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 Epic Struggle between Good and Neutral

/* Zapp: prepare to continue the epic struggle between good and neutral */

Let’s say you are a member of the proud Red tribe, enjoying a ritual communal feast. There is mirth and joy in the air. There is eating, dancing, and various other sorts of revelry in progress. Everybody is enjoying the priceless feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves.

Suddenly, a young buck of your tribe runs into the camp ground, exhausted, wounded and bleeding. He delivers news of a grievous insult to your tribe dealt by the chief of the hated Grey tribe, and dies.

Now a different sort of priceless feeling of being part of something bigger descends on your tribe. This feeling is not derived from festive joy, but from infinitely outraged honor. Joy races against rage in every head. Hot heads and cool heads, young bucks and grey eminences, all start talking at once, to process the emotional calculus.

ContendingEmotions

Eventually, a consensus narrative emerges and a course of action develops. The narrative has done its job: helped you decide how to feel, allowing action to cohere and precipitate.

How should we understand the unfolding of this course of events? The answer lies in a principle it’s taken me quite a while to formulate to my satisfaction: narrative abhors a vacuum. 

What sort of vacuum?

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Minimum Viable Superorganism

Of all the remarkable things about our species — and there are many — perhaps the most striking of all is our ability to band together and act as a united, coherent superorganism. E pluribus unum. From many, one.

A few superorganisms in action. (Top: human towers of Tarragona, fire department, NASA. Bottom: Amish community, rowing team, ISIS.)

A few superorganisms in action. (Top: human towers of Tarragona, fire department, NASA. Bottom: Amish community, rowing team, ISIS.)

I don’t mean anything particularly high-minded by “superorganism.” It’s just a fun way to refer to a cooperative enterprise. Co-, together + operari, work. Acting in concert. Coordinating individual behavior in pursuit of shared goals.

Superorganisms, in this sense, include such mundane arrangements as law firms, soccer teams, city governments, and party planning committees. In fact, most of the groups we care about are superorganisms. A mere crowd, on the other hand, isn’t a superorganism. It’s just every man for himself — all pluribus, no unum.

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We Are All Architects Now

When I had my first mid-life crisis at age 17, I really didn’t know how to handle it. I went from sociable and friendly to morose and uncommunicative overnight, and stayed that way for a year. Now, 24 years later, I am getting really good at navigating them. I predicted 11 of my last 5 mid-life crises. I’m now skilled enough that I can provide expert consulting support to people who are too busy to have mid-life crises frequently enough to get good at it.

The key is to freak out early and freak out often (FEFO) in an agile way, and work towards a lifestyle that (ideally) feels like one continuously integrated and deployed mid-life crisis. There is actually good intellectual justification for approaching life this way. It’s called the Lindy effect, which says you’ll live as long again as you already have, until you don’t.

Which means you’re always at mid-life. Until you’re not.

This can be a difficult idea to grasp, so as Matt Damon said recently about poop-grown potatoes on Mars, we’re going to have to discourse the shit out of this thing.

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Climate Change Op-Ed

No long essay this week on ribbonfarm, but I just had an op-ed appear on The Atlantic site, a piece on climate change that’s a response to the (excellent) Bill Gates interview in the print issue.

Why Solving Climate Change Will Be Like Mobilizing for War

What Gates and others are advocating for is not so much a technological revolution as a technocratic one. One for which there is no successful peacetime precedent. Which is not to say, of course, that it cannot work. There is always a first time for every new level of complexity and scale in human cooperation. But it’s sobering to look back at the (partial) precedents we do have.

Go read the whole thing.

I have to thank Sam Penrose and Jim McDermott for helping me think this piece through.

I also strongly recommend the writing of David Roberts on Vox (also this piece on Grist) if you want to dive deeper into the climate change rabbit-hole. Given the length constraint (it’s a ~2000 word piece), I couldn’t fit in all the interesting things I learned research this article.

Some of my recent off-ribbonfarm writing has been a new kind of fun because I’ve taken legible political positions, which I rarely do here. In Breaking Smart, I took a fairly standard libertarian position. Here, I’m taking a left-of-center liberal position. I suppose one of these days, I’ll argue a classic conservative position. Very un-American to pick a side (or not) depending on the specifics of an issue rather than fixed tribal loyalties, but what can I say. I prefer my politics a la carte. 

One learning from doing this off-ribbonfarm stuff is that when political positions are so obviously telegraphed, 80% of readers react very quickly (either negatively or positively) based on the first few dogwhistle phrases they spot. So all nuance is lost. But it’s a good way to filter for people who are worth talking with, since they tend to read more fully and attentively.

Gardens Need Walls: On Boundaries, Ritual, and Beauty

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

This essay attempts to place ritual in the context of evolving complex systems, and to offer an explanation for why everything is so ugly and nobody seems to be able to do anything about it.

On Boundaries and Their Permeability

Boundaries are an inherent, universal feature of complex systems. Boundaries arise at all scales, defining the entities that they surround and protecting them from some kinds of outside intrusion. To be functional, boundaries must be permeable, allowing the entities to take energy and information from outside themselves. If we are looking at complex systems, we will find boundaries everywhere.

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The Political Hangover of Prohibition

This is a guest post by Craig Roche, a data scientist and artisanal landlord.

Whiskey is very easy to make.  Farmers used to make it at home using their crops, and Henry Ford designed the Model T to run on home-distilled ethanol.  George Washington distilled 55,000 bottles/year when he retired from being President. Even the mutineers from the Bounty set up a still on Pitcairn Island, and proceeded to get rip-roaringly drunk for weeks at a time. Whiskey is also very cheap to produce;  a bushel of corn ($5 or so), plus 60 cents worth of natural gas can produce 11 liters of automobile-grade ethanol, which, when suitably diluted and aged for drinking purposes, can fill 35 bottles.  Whiskey for human consumption requires higher-quality inputs, more energy for multiple distillations, and additional handling, but even so, decent hooch can be produced for less than $2/bottle. In the 1830s, the equivalent of a bottle of whiskey went for about $5, and Americans responded by guzzling roughly one each week per capita; as young children generally abstained, actual drinkers drank substantially more, all of which was tax-free.

If we assume that the desire to drink, especially among the poor, is an important motivation in peoples’ lives, you would expect alcohol markets to shed light on political conditions across states.

Jack Daniels is the world’s most popular brand of whiskey, and is widely distributed in every state in the US in a standard 750ml container; it is produced fairly close to the mean center of US population, so it should therefore work as a good lens on alcohol politics. Left to a free market, one would reasonably expect that the cost of a retailed bottle would vary with transportation costs, and somewhat with labor rates, or alternatively, that lower-income consumers would spend about the same fraction of their income on Jack Daniels across the USA, or in other words, that the working time per bottle would be constant.

To test this, I researched the cost of a standard bottle of Jack Daniels in each of the states at a high-volume liquor store in the largest city in each state, and compared it to the average wage at the 25th percentile:

laborCost

Figure 1: Labor Cost of Jack Daniels (Image source: Craig Roche)

The results were not what I expected. It turns out that the constant-working-time-per-bottle hypothesis is not even close.

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We Have Them Surrounded in Their Tanks

“We have them surrounded in their tanks.”

So spoke Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, the infamous Iraqi Information Minister in the first days of the American invasion. His missives should be an inspiration to public relations personnel everywhere; he was unshakably on-message even as the foundations on which he stood collapsed. His clueless investment in Saddam Hussein’s regime ended swiftly but not poorly (he was reportedly captured and released by the Americans, and is now living in the United Arab Emirates).

Muhammad was a true believer in Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government, and its collapse was inconceivable. In this respect his belief functioned much like that of those apocalypticists whose rapture passes them by, an evaporative cooling effect separating the doubtful from the doubling-down. al-Sahhaf was clueless to be sure, but clueless need not mean unintelligent, nor is the ability to stay on message dependent upon cluelessness.

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Geopolitics for Individuals

Kartik is a 2014 blogging resident visiting us from his home turf at akkartik.name.

I recently spent a month playing a board game called Diplomacy, and it turned out to be a surprisingly mind-broadening experience. Pretending to be the German Empire before the First World War, exchanging missives all day with the other “great powers” of that time, finalizing troop dispositions before the daily deadline, and then seeing everybody’s moves revealed at once, finding out who lied, who was betrayed, it’s all very dramatic and addictive. It took me a while to realize (rationalize?) why its hold over me was so persistent: it was because it was getting me to grow intellectually as only a few other games have done in my life. Chess taught me to think “a few moves ahead” past the immediate exigencies of any situation. Poker taught me to manage risk when the future is uncertain. Diplomacy is starting to teach me to extend these ideas past the “kiddie pool” of games where you’re playing against coherent opponents. It repeatedly exposes one, like a school of hard knocks, to stable situations that are rendered unstable by the entrance of a new player.

There’s a faint echo of this effect in the chess-like two-player game of Go.

Go position

“Go is to Western chess what philosophy is to double-entry accounting.” — Trevanian

Learning Go, you repeatedly find yourself in situations that seemed stable, where you were holding your own, that are thrown into disarray by distant parts of the board.

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Power Gradients and Spherical Cows

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal had a comic recently explaining the argument against evolution based on the 2nd law of thermodynamics: “Life on Earth can’t get more complex because that would require energy, and the sun doesn’t exist.” The understanding of entropy is there, but conspicuously missing is the distinction between open and closed systems and the fact that increased entropy in the system does not preclude localized negentropic environments, such as those on Earth sustaining life.

This specific failure mode for thinking I call the Spherical Cow fallacy, after the classic physics joke. [Read more…]