Trace of the Weirding

Today’s post is hopefully a bit of a treat for those of you who like audio and video more than text. I’ve updated my You Are Here map for 2016 (thanks Grace Witherell!) and turned it into a narrated video walkthrough. It’s basically about an hour of me talk-walking through a map. If you prefer audio, you can just scan the map to get a sense of it, and then just listen to the audio.

If you’re new to ribbonfarm, this may be a good way to get oriented — or entirely confused. I don’t know. I’m too deep in this thing. The big change in the map from last year’s version is the addition of the whole western 20% or so, and the incorporation of 2016 crazy election year motifs into the landscape. It’s still very US centric, and doesn’t satisfactorily capture some of my newer interests, but it’s a start.

What’s not represented is some of the developing influence of newer residents and their writing on either ribbonfarm or my own thinking. That’s too new, and it’ll probably get folded into next year’s map. So this is mainly me talking about my own interests, with some digressions on Sarah Perry’s stuff.

The narrated walk through was heavily inspired by conversations at Refactor Camp 2016. Here are the links mentioned in the video.

  1. High-res version of the map (5MB)
  2. Refactor camp session slide decks: Thanks to Mick Costigan, Megan Lubaszka, Renee DiResta, Jordan Peacock and Sam Penrose.
  3. Blake Masters’ notes on Peter Thiel’s 2×2 
  4. My gloss on Jane Jacobs Guardian/Commerce
  5. Economics of Pricelessness
  6. Hamilton vs Jefferson
  7. Post on future nausea and manufactured normalcy
  8. A post on New Horizons
  9. My extended riff on hedgehog vs. fox
  10. Bruce Sterling favela chic/gothic high tech talk
  11. Atlantic post on climate change
  12. Some stuff on serendipity versus zemblanity
  13. Sarah Perry’s roundup/introduction on postrationality
  14. David Chapman, Meaningness
  15. Sarah’s book Every Cradle is a Grave
  16. Less Wrong
  17. Slatestarcodex map
  18. The Gervais Principle
  19. Sarah’s theme parks vs amusement parks post
  20. My post on Crash-only thinking
  21. Breaking Smart if you’ve been under a rock and don’t know I do that
  22. The Breaking Smart newsletter in tweetstorm format
  23. Tempo, the book
  24. James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
  25. My Now Reading page with a lot of background

Examining the Accidental Life

I only have two basic moods accounting for most of my waking hours: one marked by mild to severe ennui, and the other by a rushing energy. Refractory state and burst state. I seem to have largely random-walked through an accidental life so far, imposing barely any discipline on this basic, ungoverned, binary life process. I have no thoughtfully constructed scaffolding of habits and rituals in my life, just a few accidentally set ways. My biggest adult achievement in that department is learning to floss regularly.

I do have a rare third state though, one that only seems to appear only when I am in certain kinds of places, like off-season beach resorts. Like Cannon Beach, on the Oregon coast, a couple of weeks ago. Or the Outer Banks several years ago (which inspired my 2009 post, How to Think Like Hercule Poirota personal favorite).


By definition, off-season means most humans don’t like these places during these times. Most waterfront businesses are closed. There are no peak-season activities on offer. You’re out on a mostly empty, slightly chilly, grey, and cloudy beach. It’s a satisfyingly atemporal environment.

Something about such outings deeply relaxes me. And after years of doing such trips, I think I am beginning to understand why. I think it is because my natural home state is being peacefully lost. Going to a place that, temporarily, doesn’t know what to do with itself,  is one good way to be at peace with being lost. An environment that doesn’t know what to do with itself, and is in no particular hurry to find out, is an an environment that doesn’t know what to do with you. And much of the stress of being lost, after all, comes from the environment pestering you to do stuff.

I like not knowing where I am, where I am going, why, or how I am going to get there. And I like it when the environment leaves me alone in that state.

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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.


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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Learning is the Opposite of Healing

I was trying to analyze the difference between various ways of learning-by-doing, and came up with a 2×2 that captures an idea that is in hindsight very obvious: learning is the opposite of healing. Learning is an activity with a high failure rate, and therefore high probability of damage and injury. Which means the opposite is an activity that heals. I got to the idea by taking what I consider the three basic kinds of learning (goal-directed or project-based, habit-directed or play-based, and recipe-directed or rote-based, corresponding to the three ethical orientations), classifying them by certainty in means versus certainty of ends, and realizing that you could complete a 2×2 like so.


Moral of the story: always complete a triad into a 2×2. You don’t know what obvious-in-hindsight idea you might be missing. By performance in the diagram, I mean an activity that is expected to result in the generation of value in the external world, through some sort of means-ends reasoning. By this definition, ritual that is informed by sincere and literal belief in religious ideas is not actually ritualistic. It belongs in one of the other three quadrants (usually recipe-directed), even though it is based on unproven or false causation models.

This 2×2 suggests that there is or ought to be a distinct ethics associated with ritual-directed behavior, similar to deontological, consequentialist and virtue ethics informing the first 3 quadrants. I think it is ironic ethics. To do something in a genuinely ritualistic way is to do it ironically. This is why the anti-performance label works.

Low Humanity Orbit

I acquired a new hobby last week: watching the International Space Station zip across the sky. The ISS is in low Earth orbit (LEO), with altitude varying between 200-270 miles. It moves fast enough (and is bright enough) to be mistaken for a plane. That gives you an idea of how quickly it moves along in its 93-minute orbit. Since Seattle airport flight paths also pass over where I live, the comparison is quite stark.

I harbor some ISS envy. I’d like to be in the lifestyle equivalent of a LEO orbit: moving incredibly fast, all around the world, using practically no energy, and at an altitude that offers a great view of Earth, but with none of the friction of actually living on Earth. I think of such a lifestyle as a low humanity orbit, LHO. Seeking LHO is, to be quite blunt about it, always a kind of rent-seeking. In the worst case, LHO is parasitism. But in the best case, as with satellites in LEO, you can add some value back on earth while enjoying the easy life yourself (note, here the “easy life” refers to the life of the satellites, not astronauts). A low humanity orbit is also a low-humanity orbit, hyphenated. Not only are you somewhat removed from the main action, you are also a little less human than people in the fray. You’re acting at least a little dead.

Most of us can only expect to experience brief, sub-orbital flights into societal outer space, not LHO. Calendaring friction is a clear first symptom of “getting back in the fray.” In any attempt to create a lifestyle with a high element of routine, unpredictably evolving “hard landscapes” (a GTD term) on the calendar are the main source of LHO rituals getting messed up.

It is easy to be ritual driven if you’re sufficiently above the fray in the vacuum of fully designable lifestyles. This usually means having enough money to either not deal with people at all, or deal with them only on your own terms.

The second option is to be in a tethered orbit, where  you stabilize your lifestyle by hitching it to people or organizations that are in LHO. Tethers create a lot of drag, but do have some of the advantages of being in orbit. You experience atmospheric friction, but don’t have to actively maneuver with it.

The third option of course, is acting completely dead.

Inbox Zero versus Flow Laminar

The world of stream-metaphor workflows in tools like Slack and Github — with strongly emphasized temporal structure, and the realistic probabilistic expectations of chat replacing the illusory deterministic expectations of email — has made me reconsider how I think about information processing. In particular, I’ve moved from an Inbox Zero mental model to a Flow Laminar mental model, as illustrated in this picture.

Inbox Zero, while a great concept within the limits of email and paper (“Clean Desk policy”), is a fundamentally authoritarian high-modernist concept. It creates a strong, bright line between profane and sacred regimes of information, and encourages you to get to illusory control (a clean inbox) by hiding precisely the illegible chaos that’s tempting and dangerous to ignore (if you use folders, you likely have one or more misc folders even if you don’t call them that). This is dangerous because you’re just moving unprocessed chaos from a procrastination zone with strong temporal cues (the Inbox) to a denial zone with broken temporal cues (the set of de facto misc folders).

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The Amazing, Shrinking Org Chart

About a year ago, an 1855 org chart of the New York and Erie railroad was cascaded worldwide by the VP of the Infographics Department of the Internet. There was a good deal of admiration as well as lamentation. Apparently we no longer care enough about our corporations to create beautiful depictions of their anatomy, ars gratia artis. Whatever else the shortcomings of mid-nineteenth century corporate management (they had a tendency to start wars and gun down workers in pursuit of their Missions and Visions among other things, and you had to be a quick-draw gunfighter to earn a Harvard MBA in those days), they clearly cared. 


Library of Congress (via McKinsey)

By contrast, a modern set of org charts is usually a showcase of apathetic PowerPoint banality. In fact, you rarely ever see a big global view anymore. Just little local views that could, in principle, be patched together into a global view, but in practice never are. Often, even CEOs only have a coarse, low-resolution view of the whole, with blocks representing entire huge divisions of thousands of humans and billions in capital assets. There is usually no operational capability for drilling down into finer points where the situation demands it (Proctor and Gamble, apparently, is an exception). Most senior executives — VP and above in organizations of 1500 or more people say — are in the position of surgeons operating on the basis of having played the kids’ game Operation rather than on the basis of medical training and tools like MRI machines.

There’s a very good excuse for this though: the pace of organizational and environmental change today turns static maps into garbage very quickly. The part of the organization that is both possible and useful to represent using an org chart has been rapidly shrinking.

What, if anything, should be done about it?

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A Dent in the Universe

At higher levels of the Maslow hierarchy, imagination is a survival skill. At the apex, where self-actualization is the primary concern, lack of imagination means death. Metaphoric death followed by literal death of the sort that tortured artists achieve through suicide. Less sensitive souls, such as earnest political philosophers and technically brilliant but unimaginative mathematicians, seem to end up clinically insane and institutionalized. Or as ranting homeless psychotics.

One way or the other, once you’ve clambered and backslid past the lower levels of the hierarchy, and found a shaky foothold near the top of esteem, lack of imagination kills as surely as hunger or guns. It just takes a little longer. We subconsciously recognize this threat, which is why we eagerly accept almost any excuse to arrest development at the esteem stage. The market for mostly harmless theaters of self-actualization thrives because we know the real thing punishes failure with death or madness. It’s the difference between a shooting video game and a war.

Which is not to say that imagination is not useful at lower levels. Presumably there are imaginative ways to escape from a bear chasing you or feed yourself. But some pretty unimaginative animals seem to manage using robotic instincts alone, so clearly imagination is not necessary. It is only sometimes useful, and often a liability.


But at higher levels,  imagination is necessary for tackling life. This is because, at higher levels of the hierarchy, the problem is  surplus freedom: what do you do when there is nothing specific you have to do? Where there are many sufficient paths forward, but no necessary ones?

Whatever you do, it turns out that being imaginative in dealing with the challenge of surplus freedom amounts to what Steve Jobs called putting a dent in the universe. Wanting to put a dent in the universe is not a matter of first-world entrepreneurial self-aggrandizement. It is a matter of life and death for everybody who is not killed by something else first.

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The Heroine’s Journey

What are women afraid of? Why do women matter? How are women useful? Do these questions have gender-specific answers?

In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell says that a hero is “someone who has found or achieved or done something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience. A hero properly is someone who has given his life to something bigger than himself or other than himself.” He goes on to distinguish between physical heroes, those who do deeds, and spiritual heroes, those who “[have] learned or found a mode of experiencing the supernormal range of human spiritual life, and then come back and communicated it.”

This is a grand and beautiful model. And especially when we just leave it at “someone who has achieved something beyond the normal range of achievement and experience,” it works very well for a hero of any gender. But when Campbell gets into the specifics of what counts or is celebrated as an unusual achievement, or how that achievement goes about getting done, I start thinking “well those are pretty unambiguously good achievements, but they’re also pretty male.”

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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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