Mediocratopia: 1

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Mediocratopia

I’m fascinated by mediocrity as an aspiration, understood as optimization resistance and withheld reserves. Mediocrity is slouching towards survival. Mediocrity is pragmatic resistance to totalizing thought. Mediocrity is fat in the system. Mediocrity is playful, foxy improvisation.

If premature optimization is the root of all evil, mediocrity is  slightly evil.

Mediocrity is the courage to be ordinary.

The increasingly mediocrity-hostile zeitgeist — witness this schwag t-shirt, ht Andy Raskin — has only made me double down.

Mediocrity has been a keynote theme for me for a decade, central to bookend viral hits nearly a decade apart: The Gervais Principle (2009) and The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial (2017).

In the former, I argued that Losers are self-aware minimum-effort slackers, while Sociopaths get to the top by avoiding the lure of excellence and practicing strategic incompetence on the way up.  “Excellence” is for the Clueless middle.

In the latter, I argued that much apparent excellence is just signaling in an economy wired to reward mediocrity with a veneer of excellence, and that this is a good thing (many perversely missed that latter point).

Mediocrity makes an appearance in many personal favorites: The Return of the Barbarian, The Gollum Effect, and The Calculus of Grit (2011), Fat Thinking and Economies of Variety (2016), and the posts collected in Crash Early, Crash Often (written 2014-2017) In 2018, I began exploring it explicitly, in Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre,  and Why We Slouch.

Sadly, Hugh MacLeod, whose Company Hierarchy inspired The Gervais Principle, has gone dark-side with an allergic-to-mediocrity 2018 cartoon.

Et tu Hugh? 😢

It’s lonely where I stand, but I will continue to thought-leader humanity as we slouch towards a mediocracy utopia: a mediocratopia. A long-lived world built out of good-enough parts, including, and especially, human ones.

Can we get there? Yes we can, if we stop hustling so damn much.

Elderblog Sutra: 2

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Elderblog Sutra

A necessary, but not sufficient, condition for an elderblog to exist is an underlying pristine blog that is old enough, and contentful enough, to serve as a landscape on which an elder game can be played. Ribbonfarm is at 11.5 years, 715 posts, and nearly 1.6 million words. The numbers are merely skin in the elder game. The spirit of the condition is that a coherent pristine game — “refactoring perception” in our case — should be winding down.

Elder-blogging possibilities obviously depend on the nature of the pristine landscape. Newsy blogs suggest history-based elder games. Blogs based on transient subject matter, such as product or fashion blogs, suggest trend-mining elder games.

Atemporal longform blogs like Ribbonfarm, like cities past a founding era, suggest metatextual  or infratextual games. Skyscrapers on regraded or reclaimed land that reshape territory, versus new roads, tunnels, or bridges that conform to existing territory.

The two are not mutually exclusive. Seattle for example, features many examples of both kinds of urban-planning elder games. These have been played since the city’s pristine game ended with the Klondike gold rush in 1900. Last weekend, my wife and I walked the newly opened Seattle SR-99 tunnel. Over the next few months, the old Alaskan Way viaduct that the tunnel replaces will be demolished. We’re living through a major infratextual porn chapter of Seattle’s elder-game era.

I favor infratextuality. Tunnels over skyscrapers. Infratextuality weaves a landscape into a landscape. The pristine landscape is still there, modulo weathering, aging, falsification, and decay effects. Infratextual elements recode and grow the landscape while preserving memories. Metatextual elements, on the other hand, have a tendency to erase memories and rewrite history.

If you know of good elderblog candidates, I’d appreciate links in the comments, perhaps with a short comment on what elder game is going on there, if any.

Weirding Diary: 3

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Weirding Diary

A sense of weirdness in the environment can be understood as unfactored reality. A blooming, buzzing confusion of sensory input that impinges on awareness without the mediating effects of conceptual thought. This is the same thing as the void, but we typically conceptualize the void as a featureless black hole. The reason is that our cognitive reaction to unfactored reality is to seal our minds off completely. Eyes wide shut. When the going gets weird, the mind shuts its eyes. If you keep your mind’s eyes open, translucent, legibilizing models descend to manage the cognitive response.  As the eyelids of the mind descend, some variety of magical thinking takes root. Normalcy is just the majority sect of magical thinking.

In my 2012 post, Welcome to the Future NauseousI defined the idea of a manufactured normalcy field (MNF). An MNF comprises both the models in your head, and elements in the built environment meant to encourage it to stabilize in your head. A stable MNF keeps the sense of weirdness at bay, and normal people functioning as adults. When the field destabilizes due to models crumbling in your head, reality acquires a surreal character. When it destabilizes due to the built environment crumbling, you have an anxiety response. When both crumble, you experience weirdness. In all three cases, functional behaviors required for survival get disrupted.

A filter bubble is a special case of a manufactured normalcy field comprising curated information flows. I dislike like the term because filtration is not the essence of what’s going on. The essence is the active construction of adaptive, magical-thinking, escaped realities. So I like my alternate term: reality escape pods. Normalcy is just the biggest such escape pod, illustrated by the track of the pink circle in the picture above.  The white ones are subcultures.

Elderblog Sutra: 1

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Elderblog Sutra

I learned about elder games from the classic Steve Yegge post, The Borderlands Gun Collectors Club  (ht Chris Reid). The idea is that in a complex game, after most players have finished a first full play-through, the mechanics might still leave interesting things for them to do. An Act 2 game-within-a-game emerges for experienced players who have exhausted the nominal game. A game dominated by such second-order players  is an elder game. In Borderlands, the elder game was apparently gun collecting.

An elder game tends to be more open-ended than the nominal game. In the ideal case, it is a mature infinite game that can go on indefinitely.

Blogging is now an elder game. After a decade of pursuing virality (out of the corner of my eye — direct pursuit is a recipe for burnout by pandering), the inside of my head now looks like the picture above. A vast mess of unsystematically explored territory, with flags planted on a few legible patches. That’s what organic virality is, epistemologically: a communicable patch of legibility in an ungoverned thought space of interest to many.

An elder game can be contrasted with a late style, which is a style of creative production taken to an extreme, past the point of baroque exhaustion, in a sort of virtuoso display of raging against the dying of the night. Late-style game play is an overclocked finite game resisting the forces of mortality. An elder game is a derivative infinite game, emergent immortality hacked out of mortality.

Old blogs must choose: should they turn into elder blogs, or should they turn into late-style blogs? One does not preclude the other, but you must decide what you solve for.

I don’t grok the ribbonfarm elder game yet, but I do know it’s time to ask: what comes after virality?

Weirding Diary: 2

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Weirding Diary

It is easy to orient yourself in space and time. In the simplest (but not most accessible) case, you’re fully present in the here and now. In a more typical case, maybe you’re at work, and daydreaming about being on the beach. Or dealing with 2019 taxes, with your head partly in 2022 when you’ll be done with a big project. Or maybe you’ve retreated within your memory palace to 1995. But in all such cases, you remain spatiotemporally oriented.

It can get complicated though. Maybe, in 2019, you’re ironically re-watching a 2013 movie that recodes, in the idiom of early 2000s superhero movies, the world of a starship in the 23rd century, as originally imagined in the 1960s. You can roll with that. Atemporality is easy if you can keep track of a few moving parts and levels of indirection.

What is hard is orientation in thought regimes where space and time are not the primary variables. Social spaces are good examples. You can move around in them, but is hard to impose notions of order, direction, or distance, onto social spaces. Take, for example, a simple one-dimensional model of social space with an axis that goes from private to public. This used to be a simple axis. At the private end you were alone with your thoughts. At the public end you might have appeared on television. You would “let your hair down” in private and put on a “game face” for appearing in public. You had “home” and “work” personalities.

Now, it is all mangled up. You could say the private-to-public dimension of social life has become entangled with itself, and with other social dimensions like power, status, and class. An important feature of weirding is being disoriented in social space this way, caught up in a set of mutually entangled dimensions.

Refactorings Roundup: 12/09/18 – 1/28/19

This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series Refactorings Roundups

Looks like people didn’t do much writing over the break and the start of the New Year, but did do plenty of reading. We have 8 posts by friends of ribbonfarm and 20 links from the dragnet.

This roundup is a human-filtered subset of links and short takes aggregated by the Feed Fox bot authored by Zach Faddis, and running on the Mastodon instance. You can follow the bot directly if you want the unfiltered firehose.

New Posts

  1. A new kind of overclocking by @msweet. Link
  2. Committing to Meditation by @bkam. Link
  3. On the felicities of graph-based game-board design: thirteen by zenpundit. Link
  4. Diving Into Ethereum Smart Contracts by @zacharius. Link
  5. Player vs. Character: A Two-Level Model of Ethics by Sarah Constantin. Link
  6. 2018 Reads by Joseph Kelly. Link
  7. In Conversation: SF Movie Adaptations w/ Seth Heasley by @adrianryan. Link
  8. Book Recommendations: An Everyone Culture and Moral Mazes by srconstantin. Link

Comment on this post with your blog link if you want it monitored by Feed Fox for potential inclusion, along with your mastodon (preferred) or twitter handle. 

Stuff We Read

  1. A more adaptable strategy for IPD than generous tit for tat. Link. ht @britt
  2. The wisdom of the all-father, wisest and most cunning of the gods.Link. ht @britt
  3. The Power of Talk: On Different styles of communication. Link. ht @bkam
  4. Hilary Hahn demonstrates playing violin pieces with various hindrances .Link. ht @strangeattractor
  5. (Long) interview with Adam Curtis. Link. ht @bkam
  6. Retorospective on the work of Donald Knuth. Link. ht @vgr
  7. Children raised by wolves.Link. ht @BruceJia
  8. What wit is and why we need it. Link. ht @dereklh
  9. Interactive tour of Garden of Earthly Delights (Hieronymus Bosch tryptich). Link. ht @vgr
  10. The Great Disillusionist (on Giacomo Leopardi). Link. ht @vgr
  11. Wendy Carlos created new scales, by doing away with octaves. Link. Link. ht @nindokag
  12. Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy. Link. ht @vgr
  13. A classic post on the misuse of categories in thinking and language. Link. ht @a
  14. A housewife manifesto. Link. ht @vgr
  15. Seeing like a network. Link. ht @vgr
  16. Generating wholes. Link. ht @msweet
  17. Deconstructing mindfulness. Link. ht @msweet
  18. If God Could Be Killed, it’d Be Dead Already. Link. ht @aRandomCat
  19. Staying Positive Without Going Insane. Link. ht @aRandomCat
  20. It’s All Over. Link. ht @vgr

If you are on the refactorcamp mastodon instance, you can tag links #heyfeedfox so they’re picked up by Feed Fox.

Weirding Diary: 1

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Weirding Diary

I did a little poll asking people the extent to which they are treating the current zeitgeist as a temporary weirding (TW) versus a permanent new normal (NN).

The results got me thinking: what is the difference between the two? I think the answer is societal fun levels. A situation is a normal situation if inhabiting it is a matter of going on with your sustainable survival/existence habits, and expecting the situation to persist indefinitely. The mark of normalcy is the allocation of surplus energy to fun, after you’ve taken care of necessary present and future-oriented behaviors.

A situation is temporarily weird if you either can’t, or don’t want to, adapt to it using sustainable habits. In the former case, you cut back sharply on fun, minimize use of resources to survive, and save as much as you can for post-weirding normalcy. In the latter case, you try and exit the situation.

Wartime is the archetypal temporary weirding. Wartime civilian behaviors are sharply constrained survival behaviors. There is a limited ration of fun available to keep up morale, but in general, the wartime psyche does not incline to fun. You expect the war to end at some point, and a return to normalcy. Even if it is a new kind of normalcy that forces you to drop some old habits and form new ones.

When the situation is ambiguous, as it is around the world today, we cannot estimate the proportions of transient weirdness, new normal, and temporarily depressed old normal in the mix. In terms of an investing metaphor, we don’t know whether to go long on the zeitgeist by buying into new cultural stocks, hold on to old cultural stocks that we hope will regain their old value, or short the zeitgeist somehow.

I’m trying out a new format for exploring themes long-term. This is the first entry in my weirding diary.

Stack Luck

Last year, I sensed my luck changing. It felt like a streak of good fortune, stretching back at least three decades, was gently but firmly coming to an end. But not because of anything I personally did or didn’t do, and not limited to me. Rather it was the luck equivalent of a big, slow earthquake deep down in the stack of civilizational infrastructure upon which my life, and the lives of people like me (information economy global urban elites, let’s say) depends. I call this kind of luck stack luck, an unreasonableness in the nature of the world working for or against you, creating either serendipity or zemblanity in your life. The best description of stack luck I have found is a passage in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22:

“I really can’t believe it,” Clevinger exclaimed to Yossarian in a voice rising and falling in protest and wonder. “It’s a complete reversion to primitive superstition. They’re confusing cause and effect. It makes as much sense as knocking on wood or crossing your fingers. They really believe that we wouldn’t have to fly that mission tomorrow if someone would only tiptoe up to the map in the middle of the night and move the bomb line over Bologna. Can you imagine? You and I must be the only rational ones left.”

In the middle of the night Yossarian knocked on wood, crossed his fingers, and tiptoed out of his tent to move the bomb line up over Bologna.

The kicker of course, is that the next morning, the map is mistaken for the territory and effect turns into cause. The commanding officers assume that Bologna has been captured, and cancel the bombing run. Contrary to the rational expectations of Clevinger, a Harvard graduate who believes in the fundamental reasonableness of the world he inhabits, action driven by superstition works in the crazy environment of the World War 2 bureaucracy. The course of events is changed by a self-validating superstition. And if you think this sort of thing can only happen in fiction, you haven’t lived enough.

[Read more…]

Remembering Pierre Kabamba

I think it was sometime in 1998 or 99. I was walking down the hallway of the faculty floor of the Aerospace Engineering department of the University of Michigan, where I was a graduate student at the time. One of the professors had tacked a recently published paper by his door, as professors like to do. It was something about computing asteroid rendezvous orbits, and it used some rather pretty continued-series approximations of a sort that were popular in the 19th century. The professor in question was chatting with another, Pierre Kabamba, and was making some sort of self-deprecating remark about his paper (though he was clearly pleased with it), but Pierre was having none of that.

Pierre T. Kabamba, 1955-2014

He exclaimed with a characteristic ebullience, “But this is wonderful! You’re doing ROMANTIC mathematics!”

The remark made me smile, and put me in an unreasonably cheerful mood for the rest of the day. At the time, I was working with another professor, and growing increasingly depressed and jaded (I was too inexperienced at the time to recognize a fundamental incompatibility). I didn’t know it at the time, but I would go on to switch topics and advisors, and complete my PhD with Pierre. I would spend a wonderful three years in his company, rediscovering, as an adult, the spirit of romanticism in engineering that had me memorizing airplane silhouettes in high school.

Last week, I learned, much to my shock, that Pierre passed away just over four years ago, in 2014, of lung cancer. He was only 59, and the last time I saw him, in 2011, he had been his usual cheerful and energetic self. We had last collaborated in 2006, on a course we co-developed and taught in parallel (me at Cornell, Pierre at Michigan).

The easiest way to describe Pierre is this: he was a real-life Hercule Poirot, and in many ways, the person who taught me to think in the ways I still try to practice on this blog. So let me tell you about Pierre and what I learned from him.
[Read more…]

Happy 2019

We don’t have a post ready to go to kick off the year, but I figured I’d memorialize the New Horizons flyby of Ultima Thule into a new year’s greeting card for you guys. The story of how my new favorite Kuiper Belt Object was discovered and targeted is told in this excellent twitter thread by Alex Parker, who was part of the team.  I wrote about New Horizons during the Pluto flyby.

Hope you all had a good break. We’ll get going with real posts next week. Happy New Year!