Ran Prieur

"The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed."

- Terence McKenna

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March 8. Today I want to rave about Picbreeder, a website where you can make art by selecting images as a computer alters them with an algorithm based on biological evolution. Here's a 40 minute video by one of the guys who made it, mostly about how the best images come from headlong improvisation instead of planning, and from individual judgments rather than consensus.

But I don't think he sees half of it. For me, Picbreeder is the most valuable technology of the 21st century. So far I've put 50-100 hours into it, way less time than someone might spend on video games, and I feel like I've already learned more about creativity than in decades of writing, and made images that I could never make alone even if I mastered painting software.

Suddenly I understand that creativity has two components that are completely separate. One is the magical well that ideas come from. And the other, almost as magical, is how you decide what ideas to trash and what ideas to run with. What I mean by "magical" is that my conscious mind has no creativity at all. It's like the manager for an art department where the "artists" are hard to explain with current theories of mind.

In this condensed video of the 1956 film The Mystery of Picasso, you can watch Picasso's creative process as he starts with a sketch and puts it through changes until sometimes there's no trace of the original idea. Of course he does everything: the ideas, the rendering, and the selection. But Picbreeder allows someone with no skill in ideas or rendering to still practice creative selection, ten times faster than Picasso, plus a back button.

Another way to say it: the stuff that bubbles up from the Picbreeder computer is not that different from the stuff that bubbles up from your own mysterious subconscious, and might almost replace it. If I can use only selection to make an impressionistic landscape like Mordor, or a near-realistic portrait like Sunbathing or Spacewalking... could someone with no ideas still use selection creativity to produce good fiction, or choreography, or architecture, out of nothing but AI-rendered noise?

If you want to try Picbreeder, here's my strategy guide: 1) Go immediately to advanced with color. 2) At first, breed for color and structure together. At some point you'll either really like the colors and want to keep them while you breed structure, or you'll nail the structure and want to color it differently. In a long project you might go back and forth. 3) Usually it's best to select only one image. A good reason to select two is if you can't decide between them. 4) Combining two images into one with elements of both is really hard, but it gets easier the more similar they are, and the more patience you have. It took me at least a hundred evolutions to give my spacewalker a chest icon in blue space with a sun. 5) When in doubt, go for gut aesthetics over rational thinking. Pretend you're looking at a bunch of album covers and deciding which one to reach for even if you can't explain why. 6) If you're in a rut, either use the back button to find your last exciting image and go a different direction, or go forward with big changes. 7) Marijuana.

March 6. If you missed my Saturday post, this week I'm raving about what makes me happy. Today it's my biggest science fiction influence, and if you think it's Philip K Dick, guess again. Of course Dick is the best. In some of his early novels, like The Game Players of Titan or Dr Futurity, it's like you're watching figure skating, and nobody's ever done a triple axel, and then this guy comes out and pulls a quintuple axel. A Chinese philospher wondered if he was a man who had dreamed he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man, and after two thousand years suddenly Dick turned that shit into a fractal. (And he barely made any money, and someone probably thought he was wasting his life.)

But Dick's protagonists are mopey and angsty. In the face of uncertain reality, they're treading water in a dark ocean. Then along comes an author whose reality-tripping characters are surfers: Roger Zelazny.

I'm thinking of two Zelazny works, and neither is his serious and brilliant early novel Lord of Light. That one pleased the critics, and he was probably thinking, with that out of the way, now I'm just going to write experimental shit and have fun.

The first Chronicles of Amber are the funnest books I know. There are classics I've never opened, but I've read those five books three times. The story hits the ground running, with a first person narrator who wakes up with amnesia and super powers, but the star of the books is Zelazny's colorful, dreamy mechanism for shifting through parallel worlds by using attention to make the world change around you.

What I don't like about Amber is that the characters are too often motivated by vengeance, competition and fear. Zelazny's secret masterpiece is a little book about time-traveling highways, with an emotional tone so playful that even deadly adversaries usually turn out to be old friends. Roadmarks is luminous on multiple levels, and poetic, and totally trashy.

March 4. I've been thinking about that Beatles song, "Hey, you've got to hide your love away." (Referencing Chris Farley...) Is that true? Do we really have to hide expressions of love, and why?

I can see more than one reason. First is that our love is often at odds with the world. You know that quote, "Everything I like is either illegal, immoral, or fattening." The word fattening makes it funny. If you stopped with illegal and immoral you would have a dark message -- and yet not completely untrue. It also reminds me of a line from one of my favorite 90's hits, Here's Where The Story Ends: "The only thing I ever really wanted to say, was wrong, was wrong, was wrong."

Even if you love something appropriate, the people around you don't love it and will just be annoyed (or envious) if you chatter about it all the time. Yesterday there was a thread on the subreddit (now deleted) from a reader who tried to leverage my personal blogging into unsolicited advice. I answered that I think readers want to hear about my struggles that they share in this difficult time, and they don't want me to rave about what makes me happy.

But maybe I'm wrong. So next week (unless it's bumped by a new subject) I plan to just rave about stuff that makes me happy. And I'll find out (quoting the same song) if people weary of me showing my good side.

March 2. One of the things I'm doing differently now is that instead of saving up links where I have little or no comment, and posting them here in occasional bunches, I'm just posting them to the subreddit.

Today I want to write about motivation. We've all read thousands of motivational sayings, yet most of us still struggle with motivation, so words aren't as powerful as we hope. But I've been getting a lot of mileage lately out of a few attitudes that can be put into words.

One is a Zen saying, "The obstacle is the path", and there's a popular self-help book called The Obstacle is the Way. I don't even want to look at it. It's all in those five words, and I think it would weaken the words to have someone else do the work of digging meaning out of them.

Another is a line I've seen attributed to different sports coaches: "If you want something you don't have, change what you're doing." Again, that is drum-tight language that shouldn't need any exposition.

Here's one I came up with myself, and it does need explaining because it's so peculiar and specific, but I think it applies to more than this context: "Pen on paper is the dictator." When I'm writing, there are at least two voices. One is what I was planning to write, or what I aspire to write. The other is the actual words that I enjoy writing so much that more words follow. And there is no way to know what those words are until the pen is touching the paper (or until the fingers hit the keyboard).

"Dictator" is a strong word, but I think it's that important, when there is a conflict between what I planned to write and what comes out in the process, to squash the plans under the jackboots of the process. Creativity is not at all like following a blueprint, but like being the first explorer of a new land, or like tuning into alien radio. My favorite songwriter's peak album is described like this: "These songs forged themselves. They exploded out of us."

February 28. Continuing on woo-woo philosophy (thanks Yasmin), Did the Oscars Just Prove That We Are Living in a Computer Simulation? And a subreddit thread on the same article.

Here's how I would make the argument: Really unlikely things have been happening lately, but they're not unlikely in arbitrary ways -- they're unlikely in ways that tell good stories. I mean, not only was the wrong card read on the biggest award of the night, but if you put any two other best picture nominees in the spots for apparent winner and actual winner, the story wouldn't be as good.

This is outside the range of science, because science requires repeated experiments, and fate happens but once. When real-world fate unfolds like fiction, we wonder if there is an unseen storyteller.

I don't think we're in a literal computer simulation. That's like cavemen thinking their gods made them out of clay because clay is the most advanced simulation technology they possess. Computers are just our best metaphor for reality creation tools beyond our imagination. I see it like this:

Philosophical idealism holds that mind is the fundamental reality, and matter is like a dream. Actual dreams can go anywhere fast because you're alone. When we're dreaming together, change is slowed by the need to form consensus, and reality appears so sticky that matter seems to exist independently of mind.

Not only that, our conscious minds are not the sole reality creators, and might even be more like an audience. I think the power gets stronger as you go deeper, first to your individual subconscious mind, and then to something like a collective unconscious, which might be like a great hidden city hosting agents and motives from outside humanity.

What do they want? Here's where people fall into black-and-white thinking, with perfectly evil master conspirators or a wise and benevolent God. I think the "gods" are somewhere between distracted scientists and playful children. My most reasonable guess, for the motive behind these spectacles of sudden reversal, is that we're being prepped for a time when ordinary life will be more surprising. And my funnest guess is that the dream is breaking up.

February 26, late. Tonight's Academy Award fiasco, in which the shoo-in feel-good white people movie was announced as best picture, and it turned out they read the wrong card and the serious black people movie was best picture... that's the weirdest thing that's happened in America since 9/11, even weirder than the Red Sox breaking their curse during a full lunar eclipse.

I'm not even going to try to explain it rationally. It's best understood on a subverbal intuitive level. And I don't think it was any kind of conspiracy, at least not by humans. It was the Trickster breaking through the screen and then vanishing into irreconcilable happenstance. (This is how I write when I'm high.)

Because Warren Beatty was at the center of it, appearing to be making a joke when he was genuinely puzzled by the anomalous card, I'm going to go watch his obscure 1965 surrealist movie, Mickey One, for more clues. [Update: what a terrible movie! Its theme, the artist's fear of fame, gives me nothing, but I learned that Warren Beatty was the dweeb James Dean, and that in the 60's it was a lot easier to pass off shit as art by making it weird.]

By the way, over the weekend I made a decision to change the tone of this blog. I've decided to go at least a few months without writing anything about politics or social philosophy. This is not a joke. That leaves technology, entertainment, drugs, psychology, music, personal stuff, and like tonight, vague hints about esoteric sub-politics.

February 24. Bunch o' links, starting with some rare good news: The Netherlands Keeps Closing Prisons Because It Doesn't Have Enough Prisoners.

Review of a new biography, Rasputin: full of ecstasy and fire. It turns out he wasn't that bad. His worst vice (like our president) was groping women. He was genuinely spiritual, he frequently tried to do good, and people hated him because he blurred lines between the classes, and drew attention to the corruption of the elite. Also, this reddit thread has a great colorized photo of Rasputin, and lyrical references to the song.

It's Reddit the rest of the way. This long comment attempts to define fascism, mostly based on the thinking of historian Robert Paxton, who defines it like this:

a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

In a thread asking what changes Millennials will oppose in their old age, Stanzin7 makes a set of predictions for how the world might change in the next 50 years. There will certainly be big things that nobody expected, but I haven't seen a more concise or reasonable list of stuff that we should see coming.

Finally, something important, a shockingly perceptive comment about why the Hobbit movies sucked and why they can't be fixed by editing. After the smashing success of Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson felt the need to make another Hollywood Bullshit Blockbuster, and he couldn't do that by actually adapting the book, in which a physically weak protagonist solves problems with stealth and wit. So he deeply rewrote the whole story to turn Thorin Oakenshield into Aragorn 2. My favorite part of the comment is about how Lord of the Rings was almost ruined in the same way:

I think that Peter shot the Aragorn half of TTT+ROTK in a very Aragorn-centric way just as a desperate backup in case this weird story of "two homoerotic leprechauns being led through a swamp by a CGI skeleton-man on a quest to throw away magic jewelry" didn't test well with audiences and he had to fall back on telling a more intelligible Disney-fantasy story of "a prince and his cool comic-relief sidekicks returning to the prince's kingdom, fighting awesome battles against a demon king and winning a princess's hand."

By the way, I love Peter Jackson's early stuff, especially his filthy-muppet masterpiece, Meet The Feebles.

February 22. Alignment is a moral and behavioral classification system invented in first edition Dungeons & Dragons. It uses a nine-square grid, with one axis from good to neutral to evil, and the other axis from chaotic to neutral to lawful. As a model of reality this system has flaws, but I still want to work with it.

Someone on Reddit was asking what other presidents, besides Trump, have been chaotic in alignment. Nope. Donald Trump is lawful evil. He's lawful because he explicitly campaigned on "law and order", and because his actions as president have been mostly authoritarian. He's evil because he doesn't even believe that might makes right, but that might makes history, that the engine of reality itself is not cooperation or progress, but self-interested conflict.

This is what a truly chaotic leader would support: Total legalization of all drugs, you can buy meth at 7-11. Total freedom of movement, "trespassing" isn't even a thing. No monopoly on violence, no difference between the rights of police and ordinary people. "Intellectual property" isn't a thing, it's all in the public domain. The government has no secrets. All surveillance cameras are accessible to everyone in real time. And if anyone is asked to do anything, saying no might not be painless but it's always a reasonable option.

Do I actually support all that stuff? Of course -- but not right now, because we're not ready for it. This reveals a flaw in the chaos-order alignment model: it imagines that a chaotic society goes with chaotic people, and a lawful society goes with lawful people. Really it's the other way around: an unregulated society challenges citizens to be more self-regulated, and conversely, citizens who can't self-regulate make us want a more regulated society.

I'm not sure if I believe in progress, but if I do, its direction is toward more internal regulation and less external regulation (at least from here), and also toward more cooperation and less zero-sum conflict, all at increasing levels of complexity. I think what they call "chaotic good" is the only real alignment. Everything else is an illusion or a mistake or a temporary reshuffling. Even lawful evils, in their deepest soul, are trying to get back to chaotic good along the scenic route.

Last night I finally got around to watching Terry Gilliam's 2005 movie Tideland. It's over-long and over-acted, but still totally brilliant. I've never seen so much creepiness merged with so much innocence. Tideland is pure chaotic neutral, a sputtering flash of the unstable magic of unhinged people in total freedom. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would both hate it, but I think Trump's role in history is to make the world a little more like that.

February 20. From the subreddit (thanks iron dwarf), 4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump. It's a well-written journey through the history and psychology of a new subculture of young outsider males, and their gradual entry into politics. A paragraph on Pepe the frog:

The grotesque, frowning, sleepy eyed, out of shape, swamp dweller, peeing with his pants pulled down because-it-feels-good-man frog is an ideology, one which steers into the skid of its own patheticness. Pepe symbolizes embracing your loserdom, owning it. That is to say, it is what all the millions of forum-goers of 4chan met to commune about. It is, in other words, a value system, one reveling in deplorableness and being pridefully dispossessed. It is a culture of hopelessness, of knowing "the system is rigged". But instead of fight the response is flight, knowing you're trapped in your circumstances is cause to celebrate. For these young men, voting Trump is not a solution, but a new spiteful prank.

I think some of the arguments near the end are convoluted and implausible, but at least the author is asking an important question and seriously trying to answer it: Out of all the ways 4channers could have become political, why did they choose the cultural right?

Why not the economic left? In a world with all-time highs in weath inequality, when you're living in your parents' basement, why not try to use the government to take money from billionaires who don't need it, and give it to you and your friends so you can get your own apartments and better computers?

My answer hinges on a distinction between two kinds of hikikomori, a Japanese term for people who withdraw from society into worlds of imagination. I'm an aspiring hikikomori -- I want to withdraw even more, but society keeps pulling me back, making annoying demands on my attention. Right wing 4channers are involuntary hikikomori.

This is my version of the "banality of evil": the most harmful political movements are driven by the kind of person, in a movie, who would be the buddy character. But in a tragic failure of the social order, no one will take them as a buddy, until they reach a critical mass and some charismatic leader assembles an army of buddies to do his will.

My adversary is the economic right, because they withhold the money (or the dirt cheap housing and food) that I need to be free of the demands of a nightmare economy. But right wing 4channers want love. That's why they've chosen the cultural left as their adversary, because they sense that the cultural left is where the love is, and they feel (as I do about money) that the love is being offered on terms that are warped and unreasonable.

February 15. My brainpower this week is going to another project. I was going to do a follow-up to my last post, but I'll just say, among the feedback, I'm most sympathetic to the idea that we don't need life scripts and it's good to wing it. Ideally I think society's job is not to give us structure, but to enable and challenge us to make our own structure, to keep us fed and sheltered while we each find our own path, as long as that takes. But right now that's not realistic for most people, and it will probably take us a long time to get there.

Sort of related: a smart Hacker News comment thread on a popular blog post by a long-time reader, Four Kinds of Dystopia.

February 13. One more email comment from last week, from Daniel (condensed):

I think a big part of our problem is the lack of stable lifescripts. Instead of having a clearly delineated set of rights and obligations, [young people] experiment with different identities, mostly concerned with how other people perceive and react to these identities. Traditional societies tell people what their role in society should be; our society leaves people to "wing it".

I agree. We have no stable lifescripts because industrial age scripts were terrible, and we finally threw them off in the late 20th century, but we still haven't found any good ones to replace them. So Trump is like, let's return to the terrible ones (factory jobs, Victorian morality, race/religion wars) because it's better than having none. I don't think we've had good lifescripts since we were nomadic forager-hunters, and going back to that is not realistic, so it looks like we're going to keep muddling through bad scripts and winging it, until we find some good scripts that fit our technology -- which right now is a fast-moving target.

My latest understanding of social change comes from my latest obsession, Picbreeder. Liberals see history as steady progress toward some future Utopia, while conservatives see a golden age in the past -- but these simple ideas are only good as directional pointers, not as visions of how things are. I think history is like biological evolution. There is progress everywhere, but there are also mistakes and dead ends, and there is no destiny, no place we have to end up, only a constantly unfolding variety of options.

When I'm breeding a picture, sometimes I'll notice that it has slipped from something good into something ugly, and I'll go back ten or twenty steps and try a different path. In the real world you can't do that, but in both Picbreeder and politics you can evolve the picture toward chaos, and sometimes good stuff from the past will re-emerge -- or more often you'll end up somewhere unimagined.

I disagree with almost every particular thing Trump is doing, but I agree with his instinct: the picture needs chaos. Last month I predicted that 2017 would be more catastrophic than 2016, but what I'm seeing instead is that it's weirder. Check this out: Burger King Offers an Adults-Only Valentine's Day Meal with an adult romantic toy. That's even weirder than Donald Trump being president.

February 10. Wednesday's post brought some good emails. Adrian writes about games as a form of self-knowledge: that you can look at your favorite games for clues about your personality and maybe even find a job that fits it. When I think about Lords of the Realm II, I love how the mid-game is a long steady reliable process of improvement: taking over counties that the AI is managing badly, with unhappy people and dead fields, and building them up into thriving counties that can support taking over the next county. So it's a growing sense of reward from taking elements that are badly arranged and arranging them better.

Even on this page, my writing process is mostly about arranging words and ideas in the right order. And even though I don't get paid for it, I think of this blog as my job.

Jeff points out that compulsive gamblers are attracted to rewards that are irregular and unpredictable. That must be why I don't gamble, because I like my rewards to be 100% certain, with some irregularity in what I have to do to get them. My other favorite game, Freecell, is 99.999% solvable, but the difficulty varies massively and randomly.

(Now that I understand this, I'm going to try to keep to a new rule about sports -- that I only watch if I don't care who wins. Tom Brady should have said "I'm so bored with winning championships, but the other teams all suck so bad that we can't help it.")

Another thing that can draw us to a game is what I call vibe. The test is: ignoring mechanics, is this a game world I feel the desire to step into? The big winner here is the Legend of Zelda franchise, but Lords of the Realm II is also very good -- it might be the only strategy game where you see the seasons change.

So attraction to a vibe is another clue about your nature. Matt writes that some influences are artificially uplifting or dead ends, while others are evolving or truly uplifting, and some are both. This reminds me of the Buddhist line, "The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon." Great entertainment is the finger, and to look at the the moon is to try to create that vibe in your real life.

February 8. I've decided to take a long break from video games. I was playing two strategy games from the 90's, Lords of the Realm II and Windows Freecell, and I suspect they're the main thing damping my motivation in the "real" world. I put that in quotes because the 21st century is pretty unreal, and it's not clear if what I want to feel motivated to do is actually valuable.

This is an especially hard problem if you believe that reality is meaningless, which seems to follow from materialist metaphysics. If we're just random particles and waves, why shouldn't we spend all day taking recreational drugs and playing games if we can get away with it? Why shouldn't we seek a society where everyone can get away with it forever?

If normal life is not objectively a better use of time than a game, then it's basically a shitty meta-game, with weak and inconsistent rewards, bad aesthetics, broken multiplayer balance, lots of pain that serves no purpose, and almost no opportunity to be part of a good story. This world has more value as a platform for creating, consuming, and participating in sub-worlds that are much better designed.

But I don't believe in materialist metaphysics. One reason is that when I look at what "chance" creates, both in world-building and life events, there seems to be an intelligence behind it. Also, like a lot of people, I feel like there's something I'm supposed to be doing here other than just having a good time, even though I don't know what it is.

How much of this problem is created by society? And is it because society has failed, or succeeded? I wish I could talk to my remote ancestors to get a sense of whether the freedom of modern life is worth the loss of anchoring. I like to think we're passing through a dead zone between good built-in stories and good self-made ones.

Anyway, my latest thought is that the "real" world is better designed than it seems, and this is because of the weak reward system. If rewards are too strong and reliable, they lead to compulsive behavior, where whatever people happen to do, they just keep doing it. This works against the drive for novelty, learning, adaptation, and general expansion of consciousness, and this expansion is more deeply rewarding than just getting stuff done.

February 6. Stanford historian uncovers a grim correlation between violence and inequality. The author of a new book, The Great Leveler, says "It is almost universally true that violence has been necessary to ensure the redistribution of wealth at any point in time."

I see three directions to go with this. The first is cynical resignation: humans are doomed to cycle through inequality and violence forever. The second is utopian defiance: we will figure out a nonviolent system to keep wealth widely distributed, like demurrage currency. The third, which has some overlap with the others, is to make inequality tolerable. Personally I don't care if some people have billions of dollars and fly around in private jets, as long as I can have a good life on a low budget without being forced to serve them.

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