This series is based on a visual model of the space of thinkable thoughts that I call the GCR -- goat-crow-rat -- triangle, archetypes corresponding to frontier, public, and private loci of thought and action, as well as events in the world, with the inside of the triangle representing increasingly unstructured thinking converging on the void, and the outside representing increasingly structured thought that eventually dissolves into an ooze of untheorizable but structured detail. In principle, any thought you can think should be plottable on this triangle. You may need to squint a little sometimes. Two old posts, Welcome to the Future Nauseous (2012) and The Design of Escaped Realities (2014), have now been retconned into the first two parts of this series, because in hindsight, they formed an early, unconscious train of thought that eventually became explicit with the GCR triangle (which itself is based on the Penrose triangle that I discuss in TDoER)

Welcome to the Future Nauseous

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Thinkability

Both science fiction and futurism seem to miss an important piece of how the future actually turns into the present. They fail to capture the way we don’t seem to notice when the future actually arrives.

Sure, we can all see the small clues all around us: cellphones, laptops, Facebook, Prius cars on the street. Yet, somehow, the future always seems like something that is going to happen rather than something that is happening; future perfect rather than present-continuous. Even the nearest of near-term science fiction seems to evolve at some fixed receding-horizon distance from the present.

There is an unexplained cognitive dissonance between changing-reality-as-experienced and change as imagined, and I don’t mean specifics of failed and successful predictions.

My new explanation is this: we live in a continuous state of manufactured normalcy. There are mechanisms that operate — a mix of natural, emergent and designed — that work to prevent us from realizing that the future is actually happening as we speak.  To really understand the world and how it is evolving, you need to break through this manufactured normalcy field. Unfortunately, that leads, as we will see, to a kind of existential nausea.

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On the Design of Escaped Realities

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Thinkability

Human beings have this amazing ability to retreat from reality without knowing precisely what reality is, in which direction it lies, and how to solve the converse problem of deliberately approaching it. We have gotten so good at this game of retreat that we’ve even managed to define an entire frontier of virtual reality to explore without quite figuring out what the non-virtual beast is. A question of particular philosophical urgency today is this: are virtual realities currently being designed in 3d game studios going to be more or less of a retreat from reality than the consensual fictions of the past, such as 2d games, novels, sporting events and religious mythologies?

I’ll offer a clear candidate answer later in this post, but it seems likely that all fictions — and fictions may be all we have — are retreats from reality rather than approaches to it.  This is very strange if you think about it. How can we be so good at retreating from something while simultaneously being really bad at approaching it? It’s like we have a compass that reliably points away from reality, but is incapable of pointing towards it.

Reality — which allegedly exists, despite the lack of credible witnesses — is mysterious. I’ve met people claiming to have experienced it, but it turned out they were all lying (especially to themselves — people in this business of “seeking reality” often manage to project their own desire and capacity for moral certainty onto their experienced universe, but that’s a polemic for another day).

The only marginally useful non-nihilistic idea about the mystery of reality that I’ve encountered is that it comprises three irreducibly distinct aspect mysteries: physical, mental and platonic-mathematical.  Roger Penrose made up this useful (and whimsically paradoxical) visualization of the triad in The Road to Reality.


Whether or not this triadic view is metaphysically the soundest one, it is a useful starting point for studying escapism.

Escapism. That’s the word we’ve made up to talk about the game of retreating from reality. We routinely accuse each other of indulging in it, and in polite company, avoid calling out each other’s preferred escaped realities. An escape is the opposite of a crash. It is a deliberate entrance into a simpler reality, as opposed to an unplanned entrance into a messier one. An escaped reality (in the computer science sense of the world you escape to, not the world you escape from) is the opposite of a crashed reality. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) are both varieties of technologically mediated escaped realities. So, for that matter, are gated communities, religious festivals, sporting events and other experiencable environments based on more technologically primitive mechanisms.

This deprecation of  escape as a disreputable behavior is unfortunate. Not only is escapism our best proxy for studying how we engage reality (short answer: backwards, in the rear-view mirror created by our fictions), there is an argument to be made that perhaps all existence is escapism. That the only realities (plural) we are capable of inhabiting are escaped ones. If this strong view turns out to be true, then the only way to directly experience reality would be to die. The ultimate crash.

But let’s start with a more familiar notion of escaped realities, of the sort associated with movies, novels, video games, religions, meditative practices and collecting stamps.

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Thingness and Thereness

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Thinkability

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.

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Been There, Done That

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Thinkability

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.

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Make Your Own Rules

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Thinkability

We seem to be in the middle of a renaissance of rules for life. Not since Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten (1987) and Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits (1989) has there been such a peak of interest in such rules. Then, as now, we were going through a period of deep global changes, and everybody was very anxious because nobody knew what the new rules for the new normal were.

The proximal trigger of this current wave is I think, Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules, as well as the late John Perry Barlow’s 25 principles, which have both been doing the rounds. But the root cause is growing market demand for anomie-busting.

Well of course if there’s a gold rush of this sort on, I have to sell pickaxes. And my pickaxe is a DIY template for making your own set of life rules. Here’s an in-progress snapshot of the pickaxe in action in my own notebook (cleaned-up version with readable annotations key further down, but I wanted to share the working version, which includes several technical mistakes). My model may be a bit hard to grok if you haven’t been reading me for a few years, but the good news is, it’s color-by-numbers easy to use. And all it takes is pen and paper.

I only have one actual imitable rule to offer in the marketplace of life rules: Make Your Own Rules. But I do think I have a good theory of life rules, and a meaningfully systematic procedure for generating them that I’m hoping to sell to the Deep Mind team for making well-behaved AIs.

In the short term, other people’s rules can get you through a rough patch. In the medium term, you have to at least adapt them to your own life. But in the long term, only making your own rules works.

Because, to snowclone what Eisenhower said about plans, rules are nothing, but rule-making is everything.

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This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Thinkability

The most idiosyncratic and esoteric visualization I’ve ever made up is the Goat-Crow-Rat triangle, which I first wrote about in Thingness and Thereness (2017). I’m renaming it my Thinkability Map, and this blogchain Thinkability. It is an exploration of the map of all the thoughts I’m capable of thinking (which itself has a place on the map of course). Everything I think about seems to find a natural home on this map. And since I think about a lot of stuff, though not necessarily well, you might find it useful too. It may be clear as mud, but it covers my ground at least. It’s my Hitchhiker’s Guide, and since I’m middle-aged, it’s about half full. Optimistically, I’ve thought about half the thoughts I ever will.

I’ve also been doing some retrospective taxonomizing of my older writing, and I realized that two old posts that were both pretty popular and personal favorites, Welcome to the Future Nauseous (2012) and The Design of Escaped Realities (2014), actually constitute prequels to this whole trail of thought, so I’ve retconned them here. It is really satisfying to see an unconscious thought-trail, developing over more than a decade, finally start to cohere.

This post probably won’t make much sense to you unless you read the most recent three parts first (and optionally, the retconned prequels). After that, there’s a 50% chance it will still make no sense to you. You’ve been warned. This stuff is for ribbonfarm completists with a streak of masochism who don’t mind the sophomoric dorm-room messiness of the inside of my head.

The current state of the thinkability map takes the form of a rather elaborate maze I made with the help of mazemaker Dan Schmidt, which also serves as the cover graphic for my in-progress Clockless Clock book project, for which this map is providing significant but invisible background scaffolding. If you’re following that project, you probably won’t see this this trail of thought explicitly referenced. This is backend tooling that I don’t really know how to talk about in stuff meant for a general audience. It probably needs fictional treatment for that.

I just made a couple of very significant updates to it, to add two things that I’ve been thinking about a lot this year, and I want to talk about one of them in particular, the idea of vastness.

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