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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January 31. Bunch o' links. This important essay was off the internet last year while Strike Magazine re-organized, and now it's back. David Graeber: On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

To Save Drowning People, Ask Yourself, What Would Light Do? It's about finding the quickest path to get through one medium where you move quickly and then another where you move slowly. Somehow, light just "knows" the best way to bend. Even weirder, dogs and ants show the same ability, and we don't know how they know.

There's some good stuff in this Reddit thread: What conspiracy theory do you 100% buy into and why?

With Fungi in the Mix, Concrete Can Fill Its Own Cracks. I've posted about this before, because I love the idea that technology can get better by being more like nature.

More good news: Washington State Bill Would Make it Illegal to Sell Electronics That Don't Have Easily Replaceable Batteries.

Finally, an article about bad dinosaur art that shows how silly other animals would look if their skeletons were interpreted like dinosaurs usually are.

January 29. Three links on depression. With teen mental health deteriorating over five years, there's a likely culprit. Yep, it's smartphones.

But wait! The real causes of depression have been discovered, and they're not what you think. Of course, it's childhood trauma and a society that keeps us powerless.

Does depression have an evolutionary purpose?

Andrews had noted that the physical and mental symptoms of depression appeared to form an organized system. There is anhedonia, the lack of pleasure or interest in most activities. There's an increase in rumination, the obsessing over the source of one's pain. There's an increase in certain types of analytical ability. And there's an uptick in REM sleep, a time when the brain consolidates memories.

Andrews sees these symptoms as a nonrandom assortment betraying evolutionary design. And that design's function, he argues, is to pull us away from the normal pursuits of life and focus us on understanding or solving the underlying problem that triggered the depressive episode.

What if the underlying problem is our whole society, which has been made incomprehensible by technology, so that no amount of personal rumination can solve it? Then depression is actually a political move, a mass revolt.

January 25. Two new articles about stuff that's wrong with the world that we take for granted. The good guy/bad guy myth (thanks alpharainbow) is about the strangeness and newness of popular fiction in which one side is good and the other side is evil. There are so many angles to this subject. One is to point out that good vs evil is a really old idea in theology, going back to Zoroastrianism. That flips the question: Why did it take so long for this seductive way of thinking to take over fiction?

I think it's because fiction used to be made by weird outsiders, and it reflected their complex and adaptable thinking. When fiction went mass-market, it was inevitable that it would turn into whatever candy the audience demanded. Update: there are some good comments about this article in the Hacker News thread.

Why We're Underestimating American Collapse (thanks Erik). The author argues that three American trends -- school shootings, the opioid dieoff, and people living in cars -- are all extremely strange and tragic compared to other times and places.

The author's attitude is righteous ranting, but I'm curious: Why exactly is this happening in America and nowhere else? I think it has something to do with America's generations of dominance on the global stage, which has led to a national value system of callous competition -- something that only makes sense if you're powerful, but even powerless citizens have picked up the vibe.

January 24. Continuing from the last post, some solutions to psychosocial collapse, and some doubts.

The Psychedelic Renaissance is an ambitious and probably over-optimistic post from accountt1234.

This Reddit comment is the story of a suicidal guy who renewed his zest for life by taking a dangerous cave dive and almost dying. The catch is, it wasn't permanent. Now he has the urge to keep going to the edge of death every year. So this is not a realistic strategy unless we're okay with a lot of people dying. Should we be?

Linked on the subreddit, A bridge to meta-rationality vs civilizational collapse, and a comment thread where 2handband challenges lukey to explain the ideas better. The basic idea is one that you can also find in Ken Wilber books: old-timey humans had an inadequate way of seeing the world, which was largely overturned by modern rational thinking -- which has its own serious flaws and limits, so now we need to go to some next stage of thinking that we can't quite imagine yet.

I like this, but what if it's wrong? It's suspicious that people who believe in the "meta-rational" or "trans-rational" are all extremely rational and not at all pre-rational. Can you imagine Ken Wilber painting his naked chest and cheering at a football game? Maybe the answer is as simple as that -- and this is an old idea, to integrate ways of being that we already have. Maybe what we're looking for is something that was already understood by pre-Socratic philosophers, and since then we've just been going in intellectual circles to avoid the greater challenge of putting it into practice.

January 22. New academic article (thanks Jeff), Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time (pdf). The conclusion argues that rising perfectionism is related to "higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation" and other mental illness.

My guess is that perfectionism is not some kind of deep cause, but just one more symptom of some process that we don't understand yet. This week-old reddit thread is a massive compilation of symptoms: What's something that's bothering you that you need to get off your chest, but are afraid to talk to someone about?

I want to call this process "psychosocial collapse", so I googled that phrase, and the top results are all from books. One of them is fascinating! It's a 1978 sci-fi story by Barrington J. Bayley, "The Problem of Morley's Emission". There's actually a four-part audio version on YouTube, and this is my condensation from the middle of part 3:

The Theory of the Social Black Hole: if continued additions are made to force fields, they become so powerful as to create weird and abnormal states of matter, such as the neutron star and the black hole. Social scientists have speculated on the results of endlesssly adding to human populations, since the Social Energy Field also contains a gravitating principle: population tends toward centers.

There being no theoretical limit to the size a population may ultimately assume, it has already been proposed to build a vast artificial sphere several hundred million miles in diameter, to trap all solar energy so as to power and accomodate a truly titanic civilization. Leaving aside considerations of physical mass and gravity, the question that arises is what would happen to the SEF inside such a sphere, if it were to fill up entirely with human population.

It is believed that a condition of 'psychosocial collapse' would occur toward the center. Individual and collective mentalities would assume unimaginable relationships. Reality would bear no resemblance to our perception of it. The whole of mankind within the sphere would ultimately be drawn into a 'social black hole', and would be totally unable to perceive or conceive of an external physical universe.

January 19. Fun and surprisingly deep reddit thread, What is a very minor thing you do in secret, but people might look at you differently if they found out?

And for the weekend, some psychedelic music. From England in 1969, an impressively noisy jam, Arzachel - Metempsychosis.

From Japan in 1971, Flower Travellin' Band - Satori Pt 1. I would tag this as prog metal more than heavy psych, because it's so structured and riff-based.

From England in 1971, Hawkwind - You Shouldn't Do That. When I first heard this as a teenager it sounded like noise, and now it sounds like almost the best jam of all time.

And from Japan in 2008, my new favorite instrumental, Nisennenmondai - Mirrorball. It took me several listens to understand it. The dominant instrument is some kind of keyboard or guitar, which starts with a simple riff and builds to a hypnotic groove, and once it gets there, it holds the center while drums, bass, and lead guitar all swerve around it like birds.

January 18. Yesterday on the subreddit, A computer program is writing great, original works of classical music, and here's a short comment thread.

After I posted about this subject a week ago, I thought about quality. What is it? The book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about a guy who gets so deep into that question that he goes insane and independently derives Taoism. My latest idea is that quality can be viewed as a message.

This is easy to see with music. Suppose you play a song that sounds great to you, with no thought of whether it sounds good to anyone else. The message is more than "this is what I like" -- the message is the pleasure that you get from listening, and if someone else gets that pleasure, then it's like you've encrypted that feeling in sound, and the listener has decrypted it.

At the other extreme, if you play a song that sounds boring to you, but you know other people will love it, it's like you've hacked their musical quality receptors. It's still a message, but it's less like having a conversation, and more like plugging in a code that makes an ATM spit out cash.

Quality-as-message also works with seemingly objective stuff. A reliable car is higher quality than one that breaks down a lot -- unless you're so rich that repair costs are nothing, and you want to look good and go fast. The makers of those cars, and the buyers, are communicating a value system.

Another example, The Cult of the Costco Surfboard, where a cheap surfboard spawned a subculture based on fun stuff that is not being done with expensive surfboards.

That composing computer is working within the value system of respectable classical music. Over the last few years, I've been getting into "hard listening" -- music that sounds bad at first, but eventually it sounds really good. I'm not saying computers can never do that, but I'd like to see them try.

January 15. I have no smart ideas today, so I'll do some film reviews. Last night we watched the new Blade Runner, and I loved the dreamy slow pace and the visuals. It was like if Andrei Tarkovsky had a big budget. But I didn't like much else. The story looked promising at first, but it got more and more clunky and finally fell into the rut of a by-the-numbers boss battle and an ending that pretended at emotional depth that it never earned. I didn't have a clear sense of anyone's motivation. The replicant underground is looking for that thing, and so is the evil corporation, but what is the difference in their intentions, and how exactly are they working together? If Jared Leto needs more replicants, why does he keep killing them for no good reason? Why don't the garbage thugs attack the orphanage? And what's up with the bees? Where do they even get nectar in a radioactive dead city? The bees, like everyone in this movie, are not grounded in any ecology -- they're just there to look cool.

Last week we watched the new It, and it's impressively scary, but I just don't like the way Stephen King relentlessly jerks the emotions of the audience with cartoon evil and good. The Harry Potter books are almost as bad. Once I notice that I'm being pushed to feel a certain way, my attention shifts from the characters to the storyteller's lack of subtlety. I mean, you expect a killer sewer clown to be pure evil, but even King's human villains are just scary masks lacking any inner life.

The best horror film of 2017 is Get Out, and I also want to plug my favorite horror screenwriter, Stephen Volk. He wrote a great 2015 miniseries, Midwinter of the Spirit, a brilliant 2011 film, The Awakening, and is best known for the 1992 classic Ghostwatch.

Two of my recent favorites are both action films from 2014. One is John Wick, a fun masterpiece of fight choreography, and the other is Edge of Tomorrow. It's just like Groundhog Day, except that instead of Bill Murray exploring a small town, it's Tom Cruise fighting aliens. Trust me, it's better than you think. Despite good reviews and massive marketing, it underperformed in American theaters, probably because people like me assumed it was stupid, while action audiences found it hard to wrap their heads around.

January 11. Bunch o' links. First, Legends of the Ancient Web is a text version of a great talk on the history of radio and what it might tell us about the internet. "In just a few years, radio completes the transition from an eclectic group of participatory amateurs, to a mass audience of passive consumers and a professional class of producers."

Someone has edited Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from minor key to major key, plus some other changes to make it sound more like a pop hit: Nirvirna - Teen Sprite. Of course the original was already a huge hit, so I'm wondering if this version, back in 1991, would have been more or less popular, and more or less influential. This also touches on one of my favorite subjects: how much of artistic quality is subject to logic? Could a sufficiently powerful computer make better music than Mozart or Led Zeppelin?

I think it will turn out that computers are most valuable, not on their own, but serving humans in just the right way. For example: How more than 2500 virtual reality reps helped transform Case Keenum's game. If you don't follow the NFL, Case Keenum has been playing at a level that's unprecedented for a third string quarterback in his first year with a team.

Albert Hoffman tells the story of the first LSD trip. Despite being really careful in the laboratory, he got an accidental dose leading to "an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors." Then he intentionally took what he thought was "the smallest quantity that could be expected to produce some effect," which we would now call two or three hits, and tripped even harder.

Why People Walked Differently in Medieval Times. Basically they came down on the balls of their feet because their shoes weren't good enough to come down on their heels. It's funny that we've now gone full circle, and I wear really good shoes that encourage me to come down on the balls of my feet to protect my leg joints.

Finally, some good news: Britain's Next Megaproject: A Coast-to-Coast Forest.

January 9. Thinking more about yesterday's subject, there's an old cliche in collapsism, "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." The message is obvious: stop caring about the ship and get people on lifeboats. The tricky thing is mapping the metaphor.

I used to think the ship was the entire modern way of life, the iceberg was technological unsustainability, and the lifeboats were low-tech subsistence kills. Now I think the ship is a whole fleet of nation-states, the iceberg is psychological unsustainability, the sinking may take centuries, and there will be many kinds of lifeboats, some of them not yet even knowable.

So that means it's not yet time to abandon the ship. We can still work within the system to make a better world -- it's just that the system is no longer the thing that finds the solutions. At best, it's the thing that moderates the transition, that keeps people alive and sane to find solutions too flexible for bureaucracy, and doesn't get too much in their way.

January 8. Losing Faith in the State, Some Mexican Towns Quietly Break Away. You might guess this is a good thing, but if you read the article, these independent city-states are mostly terrible places to live, and they're all unstable.

The Hacker News comment thread links to this article, The Twin Insurgency, which argues that states are threatened from below by crime gangs, and from above by the global elite. The most interesting idea is that hardly anyone is trying to change the world by taking over the government. Instead, everyone is trying to carve out zones where they get the benefits of the state without the costs.

Lately I've been watching lots of nature documentaries, so now I'm seeing all the old institutions as giant dead animals on which predators and scavengers gather to feast. I don't see how this is not going to get worse. And I find that I've lost the urge to tell a compelling story: to blame it all on one thing, or to offer a solution. I used to see human society as a sandbox, where it makes sense to talk about what we can do to change it. Now I see it as a landslide, an unfolding disaster where we're only trying to survive.

January 5. I haven't had any interesting thoughts lately, but here's a great bit I just read in Alasdair Gray's novel Lanark:

God, you see, is a word. It is the word for everything not speaking when someone says 'I think.' And by Propper's Law of Inverse Exclusion (which enables a flea in a matchbox to declare itself jailor of the universe) every single 'I think' has intimate knowledge of the surface of what it is not. But as every thinker reflects a different surface of what he isn't, and as God is our word for the whole, it follows that all agreement about God is based on misunderstanding.

January 3. For the new year, some links about changing times:

Do civilisations collapse? It's a long article with a main point that's easy to summarize: States collapse, while cultures adapt and survive.

Why Teens Aren't Partying Anymore. The article is all about social media, but the smarter Hacker News comment thread looks at other factors like an increasingly restrictive culture.

French chef gives up a Michelin star. At first I'm thinking this is about the vanishing middle class. But when I read about the expense and waste that's required for even a single Michelin star, I'm thinking the upper class needs to vanish too.

Chess's New Best Player Is A Fearless, Swashbuckling Algorithm:

Unlike other top programs, which receive extensive input and fine-tuning from programmers and chess masters, drawing on the wealth of accumulated human chess knowledge, AlphaZero is exclusively self-taught. It learned to play solely by playing against itself, over and over and over... But maybe it's more illustrative to say that AlphaZero played like neither a human nor a computer, but like an alien.

January 1, 2018. Instead of new year's resolutions, I call them "points of emphasis" because that way no amount of failure is discouraging. Last night I decided on three: 1) to notice unnecessary muscle tension and relax it; 2) to put more attention on my gut; 3) to make a mental note of where I put something down that I'll need to find later.

These are all about metacognition, about building an internal perspective that can manage where my attention is and what it's doing. Last night, walking around (on drugs) I was thinking: with enough metacognitive stamina, I could do fun experiments, like walk for ten minutes with attention on footsoles and peripheral vision, or sit by the stream and focus on that sound and the moon. Meditation books are all about focusing on the breath, but that's like a safety net, or a ladder, to get to focusing on things that are more interesting.

Also, here's Leigh Ann's playlist of her favorite songs of 2017. I don't have a Spotify account, so here's a simple txt file with a list of the songs, including three that are not on Spotify, including maybe the catchiest, Ty Segall - Thank You Mr K.

December 30. Interesting Reddit thread: What's a sensation that you're unsure if other people experience?

And a bit more music for the holidays. A reader sends Capac - O Holy Night. I don't think it's a cover, more like a tribute, but this is really good heavy ambient.

And I love this raw and beautiful rendition of Silent Night by Auburn football players.

December 27. Like everyone else, I feel like I'm on vacation this week, so I'll just post some links:

In Japan, Small Children Take the Subway and Run Errands Alone. It's because their culture is built on greater trust, and also greater responsibility toward strangers and shared spaces.

Also from Citylab, The Backlash Against Piped Music. It turns out that more people prefer quiet in public spaces, but businesses are slow to adapt.

Philosophy Needs a New Definition. This is not controversial, but it's a nice argument for a particular case of a general truth: that the academic world is too clean and cautious, and anything really valuable is going to be messy.

The Case Against Reading Everything. The point is, advice for writers is never universally helpful, and even though everyone says to read widely, some writers will do better getting obsessed with one thing. This is also true for other kinds of creative work: Jeff Mangum, when he was doing his best stuff with Neutral Milk Hotel, said that he barely even listened to music other than Robert Wyatt.

December 25. It's funny that I was just writing about the power of intentional badness, because it's time for my Christmas tradition: posting The Abominable O Holy Night. The singer, Steve Mauldin, was consciously imitating mistakes he'd heard from bad singers, and on top of that, no song inspires singers to really let go like O Holy Night. Check out this O Holy Night Metal Cover that Gene posted to the subreddit.

This new subreddit thread has some great comments about how different we all are in levels of perception and skill: some people can see colors 100 times better than other people, and olympic athletes have won gold medals with less than 30 hours of practice.

I have a terrible ear for pitch -- when I started playing guitar as a teenager, I could barely tell that notes a half step apart were even different. But I believe I have a good ear for timbre, for the quality of vibration that makes, say, a trumpet and an electric guitar sound different playing the same note. Talent is when you don't understand why everyone else is bad at something, and I don't understand why no one else can hear that Joanna Newsom does something with her voice on The Milk-Eyed Mender that she has not done on any other recording.

As a listener, for the last five years I've been chasing sounds that are increasingly raw and weird, and in my own creative work, this year I wrote a novel that went so hard into my own personal taste that no one else might ever get it. Will this become more common? Lukey's comment mentions "the frontiers of human potential," and I wonder if the long tail of new technology is encouraging those frontiers to spread in a greater number of more unusual directions.

December 23. I want to take another shot at yesterday's subject, because if you don't read the linked article or read the post carefully, it sounds like I'm talking about jobs, about a world where people live for work that's obviously work.

That's not it at all. It's about a culture where the mindset of work has swallowed every activity, so even if you're unemployed, or on vacation, or playing with your kids, you're still thinking, "What's the right way to do this?" or "How is this an investment in a better future?" or "If I post this on social media, how will people judge me?" Even if an unconditional basic income leads to a 100% leisure utopia, we might still not know how to have fun.

Again, in this comment thread, you can see the tension between creativity that is done for some benefit and feels like a chore, and creativity that's so intrinsically enjoyable that it doesn't have to lead to anything.

As I say in my own comment, that's not easy. Apart from any technical skill, you need the psychological skill of letting go. I've seen this advice for fiction writers: that if you're having trouble getting started, try writing something intentionally bad. It works because objective quality is oppressive, it's about what you should do and not what you feel like doing, and willful badness breaks you from that hold and opens exciting doorways. But then you have to keep going, to stay in that unconstrained mindspace, step after step, without falling down.

That's also the right way to live -- but in life, intentional badness can be severely punished, so it's that much harder to break the hold of always doing the right thing. It seems to be especially hard right now, with both the left and right stacking up rules and punishments, and with the tech world making more paths that start out fun but trap your mind.

December 22. A link from the subreddit, If work dominated your every moment would life be worth living? The author argues that total work, a dystopian thought experiment, "is unmistakably close to our own world." We're always doing stuff because it's useful or productive, even play becomes a task, and "there is concomitantly the looming question: Is this the best use of my time?"

I think the author himself is caught in this trap, because his description of the world inside the trap is detailed and spot-on, while his description of the world outside the trap, in the final paragraph, is insipid and unhelpful, as if he's never been there and doesn't know the way. To be fair, it's the hardest problem in modern life. Obviously it starts with letting go of expectations and just doing what feels good in the moment. But that path is also full of traps, and technology keeps creating more of them.

This subject reminds me of a saying from Buddhism: "It takes 20 years to become enlightened -- or if you really push it, 30 years."

Related: a thread on the subreddit, Is anyone here compelled to be creative even if there's no audience? The comments show that even creativity is hard to pull from the realm of work into the realm of fun.

December 19. I'm not in the mood for big ideas this week, so I'll write about some personal stuff. For more than a year I've felt, off and on, like life is an uphill struggle, like I'm washing an endless sink of dirty dishes and can never get in the flow. I thought it might be cannabis withdrawal, but other people who report that symptom have been smoking massive amounts for years, not vaping a thimbleful over three days. And a seven week break this summer didn't fix it.

Now I think it has something to do with dopamine. Since I slashed internet use, I haven't had a bad episode. It's not just that I'm spending less time online -- I'm also trying to notice when I'm about to click a link or a bookmark in anticipation of a reward, and catching myself, and not clicking it.

I'm also trying to move some of my attention from my head to my body. I've never had much "gut" intelligence, and it occurs to me, developing it might be as simple as literally focusing my attention on my gut. So I've been trying that, and I've also been working with a balance board.

The balance board turns out to be a great metaphor for something much harder. I'm working toward following this rule: Never get emotionally invested in anything happening on a screen. So I was watching a football game, and trying to not care which side was winning, and it's exactly like trying not to lean the board on one edge or the other. The funny thing is, sports announcers always keep this balance, but viewers almost never keep it, even though they have the constant example of the announcers.

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 - November 2017
December 2017 - ?