Ran Prieur

"You know, I'm sick of following my dreams, man. I'm just going to ask where they're going and hook up with 'em later."

- Mitch Hedberg

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March 27. My life with Oliver Sacks is from a memoir by Bill Hayes, who became Sacks' partner late in his life. Hayes calls Sacks "without a doubt the most unusual person I had ever known." Then it gets even better when they go to Iceland to visit Björk.

For me, this is a glimpse of heaven: two people who have managed to get away with being totally weird, without going mad or being crushed by poverty, hanging out in a little world of tree-stump chairs and rock-carved stairways, and a lighthouse where you do creative work while trapped by the high tide.

Going back almost 200 years, over the weekend I watched a biographical film about the Brontës, To Walk Invisible. Emily was the one with talent, and she died of tuberculosis at age 30 after writing only one novel, but she was actually lucky to be in a weird family that gave her some freedom to follow her peculiar obsessions.

Is the world getting better in this way? In ten thousand years, will everyday life be like Oliver Sacks at Björk's house? This is a vision that I call Neckbeard Utopia: that as we all reach our greatest potential, we become more different. Everything that rises must diverge. Unhappy families are all alike, but each happy family is happy in its own way.

One limiting factor is that it will fall apart if we get so different that we can no longer communicate. And I think the biggest obstacle is that we don't do our best with total comfort and freedom. We need just the right challenges and constraints, and I doubt that's something that could ever be encoded in laws or calculated by computers.

March 24. Since I quit writing about politics, I'm in uncharted territory, and this has been a slow week. Today, just a few unrelated links.

Physicists Find That as Clocks Get More Precise, Time Gets More Fuzzy: "not only is time not universally consistent, any clock we use to measure it will blur the flow of time in its surrounding space." My non-scientific interpretation is that precision is so rare, you can only get a lot of it by stealing it.

For a Modest Personality Trait, Intellectual Humility Packs a Punch. "As defined by the authors, intellectual humility is the opposite of intellectual arrogance or conceit. Intellectually humble people can have strong beliefs, but recognize their fallibility and are willing to be proven wrong."

Why It's Better To Animate a Film Alone, Even If It Takes Four Years:

"A lot of what slows down animation is telling the next person what to do. If I draw something really scribbly, I have to leave a lot of notes for the next guy. The same guy needs to leave notes for the in-between drawings. I skip all of those notes, I have it all in my head," says DiLiberto.

The advantage of this gluttonous approach is an omnipotent level of creative control. In the wrong hands that could lead to disaster, but with Nova Seed it results in a product that feels child-like in the best way. The universe is as idiosyncratic as a daydream and feels as spontaneous as a doodle, mixing mad scientist sci-fi tropes with the type of toy action that fills the sandboxes of elementary school boys.

Related, a long interview with another guy doing an epic personal project, Dwarf Fortress creator Tarn Adams talks about simulating the most complex magic system ever.

March 22. I've been thinking about the difference between art and kitsch, and it's very simple: art gets better the more attention you give it, while kitsch gets worse. Here's a Leonard Cohen line that I used to think was art: "We are so small between the stars, so large against the sky." That's kitsch, because what does it even mean? It's just poetic-sounding words thrown together, admittedly with good symmetry and meter, but even Thomas Kinkade paintings are well crafted.

The new quote at the top of this page sounds like goofy nonsense at first, but with enough contemplation it becomes profound. I'm not going to explain it, but one reason I like this quote better than the old one (The bigger you build the bonfire, the more darkness is revealed) is that a bonfire is a fixed location, and the new quote is more nomadic.

Last night I made a new music video, and you'll all be happy to know it's not that awful band I like. It's the Beatles, sort of. The other night I was listening to early Beatles on cannabis, and the first thing I noticed is that George Martin is not the fifth Beatle -- he's all of them. His production and engineering are so raw and precise that I think that's why they got so popular, because no other big-label white people music was doing that.

Then on one song I noticed that the vocals were annoying but the music was really interesting. If only there was a way... but there was! By moving the balance all the way to one side, the music came to the front and the vocals became distant and ethereal. Nothing was this psychedelic in 1963. I listened to their first two albums like that, and I'm convinced it's where Galaxie 500 got their sound, but no song was as good as the one where I first noticed the phenomenon. So I used a YouTube Creative Commons search to find a fitting video and put them together: Anna (go to him).

March 20. Busy today and no new ideas, so here's something I drafted a couple weeks ago:

I've been thinking about plot twists in fiction. There are at least two kinds: twists about what we think happened in the past, and twists about what we expect to happen in the future. I call the former the Basic Instinct twist, because that's the movie that drove it into the wall. Writer Joe Eszterhas goes back and forth so many times on who the real killer is, with so much evidence for both, that in the end it's like you're in a split reality where they're both the killer. Eszterhas is annoyed that some viewers disagree with him about the ending, which means he doesn't even know he did something that radical, and nobody since then has pushed it that far, because it doesn't work. The backward-confounding twist has a low ceiling in the patience of the viewer.

The other, I call the Pulp Fiction twist. At least three times in that movie, you think the story is going one way, and then some crazy accident takes it somewhere absurd, not just into different things happening but into a different storytelling tone. Any hack can write a Basic Instinct twist, but a Pulp Fiction twist requires creativity. That's why nobody has taken it farther, even though viewers would love to see it. The forward-confounding twist has a high ceiling that we haven't reached yet.

March 17. I've been noticing some crazy coincidences lately. It no longer feels like life is random, or like I'm being jerked around by fate. It feels like I'm starting to understand the way that fate thinks, or the kinds of stories that the unseen storyteller likes, and I can almost synchronize with that flow. Of course bad stuff still happens, but more good stuff happens, and bad stuff bothers me less. Wednesday night I barely slept because of excruciating gut pain. (I seem to have developed a banana intolerance, and every time those bananas moved in there, it was like I ate a knife.) But metaphorically it was like giving birth, which fits another thing I'm doing, and it also fits the way I'm changing this site, which is like flushing out toxins.

Yesterday a reader emailed me with a quote from the Gospel of Thomas that I was already thinking about: "Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled. When he becomes troubled, he will be astonished, and he will rule over the all." In my interpretation, the key word is "astonished", and the whole thing could be condensed to "Seek until astonished." Being troubled is like a distasteful WTF, and then being astonished is like the merging of WTF and total happiness. And once you've got that, it's like a handhold to climb out of the pit of the human condition.

Something cool (thanks Nick), This Man Is About to Blow Up Mathematics. It's about math so weird that it reads like science fiction: "Set theorists can construct proofs using large cardinals, which deal with higher levels of infinity and are too large to be proven to exist within ZFC." Or: "He created a sophisticated state-of-the-art machinery to turn combinatorial objects into universes." Basically we're on an island of normal math, in a sea of weird math, and this guy has built a really good boat ramp.

March 15. Remember Matt Savinar? He was a top-tier doomer with a popular website called Life After The Oil Crash, and then all at once he quit and became an astrologer. At the time I was baffled, but in hindsight, Savinar is my new hero. He probably figured out that he had been accidentally lying to people, and rather than spend years trying to salvage a position that was still exciting without being incorrect, he just cut the knot, and turned his talents to another form of lying that is benign and endlessly creative.

I've been continuing to enjoy writing this blog, and I was comfortable with my practice of asking important questions and aiming for concise, original answers. But it felt more and more like I was wrestling with the ghost of my past self. I thought about Neil Young, who sometimes argues with his fans about what he's playing, and I thought, if Neil Young started playing black metal, the people who want him to play "Old Man" wouldn't even come to his shows.

I'll always be a writer, but I'm probably finished writing seriously about politics and social philosophy. It's taken me a long time to see that there is no middle ground between anchoring a cultish echo chamber and serving up a bland soup of facts (unless it's comedy). And I think my bigger mistake was years earlier, when I caught the habit of writing about what's wrong with the world. That road just leads deeper into a swamp where in the end there are no monsters to fight except other lost travelers.

March 13. I've been meaning to make a lot of changes to this site. Today I finally have enough of a vision to feel motivated. The new favicon is the exact opposite color of the old one.

March 13. Doubling down on last week: Leigh Ann and I watch a lot of TV shows, but with Orphan Black, Dark Matter, and Game of Thrones not starting again until summer, we're running out of things that we both want to watch. I've about given up on Mad Men, a show of the highest quality except that I don't care about anything that happens. But just lately I've been rewatching two shows that I absolutely love, even when everything else feels boring.

One is Mushi-Shi, a Japanese animated series that ran for one season in 2005-2006, about the dreamy and wistful adventures of a wandering master of the spirit world.

The other is a mind-boggling masterpiece, the most mythic, most iconic, and funnest achievement in the history of storytelling. Of course, it's Gilligan's Island. In ten thousand years, when Breaking Bad is long forgotten, even if Gilligan's Island is also forgotten, it will be reinvented. It seems to be a children's show only because of its fathomless purity. The jokes are obvious like an approaching train, their impact undiminished no matter how long you see them coming.

The Skipper is the best straight man ever because he's the most joyful, unable to hide that he's having a great time even when he's angry. Gilligan is the best trickster ever because he wears the mask of the fool so well that neither Gilligan himself, nor the other characters, nor half the audience understand that staying on the island is his motive.

The show's very absurdity is a blinding sun of metaphor. How can an island remain unknown and attract so many visitors? Because the Island is the liminal space between consensus reality and the world of myth -- and this weirdness extends into our own world: the show's creators got the name Gilligan through bibliomancy, picking it from a phone book; in the pilot episode, as the ship leaves port, the flags are at half mast because Kennedy had just been shot.

In the best episodes, the characters enter the world of dreams and return to their homeworld not as exiles but as gods, acting out its most primal stories and characters: cavemen and vampires and pirates and cowboys and secret agents. This is probably the best music video ever, synchronizing Gilligan's Island dream scenes with the 1967 garage psych revelation "I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night" by The Electric Prunes.

By the way, everyone knows that Mary Ann is hotter than Ginger, but rewatching, I was surprised to learn that Mary Ann is hotter than basically anyone, and even Mrs Howell is hotter than Ginger. Her character was conceived as a "hard-nosed, sharp-tongued temptress" (quoting wikipedia) but Tina Louise couldn't pull it off, and instead played her like a cardboard Marilyn Monroe. That's the one aspect of the story that needs redemption.

March 10. For today's installment of raving about what makes me happy, of course it's music. The other night I stripped down the clunky top playlist on my favorite songs page, cutting 12 of the 19 songs and adding three new ones.

The new opener is Come On Down, a magical 1970 psych folk song by Rex Holman, an actor who made only one album. The second new song is a primal 1920's Greek recording of Misirlu, later made famous by Dick Dale's surf cover.

And the third is by my favorite 90's band, who I've been getting back into: The Muffs! You could easily dismiss them as generic pop-punk, but the Muffs are like the Led Zeppelin of pop-punk, that's how much better they are. Of their six albums, their self-titled debut is the most varied and inspired, their second, Blonder and Blonder, is the most powerful, and their third, Happy Birthday To Me, has the most depth without any dropoff in songwriting.

Anyway, their most epic and beautiful song, Eye to Eye, beat all competitors for the spot right before my favorite song, and placing it there was the wedge that cracked the old list apart.

It also occurs to me that my three favorite bands, Big Blood, Hawkwind (at least in the peak years), and Beat Happening, were all indifferent to making money. This is related to the observation by the Picbreeder guy, that when image selection was crowdsourced, the results were totally lame. On a tangent, I think this is why TV has become so good and movies have become so bad, because movies have the life polished out of them by preview audiences.

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."

I don't do an RSS feed, but Patrick has written a script that creates a feed based on the way I format my entries. It's at http://ranprieur.com/feed.php. You might also try Page2RSS.

Posts will stay on this page about a month, and then mostly drop off the edge. A reader has set up an independent archive that saves the page every day or so. I've archived the best stuff, and they're all linked from the old stuff page. Below are the newest archives:

November 2016 - February 2017
February 2017 - ?