The Throughput of Learning

Learning in the 21st century is not about acquiring more information, knowledge, or even insights. The goal is to maximize the throughput of invalidated assumptions. But you have to get there one step at a time.

When you first start learning, early in life, there is a bottleneck in the amount of information you have access to. You soak up everything like a sponge, because you are open and there is relatively little to absorb.

But very quickly, in elementary school, your access to information stops being the limiting factor. You take home a few giant textbooks, and suddenly the bottleneck moves to ways of structuring and contextualizing the information.

In high school, you learn a variety of methods to structure information — outlines, diagrams, underlining and highlighting, reports, essays, notebooks and binders. The bottleneck moves to your ability to synthesize this information, to turn it into new ideas.

In college, if you make it that far, the bottleneck moves to insight generation. You start questioning the world as given, and find that the juiciest intellectual rewards are ideas that shift how you view it. You start hunting for the revolutionary, the controversial, steering your learning toward the red pills of paradoxes and contradictions.

rf5.001

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Games, Videogames, and the Dionysian Society

This is a guest post by Chris Reid.

The destinies of cultures can be read in games.

–Roger Callois, Man, Play, and Games

Before it was stolen, patented, and sold to the Parker Brothers, Monopoly was “The Landowner’s Game,” a Georgist propaganda piece meant to illustrate the unfair behavior of the landowning class. The game accomplished this by setting up rules and fictions (game mechanics) that generate a reliable system behavior (game dynamic) which produced the intended experience (aesthetic): That aesthetic, frustration, has disrupted family game nights for decades. The dynamic is familiar to nearly anyone who has played it: those who manage to own more property have the money and power to be better insulated against chance, and those who don’t are likely to lose even more. The game spirals out as losers are burnt down to nothing and winners become even more powerful. Winners might find the game fun. Losers are deliberately irritated by a slow, nearly unavoidable death. In theory, the game mechanics could be adjusted to produce a ‘smoother’ outcome for more players, but it was never the point. It wouldn’t be “Monopoly” otherwise.

Monopoly’s rude feedback loop, illustrated in Hunicke et al., MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research.

Monopoly’s rude feedback loop, illustrated in Hunicke et al., MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research.


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Lies, Caffeinated Lies, and Operating Systems

This is a guest post by Tim Herd.

Computer science is not about computers. It’s about computation, a much wider subject. Creating abstractions, essential representations of things, be they objects, processes, ideas, and manipulating those representations. Manipulating these representations and letting their movements inform and power the outside world. These representations are organized in the computer, but there’s no law saying they have to be. The organizational principles and structures are more fundamental, and can be applied to anything. A cafe, perhaps?

CaffLies

Right now you’re reading this on a computer, and that computer is running an operating system. Windows 10, macOS, one of a billion different linuxes. But what is an operating system?

Modern operating systems do a million things, but their fundamental job is to lie to programs. Each and every program running on your computer thinks it is the only program running on the computer. Programmers like me write programs assuming that no other pesky programs will get in the way. It’s the Operating System’s job to make sure the farce is believable.

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The Antiheroine Unveiled

The antihero is exciting because he is transgressive. Most of us color within the lines, but antiheroes rip pages out of the book. (Villains do that too, but then they set the pages on fire. Antiheroes make paper airplanes.) The antihero’s behavior upsets staid assumptions about virtue — he muddies “good” and “bad” in a way that mimics real life.

Antiheroine essay feature image, a sketch of a girl crying based on Lana Del Rey.

Drawing by the author.

Despite their troublesome ways, antiheroes are performances, safe for audiences to enjoy. We can relish morally complex characters without having to bring mess and conflict into our own lives (or without having to admit the mess and conflict that we don’t know how to handle). Antiheroes allow us to externalize our own grapplings with selfishness, loyalty, and altruistic bravery. They give us a relatable avatar, complete with id as well as superego. Watching the antihero’s antics can even be cathartic.

So, given that women are roughly 50% of the human race, where are the antiheroines? Why are they so outnumbered? Could they be hiding in plain sight? [Read more…]

How to Dress for the Game of Life

This is a guest post by Pamela J. Hobart.

Being basic involves wearing regular stuff for being regular’s sake. And “normcore” is the practice of choosing certain clothes to blend in, instead of to stand out. What makes basicness and normcore very different from other fashion trends is that they must be understood referentially, in comparison to what other people are wearing, and psychologically, in terms of why a wearer chose the look (instead of being a characteristic inherent in the clothes themselves).

Over the past couple of years, the concept of normcore (as initially conceived by trend forecasting group K-Hole) has been mocked and bastardized, all while quietly taking hold anyway. Its motivation — a frustrated need for belonging — is still felt keenly, and fashion cycle exhaustion is only worsening in a wired, 24/7 world. Models who might have hit the runway a few times per year have given way to fashion bloggers who change outfits multiple times per day. A quick scroll through Instagram is all you need to figure out the hard truth: there’s nothing new to wear under the sun.

The promise of normcore

The promise of normcore


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Cannon Balls, Plate Tectonics, and Invisible Elephants

This is a guest post by Hal Morris.

For our pre-technical ancestors, the clockwork at the bottom of the material world was so clothed in messiness that hardly a trace of it appeared on the surface.  But you could say that three exposed bits collectively formed a Rosetta stone to the mathematical language of nature:  a thrown rock, a pendulum, and the solar system, revealed by the night sky.  The last had to be viewed from such a difficult angle that reams of tables, centuries worth of exact observations, and a huge advance in mathematics were required to see it, but it was there to be seen.

Antique Orrery, source: Wikimedia, Creative Commons 20

The concept of machine pervades our culture, and has driven many philosophical debates for centuries.

For example, it is often argued that living organisms, or the human mind, are “ultimately just machines”. I.e. underlying all the messy organic complexity of the world’s surface is a level at which things function with mechanical or mathematical precision.  Sometimes it is then too blithely concluded that this proves we can eventually replicate anything, including the human brain.

But if “everything is a machine”, it can’t contribute anything to any argument  because it doesn’t distinguish anything from anything else.

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Rolling Your Own Culture and (Not) Finding Community

This is a guest post by Timothy Roy.

In economically advanced democracies, whose universities teach some sort of Enlightenment tradition and technocratic specialty, societies often do not share in common (and do not teach) certain important cultural cores.

These cores, which I think of as modules, include personal conflict resolution (how do we disagree? how do we apologize?), personal finances (how do we spend our money? how luxuriously should we live? how much should we save?), personal fitness (how do I maintain my body? what athletic skills should be practiced to promote health and strength?), and emotional or spiritual growth (more on this later).

rollyourown

These cultural modules are important because they address large parts of day-to-day life and overall lifestyle. They are also important because each module or chunk of teachings/practices can be fairly extensive, and hard to derive from scratch. Individuals, and entire societies, may take a long time to rediscover some of these helpful practices.

Fortunately for those of us bred in educational systems which run light on these cultural modules, there are lots of gurus around which are not too hard to discover. By taking a guru here and a guru there, you can form a complete personal culture, a complete lifestyle.

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Tendrils of Mess in our Brains

Messes are intimate, secret, somewhat shameful. Mess is supposed to be kept backstage. Posting this picture of my messy workspace is almost as embarrassing and inappropriate as posting nudes, but it’s necessary aesthetic background:

Author's mess

Author’s mess

All the new thinking about mess is apologetics: what if mess is good? Perhaps mess makes us more creative. Messiness is a sign of intelligence. All that. As a pathologically messy person, I cannot concur with this glorification of mess. Being in a messy environment is stressful and discouraging. There is an unease that remains even when you block out the conscious awareness of mess.

This is not say that mess is a pure bad. Mess is not even necessarily ugly. The famous photograph of Albert Einstein’s desk, taken on the day he died, is a particularly picturesque mess. This is recognizably a mess, but it is calming to look at, and deeply touches our personal feelings. It has mono no aware.

Einstein's desk, a picturesque mess

Einstein’s desk, a picturesque mess


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Complete 2016 Roundup

Here’s the complete roundup for 2016. I’ve changed the format this year and have grouped the roundup by author and medium, to help you discover some of our new contributors and experimental content more easily. We had 8 new contributors, 3 returning contributors, and 2 regulars (Sarah and me) all together contributing 57 posts, of which 42 were longform, and 15 were  other media: audio (1), video (4), cartoons (6) and slide decks (4). It was a satisfying growth year, topping half a million visitors for the first time, and growing by between 25-33% depending on which metric you like.

screenshot-2016-12-30-09-35-56

Other highlights this year: a new high-watermark viral hit post that beat the Gervais Principle in single-day traffic, Artem vs. Predator, the first ever ribbonfarm longform blogging course (you’ll see the output in the next 2 months), and the first year when I was not the biggest longform contributor on the site (Sarah Perry had 12 posts, I had 11, not counting my experimental non-longform posts). I did, however, set a new ribbonfarm record for length: King Ruinous and the City of Darkness weighed in at over 14,000 words, nearly twice the previous record of around 8000.

The ribbonfarm map also evolved this year, and acquired a video tour, in Trace of the Weirding. If you’re new to ribbonfarm, this video and map might be helpful as a general overview of what we’re about.

New readers (here is the new readers start page) this year might also want to check out the 2015 roundup2014 roundup and 2013 roundup. If you want to do some binge reading further back into the archives, there is a page for the Rust Age (2007-12) with both curated selections and complete roundups for 2007-12.

Anyhow, click on with the roundup.

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The Computational Condition

Over the past few months I read Hannah “Banality of Evil” Arendt’s difficult and idiosyncratic (somewhat unnecessarily so) but highly rewarding 1958 classic The Human ConditionThis slide-deck is a deep-dive attempt to apply her philosophy to the post-software-eats-world human condition, which I call the computational condition. Maybe digital condition or post-technological condition would be better, but I like alliteration.

This deck should serve as a decent introduction to Arendt’s philosophy of action, which is already part of the zeitgeist to a much greater degree than you probably recognize. It is dense and wordy, 88 slides long and full of big (thematically bucketed and curated) block quotes along book-ended and interrupted by my own heavy-handed commentary and summary sections, but trust me, it’s a 100x easier to digest than the book itself. But that’s not my main purpose in creating it.

The main purpose is this: With some significant augmentations and modifications (a few of them drastic enough to alter her basic philosophical posture in an irreversible and unforgivable way, the irony of which she’d have appreciated as you’ll see), her ideas actually work really well as a foundation for constructing what I think Silicon Valley needs badly right now: a solid political philosophy built on the foundation of the folk philosophy that already defines tech culture: doerism. So here’s my stab at it. Post a comment if you are interested in a sort of video salon on the topic, in either seminar or discussion format (specify which interests you more). I haven’t yet decided whether to do one, or attempted to present this deck. I suspect it would take me 2-4 hours to present this depending on how prepared people are.

In my own modest way, what I’m trying to do here is get a stone soup going, to cook up a political philosophy for Silicon Valley that is not embarrassingly juvenile/sophomoric. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, this should be a good starting point for you. Even if you dislike doerism (in the sense of the lived political philosophy of Silicon Valley), dislike Arendt (there is much to dislike about her), and are suspicious of any attempt to combine the two, this is in a way the most obvious steel-manning of what is already the tacit political philosophy of Silicon Valley. So your alternatives to it should probably understand what it might possibly be right about.