Ran Prieur http://ranprieur.com/#9a417fe513f58988c3b5b1e84cfc57397194a79b 2017-10-16T16:00:20Z Ran Prieur http://ranprieur.com/ ranprieur@gmail.com October 16. http://ranprieur.com/#4ade90d9f1f29dcd576c813f7c38b882c7235e2b 2017-10-16T16:00:20Z October 16. A couple days ago, this reddit thread asked What activity or hobby is so filled with hateful people that it puts you off trying it? And it occurred to me that the bad people described in the thread probably think of themselves as good people. Overweight people know they're overweight, bad spellers know they're bad spellers, physically sick people know how they're sick, depressed people know they're depressed -- and yet there are mental and emotional pathologies that hide from their carriers.

If toxic people don't know they're toxic, then how can any of us be sure that we're benign? If "bad people" experience themselves as good, then we're not talking about "character" -- something I increasingly don't believe in. We're talking about understanding.

I've been thinking, if I had one wish, I might wish that what I feel like doing, and what's good for me to do, would always be the same thing. But if that were already the case, how would I even know? How would I identify that one reliable voice among all the other voices, both rational and intuitive, that are fallible?

Last week, with the cognitive boost of cannabis, I thought about those cartoons where someone has an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, giving them conflicting advice. If it were really that simple, you could just follow the angel voice all the time. Those characters do not represent true right and wrong, but human value systems, which are always imperfect. I jotted this: "There is no possible set of rules to tell the angel voice from the devil voice, because logic can't know what the angel is, or keep up with the devil's masks."

Because our value systems are imperfect, the devil can be right. "It's okay to have sex for fun. Smoke some weed now and then. Butter is good for you." What else was the devil right about?

Then I realized, we're living in a postapocalypse society. It was a moral apocalypse, and it happened in the 1960's, when all kinds of standards and rules got thrown out the window, and fifty years later we're still fumbling for replacements.

But you could say the same thing about modernity (see Morris Berman's The Reenchantment of the World), or agriculture (see James C. Scott's new book Against the Grain) or even the taming of fire (see John Livingston's Rogue Primate). We're a postapocalypse species.

October 13. http://ranprieur.com/#e30b0773eceee974187e7b522d9426ae80d86f49 2017-10-13T13:30:13Z October 13. More sports. I saw a reddit thread asking: what does America do better than other countries? Off the top of my head I had nothing, but a few days later this came up: American pro sports leagues have rules to maintain parity -- not perfectly, but enough that you can never be sure what crappy team might be great this year. Meanwhile, European sports leagues are ruled by behemoths who buy the best players and are boringly dominant forever.

It's funny because Americans understand something about sports that they don't understand about society, and Europeans are hardly better. Europe is less traumatic for people at the bottom, but still lacks radical mobility.

I think it's better for a society to be like a high-parity sports league, where successful people and institutions have their freedom constrained, so they can't leverage power into the security of that power, so there's more rising and falling, more sorting by performance on equal terms. (Two semantic questions: Is my position right wing or left wing? Am I for or against economic freedom?)

And more sports! Tomorrow is the NWSL championship. I don't follow women's soccer as some kind of charity project. I follow it because it's more gritty than the men's game, and also slower, which is not necessarily bad. It's like men's soccer is pop music and women's soccer is doom metal. Here's a great article about one of the teams, NC Courage stepping out to NWSL's big dance. [Update: the game was pretty lame. Portland made thuggish fouls, and NC kept them bottled in their own end for much of the game, but Portland won because Lindsay Horan, IMO the best midfielder in the world, converted their one good chance in front of goal, while NC failed to convert several decent chances.]

And some music. A long-time reader has a new album, The Rebeliot Album. It features plinky piano, feral string-plucking, and various weird vocals.

October 11. http://ranprieur.com/#46f136608ce6c645b4da19632e9fc23142fbb2fc 2017-10-11T23:10:42Z October 11. One reason I enjoy following sports is that you can learn a lot from a world that ruthlessly and publicly tests how good people are at what they do. This sports article refutes the popular belief that you can be great at anything if you put in the work. David Sills was the best 13 year old quarterback in the world, and his ambition and work rate are off the charts. But he hit a ceiling, lacking some combination of unlearnable skills, and was never good enough to play QB above the junior college level. So he switched positions, and now he's an elite wide receiver.

The point is, our culture tells us that the path to success is to pick a goal and do whatever it takes to get there, when the better path is to try different things and follow the path of the next thing that works.

This post, The Myth of the Objective, explains it in more detail:

The world has an obsession with objectivity, but following a goalless path is subjective. Interesting paths get taken by individuals based on intuition, and other instincts. We need to respect individual autonomy, and let humans do what they are good at -- finding interesting stepping stones.

Visionaries don't see many stepping stones ahead to get to their inventions and discoveries. They see the stones that have already been laid, and realise that the next leap forward is merely one jump away.

Vacuum tubes were used to make the first computers. If you had told vacuum tube makers in the 1800s, to rather work on the much more interesting problem of building a computer, we'd probably have no vacuum tubes or computers.

October 9. http://ranprieur.com/#367e429a08bd971086567efe3ed9df424bf56659 2017-10-09T21:50:59Z October 9. Three smart links from Nautilus. Is the Hard Problem of Consciousness Connected to the Hard Problem in Physics?

Philosophers and neuroscientists often assume that consciousness is like software, whereas the brain is like hardware. This suggestion turns this completely around. When we look at what physics tells us about the brain, we actually just find software -- purely a set of relations -- all the way down. And consciousness is in fact more like hardware, because of its distinctly qualitative, non-structural properties. For this reason, conscious experiences are just the kind of things that physical structure could be the structure of.

When It's Good to Be Antisocial. It's mostly about bees: "Out of the 20,000 known species of bees, only a few are social. Some bee species have even given up social behaviors, opting for the single life. Why?" Because "socializing requires lots of energy," and it's only worth the cost in certain environments. This makes me wonder if technology could change the human environment -- if not to make socializing a bad idea overall, at least to make it unnecessary, to create more niches for introverts.

How Video Games Satisfy Basic Human Needs. This is related to the above, because a researcher identified four types of video game players, and only one prefers to socialize. But the main point of the article is that people play games to be a certain way.

"One of the best ways to beat Jigglypuff is to play very defensively. But Mango, one of the best professional Super Smash Bros players, often refuses to play that way against Jigglypuff, even if it means losing. Why? Because if he's going to win, he wants to win being honest to himself. The way he plays is representative of who he is."

Modern society is like a monster that can only be defeated by playing a very specific way that only a few people enjoy playing. The rest of us have to find the balance between "succeeding" by being who we're not, and failing by being who we are.

October 6. http://ranprieur.com/#255ffb93cd6dceefb8532df629cb889ea85b75f5 2017-10-06T18:20:30Z October 6. So after Leigh Ann told me that the style of my novel reminds her of James Joyce, I decided to finally dive into Ulysses. I had the idea that Joyce was pretentious, but that's not it at all. Pretentious people care what other people think, and Joyce totally didn't care. He just developed a highly personal style and did not hold back in having fun with it.

I wouldn't say I like Ulysses. If I tried to understand it, I would hate it. Instead, I make no attempt to follow what's happening, but skip the flippant palaver of the protagonists and drink the beauty of the descriptive blocks. "Across the page the symbols moved in grave morrice, in the mummery of their letters, wearing quaint caps of squares and cubes."

For the weekend, some happy links. This Tiny Country Feeds The World is about the highly efficient intensive agriculture in the Netherlands.

Teens rebelling against social media in the UK. I don't think large-scale social technology is ever going away, but it's nice that we're already trying to moderate it.

These Kinetic Sculptures Hypnotize You. I wonder how many other people in the world could do something this creative, if they had the time and the resources.

October 4. http://ranprieur.com/#cc76d66cd031db34afee51561da1321236a00926 2017-10-04T16:00:04Z October 4. Polishing off the unhappiness subject for now, a reader recommends this podcast, The Hilarious World of Depression. I've only listened to a few, but the main thing I notice is how different everyone's story is, from each other and also from mine. I don't even want to say I have "depression" because the word is so vague and has so much baggage, and also because my condition is not crippling, merely painful. On a bad day, life feels like washing an endless sink of dirty dishes and never getting in the flow. But as another reader points out, I still have the energy to analyze and experiment.

I believe that the solution lies in practicing very precise metacognition. Even the advice to "be present" is not precise enough, because you can be present in the stream of sense experience, or in what's going on inside your head, or in the interface between the two. Yesterday I jotted down this insight: "The moment-to-moment choice of where to put your attention has a personality." It's not your deepest personality -- it's a mid-level personality that can be changed.

Two quick notes. A reader has translated my most popular essay: How To Drop Out in French.

And since Tom Petty just died, this is not his best song, but for me and a lot of people my age, this video is loaded with nostalgia: You Got Lucky.

October 2. http://ranprieur.com/#762830045bb84b02fb8691e27e699d4bbbb7fbbb 2017-10-02T14:40:55Z October 2. Continuing on the subject of unhappiness, a few weeks ago there was a fascinating post on Slate Star Codex, Toward A Predictive Theory Of Depression. The idea is, depression is what it feels like when your whole nervous system (not just your conscious mind) has low confidence in its ability to make accurate predictions. "If you have global low confidence, the world feels like a math class you don't understand that you can't escape from."

Yeah, that's exactly how I feel, and I'm good at math. What I'm bad at is social intuition, the ability to do the right thing socially without having to stop and puzzle it out. I actually think I fell into a slump because I got smarter. I used to be oblivious to any social reality that was not right on the surface. Now I've become aware of vast levels of subtext, and all the mistakes that can be made, and I feel a responsibility to correctly navigate worlds where I don't feel competent.

Anyway, below the post is a long discussion thread with lots of smart stuff, including the idea that you could climb out of depression by "doing something where you are measurably, incontrovertibly increasing in capability..." which might include video games. Three good comments:

If this is correct it suggests... what many depressed people already suspect, that telling them "things aren't as bad as you make them out to be" and "you have plenty to be happy about" is actively harming them, not helping.


Failure is easy to achieve, so predicting failure is a better bet than predicting success, and the less you are willing to accept prediction failure the more you are inclined to adopt this strategy.


Depression is very different for different people with it... I am convinced that in 70 years what is currently called depression will have more than one name. For someone with a mental illness this is an exciting time to be alive. We, as a species, are learning so much about it.