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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June 16. Bunch o' links. I don't follow basketball, but this article, The Warriors Duped The NBA, is a brilliant gem of sports journalism. Using metaphors from Road Runner cartoons, Kyle Wagner describes how the world's best team uses their talent to flout mathematical efficiency and go for style and flair.

Long-time reader Gene has posted some Beginning Rock Guitar videos to YouTube.

Nice practical psychology article, The Benefits of Talking to Yourself.

Fractal planting patterns yield optimal harvests, without central control. This reminds me of an old link that I pulled up the other day to answer a question on the subreddit, arguing that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature.

Speaking of nature, I just discovered this happy subreddit: Animals being bros.

June 14. Last night I stumbled to the end of a novel. I started writing it five months ago, but I've only told a few people, because talking about your plans drains motivation. Most of it is still ink on paper, and I need to do lots of fine tuning and work some other things out before I make any of it public.

What I can tell you is how, after years of struggling and failing to produce any fiction (not counting this blog), I finally pulled it together. First, all those years I was doing mental world-building, until I felt glutted with ideas, like a big pile of firewood that will rot as fast as I build it up, so I needed a fire.

Second, "I want to write a novel" is not sufficient motivation to write a novel. I needed creative work by other people, so good that it gave me the hunger to create something that made me feel the same way.

Third, I used a trick that also worked for my old zines: to get off loose leaf pages and write into a bound blank book. It's like there's a part of me that wakes up when I can't take anything back, even if I can still cross things out.

Fourth, pushing age 50, I finally have the emotional intelligence to write adequate characters. But maybe it was the other way around, because as I wrote, I learned from them. The second best thing about writing is reaching into the rabbit-hat of language and somehow pulling out the perfect word, and the best thing is when your characters surprise you.

Finally, I needed the courage to make it up on the fly, because the only thing harder is to plan it out in advance. Picbreeder was a big help in training me to surf the flow of ideas that come from who knows where. Also, weed. Mostly it was homemade cannabutter eaten around midday, on a cycle of 1-3 days on and 2-10 days off. I wrote some of the best bits sober, but whenever I hit a dead end, my old friend Eleven Hydroxy opened doors.

June 12. Autistic Burnout: The Cost of Coping and Passing. It's a bunch of quotations with the general idea that it's harmful for people on the spectrum to try to appear neurotypical.

My first thought is, "neurotypical" is a lie. The way you have to act to pass a job interview, almost nobody is really like that. It reminds me of that Far Side where a field of sheep discover that they're all secretly wolves. How did we get ourselves into this ridiculous ritual of appearing "normal"? Related: Adam Curtis: Learning to Hug.

But then, I'm less normal than most people. I've never been to a professional for a diagnosis, but I know that my mind works best when I can focus intensely on one thing with unlimited time. As soon as I have time constraints, or have to pay attention to multiple things at once, it's hard to not make mistakes. That's why I hate driving. Leigh Ann tells me I should just zone out, but when I zone out around the house I knock stuff over. It seems like everyone else has an "autopilot" that I'm missing, and it's exhausting to be on manual pilot all the time.

June 9. Odds and ends for the weekend. A reader has written a historical/political novel, Duress & Desire.

Fun article: The glass harmonica: the world's most dangerous instrument?

You've probably all heard about the NSA leaker, whose name is Reality Winner. Life is a movie and someone has just looked right in the camera and winked.

Yesterday on the subreddit there was a strange philosophical post asking To what end is nature? There are some answers to this in the thread, but this was my answer:

I've been watching the Planet Earth series, and it's obvious how much better nature is than any world humans have yet created.

So then I wonder, to what end are humans? My guess is, technology will eventually be a new kind of life that supplements nature and makes it even better.

Another guess: this is a prison world in which those in human form are being rehabilitated by those not in human form.

June 7. Taking another crack at Monday's subject: If someone is better than you at anything, there's always a deeper reason. We understand this for intellectual and physical skills, like being good at math or baseball. But our culture thinks differently about emotional skills like courage, kindness, honesty, drive.

This subreddit post mentions a bunch more, taken from this page of 24 character strengths. We imagine that people with these kinds of skills have somehow earned them, when usually they were born with them (or with simpler component skills), or their family helped them develop the skills at such a young age that they don't remember not having them.

Of course you can improve "good person" skills as an adult, but what arcane factor separates someone who does this from someone who doesn't? We imagine that it's just some deeper level of being a good person, and so on, turtles all the way down.

It doesn't occur to us to think of good character as a matter of luck. We actually have a taboo against the idea. That's why the Big Five personality model, which says the traits are mostly fixed for life, won't say that high conscientiousness is better than low conscientiousness, or that low neuroticism is better than high neuroticism -- but those judgments saturate our culture.

On a personal note, it feels liberating to think of character as a matter of luck. For more than 20 years, since I sent my first photocopied zine out for review, strangers have been attacking my character, and I've been doing the most obvious and least effective thing: defending my character. I'm so deficient in wisdom and creativity that it took me 20 years to figure out the better move. There's an old Billy Bragg song with the line "Just because you're better than me, doesn't mean I'm lazy." I always thought it would be more radical the other way around: "Just because I'm lazy doesn't mean you're better than me." But the even more radical move is to concede both points.

June 5. Following a tangent from this question three weeks ago: What are the deep differences between people who are good at life and people who are bad at life? I'm not the best person to answer that, but I'm also not the worst. That would be someone like Elon Musk who has always been successful. Whatever it is that makes someone good at life, for a lucky few it's so intuitive that they're not aware of it and couldn't describe it.

This is true for everything. If you've had to grind through the details of getting good at something, then you can tell others how to do it, but if you can't remember not being there, then you can't see the path.

Also, if you can't remember not being good at something, then it's tempting to dismiss people who are not good at it, to see them as inferior in some absolute way. "Idiot" is a word used by people who take their brainpower for granted. No one who has struggled with low motivation would call someone "lazy". Even people who were born rich tend to believe that money comes from virtue, when they themselves got it through luck.

So as a general rule, talent feeds disparagement and hard-learned skill feeds compassion.

Are there moral talents? There are attributes considered moral by this culture, that are subject to talent. This leads to a weird paradox, where a naturally good person might be less good than a naturally bad person who becomes good.

June 2. I've already changed my mind about the last post, where I said we need to find a way to live where it doesn't even occur to us to search for meaning. In that world, everything we do would be laid out for us, already intrinsically rewarding. It would feel great, but we would be basically unconscious, like compulsive gamblers except our every action would be part of a sensible sustainable airtight system: Prison Utopia.

Agonizing over the meaning of life is an unpleasant symptom of something good: a world full of questions, full of cracks, full of uncanny possibility. Existential angst is a small price to pay for freedom, and we need to be challenged by even more freedom until we learn to thrive in uncertainty.

This brings me around to my favorite political cause, the Unconditional Basic Income. I just found out that Finland is already experimenting with a basic income. It's not yet for everyone, just for the unemployed, but if they get jobs they get to keep it.

And after I mentioned Buckminster Fuller, a reader sent this quote:

We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.

It also occurs to me that a UBI could make us nomadic again. Our prehistoric ancestors were constantly moving around, but then agriculture and industry forced us to settle down, and settling down geographically is linked to settling down mentally. A good book on this subject is Wandering God by Morris Berman. But as agriculture and industry get more mechanized, more of us can go full circle to the wandering life. We would just need transportation and travel housing cheap enough to fit under the basic income.

May 31. Continuing from Monday's closing subject, humanity's search for meaning: I'm against it. We imagine there is some big Meaning out there, and if we find it, life will be great. But in practice, most of the tragedies of history have been caused by people who thought they had found meaning in some terrible project. I think the right question is not "how do we find meaning?" but "how do we live so that searching for meaning doesn't even occur to us?"

When we talk about meaning, we're always talking about being part of something bigger. From that idea, we can break it down. There are things we can choose whether or not to be part of, like arguing on the internet. There are things we're forced to be part of, but we have some choice about our role, like modern society. There are things we feel like we're part of but we're not, like sports teams. There are things we feel part of that basically don't exist, like video game worlds.

There are things we want to be part of but it's really hard, like making the world better on a large scale. It's hard even for Bill Gates. Realistically the best we can do is make the world better on a tiny scale, like randomly being nice to people.

And there are things we're part of that we don't know about. I don't think life is meaningless -- I think its meaning is beyond our comprehension, and therefore none of our business. A reader mentions that Buckminster Fuller once had a transcendent experience where a voice told him, "You belong to Universe. Your significance will remain forever obscure to you."

May 29. I want to go back to last week's compass metaphor. The idea is, we all have a subtle, quiet voice inside us that usually knows the right thing to do, but we mostly can't hear it because we're bombarded with louder voices that guide us wrong. I don't want to call this voice your "heart", because that value-loaded word implies that any feeling-based inner voice is reliable, which is totally not true. There is no easy way to make good decisions.

Anyway, when reading your internal compass, there are three things that can happen. 1) Your compass gives you a clear and correct reading. 2) Your compass gives you a clear and incorrect reading. 3) Your compass gives you no clear reading.

The kicker is, it's almost impossible to tell the difference between #1 and #2. You just have to try stuff and see what happens. But even then, even years down the road, a distorted society might have given you bad results from good decisions, or good from bad. I have a lot of sympathy for "bad" people who get punished. They were just trying something that worked and then it stopped working.

I'm more interested in #3, because that's how I've lived most of my life, having no idea what to do. And I've tried everything, from lists of pros and cons to occult divination, but mostly trying to develop and train an intuition that's less than half wrong, while recovering from constant mistakes.

One thing people do in this situation, and I've done it too, is what I call "puritanism", but until now I didn't have a good definition. That definition is: making decisions with rules that paint entire categories of actions as either good or bad, and deriving those rules from simple and compelling stories about the world.

One example: I'm reading the book Stoned Free: How To Get High Without Drugs, and it has some good ideas, but why not also use drugs? The main reason is the seductive simplicity of the rule "drugs are bad."

Maybe this is what the "search for meaning" is really all about -- not some transcendent project, but the practical need for signposts in this confusing world, a way to make everyday pissant decisions and not wind up in the gutter. And if we had clearer intuition, or a simpler world, we wouldn't even feel the need for meaning.

May 26. Some happy stuff for the weekend. The Danish beermakers brewing up work for autistic people. This is related to a link I posted to the subreddit a while back about how job interviews do more harm than good by favoring charming people over skilled workers.

Manhole Porn is a subreddit for beautiful manhole covers around the world.

And some music, Ex Reverie - Black Butterfly. They're not the greatest band, but their style is really close to my musical taste, and this is the kind of thing I had in mind when I asked for music that combines folk and metal. Here's a better song with the same sound, Silver Summit - Child.

May 24. Quick note on daydreaming. I can't believe this is the first I've heard of this, but there's a thing called "active imagination", and that page sounds like New Age hot air except for the Carl Jung section:

Key to the process of active imagination is the goal of exerting as little influence as possible on mental images as they unfold. For example, if a person were recording a spoken visualization of a scene or object from a dream, Jung's approach would ask the practitioner to observe the scene, watch for changes, and report them, rather than to consciously fill the scene with one's desired changes.

Yeah, I've only ever managed that when I'm high, and even then only for a few seconds at a time. But it's awesome, like halfway between regular imagination and lucid dreaming (something I'm also bad at). They should really call it passive imagination, but that doesn't sound as cool. Update: after more thought, normal dreams are passive, normal daydreaming is active, and lucid dreams and "active" imagination are participatory.

May 22. On a recommendation, I read the book The Craving Mind by Judson Brewer. It doesn't tackle my main problem, which is how to do things I don't feel like doing. Instead it's all about how to quit smoking and other bad habits: by looking curiously inward at your own cycles of compulsive behavior and reward.

I was hoping the book would answer my question from a few weeks ago, about whether daydreaming is bad for us. Brewer thinks it's bad, but his arguments against daydreaming are anecdotal, speculative, and imprecise. The closest he comes to a good answer is in another context where he describes two kinds of feeling good: one that brings "restlessness and a contracted urge for more," and another that "results from curiosity" and is "open rather than contracted."

Brewer treats the brain's default mode network as the Great Satan, probably because that simple view fits Buddhism as he understands it. This article has a more balanced view: Your Brain Can Only Take So Much Focus, and it describes a practice called positive constructive daydreaming.

Near the end, the book has a promising metaphor about our internal compass. I would extend it like this: deep inside we all have a compass that can sense the subtle magnetism of the right thing to do in almost any situation. But we can't read it because we're surrounded by artificial magnets that constantly give us wrong directions. I'm tempted to list some of them, but I'll just speculate that seeing past them, to the truer magnet, is a skill that anyone can learn in 20-30 years.

May 19. I'm busy today, but here's a subreddit thread about determinism, and I want to briefly hit the subject from another angle:

Determinism is a hyper-rational philosophy that oddly leads to compassion. A determinist will never solve a problem by saying "that guy's an idiot" or "those people are trash," because how did they get that way? By the coldest of logic, everyone has been doing exactly the best they could have done from the day they were born. Then the question becomes: How can I use my illusory choice to change the world so that people doing their best is good enough?

May 17. Continuing from Monday, what are the deep differences between people who are good at life and people who are bad at life? Previously I've bashed the idea of "magical virtue", which is when we see people living well or living badly, and we assume it's just because they're good people or bad people, without looking deeper.

If we look deeply enough, we have to consider determinism, a philosophy based on archaic physics, in which the whole universe is like a giant clockwork whose every motion was fixed from the beginning of time, and choice is an illusion.

This leads to a radical idea: not only is it luck whether you're born into wealth or poverty, it's also luck whether you have the "initiative" to climb out of poverty, or the "wisdom" to use power well. What do those words mean without choice? Even the difference between Hitler and Mister Rogers was one hundred percent luck.

I prefer to believe that we make choices that can actually go either way, and I want to know: When someone makes that pivotal choice to lie or to be honest, to be mean or to be nice, to indulge a habit or to break it, to focus on the flaws of others or on their own flaws, what is the choice that underlies that choice?

For now, I have three hypotheses. 1) The right choice is to face into the pain, not away from the pain. 2) The right choice is to expand, not to contract. Expand what exactly? I don't think we have the language to be more specific. 3) The right choice is to cast off the self, to take things that seem like an absolute part of who you are, and view them as optional.

May 15. I've half-joked that it's better to follow sports than politics. For one thing, you have more influence over sports, because it has never happened that a single voter has swung an election for national office, but it has happened that a single fan has swung a baseball playoff game by interfering with a fly ball.

But now I have a more serious argument. Wherever you turn your attention, you tend to internalize the rules of that world. For example, if you grew up in a family where people got what they wanted by being pushy, or by complaining, or by using a particular flavor of subtle communication, you're going to expect that same strategy to work in the larger world.

In politics, what strategies lead to success? Bullshitting everyone all the time, using subconscious mind control tricks on the voters, making secret deals with big donors, and generally being as cynical as possible. The more you follow politics, the more you will expect that those strategies are universally effective, and that being honest and selflessly serving the greater good will lead to failure. And I think the corporate world is almost as bad.

But in sports, not all the time but more than in any other public event, success is a function of being really good at fully transparent skills. Since I cut back on following politics, and started following a few sports closely, I've been asking less often, "How did the world get so fucked up?" and asking more often, "What are the deep differences between people who are good at life and people who are bad at life?"

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 - April 2017
May - ? 2017