The Power of Pettiness

Do you get annoyed when people repeat claims that you know aren’t true?

Do you feel the urge to correct them, even when you know it’s not important?

Do you feel ashamed when you realize you repeated a false claim or made a grammar error?

Do you habitually add disclaimers to your statements and still worry you might have said something technically wrong?

Do you ever wish you could just mellow out and not care?

Not so fast. For these emotions – pettiness and shame – are the engines driving epistemic progress. Curiosity is the emotion that motivates exploration for new information, as hunger motivates eating. Unfortunately, curiosity is seen as a cute and cuddly emotion, pleasant and smelling of old books. Here I model curiosity as a personal and social process consisting of four virtues: loneliness, ignorance, pettiness, and overconfidence. [Read more…]

Semi-Annual Roundup 2017

We’re halfway through 2017. Time for a roundup going into the July 4th weekend. Here are the posts published in the first half of the year, organized by author. We had 39 posts by 21 authors if I’m counting correctly (every post under guest is a distinct one-off author; contributors get a byline starting with their second post).

As you’ve probably guessed, we’ve made this a year of scaling, and are making a valiant attempt to hit a 2 posts/week tempo while also significantly expanding our network of writers. At 39 posts in 26 weeks, we are at roughly 1.5 posts/week.

  1. Cannon Balls, Plate Tectonics, and Invisible Elephants (1/12/2017) by Hal Morris
  2. A Brief History of Existential Terror (2/28/2017) by Taylor Pearson
  3. There are bots. Look around. (5/23/2017) by Renee DiResta
  4. Entrepreneurship is Metaphysical Labor (4/18/2017) by Joseph Kelly
  5. The Strategy of No Strategy (2/23/2017) by Adam Elkus
  6. Arguing About How the World Should Burn (5/16/2017) by Sonya Mann
  7. Sanity on the Weird Timeline (3/14/2017) by Sonya Mann
  8. The Antiheroine Unveiled (1/19/2017) by Sonya Mann
  9. Zorba, Spock, or Voldemort? (4/11/2017) by Contributor
  10. “Another Green World” (3/9/2017) by Contributor
  11. Rolling Your Own Culture and (Not) Finding Community (1/10/2017) by Contributor
  12. How to Dress for the Game of Life (1/17/2017) by Contributor
  13. One Sacred Trick for Moral Regeneration (2/9/2017) by Contributor
  14. Unbuilding the Wall (2/16/2017) by Contributor
  15. Caring and Reality (2/14/2017) by Contributor
  16. Lies, Caffeinated Lies, and Operating Systems (1/24/2017) by Contributor
  17. Shift Register Code Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber (2/7/2017) by Contributor
  18. Games, Videogames, and the Dionysian Society (1/26/2017) by Contributor
  19. How I Hired Your Mother (6/15/2017) by Carlos Bueno
  20. Cloud Viruses in the Invisible Republic (4/4/2017) by Carlos Bueno
  21. A Priest, a Guru, and a Nerd-King Walk Into a Conference Room… (5/9/2017) by Carlos Bueno
  22. Y Tribenator (5/30/2017) by Carlos Bueno
  23. Prescientific Organizational Theory (2/21/2017) by David Manheim
  24. The Throughput of Learning (1/31/2017) by Tiago Forte
  25. Fluid Rigor (5/4/2017) by Sarah Perry
  26. Why Books Are Fake (6/1/2017) by Sarah Perry
  27. Idiots Scaring Themselves in the Dark (4/13/2017) by Sarah Perry
  28. The Limits of Epistemic Hygiene (3/2/2017) by Sarah Perry
  29. After Temporality (2/2/2017) by Sarah Perry
  30. Tendrils of Mess in our Brains (1/5/2017) by Sarah Perry
  31. Thingness and Thereness (6/6/2017) by Venkatesh Rao
  32. Ten Years of Refactoring (6/13/2017) by Venkatesh Rao
  33. Been There, Done That (6/27/2017) by Venkatesh Rao
  34. Blockchains Never Forget (5/25/2017) by Venkatesh Rao
  35. One Weird Longform Trick…on the Blockchain! (4/25/2017) by Venkatesh Rao
  36. Nobody Expects The Mongolian Earthship (3/30/2017) by Venkatesh Rao
  37. Bourbon Crossing (3/23/2017) by Venkatesh Rao
  38. The Winter King of the Internet (3/21/2017) by Venkatesh Rao
  39. Sulking Through a Subprime Presidency (3/7/2017) by Venkatesh Rao
  40. Semi-Annual Roundup 2017 (6/29/2017) by Editor

Been There, Done That

In a previous post, Thingness and Thereness, I introduced my goat-crow-rat triangle and the in-progress thinking associated with it. Here is my my next iteration of the diagram.

 

In the previous version, I didn’t have a label or annotations for the edge between the public and frontier vertices. Since I am a bit of an obsessive-compulsive maniac with diagrams like this, I couldn’t rest easy till I had figured out a complete, maximally symmetric set of labels. So, here we go. A relatively complete version with no labeling gaps and some pleasing symmetries.

The edge between frontier and public is now officially the been there, done that edge. I hope the label is intuitive enough that at least some of the significance is obvious. Let’s talk about the non-obvious significance.

[Read more…]

How I Hired Your Mother

I was once riding in the back of a friend’s car next to an intelligent, beautiful, exciting woman. We’d spent the last few hours talking to each other as though no one else was around. Bar? Jazz band? Where are we now? What language are we speaking? Who cares. Then a pause, and a curious look flashed across her face. I felt my toes curl around the edge of an invisible diving board. She started talking nervously off the top of her head about… something. I said callate mija, a silly thing only old abuelitas say. Then I leaned over and we kissed. Our friends in the front cheered. Three months later we were married.

The stories you tell later about clincher moments are peculiar in both senses of the word: unique and strange. By itself the clincher quip makes little sense, a one-off generated in the moment out of shared context & vulnerability. You had to be there. At the time it’s created it functions like a gavel strike, cueing up a decision. Later, it acts like a bookmark to take one back to a spot in a million-dimensional emotionspace.

The really funny thing is that these stories have the same pattern whether they are about recruiting a key employee, the love of your life, or an enemy spy. They have some elements of a joke but they are not quite jokes. They are also full of purposeful lies. Every clincher story is prepared testimony for a future trial.

[Read more…]

Ten Years of Refactoring

Today marks the 10th birthday of ribbonfarm. I launched this blog on June 13, 2007 (with a book review). The first comment rolled in a few weeks later, organically, on July 4. That was also the day I formally “launched” the blog, by spamming my email address book.

To commemorate and memorialize the historic occasion, our resident alpha hacker Artem Litvinovich put a bit of birthday graffiti on the bitcoin blockchain. Notice the pair of leading 42s on the transaction id? That required some special low-level uber-hacking. It’s not something standard bitcoin applications can do. In his words, “You need to control the innards of the ECDSA signing code to do something like that.” I have no idea what that means, but I’m very pleased to get a special bespoke-magic-engineered birthday card here.

Two 42s is actually kinda nice. One for Douglas Adams, one for me. I was a clueless 32-year-old when I started this blog.

So here we are now, 10 years later.

618 posts later.  9797 comments later. 5 Refactor Camps later. 17 repeat contributors later. 20 guest writers later. 2 blogging courses later (well, 1.16; the second one is underway and will conclude next week).

Hundreds of Facebook discussions later. Thousands of tweets later. Multiple slashdottings and hacker-news-front-page-ings later. Dozens of meetups and couch-surfings later. Thousands of road-tripping miles later. I could go on.

If Google is to be believed later, 4 million sessions later, 2.5 million visitors later, 12 million page views later. 3 books later.

1,346,678 words later. At an average of just over 2179 words.

983,764 words by me. 102,983 by Sarah Perry. Just under 260k by other contributors. And I’m not even counting the comments. There’s probably several hundred regular commenters who’ve been with us off-and-on over the entire decade, dropping pearls of add-on wisdom in the comments section.

There are also words themselves. Dozens and dozens of useless neologisms, gleefully unhelpful abstractions, time-wasting archetypes labels, a steady stream of gratuitous insultings, entire bunny trails lined with thoughts nobody should waste time thinking, and so on.

And don’t forget pictures. A steady parade of ugly illustrations, collages, and cartoons (and a few pretty ones) has kept the torrent of words company.

And where have we arrived? I have no idea, but I think there’s a there there 🙂.

It took long hours, years of sweat and selfless toil and….alright who am I kidding, it took none of that.

I hate to disappoint people who like to see gritty toil behind long-evolving projects, but to be honest, in many ways, this has been the most effortless and entirely self-indulgent thing I’ve ever done. Play that worked, as I put it in a recent Breaking Smart newsletter. I just started writing one day, and forgot to stop. Everything else followed. Like they used to say about the British Empire, the Ribbonfarm Empire was created in a fit of absent-mindedness.

And speaking of Breaking Smart, there’s also a messy, rhizomatic sprawl of half a dozen domains, and a complex slum of infrastructure behind this rolling Internet carnival.

Over the last decade of high-ADD discursive wandering, ribbonfarm has steadfastly refused to have a focus, and outlasted hordes of blogs (and blogs about blogging) that earnestly advised everybody to “find a niche” and “focus.”

Nuts to that. ADHD ftw.

(nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah!)

 

So what do we have ahead of us for the next decade?

There is a ton of stuff staged and kinda hanging around, waiting to be rolled out over the next few months, to help set the course for the next decade. I’ll be posting more about all those things in next few weeks to months.

But for now, Happy Birthday to us!

Thingness and Thereness

For months now, I’ve been thinking about a whole mess of related ideas with the aid of a Penrose triangle visualization of three key, interconnected loci that frame a sort of canvas on which life scripts (whether canned or improvised) play out. The three vertices are home, public and frontier. This is the simplest version of the visualization:

 

Between home and public you find subcultures of being and identity, defined by the question, is that a thing now?  Fidget spinners are a thing right now. Gangnam Style was a thing a few years ago.

Between home and frontier you find subcultures of doing and creation, defined by the Gertrude Stein question, is there a there there? There currently seems to be a there there around cryptocurrencies. Opinion is divided about whether there was a there there around Big Data, but we may move beyond that question to the question of whether there’s a there there to Deep Learning, without ever figuring out the thereness of Big Data definitively.

Our lives are shaped by how we relate to thingness and thereness, and how those two qualities relate to each other.

[Read more…]

Why Books Are Fake

Every citation is either a homework assignment or a promise.

A citation, whether a scholarly footnote in an old book or a hypertext link, either promises the reader that the author has given an accurate and relevant account of the cited material, or assigns the reader to read the cited material in order to remedy the reader’s ignorance (and perhaps save the author the trouble of making a faithful summary). It may be both at once; personally, I go back and forth as context dictates.

Crawling and squirming in between the citations are the implicit citations: all those books, ideas, events, controversies, and mundane rituals of daily life that the author assumes (or pretends to assume) that the reader is already familiar with.

A book presents itself as a self-contained artifact. The form of a book (even an e-book) promises to provide a discrete chunk of knowledge. Consider the recent cult of the book – Reading Rainbow, library fetishism, John Waters’ famous admonition that if you go home with someone and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them. As books began to obsolesce as a form, they were attributed almost sacred value as epistemic tokens. I am not immune to the fantasy that a single book can contain valuable knowledge.
[Read more…]

Y Tribenator

I once saw a tourist with a shirt that said, in big letters on the back, “BOMB TECHNICIAN”. Then in smaller type underneath, “If you see me running, try to keep up“. That’s basically my strategy for exploring the new. For whatever reason I don’t have the temperament to be an early adopter. To fake it I surround myself with early adopters, and watch what they do.

This method doesn’t always work. In 2012 I got paid 5 Bitcoin at the insistence of a reader. I smiled and took the digital funny money. I’m sure it’s still on a hard drive somewhere. In 2014 my early-adopter friends were talking incessantly about a different digital funny money called Ether, which you could only buy with Bitcoin. I didn’t bother to look for the file. If I had converted that Bitcoin to Ether at the initial sale price of 2000:1, today I’d be over a million dollars richer. Sometimes I wish I was more reflexively willing to try new things.

Be careful what you wish for. I’m suddenly finding myself in the middle of a kind of tribe-generating metatribe of bloggers, helping coordinate a sprawling collection of highly weird writing projects through a clever Ether-based poker game slash taskboard called Colony.io.

[Read more…]

Blockchains Never Forget

Just three years ago, in 2014, I wrote a little short story set in a future where most work is organized around blockchains. That story was set sometime past the 2120s, but it appears we’ll get there a century earlier than I thought. The idea of organizing work through smart contracts on blockchains has been moving ahead at a breathtaking pace.

Over the last few weeks, I had my first hands-on immersive experience of this particular piece of the unevenly distributed future. I’ll share more about the specifics of this experience, and lessons learned, but mainly I want to enter my first serious attempt at blockchain punditry into the public record: the blockchain is irreversible social computing. 

The message of the medium is this: blockchains never forget. By providing an extra-institutional base layer of irreversibly settling collective memories that cannot be erased, blockchains create a foundation for fundamentally different institutional and technological landscapes. Ones based, as I will argue, on a notion of artificial forgiveness.

[Read more…]

There are bots. Look around.

“There are idiots. Look around.”

So said economist Larry Summers in a paper challenging the idea of efficiency in financial markets, a cornerstone of American capitalism. We’ve hit a point where the same can be said of efficiency in a cornerstone of American democracy, the marketplace of ideas:

“There are bots. Look around.”

The marketplace of ideas is now struggling with the increasing incidence of algorithmic manipulation and disinformation campaigns.

Something very similar happened in finance with the advent of high-frequency trading (the world I came from as a trader at Jane Street): technology was used to distort information flows and access in much the same way it is now being used to distort and game the marketplace of ideas.

The future arrived a lot earlier for finance than for politics. There are lessons we can take from that about what’s happening right now with bots and disinformation campaign. Including, potentially, a way forward.

[Read more…]