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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February 23. For the weekend, music. This post is an upgrade of a comment I just made on this subreddit thread (thanks Marills59) about Big Star, the legendary band who were loved by critics and other musicians, but totally flopped commercially. This is usually blamed on their record company, but I think it had more to do with their music itself, and their timing.

There was a brief window in the late 1960's when popular audiences wanted to be challenged, and somebody like Jimi Hendrix could get his foot in the door. By 1972, people wanted to hear stuff like the Carpenters, who did have an undertone of sadness in songs like Superstar, but smothered it with super-smooth production. Meanwhile Alex Chilton was going the other direction.

In 1967 he had a huge hit with the Box Tops, The Letter, a perfect gem of songwriting, but in that video you can see him being intentionally sloppy with the lip sync, already pushing back against the bullshit that comes with fame.

Big Star's first album had great catchy songs, in a power pop style not far from what Badfinger was already doing, but the music was too good, too dense and raw and personal in its beauty, for casual listeners to go there.

So Alex Chilton doubled down. Compare this song from their first album, The Ballad of El Goodo, with this song from their second, What's Going Ahn. It's like the sound got drunk. The notes are more dissonant, the rhythms more sprawling, the sadness deeper.

When their second album also flopped, Chilton doubled down again. In Kangaroo, it's like he set the Big Star sound on fire and watched it burn, with rising swirls of luminous noise and Jody Stephens' drums not even keeping rhythm but slapping accents on Chilton's dissipated strumming.

If you like Kangaroo, I know one other song with the same sound, from 1992, The Garbage and the Flowers - Carousel.

February 21. Posted today on the subreddit, a smart new article about Theodor Adorno's critique of popular culture. I don't agree with all of it, but it has some good ideas:

What does it mean to lack aesthetic freedom? For Adorno, this is about freedom in experiencing, interpreting and understanding artworks. This freedom requires an artwork to give us space and time to inhabit it, and to experience it as a unified whole. However, popular culture has lost its ability, Adorno claims, to create these integrated, unified wholes. Instead, works are now being produced that are a loose collection of moments experienced in a rapid and disconnected series.

In my own struggles with motivation, I've noticed that my consciousness is like a vehicle transmission, where it takes a lot of mental energy to shift between "gears" -- which might represent different kinds of activities, or different speeds. Some people keep super-busy, even by taking on unnecessary tasks, just because they don't know how to function in slow mode -- if they slow down, they stall. So it makes sense that we've evolved popular entertainment that moves fast and can be enjoyed in disconnected bits.

The article also mentions predictability:

When the opening scene of a film shows someone waking up in a messy bedroom, we are reasonably sure that this is our main character, and that when the alarm rings that character will wake up worried about being late for something... We are put to work in organising, checking and filing the moments of the film as it passes by... engaged in the very sort of classification and sorting that characterises the world of work we thought we were escaping from.

For the opposite of this, I recommend Terry Gilliam's Tideland. And I'm also thinking about my own recent fiction, and why people find it so hard to read despite having popular tropes and perfectly normal patterns of grammar and plot. It's partly because I try to keep it surprising, but mostly it's because my style is extremely low-gear. My goal is to have every word do something important, but that means you have to read it word by word to get it.

Music is different from fiction, because we can read at any speed, while our listening speed is fixed. My fiction style is about narrowing of focus, but Adorno likes music that demands widening of focus to hold the whole thing at once, and only then does it make sense. Here's a challenging example -- even after I was obsessed with this band, it took me a long time to understand this song, the Stairway to Heaven of psychedelic folk: Big Blood - Secret Garden.

February 20. I have no ideas this week, and also a distaste for writing about what's wrong with the world. So here's a fun article, Rediscovering the Blazingly Bright Colors of Ancient Sculptures. That archer's pants are full-on psychedelic, and it makes me wonder what ancient music was like.

February 16. Last weekend (using some of a donated Paypal balance) I bought the game Inside a Star-Filled Sky. That link is a review, and you can buy it here for $12.

I don't enjoy the shoot 'em up gameplay, but the big idea is brilliant: worlds within worlds, with no end in either direction, and the narrower/lower levels are easier, while the wider/higher levels are harder. So if you're bored, you can awaken to a more challenging level, and if you're struggling, you can go inside yourself to make adjustments.

Why can't life work the same way? One difference is that life contains many challenges, some that are too easy and some that are too hard, depending on who you are. I'd like to move to a world with a ten hour work week, a global 30mph speed limit, and a social culture where everyone says exactly what they mean.

But there is one place where I go out of my way to make life harder: listening to music. Over on my favorite songs page, I've just put together an "autobiography" of what I've liked over the years, and lately I've been chasing weirdness so hard that my gateway to classical music is Beethoven's notoriously difficult Great Fugue.

Now, I'm not just gobbling up any crazy music -- I'm scouting a particular path, but still, there's something driving me to challenge myself. This raises a general question: Most of us have some area where we like to seek greater difficulty. How realistic is it to pick out that attitude, and apply it to other things?

February 14. So last week I was watching the Olympics opening ceremony, and the costumed dancers reminded me of wild animals in a nature documentary, like this Blue Planet excerpt, Predators Attack Fish Bait Ball. But the animals are much better dancers! The humans are well-drilled and mechanically synchronized, but the animals are making it up as they go, and moving with exciting beauty that reveals greater beauty the deeper you look.

Humans approach that in some of the events, especially relay speed skating. But what would it be like, if a hundred people put in a thousand hours practicing increasingly complex improvised movement? How much room do we have to get better?

For Valentine's day, an article about the world's most romantic postbox, a tree in Germany where people send and find love letters.

And a great song about breakups, The Old 97s - Valentine.

February 12. Doom! This new article predicts an information apocalypse: "Technologies that can be used to enhance and distort what is real are evolving faster than our ability to understand and control or mitigate it." So fake news is still in its infancy.

My first thought is that people will just stop caring what's real, and the article covers this and has a term for it: reality apathy. It also reminds me of the saying, coined in the novel Alamut and popularized by the Assassin's Creed video game: "Nothing is true; everything is permitted."

My next thought is much weirder, because I've studied the paranormal enough that I already don't believe in truth. I think objective and subjective are theoretical poles on a spectrum, and you can never quite get all the way to either. On the near-objective end, a few years back the metal cylinder that defines the kilogram changed its weight and nobody knows why. On the near-subjective end, even our dreams are anchored in a shared social reality.

In the New Age movement, you can find the idea that physical reality is 100% created by human belief. That's silly, but in this context it leads to a crazy thought experiment, where the information apocalypse is not about people being wrong about what's true, but about a fragmentation of truth itself. Flat-earthers might break away into an alternate world where you can actually fall off the edge.

I'm not joking, just exaggerating. I think reality is some kind of compromise between matter, human consciousness, and levels of mind we're not aware of, and it need not be universally consistent. In the coming decades I can see humanity diverging into internally consistent worlds that can no longer be reconciled. Eventually, through technological collapse or technological sophistication, these reality factions might not even be able to communicate.

February 9. Today, all drugs. First, some good news: Maine becomes first state to protect marijuana use outside of work. And thanks Doug for this guide to drug combinations.

This subreddit thread about psychedelics has some great comments, especially the big one at the top from lukey, who goes into detail about how drugs affect people differently, and how sometimes getting the best out of a drug takes practice.

Also on the subreddit, thanks MakeTotalDestr0i for linking to this smart blog, Knowing Less, which has several good posts about tripping, including Permanent Mental Effects from LSD.

Personally, my one LSD trip was a fizzle (I plan to try again), and the other day, after I praised mushrooms, they smacked me down. I took another microdose, and it had the opposite of the usual effect -- instead of feeling clear-headed and energized, all week long I've felt unmotivated and stupid.

What am I hoping psychedelics will do for me? I'm hoping they'll make some deep and subtle change -- or show me how to make the change myself -- after which life will feel less like climbing a mountain of mud, and more like sailing across a clear ocean. This is not unrealistic -- lots of people have described that kind of change, including Aella's post above.

I'm also thinking back to accountt1234's Psychedelic Renaissance post, and wondering: What would be the role of drugs in a really good human society, a world that we don't have to overthrow, or escape from, or make tolerable, because it's already completely on our side?

February 7. I have nothing important to write about today, so I'll write about sports. The Philadelphia Eagles just won their first ever Superbowl, after being underdogs in all three postseason games. This happened because their elite young quarterback, Carson Wentz, got injured, and his replacement, Nick Foles, looks, acts, and usually plays like a career backup. He did have one season with an incredible touchdown-interception ratio, but everyone thought it was a fluke, and their suspicions were confirmed when he reverted to mediocrity.

Then Eagles coach Doug Pederson thought, what if it was something about the offensive scheme? In Nick Foles' great year, he was playing under coach Chip Kelly, who used a run-pass option, where the quarterback reads the defense after the play starts to decide whether to hand the ball off or throw it. In football, as in everything, new ideas come from the fringes and gradually work their way to the highest levels. Chip Kelly brought the run-pass option from college to the NFL, but he was not able to evolve it week by week to stay ahead of defensive coaches, so he washed out of the pros and back to college. But Pederson's more robust RPO was exactly what Foles needed to thrive.

Even the Patriots' all-time-great coach, Bill Belichick, underestimated Foles. He decided to bench Malcolm Butler, his second best pass defender, for someone stronger and heavier, to force the Eagles away from the run and toward the pass. For more details, see this article.

February 5. A couple weeks ago I cast some gloom on the social benefits of psychedelics, and later deleted that bit, because there's so much we haven't tried yet. In prehistory, shamans had access to only a few things growing locally, and then through most of history, psychedelics were suppressed or unknown. It's possible that just in the last 20 years, more opportunities to trip have opened up, for more people, than in all previous time. And that trend is accelerating.

Of course we're going to make terrible mistakes, both with underground drugs and prescription drugs, while we sort them out and learn how to use them. But it's also an exciting time for experimentation and learning.

I'm experimenting with two of the oldest drugs, cannabis and psilocybin, in small doses, and I still find myself doing things I haven't read about. I've learned that psilocybin does one thing for me, and it's different from what it does for most people. I don't get any visions or insights, only the urge for silent darkness, where I drift pleasantly on the edge of sleep. The best part happens a day or two later, when I feel like I'm a new person inhabiting my mind and body.

Cannabis is the opposite. It gives me all kinds of insights, from cosmic to personal, but no motivation to do anything about them. So I'm starting to use the drugs as a team, with cannabis as the brains and psilocybin as the muscle, to notice and change deep habits. I still need to work out the timing, but I'm already getting good results.

My point is, what I'm doing is not complicated or difficult or dangerous. If this level of therapeutic experimentation were as normal as getting a flu shot, how much better would the world get?

A tangential thought: a lot of people report "anxiety" from cannabis. How much of this is meaningless paranoia, and how much is valuable and troubling awareness?

February 1. Going early into the weekend, first I want to mention this new accountt1234 post, The City Of The Future, which includes a great defense of the supposedly dystopian Kowloon walled city.

Now music. Two weeks ago I posted four songs, and the one readers liked the most, Satori Pt 1, was the one I liked the least. So I thought about how it's different from the one I like the most, Mirrorball.

It's about time scales. If you listen to two minutes of Satori, there's a lot going on, with as many as four riffs, two in guitar and two in vocals. Then if you listen to two minutes of Mirrorball, it's just the same riff the whole time, plus a confusing background cacophony. But if you listen to two seconds, then Satori might give you a few notes of a sound that's not very interesting, while Mirrorball gives you a mind-blowing tiny symphony. Even Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz is nowhere near as dense.

So now I'm looking for music that sounds great on every time scale, and where I'm sometimes finding it is in older pop songs, where the large scale has good melody and structure, and the small scale has beautiful blends of sounds, usually voices. Recently I gave a close listen to Tracey Ullman's 80's hit They Don't Know, and it blew me away. And I'm not sure, but Kirsty MacColl's original might be even better.

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.

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 - ?