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My Favourite Ribbon Farm Posts 2017

Last month, Ribbonfarm released their 2017 post roundup and as a big fan I thought I’d share my favourite posts, ideas within posts (and maybe some posts I didn’t like). I’ve only been reading ribbonfarm since mid-2016, so this year is the first where I started to form opinions on my favourite writers there.

I’ve re-read more posts from the beginning of the year than the end, because my roundup of a roundup ended up taking ages – who knew? So apologise if I miss some posts from later in the year.

First let’s say that Ribbonfarm is doing exactly what I would hope bloggy 21st Century thinky humans would be doing – refactoring perception. I personally also want to try to shift the Overton window, change the frame etc. and I think it’s extremely hard to think of things and think about things that are not allowed to be thought (yet). So I have huge respect to the blog and all its writers.

However, on to specifics about individual posts. I’ve used the same numbering system as the Ribbonfarm roundup post itself.

1. Tendrils of Mess in our Brains (1/5/2017) by Sarah Perry

… gave us a knockout idea/question that really makes me love her work. This one: What is mess? Huge for me in this essay is the concept of imaginary orders (in the sense of imaginary structures or systems of rules).

A great deal of our reality is made from imaginary orders we carry around in our heads. We use these imaginary orders to rebuild, navigate, and judge our world. A mess is a visceral clue to the existence of these invisible orders.

I almost suspect that the purpose of the whole essay is to bring you carefully into this realisation about imaginary orders. I just flap wildly and scream “THE HIGHWAY CODE!” to get this point across. Now I’ll refer to this essay instead. When I say that most of human life is imaginary, or “made up”, this is part of what I mean.

NB: just because orders are imaginary does not mean that they are not real, or that they are meaningless, or that they only exist inside our heads, or that they are entirely subjective.

2. Rolling Your Own Culture and (Not) Finding Community (1/10/2017) by Timothy Roy

For our American friends this title is a reference to rolling your own cigarettes, which we call “rollies” by constructing a cigarette from its constituent parts: papers, filters and tobacco.

This post makes a fairly interesting point about how we all must mix and match our entire culture (not just spiritual-but-not-religious people), and uses it to vaguely wish there was a Stage 5 Kegan appreciation community, something I really want too but which might seem really opaque to other readers.

4. How to Dress for the Game of Life (1/17/2017) by Pamela Hobart

I’d never heard of “normcore”, but now everyone seems to be saying “basic”, as if it’s a bad thing, in a shy, Premium-Mediocre, guilty kind of way…

But the widespread individuating worked almost too well… Now, individuals enter the world more or less unmoored… An automatically-individuated individual’s task has become to find or create the community that was once a given.

…being “basic” is an attempt at mastering sameness. “Basic” doesn’t consist in merely accidental sameness. Basic involves sameness for its own sake. When you go basic, you hope to find community with “normal” people.

Take this idea from fashion and apply it to morals and you have a second-half essay that is really interesting and doesn’t really lend itself to summary, go read it!

NB: Games.

5. The Antiheroine Unveiled (1/19/2017) by Sonya Mann

Loved this. It gave us a new archetype, and one that immediately explained a thing that previously had no name. Also a six zone diagram, one of the only post to do so that is not one of Rao’s. I thought of Kathy Acker when reading about the antiheroine.

6. Lies, Caffeinated Lies, and Operating Systems (1/24/2017) by Tim Herd

Best illustration of asynchronous processing ever, but doesn’t seem to count as “re-factored perception” though.

7. Games, Videogames, and the Dionysian Society (1/26/2017) by Chris Reid

This post blew my head off! Huge swathes of the post are summaries of a book called Man, Play and Games. I am grateful for this summary. It introduces many concepts within games, and there is a taxonomy diagram. At the end of the post, Chris has given us new ways to talk about games (and structures). I will briefly run mad with the ideas I had from this post.

This passage struck me in particular:

Effectively, Caillois argues that “rational” civilization primarily conceives of play in the forms of agon and alea because their understanding of social reality focuses on the interplay between rational agents seizing control (agon) or relinquishing control to fate or society (alea). “Rational” civilizations live in a “science-fiction” model of a world that is ordered by some fundamentally-knowable principles. Mimicry and Vertigo have their place- especially for those who are not selected by the major merit or chance games of their society- but are diminished in importance, and are often officially seen as childish or delinquent. For example, the “mimicry-lite” play form that Caillois calls “identification” allows for vicarious living through movie stars and heroes. For vertigo, there are always drugs. Generally, Caillois believes that “rational” civilizations frame themselves as heroes in a struggle to replace chance (alea) and the seductiveness of fatalism with the exhausting work of competence and justice (agon). He calls this drudgery “social progress.”

In contrast to the “rational” society, the “Dionysian” society sees a capricious, fundamentally unknowable “weird fiction” model of the world, where perception of the world is mediated (or laundered) through masks, trances, possession, and mystery rituals. Caillois suggests that this social arrangement is the basis of all cultures originally, and that tearing away from the sacred Dionysian dance towards “social progress” is a slow and painful process that is evidently never complete. As with Alea+Agon, Mimicry+Ilinx are complementary opposites: “Mimicry consists in deliberate impersonation, which may readily become a work of art, a contrivance, or cunning. The actor must work out his role and create a dramatic illusion. He is compelled to concentrate and always have his wits about him, just like the athlete in competition. Conversely in ilinx, in this regard comparable to alea, there is submission of not only the will but of the mind. The person lets himself drift and becomes intoxicated through feeling directed, dominated, and possessed by strange powers.” Just as alea is the seductive, destructive force to agon’s creative force, Caillois observes that there is an interplay between the creative, theatrical (controlled) mimicry experience and the intoxicating destructive force of ilinx.

Which seemed to me to be yet another way to describe the distinction between what I have called Stage 3 societies and Stage 4 society (or Chapman calls “communal” and “systematic”.

In my excitement over these stages, it has been on my mind a lot about what a stage 5 person looks like, and what a stage 5 society looks like. Personally I have been drawn to re-examine the things I previously dismissed from Stage 3 when I graduated to stage 4. Now that I’m thinking in stage 5 terms, stage 3 is suddenly much more interesting again. If  a society can be identified by its game playing, then a stage 5 culture could seek to reintegrate its stage 3 games, while remembering the usefulness of stage 4 games. Society could relax on rules/mastery and remember how to enjoy intoxication and mimicry.

I feel that the struggle to become something beyond stage 4 is slowly happening in games with the example of drugs. Stage 4 deplores this sort of free-floating, potentially destructive intoxication, but stage 5 knows how useful/transformative/relaxing such a state can be too. In Britain the drug laws were previously relaxed, then over-tightened. The world is in some ways relaxing, in other ways not sure. The struggle to articulate the benefits of drugs to a stage 4 world, while protecting people from the worst downsides, is interesting and important.

8. The Throughput of Learning (1/31/2017) by Tiago Forte

The second post to blow my head off! Tiago’s examples from industry are here used to apply to learning, but something about speeding up a system until it goes negative, until it goes through a black hole and turns itself inside out, seems profoundly important. I’m hoping we can do this to capitalism, and maybe identity politics?

His descriptions of learning bottlenecks also tickled my brain.

9. After Temporality (2/2/2017) by Sarah Perry

Another strong one from Sarah describing/explaining human experience of time, but would have liked a lot more on the final paragraph about the ways this makes our experience “after” (beyond?) temporality.

10. Shift Register Code Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber (2/7/2017) by Nolan Gray

I don’t recall this one at all. As I try to (re?) read it, I cannot get past the first endless non-paragraph. I’m as bored as I would be watching a random stranger very slowly jerking off. I can’t bring myself to even…

11. One Sacred Trick for Moral Regeneration (2/9/2017) by Harry Potash

Another aha! post. I had a shadowy idea that there were academic disciplines slicing up human behaviours in this way, something about how anything can be inviolate, and this changes over time… This post reminded me. It’s called Moral Foundations theory, within which there are “six instinctively used pillars of ethical behaviour”. The post goes on to describe which pillars the identity politics age (my era) is using, including the ways in which it is similar to traditional culture (eg pre-enlightenment Christian culture) and by God it was like finally being able to scratch a four-year itch. I shared this post a lot.

12. Caring and Reality (2/14/2017) by Kyle Eschenroeder

Somehow missed this one first time round, looks interesting though.

13. Unbuilding the Wall (2/16/2017) by Toby Shorin

Cool post, but un-wowed.

14. Prescientific Organizational Theory (2/21/2017) by David Manheim


15. The Strategy of No Strategy (2/23/2017) by Adam Elkus

Remember quite liking this, but evidently not enough to re-read.

16. A Brief History of Existential Terror (2/28/2017) by Taylor Pearson

My summary: “It was adaptive to be scared of things, now it’s not. Move towards fear to enjoy life.” One of those posts that could have been a tweet.

17. The Limits of Epistemic Hygiene (3/2/2017) by Sarah Perry

Relating idea transmission to disease transmission, and the prevention thereof. Useful explorations here.

[Interlude for several OMG Trump! blog posts]

23. Nobody Expects The Mongolian Earthship (3/30/2017) by Venkatesh Rao

Most excited about the mention of an app I like (though not by name) that provides a three word code for every 3m square location on earth. It’s called WhatThreeWords and is seriously useful if you’ve ever struggled to find your friends in a large park.

24. Cloud Viruses in the Invisible Republic (4/4/2017) by Carlos Bueno

Pretty awesome explanation of the state of computer viruses, especially recent attacks, with diagrams.

26. Idiots Scaring Themselves in the Dark (4/13/2017) by Sarah Perry

A number of Sarah Perry’s posts this year focus on aspects of epistemology. This post focusses on the feeling of being lost and the uncanny. These feelings may alert us to the presence of poor mental models – we feel lost or uncanny because something looks or is behaving in a way that it is not meant to, according to our current understanding or mental map. I love this post for introducing the idea of epistemic emotions to ribbonfarm (originally from a book named Inside Jokes): “positive and negative emotions related to information foraging, such as curiosity, boredom, insight, confusion, and humor”.

27. Entrepreneurship is Metaphysical Labor (4/18/2017) by Joseph Kelly

I really thought I’d be interested in this, but my mind is just sliding off of a cliff, every time I try to reread this post.

33. Y Tribenator (5/30/2017) by Carlos Bueno

This post is actually a little insight into the workings of Ribbonfarm – about ribbonfarm’s goal to foster tribes of idea-makers.

36.  How I Hired Your Mother (6/15/2017) by Carlos Bueno

… is a short post about “clincher stories”. A nice tidbit and well done for making it overlong for length’s sake!

35. Thingness and Thereness (6/6/2017) and 37.  Been There, Done That (6/27/2017) by Venkatesh Rao. Was interesting in the sense that this post seems to be grasping towards something I may also be reaching soon: what to do when the script of life that our culture provides is done. Then what? Relevant to mid-life crisis, unusual script, post-work etc. Sort of.

38. The Power of Pettiness (7/6/2017) by Sarah Perry

Another useful epistemic emotion, yay.

39. From Monkey Neurons to the Meta-Brain (7/18/2017) by Hal Morris

Fascinating neuroscience stuff, similar to some of Sarah Perry’s concerns. I ignored Hal’s first post in this roundup but this one was interesting.

44. Body Pleasure (8/3/2017) by Sarah Perry

Here Sarah Perry speaks to my interests again. As more of us have more leisure time, the most important concerns start to look different. Staving off boredom is one such, and here Sarah explores pleasures, with particular reference to which types of pleasures are best for a post-work society, ones that are: repeatable, long-lasting and enhance other pleasures. I wrote my own follow on post to this one.

45. The Crisis of the Lonely Atoms (8/8/2017) by Alex Hagen


47. The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial (8/17/2017) by Venkatesh Rao

One of the most popular posts of 2017, and for good reason. This insight is spot on and the name is great. Premium Mediocre’s meaning is almost instantly intuitively obvious, however a more full explanation was quite useful.  The blog post justifies about 50% of its length, so avoids my “could have been a tweet” list.

50. The World As If (9/7/2017) by Sarah Perry

Once again praise be to Sarah Perry for writing up something I try to point at on a regular basis as an integral assumption underlying half of my thoughts on “society” / “people” / “psychology”. Just re-reading now, God it’s awesome.

56. The Blockchain Man (10/10/2017) by Taylor Pearson

As interesting for its description of the “organisation man” of the (slightly idealised) past as it is for the proposal of a new version, the Blockchain Man. Dealing with decentralisation, the post touches on much that relates to stage 5/ fluid mode, including geography – nation-state vs. city-state. This is the best thing you’ll read all year with the word “blockchain” in the title, don’t be put off!

57. CEOs Don’t Steer (11/9/2017) by Venkatesh Rao

Much preferred this post compared to other businessy posts by Joseph Kelly. Businessy stuff continue’s to be one of Rao’s specialist subjects, nice to see him return to this topic.

59. The Leaning Tower of Morality (11/28/2017) by Kevin Simler

So, Simler is a big deal at the moment and clearly lots of people are fans, but I didn’t even finish reading this post. I wasn’t sure I agreed with the starting assumptions, I didn’t follow the metaphors. The diagrams didn’t help. I wasn’t convinced the ideas were going anywhere interesting and, well, I just found this article unutterably boring.

61. Feeling the Future (12/7/2014) by Sarah Perry

A follow on to After Temporality earlier in the year. Once again highly recommend this post by Perry.


Some that I left out…

Sarah Perry is an absolute hero in my eyes, but even heroes have quieter days. The following posts were good, but not quite as knock out as the others:

28. Fluid Rigor (5/4/2017), 34. Why Books Are Fake (6/1/2017), 55. Rectangle Vision (10/5/2017)  58. Folk Concepts (11/16/2017).

I liked about half of Venkat Rao’s posts. I have appreciated the tidbits of Hannah Arendt that appear all over the writing. I think he could do with submitting himself to some more rigorous editing though, his posts don’t need to be such an internal shambles.

People I look out for

I forgive Taylor Pearson for his fear post that could have been much shorter, because Blockchain Man was fantastic. I still watch out for Carlos Bueno because of his viruses post, even though I was pretty meh about his other offering (Priest, Guru, Nerd King…). I look out for Sonya Mann posts after Antiheroine, even though I didn’t mention her other post later in the year on this roundup. No other names have stuck in my head yet, so I look forward to perhaps getting some new favourite writers this year on ribbonfarm.


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