Storytelling — The American Tradition

This entry is part of 2 in the series Narrativium

Adam Gurri pointed me to this 1895 Mark Twain essay, How to Tell a Story, which makes the interesting claim that the humorous story, dependent for its effect on the manner of telling rather than the matter, is an American invention:

There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind–the humorous. I will talk mainly about that one. The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.

I’m not sure if Twain’s claim is strictly true even within the narrow scope of his comparison to English and French storytelling traditions, but there’s something to what he was getting at in the essay. For whatever reason, in the 19th century, America reinvented, in a unique new way, an old, primarily oral form of storytelling. A form that appeared centuries after the rise of written and printed forms of storytelling, and within a modern, industrial context.

In making his exceptionalist claim for American storytelling, Twain was, I think, right about something. The question is what?

[Read more…]

MJD 59,326

This entry is part 15 of 15 in the series Captain's Log

I am considering adopting two rules for projects that I think are very promising for 40+ lifestyles.

  1. No new top-level projects (TLPs) (twitter thread)
  2. Ten-year commitments to projects or no deal (twitter thread)

I don’t mean practically necessary projects like doing something to earn money. I mean non-necessary life projects like writing a blog, or a maker project.

Shitposting and idle dabbling are still allowed so long as they don’t grow into new TLPs. They can grow into subprojects of existing TLPs, but even then I need to make a ten-year commitment or not do them at all. There’s a bunch of ambiguity here, around what’s a project versus the contents of one (is a new blogchain a subproject or just a thread of content for the overall blogging project?), but set that aside for now.

[Read more…]

MJD 59,323

This entry is part 16 of 15 in the series Captain's Log

Yesterday, I was testing a new bench power supply I just bought. I tested it with a multimeter, then connected it up to a motor, to make it go brrr for fun. It’s the sort of thing I haven’t done since grad school, decades ago.

As I was tinkering, I was idly wondering about whether there was any fodder for blog posts in what I was up to. I don’t mean Maker posts. A lot of people write about Maker stuff, and do it a lot better than I ever could. I mean riffs on Life, the Universe, and Everything inspired by tinkering with a new power supply.

Most of my writing to date has been inspired by things like working in an office, consulting, watching TV and of course, reading words written by others. That stuff is good fodder for riffs on Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Though I’m having a lot of fun rediscovering engineering with a middle-aged mind, I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to mine tinkering for insights on Life, the Universe, and Everything. Tinkering In, Words Out, TIWO, is a tougher transformation than SIWO: Symbols In, Words Out. Which is why it’s an interesting challenge.

Possibly it’s just me getting used to once again looking at the world through a long unused lens, but I think there’s more to it. There seems to be some sort of mutual inhibition function between tinkering with ideas with words and tinkering with stuff with atoms. Digital bits, as in programming, are somewhere in between.

While tinkering, you’re thinking a lot of mostly nonverbal thoughts. In this case, I was wondering about what the floating ground terminal was for, noticing how the sound of the motor was changing pitch at different voltages, observing the voltage deadzone between the motor starting/stopping as you turn the voltage up/down, thinking of ways to measure rpm and torque easily, and so on.

Depending on how you think about it, there’s either nothing to say about this sort of mundane tinkering stream of consciousness, far from Archimedean eureka moments, or there’s enough to merit several thousand words of prose. And I don’t mean how-to and instruction manual type stuff.

You could, for instance, write about the edifying, soul-uplifting effects of working with your hands. You could write satire about cliche mid-life crisis activities like tinkering in a home workshop, triggered by too much time spent in the world of symbols. You could wax philosophical about materiality, and sensory-experiential mindsets. You could write some poignant poetry about the smell of multimeters in the morning.

And of course, you could write about the actual activity itself, like the not-in-textbooks metaphysical subtleties lurking beneath apparently well-understood things like voltage and current. That is the sort of thing Brian Skinner has been blogging about on here lately.

But the thing is, whatever you think you might want to say, you have to stop the physical tinkering and start the verbal tinkering. You have to switch context from subsymbolic to symbolic ways of experiencing the world.

Physical activity radiates plenty of cues from which verbalized thought can begin, but to actually follow a verbal train of thought you have to stop the physical stream of activity, and think with symbols again. The context-switching is much more drastic than between two symbolic-domain activities.

I suspect the blue-collar/white-collar divide is about more than pre-modern class boundaries being perpetuated by industrial forms of organization. The prototypical activities involve different sorts of cognition.

Physical tinkering is basically 5-sense environment scanning at a very high bitrate driving tactile action that’s much more complex than producing symbol streams, aka typing. The literal Fingerspitzengefühl — finger-tips feeling — is more complex and less available to ensnare with words. And if you force it, either the words will suffer, or the skill will.

While tinkering, you’re logging a lot of information, and even though most of it is very low-salience, processing it is fundamentally different than working with streams of symbols. Symbol tinkering is very low bitrate, but the acrobatics it can sustain are much more complex. Physical tinkering is a Big Data computation for the human brain, while symbolic tinkering is ordinary computation. Reading and writing of course is mostly symbolic. Writing about social stuff and interactions with other people is also mostly symbolic, though of course there’s a world of non-verbal detail to observe if you want to.

Programming is somewhere in between subsymbolic and symbolic tinkering, and is harder to turn into Life, the Universe, and Everything fodder than either. Maybe that’s why movies and TV shows have struggled the most with portraying lives lived amid code.

Here’s why we don’t understand heavier-than-air flight

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Mystifications

If you’ve been reading popular science websites or magazines lately, then you may have heard the news: we don’t understand how airplanes work.

For example:

This fact may surprise you, given that humans have been successfully designing, building, and flying airplanes for over a century now. But I’m afraid that the articles are pretty clear:

In this post, I will consider the question of why we don’t understand heavier-than-air flight.

[Read more…]

Kinds of Potential

I’ve been thinking about the idea of potential lately, especially in the sense of the phrase “technological potential” as applied to say countries, growth sectors, trends, and charismatic engineering companies like SpaceX.

Or on a smaller scale, things like just a workbench with tools.

For instance, what sort of potential does a well-stocked workbench have? Here’s my 6-month old one. It’s young, but pretty well-stocked at this point. You can’t measure its potential in volts, but it certainly has a quality described by the word potential.

For the past 6 months, I’ve been doing increasingly complex maker projects (from a low baseline where getting an LED to blink felt like an accomplishment), and slowly buying equipment and supplies along the way, in the process building out this workbench corner in my home office. It feels like watching a peculiar battery slowly get charged up to its full potential.

I call this corner of my office the Ribbonfarm Lab. Someday I hope to rent space and grow that corner into a whole room. And then that room into a mansion with its own underground lair and air defense system.

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Elderblog Sutra: 12

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Elderblog Sutra

The last time I added to this blogchain, in July 2020, I was thinking about the metaphor of angkorwatification of elder blogs — the rewilding of an essentially complete, but ruined-and-restored structure, with plant life reasserting itself. A different tree metaphor has been on my mind lately, that of Groot, the ancient character in Guardians of the Galaxy who dies and regenerates as Baby Groot, with no memories of his past life (Baby Groot inaugurated the reboot-trope that has since been made more famous by Baby Yoda). In a curious way, I feel like ribbonfarm has gone full circle and is back to being a baby blog again, to the extent blogs can be babies at all in 2021.

Strangely enough, the rapid rise of Substack, the sudden explosion in highly produced essays on static sites, and most recently, essays being sold as individual works of art via NFTs (non-fungible tokens), has made me feel old in the relatively young newsletter/static site world (which I also participate in), and young again in the blogging world.

[Read more…]

Here’s why we don’t understand what electricity is

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Mystifications

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written in 1818, the young Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with the idea that electricity is a kind of fluid that endows living things with their life force. This obsession leads to tragedy.

Shelley’s view of electricity was, in fact, not an uncommon perspective at the time: just a few decades earlier the Italian scientist Luigi Galvani had shown that a shock of static electricity applied to the legs of a dismembered frog would cause the legs to kick. Galvani concluded that there existed a kind of “animal electric fluid” that was responsible for the animation of living creatures.

A diagram from Galvani’s De viribus electricitatis in motu musculari commentarius, 1791.

In the two hundred years since Frankenstein our view of electricity has certainly evolved, as has our ability to generate and control electric currents. But do we really understand what we’re doing? Do we even know what electricity is?

[Read more…]

Storytelling — Harmon vs. McKee

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Narrativium

I’ve been on a gigantic yak-shave for the last few months exploring storytelling theories, so I figured I’d start a new blogchain to compile my findings.

The most useful line about storytelling I’ve read so far is this line from Walter Benjamin, quoted at the opening of Reality Hunger:

“All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.”

I realized the line accurately describes all stories I like, and also everything I attempt in my own fiction experiments, whether or not I succeed. Hitchhiker’s Guide, for example, dissolved the genre of space opera. Iain M. Banks’ Culture series resurrected and reinvented it. Storytellers who do one of the two things tend to do at least a little bit of the other as well, but tend to have a preference. It’s like being left or right-handed.

One storyteller who seems particularly good at dissolving genres, and to a lesser extent, inventing them, is Dan Harmon.

[Read more…]

MJD 59,256

This entry is part 14 of 15 in the series Captain's Log

2021 is turning out to be a slow year getting off the ground here on ribbonfarm. A quick-and-dirty theory I made up and began testing last year about a kind of play-to-production pipeline for my writing isn’t quite working out:

  • Twitter for play-level shitposting and transient lightning-rod stuff
  • Ribbonfarm for experimental and R&D writing with no QA (open)
  • Breaking Smart and Art of Gig for production-grade stuff with a bit of QA (paywalled)

Ribbonfarm is in a way getting starved of low-hanging fruit to work with as raw material.

On the one hand, if it’s early enough, I shitpost on Twitter about it, often making what I now refer to as threadthulhus — messy intertwingled threads that QT and reference each other in weird ways like a bad Cthulhu dream, exploring a big topic with an utter lack of discipline.

These are not easy to clean up and serialize into essays, so I only do it when the idea feels extra strong, like the Internet of Beefs post which started life as a threadthulhu. But often, the very act of letting something sprawl into a threadthulhu precludes it ever become a cleaned-up essay. You have to switch gears early enough to do that, or it becomes impossible.

On the other hand, if it’s old-style enough (as in, a style I developed here 5+ years ago), it ends up in the newsletters. The subscription mode of the two newsletters keeps me on my toes on the production end, and even when it’s not fun, I’ve disciplined myself to keep writing. And because it is usually very familiar topics, and styles I’ve been honing for a decade, I can produce that kind of content even when I’m not feeling at the top of my game. It’s also stuff that I feel kinda doesn’t deserve a place on ribbonfarm anymore (which is a weird kind of self-snobbery, since I expect people to pay for it) because it is not bold enough in its intentions. It’s safe stuff for me personally. The risk of writing a truly bad newsletter are low because I don’t take many risks with newsletters.

Ribbonfarm is where I’ve always done stuff where I don’t want to be held to others’ expectations (which comes with taking money), but do have my own expectations. The expectations I have of myself here are the opposite of the QA type expectations I have of myself with newsletters and books. I don’t care about consistent quality or thematic coherence. But I do expect stuff I write here to be fun to write, break new ground thematically, and be at least a little technically challenging in writing terms, forcing me to develop new tricks or skills to execute on an idea (I’m almost never methodologically experimental in the newsletters).

This experimental quality means only a small fraction of readers will have the patience to ignore the failed experiments and wait for the experiments that work. It also means it would be kinda unfair to charge for it, since there are no implied promises.

Hey, there’s a 2×2!

The thing that’s making it hard this year is that the two kinds of writing I want to experiment with this year — fiction and maker projects — both involve a lot of upfront design and planning.

For the former, stories have to have more structural work and plotting up front (even if you are a pantser like me, and approach fiction as an improv activity, it still involves way more planning than nonfiction).

For the latter, well, you have to actually design and/or build stuff offstage and take photos to talk about, as in my clockmaking project posts. Otherwise you’re vaping rather than making.

In both cases, you need more time, and longer-range planning. You can’t just make shit up in a day, which creates a problem.

Historically, 90% of the posts on ribbonfarm were conceived and written in a single day — those that took longer did so simply because they were long (~4-5k finished words per day is my physical limit), not because I was planning them. I’ve almost never done preparation, outlining, note-taking etc. I wake up with an idea, and if I have the energy, I write for 4-14 hours, and I have a post. Done.

Lately of course, my energy has been closer to the 4-hour end than the 14-hour end, which is one of the reasons I shifted to the blogchain model. I simply don’t have the physical energy to do the 14-hour–day heavy lifts anymore that fueled this blog in the early years. Worsening middle-aged eyesight and stiffening joints aren’t helping either. I have to pace myself now, and break up writing sessions with physical activity to stay sane and avoid physical pain. Working on stuff that takes more planning and preparation fits better with my current energy patterns in theory, but clearly I’m having some startup troubles.

Anyhow, this is obviously an excuse-post for why more exciting things haven’t been happening here this year, given we’re already into February. The good news is, I’m working it out, and figuring out workflows and tooling and mechanisms to actually write the fiction and maker posts I am itching to write. It’s just taking longer than I expected to retool the factory.

Domestic Cozy: 13

This entry is part 13 of 13 in the series Domestic Cozy

Kyle Chayka, author of The Longing for Less, a 2020 book on the rise of minimalism, has an interesting feature in yesterday’s NYT Magazine, How Nothingness Became Everything We Ever Wanted, exploring the thesis that a “self-obliterating” tendency of retreat was already at work before Covid, and was aggressively accelerated by it.

Signs of a culture-wide quest for self-obliteration appeared everywhere in the time after my first float. I walked by an exercise studio whose sandwich board commanded me to “Log out. Shut down. Do yoga.” REI marketed a garment that “Feels like nothing. And that means everything.” In a January 2020 column about omnipresent noise-canceling headphones and the desire to block out our surroundings with constant sound, The Economist argued, “The shared world is increasingly intolerable.” Friends were picking up the paperback of Ottessa Moshfegh’s best-selling 2018 novel “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” about a young woman’s drugging herself to sleep as much as possible in order to emerge into the world anew. “When did staying in become the new going out?” asked a 2020 ad for Cox internet I saw during the Super Bowl, depicting a family frolicking in their living room wearing virtual-reality goggles, in an eerie precursor of what was just around the corner.

For years, an aesthetic mode of nothingness has been ascendant — a literally nihilistic attitude visible in all realms of culture, one intent on the destruction of extraneity in all its forms, up to and including noise, decoration, possessions, identities and face-to-face interaction. Over the past decade, American consumers have glamorized the pursuit of expensive nothing in the form of emptied-out spaces like the open-floor plans of start-up offices, austere loft-condo buildings and anonymous Airbnbs. Minimalism from the Marie Kondo school advocated a jettisoning of possessions that left followers with empty white walls. This aspiration toward disappearance made luxury synonymous with seeing, hearing, owning and even feeling less…

Quarantine has been widely regarded as a radical break in our daily lives and the ways we interact with the world, but in truth it’s simply an overdose of the indulgences a certain segment of the population was dabbling in already. We’re a little like kids caught with a cigarette, forced to smoke a whole pack at once.

The article quotes me and Domestic Cozy (Kyle interviewed me a few months before the pandemic started, and this feature obviously went into an extended development mode to accommodate the pandemic), and rather hilariously anoints me a “thinkfluencer’s thinkfulencer.” Which is kinda appropriate for this blogchain in particular, since I self-consciously set out to explore this particular bunny trail in an inception-optimized drip-feed form rather than trying to distill a viral-intent long feature out of it myself. Domestic cozy is a tortoise among hare-like memes.

Kyle’s thesis is an interesting mash-up of the longer-term minimalism trend that’s been his primary interest, and the more recent retreat trend. It’s not quite the same as either Domestic Cozy or what I’ve called waldenponding, but adjacent to, and somewhat at odds with, both. Maybe there’s a Venn diagram like this here. It’s not quite right, but close enough.

Domestic cozy is nihilistic, but not naturally minimalist I think. In fact there are strong elements of maximalism and hoarding to it — cozy furniture, too many pillows and blankets, maximalist kitchens, overfull pantries, overstocked workshops, and so on.

But the materialist maximalism does serve the obliterating function Kyle’s talking about, in sealing out the outside sensorily, and minimizing it as a source of dependency. So he’s right about that part. To the extent he’s also right about the existence of a parallel minimalist, eliminativist tendency, the two intersect in interesting ways.

In a way, the material minimalism he’s talking about is an older tendency; one that fits more naturally with premium mediocrity, since it assumes a lot more capability latent in a broader public environment. It’s hard to be a minimalist nomad living out of a laptop bag when airlines, Starbucks and AirBnB are operating in lockdown mode. But on the other hand, if you’re willing to kit out an RV or van like a self-sufficient spaceship, this is a great time to be doing non-minimalist nomadism.

The reason it gets confusing is that in a networked world with deep dependence on complex systems extending from your doorstep to China, minimizing connection and minimizing possession end up in a tradeoff. Rent and own occupy different positions on that tradeoff curve, but the point of the curve is to still shape your exposures to and dependencies on the world beyond your immediate control. Some buy more things to minimize connections, others rent more things as a service to minimize possessions. You can have a lean supply chain and fat household, or a fat supply chain and a lean household, but right now you have to have fat somewhere, or you’re at serious risk. The only non-retreat option, lean-lean is risky.

But though minimalism is perhaps more premium mediocre, the nihilism Kyle calls out is definitely more domestic cozy. There is a hopelessness there that was not there in premium mediocrity.

There’s something really dead-end like about all these trends. The thing about losing interest in the wider world is that there is no guarantee the wider world will also lose interest in you. What they say about politics (“you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you”) is true of the ultimate superset of politics — nature. The world is reeling from multiple ongoing calamities, and only a tiny fraction have the luxury of retreating from it all. Those who lack that luxury are not going to be exactly happy about it. One way or the other, you will eventually have to pay for retreating from the world.

I’m going to call this blogchain archived, since it’s sort of done what I wanted it to do, in terms of helping catalyze a particular conversation. I’ll add any other significant builds by others, but my thinkfluencing of thinkfluencers work is done here.