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 23. First, some tech. Meet the 89-Year-Old Reinventing the Train in His Backyard. I think the Hyperloop will be too expensive and fiddly to ever be practical, but this guy has a cool idea: instead of hauling around their own propulsion, trains could be pulled by powerful magnets that move in a tube between the tracks.

And some music. My latest obsession is Exuma, a.k.a. Tony McKay, who immigrated at age 17 from the Bahamas to NYC, and made his first albums in 1970. According to that Wikipedia page he has "almost unclassifiable music: a strong mixture of carnival, junkanoo, calypso and ballad." My informal genre tag is voodoo gospel -- although technically Exuma followed Obeah and not Voudon.

His most powerful song is Baal, a primal dirge that makes Screamin' Jay Hawkins sound like children's music. Or compare Damn Fool to CCR. Or compare 22nd Century to David Bowie's Cygnet Committee or Five Years.

June 21. Some readers want to know more about my novel. Sorry, it still needs a lot of rewriting before you'll see any of it, but I should say that I consider this my debut. Back in 2004 I wrote a short novel that is mediocre in every way, except that I learned from Dan Brown how to end every narrative block on a surprise or a cliffhanger.

Wait, isn't Dan Brown a trashy author? Well, he's not a good stylist, but he's a master of the first and most difficult thing a writer has to do: not be boring.

More generally, I don't trust the distinction between high art and trash. Most of the fiction that has stood the test of time was considered trashy in its own time, either because it was too commercial or too weird.

Related: a classic Paul Graham post, Copy What You Like. It hits the same idea from several angles: that what's considered high-quality or important is often a fad, but there is timeless value in following what you love and not caring if it's uncool. "What kind of book do you read and feel sad that there's only half of it left, instead of being impressed that you're half way through? That's what you really like."

I plan to offer ebooks free, and self-publish paper books in a way that doesn't make me any money, because if my income gets any higher I'll be bumped from Obamacare. Anyway, can anyone recommend a good self-publisher? More precisely, all I need is someone to manufacture and distribute the physical book.

Update: I decided I'm jumping the gun talking about publishing options. First I need to finish editing it, and then show it to some people who can tell me, not how good it is, but how popular it's going to be, because I have no idea where it falls on the spectrum from Harry Potter to Peter Ibbetson.

June 19. Earlier this month, if you missed it, rock climber Alex Honnold scaled El Capitan without ropes. This might be the greatest athletic feat of all time. The first thing you need is world class endurance. He climbed 3000 feet in under four hours, and how many people could even climb a 3000 foot flight of stairs in four hours? Then there are the physical rock climbing skills, and then, to do it without safety gear, you need the mental focus to not make any mistakes. I can sort of understand this by thinking about Minesweeper. I'm good enough to solve an expert puzzle in five minutes (if it doesn't require guessing) but then I imagine playing four hours straight, and if I make one mistake, I die.

On top of this, Honnold has a rare brain anomaly that makes him immune to fear. From this article, The Strange Brain of the World's Greatest Solo Climber:

Joseph LeDoux, a neuroscientist at New York University who has been studying the brain's response to threats since the 1980s, tells me he has never heard of any person being born with a normal amygdala -- as Honnold's appears to be -- that shows no sign of activation.

This Hacker News comment thread has some great comments about why, exactly, climbers prefer to not use ropes. It's not at all about cheating death or proving how bad-ass you are. It's because, using ropes, almost the whole job is clunky and unsatisfying communication with your climbing partner. Without ropes, it's just you and the rock, and you can get into an extremely rewarding flow state.

I imagine a sci-fi utopia where climbers wear anti-gravity belts that activate if they fall, so we could have the best of both worlds, total intimacy with the rock and total safety.

Meanwhile, I don't like the argument, "Nobody should do this because they might die." We all die anyway. In the tradeoff between avoiding death, and making life worth living, our society has gone too far to the first extreme, and paradoxically it leads to more deaths, in the form of suicide.

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.

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