Virtue Degeneracy

Last summer, in a burst of enthusiasm for pious, healthy living, I got into the habit of making and consuming this rather elaborate salad, using only the freshest farmer’s market produce, on a regular basis.

I named it the mansion salad as a joke, and proudly shared the recipe and my prep routine on Twitter. It’s not often that I feel like I’m modeling behaviors good enough to virtue signal to my fellow premium mediocrities.

The self-congratulation was hard-earned. I’d prep batches of ingredients every Sunday, and eat this several times a week for lunch. Except for the pickled olives, I turned up my nose at grocery store ingredients. Only crisp, fresh farmer’s market lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers would do. The prep took time, but both the taste and the feeling of virtue felt worthwhile. This, I felt, was what it meant to live well. I kept this up for months.

The mansion salad sparked joy. It wasn’t just instagrammable, it tasted good.

Fast forward to this year.

While I’ve held on to the healthy habit, it has degenerated into a grim goblin-mode parody of last summer’s mansion-salad routine.

Behold the slum salad: eating handfuls of greens straight out of a grocery store bagged salad mix.

The salad is often wilted and on its last legs by the time I finish a bag. Sometimes I have to pick out the good leaves, since a few might even be rotting.

I usually eat a few handfuls, follow it up a few cherry tomatoes, wash it down with a protein shake, and award myself my healthy living points for the day. If there happen to be cucumber or carrot in the fridge, I just chomp on those too (unpeeled, unchopped, but I haven’t sunk to unwashed yet). No lemon dressing. No olives. No home-pickled jalapenos, no baked tofu. Not even salt and pepper. The noble avocado has retreated to breakfast where it originally lived (my health fortress).

No cleanup.

The whole experience is exceptionally mediocre. Tastes worse than the mansion salad, is less hearty and satisfying, and delivers zero sense of virtuous accomplishment. This is pure path of least-resistance instrumental healthfulness.

The slum salad does not spark joy. It is not instagrammable. And while it does not actually taste bad, it is definitely not tasty.

The mansion salad beats the slum salad on basically every dimension except two.

First, though the mansion salad is cheap (about $2 for what would be a $13 salad at a chain like Sweetgreens) this is even cheaper (about $1 I’d guess). But the additional savings isn’t significant enough to matter.

It’s the second advantage that wipes out all the other advantages of the mansion salad: it is a hundred times easier to sustain as a habit. The elimination of all prep and cleanup works wonders. I could keep this up through wars and zombie apocalypses so long as grocery supply chains were intact. Chop off zombie head with goblin axe, chomp grimly on expired bag salad stolen from desolate grocery store, retreat to lair.

I’ve taken to calling myself a salad degen, by analogy to defi degen (the term of art in crypto world for degenerate investors grinding out an income through tedious, joyless yield farming). I’m in a state of salad degeneracy. A Gollum eating preciousss wilting salad out of a bag. It’s like ramen degeneracy among ambitious young people building startups, except for middle-aged people trying to delay shutdown.

It’s a weird kind of slummy-virtuous feeling. There’s a sense of accomplishment, as in ”at least I avoided the mansion salad being replaced by junk food!”

Not that I don’t eat junk food, but that’s a separate dietary line item that was present last year too. The point is, the salad line item didn’t get cut and replaced by worse calories, despite the deep motivational recession.

I’m looking around to identify other potential states of virtue degeneracy available to occupy. For example, I’m typing out this post one-fingered on an iPad on the couch while rewatching Thor, because I’m feeling too lazy to sit up with a laptop. A degen blog post is better than no blog post.

If its worth doing, its worth doing well is a big lie from the virtue-industrial complex.

Degenerate virtues are still virtuous. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing in degenerate goblin-mode form.

The times of high-energy virtue will return, and I will eat mansion salads again some day. But now I know I can get through a winter of salad degeneracy too.

It’s not how high you can fly during good times that defines you, but how low you sink during bad times. 😇

What is a Life?

It’s an odd question, but what is a life?

A good scoping definition to start with is: life is the objectively observable and subjectively experienceable existence of a living being over its lifetime. While helpful, this is a bit like saying a liquid is the contents of a tank that can hold that liquid.

But it’s a start.

Clearly, any answer must rest on particular understandings of objective observation, subjective experience, and time, but without getting into the philosophical intricacies of those three entangled phenomena, or into the question of life itself as a general phenomenon distinct from non-life, what can we say about the contents of a specific life? Specifically, a specific human life?

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Storytelling — Mediocre Metamodernism

This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series Narrativium

As I continue my own experiments with fiction, I have been thinking lazily about metamodernism. By which I mostly mean I recently re-read David Foster Wallace’s E. Unibas Pluram, read the Wikipedia page, caught up with Shia Laboeuf’s shenanigans, and have kinda primed myself to notice mentions of the term (it has been trending on Twitter a bit since Everything, Everywhere, All at Once hit theaters). I have also been unsystematically reading some subset of essays on the topic that catch my eye. I haven’t read any of the weighty academic tomes on the topic, and don’t intend to. I haven’t sampled any of the high-culture literary novels that are tagged metamodern on various lists, because they don’t particularly pique my interest.

My main interest is in cultivating a rough feel for what it’s about, and allow it to shape the context of my writing to the extent that seems like an energizing thing to do.

Ironically (is it metamodern gaucherie to notice irony at all?), “feeling into” context is apparently the central concern of metamodernism according to this interesting essay by Jonathan Rowson which just crossed my radar:

We are now obliged to create meaning and fashion agency within the context of  meta-crises of perception and understanding relating to ecological, social and institutional breakdown, where one world seems to be dying, and another is trying to be born. The point of metamodernism is therefore to help us better perceive our historical context by developing theories and practices that allow us to feel into what it means to be in a time between worlds, where meta-crises relating to meaning and perception abound and we struggle to perceive clearly who we are and what we might do; where meta-theories seem friendly because mere theory feels absurdly specific; where nostalgic longing feels like it is as much about the future as the past, and where we sometimes feel like being ridiculously romantic and romantically ridiculous. To be metamodern is to be caught up in the co-arising of hope and despair, credulity and incredulity, progress and peril, agency and apathy, life and death. I had mixed feelings about metamodernism until I realised it is about mixed feelings.

This is a surprisingly accurate description of where I’m trying to go with my fiction experiments (the whole essay is worthwhile), so perhaps I am metamodern after all. But just to avoid annoying arguments over definitions, I’ll call the version I am laying out here mediocre metamodernism, since mediocrity plays a key role for me.

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Infirmity

My 18-year old cat (around 80-100 in human years) is teaching me about infirmity and providing a sneak preview of my own future. He can no longer run but he can sort of hurry-walk. He can no longer jump, but he can just about manage to clamber up on the couch with a sort of still-elegant half-bound. But he prefers a ramp or stairs even for that.

And his mobility has a precarious quality to it. He can walk in a straight line, and make slow turns, but a slight unexpected sideways bump will topple him. And from some positions, such as being on his side on a slight slope, he has trouble getting up again. The days when he could stumble from a height and twist and turn in the air to land on his feet are long gone.

This quality of precarious nominality extends to all his life processes. Any change to his routine upsets him, and he has trouble coping and recovering. But he seems to have developed a curious kind of patience — sometimes grumpy, sometimes placid — for the coping and recovering too. There is a gentle, self-aware insistence on choosing life every day, despite the growing costs.

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Crisis Mindsets

I’m writing this post in stolen moments of calm in what’s turning out to be one of those rough, stormy simmering-crisis weeks. A major pet emergency is coinciding with a minor but urgent medical thing with one household member, and a bunch of routine long-scheduled medical care for another. Fortunately my wife and I have completely flexible schedules, and at least for the moment, we are financially comfortable enough, despite inflation and crashing markets, that money isn’t a bottleneck. So the crisis is, for the moment, within our ability to deal with. Throwing both time and money at problems, up to a point, is an available option.

So far, this week is well within my personal crisis-management bandwidth (though it has some potential for snowballing out of control). Objectively, it clocks in at about a Magnitude 4, and I’ve dealt with at least half a dozen Magnitude 6 and 7 weeks in my life so far. I expect at least a few 8s and 9s in my future that will force me to expand my range. And of course, like the rest of you, there’s at least one 10+ week in my future that will be the end of me, and rate an 8 or 9 for people around me.

As the world has gotten more crisis prone at all levels from personal to geopolitical in the last few years, the importance of consciously cultivating a more effective crisis mindset has been increasingly sinking in for me.

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The Map

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series Fiction

It was the most sublime map ever made; superbly detailed and wonderfully dynamic. They said a trillion-parameter model drove the real-time updates. Whether you wanted a simple route to your destination or a restaurant recommendation, if you were in the territory, this was the map you wanted.

They said it was so responsive to even the subtlest of event currents, the stream had to be artificially delayed to avoid spoilers. The speculative extrapolation ran minutes to hours ahead of the evolution of the territory, and if you knew how to hack in with a properly jailbroken client, you could surf the liminal future. The map was not so much a map as a live inference frontier. It would only be a mild exaggeration to say that it tracked and anticipated the fate of every blade of grass in the territory.

It was as much an evolving spatiotemporal promise as a map. And it was right a lot.

Uncannily right. Not just about traffic or the weather, but about vibes and moods. About whether you should go to the concert or to get an ice-cream.

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Elderblog Sutra: 13

This entry is part 13 of 13 in the series Elderblog Sutra

The last time I added to this blogchain in March 2021, it felt like the writing was on the wall as far as traditional blogging was concerned, thanks to the mixed blessings of the text renaissance. Not only was blogging as practiced here on ribbonfarm dot com dying for real (update: continuing to decline on schedule), but it felt like most people were saying …and good riddance.

Actually, if you squint a bit, blogging is not so much out of scope as the undeclared shared enemy of the text renaissance.

… 

The environmental assumption underlying WordPress is wildly untrue now. This is not the digital wilderness of 2001. This is the heavily built-up digital urban environment of 2021; cities at the intersection of the gravity fields of large platforms. WordPress is totally an anachronism. A befuddled, blinking cowboy on a horse wandering among New York skyscrapers, wondering where the stables and saloon are. What was once a patch of database-driven CMS civilization in the wilderness of hand-coded “home pages” on Geocities is now a spot of wilderness in the civilizational heart built on React and graph databases. It’s the Olmsted parks movement of digital urbanism. Lungs of the digital city and so forth.

As a response to this gloomy assessment, I quoted Lovecraft (“That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.”) and ended on a note of what I can only call weird Lovecraftian optimism — that to the extent it remains uniquely valuable, perhaps blogging can be resurrected as an Elder god.

And maybe blogging too will undergo enough of a technical renaissance that we’re no longer talking a reactionary hedge bet on horses, but a futuristic hedge bet on Mars rovers. That will probably require rebuilding of the foundations on something other than PHP and MySQL, but I suspect it will eventually happen when the hedge value of a non-platform alt-stack, with capacity for genuine commercial independence, becomes high enough.

That “hedge value” just went up sharply. I want to revisit the question of the future of blogging in light of the impending reconfiguration of the social media environment due to Elon Musk buying Twitter.

Is this a threat or an opportunity. Will this accelerate what seems like the terminal decline of blogging, or increase the odds of resurrection in a new form?

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The Ribbonfarm Lab

As I’ve mentioned in passing a few times, through the pandemic, I’ve been been spending a lot of time getting back into hands-on engineering, after nearly 20 years. I finally have one small thing worth showing off: the first test drive of one of my robots:

It’s not a kit design. I designed and fabricated this robot from scratch. It is probably the most complex engineering project I’ve ever done by myself in my life. I’ve had bit parts in larger, more “real” engineering projects, but they were all much easier to be frank, since my bit parts were mapped to my strengths.

Getting to this video has been a long, slow 18-month journey.

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Fermi Estimates and Dyson Designs

A Fermi estimate is a quick-and-dirty solution to an arbitrary scientific or engineering analysis problem. Fermi estimation uses widely known numbers, readily observable phenomenology, basic physics equations, and a bunch of approximation techniques to arrive at rough answers that tend to be correct within an order of magnitude or so. The term is named for Enrico Fermi, who was famously good at this sort of thing.

A particular anecdote is often cited to explain the idea. During the Trinity test in 1945, Fermi began dropping bits of shredded paper in his office near the test site, and based on how far they drifted from vertical, estimated the yield to be equivalent to 10 kilotons of TNT. This was surprisingly close to the more precise measurements.

Cliche consulting interview questions of the “how many ping-pong balls can fit in a 747” are a degenerate form of Fermi estimation without either the physics angle or active empiricism.

It struck me that there is counterpart to this kind of thinking on the synthesis side, where you use similar techniques to arrive at a very rough design for a complex engineered artifact. I call such a design approach Dyson design, after the physicist Freeman Dyson, who was one of the best practitioners of it (not to be confused with inventor James Dyson, whose designs, ironically, are not Dyson designs).

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Divergentism

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Lexicon

Divergentism is the idea that people are able to hear each other less as they age, and that information ubiquity paradoxically accelerates this process, so that technologically advancing societies grow more divergentist over historical time scales. The more everybody can know, the less everybody can see or hear each other. I first outlined this idea in a December 2015 post, Can You Hear Me Now? Rather appropriately, that post reads a little weird and hard to understand now, because the title and core metaphor comes from a Verizon ad that was airing on television at the time.

Here is how I described the idea then:

Divergentism is the idea that as individuals grow out into the universe, they diverge from each other in thought-space. This, I argued, is true even if in absolute terms, the sum of shared beliefs is steadily increasing. Because the sum of beliefs that are not shared increases even faster on average. Unfortunately, you are unique, just like everybody else

The opposed, much more natural idea, is convergentism. In my experience, this is the view most people actually hold:

Most people are convergentists by default. They believe that if reasonable people share an increasing number of explicit beliefs, they must necessarily converge to similar conclusions about most things. A more romantic version rests on the notion of continuously deepening relationships based on unspoken bonds between people. 

In the 6+ years since I first blogged the idea, it has turned into one of my conceptual pillars, so I figured it was time to put down a short, canonical account of it. Here is a whiteboard sketch of the idea. The x-axis is time, interpreted as either historical time or individual life-time, and the y axis is something like size of collective belief space. The cone represents the divergence.

The core idea remains the same, but I’ve added two corollaries:

First, the divergentism/convergentism dichotomy applies to societies at large, and individual psyches as well, not just the intersubjective level between atomic individuals.

At the societal level, societies understand each other less and less with increasing information ubiquity, at any level of aggregation you might consider, from packs to nations. You might get random spooky entanglements, but by default, society is divergentist. The social universe expands.

This idea is consistent with one in Hitchhiker’s Guide, that the discovery of the Babel Fish, by removing all translation barriers to communication, sparked an era of bloody wars. But conflict in my theory is merely the precursor to a more profound universal mutual disengagement.

Second, At the sub-individual level, where you consider the non-atomicity of the psyche, things are more complex, and I’m fairly sure the psyche by default is not divergentist. It is convergentist. A divergentist psyche is one characterized by a sort of progressive fragmentation of self-hood. A simple example is when you read something you wrote 10 years ago and it feels like it was written by a stranger. Or when somebody quotes something you wrote at you, and you don’t recognize it.

As a thought experiment, imagine you could have different versions of you, at different ages, all together. How much would you agree about things? How well would you understand each other? How easily could you reach consensus on things. Like say all versions of you needed to pick a restaurant to get dinner after the All-Yous conference. Would it be easy or hard? How about a book to read together?

I think I’m a psyche-level divergentist, but I think most people are not. Most people grow more integrated over time, not less. In fact, increasing disaggregation of the psyche is usually treated as a mental illness, though I think there is a healthy way to do it.

So to summarize the 3 laws of divergentism:

  1. Most societies diverge epistemically at all scales of aggregation over historical time scales
  2. Most social graphs get increasingly disconnected over societal time scales
  3. Most individuals get increasingly integrated over a lifetime, but some have divergent psyches

I am most confident about the second assertion.

Divergentism is both an idea you can believe or disbelieve, and a basis for an ideological doctrine (hence the –ism) that you can subscribe to or reject. You could capture both aspects with this simple statement: Humans diverge at all levels of thought-space, from the sub-individual to species, and this is a good thing. The doctrine part is the last clause.

If you are a divergentist, you hold that the social-cognitive universe is expanding towards an epistemic heat death of universal solipsism, and you are at peace with this thought. You explain contemporary social phenomena in light of this thought. For example, political polarization is just an anxious resistance to divergence forces. Subculturalization and atomization are a natural consequence of it.

Locally, there may be reversals of this tendency, even in very late historical stages. These manifest as what I call mutualism vortices, which are a bit like islands of low entropy in a universe winding down to a heat death. Dissipative structures of shared knowing and meaning. But overall, everything is divergent. But they become progressively rarer, just as there is an infinite number of primes, but they get rarer as you go down the number line.