The Essence of Peopling

Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

Nouns for human beings – “people” or “person” – conjure in the mind a snapshot of the surface appearance of humans. Using nouns like “people” subtly encourages thinking about people as frozen in time, doing nothing in particular. “People” is an anchor for thinking about human bodies separate from their environment, from the buildings and streets and farms and parks that they build and use to go about their business.

I prefer to think about “peopling” – the process of human beings going about their business, whatever that is. I take this usage from the 1971 movie Bedknobs & Broomsticks, in which the main characters visit a magical animal kingdom, where a sign warns them away:


Much of the modern built environment seems to bear this message as well, presenting a hostile face to ordinary human activity, and preventing all but an impoverished subset of peopling from occurring at all.
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The Design of Crash-Only Societies

Ryan Tanaka is a resident blogger, visiting us from his home turf at  The improv session that inspired this article can be found here.

Blue Screen of Death Windows 8

Crash-only software: it only stops by crashing, and only starts by recovering.  It formalizes Murphy’s Law and creative-destruction into an applicable practice, where the end-of-things and the worst of outcomes are anticipated as something to be expected as a routine occurrence.  When done well, however, it has the potential to make software more reliable, less erratic, faster and easier to use overall.

But there is also a social component to crash-only designs that has yet to be fully explored: the potential for using these ideas to develop practices for building communities and social applications online.  As the worlds of tech, politics, and culture continue to collide, the demand for alternative modes of communication will likely continue to rise.  Crash-only designs hint at possible new approaches toward community and content moderation on the web, expanding the means and methods by which online content and interactions can be organized more effectively and intuitively.

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Playing Games to Leave Games

Sam is a 2014 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog at Moore’s Hand.

When I was a kid I played a lot of chess. On Saturdays my mom and I would get up early and drive an hour to a high school somewhere around Michigan. She would bring a box of old New York Times and read as I played five rounds of chess against other 6-, 7-, and 8-year-olds.

The games were typically G/30 or G/45, which means each player had 30 or 45 minutes to make all their moves. If you finished your game early you would have to wait for all the other games to finish and the organizers to calculate the rankings and matchups for the next round.  That process would usually take about an hour, which doesn’t seem like a long time now but of course did at the time.

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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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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…]

Technical Debt of the West

Kevin is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog over at Melting Asphalt. This is the finale of his residency.

Here’s a recipe for discovering new ideas:

  1. Examine the frames that give structure (but also bias) to your thinking.
  2. Predict, on the basis of #1, where you’re likely to have blind spots.
  3. Start groping around in those areas.

If you can do this with the very deepest frames — those that constrain not just your own thinking, but your entire civilization’s — you can potentially unearth a treasure trove of insight. You may not find anything 100% original (ideas that literally no one else has ever seen), but whatever you find is almost guaranteed to be underappreciated.

In his lecture series The Tao of Philosophy, Alan Watts sets out to do just this for Western civilization. He wants to examine the very substrate of our thinking, in order to understand and correct for our biases.

So what is the substrate of Western thought?

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The Poor Usability Tell

Work can be a delight when your tools and your environment are crafted in ways that enable you to focus on the task at hand. However, most people I suspect have only limited experience with this sort of situation; it’s rather common to see everyday tasks performed with sub-optimal tools. Software engineers are in a privileged position, parallel perhaps to blacksmiths of the past, in that the same skills used for their work may be deployed toward tool improvement. Correspondingly, they pride themselves on possessing and creating excellent tools. Unfortunately, most other roles in a given business are ill-equipped and poorly positioned to effect a similarly-scaled tool-chain improvement effort. Instead, they are reduced to requesting assistance from other departments or outside vendors, a relationship which Kevin Simler highlighted last year in a spectacular post entitled UX and the Civilizing Process. You should read the entire piece, but the salient portion for our purposes is the following paragraph:

You might think that enterprise software would be more demanding, UX-wise, since it costs more and people are using it for higher-stakes work — but then you’d be forgetting about the perversity of enterprise sales, specifically the disconnect between users and purchasers. A consumer who gets frustrated with a free iPhone app will switch to a competitor without batting an eyelash, but that just can’t happen in the enterprise world. As a rule of thumb, the less patient your users, the better-behaved your app needs to be.

Any given software project will be improved by increased usability. Nevertheless, we’ve all witnessed moments where “more cowbell” doesn’t seem to effect the desired improvements. An unalloyed good in its tautological form (better is better), it is in the specifics that we see usability as a concept fetishized.

This isn’t an accident; in fact, there can be an inverse relationship between the best user experience at the level of an individual or a small group, versus the best user experience for an organization or a network of organizations.

In poker, a tell is some sort of behavior which gives hints about the card’s in a player’s hand. Poor usability is a tell which may indicate that an organization’s and a user’s needs are in conflict, and that the organization’s needs trump.

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Resident Bloggers for 2014: Sam, Jordan, Kartik, Keith

Another fun bit of housekeeping. I’d like to welcome Sam Bhagwat, Jordan Peacock, Kartik Agaram and Keith Adams, our resident bloggers for 2014.

I’ve known them all for a couple of years now (though I’ve only met Jordan online), and I can safely say that the sophistication of my understanding of our emerging digital civilization has been greatly enhanced by my ongoing conversations with these guys. If I’ve said anything smart in the last couple of years about the world being created by computing technologies, a lot of the credit goes to them.

This blog already has a computing subtext (the “refactoring” in the tagline is a reference to a computing concept), and my own work this year is going to be dominated by projects related to software and computing, so part of my reason for inviting these guys on board this year is a selfish one. I hope they can keep my own thinking at the bleeding edge. Nothing like immersion to get you thinking like a native in a new culture.

I suspect all of you will also enjoy learning from these guys. The more our world gets eaten by software, the more the world views of software professionals matter in shaping the future. On the flip side, non-software people have to keep evolving their appreciation of computing, or risk being left behind on the wrong side of history.

To kick things off, I asked the new residents to introduce themselves with a short riff on the idea of refactoring, as I did last year.

So let me yield the floor to them.

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Complete 2013 Roundup

It’s time again for our annual roundup.  In many ways, 2013 was a year of endings and beginnings for this blog. So, since I like marking boundaries and naming things, I am going to name the relatively self-contained 2007-2012 period The Rust Age and notionally classify it as history. Starting with 2013, we are in the as-yet-unnamed post-Gervais-Principle second age of Ribbonfarm.

New readers interested in history can dive into the past via that link, which has past annual roundups, curated selections and a map of historical interest. Those uninterested in the past can safely join the party starting with this 2013 roundup. I’ll be making a serious effort to limit my use of back-linked references to pre-2013 material, going forward. The past will of course, continue to haunt the present in unexpected ways, but I’ll try to let sleeping ghosts lie.

Now for the roundup, starting with the 21 resident/guest posts, followed by the 24 posts by me, and some commentary.

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Morality for Exploded Minds

Mike is a 2013 blogging resident visiting us from his home blog Omniorthogonal.

This series of posts has explored a variety of ways in which agency – the ability of something to initiate action – can be rethought, redistributed, and refactored. Agency can be assigned to things that normally don’t have it, or we can undo our everyday sense of personal agency and think of our behavior as the output of a mechanical process. My not-so-hidden agenda is to battle against the everyday notion of the self, the idea that at the core of a person is something simple and unitary. Maybe this isn’t a battle that needs to be fought – perhaps everyone, these days, is perfectly aware that they are a conflicted assemblages of drives, that personae are fictional, that autonomy is an illusion. Isn’t that conventional wisdom by now, and am I not preaching to the already converted? Hasn’t Freud been repackaged for mass consumption for decades now?

Maybe, but it seems to me that our everyday notions about agency are so baked into our culture and into the very grammar of language that the struggle against them must be ongoing. In this final post I want to explore some of the reasons why you might want to dissect your mind, and why society conspires to make that difficult. In the course of this, we’ll explore some of the moral aspects of the unity and disunity of mind. Fundamentally and perhaps obviously, morality is tied at a very basic level to the idea of a person, so that to attack the idea of personhood can seem to be be almost immoral.

I haven’t focused too much on the pragmatics of actually performing this kind of operation – such as psychological methods for refactoring yourself, or the benefits that might be obtained by doing so. A couple of interesting efforts in that line have recently come to my attention – a therapeutic technique called Internal Family Systems, and an online group trying to encourage each other to develop tulpas, “autonomous consciousness, existing within their creator’s mind…A tulpa is entirely sentient and in control of their opinions, feelings, form and movement. They are willingly created by people via a number of techniques to act as companions, muses, and advisers.” (h/t to Kevin Simler). These efforts are quite interesting, if also somewhat alarming – with this sort of stuff, if you can’t make the leap to considering the products of your imagination literally then it won’t work, but on the other hand if you do, there are very real psychological dangers. When these independent mental entities manifest on their own, we call that schizophrenia, which is no joke.

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