King Ruinous and the City of Darkness

I want to tell you a story today. A sprawling epic mess of a story which began with two histories intersecting awkwardly just over a hundred years ago in a small tribal village nestled in the dense forests of one of the richest mining regions of the world. It is the kind of story that has multiple obscure beginnings but no ending. The kind of story that evolves as an unending stream of good chapters and dumpster-fire chapters, accompanied by endless bewildering arguments about which chapters were good, and which ones were dumpster fires.

The first history is the one behind a board room struggle within the $100 billion Tata empire, which made  headlines in the business press across the world in October. The second is the history behind a 500 million dollar corruption scandal known as the fodder scam, which first became public in 1996, and eventually led to a man named Lalu Prasad Yadav going to jail in 2013.

In 1904, those two histories intersected in that small tribal village which was about to become the modern city of Jamshedpur. I was born in Jamshedpur in 1974, just short of 42 years ago.

But this is not my story. Nor am I, perhaps, the best person to tell this story.

It is, however, as much mine to tell as anybody else’s, and when it comes to telling the story of history, that is often the only thing that matters. So I will tell you this story.

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The Weird State of Capitalism

This is the slide-deck for the second session of Refactor Camp 2016, on Thursday the 21th. If you’re attending, please make sure to carve out at least 45 minutes beforehand to review this. This session will be led by Mick Costigan. The deck is on Google Docs and you’re invited to add comments to it.

 

Screenshot 2016-07-20 09.41.45

The Weird State of the State

This is the slide-deck for the first session of Refactor Camp 2016, on Tuesday the 19th. If you’re attending, please make sure to carve out at least 45 minutes beforehand to review this.

Welcome to Nixonland

Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008) is something of a biography, something of a history, and something of a quest to answer the question people have been asking about the 1960s since, well, the 1960s: what the hell just happened? This book is especially relevant to the world of 2016, which has so many tragic echoes coming hard and fast. We don’t have tanks patrolling Pennsylvania Avenue or whole neighborhoods on fire, but each day seems to make it less unthinkable.

Nixon’s career is a vast & billowing revenge play that could have been written by Dumas. There are early triumphs, humiliating defeats, and years of secret plotting in the wilderness. Then there is the “new” Nixon’s calculated reappearance after everyone thought him dead and gone, freely spending treasure of dubious origins, cavorting with highly weird & talented outsiders, making intricate moves within moves, shoving aside lightweights like Reagan, stepping over the bodies of Kennedys, and taking out his enemies with delicious patience, one by one by one.

But Richard Nixon isn’t the star of Nixonland. If he were, the book could be 1/3 as long and titled something like The Count of Yorba Linda. The bulk of Nixonland is about the land: the people in turmoil, from radicalized college student to marching black to shocked & resentful blue-collar worker. It’s about how they found their voices, how their personal identities adapted to the times, and how all that energy was deliberately harnessed by Nixon to serve his drive to power, creating the fractured political world we live in today.

An amazingly large segment of the population disliked and mistrusted Richard Nixon instinctively. What they did not acknowledge was that an amazingly large segment of the population also trusted him as their savior. “Nixonland” is what happens when these two groups try to occupy a country together.

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Refactor Camp 2016: Weird Political Economy

Since 2012, we’ve been holding Refactor Camp as an annual offline event in the Bay Area. This year, we’re trying a new format. Refactor Camp 2016 will be an online-only event, in the form of four 2-hour evening sessions, spread over the last 2 weeks of July. You can register here. We will be using the Zoom videoconference system, which has a limit of 50 participants.

The theme this year is Weird Political Economy (tagline is inspired by this great post). Over four sessions, each structured as a short introductory talk (~30 minutes) followed by a discussion (~90 minutes) we will cover four major themes. All 4 sessions will be 8:00 to 10:00 PM US Pacific Time, on the listed dates.

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Session #1: Tue July 19: The Weird State of the State (Venkatesh Rao)
Session #2: Thu July 21: The Weird State of Capitalism (Mick Costigan)
Session #3: Tue July 26: The Weird State of the Crowd (Megan Lubaszka and Renee DiResta)
Session #4: Thursday July 28: The Weird State of the Earth (Jordan Peacock and Sam Penrose)

The idea is to have well-prepped discussions about the general sense that “things are getting weird” in global affairs with a meaningfully broad/rich context. Are we really not in Kansas anymore, or do we just lack the context to grok the patterns in things going on right now? Is it time to apply the principle, “when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro”? Hopefully we’ll generate some interesting, situated thinking.

The four session topics: state, capitalism, crowds, and earth, will hopefully serve as four good overlapping global canvasses for discussion.

A slide deck overview of the theme will be posted a few days before each session, as required pre-read. The idea is for ALL participants to actually review these pre-read decks (should take maybe 30min each) so we can have a discussion where everybody is better prepared than usual in these sorts of symposia.

If you are interested in doing reading beyond these upcoming decks, here are some anchor references the session leaders will be using.  Though session leaders will be drawing on multiple sources, and we expect many participants will be coming from other perspectives, these should give you an idea of the level of discussion we’re hoping to hit.

The Principia Misanthropica

Let’s recap.

In the beginning, people were mostly unhappy, but not too unhappy about being unhappy. They hunted, they gathered, and when unpleasant things (such as having a leg bitten off by a lion) happened, they shrugged their shoulders and said, “what are you gonna to do, huh?” And they spent as much time as they could being idle, because that seemed to help them not be unhappy for a while. This worked particularly well when there were temporarily no lions around trying to eat them.

Then history began to happen.

The people who first noticed there was history going on — they were called poets — also discovered that it ruined idleness for them (this effect would later be named “the frame problem”). This made them very angry, so they decided to tell everybody about history. If they couldn’t have any fun, why should anybody else? They also decided to write some of it down, just in case their children, and their children’s children, tried to forget the discovery. Future generations, they figured, had a right to remain innocent of unnecessary and burdensome knowledge of events past. Perhaps some pleasure could be found in denying them this right.

There was nothing much they could do about the fact that their ancestors in their graves, unlike their descendants, were beyond the reach of their words. But in a stroke of genius, they realized they could make their descendants more miserable by pretending that their pre-historic ancestors had actually been continuously happy, instead of just free of unhappiness about unhappiness.

That made it look like it was all going downhill, which made the poets happy about being unhappy about being unhappy. Because at least those who came after would feel like they were even worse off.
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The Holy Grail of Self-Improvement

The holy grail of self-improvement in modern times is a framework for individual experimentation and learning that can be used by the average person. The key question such a framework would have to answer is “How do people change?”

The-Holy-Grail-of-Online-Engagement

In this essay I will suggest possible answers to this question by looking at the recent history and theory of behavior change, the main obstacles this framework would have to address to be feasible, and a few promising directions from research and practice.

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Cartographic Compression

Cartography is the practice of making maps. In the narrowest sense, a map is a symbolic depiction of geographic, spatial information, inscribed onto a two-dimensional surface. In a broader sense, a map is an abstract representation of information about any domain, spatial or otherwise – “abstract” in the sense that certain features or kinds of information are highlighted to the exclusion of others. But not every abstract representation is a map. Maps have axes, usually at least two; they elucidate relationships between features of the domain; and they are useful for orienting, navigating, or engaging in goal-directed behavior within that domain.

Maps that are inscribed on some kind of surface – paper, clay, rock, or an electronic screen – are useful for sharing, pointing at, and comparing with the domain. But the cognitive capacity for map-style thinking likely precedes cartographic inscription. Intimate familiarity with the domain, viewed through the special attention-directing lens of language, is enough to generate mental maps in different minds that are verifiably highly similar. [Read more…]

Frontierland

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Disneyland is the most important place in America, and Frontierland is the most important part of Disneyland. By area, it is the largest part of Disneyland. The design of Frontierland occupied a special importance for Walt Disney himself (Richard Francaviglia, Walt Disney’s Frontierland as an Allegorical Map of the American West). Even as the Imagineers had trouble keeping the futuristic buildings of Tommorowland looking “futuristic,” the archaic appeal of Frontierland never faded. Frontierland does not refer to just any frontier: it presents an immersive narrative about the American western frontier, a narrative centered on popular myth and literature. (There is no American Indian genocide in Frontierland, because Frontierland is not about the historical reality of the American frontier.) But its appeal reaches far beyond the American West, drawing visitors from all over the world and self-replicating in Japan, Hong Kong, and France. As the American frontier ceased to exist as a geographic and political reality, in myth it transcended space and culture.

As much as it is composed of myth, theater, and simulation, Frontierland is actually the real frontier.

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960

Disneyland Main Street Station, 1960


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A Better Art Vocabulary, Part 2

To recap, in my last post I talked about some of the things people mean when they say a work of art is “good”:

  1. A display of skill awed me
  2. I had a heightened experience
  3. The work gave me animal pleasure
  4. It is morally good that this work exists
  5. The work accurately described reality

Today I’m going to drill down on #4, the big M, m-o-r-a-l-i-t-y. What do we mean when we say (or think, or imply) that a work of art is morally good or bad? Is talking about morality with respect to art a necessary mode or a failure mode? That is, does it matter? How much?

When I was in high school, smart kids would eagerly remind you that Oscar Wilde said “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all”–and feel very clever. I had the entire preface to Picture of Dorian Gray in my Facebook quotes from 2005-2009  so I know what I’m talking about here. But even Oscar Wilde doesn’t really get into what he means by ‘moral’. And this is a problem because just about anyone can clearly perceive that art can have effects that are bad or intents that are good, and those things seem related to morality. So let’s taboo the word ‘morality’ and replace it with some other concepts.

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