the needle of cynicism vs. motivation. Learn to be kind to yourself.Get clueless, bewildered, and desperate to be “seen” by someone, anyone. Become vulnerable to radical manipulation, learn resentment and helplessness, become egoistically attached to your talents/skills.
Act 1
Pick risks, battles, commitments, and responsibilities that will make you who you are. Build an open-play win/lose record. Aim to collect 7 significant scars (see The Key to Act Two)Fail to launch. Never take on anything that counts as “living” but continue endlessly optimizing starting positions and justifications. Get trapped in Dr. Seuss’ Waiting Place. Become self-alienated by refusing to discover yourself.
Act 2
Understand your own past, and make your peace with it. Decide what/who to forgive/forget — or not. Decipher your scars and figure out what lock in the universe life has keyed you to open (See The Key to Act Two) Put yourself into a terminal box that you cannot work yourself out of, alongside others who don’t know who they are and never stop waiting for life to start. Allow your physical, mental, and institutional health problems to define you. Become a professional patient of the system.
Act 3
(this is beta since I’m not there yet myself)
Figure out and play your Elder Game in your Late Style, the most mature form of doing whatever you do. Beat a wisely calculated retreat and cede agency to younger people as early as possible.Hold on fearfully to whatever agency you have, for as long as you can. Fail to understand the future and those it belongs to. Gracelessly wear out your welcome and get in their way. Fail to pass on any batons you hold. Set up the future for failure.
(70+) (insufficient visibility)
Advice for a mediocre life


There’s a bunch of things to say about this table that will be obvious to older people and might not be to younger people, so let’s say them out loud.

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2020 Ribbonfarm Extended Universe Annual Roundup

This entry is part 14 of 15 in the series Annual Roundups

This has undoubtedly been the weirdest year in the 13-year history of Ribbonfarm, and one that marks a pretty decisive break from the past, both in terms of my own writing here, and the kinds of contributions I’m increasingly interested in sourcing/commissioning from others (if you’re interested in submitting stuff here in 2021, scroll to the end of this post to see what I’m looking for).

This was also the year the shape of the messy rhizome that is the Ribbonfarm Extended Universe finally became somewhat clear. So starting this year, I’m going to cover of all my projects in these roundups, since this blog is sort of the soul of the larger beast. The Ribbonfarm Extended Universe currently looks like this:

Within this anarchic mess, it is clear that Ribbonfarm is something like an R&D lab, where I direct both my own experimental tinkering energies, and invite others to experiment. It’s a textual maker-space of sorts. When writing ideas/efforts mature past a point, they tend to go elsewhere. This is one reason themes that used to be the mainstay here have gradually migrated to my more polished (which isn’t saying much) downstream projects like Breaking Smart and Art of Gig.

There were 53 posts here, and a bunch of activity on Other Projects, so there’s a lot of extended universe to cover. So, on to the roundup.

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Notes: Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

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

Concluding my pandemic-themed book reading binge for the year, here’s my summary of Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider (2017), perhaps the most comprehensive popular look at the Spanish Flu, among the many published to date.

There are several books on the topic, and the most popular is probably John Barry’s 2005 book, The Great Influenza, thanks to the now-widely-known-story of George W. Bush being inspired by it in the wake of SARS to beef up the United States’ pandemic preparedness. But I picked Spinney’s book partly because it is more recent (it covers research on the Spanish Flu that wasn’t available in 2005 when Barry wrote his book), and partly because it self-consciously sets out to paint a global portrait.

Here is the original thread on twitter (I read it in September-October). Now on to the cleaned-up notes.

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Stoned Strategy

I started my college education with the belief that marijuana gave me special access to genius ideas. Every time I got high, I would experience what felt like creative breakthroughs. These intoxicated “aha!” moments fueled my fiery desire to study philosophy. I frantically tried to learn a vocabulary to express the magical nuggets inside my mind on the path to my rightful role as a philosopher-king.

I was wrong about marijuana. By the end of college I had painstakingly figured out one key thing:

Marijuana doesn’t give me better ideas, it just makes me more excited about the ideas I already have.

Suffering from intellectual whiplash, for a time I referred to marijuana as a “poison” that breeds delusion and narcissism.

As I get older, the volatile zig zags of my evolving belief system smooth out, taking the shape of more moderate, balanced views of how things work. I’ve concluded that

  1. marijuana boosts my creative productivity, but
  2. using it in this manner requires navigating a sneaky web of landmines.

By the end of this post, I’m going to explain my method for extracting the creative benefits of marijuana while avoiding the traps. The majority of people who use marijuana, I hypothesize, have net negative creative outcomes. By sharing my strategies, I’m hoping to help change this.

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Pascal’s Market

(Part 3 of a series. See Part 1 and Part 2.)

Every publisher insists upon its own epistemic solvency.

Image credit: Scott Herren

Given so many competing epistemic reserve banks (i.e., publishers), which ones keep enough truth in reserve to cover their reserve notes (articles)?

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MJD 59,169

This entry is part 12 of 21 in the series Captain's Log

If you remember your high-school physics, free energy is the energy available to do work. Energy is conserved, but free energy is not. For example, when a heavy ball drops from a height, the free energy stays roughly constant (ignoring drag) right until the moment of impact. The amount of free energy lost via inelastic collision is proportional to the height lost at the peak of the bounce. The rest is turned into useless heat. With each bounce, more free energy is lost, until finally all of it is lost. In a world without non-conservative forces like friction (which lower free energy), a ball could bounce for ever. Satellites orbiting earth approximate this: orbital motion is useful work that can be continued indefinitely for free.


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