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!

Complete 2018 Roundup

Well, that was a slow slog of a year. I personally felt like Spider-Man in the 3rd Toby Maguire movie, where he inexplicably briefly loses his powers. Surprisingly though, I did end up writing more posts than in 2017 (18 versus 13, even though 5 were… uhh… not quite longform). It was like pulling teeth, but I appear to be gathering momentum again.

Let’s do the roundup first, and then some commentary.

Editor-At-Large Posts

  1. Justifiable AI by Carlos Bueno
  2. Tarpits and Antiflocks by Carlos Bueno
  3. Glitches, uh, find a way by Carlos Bueno
  4. The Digital Maginot Line by Renee DiResta

Sarah Perry posts

  1. Luxuriating in Privacy by Sarah Perry
  2. Light of the American Whale by Sarah Perry
  3. The Well-Being Machine by Sarah Perry
  4. Treasure Hunting by Sarah Perry
  5. Cringe and the Design of Sacred Experiences by Sarah Perry
  6. Notes on Doing Things by Sarah Perry
  7. Hedonic Audit by Sarah Perry
  8. Social Media Consciousness by Sarah Perry
  9. Boilerplate by Sarah Perry
  10. Justice Fantasies by Sarah Perry
  11. “Something Runs Through The Whole Thread” by Sarah Perry
  12. Deep Laziness by Sarah Perry

Venkatesh Rao posts

  1. Think Entangled, Act Spooky by Venkatesh Rao
  2. Unflattening Hobbes by Venkatesh Rao
  3. The Speakeasy Imagineering Network by Venkatesh Rao
  4. Dodo Thoughts by Venkatesh Rao
  5. May You Live in Epic Times by Venkatesh Rao
  6. The Age of Early Divinity by Venkatesh Rao
  7. Why We Slouch by Venkatesh Rao
  8. How Do You Value a Human Being? by Venkatesh Rao
  9. Flying Blind into the Anthropocene by Venkatesh Rao
  10. Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre by Venkatesh Rao
  11. Boat Stories by Venkatesh Rao
  12. The Key to Act Two by Venkatesh Rao
  13. A Quick (Battle) Field Guide to the New Culture Wars by Venkatesh Rao
  14. Make Your Own Rules by Venkatesh Rao
  15. Reality Maintenance by Venkatesh Rao
  16. Chekov’s Gun and the Principle of Sufficient Reason by Venkatesh Rao
  17. Quiver Doodles by Venkatesh Rao
  18. Armpit Futures by Venkatesh Rao

Guest Posts

  1. Near-Deathness by Matthew Sweet
  2. The Unapologetic Case For Bullshit by Stefano Zorzi
  3. (Don’t) Be the Gray man by Patrick Steadman
  4. Symmetry and Identity by Kenneth Shinozuka

Community Stuff

  1. Into the Fediverse by Venkatesh Rao
  2. Refactor Camp 2018: Cryptoeconomics and Blockchain Weirding Post-Mortem by Taylor Pearson
  3. Refactor Camp 2018: Cryptoeconomics and Blockchain Weirding by Taylor Pearson
  4. Refactor Camp: Cryptoeconomics and Blockchain Weirding Summary and Wrap Up by Joseph Kelly
  5. The Art of Longform by Venkatesh Rao
  6. 2018 Annual Letter by Venkatesh Rao

Refactorings Roundups

  1. Refactorings Roundup 09/16/18 — 10/06/18 by Editor
  2. Refactorings Roundup 11/13/18 – 12/08/18 by Editor
  3. Feed Fox Links: 8/12/18 — 8/18/18 by Editor
  4. Refactorings Roundup 08/26/2018 09/1/2018 by Editor
  5. Refactorings Roundup 10/07/18 — 11/12/18 by Editor
  6. Refactorings Roundup 09/02/2018 — 09/15/18 by Editor
  7. Refactorings Roundup 08/19/2018 – 8/25/2018 by Editor

Here are the 2017, 2016, 20152014 and 2013 roundups.New readers, here is the new readers start page. 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, as well as Kindle ebook collections.

After the monster 62-post year that was 2017 (thanks to the big bump created by guest contributions from people who took the longform writing course, which is now available in recorded form) this was a bit of a home-game year. Not counting administrative/community posts, we only had 38 proper posts: 18 by me, 12 by Sarah Perry, 4 by guests, 3 by Carlos Bueno, and 1 by Renee DiResta.

On the community front though, we probably had the best Refactor Camp ever  this year in Austin. There was also a healthy flow of meetups in the Bay Area, New York, Austin, London, LA, and Seattle.

The 2019 Refactor Camp will in be Los Angeles, probably on the weekend of June 7/8. Mark your calendars. Details in a month or so.

We also spun un a Mastodon server, and refactorcamp.org (open registration) has now been humming along quietly for 6 months. That has been the source of the irregular Refactorings Roundups posts (scroll up for back issues) with links to things people are reading and writing.

Interesting changes have gotten underway in the subterranean foundations of ribbonfarm, where our pet Cthulhu lives, so expect to see those bubble up to the surface next year.

Happy Holidays!

Why We Slouch

All physical structures can sag, but only sentient beings like you and me can slouch. To slouch is to adopt a degenerate behavioral posture. One that is aware of the potential for less degeneracy, and retains within itself a seed of an ability to actualize it, but consciously takes it out of play. Slouching is a posture of self-aware incompleteness of presence; a kind of dehydrated behavioral state of lowered availability that is less than fully engaged in the here-and-now.

Slouching is the essence of enlightened mediocrity; the recognition that you’ll live longer overall if you don’t try to be 100% alive all the time. Slouching is a good thing. I attribute many good things in my life to my ability to slouch well.

When you slouch, you sag like a non-sentient physical structure, your body physically conforming to a shape dictated by the interaction of environmental forces and backstop constraints. Think couches and floors. When you slouch and sag, these constraints activate, and support you automatically against a prevailing environmental force, without any need for you to adopt an appropriate attitude towards optimal performance in the environment.

When a chain is hanging under its own weight between two supports, it adopts a shape known as a catenary. A child who goes “boneless” as a form of passive resistance also takes on a rough catenary shape if picked up and carried by hands and feet.

Here’s a question that’s I’ve been wondering about. Why do we slouch? The answer to save energy is no answer at all. That’s merely a possible (but not necessary) consequence of slouching; one shared with many other efficient behaviors that look nothing like slouching.

So why do we slouch?

[Read more…]

Refactorings Roundup 11/13/18 – 12/08/18

This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series Refactorings Roundups

We have 8 featured posts from friends of ribbonfarm, 19 selections from elsewhere around the internet, and a few short takes this roundup. We also have a new addition to our friends-of-ribbonfarm blogsphere dragnet: foolproof.ink.

I just realized my approach to curation is basically the same as my approach to reading to fuel writing. You could call it Postel Curation: Be liberal in what you read, conservative in what you write (after Postel’s Law). I’ve unconsciously been trying to include at least 2x as many selections in the “Stuff We Read” bucket as opposed to the New Posts (== “Stuff We Wrote” bucket).

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 refactorcamp.org Mastodon instance. You can follow the bot directly if you want the unfiltered firehose.

New Posts

  1. The power of explanation ht Foolproof Ink. Link. ht @vgr
  2. War like posture and other metaphors by zenpundit. Link
  3. The problem with Lindy by @msweet. Link
  4. Redecentralize (event report) by @bkam. Link
  5. thematic tension by thesublemon. Link
  6. Goodbye and hello by @msweet. Link
  7. Playing Politics by srconstantin. Link
  8. Rupetta pre-read w/ Charlotte Geater: Folk tales & feminist histories (audio). by @adrianryan. 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. Whale ear wax and oceanic history .Link. ht @vgr
  2. Flash dance in support of euthanesia (video). Link. ht @machado
  3. The brain has 2 clocks, one for rhythms, one for experiences. Link. ht @vgr
  4. The predatory small-business lending industry .Link. ht @vgr
  5. The new Opportunity Zone tax laws allow for a lot of tax-minimization for the rich investor. Link. ht @Harry_Pottash
  6. 250 years later, benefits of education near Jesuit missions. Link. ht @dereklh
  7. Creative beefs. Link. ht @vgr
  8. Gandhi’s reputation is undergoing complexification. Link. ht @vgr
  9. On the origins of “Odinnic” sacrifice. Link. ht @msweet
  10. The African Middle Ages. Link. ht @dereklh
  11. The open office and the spirit of capitalism. Link. ht @dereklh
  12. Sweden’s Decades-Long Failure to Integrate. Link. ht @Elmkast
  13. Could poetry both freely create and rationally assert? Bonnefoy’s poetry. Link. ht @vgr
  14. Can toroid planets exist? Link. ht @nindokag
  15. Genetic error led humans to evolve bigger, but more vulnerable, brains. Link. ht @vgr
  16. Regenerative capitalism (paper). Link. ht @alec
  17. Environmentally mediated social dilemmas. Link. ht @makiaea
  18. Four laws of success and status. Link. ht @dereklh
  19. New Thomas Sowell interview. Link. ht @vgr

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

Short Takes

  1. The apotheosis of NIMBYism would involve radical life extension. — @dereklh
  2. Opportunities for meaning are abundant. It’s sincerity of belief that is hard to come by. — @msweet
  3. The more you want to go against the flow, the more baggage you have to carry — @vgr
  4. Technology is human existence compounded. — @msweet
  5. The difference between a grand narrative and a narrative is that the former is where surplus middle-class attention preferentially flows — @vgr
  6. People think they have 20/20 hindsight. Actually most hindsight conclusions are just another theory that hasn’t been tested against reality yet. — @Harry_Pottash

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

“Something Runs Through The Whole Thread”

The first zoom was the probably the sound of a train.

The various online dictionaries all give slightly different dates for the earliest use of the word zoom: a few confidently say 1892 (with no citation), others say 1886 (also no source), one gives a range 1885-1890 (same), and another is more circumspect with “late nineteenth century.” They all agree, however, that the word “zoom” originated as onomatopoeia: the sound of something traveling fast. Anything zooming by in the late nineteenth century would have been powered by steam. Perhaps it was a train, or a steam-powered automobile.

So zoom is the sound of speed – not the old speed of horses, but the new speed, vibrating and mechanical, exciting and high-tech. In the twentieth century, different aspects of “zoom” were then taken up by two emerging technological domains: photography and filmmaking on the one hand, and aviation on the other.

“Zooming” in aviation is a straightforward application of the original use. A pilot builds up a great deal of speed traveling parallel to the plane of the earth, then uses the build-up kinetic energy to fling the plane straight up into the sky, faster than it could go using just its thrusters. It’s easy to imagine what the ground looks like during this maneuver: rapidly shrinking as it gets further away and less detailed.

[Read more…]

The Digital Maginot Line

There is a war happening. We are immersed in an evolving, ongoing conflict: an Information World War in which state actors, terrorists, and ideological extremists leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life to sow discord and erode shared reality. The conflict is still being processed as a series of individual skirmishes – a collection of disparate, localized, truth-in-narrative problems – but these battles are connected. The campaigns are often perceived as organic online chaos driven by emergent, bottom-up amateur actions when a substantial amount is, in fact, helped along or instigated by systematic, top-down institutional and state actions. This is a kind of warm war; not the active, declared, open conflict of a hot war, but beyond the shadowboxing of a cold one.

Section of the Maginot Line, 1940 (Public Domain)

We experience this as a state of continuous partial conflict. The theatre opportunistically shifts as geopolitical events and cultural moments present themselves, but there is no sign of abatement — only tactical evolution as the digital platforms that serve as the battlespaces introduce small amounts of friction via new security checks and feature tweaks. As governments become increasingly aware of the problem, they each pursue responses tailored to the tactics of the last specific battle that manifested in their own digital territory; in the United States, for example, we remain focused on Election 2016 and its Russian bots. As a result, we are investing in a set of inappropriate and ineffective responses: a digital Maginot Line constructed on one part of the battlefield as a deterrent against one set of tactics, while new tactics manifest elsewhere in real time.

Like the original Maginot Line, this approach is about as effective a defense as a minor speed bump.

[Read more…]

The Age of Early Divinity

If you’re the sort of person who reads this blog, you’re probably the sort of person who wastes time wondering what we should name the age we are living in, instead of being out there doering things. Is it the Information Age? Digital Age? Eternal Millennial September? Avocado Toast Age? Anthropocene? Terminal Hobbesian Age? Post-industrial? Post-capitalist? Post-authentic? Post-reality? Post-post-modernist?

Are there quality long-arc candidates, good for at least a couple of centuries, that are not a depressingly negatively defined, backward looking post-something, with reasonable supporting logic? Allow me to offer a new candidate: Early Divinity. Here’s a table illustrating the logic of the name, which I’m fairly confident (p < 0.05), is a good one.

The name is inspired by the line Stewart Brand stole from anthropologist Edward Leach for the inaugural Whole Earth Catalog: We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.

Early divinity, simply defined, is an age, or more technically, aeon (a period presided over by a particular incarnation of Aion, the eternalist personification of time in Greek mythology), when we are as gods but aren’t yet good at it. In fact we suck at it. It is an aeon marked by the taking-on of civilizational challenges worthy of gods, and getting really mediocre or failing grades at it. One day, we might get good at this god game, but it’s going to be a while. So settle in and enjoy the Mediocre Civilizational Universe of Early Divinity, MCU-ED.

Periodization, of course, is something of a parlor game for amateur historians like you and me. Real historians are going to hate this anyway, so we might as well have fun with it. Here’s my meta-theory of Aionic periodization that yielded this label for our age, and a preview of what godly things are in our near future.

[Read more…]

Refactorings Roundup 10/07/18 — 11/12/18

This entry is part 6 of 9 in the series Refactorings Roundups

One of the interesting realizations I’ve had curating these links from a crowdsourced firehose is that the web looks subtly different from the perspective of a weakly interacting read/write crowd with a semi-permeable boundary, like a Mastodon instance fed by a hyperlocal blogosphere neighborhood. It is neither as incoherent as Twitter, nor as echo-chambery as a Facebook group, nor as aesthetically uniform as a single-curator feed. An open crowd mind seems to have certain harmonies and rhythms in the things it reading/writing/talking about. I like to think an ancient Silk Road bazaar would have had a feel something like this. Polyglot persistence of a network of human minds or something.

Straight Shot. Sculpture by Perri Lynch, Magnusson Park, Seattle

I have a month’s worth of curated links in this post. Ten new posts by friends of ribbonfarm, 27 assorted links from elsewhere.

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 refactorcamp.org Mastodon instance. You can follow the bot directly if you want the unfiltered firehose.

New Posts

  1. A Natural History of Beauty by Kevin Simler. Link
  2. Incipit as Infrastructure by Drew Austin. Link
  3. Things I Learned From Working With A Marketing Advisor by Sarah Constantin. Link
  4. The Algorithmic Bonus Mindset by @vgr. Link
  5. The Clock, Parts 1 and 2 by @bkam. Link Link
  6. Mandatory Obsessions by putanumonit. Link
  7. The floor and the canopy by @msweet. Link
  8. The Conflict by omniorthogonal. Link
  9. What poetry has to say about “the mob at the gate” by zenpundit. Link
  10. Towards Burja Mapping. Link. ht @tasshin

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. Godzilla constellation. Link. ht @vgr
  2. Rewilding in Autumn. Link. ht @jayantkalawar
  3. Contrarian view on NIMBYism. Link. ht @machado
  4. Cats are good at hunting mice, but not at hunting city rats. Link. ht @vgr
  5. Left vs right = forager vs farmers? Hanson and Alexander’s take. Link. ht @steve
  6. Origins of Impersonal Markets. Link. ht @steve
  7. Algebra versus geometry views of the world. Link. ht @steve
  8. Sugihara’s list. Link. ht @vgr
  9. A Framework for Intelligence and Cortical Function Based on Grid Cells in the Neocortex. Link. ht @dereklh
  10. The Big Blockchain Lie. Link. ht @Elmkast
  11. Why fighter jets can’t just fly away from storms. Link. ht @vgr
  12. “Where were they radicalized?” Link. ht @britt
  13. Are gestures universal? Link. ht @vgr
  14. Reality has a surprising amount of detail. Link. ht @vgr
  15. Neat map of history of western philosophy. Link. ht @vgr
  16. Deadly vs. Holy theater is a useful lens for viewing politics in America right now. Link. ht @britt
  17. How to tell the temperature with cellular biology, I mean, crickets. Link. ht @britt
  18. Agreeableness linked to longer life in male chimps. Link. ht @dereklh
  19. Reading books and digital streams necessitates a “biliterate mind” Link. ht @dereklh
  20. A greypill manifesto. Link. ht @britt
  21. Doctors hate computers. Link. ht @vgr
  22. Gerrymandering is fragile. Link. Link. ht @vgr
  23. The kilogram is being redefined. Link. ht @vgr
  24. Why do we bother wearing bicycle helmets? Link. ht @vgr
  25. Nice deep profile of Bruno Latour. Link. ht @vgr
  26. Hayao Miyazaki makes films about what it means to live ethically in a cursed world. Link. ht @britt
  27. Schizophrenics can tickle themselves. Link. ht @vgr

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

No short takes this time.

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

May You Live in Epic Times

At most times, in most places, history is busy rhyming with itself. The same holds true of the future: at most times, in most places, the future is busy rhyming with itself. There are always golden and dark ages in the past. There are always utopias and dystopias just beyond the horizon.

The fact that histories and futures rhyme so much, or as I like to think of it, are in rerun mode so much, allows us to inhabit escaped realities that are effectively outside of time. The sort of timeless time that the Greeks associated with their least-known third god of time: Aion. Unlike the better-known Chronos and Kairos, Aion personifies neither objective time, nor subjective time, but timelessness. Aion is the god of the nontemporal eternities, utopian and dystopian, golden and dark. He is the god of cyclicalities and finite games, symbolized by the ouroboros, a serpent biting its own tail. Asian time, arguably, is entirely the ahistorical shadow of an Aionic world. Karma is Aion in disguise.

When Aion is ascendant, you can choose to escape reality and live inside the rhymes of the past and future, inhabiting time via Fourier transform, rather than living in the present. In fact, when Aion is strongest, your escapes can be so complete, you even lose awareness of their being escapes. Because there’s nothing new in the present and everything can be found in the rhymes. You can check out completely.

Most humans spend much of their lives living in the commodity non-time of  the Aionic realms, inhabiting escaped realities. Time is something that happens to other people.

But when the future is not like the past, the present becomes unique, and you must actually live in it. At least for a while.

Such times are interesting times. Such times are epic times. And depending on the part you’re called upon to play, they may be cursed times, or blessed times. [Read more…]