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 19. A reader asked me about minimalism, a movement to have less stuff. I agree with them, even though I'm not the kind of person to join named movements. Buying stuff is like taking a bad drug. It feels good, but then owning stuff that you don't use puts you at a lower baseline for happiness, and then getting rid of stuff is like painful withdrawal. And then when it's gone you feel good again.

I'm tempted to give up the last few hundred dollars in sale value and just hire a junk truck to take everything away. If you've ever been to the dump and seen what gets thrown out, a lot of people must do that. But I really do have to go through and pick out what I'm keeping, so I might as well try to maximize the value of the rest.

Hey, does anyone want some of my self-sufficiency books? Those prices are at or below the lowest prices on abebooks.com, and if you buy a bunch I'll give you a discount.

July 17. Some personal stuff. A week ago I got my novel close enough to final draft to send it to three people, and I'm still awaiting feedback, but I hope to have it online in a month. It's shorter than I expected, around 27,000 words, roughly the length of The Old Man And The Sea, except the words are much longer, and a lot more stuff happens. I'm still not sure about the title! The working title uses someone else's words, and while waiting for permission, I thought of a backup title that I probably like better.

If there's enough demand, I'll do a physical book on createspace or something, and I want to have cover art something like Barbara Remington's trippy Lord of the Rings covers, but not so similar as to get in legal trouble. If anyone feels qualified and interested, let me know, ranprieur at gmail.

I'm nine days into a long break from cannabis, because my last few highs did not produce any insights or creative work. I'm also not playing any video games, so no fun at all. Ideally I want to spend every day fixing up the house and sorting my stuff to sell/thrift/trash. But that's so painful that I can only do it for a couple hours a day.

So the rest of the time I've been working on a chronological playlist of soft hits of the 70's. This site, the Hot 100 Singles Chronology, is really useful. There's this one song in my head, it's not even that great but I've become fixated on finding it, and I'm starting to think I've slipped to an alternate universe where it doesn't exist. But searching for it has led me to forgotten gems like Steve Forbert - Romeo's Tune.

July 14. As usual, light stuff for the weekend. Last weekend in the NWSL, Sam Kerr scored a hat trick in 12 minutes. She makes it look easy, but nobody else in the women's game is so casual and consistent in front of goal. Just the previous week she made a bicycle kick.

I don't like to write about race, but this article about Martellus Bennett, NFL player and now children's author, has a great quote: "What if Macauley Culkin were black in Home Alone? Most people would write it differently... but I would write it the same way."

To generalize from that point: if there's something about the world that you don't like, complaining about it is a weak strategy. A good strategy is to persistently trace it to deeper and deeper causes. And another good strategy is to envision a world where it doesn't exist.

July 12. Matt has some surprising comments on Monday's post. This is my condensation:

Maybe people get pleasure from pain -- either from literal mortification or feats of endurance -- because of their beliefs about their bodies. I mean, why do cutters feel relief? It only makes sense if I understand the relief coming from their mental interpretation of being wounded. Otherwise, you'd hear about guys feeling euphoria when they lose a thumb in a factory. There's no straightforward push-this-button-and-get-this-result: it's about how individual personalities process the sting, the throbbing, the blood. Or the sweat, the panting, the racing heart.

I've talked to people who have gotten runner's high, of course. I don't doubt the existence of endorphins. But I've also talked to people who hate the experience of exercise -- and it's not because they're out of shape or haven't tried. It's tempting to say, "They're not doing it right, or for long enough." But maybe that's akin to saying everyone should like being spanked hard during sex and if you don't then you're not doing it right. People talk about runner's high as a universal, but maybe... it's a kink.

July 10. A few months back, I wrote this:

Will science ever cheat withdrawal? Could you go on a drug bender, and when it starts to get ugly, you just take a shot of brain-cleansing nanobots and you're painlessly clean and sober and ready to start again? I doubt it, but I do think it should be possible to bunch the pain, so instead of days or weeks of grinding through rehab, you could reset your pleasure with a few minutes of agony.

A reader replied, "OK, but if pain and pleasure are in balance, could you give yourself a few electric shocks one day, and maybe that would lead to good times down the road?" I said:

Clearly the answer is no, which leads to two options. One is that it is possible, even on a metaphysical level, to have pleasure unbalanced by pain. The other answer is that pleasure must be balanced by pain but pain does not have to be balanced by pleasure, because God hates us.

It turns out, this has been studied by science, and that electric shock trick might actually work. The opponent-process theory of emotion is a long brainy blog post about Richard Solomon's research into pain becoming pleasure and pleasure becoming pain. If you don't want to read the whole thing, the practical advice is to moderate your pleasures, exercise, and take cold showers.

I'm also wondering how much individual variation there is, because none of the author's examples of pleasure-from-pain apply to me. I don't get exhilaration from stress, or runner's high, or "a sense of well being" from donating blood. After my epic and painful moving day last week, I did not feel one shred of euphoria. I just felt tired. But when I listen to music, or write something good, I get pleasure that echoes to the baseline without ever going negative.

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.

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 must be 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."

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 any expert puzzle that 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. [Update: this is such an obvious idea that it was already done in an old Star Trek movie.]

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.

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