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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November 29. Continuing from Monday, in the context of technologies that tempt us to do things that are bad for us, there's always a voice that says, "Well, people just need to exercise better self-control." The interview has a great answer: "That kind of rhetoric implicitly grants the idea that it's okay for technology to be adversarial against us."

In the Terminator movies, Skynet is a global networked AI hostile to humanity. Now imagine if a human said, "It's okay for Skynet to try to kill us; we just have to try harder to not be killed, and if you fail, it's your own fault." But that's exactly what people are saying about an actual global computer network that seeks to control human behavior, on levels we're not aware of, for its own benefit. Not only has the hostile AI taken over -- a lot of people are taking its side against their fellow humans. And their advice is to suppress your biological impulses and maximize future utility like a machine algorithm.

Now, I happen to have really good self-control. That's how I got a 3.96 GPA in high school (back when 4.0 was the max) even though I hated most of the work. I would have crushed the marshmallow test. But it's a terrible way to live, constantly forcing myself through pain for some promised reward that either disappoints or doesn't come at all. I used to imagine I'd be rich and get to control other people. But it turns out, people don't like being controlled and they'll think you're evil for doing it -- unless you're a global network of Skinner boxes, in which case they'll blame themselves.

Here's a reverse marshmallow test, that tests human societies: If every kid always eats the marshmallow, if every person does exactly what they feel like all the time, how well does it work out for them? In a perfect human environment, no self-control is necessary; always doing what feels good is a realistic strategy for a happy life. Of course that ceiling can never quite be reached. But it's what we must aim for: to make our built environment work with us and not against us. And by that measure, our world is a tragic failure.

November 28. Breaking my normal MWF posting schedule because I want to continue yesterday's subject tomorrow, but there's good stuff today on the subreddit.

Iron_dwarf has an original rumination titled The Campfire of the Future, about storytelling and other forms of representation. I would add that storytelling is also being changed by the long tail, where there's more stuff with smaller audiences, and the internet enables a small audience to be spread all over the world.

Sexbots are coming. I don't have a problem with this. Old-fashioned sex will never die out, because it will take on a fashionable aura of primal chaos as digisex becomes more common. Sexbots will just add another dimension to sex, like what's happened with chess computers.

Accountt1234 has been writing some good stuff lately, including this thoughtful post on demographics and biotech, Not the future you signed up for.

Finally, The World's Strongest Pot Product Is for Sale in Seattle. "The crystal-like rocks look almost like meth, but they're 100 percent THC." The article goes on to speculate that all major cannabis components might eventually be isolated so we could all make custom blends.

November 27. Great interview on Nautilus, Social Media Is a Denial-of-Service Attack on Your Mind. It's about how we're overwhelmed with information competing for our attention. My favorite bit, condensed:

Most of the systems in society still assume an environment of information scarcity. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but it doesn't protect freedom of attention. There wasn't anything obstructing people's attention at the time it was written. Back in an information-scarce environment, the role of a newspaper was to bring you information. Now it's the opposite.

Now what we need is information filtering. But filtering for the long-term benefit of information consumers is not only difficult -- it's hard to even know if it's being done right. So the dominant filtering systems feed on our impulses. Their goal is to get clicks, to get money from advertisers, to win a bigger slice of the predatory filtering market, with indifference to the social effects.

Dinosaur do-gooders, trying to "raise awareness", only add noise to the cacophony and increase our paralysis.

Into this wasteland steps an old-time villain, now doing something useful: information filtering with a political agenda. If you lack the resources to do your own filtering, why not turn to someone you basically agree with, and let them do it for you? It can't be worse than the nihilism of clickbait.

We are already in a postapocalypse world. Unbridled operant conditioning is turning people into zombies, while information-filtering warlords offer security against the famine of meaninglessness. I'm trying to stay independent, like Mad Max, but it's getting harder.

November 24. For the holiday weekend, some personal stuff. I haven't done much on Picbreeder lately, but this one totally looks like the Mona Lisa on acid.

Not that I've actually tripped on acid. I've tried two different true psychedelics now, and neither one gave me the kind of experience that most people report at similar doses. On cannabis, though I might forget what I was just thinking, I can still plunge ahead, riding introspection and imagination like a surfer. But on one supposedly stronger drug, I just flounder in a somewhat pleasant delirium, and on another, I can't get inside my head at all. I'm tempted to hammer my brain with a larger dose, but I think it's better to be gentle, so next time I'll try a microdose on top of cannabis.

My most transcendent experiences have been from music -- typically music that sounds bad to most people. On my favorite songs page, I've just updated the top playlist after rediscovering Carousel, a 1992 song by the New Zealand band The Garbage and the Flowers. Leigh Ann says it sounds like an ethereal homeless woman, and now it holds the center among nine songs so weird that the median number of YouTube views is under 2500.

November 22. I have a few Thanksgiving-related recipes on my old misc page. One I haven't added yet, for homemade eggnog: 6 eggs, 3 cups milk, 2 cups whipping cream, 1½ cups spiced rum, ½ cup sugar, and nutmeg and vanilla to taste. It's best to separate the eggs, whip the whites, and put them in at the end.

Also, there's a new subreddit that is collecting all the links from battleforthenet.com about why it's bad that we're about to lose net neutrality. People are talking like the ISP's are evil, but they're just puppets of a deeper mistake that has existed in every human culture except for some low-tech tribes: that it is acceptable to leverage power into more power.

If we lose net neutrality, it will make the internet more frustrating for me as a consumer, but it will not effect me as a content producer, because this site is pure web 1.0 with a tiny bandwidth. I don't know of any other website that doesn't run any scripts.

November 20. Last week a reader sent this quote from the Buddhist monk Bodhidharma: "Those who remain unmoved by the wind of joy silently follow the Path." It struck me as strange, because out of context, if someone asked me if it's better to be moved or unmoved by joy, I would say it's better to be moved. So in what metaphorical context is it better to be unmoved?

I don't want to have a discussion about what Bodhihdharma actually meant. All I know is, that quote gave me this idea:

If you're up in a hot air balloon, you don't feel any wind, because whatever wind there is, also moves the balloon that carries you. Now imagine there are two kinds of wind. If your balloon moves with the wind of joy, then you never feel joy, but you do feel the wind of pain. And if your balloon moves with the wind of pain, then you don't feel pain, but you do feel joy.

I don't know how to translate this metaphor into practical advice, beyond what I wrote last week: to define every bad thing that happens as the new baseline, and to feel gratitude for every good thing that happens, and do these moves with increasing consistency and quickness. Also, this whole subject sounds a lot like Stoicism.

Two unrelated psychology links: The Fine Art of Not Being Offended, by remembering that other people's actions are about them and not you.

And a reddit thread, What is the most toxic aspect of your personality?

November 16. From this comment thread about yesterday's post, I most relate to these condensed bits of comments from TheAnarchitect:

Everyone thinks they're immune to anxiety until it gets them. I used to even be able to handle a major trauma here and there without breaking a sweat. Then I got hit with two extreme traumas back to back, and since then, my resistance to daily traumas is gone. What I find funny is that from an outside perspective, I might even seem more resilient.

When I see people who have the same attitude I had before the trauma, I worry. It's like seeing a kid on a highwire. Oh, baby, I know it looks so easy, and everytime you've tripped you've caught yourself. But you don't know how far down it is.

I've written a lot about social collapse, but now I'm thinking about something like identity collapse. You develop a personality, a set of habits, that gets you through life, and it's probably more than half subconscious, learned when you were very young, and hard to change. But then some key component changes -- it could be something in you, or something in the world, or your role in the world. And gradually, or suddenly, your whole way of being no longer works.

When this happens to a society, or to an individual, and they don't flame out in destruction but fall into a deep slump, we use the same word: depression. The whole system becomes disjointed and ineffective, and recovery is a long process of rebuilding a working system from scratch.

I'm thinking about people who are blind from birth, and then their eyes get fixed. You'd think they'd be happy, but normally they become depressed, because they still can't see. It takes years to learn to interpret the light on the retina as a three dimensional world, and they have to learn this as an adult, where normal people learned it as babies with highly flexible brains. Meanwhile, now that they've become aware of that maddening world, they can't ignore it.

November 15. Today I want to write about self-improvement. For a lot of skills, it seems like there are two kinds of people: those who understand the skill on such an intuitive level that they can't explain it, and those who don't understand it intuitively, and will never get it unless it's explained carefully. For example, I didn't learn to throw with my wrist until I was 30 and someone gave me explicit instruction. My athletic IQ is so low that I never would have figured that out on my own, and yet there are four year olds who pick it up without even thinking about it.

Back in January I wrote, "my point of emphasis for 2017 is micro-scale toughness." I'm not sure that I'm any better at it, but at least I can explain it better. Somewhere I read about a guy who was out in a sea kayak off Alaska when a storm hit. At one point a wave raised him high enough to see deadly waves dense to the horizon, and he thought, this is it, I'm going to die. But he refocused, and rode out the storm by repeatedly turning to face every wave that came at him, one wave at a time.

This is what life does to us every day. The difference is, modern society is pretty good at keeping us from dying, so when waves hit us sideways, we just get more and more traumatized.

Another metaphor: if you're a professional shortstop, and someone suddenly throws a baseball at you, it doesn't matter if you're at a funeral, on the toilet, anywhere, you're going to catch it, because you've practiced that move ten thousand times. If you fail to catch it, it will smack you in the face, and then you're weaker against the next ball.

Buddhism, in my meagre understanding, says to deal with pain by being fully aware of it as it arises, and then letting it go. To me that feels too passive. You have to see the pain coming, and go out and engage it with focused attention the moment that it hits.

I wonder if the main difference between happy and unhappy people is reaction time. But these are skills we can practice: to define every bad thing that happens as the new baseline, and to feel gratitude for every good thing that happens, and do these moves with increasing consistency and quickness.

On a tangent, when I try to think of examples of life's relentless tiny pains, I notice something. You miss a traffic light, your phone rings, that web page doesn't load, you forgot to pay that bill. These are all technological pains that did not exist in our ancestral environment. I fear a car crash, not because of the physical injury, but because I'll have to deal with insurance and repairs and other duties that are hellscapes of unexpected complications.

The blunder of modernity is to replace threats we understand, that can kill us, with threats we don't understand, that keep us alive to suffer.

November 13. If you want to keep up on all the sexual abuse stuff that's coming out, there's a new subreddit, The Weinstein Effect. I like Louis CK's apology because he understands that the core issue is power (even if his new movie fails to understand that). One thing the accusations have in common, is that if someone in a lower position tried the same shit on someone in a higher position, they would be fired.

We imagine these people are bad because they crossed the line between consent and coercion. But when almost the entire world is under authoritarian culture, where it's normal for some people to tell other people what to do, where it's normal for us to do what we're told even if we don't feel like it, then the line between consent and coercion is crossed so often that it almost doesn't exist. (Or, it's only carefully enforced in certain sensitive contexts.)

Once a culture has crossed the line into normalization of hierarchy, it's a constant temptation to cross the next line, between using a position of power for the good of the whole, and using it selfishly. And once that line has been crossed, it's tempting for selfish use of power to veer into sex acts.

I like to think, in a few thousand years, human culture will be so much improved that one person having any power over another will be a scandal.

November 10. On yesterday's subject, there's a subreddit thread with some good thoughts, including a link to this scientific article, Running Amok: A Modern Perspective on a Culture-Bound Syndrome.

A more poetic article on the Amok phenomenon, which I've linked to before: Every Five Seconds an Inkjet Printer Dies Somewhere. And an article on how anti-terror urban design can also make cities more livable, by physically blocking vehicles from pedestrian spaces.

November 9. Just a quick thought on the latest mass shooting. Despite the gunman's long history of violence, he was not in any FBI database. Meanwhile, I'm sure their database is full of harmless Muslims. The mistake they're making is to see the world as an ideological battlefield, in which the danger comes from beliefs. Really the danger comes from mental illness, and ideologies are just tacked-on rationalizations for crimes that people are going to do anyway when they get deep enough into pain and anger.

It's an easy mistake to make, because ideology is easier to track, to pin down, to wrap your head around. Mental illness is getting more common and more severe, and I'm not sure why. But it wouldn't surprise me if mass shootings become so normal that the deaths are almost invisible, like car crashes, and we only hear about the really big ones.

November 7. I just spent four days in Florida for Leigh Ann's brother's wedding. Her family is fun, we had a good time, and I did not bring my computer. Catching up, I see there was a lot of action on the subreddit, including this thoughtful article about Ted Kaczynski, Waiting for the End of the World.

I read two books on the trip, Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America by Cabeza de Vaca, and Earth Abides, the classic 1949 postapocalypse novel by George R. Stewart. It was ahead of its time in many ways, but Stewart makes a choice that seems strange to me: the protagonist is the only character in the entire novel who wants to rebuild civilization. Everyone else is content to live off abundant canned food and wild game, and human culture shifts toward the people you find in anthropology books, hunter-gatherers and horticulturists who have never encountered civilization.

To be fair, I believed this myself until around 2008: that our paleolithic ancestors were an evolutionary attractor, as stable as sharks. Now I think they were a stage in a steady and accelerating movement toward greater social and technological complexity, which has brought changes in human nature. So even after a global hard crash, given all the surviving materials and books, we would rebuild a high-tech society much faster than we did last time.

But just lately, now that I'm thinking in terms of a collective subconscious, I'm wondering if that's what it wants. Maybe part of our motivation to build this world was its novelty. Now if it crashes, we'll be like "been there, done that," and instead of doing the same kind of thing again, we'll turn our big brains to something so different, that when space aliens do it, we see no evidence of their existence.

There's another thing in Earth Abides that never occurred to me: even the survivors of a deep crash might die out from shock, because they just can't wrap their heads around a post-crash world. But in this way, we're much better off than our grandparents, because we've all seen postapocalypse fiction. We'll be like, "This isn't what I expected from playing Fallout or watching The Walking Dead, but it's close enough that I can figure out what to do."

November 1. I will probably not be posting again until the middle of next week. Today, a bunch of stray links.

Critical Shower Thoughts is a subreddit for ambitious questions and answers on various political and philosophical subjects.

And a few more from reddit. This comment tells the story of how Keith Jarrett recorded a classic solo piano album when he was forced to adapt to a crappy piano. It reminds me of another musical story, from the PBS Rock and Roll documentary, where some other band found the exact mixing board that New Order used for their landmark hit "Blue Monday", and they expected it to be intuitive and easy to use, but it turned out to be painful and difficult. There's a saying, "Genius emerges from constraint."

An inspiring thread about secret employee nests.

And a more inspiring thread, What's the story about the person you once met in a day and you never saw again, but marked you for the rest of your life?

On the subject of how much room there is for the world to get better, The scientists persuading terrorists to spill their secrets, showing how winning trust works much better than torture. I think the reason there's still so much torture, is that the torturers enjoy it. Also, in a dictatorship, the dictator enjoys the thought that his enemies are suffering -- and in a democracy, sometimes the public enjoys it.

Another example of how much room there is for the world to get better, The Grain That Tastes Like Wheat, but Grows Like a Prairie Grass.

And a great trippy gif, The view from under the tap.

October 31. I'm breaking from my normal MWF posting schedule because I'll be traveling this weekend and not posting Friday or Monday, and also because today is Halloween and I want to continue on woo-woo stuff.

A reader sends this great Cormac McCarthy essay, The Kekulé Problem. Kekulé was the chemist who dreamed the circular structure of the benzene molecule, and the problem is: why did his subconscious show him a snake eating its tail, instead of saying the words "it's a circle"? From there, McCarthy launches into some fascinating thoughts about language and the brain and human prehistory, including an obvious idea that hadn't occurred to me: the realm of the human subconscious is the realm of animal intelligence.

To this, I would add the disreputable idea that animal intelligence has deeper roots in something collective or universal. I've said before that I think our subconscious minds are linked, and now I imagine them linked on a level that also includes all other biological life.

And I have another question: Why is the subconscious subconscious? Why are we unaware of these deeper levels, so much that their very existence is controversial? Does it make sense to ask what it's like to be your subconscious mind? I think it does, as much as it makes sense to ask what it's like to be a cat. So why are we separate from that being?

I think it's because our conscious minds are embryonic. They (we) are an appendage not yet fully developed, and as we develop, we will gain more understanding of the mind beneath us, and our place in it, just as babies discover the physical world.

What kind of world is it? In horror fiction, the occult depths are hostile and predatory, while in New Age writing, they're soft and warm. I have a vision that I call Happy Cthulhu. Suppose that H.P. Lovecraft got an unusually clear glimple of a deeper reality, but its riotous aliveness overwhelmed his Victorian mindset, and he projected evil on something benign. It's like when you hear a challenging song for the first time, and it sounds like terrible noise, but after enough listens, it becomes beautiful.

October 30. Another link from the subreddit, a long article covering space aliens from many angles, including how they've been imagined, what they might really be like, and why we haven't found any yet. The latter is called Fermi's Paradox, and I've developed an unpopular solution, lately enhanced by the argument in this article that matter is like software and consciousness is like hardware.

I think we will never find alien life more advanced than lichens and mushrooms, because in terms of consciousness, Earth is the center, and this physical universe is just for us, building itself outward as we examine it, through some combination of our own beliefs, and deeper constraints that we don't understand yet. We will not find another universe-constructing consciousness ("intelligent aliens") because they'll be at the mind-center of their own universe.

When these universes touch, we don't recognize it because we are culturally blinded by our philosophical division between objective and subjective. An alternate model, that better fits our experience, is to view objective and subjective as the unreachable poles of a spectrum. (You could say nothing is completely real or unreal.) Only within our own physical universe can we approach the objective pole, and find proof, which means that almost all perspectives can see something pretty much the same way.

Contact between universes is by nature so far from the objective pole that it can never be proven, but also far enough from the subjective pole that we find correlations and agreements in our experience. Basically, alien contact is what we call "the paranormal", and it happens all the time, but our intellectual authorities don't recognize it because they hold inter-universe experience to the same near-objective standards as intra-universe experience. (See George Hansen's The Trickster and the Paranormal for a book-length survey of the idea that phenomena can actively hide from proof.)

Also on the subject of aliens, thanks Jed for sending me a pdf of a 1966 novel by Jack Vance, oddly published when he was the same age that I am now. He wanted to call it Nopalgarth but the publisher called it "The Brains of Earth." I don't want to spoil the plot, but the basic idea is brilliant: that our entire species could have a mental parasite that exists on a level we're not aware of, and they work together to influence us for their own benefit. This fits the "bubble" phenomenon I wrote about a couple weeks ago, where certain personalities can consistently attract the same kind of circumstance with no conscious awareness of how it's happening.

October 26. Video posted yesterday to the subreddit: Yuval Noah Harari on the myths we need to survive. This is the first I've heard of this guy, and he seems to be a major new public intellectual. I like what he says about human history, but I'm not sure about his framing of stories.

It's funny because on the one hand, he's really good at seeing through stories and breaking them down, like how the Indian caste system keeps the descendants of ancient conquerors in power for no good reason. On the other hand (and I hope I'm wrong) he never says, "If everyone in the world had my awareness of stories, we would no longer do such stupid things." What I'm afraid he's saying is: "Ordinary people can never be the masters of stories like us smart people, so it's our job to make sure they have the right stories."

I imagine a society where all citizens are fully aware of their own mental machinery, where someone like Hitler has zero followers, where stories are like tools that we pick up and put down at will, but our default state is to be empty-handed. Under these conditions, I think a good society would not only be possible -- it would be inevitable.

This is part of my general shift in focus over the years, from social rules to deep psychology. I think almost everyone in the world is still mentally ill from thousands of years of authoritarian culture. I think demonic possession, while not literally true, is a useful metaphor for most of us. I think if somehow we could all get really good therapy, then in only a hundred years our descendants would look back at us in horror -- and they would still have a lot of room to get better.

Barely related, this was a good day on Ask Reddit. My two favorite threads: High functioning depressed people, how do you get through it? And a repeat of a classic question, What secret could really fuck your life up if it got out?

October 25. The other day I wrote, "It's like there's a connection between underground culture and absolutist thinking." That's basically the same thing I've called "ideological thinking" and "mythical thinking" in the past. A more precise definition would be: stories about the world that are seductive because 1) they're very simple, and 2) they're value-loaded. General examples would be "This thing is completely bad/good," or "This thing is the cause/cure of everything bad." Specific examples would be "Religion is the root of all evil" or "This parasite purge will cure all diseases."

I don't want to say this kind of thinking is completely bad. It can be a valuable gateway to enter a new subject, and then you just have to not get stuck there, but continue to explore the subject's depth and complexity. The reason it's connected to underground culture is that people on the fringe have no power. They don't find out their beliefs are too simple because they never get a chance to test them, and nobody corrects them because nobody cares what they think.

Absolutist thinking is also common at the other extreme, among people who have too much power. They don't find out their policies are harmful because the harm happens out of their sight, and nobody dares to tell them they're wrong.

So here's a speculative theory of social collapse: As economic and political power becomes more unequal, more people are at the extremes, where they can get away with seductively simple beliefs. So these beliefs become more common, more influential, and more destructive.

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 - ?