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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July 8. Wednesday morning we got up early and drove out to the valley to rent a 16 foot truck, then drove back here and loaded the truck and the car. Then we drove separately to Pullman, and unloaded everything to a third floor apartment in full sun on a 95 degree day. We could not have done it without the help of Leigh Ann's friend Courtney. I drank at least a gallon of water, and when I ate salt it tasted like candy. Then I drove the truck back to Spokane, left it in the late dropoff lot, and took the bus home, arriving around 10:30.

Getting through such an epic day was not just hard physically, but mentally. Little things are going to go wrong, and if you get caught up in blame or regret, or if you push harder to try to make up for mistakes, you're going to burn out way before the end of the day. Instead, minute after minute, hour after hour, you have to stay calm and constantly refocus on the present moment.

Are lower class people better at these skills, because of the kind of work they're forced to do? As more of our work is done by machines, will humanity become more neurotic? How do we prevent this? That question is too hard for me to answer, but I'm thinking: designing a good society is not primarily about psychology -- it's entirely about psychology.

July 4. Posting today because I won't be posting tomorrow, and I just want to say the same things I've recently said, in different words. Continuing from yesterday, Michael sends this great video about System 1 vs System 2 thinking: The simple riddle that 50% of Harvard students get wrong. The more I learn about this subject, the more I understand why life is so hard for me. My System 1 is defective. I have to use System 2 for almost everything, which makes me really good at it, but society sees me as a fuckup, and I could never pass a job interview even for a job that's all System 2 thinking, like that proofreading job at Amazon that they gave to some glib charmer whose ass I kicked on the actual proofreading test. We really are living in barbaric times.

I also want to go back to last week's subject. I've been having an email conversation with Anne about "individualism", and wrote this:

That Soccer Assassins article tipped my thinking about the whole individual vs group thing, because it's about how a group can work better if everyone is doing their own thing. But the trick is, they're doing their own thing in service to the group. they're thinking "I want my team to do as well as possible, but I'm not going to trust the coach to tell me what to do, I'm going to figure it out myself in the moment."

Of course this is different from "Collectivism says that society thrives if I trust central planners." But it's also different from "Capitalism says that society thrives if i'm totally selfish."

It's not a middle ground -- it's a whole other angle, difficult for our culture to imagine, something like "cooperative individualism". That's when I realized that people like Ayn Rand ruined "individualism" by tying it to selfishness.

July 3. Busy to Death. It's not a new idea, but for me this is a new way of thinking about it. First:

System 1 is our reactive, speedy response to circumstance decision-making. It is a bias loaded, preprogrammed neural network of pathways that essentially exists so we don't have to think. System 2, however, is when we deeply, slowly consider numerous situations, options, and alternatives when decision making.

And in a culture that values looking busy, people in System 2 mode will appear to be lazy, and will be given work that forces them into System 1. So a culture that values looking busy will undermine itself with bad snap decisions.

Personally, I'm terrible at System 1. That's why I could never get a good job, why I hate driving, why I always get in trouble for being clumsy. My autopilot is somewhere between incompetent and nonexistent, and it makes life in this headlong culture really hard. Hammering my favorite political cause: if we had an unconditional basic income, people who thrive in System 2 could afford to be in it all the time, and make contributions from that space.

Related: Anxiety is the new Depression.

Also related: The refugee funding America's psychedelic renaissance.

June 30. Next week Leigh Ann and I will be renting a truck and moving our big stuff to an apartment in Pullman. She'll be down there and I'll be here for at least two more months fixing up the house and selling stuff. Then we'll be in Pullman for the next three years. It was going to be two years but WSU screwed her on transfer credits. Anyway, if anyone reading this is in Pullman, we need help moving a few heavy things up to our third floor apartment, and I'll give you $20 for maybe half an hour of work. Or if you're in Spokane and want to ride down with me, maybe we can work something out. Email me at ranprieur at gmail. [Update: we have one helper, but another would be nice.]

Music! I try to avoid writing about my favorite band, Big Blood, for the same reason polite parents don't talk about their kids all the time: almost nobody else is interested. But after more than two years, they have a new album. I was afraid they were retired, but they were still recording as prolifically as ever and just taking a break from releasing, so there are three more albums on the way.

Out now, Daughters Union. Their voices are the key to their music: if you hate their voices, you'll never get into it, and if you like their voices, you will discover a vast landscape of strange and varied creativity. My big favorite on the new album is this Troggs cover, Our Love Will Still Be There. Rush fans should check it out because Colleen is totally singing like Geddy Lee. And the prettiest song is another cover, I Have Known Love (Silver Apples). It's so much better than the original that it's almost twice as long and feels shorter. The opening and closing tracks, Blind Owl I and II, are alternate versions of an unearthly vocal collage that I describe on my Big Blood page as "what saintly hillbillies hear when they die."

June 28. This sports article, Soccer Assassins, completes my recent circle of thinking around motivation and collapse. The other day this subreddit post argued that the west is going to fall for the same reason as Communism. Ian Welsh describes it as lazy workers cheating rational central planners, but I'm thinking, the workers have no reason to cheat if they love what they do.

Last weekend we drove down to Pullman, and when we passed some really slow windmills, Leigh Ann said, "Those windmills are lazy!" But it makes almost as little sense to call humans lazy. Even when we seem to be turning under our own power, there is always a deeper wind. People force themselves to do tedious chores because they want money or status, or just because they want to pull their weight on the workplace chain gang.

Anyway, the soccer article contrasts two coaching styles. One is to use physically strong but uncreative players as chesspiece thugs. That wins more games in the short term, but in the long term, the best players and the best teams are built on a foundation of individual skill and improvisation. I'm cautious about the word "individual" because it was ruined by Ayn Rand. But the best human collectives, in sports or whatever, are built out of 1) people with all their quirks 2) with strong fundamental skills 3) making it up on the fly 4) for the good of a local team. A good human society, which is probably thousands of years away, will be a fractal structure that works like that on every scale.

June 26. Too busy to post today, but I did make a quick comment in this interesting subreddit thread about the last two decades and why they don't have clear "personalities" like the previous decades. I don't think this is just our perception. I remember by 1986 it was clear what "the 80's" were all about and obviously the 70's too, but in 2017 I don't have the same kind of sense for anything after around 1997, which is suspiciously right when the internet took off.

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.

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