Rabbit Hole – Who’s Being Naive, Kay? Also, DARPA, Ribbon Farm, and Unknown Knowns


For the past few week I’ve been meaning to write Rabbit Hole notes about, variously, Anti-metrics, Painkillers and Vitamins, The Objective Function of the CCP, and The Amoral Exportation of Technology (in the Cobb–Douglas sense). But, alas, instead of writing any of these things I have been suffering under a kind of writing ennui brought about by a misguided bet that I could stop reading on Kindle and go 100% paper books, which in turn has led me to start hanging out at The Mechanics Institute Library.

The Mechanics Institute Library in San Francisco is a terrific, terrific place (and also the home of the oldest continuously running chess club in the US). It is so terrific that it is in fact too terrific and so a terrible place for writing with the weight of so many great words and thoughts literally towering above.

But finally, mercifully, my writing listlessness was broken by ‘Bezos Exposes Pecker’, and my faith restored that there are new and important words to write in the English language.

Thank you, New York Post !

So, I’ll try to take on the Objective function or Anti-metric note soon, but in the meantime, here are some links to interesting things written by other people:

Technology and time

The BBC has a new series about the long view of humanity, which aims to stand back from the daily news cycle and widen the lens of our current place in deep time. This long-ish piece gets into a combinatorial account of technology and time:

“From the perspective of technology, humans have been getting exponentially slower every year for the last half-century. In the realm of software, there is more and more time available for adaptation and improvement – while, outside it, every human second takes longer and longer to creep past. We – evolved creatures of flesh and blood – are out of joint with our times in the most fundamental of senses.”

It is just so important to be able to step out of our day-to-day perception of time and be able to think about technology (and other things) on a broad arc like this.

There’s a great Steve Jobs quote on the long view of being a tech builder:

“This is a field where one does not write a principia, which holds up for two hundred years. This is not a field where one paints a painting that will be looked at for centuries, or builds a church that will be admired and looked at in astonishment for centuries. No. This is a field where one does one’s work and in ten years it’s obsolete, and really will not be usable within ten or twenty years. It’s not like the renaissance at all. It’s very different. It’s sort of like sediment of rocks. You’re building up a mountain and you get to contribute your little layer of sedimentary rock to make the mountain that much higher. But no one on the surface, unless they have X-ray vision, will see your sediment. They’ll stand on it. It’ll be appreciated by that rare geologist.”

I think the combinatorial point is most important and missing from the Jobs analogy but, still: True words.

As a pragmatic point, in software architecture in recent years we have all adopted the combinatorial / sediment technology paradigm (although perhaps not all with such philosophical reasoning) by moving to ‘no-end state architecture’. For a neat, pragmatic, wide ranging talk on ‘no-end-state architecture’ in a corporate environment, take a look here.

Marketing alpha

Some years ago, Ben wrote the canonical note on a Narrative trade, “Who’s Being Naive, Kay?“, illustrating with the canonical Narrative stock Salesforce.

This blog post is a neat breakdown of the Salesforce ‘strategic narrative’ by a former Salesforce marketing person.

Realistically, we all already know perfectly well that Salesforce is doing this (telling a great story in the format of the second link, and broadcasting it well for stock price management as described by Ben in the first link) but Benioff is just so good at it, and we are hackable animals, so on it goes.

In many ways Benioff is the Arjen Robben of Software-as-a-Service, and we are all the hapless defensive lineup (scroll to the bottom ‘Ode to the Hack’ link and watch video).

DARPA’s new “Schema” approach to understanding the world

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) has created a new program called KAIROS (Knowledge-directed Artificial Intelligence Reasoning Over Schemas) aimed at creating a machine learning system that can sift through the many, many events and pieces of media generated every day and identify any threads of connection or narrative in them.

[ Ed. note: Wheeee! ]

The approach is interesting as it uses a “Schema” approach, in this case “Schema” meaning the process humans use to understand the world around them by creating little stories of interlinked events. For instance when you buy something at a store, you know that you generally walk into the store, select an item, bring it to the cashier, who scans it, then you pay in some way, and then leave the store. This “buying something” process is a schema we all recognize, and could of course have schemas within it (selecting a product; payment process) or be part of another schema (gift giving; home cooking).

This is interesting as, in some ways back, it goes back to ur-semantic AI classification system concepts, but maybe now with the compute power to make it work.

Epsilon Theory’s odd cousin, Ribbon Farm

My favorite technologist / hemp farmer / Epsilon Theory reader turned me on to a long form blog called Ribbon Farm. It’s odd. I quite like it. It strikes me as kind of like Epsilon Theory if, instead of going into asset management, Epsilon Theory had spent 20 years as a kind of dilettante grad student, reading widely, getting stoned and arguing with other grad students.  

[ Ed. note – in the trade, this is called “being an NYU professor.” Six years was enough for me. ]

Here’s Ribbon Farm on the Narrative:

“A story or narrative is a mental projection of characters and events embedded in a particular causal logic. Listening to a story seems passive, but in order to process the narrative, the listener must construct a coherent mental world out of the details provided. Unconscious predictions are made, and then winnowed and changes as more evidence is presented and conflicts resolved …As human beings, “projecting and sharing stylized model worlds in mental space” is both our ancestral job and our favorite hobby. The world that we interact in is mostly imaginary, constructed by all of us out of fantasies and guesses. As we get more intelligent, we will get more imaginary.”

Unknown knowns

And, finally, I found myself recently digging out the Donald Rumsfeld ‘known unknowns’ quote:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

I then found myself falling down the rabbit hole of thinking about about Slavoj Žižek’s fourth category of unknown knowns“the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.”

As I previously wrote about in ‘Take Back Your Thinking’ I’m a big fan of, and investor in, meditation as I find it reveals to me my own unknown knowns , which I’ve found over the years are the real ‘gotchas’. More broadly, it seems that it is the unknown knowns that are currently, very clearly getting us into trouble as a society.

[Ed. note: both Orwell’s “collective solipsism” and Zizek’s “unknown knowns” are terrificly important aspects of Common Knowledge. Dark aspects, for sure, but no less important for that.]


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Jim Handshaw
2 years ago

Quote from the Ribbon Farm narrative:
“The world that we interact in is mostly imaginary, constructed by all of us out of fantasies and guesses. As we get more intelligent, we will get more imaginary.”

For most of my life I’ve been searching for ‘certainty’. Now in my seventies I embrace uncertainty.

Thank you Neville and Ben for articulating that so well.

Richard Jones
2 years ago

I worked for about five years as a Knowledge Manager. My definition of KM pretty much revolved around the notion of “unknown knowns.” Within that context, I was referring to all the things that people in the organization knew — all the knowledge that actually existed — but that too few people knew existed or how to find it. And it was the job of KM to develop the awareness, the processes, and the technology for teasing out and capturing that knowledge.

2 years ago

“The world that we interact in is mostly imaginary, constructed by all of us out of fantasies and guesses. As we get more intelligent, we will get more imaginary.”

Yuval Noah Harari has an excellent discussion of imaginary reality in Sapiens:


He calls the imaginary fantasies “shared myths” and argues persuasively that they underlie the key evolutionary advantage of humans – our ability to work together in large numbers.

“Human Rights” – by way of example – do not exist in any form in nature. They are simply made up. Yet if we all engage in a collective delusion, a collective shared myth, and imbue them with universal cosmic significance – if we make them ‘real’ – then the world is seemingly a better place.

Undoubtedly, shared myths are also responsible for some of the more reprehensible events of human history, and even good myths can easily be manipulated to nefarious ends. Like two sides of the same coin. It’s hard to see how the world will not become “more imaginary.” Maybe it’s impossible to escape, but as I’ve heard around here, there’s a process….

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