Narrative Slipstream Effects

This entry is part 14 of 15 in the series Psychohistory

Drafting is a behavior in bird-flock-like systems where one agent rides the slipstream of another in a way that delivers a collectivizable benefit, usually net energy savings. The instantaneous savings rates from drafting can be very non-trivial, ranging from 5-50%, depending on the agent geometry, formation topology, physics of the situation, and other conditions. Birds, bicyclists, race-car drivers, long-distance runners, and truckers on highways do it. It is possible to do it with airplanes, though the technology hasn’t been commercially deployed yet, as far as I know. Autopilots capable of maintaining the precise wingtip-to-wingtip formations required, for long periods (which human pilots can’t do), were developed in the early 90s. It is possible to do it with driverless cars. The reason only race cars do it today is that it requires precision bumper-to-bumper driving in platoons (linear formations of several cars) at high speeds, which ordinary drivers can’t do. A project back in the 90s, the Berkeley PATH project, demonstrated this with specially kitted-out Buicks on specially modified “smart” highway segments. Teslas today have the hardware and software capability to do it. The main blocker is not technological, but legal: who will be held liable if a platoon crashes?

Drafting offers a very fertile metaphor and mental model for social systems comprising individuals who “travel together” in a conceptual space with political, cultural, and economic dimensions. Something like Hofstede’s cultural dimensions model might be a suitable metaphoric space for thinking about societal formation flight. The equivalent of the shared travel path is the shared grand narrative, and we can think in terms of narrative slipstream effects delivering the benefits of drafting.

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A Dreaming World

This entry is part 13 of 15 in the series Psychohistory

I haven’t written a truly interesting general trend piece since approximately 2017, when I wrote Premium Mediocre. I don’t count Internet of Beefs (2020), since it is less of a trend piece, and more of a “there are no more trends” end-of-history type argument. The closest I’ve come is probably my Superhistory, not Superintelligence essay on AI (on the Ribbonfarm Studio newsletter). But though large in scope, that’s more a reframe essay than a trend piece. Another close-but-no-cigar piece was the pandemic-themed first chapter of Clockless Clock, my serialized book-in-progress. Again, large in scope and sweep, but more metahistorical than historical.

But it’s not just me. If it were I’d conclude that maybe I’m just growing old and worse at this game. Thing is, I haven’t even read a truly interesting general trend piece in the last 5 years. One that makes me feel attuned to the fate of the world. I’ve read many insightful essays about specific topics like Covid or Russia, slice-of-the-local-zeitgeist impressionist pieces, subtle technology analyses on things like AI or crypto, good explainers on why certain specific things like the real estate boom or the chip shortage are happening (and how to bet on them), ambitious manifestos about the way the world ought to be or become, but not truly interesting general trend pieces. And I think there is a reason: we are living through a liminal, dreamlike period of world history marked by what I’ll call psychohistorical tenuousness.

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This week, my inventory of scavenged cardboard tubes increased from 9 to 36, grew 6x in total length (from 13′ to 84′), and 23x in total volume (0.36 cf to 8.5 cf), thanks to a job lot of free tubes my wife happened to find for me. Here’s the current hoard — the 7 large and 20 medium size tubes are from the new find.

And here’s a spreadsheet view:

Why, you ask, have I been building up a hoard of scavenged cardboard tubing for years? Fair question. And the answer is: because the tubes are there to be scavenged.

But I finally know what I am going to do with it. I’m going to build a Tubeworld!

Elon is building hyperloops and tunnels under LA. Mohammad bin Salman is building The Line, an arcology that’s part of his Neom Ozymandias project, so why can’t I have a Tubeworld? Huh?

So what is a Tubeworld?

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Storytelling — Tellability

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Narrativium

I’ve been reviewing my own experiments with fiction (the stand-alone ones are on a separate fiction blogchain) to try and understand what makes an idea for a story tellable. I got to thinking about it because I was recently asked whether writing was a “particularly fluent” experience for me. The answer is: with nonfiction it definitely is, but with fiction, it isn’t. At least not yet.

I think it’s because “tellability” of stories is a more complex phenomenon that takes longer to turn into muscle memory where it feels like a fluency. Fiction fluency is to non-fiction fluency as riding a unicycle is to riding a bicycle. Developing this fluency, so I can go from idea to story in one sitting, with little to no metacognitive overhead, is kinda what I’m aiming at for now. I don’t really care about whether the stories are “good” as such, or meet other people’s formal notions of what a story ought to be. I just want to develop a fluency in “telling” so I can log the big wordcounts easily, while enjoying myself doing so. I want to learn to balance and ride the unicycle, and worry about getting somewhere later.

It’s not a point I’ve seen addressed in any of the storytelling material I’ve read so far, perhaps because it’s so obvious to people with natural fiction fluency. A story gets told if it is worth telling to the would-be teller, and is tellable. Just as an essay gets written if it is essayworthy to the would-be essayist, and essayable. It’s like whether a flight plan gets flown. The flight plan has to be tripworthy it for the pilot to do the actual flying, and the plane has to be flyable. Skill matters only after these two conditions are met, and the second one is the more basic one. Even a skilled pilot can’t make a bus fly. Not even if you put a gun to his head to make it worthwhile.

Tellability of a story

Tellability is not about whether the story is good or bad. It is about whether the storyteller can literally sit down and (almost unconsciously) work out how to tell it at all. In whatever medium — screen/stage, comicbook, live oral performance, or prose. Skill is usually medium-specific, but tellability is a property of the story idea. If a story idea lacks tellability, the story won’t get told. As with essays, there can always be major edits and surgeries later, and first-dump drafts might get abandoned. But the point is, the basic story idea has to be worth telling and be tellable in order to get told.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far.

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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 10 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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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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