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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October 18. On a tangent from the last post, a reader sends this Slate Star Codex post from earlier this month, Different Worlds. Scott Alexander covers many angles of something I've noticed myself for a long time: we all have a particular "aura" or "bubble" that makes other people behave a certain way around us, and it's completely subconscious. He mentions how his own therapy patients never have emotional meltdowns, and traces it to his "Niceness Field, where people talking to him face to face want to be more polite and civil."

Later he mentions serial abuse victims:

I know people who have tried really hard to avoid abusers, who have gone to therapy and asked their therapist for independent verification that their new partner doesn't seem like the abusive type, who have pulled out all the stops -- and who still end up with abusive new partners. These people are cursed through no fault of their own... Something completely unintentional that they try their best to resist gives them a bubble of terrible people.

I've noticed a few things about my own bubble. Women either find me unattractive, or they want a serious relationship. People see me as benign and harmless, like a puppy -- except that border guards sometimes go to the opposite extreme, and give me more shit than any other educated white person. When I traveled in Europe, everyone in Madrid looked like they wanted to kill me, but this did not happen to me in any other city, or to other travelers in Madrid. At parties, I do my best to be normal and blend in, but people tend to feel uncomfortable and drift away from me.

I think it's possible in theory for us to change our bubbles, but much harder than it seems, because they go so deep. There's a philosophy, epiphenomenalism, that thinks consciousness is just powerlessly floating on a sea of mindless physics. I think we're almost powerlessly floating on a sea of unknown mind -- habits and motives that are so deep and vast and interconnected that it's like a secret subconscious civilization. It's like we're characters in a reality TV show, in a controlled simulated world, but the masters are not space aliens, or future humans with virtual reality. They're inside us.

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

September 29. Responding to the last post, there's a thread on the subreddit about the difficulty of being happy. If anyone wants to understand unhappiness better, I recommend the depression subreddit.

Update: I decided to pull the rest of today's post because I don't want this important subject to become about my personal shit. Here's another link about unhappy people, Redditors who were suicidal but decided not to kill yourself, what changed your mind?

And a long and thoughtful essay about mental illness, My Father The Werewolf.

September 27. After Monday's optimism, some doom. I saw a discussion on reddit where people were disagreeing about whether life is hard, because they weren't clear about definitions. I would break it down like this: in the 21st century first world, compared to most human societies and all wild animals, it's really easy to not die, and really hard to be happy.

If we keep going in this direction, eventually any death not from suicide will be global news. Suicide might even be normalized, so if you're above a certain age, and you say you're going to kill yourself, no one will even try to talk you out of it. Suicide may become a necessary safety valve, taking people out of the equation who would otherwise drag the system down or destabilize it.

I used to think collapse would come from physical factors like peak oil. Now I think there's no crisis we can't tackle if we're sufficiently motivated -- and we're not.

Where does motivation come from? The popular assumption is that it comes from some magical virtue that lives inside individual people. I think motivation is a matter of fit: the fit between what's in our hearts to do, and what society wants done. And right now those two things are really far apart. How many times have you heard someone say that success is about hard work and not talent? It's a big cliche, and it seems to be true, but we wouldn't need to say it so much if we didn't start by assuming the opposite.

I think in our deep ancestral environment, thriving was completely about talent -- and of course luck. There was so much overlap between what they felt like doing, and what was in front of them to do, that they didn't need the concept of "hard work". It's not that a work ethic makes you successful, but that our culture had to invent "success" to reward invented activities that hardly anyone feels like doing.

Sometimes I wonder why there are no colleges or employers that target underachievers. They could be like, "We want talented people who just seem lazy because they've never been in an environment as exciting as ours." This is the path to revitalizing our civilization, and no one is trying it. Instead everyone says the opposite: "We want people who are already highly driven, and we'll just teach them to go through the motions of doing our thing."

You know who does recruit underachievers? Terrorists, and cults, and other dangerous movements that I'm mostly against. But that's the hard logic of every human society: if it goes too far astray from human nature, the people who want to keep the game going will be outhustled by the people who want to end it.

September 25. Two links from the subreddit: The New Yorker has just covered The Case Against Civilization, and from 2011, How Hunter-Gatherers Maintained Their Egalitarian Ways. I also want to add this classic article, Preconquest Consciousness (pdf) by Richard Sorenson.

I used to write about this subject all the time, but I quit because I feel responsible to protect readers from making a sloppy logical leap into bad life advice: that we modern people can become happier by living more rural and more low-tech.

My position is harder to explain and less compelling: that we can develop something like the playful anti-authoritarian culture of the best hunter-gatherer tribes, at a high level of social and technological complexity, but we don't know exactly how yet, and it will take us hundreds of years to figure it out.

In this century, I think our best move is to change our culture and our economic rules to increasingly separate activity from money. I actually believe that creative people should not have a right to profit from their work. Because if no artist can make money, then every artistic decision will be made with total indifference to money, and we'll get better art. In the 27th century it will get better still when they crack the seduction of fame.

September 22. My big project earlier this week was putting my novel online. I'm not finished making small changes, but the translation to html and css is done, and I don't want to wait any longer to release it. There's a separate page for every chapter, and also for the dictionary, and they're all linked from this index page. I decided to go ahead and title it "Witches of the Pinspecked Void," but I haven't given up on the working title.

Update 9/26: new better pdf file, and epub and mobi files now include the dictionary. Download links are on the index page.

My illustrations are the intellectual property of Picbreeder, but the marginal starfield is a layering of two public domain images, and I'm putting the whole text under a Creative Commons license.

When I was writing it, I had no sense of how popular it was going to be, and it's actually nice that it turned out to be at the low end, because now I feel no pressure to please an audience with whatever I write next. And I expect to continue writing fiction, because now that I've developed a process that works, it's much more rewarding than writing this blog.

By the way, here's a short fiction contest that I'm probably not going to enter, and can't afford to win, but some of you might consider it. They want a story up to 5000 words on "the impacts of a basic income on individual lives and on society at large." The winner gets $12,000.

September 20. Yesterday on the subreddit there was a good article, Why are today's teens putting off sex, driving, dating and drinking? It offers two answers that contradict each other: that "a more resource-rich and secure environment" is giving kids the freedom to grow up more slowly and carefully, and that a tight economy is frightening kids into taking fewer risks.

I think it's more about technology and culture than economics. With the internet, you no longer have to be a total nerd to have a better time staying home than going out to party; and at the same time, the population is becoming more nerdy. They say kids aren't growing up, but how an "adult" is supposed to behave is a cultural invention, and it's changing.

New subject, but also about changing culture: Consciousness Goes Deeper Than You Think. The title makes it sound like we have new information, when really we have a new way of using words. We used to define "consciousness" as re-representation, the creation of a mental perspective detached from the stream of experience. Now we're defining it as the actual stream of experience, which means our representation of consciousness, created by that word, goes deeper.

September 18. I'm working on other stuff today. Here are two good articles about the Amish: Approach Technology Like the Amish, and In Amish Country, the Future Is Calling.

September 15. Various fun links for the weekend. How Mushrooms Could Repair Our Crumbling Infrastructure:

Their idea is that fungal spores are added to the concrete when it is mixed and then lie dormant until the concrete cracks. Water flowing into the cracks causes the spores to germinate, filling the cracks with fungal fibers that trigger the formation of calcium carbonate -- which eventually fills the void.

I've been playing Windows Minesweeper for many years, and it's frustrating because no matter how good you are, you still usually get blown up when the board comes down to a guess. Finally someone has programmed a Minesweeper that doesn't require guessing: Simon Tatham's Mines.

From eight years ago, a creative reddit comment defining a Cuil as one level of abstraction away from reality. So, if you ask for a hamburger:

4 Cuils: Why are we speaking German? A mime cries softly as he cradles a young cow. Your grandfather stares at you as the cow falls apart into patties. You look down only to see me with pickles for eyes, I am singing the song that gives birth to the universe.

And some music, a great punk crescendo from last year: Cabbage - Grim Up North Korea.

September 13. A reader sends this timely article from two years ago, Walker Percy's Theory of Hurricanes. It's the same idea as Rebecca Solnit's book A Paradise Built in Hell, that people become happier in disasters.

I'm skipping straight to the hard question: how can we make this permanent? How can we build a society where the loose, friendly, engaged social vibe that now emerges in disasters, is how we feel all the time? Or at least more often?

Just having one catastrophe after another won't work -- they tried that in Haiti. I don't think there's any simple or easy answer. It's just going to take hundreds of years of walking there, one step in law, one step in culture, until we have a set of laws built on trust and improvisation, instead of fear and predictability, and a culture where people don't take advantage of that, or feel traumatized.

Sometimes I think all lawmakers should start as game designers, because game designers have to understand the thin line between trauma and adventure, between safety as a padded cell and safety as a platform for launching.

On another tangent, I'm wondering about psychedelics, and if they transform the brain the same way a good disaster transforms a city.

September 11. Interesting subreddit post: On the Demonic and Virtual Reality. The idea is that we could think of "demons" not as magical beings, but the way we think about human social constructions like fascism and religion.

If the demonic names a type of oppressive virtual reality, then demon possession can be approached as the subjective inscription of these systems of injustice into an individual's consciousness. The demonic is the system of injustice that influences the material actions of all those in a society, while demon possession is where an individual becomes the actual mouthpiece of that injustice.

I believe something a little weirder. I've noticed that most human behavior comes from levels of the mind that we're not consciously aware of, and I think our individual subconscious minds are connected with each other in ways we haven't discovered yet, in highly complex networks. And these hidden subconscious civilizations can behave like primal gods, or like the paranoid myth of evil elites. But ultimately, the enemy is within.

Another link from the subreddit: The Satori Generation:

In Japan, they've come to be known as satori sedai -- the "enlightened generation". In Buddhist terms: free from material desires, focused on self-awareness, finding essential truths. But another translation is grimmer: "generation resignation", or those without ideals, ambition or hope.

They were born in the late 1980s on up, when their nation's economic juggernaut, with its promises of lifetime employment and conspicuous celebrations of consumption, was already a spent historical force. They don't believe the future will get better -- so they make do with what they have. In one respect, they're arch-realists. And they're freaking their elders out.

My take: as more of humanity climbs out of desperate poverty, our world becomes more and more like a set of games. These games compete for our participation, like religions. During the age of economic growth, the most popular game was to get more and more money. That game is dying, and I'm trying to play a different game with money: to arrange my life so that I have to think about money as little as possible.

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 - August 2017
September 2017 - ?